The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Any Dream Will Do

“All that we ever see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.”

The Edgar Allan Poe poem occurred to me whilst watching Inception. It’s a good film, but, well, it’s not a great film.

The premise of the film is actually quite simple. The Leonardo DiCaprio goes into people’s dreams as industrial espionage, to find out secrets or to give people bad ideas. That’s it. Yet the film spends the first hour or so establishing all the rules of this process, why half-a-dozen specialists are required to create the dream world, organise the ‘waking up’ and so forth... which means it’s actually quite talky and slow. And then in the second half, we hurriedly receive explanations of exceptions to the rules that have been established, either as easy-get-outs or added-jeopardy, until by the end the audience doesn’t have a clue what the ‘rules’ are, or what dramatically might be at stake. It’s clumsy writing, basically, and feels like the writer changing the rules of his fictional universe on an ad hoc basis.

It reminded me of the Amy's Choice episode of Doctor Who. Amy’s Choice simply and elegantly introduces the same idea of nested dream worlds, whereas Inception unfortunately makes the mistake of thinking that ‘confusing and complicated’ equals ‘clever’, whereas I’d say that ‘ingeniously and unexpectedly simple’ is actually much more difficult to achieve, ‘cleverer’, and certainly more satisfying to watch. Because Inception doesn’t really have twists as such, it just has added confusions and complexities, until by the end you are sitting watching a potentially brilliant movie disappearing up its own computer-generated derriere. In fact, the ending reminded me of the conclusions of Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes – the sort of 'ambiguous reality' that The Twilight Zone was doing with far more finesse over forty years ago with A Stop At Willoughby and that Fry & Laurie so neatly parodied with their Red Hat of Patferrick sketch. Or did they?

The last hour of the film also drags on a lot, and really should only have been the last half an hour. What drags it out are endless cut-back-to scenes to show that yes, there is still some more fighting going on, or that the van is still falling off that bridge in slow motion, which add absolutely nothing until, by the end, you’re trying to make that bloody van hit the water by sheer effort of will.

My penultimate criticism is that a large part of the movie takes place in three dream worlds, and yet you couldn’t imagine three more prosaic fantasies. There’s very little attempt at surrealism or on giving the dream worlds a dreamlike atmosphere (compared to, say, Gilliam’s stuff in Brazil and elsewhere); instead, they are the most mundane dream worlds possible; a decaying industrial American city; a luxury hotel; and Blofeld’s mountain base from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Only in the fourth nested dream world do things actually start getting dreamlike, though it’s too little, too late – if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve basically seen all the moments of surrealism.

And finally, as the film progressed, I found it more and more difficult to follow the dialogue. There seems to be a rule – the Kiefer Sutherland effect, I shall call it – that the more crucial a line of dialogue is to following the plot, the more it should be spoken in an incomprehensible hoarse whisper. Some of the diction was appalling, I mean, it’s probably my cloth ears, but when the dialogue is so crucial to understanding what the bloody hell is going on, and what is at stake, to lose even a single line is to lose the plot.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good film, I did enjoy it, and it was worth the price of admission. There are some stunning visuals in there, good performances, and the idea behind it is pretty marvellous. It’s certainly better than those dreadful Batman films by the same director. But it’s no Prestige or Memento either. Despite the visuals, I’d say this is a more a film to rent on LoveFilm than to see in the cinema, because on DVD you can always turn on the subtitles and rewind bits to follow what’s going on.

And fast-forward through that bloody van.

Friday, 23 July 2010


Listening to The Beatles’ Revolver album, what’s interesting about it is that because, by this point in their career, Lennon and McCartney were no longer writing songs out of commercial necessity, you find that they would set each other song-writing challenges, in order to give them a start point. It’s a process which had begun with Rubber Soul, with Lennon and McCartney both attempting songs with punch-lines, and pastiching styles, and would continue for their rest of their musical partnership – there’s a well-worn Mccartney interview quote about Lennon writing Strawberry Fields Forever, inspiring McCartney to write Penny Lane, or the other way round (as Penny Lane feels more like a response to In My Life, which in an earlier draft was a description of a bus journey through Liverpool which mentions Penny Lane).

With Revolver, there were various song-writing exercises. The most common one is ‘who can write the best pop song on one chord’, influenced by George Harrison droning on about Indian music all the time on C. George’s attempt, ‘Taxman’, owes pretty much all of its appeal to McCartney’s bass riff and Lennon’s sardonic additions to the lyric. McCartney’s seems to be Eleanor Rigby, which is nearly all E minor (with some sixths and sevenths and some C for the choruses) while Lennon’s was, of course, Tomorrow Never Knows. McCartney using the harmonic limitation of one chord to create an ingenious Dorian-mode melody, while Lennon opts for hardly any melody at all and instead opts for mind-expanding lyrics and strange sound textures to hold the listener’s attention.

But there’s other songs which are nearly on one chord – McCartney’s Paperback Writer, for instance, which only uses other chords for the chorus, and Lennon’s And Your Bird Can Sing, melodically and texturally similar and also only using other chords for the chorus and bridge. There’s also Lennon’s Rain, another ‘drone’ song despite numerous chord changes, but my theory is that at this point Lennon & McCartney were have a competition to see who could write the best song about the weather, McCartney probably coming up with Good Day Sunshine as a response to Lennon’s Rain.

Lennon’s other contributions to Revolver are I’m Only Sleeping and Doctor Robert, in which he seems to be writing under the influence of the Kinks – I’m Only Sleeping’s melody and feel being close to Dead End Street, while Dr Robert’s schoolboy bridge recalls the Kinks’ Funny Face. Dr Robert and She Said, She Said are both also ‘I like drugs’ songs – McCartney’s ‘I like drugs’ song being ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ which is more of a Motown pastiche. She Said, She Said is melodically very similar to Rain for the verses, but has another song idea, in three-four time, used for the bridge, the first of many Lennon experiments with shifting time signatures (after an early attempt in We Can Work It Out, leading to Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Good Morning, Good Morning, All You Need Is Love, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Don’t Let Me Down etc).

McCartney, meanwhile, has decided to write a children’s song – Yellow Submarine – which Lennon would eventually follow-up with The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill and Ringo would rewrite as Octopus’ Garden. Then Here, There & Everywhere, an incredible song possibly born of an exercise to write a song with key changes – the verses in major, the choruses in minor, with the transition taking in another key and some rather jazzy chord changes. And finally there’s For No-One, based around a simple descending bass line but with lyrics, extremely unconventionally, given in the second person (after Paperback Writer, written as a character in the first person, and Eleanor Rigby, written about characters in the third person).

Oh, and there’s two more George Harrison songs on there but they’re crap.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

I'm In The Mood For Dancing

Various things written by me are out now. Buy them!

Big Finish have released an audio adventure I wrote, Cobwebs, of which I shall blog later. Instead, this blog is to plug the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine, The Guinness World Recording-Breaking journal of Adventures In Time And Space, and in particular, the comic strip contained within its pages, ‘Planet Bollywood!’ Artwork by Roger Langridge, who did such a marvellous job on 'Death To The Doctor!' you’d think he wouldn’t be able to surpass himself, but he has. It looks brilliant. I realise I say that about every comic strip - and oh, the next one looks brilliant, and the one after that too – but, well, that’s factual accuracy for you.

The idea for the story was to find a way of doing a Bollywood musical in comic strip form, with characters bursting into song and dance routines. I like to set myself near-impossible challenges. And as an added difficulty, I decided not to go down the ‘unreliable narrator’ route, which was my first thought, because it would be too easy and because my first idea, of having the Doctor starring in and directing a Bollywood version of one of his adventures, was complicated without being clever.

The main challenge – and the most fun part – of writing the story was the song lyrics, which are occasionally Bollywood-esque but most of the time, in order to get across the idea that they’re supposed to be song lyrics are sometimes more cod-Sondheim show tunes with multiple rhymes.

As a ‘taster’, here’s the script for page 1:

PAGE ONE (4 panels)

Panel 1 (big)

We open in outer space, where a small space freighter is being pursued by a massive battleship. The freighter is in good condition, functional and boxy, while the battleship is dirty, ugly, spiky, all engines and weaponry. Both ships leave jet streams in their wake – indicating that the space freighter has been swerving about while the battleship ploughs relentlessly ahead belching smoke and fire.

The battleship is firing a laser bolt, which is impacting with the freighter, causing a large, frame-ripping explosion – the laser bolt it has clearly been attempting to swerve to avoid.

Other ships are engaged in the battle – freighters fleeing, battleships chasing them.

This is taking place in low orbit above an Earth-like world; we can see the curve of the planet’s surface and its hazy blue atmosphere.


Panel 2

Inside the ship, which is veering wildly, out of control, and hence tilting at an angle. The flight deck, a cramped cockpit containing three or four crewmembers – the standard Star Trek arrangement of the captain in the middle, with navigators seated in front. All around are glittering hi-tech instrument panels, many of which are damaged or on fire.

The cockpit is bathed in the red glow of emergency lighting. The crew all wear elegant, decorated colonial suits, like servants from a Maharaja’s palace. They are all humanoid, with human eyes, ears and mouths, but with fur and elephant trunks for noses. They are all pale, jade blue in colour.

The Captain is grabbing onto a panel to prevent himself from falling and is shouting into a desk-mounted intercom. The Navigator is checking instruments and looking fearful.



Panel 3

The captain turns to look at the Navigator, and we have a reverse angle on the cockpit, so we can see the forward view screen – filled by the surface of the Earth-like planet and readings in an alien script indicating altitude, fuel and so forth. They’re heading towards its ‘night’ side, which is dotted with the lights of cities.



Panel 4 (big)

While the cockpit continues to burn and lurch, and remains lit by emergency lighting, the crew launch into a song-and-dance routine! They are all caught in Bollywood-style poses – the seated crewmembers raising their hands to point, palms-upward, up to the left, the standing crewmembers also pointing up to the left but leaning back as they do so, doing that exaggerated high-stepping walk. They are all facing towards us and smiling.

The Navigator is doing all the singing – he’s standing up, as though leading the routine.




Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Ooh La La

Last two theatrical trips...

Toby Hadoke’s Now I Know My BBC. A preview of his Edinburgh show, and as it’s a work-in-progress, it feels premature to review it. But I think it’ll do well, and it's an extremely timely show, given that the BBC is becoming ever more endangered due to a combination of politically-motivated vandalism, its management capitulating to attacks from commercial rivals, and some profligate building projects. I mean, I support the BBC, and everything it stands for, but it’s a worrying indictment of its recent past that when people on Twitter are listing their favourite BBC programmes as a reason for supporting it, they tend to list shows from over ten years ago; the BBC of Dennis Potter plays, of Grange Hill, of Top Of The Pops and The Two Ronnies. And sadly not so much the current BBC, despite the fact that with shows like Miranda, That Mitchell & Webb Look, Mongrels, The Old Guys and Rev it’s enjoying a bit of a comedy renaissance. (Anyway, I've digressed, it'll be a great show, if you loved Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf you'll love this too, check it out.)

Speaking of comedy and French words, the other theatrical trip was to the Brockley Jack Theatre to see a couple of Feydeau plays, Madame’s Late Mother and A House Bath. Feydeau is, as I’m sure you don’t need telling, best known for intricately-plotted farces, and I’ll just get the obligatory mention of Fawlty Towers out of the way here, but yes, like that but more so. The two plays are one-act affairs, simplistic by Feydeau standards, both effectively one-off sitcom episodes – a married couple are disturbed in the night by a messenger informing them of the death of the wife’s mother, and a married couple have a bath drawn and then turn off the lights.

Of the two, the second was stronger – more energy, more movement – even though the first was the strongest script. The performances were decent, but hampered by an inexplicable decision to play some parts with French accents, which rather got in the way of the characters, the situation and the dialogue. Plus the translation was bumpy in places, a bit Google Translate, with some lines stilted and formal. It would work so much better if every ‘Ooh la la!’ was a ‘Bloody hell!’ Still, it was a treat to see these two plays, and I’ll be interested to see more from Echange or Exchange theatre and if they will ever decide how to spell their own name.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Young & Lovely

Finished David NobbsObstacles To Young Love. It was superb, hilarious, engrossing, moving.

In a way, I’d spoiled the book for myself by reading One Day as, in only the broadest possible sense, Obstacles has a similar plot. Two characters who fall in love as students, only to spend the best part of two decades failing to get together because the timing is never quite right. There the similarity ends, but I’m still a little peeved at Jonathan Coe for not pointing it out in his blurbs for both books.

Obstacles concerns Timothy, soon to follow in his father’s footsteps as a taxidermist, and Naomi, the Juliet to his Romeo in a school production of the Shakespeare play, soon to embark on a career as an actress. And, in this beautifully constructed novel, we follow them through three decades, in which they both marry inappropriately, twice, have children, and occasionally bump into each other, and occasionally, frustratingly, don’t.

At the beginning, I was worried this book would be a series of near-misses, which would have been contrived, but instead the structure comes through in the parallels between their two paths, as their lives follow similar but distinct courses. They both lose their mothers, both grow closer to their once-distant fathers. They both have children, then lose them, and both have unsatisfying lives, in careers at which they don’t excel. And, most significantly, they both lose their faith in god, Naomi fiercely, Timothy in a gradual, considered and regretful evolution. It’s faith in god that prevents them from getting together at the beginning, and it’s the realisation that this faith is what has been holding them back and preventing them from finding true happiness that finally brings them together (along with a heartbreakingly lovely and selfless intervention by a minor character).

Throughout, the novel is filled with Nobbs’ gentle and sensitive wit, in particular the repetition of phrases and ideas for comic effect, and his compassion, as every character is sympathetic in their own way, and given their own journey. In particular, the two fathers are a delight, as is a German tourist encountered by our leads on a trip to Peru. This is a novel of humour, and sadness, but no melodrama - although there are marriage break-ups, they are ones of disappointment, not anger.

One particularly amusing section deals with Naomi’s career in three hackneyed BBC sitcoms, playing the ‘daughter’ – and as viewers of BBC sitcoms throughout the seventies and eighties will know, the ‘daughter’ was always the most unrewarding and underwritten role, and played a little too broadly, earnestly and long-sufferingly as a result.

Which brings me on to the first of my two small criticisms. Although the novel takes place over the last thirty years, there’s not a great sense of the different eras. The sitcom stuff, for instance, feels more like the seventies than the nineties. I’m not suggesting the characters should sit down and discuss the Miners’ Strike or the Spice Girls every three pages, but they both exist in a state of timelessness, untouched by the seasons. Nobbs goes into a great deal of poetic detail about the places they visit, but these are unchanging places, and there’s very little on the changing world.

In Timothy’s case that’s more understandable, as he’s in a small Yorkshire town, in a traditional profession, and indeed his story is one of introspection and social isolation – reminding me of the protagonist of Jonathan Coe’s Maxwell Sim. Someone who doesn’t make connections very easily, who doesn’t feel they fit into the modern world and who keeps it at a distance.

My second small criticism is that occasionally Nobbs’ authorial voice feels like there’s a third person in the room with Naomi and Timothy, and I prefer the stuff written in third-person-limited to third-person-omniscient. But to be honest, that’s a bad criticism, as it would mean losing some of the best jokes and most inspired digressions.

The conceit of the story is that Naomi and Timothy remain in love, even though they are apart, and indeed it is this love that prevents their other relationships from measuring up. This is a timely idea – well, it’s the second novel on the subject I’ve read in as many weeks – but I wonder whether such a relationship would work – because people’s personalities do change, and the person you fell in love with at sixteen and the person you meet two or three decades later are going to be quite different people. Nobbs deals with this problem by giving Naomi and Timothy parallel lives, so they develop but only in similar, gradual and slight ways, but I’m not sure there’s not a more interesting story to be told about a couple reuniting after twenty-odd years and discovering that, whilst they are still made for each other, they are very different people from what they once were.

Oh, and one harsh criticism. I didn’t buy the development on page 381, I felt it undermined Naomi’s character, making her look stupid.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Second Time Around

To redress my big whinge from last month, a quick review of The Globe’s new production of Henry IV. Saw Part 1 last month, saw one of the first nights of Henry IV Part 2 earlier this week.

In terms of what’s on paper, Part 1 should be the better play. It ends with a battle, for a start, and has a more interesting character journey for Hal. But in performance, Part 2 is much better. Much less actually happens, and the battles are anticlimactically resolved by political subterfuge (which could either be Shakespeare’s masterful use of dramatic anticlimax as a device, or is simply a case of him sticking to the historical facts). There are whole scenes which are just there for Falstaff to be funny; Falstaff vs Mistress Quickly, Falstaff vs Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff vs local magistrates and, in some brilliantly funny scenes, Falstaff vs Justice Shallow and Falstaff recruiting soldiers (in a scene which I’d previously thought was in Part 1, it could almost be a ‘deleted scene’ from the first play).

If I had to quibble, I’d say the addition of some ‘story so far’ rustic business at the beginning was superfluous, but on the other hand it meant they put a second stage in the middle of the ground area for me to lean on, so I’m glad it was there. It’s the best place to stand, get there if you can. And maybe it was because it was an early night, or because it was following up a production of Part One, but the audience were, for once, respectful and enthusiastic. Everyone there was there to see and enjoy the play, rather than the usual bunch of non-English-speaking tourists and people who don’t know how to behave in the theatre, they think it’s like telly where you can talk during the dull bits.

So it was a magical evening, an incredibly good production of a play which has risen even higher in my estimation. It seems a shame to overlook all the great performances, but William Gaunt stole every scene he was in, which is no mean feat given he was up against Roger Allam as Falstaff, in an assured and precisely-judged performance that some critics are already describing as the best Falstaff for twenty years (which may well be true, or may just be critics’ way of saying ‘I’ve been to lots more productions of Henry IV than you.’)

Monday, 12 July 2010

St Swithin's Day

Last night, finished One Day by David Nicholls. The last thirty-odd pages were very... dehydrating. Nicholls used to write Cold Feet, the episodes that Mike Bullen didn’t write – have I mentioned how much I loved Cold Feet? Particularly series one, which is one of the most well-written things ever, in my humble opinion. One Day only concerns one couple, but it’s certainly the sort of book that’s designed to bring lumps to throats and, if it had a closing theme, it would probably be something a bit like Coldplay. But not shit. And 'designed' makes it sound cynical, contrived, when it’s anything but.

The book’s based around a boy and a girl, Emma and Dexter, and begins on July 15th 1988, with them both on the point of leaving university, and then revisits the two characters, on the same day, each year for the next two decades. Sounds gimmicky, but actually it's not. You get a strong sense of the characters developing, and their lives progressing (or stagnating), and their evolving relationships with each other, and the supporting characters, but it’s not as if each July 15th is necessarily a significant step.

And of course Emma and Dexter are made for each other, and of course it takes them most of those two decades to get together. Along the way, Dexter has a brief TV career, starting off as the next Terry Christian and ending up, like his Press Gang namesake, presenting computer game shows in the middle of the night. Emma begins her twenties working in a dead-end fast food outlet, becomes a teacher, and then finally starts following her dreams. Dexter has many one-night stands, and girls who are not right for him, while Emma spends trying to make things work with Ian, a hilariously unfunny would-be stand-up comedian, with whom every scene is an excruciating but irresistible combination of embarrassment and poignancy.

What the book’s about, though, is Emma and Dexter’s friendship, and about growing up over the last twenty years, the author presumably not being far off the characters’ ages. So you have New Labour and Britpop and the Iraq war and stuff, but handled with restraint, never gratuitous.

Looking over on Amazon it’s got 275 reviews and is average four and a half stars. That’s insanely good. I agree with the reviews; it’s engrossing, very funny, very charming, and for the last thirty pages, extremely dehydrating.

The last David Nicholls book I bought cost me 10p. This time I got it free as part of a 3-books-for-2 offer. At this rate, I’m hoping David Nicholls will be paying me to read his next book.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Picasso's Last Words (Drink To Me)

Way back many years ago, I was arguing with a Christian about evolution, to pass the time on a bus journey, and he repeated the argument which I shall summarize thus: ‘Ah, but even Charles Darwin converted to Christianity on his death bed!’

Of course he didn’t. This is one of those Received Wisdoms that gets repeated in pamphlets, like the nonsense that evolution can’t explain things like the eye and the appearance of the golden ratio in nature. The story of Darwin’s death-bed recantation – which is all it was, a story – was repudiated by those who knew Darwin best, and seems to have been wishful thinking by someone who had never even met Darwin.

But let’s just suppose the story was true, that Darwin did say ‘Evolution is a lie, I believe in Jesus’ before he finally pegged it. So what? Why should what somebody says on their death-bed trump a lifetime of writing, of thought and discussion? Because it’s his ‘final word on the matter’? Because up until that point he hadn’t quite decided where stood on the issue, but he arrived at a conclusion in the nick of time? Because he knew his time was limited and wanted to use his last words to finally reveal the truth, that his life’s work had been a fabrication?

Clearly this is nonsense. What somebody says on their death bed is unlikely to be their considered view on a matter. When you’re on your death bed you’re quite likely to be extremely ill – I have noted that extreme illness frequently precedes death – possibly feverish, possibly tanked up with painkilling drugs, and quite possibly not of sound mind. Almost certainly not firing on all cylinders mentally. Maybe Darwin did say he believed in Jesus on his death bed. But maybe he also said that he thought that there were worms crawling over the ceiling and that spoons were trying to kill him.

It’s this same nonsense, this idea that ‘ah, we’re finally getting the truth’, which means people place far too much credence in what people say when they’re drunk, or talking in their sleep, when really that’s the one time they shouldn’t take the slightest bit of notice. When I get drunk I’ll say the most offensive things in an attempt to be amusing. That doesn’t mean that’s what I secretly really think, quite the opposite.

I haven’t decided what I’ll say on my death bed yet. To be honest, I’m hoping to go out with a really big sneeze.

Friday, 9 July 2010


There’s a great episode of Only Fools And Horses that features Philip Pope as a night-club singer who can’t pronounce his ‘r’s. And who Del Boy books to sing ‘The Gween Gween Gwass Of Home’ and a medley of ‘Wock And Woll’.

I was reminded of this episode listening to Gabriella Cilmi’s new album, ‘Ten’. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a terrific album. In fact, if Marina hadn’t trumped her with her effort, it would probably be my favourite album of the year. Pretty much every song is extremely well written, original, full of hooks, beautifully produced and sung by someone who can hit notes without the aid of a computer. There are great tracks; Hearts Don’t Lie does the Bee Gees better than the Scissor Sisters, Superhot sounds like Kate Bush singing Erasure, and Let Me Know has a great gospel chorus. Don’t let the first single put you off; okay, so she’s lost the quirky feel of Sweet About Me and the sounds are now I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Xenomania rather than Xenomania, and yes, this is yet another album in which somebody has found the Van Halen Jump keyboard sound on their sample CD. But it’s excellent, unlike the new Kylie disaster or the last Sugababes monstrosity.

Plus, best of all, it has the track Robots. Following hot on the heels of Marina, and the Girls Alouds, another song about the singer being/not being a robot. Which is fine, but not since Mariah Carey declared that all she wanted for Chwistmas was you have lyrics been so unfortunately mismatched to vocal technique. Because Gabriella, bless her, can’t pronounce the word robots. So singing a song about them, probably not a good idea. Certainly not one to perform live in concert, it would be just too tempting for someone in the audience to start shouting ‘Release Roderick!’

Intrigued by the new Katie Melua single, which if it didn’t already sound like a Sparks track enough has been remixed, mentally, by Sparks themselves.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Football Fight

This is my World Cup Football blog. I haven’t watched any of the matches, have no interest in the result, but I don’t feel that should be an obstacle to expressing an opinion. What is ignorance, after all, except the ultimate form of objectivity, unburdened by the inherent biases of Knowing Stuff?

The main thing that struck me is how excruciatingly embarrassing most of the tabloid newspaper coverage of the England versus Germany match was. I mean, World War II was seventy years ago, very soon it’ll be slipping out of living memory, and yet its imagery gets wheeled out with grim inevitability every four years. It’s not funny, it’s not ironic, it’s just depressing, reductive, mindless bigotry and backward-looking. But then, if the British are good at one thing, it’s basking in Former Glories. Well, it’s something we used to be good at, in the sixties.

To be fair, it’s not just the football, and it’s not just now. Go into any WH Smiths in Lewisham and at the counter you’ll be presented with a selection of magazines relating either to World War II or to the exploits of Fred Dibnah. Fred Dibnah seems to exert some sort of hypnotic fascination for the people of this country. If you don’t know who he is, he’s essentially the British equivalent of Gore Vidal or Truman Capote. But with steam engines.

There’s not even the excuse that the people reading this magazines are being nostalgic. I mean, I’m barely of the generation that had World War II stories in comics which were so prevalent in the 50s and 60s, or the cycle of World War II movies that made up so much of our British Film Industry. I’m not arguing it should be forgotten, but the words ‘get over it’ spring to mind. The people buying these magazines are not reminiscing about the war, they’re romanticising it.

It must be disheartening for any Germans visiting the UK, to see all this World War II memorabilia everywhere. Imagine if you went to Germany and saw the equivalent magazines on sale in their newsagents, or if they reported on our football matches using their World War II imagery. Yeah. Point made. I'm probably the millionth person to make this observation, aren't I?

But anyway, football.

Going Downhill Fast

Just finished reading The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe. Thoughts.

To begin with, it’s a great read, compelling, beautifully written, and occasionally very funny as the story is related with a kind of Pooterish lack of self-awareness by its profoundly dull protagonist. I say protagonist, but that would suggest the character was in charge of his own destiny, when he’s at the mercy of coincidence, misunderstanding and his own limited horizons. One of the most telling moments was Maxwell’s discussion about embracing failure, about the liberating feeling of giving up. Max is, like many of us, going through life with the sense that they haven’t got the hang of it yet and that everyone else – particularly previous generations – seems much better at it.

Max reminded me of the lead characters from Coe’s The Accidental Woman and What A Carve Up! – in both instances, the leads are almost sociopathic, isolated souls, who feel detached – rejected – by the world around them and instead are lost in their own thoughts. What A Carve Up! in particular has an hilarious section where the character keeps on failing to listen to what someone is saying to him, because the writing follows his train of thoughts as he drifts elsewhere.

I suppose I should mention the story, though if you want more details check out one of the Guardian’s reviews - this novel is honoured with two (okay, so one's from the Observer, and both seem to miss the point, but anyway). It’s essentially about Max’s descent – his willing descent – into madness, falling in love with his car Satnav, whilst meeting his ex-wife, his daughter, old and new friends and acquaintances en route, and through four digressions – a letter about Donald Crowhurst, a short story written by his ex-wife, an essay written by a childhood friend and a memoir of his fathers – he pieces together the accidents that have formed the turning points of his life. The digressions are themed as elements, the idea being that Max is at the mercy of them, in much the same way that Donald Crowhurst was similarly a victim of fate and that terrible thing of finding oneself in a hopeless situation and not quite knowing how to get out of it and finding it easier to just let things get worse.

Which sounds terribly pretentious, when actually it’s very funny. Max gets mugged and then the mugger asks for directions, which Max helpfully provides. He bores someone to death on a plane flight. He gets very excited about having hundreds of messages in his inbox – all but one of which turn out to be offering him ways to lengthen his penis. And – in a very David Nobbs-esque plot point – he becomes a travelling salesman for a new type of ecologically-friendly toothbrush, dealing with suits speaking incomprehensible business jargon. There’s an underlying sadness through it all, the sense that this modern world of ours makes it very easy for people to function as solitary units, and makes it very difficult for them to make real-life connections. Plus there’s a fair bit about the madness of the City, as today’s Great Big Economic Fuck Up is mirrored by a failed gamble made by Max’s father.

Throughout, there’s a deliberate sense that the narrator is not quite telling us the story properly, skipping bits, or telling us what didn’t happen, but which means the ending, in which the artifice of the story is revealed to be, well, an artifice – and which could easily have been a throwing-the-book-at-the-world moment – actually feels earned and appropriate, rather than being a great big did-you-see-what-I-did-there. And it made me feel I should give Coe’s biography of BS Johnson another attempt.

But in short, I loved it, and think it’s his best novel since What A Carve Up! Oh and Jonathan Coe, if your ego-surfing has led you to this blog, I know exactly how this book could be adapted for Radio 4. I would love to do it.

Now I have decide whether next to read the new novel by David Nobbs or David Nicholls. They are both recommended to me by Jonathan Coe on their back covers (and yet neither David returns the favour for Jonathan’s book, I notice). It would be an interesting experiment, to follow a trail of authors recommending each other’s books on the back covers, to see how far you could get.

But I won’t bother doing it.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

It's No Good

Clichés are terrible thing, I avoid them like the plague. But that doesn’t stop me trying to invent new ones.

Because I’ve noticed, in my Doctor Who scripts, that there always seems to come a moment where the odds are stacked, as is their wont, against our heroes, with peril and doom threatening like two big threatening things, that someone will utter the immortal line;

It’s no good. There’s nothing we can do’.

Or, it’s Bruce Forsyth-ed equivalent:

‘There’s nothing we can do. It’s no good!’

I always feel a little self-conscious at this point. Partly because the phrase ‘It’s no good’ can always, during recording and during listening, feel like a commentary on the quality of the script, in the same way that the line ‘We must act’ always draws attention to the quality of the acting. But I stick with it nonetheless, because I also get a little thrill at this moment, in much the same way that I still have a drink whenever anyone on television uses the word ‘protocol’ whenever something technological has to bend to the convenience of the plot. For some reason ‘protocol’ is the magic get-out word. It’s practically a cliché in itself.

The ironic thing about clichés is, although they are obviously symptoms of bad, unthinking writing, is that they are really how people speak. When someone has bad news, you tell them that you’re terribly sorry, and although if you’re me you then feel self-conscious at being so obvious, it’s the best our language can manage if you want express sympathy, to say anything else would seem thoughtless or insincere. Similarly, if you’re in a spaceship about to hit an asteroid and none of the buttons on your dashboard are working, you’re going to say ‘It’s no good, there’s nothing we can do’, because anything else would sound contrived.

Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Like glue.