Tag Archives: Mitchell

Miliband can defeat his critics and Cameron’s leadership by reinventing the nature of opposition


Like it or not, love him or loathe him, David Cameron has proved himself to be a competent and capable leader in his first year in Number 10. He has shown himself to be easily the most adaptable Prime Minister of the 21st century and perhaps the most versatile and formidable party leader too. He has embraced the unique hurdles and challenges of coalition government to at once deliver radical policy his party believes in and please the electorate. He has vowed not to make the mistake of Tony Blair’s early years, in which political capital went unspent. He’s taken a blitzkrieg approach to numerous important issues and departments, somehow taking most of the country with him through a combination of confidence and yellow human shields.

Ed Miliband on the other hand, has been constantly under fire from both the media and Britain as a whole, and his own party. His leadership is generally, and not unjustifiably, characterised as ineffectual and inactive. He has more often than not chosen to stand by and do nothing but protest vocally at government plans. He has claimed to be the voice of Britain’s ordinary people and its “progressive majority”. His critics say that this majority doesn’t exist and even those that think it might, recognise that it has to be earned and forged from blood, sweat, tears and most crucially of all, policy.

Labour under Ed Miliband has produced almost no policy. His supporters and aides will argue that he’s been focusing on healing Labour’s image, bruised and battered by thirteen years of controversial government. But there has been no clear rebranding or change of direction either. The publication of elder brother David’s would-be acceptance speech last week highlighted just how much more Ed could have done from the start. I was critical of David’s lazy leadership campaign and even praised Ed’s more concrete vision. Looking at David Miliband’s speech though, it’s hard to argue with those who say he would be doing better as leader right now.

The speech sets out the deficit as Britain’s key political argument. It simultaneously does more to defend Labour’s record in government and admit its mistakes than Ed has done. It systematically addresses key areas with attractive focus; Ed’s speech tended to waffle more generally, focusing on alerting the world to the fact that he was an alright sort of guy. Well now we all want to know what he’s going to do to prove it.

To make things worse for the victorious Miliband, his shadow cabinet has hardly had time to settle. Alan Johnson didn’t last long as Shadow Chancellor. There has already been more than one reshuffle. Ed Balls, finally in the role he has craved for so long, is Labour’s only ray of activity. Last week he announced the one concrete policy they have in opposition; increase the bonus tax on bankers. Balls intends to gather support from rebellious Lib Dem and even Conservative MPs to push a Bill through Parliament that would take more money from the banks to fund employment schemes for the young and house building projects; to stop the rot on growth.

Now it’s obvious that one of Miliband’s weak points has been his inability to do much else besides bash the banks. Credible Prime Ministers cannot afford to make such powerful enemies or be defined by the one headline grabbing policy. But the plans of his money man Ed Balls are exactly the type of thing Labour should be doing more of. The government’s refusal to invest in the economy or change course on its programme of cuts is doing lasting damage. Labour cannot afford to just talk about this. They should hit the coalition where it hurts; by acting to safeguard the national interest it claims to be working for.

And Miliband could go further. He could say that a Labour government would not just build homes for struggling first time buyers but insist that they are all green. Labour needs a new stamp that marks out policy as theirs, which goes further than simply investment vs. cuts. As David Miliband set out, Labour has to acknowledge that it will tackle the deficit; the question is how will it do it differently?

 Ed should make it abundantly clear that he is proposing policies for consideration now, intending to pass them now because to act too late would let the state of the economy and the government’s initiatives do irreparable harm. More house building would kick start the construction industry; more homes would get the property markets moving and add stability to a fragile, slow recovery.

Miliband has continually fallen back on the fact that the party in opposition traditionally keeps its cards close to its chest until an election. People should not be expecting him to be outlining detailed policy now, he says. I defended criticisms of him early on by using the argument that he shouldn’t rush through thinking about such important issues. But he has had time now. He must have some ideas. And he needs to start sharing them.

This is not an ordinary government. The coalition can be stalled, halted and persuaded on almost any issue. Parliament is not a sea of blue and carefully selected opposition proposals could become law. The NHS “listening exercise” and the rethink of Ken Clarke’s justice reform are examples from the past week alone where Cameron has been swayed enough to track back. Ed Miliband needs to do something bold to win the respect of voters. Disclosing genuine alternatives in full and frank detail will show that Labour care enough to act in the country’s interest, not their own.

I write just hours after both leaders in the contest for the nation’s political affections made important speeches on policy. As is the trend of late, it was David Cameron’s that made the greater impact. Speaking to a meeting in London of a foundation called GAVI, backed by Bill Gates, which provides vaccines for the world’s poor, the Prime Minister would have won over voters usually hostile to all things Tory.

His detoxification of his party has been enormously successful and pledging £814 million (the biggest donation of any nation) to an effective charity, goes a long way to satisfying his own voters, thanks to a clear strategy, and others in the electorate. With one speech Cameron scored moral points as well as talking convincingly about finding a clear foreign policy role for Britain based on duty, encouraging private sector growth and stable, democratic government.

Miliband’s speech was also important. It aimed to win back the agenda of community from Cameron, who has dominated the thinking of voters even with his unsuccessful Big Society idea. Miliband talked of responsibility and made surprisingly tough statements about those who didn’t give back not receiving welfare support. There were strong strains of the Blue Labour ideology Miliband recently endorsed, which focuses on democracy and accountability at the grass roots. It was about the overall narrative direction of Miliband’s leadership and designed to answer critics.

However whilst it’s important Miliband finds a stronger and more defined guiding vision for his party, action is what the public wants from him now. For an opposition leader options are limited, so action essentially means policy announcements. The Labour leader needs to be braver and take some gambles with his leadership, to both win over the country and protect it. No one will reward him for waiting until the election.

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DVD Review: Rabbit Hole


Nicole Kidman’s performances can simultaneously win her further legions of adoring fans and additional ranks of grumbling haters. She is wonderful to some, whiny to others, miserable to endure for many and majestic for millions. But it’s generally accepted, even by her diehard supporters, that she seemed to peak in the early years of the 21st century. Her last genuinely astounding performance in a really good film was some time ago. Stars like her that hit a critical rut have a way to clamber out though; after amassing enough power in mainstream blockbusters they can produce their own projects, perfectly tailored to their talents.

This is what Kidman does with Rabbit Hole, adapted for the screen by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play. The character of grieving mother Becca is perfect for her, resembling past roles in Birth and The Others, and providing a bearable outlet for her notoriously divisive bouts of cold and complaining emotion. Even though this is the sort of portrayal we’ve come to expect from Australia’s most successful export to Hollywood, the raw subject matter somehow suits her trademark moody and restrained introspection. You couldn’t call this a bad performance; in fact you feel like you have to say it’s a good one.

In contrast to Kidman’s recent record, co-star Aaron Eckhart is someone on the up and he doesn’t do that progress any harm here. Howie is Becca’s nice, normal husband, doing his best in an impossible situation. In the opening act of Rabbit Hole Kidman’s character is being as irritating as we know she can be from some of her previous roles. Watching this with a friend she moaned that she didn’t like Kidman usually and that she was typically “wet” again in Rabbit Hole. As I’ve said though, you do sympathise with her behaviour because of the grief, even if you might find the efforts of Howie more appealing.

The acting in Rabbit Hole is hard to criticise, with the two leads ultimately convincing, even as we lurch from one dreary standoff to another, with the odd shouting match in between. The supporting cast are good too, with Dianne West as Becca’s mother doing a great job of articulating experienced grief, sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) authentically rebellious, Sandra Oh as a rounded fellow mourner at a support group and newcomer Miles Teller as the awkward young driver unlucky enough to bear the burden of responsibility and blame on his well meaning, naive shoulders.

Even the script is mostly hard to fault. The quality of the source material shines through, with the truth and wit of the dialogue rising above that of most films. Conversations about the most difficult of subjects are realistic and feel as though they are ripped from real everyday lives. The film is refreshing for approaching grief from an underused and understated angle; eight months on from the drama of the death, this is the story of the shift from the constant tears to keeping appearances of normality. Lindsay-Abaire is fond of metaphor, with mixed success. Some symbols, like that of grief changing in weight until it’s like a “brick in your pocket”, are poignant and moving. However the entire film is a metaphor and crucially this is the one that is less evidently a success.

 Rabbit Hole slowly unravels with not much happening and Becca literally getting on with the housework; reflecting the emptiness left behind after loss. The film as a whole is a grim trudge through nothingness. This may be an accurate picture of the reality of grief, a painful journey back to normality, with no big and sudden revelation to make things better, but it’s a story that doesn’t translate engagingly from stage to screen. There are glimpses here of why the play must have been so powerful and well received. It’s easy to see why Kidman saw in this the chance for her critical rebirth. But without the intimacy of theatre and very little happening in the plot, this is one of those films that leaves you exhausted and aching from concentrating on being respectful to the subject matter.

Sophie Ivan, reviewing Rabbit Hole for Film4, sums up the film perfectly: “Rabbit Hole is a film that’s easier to commend than it is to like”. No one will want to say anything bad against Rabbit Hole; but very few people will enjoy it.

On London/Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre


I have fallen in love again. How refreshing though that it’s not a woman that is the focus of my affection, but a city. Like a woman, this city is indifferent to me, but unlike with women this vast, inexpressible indifference merely adds to the irresistible charm of the place. I like feeling insignificant and anonymous within its boundaries, in fact I positively relish the sense of oblivion. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the possibilities; it all submerges every little, trivial concern I might have. I drown in the ocean of seemingly limitless fuel for my imagination and oh how good it feels. To feel simultaneously satisfied that I am gradually gaining a geography of the place, whilst barely scratching the surface of what is really there, of all that’s on offer. Gorgeous girls galore, lines and lines of landmarks, tearaway taxis, bulging buses, teeming theatres, pulsing pavements and many marvellous museums; it’s all there. If variety is the spice of life then London has a hot twang I am acquiring a ravenous taste for.

But now I am worried, I do not have my next trip lined up, pencilled in the diary. I am hungry for the city and fear the withdrawal symptoms. Having only recently discovered the joys of walking the capital I crave the stroll crammed with sights and sounds. How can anything else compare? Things simply happen in London. And on such a majestic scale that it still feels like the centre of a world empire, still feels like a great, churning engine of commerce that could achieve so much. There’s so much to discover. I’m not one for shopping, unless it’s an awe inspiring jaunt through the grandeur of Harrods, not buying anything but soaking up my surroundings. And yet this weekend the scale of the shops in London surprised my senses and seduced me. Why I don’t know, I’ve always known they were there, been there before. But this time I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to able to pop out from home, my own base, to these places, perhaps with one item in mind, only to leave with others you forgot you wanted or didn’t know you did. I could have spent hours and hours trawling through books, it seemed impossible that they would not have what you wanted and even if they didn’t there was bound to be at least three or four alternatives you’d never have thought of. You’d feel nervous about the state of your bank balance and a little guilty, but in an exciting way; how could life ever be boring? And in some places things were cheaper anyway! What am I still doing out in the dead limbs of the countryside, when everything gathers there at the heart of everything?

Of course I know this is naive and not everything about London is great. I felt pursued by Cafe Neros the whole weekend for example, to such an extent that my train even passed one of their out of town storage facilities. They seem to have an outpost on every street. It’s either them or Pret A Manger, or often both. And I know perhaps a prolonged stay might have me cursing the dirty grime and toil and danger of city life. But increasingly now, in what I would like to think of as my clearer moments, I am realising that “life is islands of ecstasy in an ocean of ennui”, as The Dice Man puts it, and London is the sort of place that the islands are more frequent. I mean for me at the moment simply a glimpse of the skyline is thrilling and I can’t imagine that thrill ever dying out completely. So I think I’ve decided as one of my life’s few certainties that I want to live in our glorious capital city, even if I must wait a few years: London is the goal.

Anyway onto the main event then, after the distracting diversion of my musings. I was in London yet again to see a stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ successful novel Birdsong. It seemed appropriate that I would see this acclaimed First World War story dramatised a day before Remembrance Sunday, but insensitively inappropriate, if only in a trivial way, that the home of the production was the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street, just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. Whilst there were moments of comedy in Birdsong this was hardly stand-up and the key overarching themes were mainly grim and immensely serious. Nevertheless I swallowed my grievances about the suitability of the theatre and purchased a programme.

Perusing it prior to the start of the play I was intrigued by the sensitive artwork and pleasantly surprised to recognise a number of the performers. I knew Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian fame, was playing central character Stephen Wraysford but couldn’t really care less about his previous body of work. However Nicholas Farrell has an impressive stage, film and TV CV. I think it was predominantly Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that I recognised him from, in which he played Horatio. But he’d also been in Torchwood and Spooks. Spooks is one of my favourite series, not least because of its endless vistas of a glamorous London, and I was delighted to find that Isabelle Azaire, the main female love interest of Stephen, would be played by Genevieve O’Reilly, who played a double crossing CIA agent in the last series, working for a shadowy secret organisation and seducing MI5 officers with sultry American tones. The other most recognisable face was that of Lee Ross, playing the role of vital sapper character Jack Firebrace, whose credits included Eastenders and The Catherine Tate Show.

I did have slight misgivings about the fact that Farrell would play both cruel, unloving French husband Rene Azaire in the early scenes and Captain Gray later on, just as Iain Mitchell would play both the insufferable French oath Berard and then the insufferable English oath Colonel Barclay. But both actors produced such accomplished performances that I was willing to overlook this choice of economy. In fact in my view Farrell’s experience clearly showed and he was the highlight of the play in terms of quality acting. I had wondered if the performers would adopt French accents for the French scenes but was relieved they did not, with Farrell differentiating between his two characters sufficiently with a well executed Scottish accent for Captain Gray. The fact that everyone was speaking English in France was dealt with as matter-of-factly and skilfully as in the novel, with one of the characters remarking at some point that Stephen’s French was excellent, for which he thanked them.

I had always liked the novel by Faulks. In fact at the time I had first read it I was enthralled by it. A friend of mine remarked the other day that it had felt too much like a novel and I know what she means. It feels terribly contrived at times and is riddled with cliché and the play does not get away with them so well. I really should have re-read the book in order to properly critique the play and also in order to recall whether or not it was truly as good as I remember. Perhaps I was simply seduced by the period as the war fascinates me, as well as the romance, I’m a hopeless romantic. But from memory I know that the narrative sucked you into Stephen’s predicament so you felt strong ties with him. What I liked was the way the powerful and passionate love scenes early on gave Stephen a back-story and purpose that differentiated him from the usual heroes of the trenches. The book is rich with incident and historical detail but is not overloaded with it; here I disagree with my friend. I have read historical fiction that makes a fetish of research, David Mitchell’s latest The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did it for long periods, but Birdsong did not. In Birdsong the focus was the emotional and timeless themes of humanity.

Some of the most affecting and accurate of these themes are difficult to express in words on a page, let alone dramatically on stage. There’s no doubt that a lot of what is good from the novel does not successfully transfer and the shame for the play is that Rachel Wagstaff tries to convey Stephen’s motivations and musings poorly. Neither Wagstaff’s writing nor Ben Barnes’ acting is up to the long passages in which Stephen is supposedly composing thoughts for his diary, alone at the front of the stage. Much of the first act, in which Stephen falls for the married Isabelle, is driven by his private reflections. Of course it was always going to be impossible to transform the explicit, erotic sex scenes of the novel to the stage without creating a very different type of production altogether, but for the entire first act you can sense Wagstaff wrestling with the dilemma of how to convey the intensity of Stephen’s love adequately, knowing how vital it is to the events that follow. Somehow in the novel you get caught up and follow Stephen along, not questioning whether this is just seedy, passionate lust or misguided youthful emotions. In the play though when Barnes says “I love you and I always will”, each time it sounds childish and clichéd and I would find myself agreeing with my friend more and more. Barnes just seemed far too smitten in a sickening sense, rather than a stirring, moving one.

In the programme I found that Wagstaff’s first play had been called The Soldier and was set in 1915. So she was on more familiar ground in act two when the action jumps forward to The Somme in 1916 and a wartime setting. It’s disappointing that someone could not have done a better job of act one though as I know how riveted and gripped by it I was in the book and genuinely despondent to find the action skip so far ahead. And caring about the love story becomes so crucial later on. Nevertheless I am making it sound worse than it was. Despite the clunky awkwardness of Barnes’ soliloquy like sections at times, the actual scenes were passable to good, if lacking the emotional  power (and erotic excitement) of the novel. And act two was a considerable improvement, despite the tedious diary format continuing, only this time with working class lad Jack Firebrace’s toned down, simpler reflections on things and letters back home. Generally though the camaraderie of the front Wagstaff captures well, with the humour of jolly idiot Berard in act one replaced by male banter and the idiocy of officers.

Another friend of mine, this one a fellow fan of Birdsong, was eager to hear how the tunnels were reproduced on stage. For this was another unique feature of Birdsong’s take on the war: action in the competing tunnels both sides dug out beneath no man’s land for various reasons. There were communication tunnels, fighting tunnels and explosive tunnels for blowing up the enemy from below. Birdsong has nearly been made into a film several times and I always thought that the claustrophobic, atmospheric scenes in tunnels, particularly the shoot-out, would make dramatic action set pieces. And so they did on stage too. Much of the effect of being underground was created through lighting, with blackness enveloping the stage besides gentle amber glows at the front. The rest was done by a low overhanging wall that came about half-way down the stage. The actors would then crawl beneath this, before emerging into the front of the stage, further along the tunnel where you could stand. Then for the fight with German soldiers, when two tunnels found each other, dust poured out along with sounds of an explosion. The Germans emerged stunned and surprised, brandishing pistols at the elevated rear of the stage, looking down on the Brit characters at the front. Shots that smash your ear drums were fired and an even louder, brighter grenade thrown. I had never seen such exciting scenes on stage.

But then I’m still a relative newcomer to theatre. I now have the inclination to discover more of it (particularly the charm and sophistication of Shakespeare) but it’s a world that was mostly cut off to me whilst growing up. Edging my way to my seat was still an act of deft, death defying balance as far I’m concerned. This is not me moaning though; I absolutely love the look and feel of the theatre. Just to know the building oozed history compared to the local multiplex was so interesting and fascinating to me. And even my balcony seat, when suitably armed with £1 binoculars, was the best of both worlds; broad overview of everything coupled with close-ups.

In the final act Birdsong came into its own. Even Barnes, who had struggled to convince me he had the required acting heft to play Wraysford, upped his game a gear. It was now that I remembered how this portion of the novel was the most moving and the play benefitted considerably from ditching the unnecessary modern day section of the novel, which seemed to be there simply to reflect Faulks’ own experiences in researching the book. Faulks and Wagstaff had both been heavily dependent on the diaries of soldiers in their writing process, but the difference was Faulks had interweaved his research in a different, rich style, whereas Wagstaff had actually simply used the diary device in her drama; it seemed unimaginative and unable to truly engage the audience. In this final chunk of the play the lonely speeches at the front of the stage were ditched almost completely and when they were used they worked much better. There was also more time on stage for both Jeanne and Stephen, who had a connection I did not recall from the novels but was intriguing. Jeanne was wonderfully played by Zoe Waites. She seemed strongly drawn to Stephen, desperate to share her sister’s secret with him to ease his gloomy woe but too loyal to break her promise.

Then there were the big climatic scenes: a reunion between Stephen and Isabelle and a claustrophobic collapse that imprisons Jack and Stephen in the tunnels. I wish I could remember the novel better, as I have a feeling there were changes, particularly as I remember a bird being used in the tunnel and Stephen’s phobia manifesting itself down there. Generally though this theme was dealt with well, with some nice dialogue between Stephen and Jeanne when she tries to lift him from depression and they debate the merits and evils of Birdsong. The scene in which Stephen sees Isabelle again was so moving, far more so than the joyous larking about of the early affair by the river and despite these scenes not completely convincing me. I was so affected by the speeches about love, even with some corny, cheesy lines, that I had to rush to the toilet when the play had finished and dispatch a rash text to the one I love in vain; my equivalent of a drunken splurge of affection, so intoxicated was I by the drama that I simply had to tell her I loved her, it was all that mattered. The effect this scene had on me somewhat overshadowed the final scenes with Jack in the tunnel and the rescue and the end of the war. But these were also well done. I was so relieved the play ended on a high and overall there’s no doubt that it was a quality production, if a little flawed at times. From my recollections of the novel though it was never going to surpass its brilliance, merely echo it and be good in different ways.

Guardian Summer Short Story Special


Inspired by the Guardian’s Summer Short Story Special, showcasing established writers as well as competition winners, I have dabbled in a summer based work myself. It is influenced by general events in my life, a failed outing this weekend, as well as the short stories on the Guardian website and reading a bit of Hemingway (certainly isn’t as concisely expressed as his work). Being a fan of David Mitchell I particuarly enjoyed his offerings based on characters from Black Swan Green, with The Massive Rat from last year’s entries especially pleasing me. Booker winner Hilary Mantel also has a story entitled Comma and the competion winner’s tale, called Jellyfish, is a very well written piece simply expressed set on a beach, as mine is. Hope it isn’t too bad.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/summer-short-story-special

Summer’s Last Hurrah

“I’m sorry about your parents” said Frank, gazing at a darkening sky and enjoying the feeling of her warmth at the base of his neck.

“You’ve nothing to be sorry for” replied Emma, looking back towards the brightening bulbs of the promenade and twirling her fingers in the soft curls of his fringe. “Things just happen. And I think it’ll be ok”.

He smiled reassuringly and twisted to look up at her, wondering what to say next. He had raised the subject to try and steer the conversation towards them, their relationship, his head in her lap on the sand in the half-light of this August evening. The simple perfection of this moment. To voice his contentment outright would spoil things, possibly scare her off. Nevertheless he had to let her know how happy he was, living a moment sketched in his mind a thousand times.

“I just can’t imagine letting things get to that stage with anyone, like what’s the point in arguing and how could you with someone you felt like that for, someone you loved? I’d like to think I’d stop things before they were that bad. Life’s for moments as amazing this”, he squeezed her fingers between his and ran his hand gently over the flank of her leg in that way he knew she liked, “no point in being miserable when things can be this great, when I can get this lucky.”

That might have overdone it. He knew one of the things she liked about him was his laidback, carefree attitude. She could be sure he wouldn’t get too emotional or demanding like boyfriends of her friends had done in the past. Recently he’d been struggling to hold back this sort of outburst, to tone down his obvious ecstasy in her company. But he needn’t have worried.

Emma bent down to kiss him. First lightly and affectionately on the forehead, a stamp of her gratitude and care, and then a longer, lingering stay on the lips, charged with a lust that grew each day as her confidence increased. She too had been pondering how to express her happiness at the way things were turning out, the way they were right now. Like Frank she tiptoed round the reflection of this moment, careful not to shatter it with hollow, stumbled over words and packaged phrases. Beyond the untameable ripple of her smile whenever she saw him, she was wary of articulating her feelings for him when she did not know what they were. Besides this shared chapter of their lives was closing and to him she might just be a pretty girl, long coveted but quickly ticked off as a summer fling.

Now though as kiss followed kiss and their scents mingled with the sea air lapping in off the waves, Emma felt satisfied that Frank shared the significance of the present, the distance of the past and non-existence of the future. Frank too knew that she understood his contentment and shared it on some level. Happy to be a source of her happiness he lay back and a let a guilty smile detonate an ooze of smugness across his face. Amused by the particular lines and craters left by the aftermath of the explosion in his features, a snorted giggle escaped from her mouth.

“What?” he said, sitting up and grinning cheekily at her embarrassment.

“You” she teased, pushing him back down only for him to snatch a kiss from the tips of her lips.

“I’m happy. Think I’ve lost the knack of sadness.”

“S’pose that’s got something to do with me, has it?”

Emma blushed as Frank parted unruly strands of her hair with his fingers, so his eyes had a clear, brisk march to hers. Frank felt unusually bold, spurred on by the stirring of desire below the belt and cleared his throat to reply bluntly.

“Yeah. Everything. Nothing could make me sad with you.”

Emma felt the tell-tale redness spill across her cheeks, accompanied by a warm glow somewhere inside. At first she tried to check for clues in the lush browns and bright whites of his eyes, signs of mocking or deception. All she found there was light, a light that added to her awkwardness as well as her certainty. She would let Frank be her first by the end of the summer. But all that could come later. For now this sudden glimpse of emotion and her automated response of cynicism made her regret the shy, downbeat reply, inspired by thoughts of her parents.

“Time. Time makes you sad and bitter.”

To his credit he knowingly laughed away her evasion, pulling her to him.

“Good job we don’t have much left then.”

The two of them collapsed in a bundle of kisses and squeezes. Sand painted a dull grey by the frowning sky squirmed beneath their writhing feet and toes. A plodding jogger glanced their way from the squelch of the wet sand at the water’s edge and a family group executed a wide arc to pass the shameless lovers respectfully. Thoughts and memories of lost loves drifted in the minds of the parents like dying waves.

*

Lawrence wasn’t so sure it was time. Sure you needed some, a brief window in which a seed could be planted, germinate and grow and then rapidly rot and fester. But in the grand scheme of things, in the spins and rotations of planets, the rise and fall of governments, the birth and death of ideas, on any meaningful scale, the time it had taken him to succumb to bitterness was a mere blink. In fact emerging from the line of lights of the shorefront, from the flashing and pulsing of colour by the fair to the gentle gloom of the beach, it had taken him just seconds of recognition to be overwhelmed by dark resentment and every negative feeling he had been hiding from.

There was no doubt it was them, immersed in an intimate moment of romance, the sky itself bending into a dome of soft privacy. Away to the right the last embers of the setting sun shone orange behind wispy clouds but here, suspended above them on the beach, the clouds were a deep veil of purple enclosing the space for them and them alone. Or so it seemed to him. The sound of his own rushed, shallow breaths reminded of the present and prompted him to locate little Katie, just now dashing onto the sand, floating with joy, excitement and mischief in her white dress.

Lawrence darted after her, dusting himself down to weave between the crowds, suddenly conscious of a collision he must avoid. A group of pensioners gawped at him as he bobbed by on tip toes, surely marvelling at the relentless boom of his heart that he could feel galloping away in his chest, frightened into overdrive by the horrific hypothetical scenarios conjured in his mind’s eye. Soon there would be enough room to burst into a sprint but Lawrence was mindful of how far the sounds of his beckoning pleas might carry, how self-involved were they during such blissful embraces? Would Emma, or even Frank, recognise his voice as he breathlessly moaned at Katie’s innocent impulses? She was tottering towards the water but then to Lawrence’s alarm veered suddenly away, propelled by a tiny splash of chilly froth, up the beach at an angle towards the canoodling couple. In a panic Lawrence launched himself at full throttle down the last stretch of sloping descent to the beach and did not slow his pace on the sand despite the vast plumes left in his wake and the difficulties of staying balanced on two feet. In seconds that seemed stretched into hours Lawrence was at Katie’s side and firmly guiding her by the hand away from an unbearable impact towards the safety of the sand strewn steps.

“Lawrence! Lawrence! The water’s cold and you can see it’s muddy in the dark. Muddy like Mummy said even when it’s dark.”

Lawrence grimaced as Katie began her chirping flow, flinching in particular every time she brightly announced his name to the entire coastline. In this state he could not tell if she was being especially loud or not, let alone whether Frank and Emma might’ve heard. He could feel his pulse gradually calming as the two of them climbed the steps and set off back in the direction of the hotel, but he was also still clearly transmitting a panic to Katie.

“What’s wrong Lawrence? You said you’d take me, sorry I ran. You like to chase me, don’t be upset.”

Was he upset? Lawrence knew that little shake in Katie’s voice well by now, knew she was on the verge of tears without proper intervention. He steered her to a quiet bench and sat down in readiness to console, only to notice the streaks on his own face, brimming uncontrollably.

“Don’t cry Lawrence” mumbled Katie, the sight of his tears bringing her own closer and closer. She didn’t understand, she’d never seen him like this for the whole summer. He’d only ever been a calm, smiley presence, good at reading to her and helping her learn and she was always angry when she caught Mummy telling Daddy he could be “useless” at looking after her. Lawrence was Katie’s friend.

Lawrence turned his face away from Katie. This wasn’t good, he’d have to minimise the damage now if he were to keep his job with the family. He’d grown attached to Katie and even Ben when he wasn’t trying to drop him in it, and he could think of no better paid way of keeping busy and away from everything. And yet everything had followed him here, everything was curled on the beach beneath the stars oblivious of the depressing ripples caused by their happiness. Lawrence was going to wait till Emma and Frank had parted for university before sending his confession letter, penned over an agonising three nights. He planned to be travelling Europe filling his head with the future whilst she digested the news. He didn’t want to hear her shock or disgust or whatever she would feel, just jettison the feeling and leave it with his old life. Now he had seen her again and his long absence (nearly two months now?) had done nothing to dilute the pain of seeing them together, nothing to convince him of a future without her. Of all he had left behind and had to learn the hardest thing was not hearing from her, sharing their perfectly balanced conversation, even if she was always, forever ignorant of his feeling for her. He had left because he could no longer take the unknowing blows struck each and every day by her as she grew closer and closer to Frank. He had allowed their friendship to become so precious to him that it was toxic.

“I’m fine Katie, I’ll be fine, and it’s nothing honest. Beautiful night isn’t it? All those lights stretching on and on.”

This didn’t help. Painting a picture of a beautiful evening merely reminded him of the romance in progress on the beach, a romance he had never experienced and more painfully never would with Emma. Lawrence stifled a giant sob and spasm of tears, spinning Katie round to look along the front as a distraction.

“Yeah it is nice.” The poor girl rightly wasn’t convinced. Lawrence took a deep breath and kept Katie transfixed by the twinkling lights and a reminder of what fun they’d had that day, whilst he composed himself. Then he scooped her up back to the hotel, sought out the envelope addressed to Emma and left it out ready to post. Before bed Katie had checked Lawrence was definitely alright and she had seemed reassured by his answer.

“I’ll be fine Katie like I said. In time I’ll be okay, time will heal me.”

“Well we’ve got lots of that.”

Booker Longlist 2010


I’ve been closely following announcements relating to this year’s Booker Longlist and indeed public interest in general seems to be up. According to this BBC article sales of those selected in the initial 13 are at their highest since Ian McEwan’s Atonement was among the nominees in 2001.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-10951497

Interestingly McEwan’s latest novel, Solar, is one of a number of high profile omissions from the list, with Martin Amis also missing out. There has been debate as to whether this indicates that more humorous storytelling is not being recognised by a judging panel headed by former poet laureate Andrew Motion. Solar has been well received critically elsewhere, with McEwan winning a prize dedicated to writers following in the tradition of comic writer P.G Wodehouse. I’m a fan of McEwan and quickly digested Solar, but disagree with the way it has been portrayed as a purely comic novel. There are some delightful comic set pieces in the book which are beautifully crafted and provide a refreshing contrast to the usual content of McEwan’s diverse work, showcasing a side of his writing repertoire rarely praised. However most of the humour is less direct and subtly layered over the rich characterisation of the bumbling protagonist Michael Beard, with a lot of serious comment on our culture of waste and the greedy nature of mankind as an obstacle to tackling climate change. McEwan also makes us feel pity and other emotions for Beard; we are invited to empathise with an ordinary man of simple needs hounded by the media as well as cringe and giggle at his stupidity.

Ultimately the Booker judges may have perhaps ignored Solar because it lacked the epic sweep present in some of the other nominations and which was certainly there in the “fictional panorama” that was Atonement in 2001. I have only just finished reading The Glass Room by Simon Mawer from last year’s longlist and that was a novel that perfectly demonstrated how grand scales and themes can add to the likelihood of recognition. A story about minimalist architecture and ideas largely taking place in the grim turmoil of Eastern Europe, The Glass Room may not seem ideal “summer reading” material if there is such a thing, but I found it easily readable divided as it was into manageable chunks and driven by compelling human relationships. At times the focus on interlocking loves and sex lives became repetitive but the opening portion of the book in which the idea for a striking, modern home is conceived and then lived in by a complex family driven away by the Nazi menace is so gripping that you are carried to the end of the book by acute curiosity as to the fate of the house and its former inhabitants. Mawer grapples with themes such as fidelity, homosexuality, friendship, the permanence of architecture, the perfection of ideas and the problems of expression when translating between languages. Overall the novel also covers vast historical ground, charting the physical and emotional scars left by seismic political change.  I am yet to read Hilary Mantel’s winning novel from last year, Wolf Hall, which sits expectantly in my room but it too was suitably epic and historical and I would guess superior to The Glass Room, despite its strong points.

This love of the epic and grand and historical continues into this year’s longlist, if not literally then in the depth and intensity of content. The Room by Emma Donoghue and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas both deal with particularly intense or extreme experiences for example; a child’s captivity in The Room and a child slapped by a stranger in The Slap. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the latest and most conventional offering yet from one of my favourite authors David Mitchell, is set in colonial Japan. It is the only title from this year’s list I have read so far and it was suitably epic whilst less engaging and cinematic than his previous offerings. I have ordered The Slap as I am intrigued by its differing narrative perspectives, the gripping nature of one moment in time rippling outwards with consequences and a view of Australian culture I am not familiar with. Generally I am surprised with how tempting I find most of the books selected for this year’s longlist, judging by extracts I have read via the Guardian website.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booker-prize

C by Tom McCarthy also interests me as it is supposedly experimental whilst also continuing that theme of grappling with grand ideas such as communication, science and discovery. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson seems to be excellently written and contain that humour some thought to be lacking after the exclusion of McEwan and Amis, going by the Guardian extract. All the others, as you would expect, seem well crafted and I encourage you to take a look at the previews. Here is the full 13:

  • Peter Carey, Parrot and Oliver in America
  • Emma Donoghue, Room
  • Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal
  • Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room
  • Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question
  • Andrea Levy, The Long Song
  • Tom McCarthy, C
  • David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
  • Lisa Moore, February
  • Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
  • Rose Tremain, Trespass
  • Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
  • Alan Warner, The Stars in the Bright Sky