Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.
It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.
Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.
Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity.
Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.
Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.
And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.
Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.
At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.
But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.
The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.
Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.
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Am I getting overexcited if I say that this episode had everything? The Guardian series blog says that at its heart this was just a story of love between a man and his car, “perfectly pitched”. But I think that’s a simplification of the abundance of ideas in The Doctor’s Wife and a misunderstanding of the bond between Doctor and machine. If the TARDIS is a car it’s the fastest and most exclusive vehicle on the roads. And the machine is so deeply rooted in Time Lord culture, carrying such a magical image with divine possibilities, that its equivalent as a car would have to be the very latest model opening up the world for travel in a time of horse and carts. The Doctor, after all, is more than just a poser in a Porsche; he’s an adventurer, explorer and conquering genius. And the TARDIS is his home, the one constant in his lonely existence.
There is too much to talk about after such a spot on execution of a tantalising premise. I had not heard of Neil Gaiman before this week but he brings a distinctive and fresh feel to this episode, with its industrial junk and grimy Victoriana costume. Yes we’re clearly in the classic setting of a quarry, but it isn’t samey; the set is wonderfully lit and decorated to create a unique rubbish dump environment.
His glittering CV in sci-fi and fantasy is evident everywhere but Gaiman also grasps the history of Who and mines it for inspiration. More than any other incoming writer he creates a fan fest for die hard followers. The focus on a personification of the TARDIS and distress calls from Time Lords such as the Corsair, provides the pudding for lifelong Whovians, whilst the running around corridors is a classic treat many newer fans will have missed from the RTD era.
But it’s not just running around corridors. With the jaw dropping concept of the soul of the Doctor’s beloved blue box transplanted into a woman, it would be easy to gloss over the scenes with Amy and Rory. There’s no doubt that the Suranne Jones and Matt Smith double act steals the show. However the scenes with our married couple continue running themes of Moffat’s reign, raising further questions about the story arc.
What is it with constantly killing Rory? Mysterious and powerful entity House, brilliantly voiced by Michael Sheen, twice kills him with his hallucinogenic tricks. He also turns him against Amy, which is something many are saying might happen for real later on. There are chilling psychological scares with “Kill Amy” daubed all over the walls and some classic Whovian prosthetic frights with the tentacle strewn beard of the Ood.
What next? How about the marvellously creepy and eccentric Auntie and Uncle, both “patchwork people” continually “repaired” by the sadistic House? They add a delightfully quirky touch with touches of humour as well as menace. And Auntie, with what many might have missed as a throwaway line, hints at the story arc of Amy’s pregnancy. She grabs her and says “House loves you” and given that House feeds off of Time Lords or at least their TARDISes, are we meant to take that as a hint that the regenerating child at the end of The Day of the Moon is Amy’s? How on earth do the Doctor and Amy have a child? Is this just an elaborate red herring?
Enough speculation and back to the genius of this episode. House is a great idea for an adversary for the Doctor, an intelligent “entity” and one that simply wants to feed off of Time Lord energy, whilst also having fun with his food. The lovely sci-fi idea of a “bubble on the outside of a soap bubble” of the universe was also introduced through fantastically playful dialogue. Suranne Jones, effectively playing the TARDIS, did an absorbing and varied job of realising the rest of Gaiman’s excellent lines.
Indeed Gaiman’s script was perfectly structured as the TARDIS adjusted to human form, moving the character from nonsense, by degrees, to harmonious cooperation with the Doctor. This is an episode that really rewards a second viewing, as all the seemingly mad ramblings from Idris/TARDIS at the beginning, turn out to be quotes from later in the script or confused foresights from the time machine of what’s to come. For once the accompanying episode of Doctor Who Confidential was a total joy, as Gaiman read extracts from his screenplay that sounded more like intoxicating poetry and far better in many ways than the action brought to life in the episode itself.
Other odds and ends then: Matt Smith was excellent, getting the chance to be emotional, crazy and angry and determined. If we didn’t get many answers relating to this year’s story arc, we did get some partial ones to age old questions about the TARDIS and the Doctor’s past. For one thing we finally ventured beyond a control room. Ok the budget didn’t stretch to that swimming pool, but there was a lovely cameo from Tennant’s old control room. The TARDIS, given a voice, was at pains to say it was she that chose the Doctor to see the universe, not the other way around. And a satisfying explanation for all the random thrills and battles with evil: “You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go,” /”But I always took you where you needed to”.
After last week’s enjoyable run around, The Doctor’s Wife was a romp, romance and refreshing ideas episode rolled into one. Hopefully Gaiman will be persuaded to return and deliver the kind of one off story Moffat used to do so well. Next week The Rebel Flesh looks set to bring back some sort of Cassandra like creature. But things still look dark, dingy and dangerous.
P.S Are all humans like this? Bigger on the inside?
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The result was crushing. A firm no to electoral reform and a pummelling at local level for Lib Dem councillors is a devastating double whammy. The road back to even slight popularity will be rocky and steep, with huge risks of even further falls on the way. The media were quick to pounce on the misery of Clegg and the tensions within the coalition. Whilst exaggerated, there is no doubt that the coverage accurately reflects a permanent shift in the dynamic of the parties in partnership.
Firstly then why was the defeat so bad? And why did the Conservatives not only escape punishment but considerably strengthen their position with gains? In many ways it is pointless to dwell on the results. What’s done is done. Liberal Democrats across the board are declaring the need to move on and get on with the job, seemingly out of bitterness, but also out of practicality and necessity. It is perfectly understandable however that some big names, such as Cable and Huhne, have lashed out at their Tory coalition partners in the dizzying spiral of disappointment and defeat.
They feel, rightly, that their party has become a human shield. They feel that they are victims of immense unfairness, ironic given that the core of their policies on tax, education and indeed the voting system, are intended to increase fairness. The Liberal Democrats had to enter into coalition with the Conservatives. Labour was never a viable or democratic alternative. A minority Tory government would have been ineffective and lacked any Lib Dem input on policy, whether as a restraining or creative force.
They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Clegg would never have been forgiven had he passed up the chance to introduce a host of coveted Liberal measures. As I’ve argued before Clegg also saw an opportunity to open up politics. By showing that coalitions could work, the old seesaw between Labour and the Conservatives would be challenged. Consensus and cross party collaboration would produce broader ideas and solutions to the bigger issues, in a 21st century where ideology is far less important than results, to voters at least.
Where they went wrong is debatable. There are obviously a range of reasons. But primarily it seems to be that too much eagerness and what’s been described as “personal chumminess” between Cameron and Clegg, was on display. The broken promises therefore appeared to be callous and genuine deception, rather than an inevitable concession from the minority partner in coalition. On tuition fees the Lib Dems made the mistake of trying to claim that the new policy was a better one because of changes they instigated. They needed to make a greater show of their overwhelming reluctance to charge fees at all, whilst still championing the restraining measures for fairness that were their doing.
Ultimately it all comes down to Clegg’s economic gamble though. I am still not sure just how fully he buys into George Osborne’s interpretation of the crisis and his drastic solution. It may well be that privately Clegg still stands by his pre-election comments, that the deficit should be reduced gradually with a focus on growth in the short term. Adopting the Tory approach could be the primary price of going into government for the Lib Dems. But publicly he has signed his party up to comprehensive cuts in public spending that are at odds with the instincts of most Liberals. And you’d have to say that Clegg must believe the Conservative plan will eventually lead to growth, because if it doesn’t his party will be battered once more come the next General Election.
Certainly earlier this year I wrote about a speech in which Clegg made the most compelling argument thus far in favour of extreme deficit reduction, which essentially boiled down to longer term sustainability and strength in diversity for the economy. I still think he may be torn though and that he might accept some of Labour’s arguments that claim a slower pace of cuts would have restored greater growth sooner.
With regards to the referendum on AV Clegg clearly made an error when choosing the date. The key reason for Yes2AV’s failure was that their argument became inseparably embroiled with party politics and the local elections. Clegg’s personal unpopularity rubbed off on the campaign for reform, mainly because of dirty tactics from the No camp. Yes2AV also made ridiculous unrealistic claims about accountability, rather than keeping their argument simple. Celebrities made a late push for reform at a rally but by then it was too late, the argument should have been made more forcefully outside of the political sphere weeks before May the 5th.
Of course the important and interesting question now is what do the Lib Dems do to recover? And how will this affect the coalition? Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of Britain’s third party, was on Question Time on Thursday. He spoke eloquently and with reason on foreign affairs, prompting cheers and claps from the bulk of the audience. But when it came to domestic politics he found himself bogged down by the harsh public opinion of Clegg, so very different from the polls after the TV debates over a year ago. He valiantly defended the courage of his party’s leader under fire but could only react with frustration when the audience flatly refused to hear him out.
Clegg continued to show that courage in an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. Given the pictures of his gloom and the mountain to climb left by the results, Clegg gave remarkably assured answers and honestly asserted that he’d misjudged things, and that the Lib Dems needed to have a “louder voice” in the coalition. He spoke of the need to sing about the unexpectedly high number of Lib Dem manifesto policies being implemented. But in many ways all this was predictable and necessary.
The efforts to give his party an individual and distinctive again will undoubtedly begin to heal the wounds of defeat. He needs to show greater reluctance when he must go along with Conservative plans, pick the Tory policies he does oppose carefully for maximum impact and point out measures that perfectly illustrate the moderating influence of his party. Clegg has already worked out that NHS reform is the best way to begin a recovery, threatening to block it and demanding changes are made to meet concerns. However what would really give the Lib Dems a distinctive voice back is to propose and explain policies they would be implementing without the Conservatives.
What I mean by this is to set out policies, on tuition fees for example, that the Lib Dems would implement if they had the ideal (but unlikely) scenario of a majority government. These policies should be calculated to appeal to Labour voters and those within Labour potentially open to coalition. The Lib Dems need to reach out to Ed Miliband or those around him with influence, to stop him pounding the human shields of the coalition as opposed to those in the driving seat. A senior figure in the party, perhaps likeable President Tim Farron, should be chosen to run what would almost be an alternative Lib Dem opposition.
I accept this would be difficult to handle and could shatter trust and cooperation with the Tories. Many might say it’s impossible. But as long as Clegg and key Lib Dem ministers weren’t directly involved, the group did not challenge specific government policy and simply proposed Lib Dem alternatives not covered by the coalition agreement, there would be little the Tories could do to stop it. AV may be lost but the Lib Dems have plenty of arguments they can still make that are unique to them. They must take the philosophy behind AV, choice and fairness, and tie it to attractive policy. For example their manifesto went further on tax, transport, energy and the House of Lords. Choice is the key to freedom in a modern society and the Lib Dems must make the case for the state actively empowering individuals. The Liberals must show how they would liberate.
It’s probably better for Clegg to keep his head down for a while and continue to soak up pressure whilst his party recovers independently. Clegg’s popularity will take longer than his party’s to heal. But this does not mean he is the wrong man to lead it. He has for the most part taken bold decisions both in the national interest and to achieve greater fairness sought by his party’s voters. He has had to concede costly economic compromises, but to overcome these he must be bold again. Frankly after the tactics of the No Campaign, so wholeheartedly backed by Cameron, Clegg must dirty his hands a little. A louder voice will only convince dispirited voters if it hints at what the coalition is doing wrong because of the Conservatives, as well as what it’s doing right because of the Lib Dems.
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Whilst I was primarily wowed by last week’s opener to the new series, I wasn’t the only one having worries about the abundance of plotlines being introduced and secrets set up. And with this second episode, cracks in Moffat’s genius are beginning to show.
I know I never thought I’d hear myself say a bad thing about the man. But Day of the Moon simply tried to do too much. The really sad and disappointing thing about it is that it’s made of sublime component parts; it just didn’t work as well as it could have done as a complete whole.
The start of the episode was really impressive. All three companions seemingly hunted and gunned down in stunning and iconic American locations by the FBI. The Doctor locked up in Area 51 with a striking beard and strait jacket. Then of course a brilliant escape. It’s here perhaps that the flaws start to show however. Was anyone else baffled by the need for such an elaborate plan? Especially when later in the episode they simply wheel out President Nixon as the ultimate authority in their favour? Ultimately you can ignore the implausibility of our Timelord’s scheme for the added benefits to the drama; the cinematic scale of Americans locations, the stunning CGI shot of Apollo 11, a swimming pool dive from River and a seemingly bearded and beaten Doctor.
It’s later in the episode, around the middle, when the dialogue gets so bogged down with secrets that can’t yet be revealed, that as a standalone episode Day of the Moon begins to unravel somewhat. It’s simply unsatisfying for an audience to have so little payoff on the hints of huge revelations. In many ways Day of the Moon is too similar to the first episode; I was expecting it to leave a great many of the secrets untouched, to wrap up the story of The Silence in suitably engrossing style. In the end the Doctor sees off the terrifying foes rather easily, even if we’re told that this isn’t quite the end of them.
With the concluding two parter of the last series Moffat demonstrated his understanding of the impact of contrast, and there is not enough contrast between these first two episodes. The scenes in the children’s home are too similar to those in the tunnels at the end of The Impossible Astronaut. They have some wonderfully, typically Moffat ideas that are truly haunting, but throw in all the stuff about Amy’s baby and the completely confusing space suit and it’s all too much. These scenes with images of “Get out” scrawled on the walls and markings on Amy’s skin could have formed the foundation to a brilliant episode, but they are overshadowed by random but no doubt significant moments like the woman saying “she’s just dreaming” from behind the door. They also don’t sit right with the light hearted, race against time that’s the rest of the episode.
I’m not saying that I did not enjoy Day of the Moon. I am probably just bitter because it so completely baffled me and I’ll look back on it more fondly with hindsight. There were undoubtedly more than a handful of classic moments, and some brilliant dialogue. But it all just felt rather disjointed and overloaded. The relationships and jealousies between the companions are almost beginning to resemble soap opera. Here’s hoping that next week delivers a cracking and clever story truly independent of the secrets of the series.
Of course I’m not going to sign off without mentioning the Timelord child. Is it Amy and the Doctor’s? That’s the constant suggestion, which means it’s not as simple as it seems. Not that it does seem simple. I’m confused. And I have mixed feelings about it. Whilst Moffat should continue to push the boundaries of the character and take risks, he also could push it too far. One thing’s for certain; it’s worth sticking with the series to find out if its fetish for cliff-hangers becomes misguided or is sheer genius.
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Where is the optimum position to sit in the cinema? Actually that question is better put as, where is your favourite place to sit? For we probably all have differing, individual preferences. There are those that like to sit at the back of everything; the bus, the classroom, the theatre. There are those of a nervous disposition who like to have their seats adjacent to the aisle. Personally I prefer to sit against the wall in the upper middle section, usually away from others with a decent sightline, like the lonely uninteresting enigma I am.
But then perhaps where you sit also depends on the company you’re keeping that evening. If you’re on a hot date, somewhere close to invisible in the depths of darkness at the back, but within thrilling proximity of the projector, is a must. If you’re on a cooler date a discrete but ordinary and satisfactory view is preferable. With friends you want to bag a whole row for yourselves and avoid separation.
I’m the sort of person that requires exceptional circumstances to tolerate lateness. If I’m in charge of some sort of trip my contingent will be there early, with time to spare. I’m only late if I’m not bothered about said event, or if I’m trying to appear nonchalant and lose track of time. My point is that I’ve never timed my arrival badly enough to have to sit in the very front row of the cinema.
Arriving to see Paul it seemed my friends and I had plumped for this unknown space, the very front row, in order to give the appearance of being social. Of course it’s not as if, as decent human beings, we were going to have satisfactory conversations in the middle of a film, but that’s beside the point. Half way through the trailers however a handful loped away from the group for better seats. Leaving me in the front row, with others too embarrassed to surrender and back out of a commitment. Great.
I was thus anticipating a couple of hours of awkward discomfort, followed by a sleepless night due to chronic neck pain. And months of costly chiropractic bills. Which result in my financial ruin. I would drop out of university due to the endless agony and money worries. I’d then lose my car and find myself marooned at home. Scratching my constantly irritated neck in the shower I would slip, crack my head open and start losing unhealthy amounts of blood. I’d manage to drag myself to where my car used to be, but then remember I didn’t have one and die in a messy heap on the drive. All because I sat in the very front row; repeatedly contorting my neck and twisting my head from side to side, as if I were watching tennis, in order to see what was going on in a scene.
Before the end of the trailers though, I was beginning to view my predicament as an exciting opportunity for fresh perspective on the movie experience. Firstly there was extensive, ample leg room. I nudged a friend and performed erratic, normally dangerous, kicking movements in the air to demonstrate this. Perhaps what truly opened my eyes to the perks of the front row however was the trailer to Your Highness. Yes it looked like it might have the potential to be an amusing spoof, but more importantly Natalie Portman’s scantily clad features were rendered larger than life. I mean it was better than 3D.
When Paul the alien first appeared he loomed out of the screen at me. Even prior to this as loveable duo Pegg and Frost wandered in awe around a Comic convention, my proximity meant I felt as part of the crowd as they did. In the opening scene the alien crash landing seemed to happen right in front of my face, maybe because it literally did. The money ploughed into 3D is all well and good; but why not just make wider cinema screens with one endless front row, for the truly interactive experience?
Despite my obvious fascination with the novelty of my viewing position, I eventually lost myself in the film and forgot my surroundings. Because Paul is good enough to lose yourself in. I was really surprised by how much I liked it. Most critics have concluded it’s a poor offering from Pegg and Frost, far inferior to Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. Many thought that the marrying of American and British humour was uneasy and un-funny. I would agree that Hot Fuzz and Shaun are better films. But Paul is the most accessible movie this British comedy duo has ever made. It’s warm and affectionate and very, very funny at times.
I thought that far from hindering the film, the mix of American acting talent and humour with British comedy and perspective, gave this film something different, compared to the likes of Fuzz and Shaun. One minute you’d have a very British joke about tea, followed by some edgier comedy about creationism or physical, bumbling stuff from the pursuing FBI agents. None of it was groundbreaking but I laughed out loud several times. And there are some lovely touches for fans of sci-fi, with the appearance of a certain Ms Weaver and a recurring joke about the three tits given to a monster by Pegg’s illustrator.
There’s also a recurring gag about Pegg and Frost’s characters being a gay couple, which is nothing new to us Brits. Whilst this is predictable and not greatly funny, I didn’t find it an annoying recurrence but an endearing one. And if Paul has predictable moments it makes up for them with some really surprising twists at the end, even if they come alongside things you’ll see coming a mile off.
What about Paul himself then? Even for me, from my close up vantage point, the CGI looked pretty believable and flawless. I actually preferred Seth Rogen’s voice to Seth Rogen’s voice plus his body. As funny as he is he can also be irritating. I loved the concept of an alien influencing and absorbing our culture and it allowed lots of sci-fi related, more sophisticated gags alongside the obvious visual ones. Paul even mimics Rose hilariously from Titanic as Pegg draws him. I found Frost’s standard performance of a pathetic loser more touching in Paul than any other Pegg/Frost film, because of the way he can bond with both Rogen’s voice and the CGI Paul’s mannerisms. Pegg was the most impressive thing about the recent Burke and Hare, but here his acting is rather one dimensional and generic.
A supporting cast of Yanks including Jason Bateman and Glee’s Jane Lynch add flavour to the mix. But overall Paul is rather simple. This doesn’t make it bad. There is great to joy be found in the comic delivery of Pegg and Frost, and the fusing of thoroughly British funnies with American reactions in an American setting. The final, ordinary line of the film, hilariously delivered by Frost, sums up Paul: “That was good wasn’t it”.
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I’ve been meaning to sing the praises of two particular writers for some time. However perhaps I have found their work so enjoyable and admirable that I’ve been deterred from writing and attempting to sum up their brilliance, as it’s certain I’ll fall flat on my face in a puddle of failure. Perhaps broadcasting my enjoyment will in some way diminish it. Perhaps I’m embarrassed of elevating these men to the status of idols and role models when I neither write funnily enough to be considered in the same humorous bracket as them, or seriously enough to be amused by their ramblings from afar, occasionally distracted from the rigours of my precise, academic dissections of culture and politics by their simple gags.
I don’t think the craft of these two men is simple or easy though, although embracing the merits of simplicity can often be an important part of their success. It’s a far from facile task to be simultaneously intelligent and laugh out loud funny. Of course one can write cleverly and with wit, but that sort of writing rarely plucks an audible chortle from the depths of the reader’s throat. These two writers share three qualities that I admire and often strive for in my own work: 1) they’re hilarious, 2) they have a knack of describing things in a spot-on, accurate, unique and truthful way and 3) an undertone of self-depreciation flows through their work that makes what they say accessible and allows a degree of more outrageous opinion and conviction.
These men then are travel writer Bill Bryson and critic Charlie Brooker. I’ve recently read Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island and Brooker’s Dawn of the Dumb, a selection of his Screen Burn and opinion pieces from The Guardian. Obviously in subject matter alone these writers are poles apart, but I’ve already pointed out some of their crucial similarities to me. They also have appealing differences. In Bryson’s book he showcases a subtle humour through the description of characters as well as more rib cage rattling stuff. He also brilliantly evokes a sense of place and has encouraged me to consider strongly exploring a number of locations anew and afresh in our glorious land, such as distant Edinburgh and the closer South Coast. In Brooker’s book he consistently demonstrates a commanding handling of contemporary culture and an ability to scathingly insult and pick apart any target he sets his sights on. He also has a wonderful understanding and sense of pessimism about the media age we live in and has mastered the art of the interesting review. His reviews often relate to his own life or a version of it and do not feel like reviews until some way into the article. They surprise and baffle, whilst always capturing something essential about the essence of the show, programme or film.
Indeed both men refreshingly offer up a lot of themselves into their work which gives it an engaging, “real” quality. They basically have a recognisable and distinctive style and voice which most writers, myself included, struggle to emulate, especially as they remain versatile and able to cover a spectrum of subjects at the same time. Often the qualities I have described so far blend in particular phrases and images. For example early on in Bryson’s book he demonstrates his knack for perfect description, “The world was bathed in that milky pre-dawn light that seems to come from nowhere” and later in the same paragraph does the same thing whilst being humorous and self-depreciating at the same time with this gem of a line: “I sat there for some time, a young man with more on his mind than it”.
That sense of experience pervades Bryson’s writing and he talks hilariously of times when he was still acquiring his nous, and of times when despite his age events still get the better of him. As an outsider Bryson also has a wonderful way of describing the faults and habits of the British, such as a hilarious passage in which he accurately describes the way we discuss traffic and routes on the road with terrible serious and deliberation. He also appears to have picked up a sense of British reserve, for when he insults someone he often qualifies the statement or does so gently but hilariously. Occasionally his musings and rants on architecture become tiresome, but he instantly acknowledges this fact and it is worth it for the injection of identity into the writing.
If Bryson harnesses experience then Brooker channels a youthful fury into his writing and displays consistently the art of the preposterous, rude and yet eerily accurate insult. There are too many to list but a particularly memorable image deployed during a rant against posing Mac owners, Brooker dubs the Apple computers as “glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults”. I always enjoy his articles, in the book and continually on The Guardian website.
In summary if I end up writing in a similar way or doing a similar job to these men later in life I shall be one happy bunny.
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