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Page and Screen: Flaubert’s cinematic Madame Bovary


Gustave Flaubert’s mid nineteenth century novel Madame Bovary might not appear all that remarkable if you read it today. At the time its focus on the limitations of marriage, along with its abundance of controversial ingredients like frequent and shameless adultery and suicide, made it a scandalous work of fiction. No doubt it would have been derided as deliberately explicit and shocking filth, masquerading as art, as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be around a century later. But today Flaubert is seen as the first truly modern novelist because with Madame Bovary he composed a recipe of ingredients that would be followed by countless storytellers, both on the page and the screen.

Read the blurb of Madame Bovary and its plot will resemble that of a lot of Victorian era fiction. The story follows Emma, a country girl living a simple life, whose charms captivate the young doctor who comes to treat her ailing father. The doctor is Charles Bovary, already a widower from an unsatisfying marriage. He and Emma marry and she becomes Madame Bovary. They move to the provincial small town of Yonville, where Charles takes a job. Holding such an important position in the intimate community, Charles and his wife become the centre of attention, be it from the atheistic chemist across the street with a high opinion of himself or the regulars at the inn. Emma quickly feels stifled by the rural and dreary existence, as well as her husband’s doting. She conducts two affairs, one with young clerk Leon and another with experienced seducer Rodolphe.

One of the ways in which Madame Bovary became a blueprint for the modern novel was its focus on the character development of Emma. It is often hailed as the first psychological novel because of this. Flaubert uses free indirect style to explore and articulate both Emma’s emotions and thoughts, be they gloomy, gleeful or giddy with romance. The technique allows the author to zoom in and out, at once using his own words and those that the character might use. Already we can see how this book not only inspired the form of later works but foreshadowed the methods of the filmmaker; sometimes sticking close to a character’s viewpoint, sometimes offering a broader overview of their actions and sometimes not seeing their actions at all.

Madame Bovary is cinematic in other ways too. Its entire structure is epic in the way that films often are, telling the story of a whole life, beginning at Charles Bovary’s school. In the early chapters we form an opinion of Charles as an ordinary but kind enough man, only to have this interpretation contrasted with Emma’s later bitterness towards him because of that very unsatisfying and indifferent kindness. This is another way the book is cinematic; it is constantly changing viewpoints amongst an ensemble cast. Despite the often intense focus on Emma’s romantic desires for meaning suppressed by bourgeois convention, we also regularly view Emma from the perspective of her lovers or the town chemist or some other figure. Cinema is constantly showing us how its main characters are seen by others to broaden our understanding of them.

Emma’s outlook on life is unquestionably romantic, some might say naive and neurotic, but it’s certainly passionate. However Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s masterpiece of realism, written to atone for what he saw as the excesses of his previous work The Temptation of Saint Anthony. One way in which the book achieved this realism was with its down to earth subject matter. Flaubert based the story on a marriage breakdown of the time and peppered it with themes from everyday French life, many of which still resonate today.

This was a novel about reality in which the main character read novels of escapism. This was a novel set in a simple setting that climaxes with Emma’s debts spiralling out of control, as she drowns in the luxuries purchased to sustain a dream life and fill the black hole left by her emotional emptiness. The ingredients are recognisable from everyday life but Flaubert ramps up the drama, just as producers, writers and directors do with films today, and storytellers have done for years. Grand language such as “she awakened in him a thousand desires” may match Emma’s desires for romantic fulfilment but is always counterbalanced by Flaubert’s realism. Throughout the novel, whenever Emma reaches a peak of ecstatic fulfilment, the decline begins shortly afterwards.

Much of Flaubert’s realist genius, diehard critics argue, cannot possibly translate from French to English without acquiring an air of clumsiness and familiarity. As James Wood points out in How Fiction Works, a sentence with magnificent and finely crafted rhythm in Flaubert’s native French, loses much of its magic in English. And if the translator tries to replicate the essence of the original too hard, he creates something laughable. “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait” becomes “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him” or if trying too hard “The notion of procreation was delectation”.

However Flaubert’s talent for precise and detailed description does translate and this is perhaps the most cinematic element of his realist style. Chapters will often begin with snapshots of detail or even lengthy passages really setting the scene of a particular room or place, sometimes incorporating a character’s mood and sometimes not. It might seem like an incredibly basic rule of storytelling, almost a childish one, to “set the scene” in this way, but Flaubert does so much more than just describe something. By selecting his details with the utmost care and deliberation, but seemingly effortlessly, he tells us everything we need to know about a scene.

At times he can do this incredibly concisely, with just a few telling details. One chapter, in which Emma has slipped away from Yonville to begin a love affair in the larger town of Rouen, begins like this:

They were three full, exquisite days – a real honeymoon.
They were at the Hotel de Boulogne, on the harbour; and they lived there, with drawn blinds and closed doors, with flowers on the floor, and iced syrups that were brought them early in the morning
”.

From our 21st century vantage point it’s very difficult to understand what upset the French so much when Flaubert was so tactful about his descriptions of sex and affairs. Very rarely does he resort to even explicitly describing a kiss.

Elsewhere he uses detail to paint lifelike pictures of minor characters, some of which, like this one, are never seen or mentioned again:

There, at the top of the table, alone among all these women, stooped over his ample plateful, with his napkin tied around his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, drops of gravy dribbling from his lips. His eyes were bloodshot and he had a little pigtail tied up with a black ribbon. This was the Marquis’s father-in-law, the old Duc de Laverdière, once the favorite of the Comte d’Artois.”

We can imagine a camera passing over a character such as this in a film, picking out the specific details Flaubert highlights, adding life to a scene and then moving on. Such descriptions have a quality James Wood terms “chosenness” whereby the author picks out a bunch of details that, together, give the most accurate and lifelike feeling of a person, place, object or action. This process is artificial, sometimes combining details from different time registers but writers like Flaubert make it appear natural. And film directors and editors do exactly the same thing. For example, when establishing the feel of a carnival, the editing process will cut together things happening at different times into one easily digestible chunk for the audience to swallow the best impression and mood of the scene.

Flaubert laid the foundations for new types of writing and storytelling that could marry the intentions of a realist and a stylist. It paved the way for novels that felt more journalistic with almost completely passive descriptions of people and places, from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, packed with lists of brand names. Isherwood even makes this statement early on in Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Then later on this passage mirrors even more closely than Flaubert a reel of edited film:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk jugs”.

The children cannot be “in tears” all of the time. Isherwood has perfected the technique that Flaubert pushed out into the open, for all writers to follow as a guide. James Wood sums up the passage far more succinctly than I could: “The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems a “slice of life”, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet.”

It’s easy to forget that films too are intricate, vast and complex operations. Action scenes that burst into life spontaneously in shopping centres or even a stroll down a street in a rom-com are intensely choreographed. The plan laid out for the modern novel in Madame Bovary, and for writing detail in particular, has left us with as many terribly overwritten books as good ones. And even awful films are carefully managed. But the artificiality of cherry picking the best moments in life and stitching them together can be art at its best; art telling little white lies for a grander, more meaningful truth.

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BlogalongaBond: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service


“FAR UP! FAR OUT! FAR MORE!” reads the poster. As a youngster I would have scoffed at this. I would act superior to my friends whenever a Bond film happened to be on TV. I would dazzle them with my knowledge of the films. And if I was ever asked what the worst film in the entire series was I would always reply – “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, obviously”.

Why was this? There was only really one reason; George Lazenby. It was his only Bond film, he did less than everyone else and therefore it was the worst. OHMSS (as I shall refer to it from now on) was an unwelcome aberration before the jolly rebirth provided by Roger Moore. As I grew up I was taught to love and treasure Roger’s cheeky eyebrows. But now, just as You Only Live Twice has slipped since childhood from one of my favourites towards the bottom of the pile, OHMSS is one of the very best in my personal Bond canon.

This is because the dated but charming slogan on the poster was spot on for a change; you really do get far more from OHMSS than any other Bond film. Not in every department of course; the range of locations is European and perhaps ordinary by modern standards, the gadgetry is minimum and the action less frequent than some would like. But for Bond fanatics, particularly those familiar with the Bond of Fleming’s books, this is the most faithful adaptation. A film with a storyline that really lets us get to know a little of the man behind the agent, the icon and the image.

As the excellent review from Kinnemaniac (which says everything I’m going to say more amusingly and precisely) points out, it is perhaps inevitable that diehard fans pounced on the instalment least popular with the general public. OHMSS is rarely picked for Bank Holiday TV schedules like other outings from Connery and Moore. Again as Kinnemaniac points out though, OHMSS attempts a tone not seen in the franchise again until the Dalton films and then properly in Casino Royale with Daniel Craig’s Eva Green love interest. Indeed perhaps Lazenby has Craig to thank for a new generation falling with renewed vigour for his solitary outing as 007.

Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman no doubt fretted over replacing Sean Connery. For cinemagoers of the sixties he was THE embodiment of James Bond. Unlike audiences of today they were unaccustomed to the regular replacement of the actor playing Britain’s top secret agent now and again. The way in which they chose to tackle the casting and the whole creative process of the sixth Bond outing was bold and experimental.

Lazenby was nothing more than an Australian model, director Peter Hunt had been an editor for the early films. Or perhaps OHMSS was a safer bet than it appears. Saltzman and Broccoli might have gone back to the books through caution rather than ambition, and the whole project delayed the business of thinking about Bond’s future properly until Connery could be lured back for Diamonds are Forever. In any case the special features of my Ultimate Edition DVD reveal the bitchy arguments and distrust on set that never looked likely to form harmonious or long lasting foundations, despite frequent praise for Lazenby’s surprising ability.

Lazenby of course unavoidably remains the film’s defining feature. Nowadays I am more than happy to overlook his occasionally dodgy acting. The reason many fans of the books take to him is that he simply looks like James Bond. Rather than acting out aspects of his character, he is simply being Bond and our selective imaginations can iron out the creases in his portrayal. Re-watching OHMSS this time I noticed just how good Lazenby’s acting is on occasion though. He pulls off subtle little looks as well as the more obvious love scenes.

You hope to discover something new each time you watch a film and I found out that I like OHMSS best when Diana Rigg is on screen as Tracy with this viewing. I knew I loved the opening scene with Peter Hunt’s teasing direction of a mysterious driver, John Barry’s sublime soundtrack to the seaside action and Lazenby’s fourth wall breaching line; “this never happened to the other fellow”. And indeed I rank the scenes until Bond heads off to Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps (surely the only base of villainy to match YOLT’s volcano?) as some of my favourites in the whole franchise. But then things simmer down with Bond undercover as Sir Hilary Bray. There’s occasional hilarity, an interestingly un-mysterious Blofeld and lots of girls, but not that same look at Bond as a man in love. When Rigg turned up again my interest was ignited again and turned up a couple notches.

Lazenby and Rigg’s chemistry is important, indeed vital for Bond’s first true love story, but the main reason I enjoy her presence on screen is because of what it does to the story. And the creative execution of the storytellers must be praised when talking about OHMSS. It’s evident for Bondians familiar with the whole series that the reins are looser here. They are telling a story rather than following a formula.

The two key architects are John Barry and Peter Hunt. I’ve already mentioned my admiration for the scene that introduces us to Tracy and reveals Lazenby as Bond. It just might be my personal favourite out of all the films. But aside from my preferences it’s the perfect illustration of Barry’s musical talent and Hunt’s ahead of his time direction.

The OHMSS soundtrack was one of the first that I bought. Its got a brilliant title theme, along with a gorgeous mix of thrilling synthesised ski chase accompaniments and romantic themes inspired by the sublime We Have All the Time in the World by Louis Armstrong. And then there’s Hunt’s evident ambition as both an editor and director.

Supposedly Lazenby got the role as Bond after he demonstrated his aptitude for fight scenes. The punch ups in OHMSS swing between the comical and the innovatively magnificent. Long before the creators of the Bourne films would claim that Craig’s Bond copies their style, Hunt and Lazenby filmed frantically paced and edited brawls in hotel rooms and the froth and spray of Portuguese waves. There may be the odd inadvertently funny grunt or strange bit of camerawork but Lazenby’s exciting physical Bond foreshadows Craig’s by almost forty years.  If Hunt were working today his action scenes would be hailed as visceral and hard hitting. But back then change wasn’t embraced.

Even this fresh, frenzied approach to fisticuffs came back to underlining OHMSS’s USP; Bond is a man! He may still be a dapper chap with a trio of ladies actually making appointments to pull his trigger but now and then he’ll need to smother a man into submission rather than K.O. him with a single swipe. And his heart is as prone to silly somersaults as the rest of us male apes. Haters of Lazenby’s emotional depths though will not have long to wait for Bond to haul his armour back on. Within two years he’ll be protected by a 70s haircut, pink tie and drawling Scottish accent.

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.

Short story: The Lonely Tree


This is just something I rattled out, slightly in the style of Murakami:

This is the story of a boy, who was not yet a man. It’s the story of his first love, his first heartbreak and the tree that fell on him.

It’s the fashion to have summer romances but the boy was allergic to everyone’s favourite season. It made his eyes red and his nose stream.  In fact he had always thought that girls were allergic to him. It wasn’t that he couldn’t speak to them or that they didn’t like him, but that they couldn’t love him. More than anything the boy wanted to know love. One winter, when the air was crisp and the nights chilled, he thought that he did.

He couldn’t believe his luck. A childhood crush, the cleverest catch around and a friend he cared for deeply rolled into one package. Her smile locked his worries away and out of reach for hours. Being with her he felt as if he wasn’t alone for the first time in his life. Hearing from her was, surprisingly, almost as good. Making her happy filled the void of purpose in his life. His existence no longer felt empty. Simply put: she made him happy.

Fate had never looked so kindly upon him before and deep down he knew that her favours would be brief. But while it lasted nothing else mattered. Or rather, everything mattered more. Her dreams enriched and expanded his own, her energy and life gave them colour. He was filled with enthusiasm and a drive he did not know he possessed. He felt like a better person and fully himself for the first time.

Looking back on it he supposed the relationship would seem a short lived folly to onlookers, and this angered him. Nothing had ever meant more. At least to him. The boy had never realised just how important intimacy, close friendship and the joy of caring for someone was to happiness. When it ended, for no reason besides that she didn’t love him after all, things reverted to normal. Only more so.

He wondered if that happiness had been an illusion and whether he had truly known love. He felt catapulted back to square one. He did not know what to think or feel, knowing for certain only that he was empty again. And he was alone. The dreams that had grown to new heights in her company were now mere weeds, smaller than the clumps of green nothingness at the foot of the tree in his garden.

The tree watched as the boy moped and rolled around like a pig in his misery. At first the tree felt sympathetic towards the boy, as no one knew better than him what it was to be alone. Trapped in his hollow shell with no friends to speak of, and no means to speak, the tree longed for contact of some kind. He knew everything the boy was missing and more. And then the tree realised how selfish the boy was. And how much harder it was to be a tree.

As the spring rapidly shifted into summer the boy felt every concrete trace of his love fading away, swamped by the passing of time. With each day he felt more and more like he had no right to feel anything at all. All he had left were the memories and hopes in his head. He missed so much; far too much for words, he told himself.

On a blue morning with a blazing sun and abstract strokes of white overhead, the boy had an epiphany. Well it was that day at least that he admitted to himself a truth that he had felt for a while. He said to himself: “Love is enough for me”. He knew that, for the right person, he would sacrifice all the goals and ambitions he had thought essential to his well being, satisfaction and success. He acknowledged that, during his time with his first true love, he had enjoyed and derived immense contentment from even the harder things. He was glad to be there when she was upset, happy to calm her down, even if he was only a slight comfort. Caring for someone important to him, as important as that, was all he could ever need.

He remembered reading a novel in which the main character believed there were only three chances of finding your soul mate. He pondered whether for him, “soul mate”, meant someone worthy of his absolute care. Plunged back into sadness and despair by the thought of having lost someone he could lose himself in and devote himself to, he ran into the garden, blinded by fierce tears. He crouched down in the dirt, sniffling as the pollen swarmed up his hostile nostrils. He pressed his back against the trunk of the tree. He stared at the world around him, confused and crying.

By this point, the tree was seething. The tree didn’t know how he knew all about what the boy was thinking and feeling, but he did know, and it made him angry. The tree did not know he was capable of anger. The tree could not think, had no brain and nothing at all to account for the melancholy consciousness brooding within his gently swaying frame. The wind blew lightly across the garden, flicking the odd leaf and stroking the odd stem. The tree felt a shiver of cold. The tree felt.

The boy was gradually coming out of his panic, descending into a depressed paralysis. The loveliest, brightest petals of the most vibrant flowers looked bleak to him. His mind’s eye conjured a symbolic bonfire of his dreams in the corner of the lawn. If he could be so easily tempted from them, what chance did he have of achieving such grand plans? What did they matter anyway? Forcing his head up from its slouch on his knees, he felt the bark in his hair and decided there was no point to any sensation at all without someone to share it with.

The tree was fuming with anger from its roots to its summit. It could sense the boy’s sadness. His self involved and ungrateful emotion wasn’t just saturating the air around the tree now, but squirming and writhing against its flaky skin. The tree couldn’t stand it. It was determined not to take it anymore. It wouldn’t be buffeted by nature or ignored by men today.

The boy sighed deeply, turning his face into the breeze and relishing its cold wipe. He felt the gusts get stronger and firmer in waves, as if someone were stirring the air with an enormous food blender. Pulse after pulse slapped against him. The sweat under his arms went from hot and sticky to icy and damp. His spine creaked as the tree trunk rocked a little against him. His back stood firm easily like a castle wall against the minute thrusts.

The tree was summoning all of its energy from its very furthest extremities, even the roots beyond the garden wall. The tree was straining every part of its being in pure and untamed rage. The tree was alive and a part of nature but for the first time ever it was wild. It did not have muscles to tense or bones to move but it had life and the tree channelled every last ounce of it into its rage. It didn’t know what it was doing or understand the consequences. All it knew was how wrong the boy was, how angry it made the tree feel. It was trying to teach the boy a lesson, on behalf of trees everywhere.

The boy continued to feel little swellings at his back. Small pressures, surely caused by the wind, made the entire structure of the tree wobble a fraction. Leaves that had been noisily rubbing in the flower beds slowly stopped. The bending blades of grass rested and stood upright. Gradually, the trunk seemed to be moving faster, almost pushing out into the boy, like something was stuck inside. The tree rocked more and more as the breeze died away to an unnoticeable whisper. As the branches began to rattle, the boy noticed properly for the first time the firmer and firmer touch of the trunk. He glanced up towards the sky, through the canopy of crisscrossing browns and greens, only to shrug away again with a sob.

The boy’s indifference only enraged the tree still more. So that, as the swaying grew quicker and quicker, the consciousness that had formed inside the tree disappeared, becoming something else entirely. Now the tree was just movement, just energy, just purpose. All of the life the tree had ever known became focused on the boy and ending his ignorant and cruel soul. The tree had never known what a soul was; would never know. It did not know whether or not the boy had one. It only knew that the boy had to be stopped. He had to be taught that at least he had tasted love, known happiness, shared warmth and feeling. He had to be shown that at least he could dream, chase dreams and possibly live them. There were always those lives that did not live, always those with truly no hope left; always lonely trees.

There was a crack. And the trunk threw its full weight at the boy, who scrambled too late from his pity. Falling branches pulled away the light and the blue from the canvas of the sky, bringing only dark.

Like in films, the boy came to gazing at sheer whiteness. Nothing else. The colour white was the afterlife? Appropriately empty he thought. And then he remembered. The tree.

He had often dreamt about his funeral. A song lyric drifted into his mind – “the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”. The dreams in which he was dead were some of the best he’d ever had; terribly self indulgent fictions in which all the figures and characters of his life turned up, gushing praise and regrets. All the girls and friends he’d ever wanted poured their hearts out. He was great after all.

There was no one here he really wanted to see. The strip lights buzzed and whirred, stuffing light down his retinas. The whiteness turned out to be the roof tiles. A steady beep and blip passed the time like a clock ticking. His heart was liable to suddenly conk out. He was hooked up to a monitor like on telly. His parents were here.

They didn’t believe him about the tree. When he was well enough to argue, they argued. They accused him and lectured him. They warned and scorned him. His mother ranted about the hardships of life, bemoaned his ignorance. Even his father shouted. He wasn’t allowed grapes, hadn’t been for years, so someone, probably his mother, had brought biscuits. His father had eaten most of them during the interrogations.

If he’d been able to text, he might’ve texted her, would definitely have texted his best friend. She hadn’t come to see him, even when he’d asked his parents to try to organise it. He was still alone. But something felt different. His skull was cracked, his spine weakened, his legs bruised, his right ankle broken, toes misshapen, right thumb fractured, left hand in plaster, nose crooked, face scratched, knees cut, wrists sprained and buttocks sore. But he felt stronger.

When they took him home he realised what it was. The tree hadn’t been dealt with yet. Its big, bulky carcass, torn in two and smashed in a heap through the fence, reminded him how bad he had felt. It reminded him that he’d realised he just wanted somebody to love. A universal truth, some might say, theme of many a song, but for him it was deeper, all his other wants were trivial and only to love was what he needed and what he craved.

Those trivial dreams might have been exposed as mostly meaningless, but somehow the tree had taught him they were still important. Months in a hospital bed had forced him to write again to pass the time. So that’s what he would do. He would write more and more, hopefully better and better, churning out any old nonsense. He would write to forget, write to remember, write to move on, write to preserve, write from the heart, write from the mind, write in the night, write in the day and write to lose himself. He would write because he could. And to touch, now and again, on truths that made everything worthwhile.  Even the lonely trees.

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.

New James Bond books; who can do better than Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver?


Carte Blanche was always going to be tricky to pull off. It’s one thing bringing Bond into the modern world cinematically, but the literary character is firmly grounded in Fleming’s universe of the 50s and 60s with its background of rationing and the Cold War. Only a few continuation novels by other authours have been enjoyable, let alone admirable advances of the character.

According to the Guardian, Deaver’s attempt to modernise Bond, following Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care “written as Ian Fleming” (which was also a letdown), falls flat on its face. The review by Steven Poole shows us the “nu-Bond” rather than telling, for the most part. And the abudance of quotes peppering the article are truly awful. I will put a link below.

I will reserve judgement until I have read (or attempted to read) Deaver’s interpretation. For the time being though, with my low expectations already further diminished, I turn my thoughts to who might do a better job with Bond in the future, now that in theory anyone can take on the task.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/may/26/ian-fleming?commentpage=last#end-of-comments

This Guardian Open Thread is for discussion of possible authors. There have been some jokey and very funny suggestions, as well as more serious ones. I posted my own entirely serious suggestion that Bond get in touch with his feminine readers with a Mills and Boon style:

Mills and Boon Bond from a woman’s perspective. Just like Fleming did in The Spy Who Loved Me, only steamier…

I had been rescued, rescued by a stranger named Bond. This man, this secret agent, this overpowering lover, had kicked down the door of inhibition in my mind and opened up whole worlds of sensation I’d never experienced before. I was an explorer discovering island after island of passion. He towered over me, his mysterious grey-blue eyes piercing the very core of my womanhood with their lustful gaze. Waves of forbidden pleasure shuddered through me as I glimpsed the mass of his loaded gun on the bedside table. Oh how I wanted this man, again and again, for once a real man to surrender to. Every firm touch of his fingertips was somehow ruthless and loving. I felt dizzy. Dizzy with joyful abandon. Absolutely intoxicated with pleasure, I gave way to his bulk and was unable to stop myself from murmuring,

“Ohhhhhh James…”

The Spy Who Loved Me was a refreshing approach from Fleming, with Bond simply helping a young girl in the more tightly focused setting of a motel to escape some thuggish brutes from a Mafia style gang. It was genuinely interesting to view Bond from a first person angle, and a female one too. And doubtless with Fleming’s outdated tendencies, writers today could do a more modern and detailed job of that female perspective.

Anyway here’s that Guardian review of Carte Blanche: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/may/26/carte-blanche-jeffery-deaver-review

And a more positive view from The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/hay-festival/8536397/Carte-Blanche-the-new-James-Bond-novel-by-Jeffrey-Deaver-review.html

Who do you think would successfully bring Bond into the 21st century on the page?

Notes from the news: Germany’s green energy revolution, Super Injunction Twitter row and Health Reform debate


Amongst the scandalous stories of super injunctions, celebrity gossip ruling the internet and ideological feuds in Parliament, genuinely groundbreaking news from Germany that could have global implications is hiding. Angela Merkel, the Christian Democrat Chancellor, has taken the decision in the wake of Japan’s nuclear crisis at Fukishima caused by a devastating earthquake, to phase out Germany’s substantial nuclear programme. The speed and scale of her plans are unprecedented anywhere in the world, according to an article from The Guardian.

Merkel is far from a progressive or left leaning politician. She is also a realist not an idealist. This makes the news even more momentous and significant, for if Europe’s largest economy takes such action others will follow. The Guardian say that it seems the rationalist in Merkel has decided to take drastic measures to avoid an equally unexpected event as the Japanese Tsunami, bringing Germany to its knees and causing a catastrophic safety hazard.

Merkel is targetting green energy as a huge area for future economic growth. She will be putting her country at the forefront of development, making it a world leader, as President Obama’s positive rhetoric remains just that because of moves by Republicans to block carbon emission caps. The Japanese may also reconsider their decision to continue with nuclear power if other nations are adopting safer, more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Other countries may feel compelled to up their own efforts so they don’t miss out on market share. Green jobs have the benefit of being completely sustainable. An abundance of endless energy could lead to ambitious projects in terms of transport and infrastructure. Clean energy would generally lead to higher standards of living. I’ve long argued that if governments take up the challenge of climate change and replacing fossil fuels there are exciting and inspiring opportunities.

In terms of the domestic impact here in the UK of Merkel’s decision, it may encourage Liberal Democrats, who have long ruled out nuclear energy in their manifestos. Given the divisions now in the coalition following a heated election and referendum campaign, Lib Dems might push for increased direct government funding for offshore wind farms. Merkel recently opened Germany’s first sizeable offshore wind facility and her plans put it at the heart of Germany’s energy needs. The UK has 40% of Europe’s potential offshore wind energy, so there is huge scope for expansion. The Energy Secretary is a Lib Dem, Chris Huhne, who recently confronted his Conservative cabinet colleagues. There is a possibility he’ll push for more for his department in light of Merkel’s u-turn.

Here is the Guardian article: http://bit.ly/lb7lYk

The Telegraph has a prominent article about Jemima Khan being falsely named as a celebrity with a super injunction. She was wrongly accused of trying to gag the media because there were indecent pictures of her and Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson. The incident, with countless other names leaked on Twitter, has prompted further debate about the usefulness of the legal measure in the internet age. It is possible to restrict publications like newspapers but the internet, and Twitter in particular, has an extremely fast mind of its own.

http://bit.ly/ksFV7M

Meanwhile in the House of Commons MPs have been debating the government’s proposed NHS reforms. There has been widespread opposition from doctors, nurses and other health professionals. Labour have pounced on the ill feeling and Nick Clegg vowed not to let the Bill pass if people’s concerns weren’t met, as part of his drive for a “louder voice” for Lib Dems in government following their election mauling.

Much of the opposition centres on the privatisation part of the Bill. There is a fear that the Conservatives are trying to privatise the NHS by “the back door” which is exaggerated. But there are issues with creating any sort of market in health. Personally I think private, high quality hospitals do have a role to play. But I feel uneasy about any market and don’t see the need for it. The NHS should simply prioritise and drop some treatments that are not essential, leaving them entirely to the private sector. This would be controversial but would save huge amounts of money and improve the standard of care for everyone, if measures were made to protect the poor.

One Lib Dem has suggested the Bill be scrapped completely: http://ind.pn/m18c8I