Joyless Self

I woke up to the horrendous discovery that we were out of soya milk. Woe! Woe! We have cow’s milk but I’ve lost my taste for that, aside from which it gives me a runny nose and sneezes. It’s a funny thing but the effects of a dairy allergy are widely accepted in ‘alternative medicine’ but hardly at all in conventional medicine. But there it is: I have only to daub a pat of butter on my toast to experience a frog in the throat. Cheese gives me sneezes and milk makes my nose run. I know this from long experience but will the doctors believe me? They will not. They look sceptical and mutter hay fever under their breath. I’ve given up mentioning it.

So, since I’m reluctant to put cow’s milk in my tea I must either have peppermint or sally forth and buy some more of the soya variety. It’s an odd thing because in the beginning I didn’t like it at all but now I prefer it.

Not all cheeses are created equal of course. Goat’s cheese is better than cow’s and sheep’s is better than either. Feta is bedda than cheddar, basically. But I can’t stand black tea.

Ah, woe is me!

This is not what I was going to write about today at all but never mind; blogging is what happens to you when you’re busy thinking of other things. What I was going to write about was this: it happened this morning when I was trying to drink my too-strong tea that OH read out something about Will Self. ‘Will Self’s writing is completely joyless,’ it said, and it struck me that that was absolutely right. It is joyless. There’s no pleasure, no fun, no happiness in what he writes, only a dry, ironic sort of wit and a fantastic display of cleverness. He doesn’t seem to like anyone or anything very much and I get the impression that if I were to meet him I’d want to hide in a corner rather than be subjected to such merciless scrutiny.

Here’s a post I wrote about him last year. I used a number of adjectives then, including scornful, scathing and overly-critical. But joyless really seems to sum it up.

It’s here in the middle of this podcast that they slag off Will Self and compare his verbiage to the poetry of Vogons. It’s coincidentally a podcast dedicated to the universe of Douglas Adams, giving some advice to help you live in it.It’s about 20 minutes in.

Last night OH and I, being on a Peter Morgan kick (the guy I told you about yesterday who wrote The Queen et al – are you paying attention?) watched ‘The Deal,’ the story of the early careers and friendship of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and the deal they made that in a leadership race Blair would stand aside and let Brown win; a deal which if it existed (and according to Wikipedia it did), Blair evidently broke. The film is one of a Blair trilogy which culminates in ‘The Queen’ but perhaps should have continued to the Iraq war and his subsequent downfall. Blair has been in the outer darkness now for a long time but doesn’t actually realise it and keeps popping up with Ideas to Save the Party and the Country.

Coincidentally – or not? maybe there are no coincidences – OH this morning directed me to another podcast (OH loves podcasts; I’m a bit meh) about how over the last 40 years things politically have slid to the right like a great uncontrollable mudslide; starting with Thatcher, continuing with Blair and still sailing inexorably on with Johnson into a blood-red, ghostly white and deep blue sunset. It’s called ‘That Option No Longer Exists.

So that’s today. It’s cold and wet here in blogland so stay safe, wrap up and don’t go outside without a mask.But if you’re going to the shop, can you get me some soya milk?

Thanks.

Kirk out

Hamlet is not Quite as Funny…

Image result for withnail and I open source images

I take as my text today the script of Withnail and I: yes, all of it – for as I have so consistently pointed out the entire film is basically a collection of quotes linked by a somewhat haphazard plot.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094336/?ref_=nv_sr_1

But my subject this morning is not the film per se, but the Facebook group.  It is my contention that The Withnail and I Appreciation Society is one of the healthiest groups on social media.  Why?  Because it allows people to hurl the most terrible insults at each other with impunity.  When someone calls me a terrible c**t, I chuckle; when a man declares that he means to have me even if it must be burglary, I laugh uproariously and when people ‘feel unusual’ I’m not a bit spooked.   Because the film licences this rudeness, which is not about the person you’re talking to but about your shared enjoyment of the film.  And this is very healthy I think.

This is what happens: people post pictures, memes and links to news stories on which to hang their references to the film.  And because the film has a thousand and one quotable bits, it just keeps on going.  As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops.  I’ve only just begun to grow last year.  The joint I am about to roll can utilise up to twelve skins.  It is called the Camberwell Carrot.  This will tend to make you very high.  Bollocks, I’ll swallow it and run a mile.  That wouldn’t wash with Geoff.  Imagine getting into a fight with the f***er.

It’s not all insults: you can offer sherry, fulminate about cats or eulogise root vegetables.  You can talk about garlic, rosemary and salt or good quality rubber boots; you can tell Miss Blennerhasset to call the police or demand the finest wines known to humanity.  You can even go on holiday by mistake.

The film ends with a soliloquy from hamlet, another play that’s full of quotable bits.  Though Hamlet isn’t quite as funny…

Marwood out.

What is This Blog About?

I read just this morning some advice which suggested a blogger should always make it clear what their blog is about.  But this presents me with some difficulty because when it comes down to it, what actually is this blog about?

It’s easy to say ‘it’s a blog about writing’ – and in the main it is; but it’s about so much more than that.  The one thing I discovered when I began to blog regularly was that it is impossible to stick to one subject.  The mind lists where it will; there are many things I’m interested in and I want to share those interests with readers.  I want to connect: I want to philosophise and politicise and talk about anything I damn well please, from bricklaying (yes, I did that once) to road materials testing (also done) to knitting and poetry and short stories and poems about knitting and road materials and bricklaying (I haven’t yet written about the last two but knitting has proved a fertile metaphor for many things.)

I also want to blog about culture: I want to organise my responses to films and TV programmes, I want to write book reviews and share the poetry I love.  So in the main, it’s about connection.  Only connect would be a good alternative title for the blog if ‘A Writer’s Life’ weren’t clearer and more likely to – ahem – connect with readers.

One of the writing quotes I read recently was: ‘A writer knows a little about everything and is an expert on nothing.’  Now I think that’s exactly true: I am compelled to find out about all manner of things and would be just as engaged in finding out how fork-lift trucks work (indeed I have had that conversation with a friend who works at JCB) as with hearing about how other writers write.  I’m fascinated by these processes and not with any conscious intent of ‘doing research’ for writing: they just interest me.  As Chaucer said (or at least the Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale) ‘all human life lies within the artist’s scope.’  So there it is; all human life lies within this blog’s scope.

What is this blog about?  Everything.

What am I an expert on?  Nothing.

Except perhaps on writing…

And just for fun, here’s today’s writing cartoon:

Kirk out

So Where Are We?

As I mentioned yesterday I watched this video about the current state of Hollywood, and it made me realise that the only good films I’ve seen in the last few years have been, with one exception, British. I’ll tell you what they were in a minute – but first, I think the video raises some important questions about what is actually going on in popular culture. Thoughty-Two (that’s the vlogger’s name – geddit?) suggests that there are two main problems in film right now and they both begin with B: the first is the business model and the second is Bathos. Let’s deal with the second one first.

Bathos is in the best sense comic relief. It’s done very well in, say, the Harry Potter series where the tension is ratcheted up and up until you can’t take any more at which point Ron says something (it’s usually Ron, though it might be Fred or George) which makes us laugh and defuses the tension. This scene in The Chamber of Secrets with the giant spider Aragog is a good example; as the beast advances to feast on them Ron says in strangled tones ‘Can we panic now?’

Unfortunately it has become a mere knee-jerk trope in far too many films, resulting in a total lack of emotional engagement. It’s as if the film-makers are terrified of taking anything too seriously and must constantly remind us that this is all just fun, entertainment, candy floss in celluloid. It’s a cynical reminder of the usual tropes; a nod to the fact that, hey, you’re all highly civilised and experienced people and we’re not going to mess with that. At its best it’s clever and amusing but generally the result is cynical and dulling to the spirit.

Thoughty-Two singles out superhero movies and particularly Marvel films as the worst offenders, which brings us to the second B: business. It’s expensive to make a film, which means that producers tend to go with what works, which means they tend to repeat what worked before, which means very little gets made that’s innovative. Not only that, but in order not to lose the rights to a particular character they have to keep making films that use the character, whether or not those films are any good. Otherwise the rights will ‘revert’ and they’ll lose them.

It’s clear that what loses out in all this are genuine characters, human emotions and good storytelling. Thoughty-Two points out that in this climate much of the talent has fled to places like Netflix and HBO, boosting the current golden age of TV drama in which we are living.

The video gives an excellent rundown of the current situation in Hollywood, and led me to compile this list of all the good films I’ve seen in the last few years. They are, in no particular order, these:

1917 by Sam Mendes

Mr Turner by Mike Leigh

Sorry We Missed You by Ken Loach

Peterloo by Mike Leigh

Mrs Lowry and Son by Adrian Noble

and

Joker by Todd Phillips

With only one exception, Joker, these are all British. Coincidence? I think not.

Kirk out

Em-meh

I went to the cinema by mistake yesterday; out on a blustery and rather chilly afternoon I became diverted on my way to Sainsbury’s and stopped in at the Odeon to see what was playing. At first it appeared to be wall-to-wall Sonic the Hedgehog but eventually the screen changed and lo! they were about to show Emma so I got me a ticket and I went in.

And?

Hm. The settings were great, though I don’t think they made the most of the detail; still the drawing-rooms and frontages, the landscaped gardens with ha-has and classical pediments, gave a good flavour of the period. But the contrast between this and the farm where Harriet Smith is destined to end up, is rather jarringly introduced with loud folk music, and the difference between Emma’s and Jane Fairfax’s piano playing rather too pointed. In fact the production was altogether rather blunt and obvious; the narrative was a little jerky and there was quite a bit of telling-not-showing. But my main beef was with the casting.

Anya Taylor-Joy was perfect as Emma but Mr Knightley was frankly wet and weedy, not at all the blunt, forceful figure of the novel. Gemma Whelan was not bad as Mrs Weston but didn’t get enough screen time and in any case was not up to the standard of Greta Scaachi in the Gwyneth Paltrow version.

I did not like Josh o’Connor as Mr Elton and Callum Turner was not at all my idea of Frank Churchill. I did quite enjoy Bill Nighy as the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse but the subtleties of the relationship between Emma and her sister and brother-in-law were quite lost in general bickering. There were also some completely un-Austinian moments where people shouted and banged things; where Emma drops her clothes on the floor and sits on the windowsill, knees to chest; and where – horrors! grown gentlemen actually weep! Poor Jane – I hear her turning in her grave.

There were some good moments, however; I enjoyed the visual effect of the parlour-boarder girls prancing around in unison and the comedy of Mr Woodhouse being surrounded by fire screens with only the top of his head visible. I also thought Miranda Hart much closer to the original Miss Bates than Sophie Hannah’s breathy hesitancy. But Jane Austen it wasn’t; give me the Gwyneth Paltrow version any day.

To sum up, it was enjoyable but a bit – well, meh.

Kirk out

Cinema Moth: 1917

Last night I went back in time to the First World War, to watch the absolutely stupendous 1917. I’m not a huge fan of war films, though I like stories of ordinary people caught up in war, such as Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War which was made into a series starring a very young Emma Thompson and Kenneth Brannagh (before they split up.) But the guns-and-poppies type of film, I’m not so keen on. But this is a whole other kettle of fish.

You probably know this already unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few weeks, but the film is two hours, give or take, and it’s one shot. Just take that in for a moment: one shot. One. Shot.

The effect is stupendous. From the word go we are immersed in the trenches as the camera follows two young soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and the interestingly-visaged George MacKay) as they are sent on a mission into no-man’s-land. If it all sounds a bit Blackadder, it isn’t, neither is it Wilfrid Owen exactly, but an immersive experience as we follow the two through scrolls of barbed wire and dead tanks, round craters and over banks into the ghostly corpse-strewn landscape between the two fronts. They hole up in a barn for a while to escape fighter pilots overhead but when a plane is shot down it nearly ploughs into them. I won’t give the whole plot away except to say that as far as narrative technique goes it’s just about the most immersive film of its type I’ve ever seen; I spent half of it with my hand to my mouth. The action builds slowly, relentlessly to a climax and at the end of it I was as emotionally exhausted as the hero was physically spent. There are brief cameos from Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch but this film is all about the ordinary soldiers and their journey. There’s an interesting video here about why it had to be one shot.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch.

Kirk out

A Cinema Moth

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image removed on request

When the kids were little we used to see a lot of these in the garden. They’re beautiful as moths but the caterpillars are not so nice; they live on ragwort and can strip a plant to a ragged stalk in a matter of hours. They’re a daytime insect and so are really butterflies rather than moths, but to me they look like a butterfly in evening dress so I dubbed them cinema moths. It amused us to think of them as figures in red gowns and black evening cloaks clustered around the entrance to the cinema.

Alas, I too used to be a species of cinema moth, especially when I lived in Spain where the flicks are cheap and plentiful. I’d sometimes go two or three times a week (though if you were seeing an English language film you’ve have to be careful to choose a VO – a subtitled version – rather than the dubbed films which were impossible to follow.) As I’ve mentioned before I once saw Almodovar in one of these cinemas.

Even before that, and before cinemas here got horribly expensive, I’d go once or twice a week. The cinema was basically your only chance to see a film until it (maybe) came on the telly years later. If you missed it you’d have to wait and see if it ‘came round’ again as popular films sometimes did, otherwise you’d had your chance.

But nowadays I’m a bit of a sad sack when it comes to cinema-going. True, I’ve seen ‘Sorry We Missed You’ and a couple of others recently but that’s about it. I really wanted to go and see 1917 last night but things got in the way and when OH said ‘we could go another day,’ I said sadly, ‘Yes. But things always get in the way.’ Which they do. Anyway, the plan is for me to go alone to the 5.15 perf so that I make sure it actually happens. I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile in a less exciting version of our evening we watched Dr Who (so-so, not one of the best episodes) and I continued with my box set of the stonking ‘Last Tango in Halifax.’

Kirk out

The Horror! The Humour!

Forget everything you’ve read up to now, because my entire life with all its preoccupations, hopes and fears, pales into insignificance since I’ve watched The Death of Stalin. I ‘d been meaning to see this when it came out but as with so many things it wasn’t being screened locally, so I’m happy it’s turned up on Netflix. I studied Russian history in the 1970’s when Communism (so-called, actually totalitarianism) was still in force and Gorbachev yet to come to power – and I was deeply impressed by the suffering of the Russian people. They seem to go out of the frying pan into the fire with each change of regime: first they had the Tsars who were awful, then they had the Communists who started off well but ended up even worse, then they had Perestroika which was good for a bit but which gave way to ‘democracy’ and now they’ve got Putin, who’s even worse than Trump.

The Death of Stalin, like history repeating itself, is not so much tragedy as farce, albeit a very black farce. The politburo could be any political elite anywhere at any time after the death of a brutal dictator with everyone rushing around plotting and trying to save their own skins, all too scared to be the first to admit that their glorious leader is dead. They even have trouble finding a doctor to certify death as all the doctors have been killed or exiled, and eventually they have to haul a load of medics out of a gulag and bring them in to the Kremlin to examine the ‘patient’. The purges are ever-present in the background of this story, as is the monstrous figure of Beria played utterly stunningly by Simon Russell Beale (he has a huge reputation on stage but I’ve always found him a bit blah on film: no longer.) The casting is an incredible mix of the serious and the comic: serious actors like Beale stand alongside comedians Paul Whitehouse and Michael Palin. It hits home all the more because the accents are mostly British and Northern with a couple of American voices thrown in.

The action begins at a concert being broadcast live on radio. The moment it’s finished the producer gets a call from Comrade Stalin himself asking for a recording. Well, not so much asking as ordering. Problem is, the concert wasn’t recorded – and so the farce begins, with people being rounded up from the street to replace audience members who’ve already left, and a conductor being woken from his bed to substitute the original. But the pianist refuses to play on the not unreasonable grounds that Comrade Stalin murdered her entire family. When the recording is made she pushes a note into the sleeve expressing her wish that Comrade Stalin would die: he reads it and obligingly expires. End of act one.

The panic surrounding his demise is like Brian Rix on a total downer; the blackest of black comedies. The intrigue, the terror, the purges it all strikes an incredible balance between horror and humour, and the death of Beria is terrifying. I was utterly purged by watching it – which is quite appropriate really…

If you haven’t seen it, watch it now.

Kirk out

There May be Some Great TV Drama Around – I Couldn’t Possibly Comment

It’s got to the stage now where saying ‘there’s some great TV drama around at the moment’ is completely superfluous. It’s like saying ‘the weather’s warm for the time of year’ – it’s always warm! It’s called climate change! – and in the same way since we are obviously in a golden age of TV drama, there’s always some good stuff around. Part of the reason I guess is the multiplicity of platforms; here at home we only have terrestrial plus Netflix, but there’s Sky and other digital platforms plus whatever HBO is (I’m guessing it’s not a bank.) But I suspect there are other reasons too; for a start, drama is a better way than comedy of dealing with the horrendous problems facing us. Part-escapism, part gritty-realism, good drama leads to catharsis; by immersing ourselves in the problems of other people and seeing those problems work themselves through, we are better able to deal with our own. It’s more than a distraction and less than reality.

So, having said that, which good dramas have I been watching this week? First is the BBC’s excellent ‘Trial of Christine Keeler.’ I’m not quite old enough to remember the original story but its ramifications continued well into the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies; in fact you could say that, like the Chatterley trial it was a seminal event in the unravelling of the status quo. Chatterley unravelled the era of sexual repression; Keeler, the age of deference.

It’s brilliantly done, this; Keeler is no dumb victim (though she is a victim too) but a knowing, wisecracking, cynical yet personable young woman. Yet she is also the victim of predatory, privileged older men who pass her around for sex and of younger boyfriends who beat her up when she ends their relationship (since her boyfriends are black, they suffer too at the hands of a racist police force.) The sexual hypocrisy of the time hits home during the scene where Keeler, having induced an abortion, lies on the floor of her mother’s house crying and bleeding. Her mother enters, takes in the situation at a glance and gives her an almighty slap. Yep, that’s what it was like – I remember it well (not that my mother would have behaved in that way, but it would still have been a great scandal.)

There’s a terrific cast: Ben Miles as Profumo is almost, though not quite, the equal of Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe (another scandal which toppled a major public figure) and Sophie Cookson is pitch-perfect as Keeler. It’s not over yet, there are another two episodes to go, so make sure you catch up while you can: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/m000ct7b/the-trial-of-christine-keeler

This series of Dr Who has been excellent so far – though last night’s episode was a bit vanilla, harking back to the day’s of gravel pits and low budgets – but the other thing I caught up with was a film on Netflix about Lowry.

One of the encouraging things about biopics of famous people is seeing how little their work was originally valued. This was particularly true in Lowry’s case as he was completely dominated by his mother who, if Vanessa Redgrave’s ice-dagger performance is anything to go by, was a grade-A, cold-hearted, self-centred, manipulative b*tch. Lowrie reminds me of some ground-down Alan Bennett character (except that he wasn’t gay – at least as far as we know) collecting rent during the day and painting at night whilst looking after his mother. But adversity is often a spur to the dedicated artist and so it proved in this case. Nothing could stop Lowrie painting and today he is admired and loved throughout the world – and perhaps most of all by those who don’t generally ‘do’ art. There’s a centre in his native Salford dedicated to him, a recent undiscovered painting of his sold for £1m – and one of the most surreal moments of the film was seeing Timothy Spall finishing this picture and looking up from the screen to see it on our wall.

That about sums it all up I think.

So yep, there’s some good stuff around. Let’s make the most of it while it’s here – and make the most of me too. Tomorrow I’m off to Doncaster and thence to Scotland for a few days, so I shall not be posting.

Toodle pip.

Kirk out

What Utter Twaddle!

I’ve been writing utter twaddle all day because sometimes that is the only way to go. The hope is that you write yourself into some sort of coherence if you just keep going; sometimes it works, and it sort of worked today though I’m not terribly happy with most of what I did. Still it’s better than the other day when I was forced to resort to writing obscenities for several paragraphs like George VI trying to overcome a stammer (come to think of it, the principle is probably the same: The King’s Writing, anyone?)

But basically the only way to get through these days is not to let yourself care. Don’t care about quality, don’t care about inspiration, don’t care about structure, don’t even care if you’re making any sense or conforming to any of the rules of grammar throughout the known galaxy – just write. To paraphrase a character in Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise, Write, write, effing write! Write, write, effing write! If you’re interested the relevant clip’s at about 13.40. And here’s Richard E Grant commenting on my work:

Indeed, Richard, I have written twaddle today. But it’s my twaddle.

Kirk out