Tag Archives: Great

The House of Fiction: English Stately Homes


http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/11/country-house-novels-blake-morrison

The above link leads to a feature piece in The Guardian by Blake Morrison about the relationship between the English country house and novels. It points out a recent trend for both bestsellers and box office hits based upon them, from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro to Ian McEwan’s Atonement. And the piece is prompted by the release of next month’s The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst.

I don’t have a great deal to say about the subject but urge you to read the article. It does an admirable job of attempting to explain the continuing appeal of a surely overused setting. Costume dramas on television are mostly far too common and predictable, always set in the same beautiful but samey surroundings. I do my best to avoid them unless they standout for some reason. But novels set in such cavernous buildings, stretching on and on, filled with history and possibility, remain surprisingly diverse. Perhaps because they continue to attract the best of British writers.

McEwan used Atonement to meditate on the very idea of storytelling and writing fiction. He explored youth, love, sex and passion. He touches on high politics and decision making of immense importance, as does Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day. I have always enjoyed Atonement less than McEwan’s other novels, but The Remains of the Day is the best of Ishiguro’s I have read so far.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a book confined to a stuffy setting with the standard conflicts between staff and intrigues between different social classes. But Ishiguro’s book encompasses so many themes, through the narrow lens of his butler’s restrained narration in a grand and important location. Darlington Hall plays host to international conferences but also humorous misunderstandings, battles of professional pride and tender personal affairs.

For me though the crucial features of good novels like Atonement and Ishiguro’s Booker Prize Winner, were not dependent on the setting. Bryony Tallis’ manipulative and naive vendettas could have been as strong and affecting in any home. Stevens the butler could have perhaps worked in a hotel. And indeed it was his job, his life consuming occupation, that made for such a compelling novel, about culture, class and personality. The butler seems to be the perfect mould for a distinctive, humorous and subtle character of great scope and hidden emotion.

Having said this though, the houses and halls did play their vital background roles. It’s difficult to imagine Stevens in any other setting. It’s tough to envisage a symbolic fictional location that could mirror quite as well the themes of appearance, dignity and decay.

There is really nothing wrong with the continued use of stately homes in novels, as long as the story being told is always a different one, reliant primarily on characters, plot and ideas, rather than ready made sets for the drama. You can’t just add water to the stately home to create a bestselling novel. But they provide pretty firm foundations on which the ingredients of a great novel can be built.

 

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Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade


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.

Four Lions


If you were trying to compile a list of the most inappropriate, unworkable topics for a comedy, suicide bombers and their attempts to carry out an attack, would probably rank somewhere near the top. How can you laugh at such a gravely serious and fresh threat to our national security, to our everyday lives? Somehow Four Lions manages to be absolutely hilarious.

It’s difficult to write this review without mimicking the spot-on description on the Rotten Tomatoes website, so I’m going to go ahead and copy it:

“Its premise suggests brazenly tasteless humor, but Four Lions is actually a smart, pitch-black comedy that carries the unmistakable ring of truth.”

When my friend suggested watching Four Lions the premise did strike me as tasteless, but simultaneously I thought if it is any good it must be excellent to overcome the connotations of the issue. What ultimately elevates the comedy and makes Four Lions more thought provoking than most genuinely funny films, is that “unmistakable ring of truth” though.

There are in fact five lions to begin with, (all will become clear in one of the film’s funniest scenes), and four of them are clueless idiots. Only one of them, unofficial leader Omar, can be said to have any common sense at all. His overzealous attitude to terrorist training in Pakistan, results in him blowing up his own men with a rocket launcher. This particular scene verges on the slapstick and there are several of them in Four Lions, yet they marry seamlessly with more intelligent, black humor.

There’s no doubting then that whilst Omar and his family are disturbingly normal, the rest of his oddball crew are incapable and confused imbeciles. They’re basically the sort of halfwits likely to be taken in by extremist ideology. But even Omar is inept and out of his depth, as proved by his mishap in Pakistan. He’s basically seeking to deal a blow to injustice and Four Lions gets you to root for him. It’s a film that exposes some realities about extremism and bombers in the UK. Most of them are probably fools and failures, some are confused but convinced what they’re doing is right. They’re also homegrown and so assimilated with Western culture that their disillusionment is inexplicably and painfully funny for its hypocrisy and baffling motives.

Waj is the most idiotic character of the lot and is played wonderfully by Kayvan Novak of Fonejacker fame. He’s constantly getting confused and doubting the motivation and righteousness of his actions. Often it’s Omar that talks him back to the cause. In one scene Omar uses the capitalist, Western delights of a theme park to explain the concept of the afterlife and a martyr’s death to Waj. Blowing himself up will allow Waj to skip the queues straight to the “Rubber dinghy rapids!”

Also brilliant is Nigel Lindsay as white British convert to Islam, Barry. His political and religious views are horrifically twisted and ignorant. His prejudices have no backing with evidence and he seems to basically crave confrontation. He’s denied the trip to the training camp in Pakistan because he can’t speak the language and would stand out, and this clearly bruises Barry. He’s an outsider and in many ways, despite his stupidity, his adopted views are more radical and dangerous than any of the others’. He demonstrates ruthlessness on several occasions.

Four Lions is funny throughout and I was worried whatever laughs the climax could conjure would disappoint in comparison to all that went for. But somehow the story steps up another gear and so does the comedy. There’s a brilliant argument between police snipers about the difference between a Wookie and a bear, and a hilarious cameo from Benedict “Sherlock” Cumberbatch as a virgin hostage negotiator.

This film simultaneously highlights the seriousness and truth behind a relevant, topical issue, as well making light of the funny side of it. It’s intelligent and funny and modern. It feels incredibly British. It’s basically modern British comedy, British filmmaking and British storytelling, at its best.

Armistice Day 11-11-2010


“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

Hearing a wise, sombre voice of experience gently intone these lines every November is always disarmingly moving. And so it was today at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month. Even the date has a twisted, bizarre symmetry and significance. You cannot help but feel refreshingly tiny and naive, as part of something greater, a unified more meaningful whole. You cannot help but feel guilt for getting so caught up and needlessly emotional about your trivial everyday concerns.

I arrived at the village war memorial in the church grounds a good half an hour before the silence was due to begin. So I crossed the road and sat down on a damp bench. From here I could watch the folk of various hues arrive and take their places. From what I remember of last year’s silence, which was rain soaked, the turnout was poor. Today however, despite a definite wetness to the agitated air around us, a sizeable crowd gathered. It was a disappointingly predictable bunch, consisting of the elderly, the vicar, the handful of children from the local schools compelled to go by their teachers. I was the only youthful attendee besides a young couple who also preferred to hover at the edges of this familiar crowd.

Of course many did not attend because they were at school or work and observing silences of their own and it is right that they do not greatly alter their usual daily routine, as the sacrifices were made in order to allow the continued existence of everyday life. But it was disheartening to know that acquaintances of mine, with nothing better to do, had stayed at home. My generation’s lack of a sense of history is depressing. And even if the stay-aways did bow their heads in a private moment of reflection, which is of course fine, it is a shame they could not make the trek to a public event to prove to the older generations and doubters that the youth of today are not so very different, and just as capable of respect. Whether or not we would have coped so well with the challenges faced by generations tasked with terrifying world wars on the continent, is another matter.

I am sometimes of the opinion that donning the respectful poppy too early can detract from the overall message of Remembrance. The overwhelming poignancy of the moment itself should be preserved and anything that diminishes its intensity is a threat to the longevity and colour of the tradition. However it is obvious in a modern world that the British Legion requires a good deal of time to build the profile of the day, to raise funds for those it still cares for today and to educate those youngsters completely unfamiliar with the concept. It is just sometimes a shame, purely from the point of view of a historian, that the vibrancy of reflections on the two great world wars of the twentieth century is endlessly diluted. Whilst the sacrifices of servicemen and women in modern conflict are just as worthy and brave, the motivations behind these conflicts are often more dubious and they do not cast the shame shadow as the two major conflicts. As well as remembering the cruelly cut short lives of soldiers and military personnel, the key message of Remembrance Day, it always seemed to me, was that never again would war be permitted to swell to such terrible, destructive size. By annually reflecting and re-examining the memories, we as a nation would never forget and strive for a peaceful world.

I have often felt adrift and without a purpose in this twenty-first century world of ours and it was easy to daydream in my younger days of living in a previous era; exotic times of unity and meaning and excitement and daring. But glancing at the faces of those so obviously personally touched by catastrophic events, I was reminded of why I should feel lucky. For the sort of national unity, togetherness and purpose felt during the world wars was forged from extraordinary hardships, and the dreams of people then are our realities today. We owe it to them to make the most of what was won for us and dream up our own inspiring visions of advancement. No doubt many are put off from attending a “service” at a memorial due to the smattering of religious attachments. Personally I do not find any sort of contradiction in respectfully staying silent during the prayers, bowing my head whilst others choose to say “Amen”. I found some of the rhythms and imagery of prayer adding to the tears welling in my eyes. Most of all, regardless of faith, the torrents of unified mourning, respect and sadness needed a focus, which the vicar and his Bible provided, at times. Powerful beyond words though were the lines, mumbled by all:

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

Daily Telegraph Ghost Story Writing Competition


In my idle hours today I stumbled across The Daily Telegraph’s ghost story writing competition. I decided to while away my time contributing an entry, but had little idea what I wanted to do, other than something different. The result of my endeavours I entered into the competition, but I suspect it is nowhere near as cleverly composed and close to the original genre as required. I wanted to challenge the idea in the article by the Head Judge that comedy kills a ghost story, but my efforts may prove her right. I think the tension builds a bit too slowly and in the wrong places and the finale is rushed. But I like some of it and will post it here as evidence of my development and boredom

Link to competition here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/8093081/Telegraph-ghost-story-writing-competition.html

“May I sit here?”
“…”
“Excuse me, may I sit down?”
“Oh yes…ah, sorry. Of course.”

He was reading, wading through the thickets of what looked like a cross between an ageing government dossier and an academic paper. Thumbing down the page, he let the bulky scroll slap onto the table and hoisted his bag, a rustic looking holdall bursting at the seams, with a solitary wire peering out from within like a periscope or antennae, onto the seat next to him. I shuffled gratefully into the vacated space. I commenced a brief wriggling and squirming search for comfort. Ritual complete, I fixed my new companion of circumstance with my widest polite grin. His eyebrows flicked briefly in acknowledgement before darting back down to the task at hand. I remember thinking that he resembled Father Christmas on a business trip, a tedious contractual quest for toys that sucked the joy out of his life’s passion. Or Dickie Attenborough in Jurassic Park. Funny that even then his kindly, disinterested face had monstrous associations.

I didn’t so much as glance at the man with the white beard sitting across from me, with the mysterious bag and endless reams of type, for the next hour and a half or so. Once or twice I sensed him slowly twirling his neck in my peripheries but for the most part I was absorbed in my marking and he in his mammoth read. I had only bothered the poor guy, for that’s all he was to me then, a stranger I had briefly inconvenienced, so I could use the table to mark my lower sixth’s Crimea essays. I should have done them days ago but had got caught up in her company, as usual. It was typical of me lately to have left things for a last minute slog on the train, but at that moment I didn’t much care. I scrawled my half-thoughts in the margin, racing to finish and bathe fully in recollections of the weekend. I was oblivious to the gradually darkening sky outside and the black clouds amassing in the distance. I didn’t watch as the night was born prematurely of a congealed, thickening, all consuming blob that would quickly engulf the train galloping towards its jaws. I was blissfully unaware of the twitching forks of lightning flashing electric blue warning signals on the horizon. I did not then regard him or his eccentric belongings as suspicious. I did not regard him at all.

The next thing I knew the carriage’s sickening sway had jerked me awake. Shamefully my head was lolling lifeless on my shoulder, oozing an indulgent drool. The last essay lay untouched on the table in front of me. I wiped the slobber on the back of my hand and scrunched the sleep from my eyes. He was hastily stuffing wires back into his bag, snatching glances at me from the corners of his eyes. I observed him groggily in the black sheet that used to be the window. Total, absolute night had fallen during my slumber. The never-ending blackness was only interrupted by the occasional shaft of sinister blue, winking at me, warning me again. Again I was ignorant; choosing instead to gaze dreamily at the distant amber twinkle of streetlights, rendered a blur by the patchwork of water droplets. He was reading again, deep in thought. A frown furrowed his forehead as I watched his reflection in the mirror of night.

The wobble of the carriage really was unusually vigorous. So I was relieved when the automated squawk of an announcement about suspicious bags was interrupted by the neutral, but alive, voice of the on duty guard. He said something about stopping at the next station for maintenance in a barely audible mutter, laced with boredom and tiredness. I looked briefly about the carriage to find empty seats everywhere. The poor guy must know how few passengers he was addressing and how few were left awake to care what he was saying. I briefly considered hopping across the aisle to the now completely vacant table opposite. But my unintended sleep made this more awkward than staying put, I thought.  The wind howled.

The promised pit stop seemed to stretch on and on. At first I was curious, then concerned, about a series of loud bangs and jolts that didn’t normally accompany such maintenance in my experience. Dickie too, was bothered; even pushing aside his report or whatever it was, going all alert like a Meerkat.  Still though no words were spoken. Eventually sleep crept up on me again, tempting me to embrace the boredom and the rhythmic, soundless splashing of water visible through the gloom on the platform.

This time I woke up dying for a piss. We were no longer stopped. In fact we seemed to be hurtling through the blackness, the whole carriage snaking to the sounds of a gale. I think he was reading as I staggered past him to the WC, but now I’m not so sure. He might have already started. On reaching the toilet I find a makeshift “OUT OF ORDER” notice plastered across it. For some reason I decide it would be embarrassing to retreat past Dickie to the other end of the carriage and the other WC, so I head onward to the next carriage and salvation on the horizon. I considered simply going back to my seat, but I literally felt as if I was about to burst. I jabbed a finger impatiently at the button for the door to the next carriage. The doors didn’t open and the darkness beyond yawned at me through the glass as I hopped and jigged on the spot, frantically pushing the button and then scrambling ineffectively at the join in the door. I wheeled around in a complete circle; no one around to help, no one official. Suddenly the intensity of the blackness in the empty, unreachable next carriage struck me as odd. I peered through the glass at the rows of red seats shrouded in gloom, all the while shaking stupidly. Was there something wrong? Something going on here?

I walked briskly back into our carriage, Dickie now the solitary occupant. He had definitely stopped reading by this point and he had his wires out. This time there was no attempt to hide the contraption he cradled on his lap. The luminous green digits on the carriage clock had faded out to almost nothing, with the exception of a “1” and a “7”, which flashed on and off every few seconds, broadcasting the message “17”. Despite my still swelling bladder, I can’t help but stand rooted to the spot, transfixed by this. I hadn’t been following the time, but I’m sure it must have been approaching midnight when I got up for the toilet. I still needed the toilet. This basic urge and the spectacle of the clock meant I didn’t hear Dickie speaking.

“Spooky isn’t it.”

At first I ignore him and make to head off down the carriage towards the other toilet, but something held me back. I didn’t want to be alone. So I flopped, no for fear of an embarrassing mishap I eased myself back into my seat, and indicated his pages and pages of text.

“Quite the mountain you’re climbing.”
“Oh this? It’s alright really; I’ve read it all before but needed to recap some things. I might have missed something important…”
His voice trailed off. I was about to ask what exactly he was reading when he spoke again, raising his eyes from the device he was fiddling with for the first time.
“You went to the toilet and it was out of order.”
“Yes…” full marks Dickie, I thought.
“Would you like to know why it was out of order? Why so many things have been malfunctioning, why they’ve discretely cordoned off these three carriages, why it feels so cold, why the power fluctuations? Why the number seventeen?”
He reeled off these enticing questions not with any air of mystery or power, but with one of indifference, whilst he went back to manoeuvring wires and turning a large dial at the centre of his gadget, his toy, his gizmo. 
“How can you…? Do you work for the train company? Did I miss an announcement? The number is just a coincidence…”
“Oh no it’s all connected. And I work for humanity.”
“…”
“That is to say for the good of mankind. For its protection.”
“…”
I stared at him blankly. I still needed to pee and didn’t have time for this old guy’s games. Just my luck, Dickie was insane. Bad choice for a partner in a power cut. I started to get up with the intention of finally relieving myself in the other toilet. I told myself to man up and get over my stupid irrational fear of the lonely rattling murk.
“A paedophile slashed his wrists in that toilet almost six months ago and this train has been plagued with problems ever since. It’s riddled with faults. They refuse to admit that the issue is supernatural. I’ve told them again and again they would need my help. The number just confirms it.”
“What!? What are you…?”
Dickie wasn’t finished.
“His case notes show that the deceased consistently claimed that the girl he raped and later murdered, claimed she was seventeen years of age. She was eleven.”
I had frozen in the aisle. Dickie was sick, I thought. Could Dickie, I wondered, also be dangerous? At that moment the dial on his blob of wires clicked loudly into place. My whole frame shuddered involuntarily. Dickie twisted the dial and a high pitched beeping began.
“Yep. He’s here.”
The remaining lights went out.

*

I’m pretty sure a lot of what happened after that is still suppressed somewhere in my mind. She keeps telling me I should get some therapy to sort it out. But why inflict that on a therapist? They’d either label me insane or join me in the madhouse if they truly understood. I don’t understand what happened, neither could they. Why spread the misery? I do remember Dickie telling me not to move. For quite a while I remember him urging me, in a low, gentle voice, how imperative it was not to move, not to disturb his “zone”, not to anger him. Then the monologue began.

It was definitely Dickie’s voice doing all that ranting and raving, and yet it was not Dickie’s voice. Every now and then what sounded like the real Dickie would break through and manage to say something to interrupt the flow in a choking, rasping croak. Distressingly though whenever it did really sound like him, he simply reiterated the same unhelpful advice; do not move. I wanted to run and keep running. I remember staring at the only source of light left; that blinking 17, trying to block out the tortured tale emanating from Dickie’s body, which I could feel writhing in its possessed state over my shoulder. My natural defences have done a reasonably good job of deleting that twisted monologue, but certain phrases still come to me at night in dreams, vivid and alive like he were whispering in my ear. Then I wake up, sticky and warm all over with sweat. And in my half-awake, half-asleep state, I imagine I am covered in blood, his hot, dirty, vile blood in that clattering WC. Then I vomit and an attendant comes in with a mop.

I really wish I could remember how Dickie came to be on top of me, covered in blood, a cold corpse. How the window came to be smashed, how his beeping gizmo had vanished. How the howling tube, speeding through the storm, came to be serenely waiting at the platform, undamaged, unblemished. How the knife got into my pocket, covered in my DNA, my fingerprints, Dickie’s blood. But I don’t need counselling, therapy doesn’t work and I don’t believe in ghosts.