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The Shadow Line – Episode 4


After things really seemed to be getting somewhere with episodes 2 and 3, last night (the first time I have watched The Shadow Line as scheduled, 9pm BBC 2) things once again became a blend of baffling plot lines and bad dialogue, punctuated by the odd superb scene. This is one of those programmes so determined to keep us guessing that no sooner are we given a clutch of answers, a bucket full of more questions is splashed into our bemused faces.

The answers come in the form of customs officer Robert Beatty, who was the guy sultry sidekick Honey had a fight with last time. He’s one of these deep cover types working beyond the police, doing things they can’t like he doesn’t give a shit. It turns out that the drugs murdered Harvey Wratten used to get his rare Royal Pardon were already his. Beatty also reveals there was a second requirement for the Pardon; saving the life of a cop. In this case information was given to save him and his family from a car bomb. But it quickly emerges that the bomb was probably planted by Wratten too. So Wratten arranged a get out of jail free card for himself. Well mostly free, just minus millions of pounds worth of drugs.

Obviously Gabriel thinks this is getting somewhere with the case, that he’s been given three extra weeks to save. But it’s difficult to say where this breakthrough leads or what it means and his boss has a problem with that. Even though they’ve got a blurry picture of Gatehouse on CCTV too AND they’ve linked him to a big drug deal, where Gatehouse appeared to be acting on behalf of the vanished but ever present Glickman, who was in turn acting for Wratten because he was banged up. Confused much?

And that’s just the professional side of the police case. We haven’t even mentioned Gabriel’s personal problems. He didn’t have any agonising moments staring at that inexplicable briefcase full of cash this week but the mother of his secret child told him to tell his wife of their existence, who is finally pregnant. This is the cue for just one of many terrible lines in this episode. Gabriel, clearly in a sticky situation, blankly says “I’m in hell” only for the mother of his child to hit back with “No, we’re in limbo”. She then says she won’t have her son growing up in the shadows, which is far too forced a reference to the show’s title.

On the criminal side of the case, Bob Harris is sweating his hairy backside off because one of his supply lines has been compromised by customs, which is how the police know about Glickman getting the drugs for Wratten. How do I know he has a hairy backside you ask? I don’t for sure but I’m judging by the rest of his portly, sagging, ageing body. We’re treated to a scene with Harris and a gay lover, with Harris sporting a pair of very tight pants and awkwardly resting on his side like a beached whale, and the lover wearing nothing at all. He is sprung from a police station by an anonymous benefactor at the beginning of the episode and ever since has been stuck in camp seductive mode. He also gets some terrible lines and provides Harris with the information that apparently Jay Wratten is responsible for the busting of his line.

Jay of course, has been told by Andy Dixon the driver, that Harris killed Harvey. So he has a reason to piss him off. But Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede interrogates Jay and he insists he didn’t do anything. We see very little of Bede this week, apart from when he’s questioning Jay and Glickman’s girlfriend, but Jay does get to pay another over the top, intimidating visit to Glickman’s son. And this is where we see the mysterious, deadly Gatehouse again.

Perched atop a mountain of office furniture, Gatehouse is across the street from Glickman’s son with some very fancy tech for listening to phone conversations etc. Eventually he decides to pop round to the home of Glickman’s son and play the kindly old fashioned gentleman card. Glickman’s sceptical daughter-in-law is won over by his harmless demeanour and Gatehouse gains access to the downstairs loo. After opening and closing the window briefly, he lets himself out. After calling her husband about the visitor, the wife goes upstairs to check on the wailing baby, prompted by the baby monitor. Their little girl is not there.

I was glad when Gatehouse showed up eventually last night because the rest of the episode had been poor. With Gatehouse though you know things are going to be suspenseful and tense and that something is going to happen, even without him doing very much. Here he’d magically whisked the baby outside, simply by opening and shutting a window in the toilet. Surely he must have had help? After dashing about the house absolutely distraught, she finds her baby and then Gatehouse, who chillingly tells her to call her husband “NOW” via the baby monitor. Glickman is then told Gatehouse wants to hear from him.

This episode has time for one more confusing but majestic scene. The journalist, otherwise known as that bloke from Casino Royale, who has been investigating police corruption throughout the series, features strongly in this episode asking people questions without really getting anywhere. Then he’s given the job of city editor at his paper, along with a far from feasible pay rise. Prior to this Gatehouse calls him up for an anonymous meeting but does nothing; not even speaking to him. Instead he gets hold of his home address pretending to be a deliveryman. Then comes the outstanding scene.

McGovern (name of said journalist) rides out of the city in his leathers and into the countryside towards home and his wife, where he can tell her the good news of his promotion. The tension slowly builds as it’s evident something will happen. Then we see a car in the distance on a straight road, with McGovern heading towards it. Both vehicles, bike and automobile, disappear into a dip in the middle of the road. We hear a screech and only the car emerges on the other side. The episode ends with a close up of our fallen journalist, in the middle of a sun drenched road, blood dripping in vivid drops from his helmet against a background of bright blue sky.

Scenes like that are the reason I continue to watch The Shadow Line. Some of them use too much style but most are refreshingly well executed, subtle and classy. This episode was full of irritating performances, including McGovern/Casino Royale man’s intonation that made everything sound like a question, hardly a subtle portrayal of an investigative journalist. It also had some of the worst dialogue so far and perhaps more of it. And the plot development became frustratingly unsatisfying too. But occasionally I am still gobsmacked, even in this mostly bad episode, and I am still intrigued.

With some questions answered new ones arise. Why kill the pestering journalist when he appeared to know very little? More interesting still, why did Gatehouse kill him, when he was investigating police corruption? Do Gabriel and Gatehouse know each other? Perhaps Gabriel simply can’t remember with that bullet inconveniencing his brain. And how exactly did it get there? Was Gabriel responsible for the death of partner Delaney? Can Chiwetel Ejiofor put in a good performance despite increasingly ludicrous plot twists for his character and sledgehammer emotional dialogue? Will Bede and Glickman’s girlfriend get together? Will next week be more enjoyable and make more sense? Will I get to see Bob Harris completely naked?

I’ll keep watching for the answers.

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The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Days 8, 9, 10 and 11


I apologise for the failure of the blogging aspect of this challenge over the past few days. But I’ve had an epiphany. My laptop is evil and an agent of procrastination and distraction. Its seemingly harmless, sleek frame conceals the delights and dangers of the world wide web and countless other ways to fritter away time pointlessly. I therefore attempted to simply knuckle down. This post will take the form of a basic list, as I am keen not to waste time or disrupt what rhythm I have. Rest assured I am making better progress behind the scenes.

So a list of what I have been reading/read, predominantly comprised of short stories:

–          Lady Chatterley’s Lover (ongoing) by D.H. Lawrence

–          Love by Grace Paley

–          The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera

–          The Lady with the Little Dog by Anton Chekhov

–          Lovers of their Time by William Trevor

–          Mouche by Guy de Maupassant

–          The Moon in its Flight by Gilbert Sorrentino

–          Spring in Fialta by Vladimir Nabokov

–          Yours by Mary Robison

–          Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

–          Cat in the Rain/One Reader Writers/Homage to Switzerland by Ernest Hemingway

–          There will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury

–          Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (collection) by Haruki Murakami

Some readers might find it amusing to know I made the grave typo of “Bling Widow” in the above last line.

A great number of the above short stories come from the collection My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, compiled and edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. This was recommended to me by Tomcat and as usual I thank him for a trustworthy tip.

The next few days will see discussion of these stories and others, along with some attempts of my own I hope and I’ll plough on with some novels.

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Days 5, 6 and 7


What’s the old saying; one step forward and two steps back? After finally making progress by finishing The Day of the Triffids (and easily answering a question on its opening line from University Challenge this evening as a result) I then went to see a friend for the weekend and did no reading whatsoever. I took an assortment of books, I intended to read and she intended to revise, but neither of us succeeded. I could hardly be rude could I? This is my excuse I know. But the break, not from this challenge but from life, did me good. So in reality this post could be entitled simply Day 7.

To make matters worse I haven’t devoted today solely to reading. Distracted by writing I haven’t actually read a great deal. However I do feel that I have a plan of action and that I made some considerable strides in terms of understanding today. I finally read Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog in its entirety, along with an introduction to a collection of his stories by Richard Ford. I’ve also read some more of Haruki Murakami’s short stories and I plan to read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice before I sleep tonight. Lady Chatterley is on the back burner for the time being, but next on my list, whilst I get my head around different short story writers and hopefully attempt an article on them this Wednesday.

Reading the introduction to Chekhov’s stories really helped me appreciate the unique value and insight of short stories compared to novels. Much like essays they can single out a particular issue or aspect of existence for closer inspection. Chekhov’s writing was economical and concise in making its points, something I need to begin to hone. His stories also reveal life’s hidden truths that we’re sometime reluctant to acknowledge, often from mundane events and goings on. I shall hold back the rest of my musings for another time.

I also recalled a Ray Bradbury short story from The Martian Chronicles that I’m going to re-read, as it’s another example of a type of short story and something else they can do.

Tomorrow night I’m going to attempt serious physical exercise for the first time in ages. I shall be a shattered and broken man. Hopefully my eyes will still be able to read. Until then I suppose.

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Day 4


Today I finished The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham. I’ve also nearly finished a collection of short stories by Murakami I’ve been nibbling at for some time and begun Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, as well as reading The Kiss, a short while ago. On the recommendation of Tomcat (see his insightful, well written blog on books here: http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/) I have ordered an additional collection of short stories and shan’t post anything on “The Art of the short story” or attempt any creations of my own until I’ve delved through it and added further variety to my depth of knowledge.

I think that short stories are something I need to seriously study if I aim to be both a better reader and writer. They are economical examples of excellent craft, as well as being sublime, symbolic and inspired in their brevity. They often better capture the essence of a single idea or emotion than a fully fledged novel, padded out with all its requirements. I need to learn how to think of original ideas, as well as be more efficient with my language. Anyway enough of that till I’ve read some more and pieced some half decent musings together.

With my plans for short stories on hold, and an unexpectedly busy weekend ahead, I’m unsure where to turn for my next read. Certainly I have a pile of books to choose from and I can continue to consume short stories but I also feel I should be choosing something else substantial and making headway with it. My audio book too is on hold as I shall be unable to listen as attentively as I would like over the next few days. At the moment I’m leaning towards Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence as my next hurdle in this marathon month.

I say hurdle but on completing Triffids today I am starting to relish the immense range of books ahead of me. I was surprised by how different the novel by Wyndham was to an adaptation by the BBC, with Eddie Izzard as a villainous figure, a couple of years ago. From what I remember of this adaptation, Izzard played a character called Coker, brimming with a lust for power and the manipulative, ruthless personality to acquire it in a fallen world.

I might have remembered the BBC version incorrectly. If it was indeed BBC; could have been ITV? Probably BBC. Anyway in the novel Coker is an enemy of the protagonist and narrator initially. He believes that the sighted should do what they can to help the blind and cunningly kidnaps some of those that can still see, who were intending to start a new community in the country. He puts them to work looking after groups of the blind in the city, a plan destined to fail. But later he and main character Bill become friends, and Coker admits the error of his well intentioned ways. Throughout the book, because of lingering notions of the adaptation coupled with his earlier behaviour, I was expecting Coker to turn nasty and reveal his own personal malice and ambition. Instead he was very likeable, an intriguing and helpful character.

Triffids seems on the surface like sensational, pulp sci-fi. My girlfriend smirked and seemed put off the novel when the summary of the plot I gave her was inevitably ludicrous. But despite how ridiculous giant plants menacing the streets and fields of Britain may seem, Triffids is good, serious science fiction. Almost every page has Bill’s first person narration grappling with the ethical dilemmas of such an uneven apocalypse; with most of the population blinded but a few spared by odd circumstance. There are well written explanations of loneliness, realistic dialogue and fascinating interactions and bonds between strangers thrown together by terror. Not to mention warnings about nuclear weapons, biological experimentation, future energy crises and unsustainable lifestyles rolled into one idea. This book is impossible to adapt well. Nothing can replicate the way the Triffids are described or the realistic realisation of the probable truth with the passing of time. Screen versions require more drama, more enemies; a conspiracy of some kind that loses the truth in the essence of the original.

Triffids, for all its doom and grand ideas, was not a heavy or taxing read. Wyndham manages to keep things remarkably light. Part of this is to do with the zippy pace, another the narrative voice of Bill. But for me it was the quirky touches of early 1950s, post-war British period detail that made me smile amongst the horrors. Characters would constantly refer to situations as “queer” and Bill would refer to his love interest in an old fashioned way with terms like “darling” and “sweet”. She would often reply with “honey” in the most grave of circumstances or idea laden conversations. None of this was derogatory for women when balanced with the overall impression and philosophy of equality evident in the book; simply a sign of the author’s times and an innocence that would not leave his characters, no matter what.

So one book down. Hopefully many more to go. And I promise some accompanying articles at some point.

A note on Faulks on Fiction


I used to be a massive fan of Sebastian Faulks. And I’m still a fan. But as with most things greater wisdom comes with age. Faulks is far from a faultless writer, despite the eagerness with which I devoured his works and the undoubted merits many of them have. With Engleby, a disturbing first person narrative, he proved he is capable of versatility. But many would accuse him of churning out almost identical historical tales. Birdsong was the perfect fusion of history and literature, but other novels have been weighed down by excessive research. Balancing storytelling and a fascination for history is a problem I sympathise with greatly, but nevertheless a damaging weakness.  However he seems to take to presenting rather naturally.

Last night the first episode of a new series entitled Faulks on Fiction aired on BBC2. Overall I found it immensely enjoyable and refreshing to see such a marrying of literature and history given pride of place in the television schedules. It focused on enduring, iconic characters of fiction. Faulks and those he interviewed made various insightful and valid points. But the programme was also often necessarily simplistic. On the whole this didn’t matter because it allowed an engaging chronological sweep; history through the lens of characterisation. What did matter was the weakness of the entire premise behind the series.

Faulks argues that characters can be divided into heroes, villains, lovers and snobs. This first episode was on heroes. And you can’t help thinking Faulks himself doubts the strength of his point. The programme works best when it’s simply exploring great characters, not when crudely grouping them together; categorising and labelling in a forced, basic manner. Some of the staggering generalisations really undermine the more thoughtful, original points Faulks makes.

 In interviews Faulks has piqued the interest of many by classing the character of James Bond as a “snob”. In many ways this seemed like a publicity stunt to hook viewers. But if Faulks genuinely believes this it might explain the disappointment of his tribute Bond book, Devil May Care, when he was supposedly “writing as Ian Fleming”. Faulks cites Bond’s love of brands as the reason for his snobbery instead of heroism and would no doubt, if pressed, point out Bond’s sexist attitudes too.

The fascination with brands and even the outdated prejudices are products of the time and the author, not the character of Bond. Fleming peppers his narratives with luxurious products to stimulate the rationed masses of 1950s Britain, not purely for Bond’s love of them. The moments of prejudice are also clearly when Fleming’s own voice shines through, over and above that of his adored creation. Having watched this episode, Bond would undoubtedly have slotted in alongside countless other flawed heroes.

My views on the programme pale into amateurish bias when set against those of a fellow blogger however. Last night an interesting, thought provoking, funny and spot-on live blog analysed Faulks on Fiction as it happened. The start of the post suggests doubts in this particular reviewer’s mind; doubts I believe to be absurd given the depth, accuracy and skill behind previous entries. Read and support this valued writer:

http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/faulks-on-fiction-an-on-the-fly-review/