Friday 31 October 2008

Son Of Rambow

Earlier this year I wrote about my experience watching a film at The Rex cinema in Berkhamsted. It's the kind of cinema that reminds you of the magic of the movies so it seems highly appropriate that this film, which shows how that same magic can bring two completely different boys together in celebration of it, should open with a shot of that very same cinema.

One of those boys, Lee Carter, is busy inside making a pirate copy of Rambo: First Blood. Outside, Will, whose fatherless family are part of the Plymouth Brethren, is asked if he will read as part of the congregation gathered there. He is excluded from socialising with outsiders and from watching TV or listening to music so when after a run-in with Lee he ends up watching the aforementioned pirate video his outlook on the world is transformed. His bible, already covered in intricate drawings is now the storyboard for his imagination, at the heart of which is his wish to see his Father again.

Lee meanwhile, a keen amateur film maker is involved in making his entry for the Screen Test competition. He enlists Will as his stuntman, a task he throws himself at with gusto, literally. Together, these two very different boys find friendship in their shared love of film-making. There are some lovely performances from the two boys, plenty of jokes at the expense of the early 1980's and a genuine love of film making has obvioulsly been the driving force behind it all. There's a silly little sub-plot about a French exchange student, who turns heads as soon as he leaves the bus, and his wish to be a film star; the whole thing brilliantly subverted when he gets back on the bus to go home and is greeted by howls of derision from his French classmates, who think he's far from cool.

There are some nice creative touches too with small moments of animation to bring Will's doodling to life and also the perfect rendering of lo-fi film making. But most of all it's the charm that wins you over, a particularly British sense of how to get things done, making for a genuinely enjoyable film.


Thursday 30 October 2008

Margot & the Nuclear So and So's - Not Animal

Margot & the Nuclear So and So's - Real Naked Girls

First, a little background. Margot & the Nuclear So and So's are a 'musical collective' from Indianapolis headed by Richard Edwards (There is no Margot, that name apparently referencing the character played by Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tennenbaum's). Their first album The Dust of Retreat was critically well received in the States but they are little known elsewhere. The release of their second album was delayed after wrangling with their label Epic over track listing. Eventually a compromise was reached. The bands choice was released on vinyl entitled Animal!, whilst the label's preference was released as Not Animal on vinyl and CD. It is the latter that I have been listening to (and which contains five songs from the band's selection) and whatever the disagreements there is a lot to admire. My suspicion was that the label would pick tracks more likely to make the band palatable, risking the loss of some of their essence along the way, but if you're new to the band like me it's probably not a bad place to start.

The band's use of interesting instrumentation has lead to comparisons with Arcade Fire. Violins and brass make regular appearances along with other slightly more obscure sounds and the arrangements often have that collective feel to them where several people seem to be banging away at something or other as their voices chorus together. Riding above this Edwards has a surprisingly pure, clear voice with which he sings often very unclear lyrics, by which I mean the kind of story-telling poetry which doesn't explain itself (check out the pages on Songmeanings.com and see the different things people think just the opening track, 'A Children's Crusade on Acid' might mean)

Tracks like 'Cold, Kind and Lemon Eyes', 'As Tall As Cliffs' and 'Hello, Vagina' do sound a little like Arcade Fire but also reminded me of Conor Oberst's work as Bright Eyes and an album called Self Help Serenade by Marjorie Fair; influenced by folk but filled with energy and passion (oh, and also the historical feel to work by The Decembrists). Just when you think you know how the whole album will sound you get the church organ which begins 'Real Naked Girls', and seems to usher in a peaceful atmosphere but all that changes as an angelic chorus joins in and Edwards sings 'There was dark crimson blood/It had covered the carpets, the screams were distorted/And that old Christian judge/Gave out fifty to life like he was handing out chocolate/But it's too late to flee/But you can help me breathe/Through this gruesome scene.' Very unsettling stuff, simple and effective.

After that the second half of the album attempts to crank up the volume and impact a little. Heavy guitars and mariachi trumpets drive 'Pages Written On A Wall' nicely, but things go a little far on the horrible 'The Shivers (I Got 'Em)', especially as Edwards hollers 'I want to gouge out your eyes, splinter your spine' and other lines which could be accused of misogyny. His voice isn't best suited to these tracks anyway and they leave a nasty taste which sours the sweetly sung closer 'Hip Hip Hooray'. So in fact the label's choices didn't necessarily make for a palatable taster, but the poor finish aside, there's lots to enjoy on this album. I find myself intrigued to hear the other side of the story.


Tuesday 28 October 2008

reading as art

There can be no doubt that writing can be art, but how about reading?

In the latest installation at Tate Modern the artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster has given us all the opportunity to become part of the installation. As you enter the Tate the writing on the wall tells you the set up.

It has been raining for years now, not a day, not an hour without rain. This continual watering has had a strange effect on urban sculptures. They have started to grow like strange tropical plants, and become even more monumental. To stop this growth it has been decided to store them inside,among the hundreds of bunkbeds which, night and day, receive refugees from the rain...Turbine Hall/2058/London

Behind a multicoloured plastic curtain, like those in an industrial refrigerator a refuge has been created. Ranks of blue and yellow bunk beds share the space with vast sculptures including Louise Bourgeois' Maman and a Henry Moore, all 25% bigger than the originals. On the bare beds there is reading matter; books of the apocalypse including Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe Of Heaven, Mike Davies' Dead Cities and H.G Wells' The War Of The Worlds. A vast screen at the back of the hall projects stark images from science fiction films to a soundtrack of constantly falling rain. Gloomy just about covers it.

We are invited to take a bed and immerse ourselves in the writing I guess. It is strange to read H.G Wells' opening line:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

whilst a huge pregnant spider towers over you.

I have to say that not many of the tourists there with me were taking the plunge despite there being many European sci-fi classics in their original languages. One couple had actually fallen asleep, the rigours of sightseeing obviously taking their toll. I suppose there isn't the time to start and finish even the smaller titles, depending on how fast you read, and whoever placed Roberto Bolano's epic 2066 (over 1,000 pages) in the original Spanish is surely having a laugh. I did see one guy, perched on a yellow bed, wrapt by Jeff Noon's Vurt, but when I looked to see if he was still there when I left he'd disappeared, as had the book. Curious. I didn't want to read any of them myself to be honest and so took my own book from my bag and settled myself on one of the beds. They have no mattresses of course and hurt like hell, but what did I expect; you have to sufffer for your art.

(this was first posted on the Picador blog)


Monday 27 October 2008


by Chris Hannan

There are plenty of poets who have also written novels but not many playwrights make the transition from stage to page. Perhaps their economy with language and the skill involved in capturing speech leaves them facing the limitless expanse of the novel with a sense of literary agoraphobia. Chris Hannan has made a name for himself as a playwright who creates strong roles for women so it comes as no surprise that his debut novel has a heroine at its centre nor that he has chosen a historical setting, in this case nineteenth century America. It is 1862 and Dol McQueen, a 19 year old 'flash-girl' or prostitute, has many problems to contend with, her lifestyle for one thing. Girls of her trade have to move where the money is, so as we join her she and some of her cohorts are heading towards the latest boomtown. Life as a flashgirl has its obvious perils and it is only recently that they have arranged a funeral for one of the girls who took her own life, a cloud which haunts the opening chapters. Dol is also an opium user (the 'missy' of the title).

'Now, here's a piece of advice for nothing. No, first off, which brand of opium do you like? If you're a married lady I expect you ask for McMunn's Elixir or Aitken's Family Comforter; you can let the clerk suppose it's for your medicine cupboard if you go to a different drug store every week. Me, I used to favour Braithwaite's Lancashire Black Drop until one day I was broke and had to ask Ness for the lend of some cash to buy some...[she] made me say how much I used per day. Well, I estimated the amount I used and told her a half of it.

She turned away from her looking glass to gape at me and covered her mouth with her hand.'

But it's something she can't do without. There are moments when she makes it sound attractive ('When you take missy you spread out like a peacock's tail, and it feels like that's the number of eyes you have.'), but in the increasingly detailed drug induced passages Hannan shows with great skill the disconnection and danger of the addict. His other skill is of course in character voice. It isn't just Dol who is distinctive, there is a rich cast list including her own mother, a woman with Hyacinth-Bucket-level delusions of grandeur. In fact the relationship between these two women is fascinating. Dol is disgusted and embarrased by her mother whilst at the same time being unaware of how much she is growing to resemble her. Through the course of the novel and Dol's journey their paths cross again and again, their fates seemingly linked together, the forces at work between these two strong women growing in intensity.

Fate is an important theme, there is a real sense that something has been set in motion when Dol comes across a man hanging from a tree, not yet dead. By rescuing this man, a pimp who calls himself Pontius ('When I give a girl her last chance and she bitches it, I get a basin and wash my hands of her. Then I nail her hands to the floor. Catch on?') she creates a destiny for herself. She finds him with a rum crate filled with the purest opium, a cargo designed to link the two of them with its tainted promise of prosperity. When he says that he hopes he can pay her back some day you feel immediately that what he has in mind is revenge rather than reward. Pontius is a hideous character, perhaps only outdone for menace by the group of children, former charges of his, who pursue him and his 'lucky' across Nevada into Utah.

The harsh reality of the journey undertaken is well realised, keep a glass of water handy as you read this book, but most crucially it is the journey of our heroine, the arrival at self-awareness which makes you persist with it. After making a slightly hesitant start as a reader I was surprised by how much I was gripped. It would be easy to dismiss it as just an entertaining romp especially after some fantastic one liners near the beginning (such as the local lawman announcing during a raid, 'Gen'lemen;these officers are middle-aged, underpaid, and married. Don't try their patience.') but the darkening of the prose as Dol's journey becomes a rite of passage makes it a novel which contains much more.


Sunday 26 October 2008

not so organic

I have always had a suspicion about organic produce. It's not that I have a problem with organic methods (although it does seem like an indulgence only a fully modernised society could dabble with), nor is it so much that I mind paying a premium for it (although I don't like having to pay more than I have to, to be honest), it's that I'm never really convinced by the organic credentials of the food that wears the badge. What is organic butter for example? I mention this only because my hackles were raised by the sight of organic French dressing in our shopping this week. What makes a salad dressing organic, or rather what makes an organic salad dressing?

As you can see it contains all sorts, including both organic and non-organic (but approved) water. What?! And what is the price we pay for organic satisfaction? Well a standard bottle of fresh French dressing will set you back £0.45 per 100ml. The posh version £0.60 per 100ml. If you want to go organic it'll set you back £1.06 per 100ml. More than a 100% mark up. And it isn't even 100% organic.

There, I have vented. Sorry you had to witness it. We should really make our own French dressing, it isn't hard.


Friday 24 October 2008

Snow Patrol - A Hundred Million Suns

Snow Patrol used to make music that few people listened to. Their first two albums were lo-fi affairs, often containing ideas for songs that weren't quite fully formed but interesting, edgy and in the case of 'An Olive Grove Facing The Sea' so simply beautiful that I had it played at my wedding. I used to keep telling people about the band and when their album Final Straw was released I had that curious sensation when friends started saying how much they loved it at the same time that I was shrinking away from the slicker, more commercial sound. A Hundred Million Suns sees them continue in this vein.

It's an album filled with tracks for the festival and stadium gigs. Big arm wavers like 'Engines' and 'Take Back The City' and guitar thrashers like 'Disaster Button' and 'Please Just Take These Photos From My Hands'. There's also the odd carrot for those who prefer something a little more challenging. 'Lifeboats' has some melodic touches familiar from earlier work and 'The Golden Floor' does the same whilst playing with the rhythms. The overal tone is rather fraught, a bit like reading a teenager's poetry, which is the appeal for some I guess, but it could have done with the odd quiet moment to break up the onslaught. There are simple joys like 'Set Down Your Glass' but they are few and far between. There's nothing more grand than the album closer, 'The Lightning Strike', a 16 minute opus with plenty of false endings and more like three songs joined together in which producer Jacknife Lee throws everything at us: orchestral backing, big brass and choral singing. It's a confident finish and quite good in places but flirts dangerously with over-indulgence.

If you're a fan of the lighter-waving chorus, big stadium production and enjoyed the latest from Coldplay, Kings of Leon etc then this is for you. If however you were a fan of their earlier output then this album may well be the final straw (but you could wait and see whether Gary Lightbody puts together another Reindeer Section project).


Monday 20 October 2008


by Philip Roth

I struggled last year to swallow the premise of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach; the depiction of a time when sex was still something barely discussed, and that the events of the couple's honeymoon could have such devastating consequences. In this similarly slim novel Philip Roth is keen to depict a very specific time (and as the college President will ask later, 'Do you have any idea that you belong to a time at all?'). He was quoted himself recently, saying "This will come as a great shock to young people, but in 1951 you could make it through college unscathed by oral sex." I obviously went to the wrong college. What he also wants to show is 'the incomprehensible way one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.' The very articulation of that and the important word there, comical, makes Roth's a far more successful book.

In the period during the Korean War we meet Marcus Messner, son of a kosher butcher and straight A student. His only wish is to do well not only to justify the expense of the education which has forced his mother back behind the counter to work once again with her husband but also of course to avoid the draft. It's difficult not to draw parallels with today when Roth describes the messy and costly war abroad and the very real fear of death for any young soldier going out there. The Communist forces with their bayonets and bugle calls are shown to be an army from a different age, and yet their deadly effectiveness is all to clear. There is another driving force at work however, 'At the heart of my ambition was the desire to be free of a strong, stolid father suddenly stricken with the uncontrollable fear for a grown-up son's well-being.' Marcus' father sees the potential for his son's ruin everywhere. When late home he assumes he is in a whorehouse or pool hall and his increasing hysteria pushes Marcus to attend a college hundreds of miles away in Ohio.

Here at Winesburg he eschews both the Jewish and secular fraternities, preferring to keep his head down and work hard. Because Roth reveals where Marcus is narrating his story from we know where all this is heading and can see how each decision he makes drives him closer and closer to his fate. Marcus himself picks up on his father's fatalism and '...despite the trammels of convention still rigidly holding sway on the campus of a middling little midwestern college in the years immediately after World War Two, I was determined to have intercourse before I died.' This comes after his meeting and first date with Olivia Hutton, who will send him into a tailspin after performing that act we have mentioned before. Marcus' confusion is where much of the humour comes from, something that even I, someone born after the sexual revolution, can understand.

In the quite brilliant American Pastoral, Philip Roth describes in vivid detail the manufacture of a pair of women's gloves. Never before had I considered how it was the done let alone the care, the detail and indeed the love that used to go into making a simple pair of gloves. Now, I think, I will never forget. In his latest novel the trade he spotlights is butchery, kosher butchery to be precise and with the same skill he shows the ritual efficiency of the shochet as he slaughters chickens with a quick flick of his knife. Roth contrasts this with the scar Marcus sees on Olivia's wrist, the result of her attempt to 'ritually slaughter herself' but there's something laboured about the comparison which stops it from quite hitting the mark. The rage with which Roth has written in many of his finest works is replaced here by the titular exasperation of a student in conflict with his male authority figures.

The writing is of course excellent throughout, the humour welcome and the period evoked with skill but it's very size makes it feel like a minor work, one which fails to quite match the ambition of earlier small books such as The Ghost Writer. Another short book is on its way (dealing with suicide) and in a recent interview with Robert McCrum, Roth explained his frustration, 'Starting a new book is hell. You just flail around until something happens. It's miraculous. It comes to you out of nothing and nowhere. That's the problem with writing short books. You finish them too quickly. And that's what's wonderful about a long book. So I've decided I've got to find a big project that will take me right through to the end. Finish the day before, and - exit ghost.' That's the book I want to read.


Sunday 19 October 2008

Posh choc?

Times must be hard for the humble Dairy Milk bar. Nowadays everyone wants to know the percentage of cocoa solids or where the beans are sourced from, not to mention that it's Fair-trade, and that's before we get on to the exciting flavour combinations out there. So what is Cadbury's answer? Lipstick on a pig is, I believe, the phrase.

Maybe that's a bit unfair. I should confess that since discovering the joys of dark chocolate I find Dairy Milk just so sweet but there's always going to be a time when that kind of hit is just what the doctor ordered. I'm a sucker for limited edition bars, just to try something new, and so my eye was caught by these two new offerings. I ummed and erred over which to choose first and ended up plumping for the cranberry and granola which sounded healthier (!). That was my first mistake. The cranberry was almost undetectable and on second thoughts there's no place for cereal in a chocolate bar. My second mistake was to try the other bar a few weeks later. It was better than the first to be fair, I'm a fan of apricots. And crumble. A chocolate. But together? I don't think so. You can stick what you want in it but Dairy Milk will always be kiddy chocolate really and trying to hoodwink us with healthy sounding extras is a bit like McDonalds selling salads and calling themselves a restaurant.

I'm still looking for Kshocolat's dark chocolate with orange and cardamom. If you work for them and happen to see this I'm open to being sent a sample you know......


Friday 17 October 2008

an invitation

I know it's not cool to be so pleased by it, but I recently received an email asking if I'd be interested in contributing to the Picador Blog. My enthusiastic reply contained several exclamation marks!!!

Anyway you can read what I wrote for them here.


Thursday 16 October 2008

Sh*t-M*x - Trafalgar Studios, London

This summer the newspapers have been filled with stories of teenage stabbings, shootings and violence. Politicians could be found chucking soundbites around about a broken society and parental responsibility and one could have been forgiven for thinking that Anthony Burgess' vision in A Clockwork Orange had come to pass. Whilst there's no doubt that there are serious issues at the heart of all those stories life for most teenagers is made up of the same worries that we all have at that age: growing up, friendship and sex and it is just these elements which Leo Richardson exploits to great comedic effect in his first play, on at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 25 October.

In the week between Halloween and Bonfire night a group of unlikely friends congregate around a bench in their local park. Each of them has their own problems to deal with. Raggedy Anne (or 'goth-chops' as she's referred to by Dirty Debbie) is in love with LB. He's dealing with the fallout from some event which brought an ambulance to his home, was it really just food poisoning his brother, Harry the Hottie, was sufffering from? Bent Ben just wants a girlfriend (and to be in musicals), but is he hot for Harry? And as for Dirty Debbie; well it's hard work writing erotic fiction whilst relieving men of their, well, you get the idea. Oh and a shit-mix, for those of you not down with the kids, is a cocktail made from any available spirits, usually tasting horrible.

Each of the characters is hilariously realised by a talented cast (Steven Webb is particularly good as Ben) and in Samantha Potter's exuberant production they get more than just an entrance. Each character is accompanied by their own theme tune and the play is studded with moments of dance and movement during which the mounted photographs which indicate the park setting in Kerry Bradley's inventive design are lit to reveal graffiti portraits for each character. The energy is impressive throughout and the audience around me absolutely loved it. It may be a bit much to describe it as a gritty comedy, there's a fairly light touch throughout, but the play has its stronger moments and especially in an act of violence near the end there is real power to the piece. As a straight man in my mid-thirties I didn't really feel like the target audience but for those around me though most joy came from the pop-culture references and those moments of recognition; we all know or have at least seen these characters around and about and there's lots of fun to be had by revelling in their silliness.


Wednesday 15 October 2008

to enter such a world

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami

Your first encounter with an author can be a formative experience it is difficult to recover from, whether that's positive or negative. The first book I read by Murakami was Sputnik Sweetheart, which is awful. It put me off for a long time. On my wife's insistence I read his collection of stories, The Elephant Vanishes (which was adapted into a stage show by Complicite), the shorter format making much more sense of his surreal prose. My wife recently read this novel and placed it in her top 10. That, together with the fact that many regard it as his masterwork meant it was time for me to plunge back in and see if I sank or swam.

It was a fairly unsettling start as I read the opening chapter. I had this creeping sense of déjà vu, that I had read this before (a not inappropriate feeling given what follows in the book itself). This turned out to be because I had read it before; the opening story in The Elephant Vanishes and this opening chapter are one and the same, albeit with some alterations. In fact the phrase 'wind-up bird' was coined by the translator of that original story, Alfred Birnbaum.

There was small stand of trees nearby, and from it you could hear the mechanical cry of a bird that sounded as if it were winding a spring. We called it the wind-up bird. Kumiko gave it the name. We didn't know what it was really called or what it looked like, but that didn't bother the wind-up bird. Every day it would come to the stand of trees in our neighbourhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world.

Our narrator, Toru Okada, is about to have that world turned upside down. He is a man living in a kind of limbo, having quit his job, and is waiting to find the right thing to move onto next. Whilst his wife, Kumiko, works, he prepares food, does housework and searches for their cat who has recently gone missing. Behind their house runs an alley, sealed off from the street, which allows him to search the yards of his neighbours. An unsettling atmosphere is created early with one house which is abandoned and rumoured to be cursed after the suicides of several of its previous occupants. As he walks down the alley he meets May, a sixteen year old girl and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. She will be just the first of many characters, principally women, who enter Okada's life as his search continues (and not just for his for his cat).

This is a large book and as its title suggests it is made up of several documents; not just the narration of Okada but letters and stories from other characters. Many of these people are reluctant to give their real names to Okada so we have the alienating device of characters named arbitrarily, like Nutmeg and Cinnamon or in the case of Malta Cano and her sister Creta, named after islands of the Mediterranean (which have played an important part in their lives). Our hero is always operating in the dark somewhat (for one large chunk of the book which he spends at the bottom of a well -you'll have to read to understand why- this is literally so), one step behind what is going on around him and this was a frustrating experience at times given the obtuse nature of what Murakami gives us. Okada himself articulated my feelings on a shopping trip with 'Nutmeg'.

She did not offer any explanations and I did not ask for them. I simply did as I was told. This reminded me of several so-called art films I had seen in college. Movies like that never explained what was going on. Explanations were rejected as some kind of evil that could only destroy the films' 'reality'. That was one way of thinking, one way to look at things, no doubt, but it felt strange for me, as a real, live human being, to enter such a world.

Perhaps the most interesting sections of the book are those that deal with Japan's history before, during and after the Second World War. Lieutenant Mamiya relates to us first his experience on an intelligence mission along the borders of the Japanese Empire. It is a harrowing episode, horrific and terrifying, and has a profound impact on Okada, on the storyline and on us the reader. Mamiya's further testimony is intriguing and matched by that of Nutmeg, a woman who guides Okada through later sections of the book. In The Zoo Attack (previously published in The New Yorker) she describes the 'liquidation' of the zoo in Hsin-ching as Soviet troops close in. In this section Murakami shows brilliantly the confusion at the end of conflict, where no clear leadership is in control, and in the same way that these ragged soldiers struggle to deal with wild animals (one man amazed that war should give him the opportunity to shoot a tiger) we will see later the banality of meting out the same fate to human prisoners.

Most of the book however is written with an air of dream-like vagueness (creating an atmosphere similar to some of David Lynch's work) and in the same way that I don't find people recounting their dreams particularly interesting I found the quirkiness, the surreal imagery and the general rootlessness of the writing a bit like trying to catch hold of a balloon which the wind keeps gusting away. It's just this quality which so many of his fans admire, showing the alienation from contemporary life, but for me, as for Okada, it feels strange 'as a real, live human being, to enter such a world.' That said. I'm feeling slightly less dismissive of Murakami as an author. He may not be my cup of tea but there's no denying that with its many different elements this novel is a rich brew.


Wednesday 8 October 2008

the secret history

The Secret Scripture
by Sebastian Barry

First of all, huge thanks to Dovegreyreader who helped me towards this copy through her post-Bookerthon competition. I had been wanting to read it for a while as it had been tipped to win the Booker as early as June this year by none other than Jonathan Coe. My only worry was that both DGR and John Self had mentioned their worries about the ending. It is a strange experience to read a book, to be enjoying it, but approaching the end with a sense of dread. But we'll get there later.

I am aware of Sebastian Barry more as a playwright than novelist so it comes as no surprise that the main strength of this book is in its narrative voice. This for most part is Roseanne McNulty, a patient in Roscommon Mental Hospital since 1957.

'I am completely alone, there is no one in the world that knows me now outside of this place, all my own people, the few farthings of them that once were, my little wren of a mother I suppose in chief, they are all gone now. And my persecutors are gone in the main I believe, and the reason for all this is that I am an old, old woman now, I may be as much as a hundred, though I do not know, and no one knows. I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and I sit here in my niche like a songless robin - no, like a mouse that died under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a mummy in the pyramids.'

Can't you just see her? That description comes on only the second page, in Roseanne's 'testimony' of herself, which she secretes under a loose floorboard in her room and which we will read with a growing sense of wonder. It is beautifully written, perhaps too beautifully in places -Barry's skill showing through too plainly given whose writing we are supposed to be reading- the extract above is a good example of how it can flirt with cliché before finding the right phrase. Roseanne is a character beautifully delineated, a woman who will elicit our sympathy with her tragic story (which we know from the beginning will not be easy - remember those persecutors from the passage above). But along the way we will have to question how reliable this narrative is. Not simply because she is a patient in a mental hospital but because, 'history, as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth.'

Roseanne's story also becomes in the wider context an alternative history of Ireland itself. For those with a firm grasp on the tumultuous period before and after the Second World War it will probably be very clear. But if, like me, you aren't so clear then it is sometimes difficult to know whether the 'haze of memory' is obscuring the facts. What is certain is that with power shifting between groups and factions at the drop of the hat, there are many who will be caught in the crossfire and it is easy to see how, not only lives, but histories could be vanished.

We also have the thoughts of her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, contained within his commonplace book. Charged with preparing his patients for relocation or release as the hospital closes he is keen to know more of Roseanne, a patient who has been in the hospital so long that no one is clear as to the reason for her admission.

'I am afraid she is rather a touchstone for me. She has been a fixture, and not only represents the institution, but also, in a curious way, my own history, my own life. 'The star to every wandering bark,' as Shakespeare has it. '

As he follows a bureaucratic trail we continue with the increasingly tragic testimony of his patient and each will find themselves needing the other, the doctor as reliant upon the patient for support as he confronts his own past, present and future. Dr Grene is a less convincing character somehow, his story taking up less of the book proportionally and in our imaginations too, I think. The reasons for the breakdown of his mariage never really touched on beyond what we might infer from a doctor so caught up in his patients lives.

And then there's the ending. Knowing that it was an issue for some I had a guess about halfway through, imagining the most sensational, melodramatic and yet trite way of finishing the story and it turned out to be just that. I groaned audibly when it happened. It's all the more baffling for being the way Barry chooses to finish a novel all about the unreliability of memory. I would have been quite happy to have the details left unanswered, especially after having so enjoyed his depiction of remembrance, his questioning even of our experience of life.

'I am old enough to know now that time passing is just a trick, a convenience. Everything is always there, still unfolding, still happening. The past, the present, and the future, in the noggin eternally, like brushes, combs and ribbons in a handbag.'

The writing is consistently strong, it's a wonderful book, but I wish I could just forget the last 20 pages or so. I guess I will, in time.


Sunday 5 October 2008

The Wire - Season Five

And so another televisual odyssey ends. 60 episodes over five seasons and a programme which has been described as more talked about than watched (this is the problem of a series playing on satellite/cable channel FX) - although the DVD box-sets of The Wire are on the best-seller lists at Amazon. With just 10 episodes in the final series David Simon seems to be trying to 'do more with less', a phrase used several times in the offices of The Baltimore Sun newspaper which features largely. Simon of course worked at that very newspaper for 12 years and so it seems almost obvious that he would chose to focus on the media at some point. What he shows is that interplay between media, politics and policing; the symbiotic relationship these agencies have with each other and how each in turn can be exploited by the other.

McNulty is back. His presence was missed in the last season, so it's good to have him back, but he's in a very worrying place; looking like he could skid off that road again at any time and driven by that passion which can create 'good police' but also perhaps lead him to test the boundaries of what is acceptable (and indeed legal). Carcetti, now installed as mayor, has come face to face with a huge deficit in his budget which leads to massive cutbacks for the police: no overtime and an effective end to the special crimes unit. This leads McNulty to hatch a plan that will give the papers what they want and therefore place pressure on the Mayor to provide funds for police work: a serial killer. Now, I love this programme, but this plot-line had me wrinkling my nose in discomfort. It isn't that I didn't believe it was possible, Simon shows in intricate detail how it can all be manufactured, but I just didn't believe that this would be the course any detective would take, even a true maverick like McNulty. The fact that Freamon, who has always been a moral yardstick of sorts, is part of the whole conspiracy only compounded my worry. It wasn't until the penultimate episode (which is the best of the season, possibly the series) that I began to feel it might work. Such a grand scheme allows Simon to bring so many elements of his story together, it's just crucial that having got so many balls improbably into the air we see them come crashing back down to earth.

That said, there's something about this season that doesn't quite work. It's like a programme which knows that it's coming to an end, tying up its loose ends, bringing things full circle and showing that people and events will continue in the same vein after the credits roll. It's all just slightly self-conscious.

But I don't want to dwell on that. As someone (I think it was Freamon) says, 'It's about the journey, not the destination.' And it's been a hell of a journey. I have written previously about the impact television can have when we, the viewers, make an investment in the characters. Over such a prolonged period of time (60 hours of television) we can see so much of their lives, so much development that, as when we read a novel, there is a connection there which means that even a serial murderer like Chris can arouse our sympathy even whilst beating someone to death. A junkie like Bubbles can have us hoping and praying that he can make it another clean day. A morally ambiguous anti-hero like Omar can have you wanting to put him out of his misery like a wounded pet. That is extraordinary television. To be able to put forward complex sociological arguments, economic theory, and political discourse together with street slang, profanity and poetry whilst leaving the audience concentrated on the characters is quite an achievement. Let's also not forget the other character in the piece: Baltimore. I genuinely feel that if I went there now I would know where, and more pertinently where not to go. Just as The Sopranos gave a real sense of New Jersey The Wire has shown in great detail the differences between the projects, the docks, city hall, 'Hamsterdam', the corners and the variety of people that populate them. The final episode has its heart on its sleeve as it shows what this programme has always been about: the people of Baltimore. Along the way of course it has shown us some important aspects of modern life relevant to all of us.


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