Tag Archives: philosophy

Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die


Words alone cannot describe this programme or the issue it addresses. Or rather my words can’t. The people Discworld author Terry Pratchett meets in this unforgettable hour of television, and indeed Pratchett himself, do their best to talk eloquently and straightforwardly about an impossible subject. Even those living through terminal illness and speaking from experience admit that all they can really do is sum up why they came to make their own individual decision though.

Because words cannot come close to summing up Pratchett’s journey to Dignitas in Switzerland and his own personal battle with Alzheimer’s, which is robbing him of his ability to write and communicate, I shall not say much. If you can steel yourself enough you should watch it because this is really educational, as well as moving and powerful. However of all the emotions associated with the controversy of this documentary I am left with one; anger.

I find myself gripped with fury at those that have denounced Pratchett’s documentary as needlessly inflammatory, wrong and self interested propaganda. Have these critics even watched the thing? Because they come across as ignorant in the worst possible way. Pratchett is clearly coming to terms with his own illness throughout. He does not begin with a “hooray for Dignitas and euthanasia” agenda. The opposite is true; he has grave misgivings but also does not want to die a shell of the man he truly was.

I studied euthanasia in both Law and Philosophy and Ethics at A-Level. As a result I have a very basic understanding of its illegality and the opposing moral cases. I would say that despite the seemingly inhumane law which could prosecute caring spouses who assist or travel with their loved ones to Switzerland, the sensible judgement of judges and prosecutors should not be underestimated. In reality there have been no instances of imprisonment in such cases. It is just possible under the law.

My instinct, as is that of both Pratchett and the very English couple he accompanies to Dignitas, is that there is something wrong about assisted dying. As long as each case is judged sensibly it should remain wrong in principle. But this programme opens my eyes to the other options. Whilst those that are merely “weary of life” should never be assisted to die, in fact they should be helped to live, those with genuinely debilitating illnesses and of sound mind, should get the choice. It would not open up a “slippery slope” to Holocaust style cleansing to clarify somehow in the law that people doing it properly would not be harassed about it.

There are of course the ones left behind. As I said words can’t cope with the enormity of this. I can’t get my head, or indeed my heart, around the issue to express what I feel about it. It certainly seems to be right for some though, there is no denying that. Even if you’re strongly opposed your tears as you watch this will not feel any form of malice towards the bravery of those that choose to go.

I will end with a few, again inadequate, words on bravery. Those mindlessly and excessively labelling this sort of television as evil are simply cowards who don’t know the meaning of courage. Some of them might criticise from a good place because of reasonable concern. But many do not. Many kick up a fuss and complain because they are too scared to even allow others to have the debate. And that is wrong. They must have known what they were watching; the title is not ambiguous. If you really disagree don’t watch, it’s harrowing stuff. But it is also heartfelt. This debate is real and needs to be had. I am angry on behalf of the immensely brave, truly brave people, who took the time to share their stories with the BBC.

DVD Review: As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me


Last year Peter Weir made his directorial return with The Way Back, a star studded and old fashioned tale about the possibly true and possibly grossly exaggerated escape of a group of Polish prisoners of war from a Siberian gulag. Its critical reception was mixed, with some praising the film’s ambition and visuals, whilst others bemoaned its fatal lack of emotional engagement.  However a German film, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, beat Weir’s epic to the broad concept by nine years.

Released in 2001 As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, now available on DVD, follows a German officer fleeing from imprisonment on Siberia’s easternmost shore. And for this reason its ethical foundations are considerably flimsier and more controversial than The Way Back’s.

This is saying something because The Way Back was based on a bestseller by Slavomir Rawicz, which since publication, has been disputed and branded a fake from a number of sources. And yet Weir’s film is unlikely to be attacked for historical bias of any kind. The story of Poles and Jews getting one over on their persecutors, be they German or Russian, is a common and acceptable one. Make your hero a German who has fought for a Nazi controlled state and buying into the character becomes far more complex.

Some might say that the way in which As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is told twists and distorts historical fact. We see Bernhard Betterman’s Clemens Forell hug his wife and young daughter goodbye on the platform in 1944 Germany. Then we cut swiftly to Forell being sentenced to 25 years forced labour in Siberia. He is charged with war crimes but the implication is that Forell is being unfairly condemned by corrupt and vengeful Communists. Then there is a long and grim train journey across the cold expanse of Russia, with glimpses of the grim hardships to come. Finally, exhausted from malnutrition and a hike through the snow, they are thrust into life at a camp.

Throughout all of this we discover nothing about Forell’s war record and his potential sins and little too about his political sympathies. He is shown to be a compassionate and brave man though; in other words a typical hero. He treasures the picture of his family and uses it for galvanising motivation that replaces the sustenance of food and drink. It is never explicitly mentioned during the camp scenes and moments of inhumane, cruel punishment but the shadow hanging over the story the whole time is that of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. You can’t help but feel uneasy as your sympathies inevitably gather around Forell in his struggle.

Of course the debate about the moralities of the Second World War and the balance of its sins can hardly be squeezed into a film review. Indeed the sensible view is probably to admit that it’s an unsolvable problem; evil was committed on both sides on an unimaginable scale. Stalin’s Russia was carrying out atrocities throughout the 1930s, long before the worst of Hitler’s cruelties were inflicted and on a larger scale than the Holocaust. It’s impossible to reason with or categorize such statistics of death and horrific eyewitness anecdotes. But this is a film that unavoidably makes the viewer think about such issues and not necessarily in the best of ways.

I don’t object to a story from a German soldier’s perspective. In fact I find it refreshing and necessary to witness an often overlooked point of view. But As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me glosses over too much at times, so that it becomes ethically dubious, compromising and limiting your investment in the narrative. The filmmakers will probably argue they are simply telling the story from Forell’s viewpoint alone. I think this argument falls down because of the film’s other weaknesses in plausibility though.

As Forell slowly makes his way back, first through Siberian snow, then Siberian summers and on through other outposts of the USSR, in a muddled route elongated by the help and hindrance of kind (and not so kind) strangers, we are continually shown glimpses of his waiting family in Germany. These scenes are so unconvincing that they spark the questions about the rest of the film.

The lives of his family are completely unaffected by the war, with only two exceptions; one is his ever present absence and the other a throwaway remark by the son Forell has never met, which his mother labels “Yankee talk”. Presumably they have therefore encountered American occupiers in some way. Forell’s daughter is only ever shown getting upset or dreaming about her lost father. I’m not being callous but the girl was young when her father left and her reaction is so simplistic that it punctures the believability of the entire story. I’m not saying she wouldn’t be absolutely devastated by her father’s absence but she would perhaps have moved on in some way. The possibility of Forell’s wife finding another man is never raised and they never give him up for dead.

All of this, coupled with the chief of security from the Siberian camp pursuing Forell across Russia like an ultimate nemesis, transforms As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me into am unrealistic fairytale. Forell is helped by a Jew at one point but the issue is merely touched upon. The period elements of this film are so secondary that they become redundant, but then the film does not claim to be “inspired by true events”.

 It’s possible to enjoy this film if you look at it as simply one man’s impossible journey back to his impossibly perfect family. At way over two hours long, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is hopelessly brutal at times but somehow snappy too. It’s an engaging enough example of traditional storytelling, despite my doubts, but the only truths to be found are symbolic and stereotypical.

Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 4 – The Doctor’s Wife


Am I getting overexcited if I say that this episode had everything? The Guardian series blog says that at its heart this was just a story of love between a man and his car, “perfectly pitched”. But I think that’s a simplification of the abundance of ideas in The Doctor’s Wife and a misunderstanding of the bond between Doctor and machine. If the TARDIS is a car it’s the fastest and most exclusive vehicle on the roads. And the machine is so deeply rooted in Time Lord culture, carrying such a magical image with divine possibilities, that its equivalent as a car would have to be the very latest model opening up the world for travel in a time of horse and carts. The Doctor, after all, is more than just a poser in a Porsche; he’s an adventurer, explorer and conquering genius. And the TARDIS is his home, the one constant in his lonely existence.

There is too much to talk about after such a spot on execution of a tantalising premise. I had not heard of Neil Gaiman before this week but he brings a distinctive and fresh feel to this episode, with its industrial junk and grimy Victoriana costume. Yes we’re clearly in the classic setting of a quarry, but it isn’t samey; the set is wonderfully lit and decorated to create a unique rubbish dump environment.

 His glittering CV in sci-fi and fantasy is evident everywhere but Gaiman also grasps the history of Who and mines it for inspiration. More than any other incoming writer he creates a fan fest for die hard followers. The focus on a personification of the TARDIS and distress calls from Time Lords such as the Corsair, provides the pudding for lifelong Whovians, whilst the running around corridors is a classic treat many newer fans will have missed from the RTD era.

But it’s not just running around corridors. With the jaw dropping concept of the soul of the Doctor’s beloved blue box transplanted into a woman, it would be easy to gloss over the scenes with Amy and Rory. There’s no doubt that the Suranne Jones and Matt Smith double act steals the show. However the scenes with our married couple continue running themes of Moffat’s reign, raising further questions about the story arc.

What is it with constantly killing Rory? Mysterious and powerful entity House, brilliantly voiced by Michael Sheen, twice kills him with his hallucinogenic tricks. He also turns him against Amy, which is something many are saying might happen for real later on. There are chilling psychological scares with “Kill Amy” daubed all over the walls and some classic Whovian prosthetic frights with the tentacle strewn beard of the Ood.

What next? How about the marvellously creepy and eccentric Auntie and Uncle, both “patchwork people” continually “repaired” by the sadistic House? They add a delightfully quirky touch with touches of humour as well as menace. And Auntie, with what many might have missed as a throwaway line, hints at the story arc of Amy’s pregnancy. She grabs her and says “House loves you” and given that House feeds off of Time Lords or at least their TARDISes, are we meant to take that as a hint that the regenerating child at the end of The Day of the Moon is Amy’s? How on earth do the Doctor and Amy have a child? Is this just an elaborate red herring?

Enough speculation and back to the genius of this episode. House is a great idea for an adversary for the Doctor, an intelligent “entity” and one that simply wants to feed off of Time Lord energy, whilst also having fun with his food. The lovely sci-fi idea of a “bubble on the outside of a soap bubble” of the universe was also introduced through fantastically playful dialogue. Suranne Jones, effectively playing the TARDIS, did an absorbing and varied job of realising the rest of Gaiman’s excellent lines.

Indeed Gaiman’s script was perfectly structured as the TARDIS adjusted to human form, moving the character from nonsense, by degrees, to harmonious cooperation with the Doctor. This is an episode that really rewards a second viewing, as all the seemingly mad ramblings from Idris/TARDIS at the beginning, turn out to be quotes from later in the script or confused foresights from the time machine of what’s to come. For once the accompanying episode of Doctor Who Confidential was a total joy, as Gaiman read extracts from his screenplay that sounded more like intoxicating poetry and far better in many ways than the action brought to life in the episode itself.

Other odds and ends then: Matt Smith was excellent, getting the chance to be emotional, crazy and angry and determined. If we didn’t get many answers relating to this year’s story arc, we did get some partial ones to age old questions about the TARDIS and the Doctor’s past. For one thing we finally ventured beyond a control room. Ok the budget didn’t stretch to that swimming pool, but there was a lovely cameo from Tennant’s old control room. The TARDIS, given a voice, was at pains to say it was she that chose the Doctor to see the universe, not the other way around. And a satisfying explanation for all the random thrills and battles with evil: “You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go,” /”But I always took you where you needed to”.

After last week’s enjoyable run around, The Doctor’s Wife was a romp, romance and refreshing ideas episode rolled into one. Hopefully Gaiman will be persuaded to return and deliver the kind of one off story Moffat used to do so well. Next week The Rebel Flesh looks set to bring back some sort of Cassandra like creature. But things still look dark, dingy and dangerous.

P.S Are all humans like this? Bigger on the inside?

An EPQ Comparitive Essay: Part 1 – Huxley and the Prophetic Utopia: Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?


Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World offers excellent insight into the Cold War, despite the fact it was written in the early thirties. Indeed because of this earlier date of publication Brave New World is neatly positioned to shed light on the competing ideologies that would shape the world we know today. It’s also all the more impressive that many of Huxley’s ideas retain a degree of accuracy, when unlike Orwell (whose 1984 provided the other prophetic twentieth century novel), Huxley was writing before the enormous changes of the Second World War.

HUXLEY’S INFLUENCES

Perhaps the first enlightening principle to take from Brave New World with regard to the Cold War is how the opposing sides have similarities as well as striking differences. The figurehead of Huxley’s society, Henry Ford, is an icon of both capitalism and America. Effectively the God of Brave New World, Ford is worshipped in bizarre and hypnotic community ceremonies. It seems that his legacy of mass production accounts for his importance in a society conditioned to consume with a smile on its face. All of these pillars holding up the Brave New World seem distinctly American. However as Huxley himself wrote in 1928 “To the Bolshevist idealist, Utopia is indistinguishable from a Ford factory[i]. A society grounded in the wonders of mass consumption requires mass production. Factories are the habitats of the workers and therefore a Communist element emerges in the Brave New World. Huxley reminds us all how Communism is a child of capitalism. The aim of happiness for all is also recognisably Communist, albeit through propaganda rather than reality. The true triumph of Brave New World however is not how it incorporates two competing systems into one society but how it exposes their most damaging flaws. The reality of Communism triumphs over the ideal with the caste system reflecting how actual Communist countries turn out. The Alphas of Brave New World are the Party members of Communist Russia; privileged by position and a (relatively) luxurious quality of life. The liberating qualities of capitalism are also smashed by Huxley’s perfect machine of consumption. Through over-organisation the individual freedoms to pursue hobbies such as sport are slashed; everything must contribute to the pot of stability. Perfect capitalism comes to resemble Communism by placing the state above the individual.

Which then, of the two powerful forces destined to grapple for international influence, most compelled Huxley to write his unique novel? The answer is another reason to respect Huxley’s power for prophecy. After the First World War, Huxley predicted that Americawould enter a period of “inevitable acceleration” towards “world domination[ii]. This acceleration was not immediate, as despite Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points forming the backbone of the new League of Nations, America would never be a member. The opposition at home took advantage of anti-Wilson sentiments and soon public opinion resulted in a period of isolationism between the wars. Nevertheless America’s powerful corporations, boosted by their advantageous position in the First World War, continued to spread their wings globally. After the Second World War American isolationism was unthinkable even to most Americans and after forty-five years of Cold War Huxley was proved right that America would be the nation of “world domination” not theSoviet Union.

Brave New World is largely inspired by Huxley’s first visit to America in 1926. The 1920s saw a revival of anti-American feeling amongst the intelligentsia of Europe. Certainly this may have been fuelled by resentment lingering from the First World War, which left Europe ravaged and America bountiful. Men like Huxley may well have been suspicious of American opportunism but regardless of this a spectre of suffering loomed over Huxley’s generation which influenced their attitudes. On May the 5th Huxley’s ship arrived at San Francisco. He was greeted almost immediately by reporters, setting the tone for a whirlwind “celebrity” tour of the country. On board ship, before reaching America, Huxley had been reading My Life and Work by Henry Ford after finding it in the ship’s library. This discovery would prove crucial to the creation of Brave New World and influence the way in which Huxley viewedAmerica as he travelled around it.

            Despite arriving with the typical privileged and English views of American society, Huxley’s view of Americain the midst of the Roaring Twenties was far from clear cut. He found Los Angelesparticularly bewildering as he noted that “thought is barred in the City of Dreadful Joy and conversation is unknown[iii]. He also disapproved generally of the growing culture of materialism, the trash pumped out by Hollywood and the “vulgarity” of the flappers. Huxley’s whole family was more taken by New York and Huxley delighted in excessive socialising. Although Huxley at times seemed wholly negative towards America, claiming that a “radical alteration (for the worse) of established standards” was underway, he still left the country with an overwhelming sense of its split-personality, spotting the “strange co-existence of Puritanism and wild hedonism in America” which arguably is still the case today[iv].

Huxley’s visit to Americaand his political stance on a number of controversial issues has led many to debate whether or not Brave New World is intended as a dystopia or utopia. Of course the literary debate surrounding whether or not it is possible to write a utopia at all plays a crucial role. Huxley was joining a long line of much discussed visions of society, each with its own controversial answer to the question of the human condition that for some fundamental reason the reader tended to resist. But Huxley himself, despite the breadth of ideas in the book, must have decided whether or not he wanted the reader to be left with a mood of negativity or possibilities.

            It is possible to argue that Huxley intended certain aspects of Brave New World to be perfect and even desirable solutions to social problems. Certainly Huxley had the foresight to address underlying flaws in the structure of society that were not discussed in the mainstream, perhaps because the task of tackling these issues seemed insurmountable. Even today some of Huxley’s concerns remain unchallenged, particularly in political circles, as candidates are fully aware that such things divide the electorate. In a recent article in The Times population growth is described as the “great ecological timebomb” that by 2050 will have exploded global population to “9.2 billion”. The premise of the same article however is that ordinary people or “cogs in our messy, glorious, capitalist democracy” (a phrase Huxley might’ve approved of), merely want to live their lives without surrendering anything to deal with such massive problems. The writer concludes that the “Green” fanatics of today would have to seize control in a manner similar to that of the “Reds” in the past in order to impose unpopular solutions from above[v]. Perhaps Huxley saw such a coup as the only viable solution too, as in Brave New World it is clear that at some point a group seized control amidst the chaos of war and economic strife and implemented its own system on society.

One of the features of the new order is a permanent solution to the problem of population control. In the various “hatcheries” not only the number of people but the quality of people can be adjusted and refined. Huxley had a genuine interest not only in the control of population but in any scientific method that might improve the genetic stock of the species. In various 1930s radio interviews he advocated eugenics, now a term dirtied by Nazism, as a way of dealing with Britain’s problems. Statements such as “any form of order is better than chaos”, have led some to reason that Huxley seriously supported the radical solutions proposed in his novel[vi]. However Huxley’s intellectual interest in emerging answers to problems like population growth is understandable given that he is a man of considerable scientific background. As for his fear of chaos, Huxley was not alone. Already haunted by the Great War, his generation were obviously perplexed by a decade of financial collapse, social change and dictatorship. After hearing a Parliamentary debate Huxley, like many others, became disillusioned with politics and scraps of information from experiments like theSoviet Union began to sound appealing. This is by no means an indication that Huxley proposed the schemes within his novel as viable options. The manufacture of babies is a device that highlights the issue of population. A sensible interpretation is that Huxley wished the extreme he described, or anything close to it, to be avoided by prompt action.

Huxley’s biographer Nicholas Murray is certain that Brave New World is a dystopian vision. He says “that the real meaning of Brave New World is that the idea of utopia is toxic”. This suggests that Huxley took a particular view in the literary debate surrounding utopias; they’re a bad idea. Murray goes further by comparing Huxley and Orwell (a common comparison) and pointing out that their attitudes towards utopias are shaped by the visionary projects of the time, namely the intended paradises of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. These examples seem to suggest that any attempt to perfect society will encounter opposition and incur casualties. In Huxley’s case I think it is more relevant to talk about the consequences of an American utopia however. We know that Brave New World was written before the shocking emergence of atrocities following the Second World War. Therefore the expansion of American control, the spread of their culture and the dystopian consequences of this sprawling growth, seems more of an influence on Huxley’s creative process. In Brave New World Revisited Huxley confirms that his intention was always to warn primarily against “government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of the individual”, rather than against the tyranny envisaged by Orwell[vii]. This makes it clear that Huxley’s primary target for criticism in Brave New World was the “American system”; a system that in 1947 President Truman would argue was “the only way to save the world from totalitarianism[viii].

PROGRESS

There are numerous examples throughout Brave New World of aspects of American culture that Huxley exaggerates into dystopian features of his fictional society. In fact the first chapter alone contains several elements that we can see have been influenced by Huxley’s concerns about Americanization. For example the first paragraph of the novel contains the slogan of the World State, “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.” Whilst this may sound more like the Communist inspired mottos that Orwell made famous in 1984, it can also be likened to the mind numbing advertising catchphrases emerging as part of the corporation culture that was absorbing power in America. Also present in the first chapter is an American sense of scale. Huxley effectively uses the tour given to new recruits at the Central London Hatchery as a lens through which he introduces the reader to the foundations of his fictional world. At one point the Director, who is leading the tour, instructs a member of staff to “Give them a few figures”. This instruction and the description that follows reflects an aspect of the American ideal that may have particularly worried sceptics such as Huxley; the notion that bigger is better. Huxley’s description of the way the new recruits react to the size of the establishment is extremely revealing;

“Two hundred and twenty metres long, two hundred wide, ten high. He pointed upwards. Like chickens drinking, the students lifted their eyes towards the distant ceiling.[ix]

 

Here we get a clear insight into Huxley’s attitude towards an American ideal of progress. Bigger is not necessarily better, but in Huxley’s description of the awe-struck students he recognises the blinding qualities of grandiose projects.

The theme of size and quantity as the measure of success is continued throughout the first chapter, with continued reference to the output of the hatchery. Huxley was well aware of the importance of scale to the American system and the downsides of its reliance upon it. “The concept of scale is crucial to understanding the American economic model… American monopolists realised after the Civil War that scale above all gave them power: they could pay their suppliers less because the suppliers had nowhere else to go, they could charge their customers more, they could drive smaller competitors out of business[x].” The demand for scale did not have negative impacts inAmerica’s early years, as there was still plenty of sparsely populated land to colonise. The bulk of territorial acquisitions are forgotten because they were smoothly exchanged for dollars rather than the blood of American soldiers. The 1803Louisiana Purchase saw theUnited States double in size for just $15,000,000. The previous owners, the French, were delighted with this sum for what they regarded as land without strategic value. Napoleon would plough the American money into expanding the Channelport ofBoulogne in preparation for an invasion ofEngland. It is easy with hindsight to suggest that he chose the wrong scheme.

As Americagrew however the need for scale would begin to impact upon other nations. The outcome of the Civil War determined the character of America’s elite; the industrialists defeated the landowners. This new elite were responsible for a shift from property and populating, to profit, when it came to expansion. It was these industrialists that Huxley knew could exploit the system. Huxley would have been particularly worried by the influence of big business upon government; indeed in Brave New World he has the two become the same thing. It’s possible to draw parallels between the rapid expansion of America’s navy following the Civil War, so that it went from a force smaller than Sweden’s to only the Royal Navy’s inferior by 1907, and the soma spraying riot police deployed in Brave New World by the world controllers. The navy grew as a direct consequence of American corporations demand for scale, just as the riot police intervene to maintain the social order and stop the disruption caused by the Savage at the hospital, which was threatening the supply of dead bodies which are utilised in Brave New World as a resource.

Huxley’s worry was that the concentration of power would lead to only a small group’s interests being served by government. He would’ve been outraged by America’s policy u-turn on Germanyand Japanfollowing the Second World War. In 1947 Americaabandoned a commitment to purge these nations of undesirable political elements and limit their strength, opting instead to adopt a policy of accelerated development to open up export markets, reduce occupation costs and counter the Soviet threat with the creation of strong allies. This decision was strongly influenced by the desires of Northern industrialists. As a result Americaembraced industrial monopolies such as Mitsubishi in both rogue states, accepting the concentration of power amongst certain political elites to achieve their own ends. Through the Marshall Plan Americaextended this policy to Europe, often choosing to support the status quo in order to open up new markets for profits. At home the USgovernment could satisfy their powerful business allies whilst also appearing humanitarian to the public by saving their beleaguered European friends from the menace of Communism. Huxley was critical of this deception but also of the entire culture of consumption Americaimposed on other nations via the Marshall Plan. He had encountered it on his trip to Americain 1926 and in Brave New World he warned against its dangers.

 

We have seen that part of Huxley’s strong suspicion of the American system is its particular version of progress. ForAmericamaking the leap to inefficient and exploitative economies of scale was progress. It has also decided that it has a global role to play and that other nations should follow their systems of government and finance. It took advantage of the threat of Communism and asked the world to make a choice between their way and the Red way. As a result today’s world is largely dominated by the triumphant American system, with even supposedly Communist China playing the capitalist game. Those not part of the grand plan are judged as failed, ungoverned and terrorist states. I believe Huxley would agree with the modern writer John Gray about what progress ought to be:

There is an ingrained tendency to think of progress in terms of convergence on a global way of life and, up to a point, a global viewpoint is unavoidable. Pollution and climate change do not respect borders, and war or anarchy in any part of the world has spill-over effects on the rest, but we should discard the idea that one sort of regime is best for everybody. Instead of thinking of progress as a movement towards a single, ideal way of life, we could think of it in terms different ways of life developing in their own ways. If some countries wish to opt out of the global market, they should be free to do so. If they want to pick and choose among new technologies, let them try[xi].”

I believe Huxley would share this view because of his passionate defence of individualism both through the satire of Brave New World and the urgent essays of Brave New World Revisited. If he did think along similar lines, as his work suggests, then nothing could be more opposed to progress than one nation attempting to impose its way of life upon others.

            In the context of the Cold War however it may seem foolish to talk negatively about progress. It is generally accepted that the pressurised atmosphere of the Cold War induced one of the most productive periods of advancement in the history of mankind. We have already touched on the staggering economic turnarounds of Germanyand Japan, both of whom are today modern nations in so many ways. Then there was the development of a military-industrial complex that fuelled changes in so many areas. In 1960 defence spending in Americaaccounted for 52 per cent of all federal spending. In total the Defence Department employed over 2.5 million people. Research projects on a whole range of subjects were handed out to countless universities[xii].  Spin-offs from the arms race helped civilian industries like electronics and air travel. Television brought exotic locations into your living room.

           However for Huxley the television brought terrible indications about the dangers of progress for progress’ sake. The 1960 Presidential election is now infamous for its televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Over 60% of the adult population watched the first live televised debate, which was surely a triumph for democracy, making politics truly accessible to voters. However Huxley saw it differently. A decisive factor in the election turned out to be Kennedy’s superior performance on television. An often quoted fact is that those who heard the first debate on radio preferred Nixon, whereas those who watched it on television liked Kennedy. This suggests that, judged purely on the substance of his answers, Nixon was the better candidate for most people. Reading transcripts of the debates reveals that the two candidates’ views on key policy matters were not grossly different and that neither decisively defeated the other in arguments.  This seems to suggest that television offered Kennedy the chance to charm away his inexperience and claim victory. Nixon’s strong record of fighting Communism and experience as a Vice President was overshadowed. In the long run Kennedy’s success at avoiding nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Nixon’s corruption exposed by the Watergate scandal seems to vindicate the result of the 1960 election. However at the time an election was one primarily because of the candidate’s image. Huxley worried that in this new age anyone could exploit the good will of democracy, “All that is now needed was money and a candidate who could be coached to look sincere.[xiii]” For Huxley it was all too similar to the fervour that swept Hitler to power in Germany and if it wasn’t that bad, it was still degrading politics so that people were voting for symbols rather than policies; “Under the new dispensation, political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance.[xiv]


[i] Bradshaw, D. Introduction by David Bradshaw, Brave New World. Vintage 2007, page xxi

[ii] ibid, page xix

[iii] Murray, N.  Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual, Abacus 2003 page 182

[iv] ibid, page 184

[v] Senior, A. 2009 Blunt warning about greens under the bed. The Times 24 July, No. 69896, page 27.

[vi] Bradshaw, D. Introduction by David Bradshaw, Brave New World. Vintage 2007, page xxiii

[vii] Huxley, A. Brave New World Revisited. Vintage 2004, page 5

[viii] Ferguson, N. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Penguin 2004, page 80

[ix] Huxley, A. Brave New World. Vintage 2007, page 8

[x] Landers, B. Empires Apart, Picnic Publishing 2009, page 353

[xi] Gray, J. Heresies: Against Progress and other Illusions. Granta Books 2004, page 63

[xii] Isaacs, J and Downing, T. Cold War. Abacus 2008, page 279

[xiii] Huxley, A. Brave New World Revisited. Vintage 2004, page 73

[xiv] ibid, page 73

An EPQ Comparitive Essay: Introduction – Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?


Yesterday I dusted off some work from the archives of my laptop and gave it a new, backup home on the world wide web in the humble dwelling that is Mrtsblog. Today I’ll continue the trend with a more academic piece. This essay was the fruit of a summer of reading science fiction, histories of the Cold War and comparisons between the American and Russian ways of life. Originally I also intended to write about Ray Bradbury’s works. Whilst I did enjoy The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 immensely, and they really are beautifully written with fantastic ideas, I could not accommodate his writing with my theme. Perhaps it was better I left Ray’s work alone and in the drawer of pure enjoyment in my brain.

Anyway in the end my essay, for an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) at A-Level, became a comparison of the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick. Looking back on it now there are things I wish I had done better and it’s not as well as written or argued as I hope to be in future. But I do miss the satisfaction of both academic study and essay writing now and again, so these posts will remind me that I am capable of it.

The first post (this one) will be the introduction, with the two parts on Huxley and Dick to follow. I really enjoyed marring my interests in literature and history with this essay, and as it was primarily written for English sizeable chunks about American history had to be removed. Unfortunately it’s still quite a drawn out read, with as I say, a lot of weaknesses despite a good mark. I don’t really expect any readers to consume the whole thing, but as I say, will add it to my online archive of work regardless.

So here we go:

Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?

 

Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick can both be loosely linked under the banner of “science fiction” writers. However the two men have extraordinarily different backgrounds and influences. Huxley was an English intellectual living in the shadow of the First World War, whereas Dick was an anti-establishment Californian who came of age as the Second World War ended. The literary outputs of the two men are also poles apart in a number of ways. Huxley wrote satires of the English upper classes but Dick’s mainstream successes were realistic portrayals of the average American dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Huxley’s most celebrated work, Brave New World, is regarded as a “novel of ideas” and Huxley himself admitted that he struggled to find the balance between plot and information. Dick did not have Huxley’s scientific heritage, but approached writing fiction with a strong knowledge of philosophy, psychology and Eastern Religion. These influences are all evident in Dick’s most highly regarded novel, The Man in the High Castle, along with an excellent original premise and believable characterisation. Whatever their differences however, both men continually challenged accepted thinking in their writings and in particular questioned the reality of the Cold War world. Both men are also best known for cautionary messages that prompted readers to remain vigilant about threats to their humanity from any source, totalitarian or otherwise.

Huxley and Dick were both rightly influenced by the division of a post-war world into two separate ideological camps. Huxley was deeply concerned by the methods of totalitarians and the worrying susceptibility of the masses to their tactics. Dick was amongst the first to recognise the destructive potential of two nuclear armed adversaries and the implications of impending doom on human existence. However what sets them apart from the rest is their refusal to allow their thinking to be consumed by the scale of the Cold War and the evil of the Communist threat.

Both men had the awareness to keep one eye turned inward on the frailties of the Western world, at a time when democratic governments were getting an easy ride on a wave of unity against the tyranny of the Reds. Neither man succumbed to the temptation of oversimplifying the world around them into a good vs. evil struggle. They equally recognised the potential for right and wrong in each individual human being. A Communist was still a person capable of good, just as an American had the potential for bad. Both men touched on this theme in their work, Huxley with his “Savage” outsider and Dick more specifically with his almost – human androids.

The underlying warning was that a capitalist citizen could be as easily exploited as a Communist drone if they neglected their freedom to think and question. In life both Huxley and Dick were determined never to do so. Huxley fretted about ignorant modern lives, lived to purely satisfy the senses. He questioned the very idea of progress, warning against unnecessary and deceptive changes. Dick led a tortured life, lurching between periods of depression, paranoia and addiction. Through it all he maintained an intellectual curiosity with the abuse of power and perceived reality. There was hope for both of them in freedom of expression.

Creative Writing: The Handmaid’s Tale and Alice in Wonderland Transformation Mash-up: Part 2


Here is the commentary explaining my creative piece in previous post, which was also a required part of the coursework:

Handmaid’s Tale Transformation Commentary

My transformation is based on the novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Atwood creates a dystopian, totalitarian society in the near future born out of religious fundamentalism and fear. The reader is plunged into this world with no background and merely shown the narrative voice of Offred, until historical notes at the end of the novel offer some outside perspectives on events.

A key change I made for my transformation was to take the narrative viewpoint from Offred and view events and themes of the novel from one of the minor character’s perspective. There was plenty of scope to do this as the narrative is completely focused on Offred’s experiences and descriptions and opinions of characters she interacts with are inevitably coloured by her own relationships with them. For example her impression of the Commander is understandably negative and associated with unpleasant duties.

I decided to write a transformation concerning Nick and also made the decision to avoid the first person approach used in the novel. I also sought to avoid a simplistic change of genre to a dramatic monologue which would merely have Nick explain his feelings and attitudes to the regime.

Despite the conscious decision to avoid a first person narrative the significance of Offred’s narrow and occasionally confused storytelling remained central to my thinking. It seemed to me a vital aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale that Offred began to doubt her own recollections and felt the need to constantly qualify the facts, such was her isolation and desperation. On several occasions she recounts different versions of events, and in the case of the fate of her fiancé she cannot confirm to the reader which is true, as she simultaneously believes them all. Therefore I aimed to create a transformation that explored the idea of reality but also how one person’s story and their version of reality can be insignificant for others.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with its fantastical dream-like narrative and emphasis on nonsense and meaning, enabled me to explore those themes of reality and storytelling. I settled on a reworking of Alice in Wonderland’s opening chapter Down The Rabbit Hole, centred around themes of The Handmaid’s Tale and the motivations of Nick’s character.

My transformation begins with Nick descending into boredom in ordinary circumstances, as Alice does but also as Offred often does in the novel. In fact at the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale Offred offers us insight into the only world she has with simple description of her plain surroundings, “A chair, a table, a lamp”. Atwood often has Offred minutely describe things and then drop blunt “bombshells” that hint at the scale of the totalitarian oppression around her, as Offred concludes the description began above with “They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to”. I tried to mirror this technique early in my piece with the list of ordinary objects, with the exception of a “uniformed chicken”.  Clearly my “bombshell” is more light-hearted than Atwood’s and is more in the spirit of nonsense found in my style model. However it reflects themes of inactivity, detail and true reality raised in the base text.

I tried to create a distinctive idiolect for Nick through my lexical choice despite writing in the third person. I used the technique of free indirect style to convey Nick’s attitudes; “some bimbo would no doubt fetch him.” The word “bimbo” is clearly Nick’s own rather than the narrator’s and reflects views of women looked at in the base text. I continue to echo this theme when Nick “groped around in his mind”. This sordid view of women, and Nick’s cynical attitude towards the complications of life and business, conflicts with the simplistic optimism of the hen, based on inviolable sacred truths. I aimed to reflect the blind simplicity of religious fundamentalism, a constant presence in the base text, with the rhythm of the hen’s speech and her lexis. I have her use simple but grand abstract verbs like “sacred”, “brave”, “freedom” and “wicked”, that for cynical non-believers like Nick are silly or devoid of meaning. For her, like the believers in the base text, nothing is more straightforward than her faith. Her sentences are often just lists of things that to her are simply facts; “That is you and your Commander and your lover”. I also refer to the religious fundamentalism of the novel in other ways, such as the exclamation of “BLASPHEME!” at the end of the transformation and the hen’s belief in “the Book” and preordained events, which comes back to the unifying theme of narrative.

Identity is important in the base text and I try and reflect this in a number of ways. From the start Nick’s waiting leads him to doubt whether his own employment really suits him and then the hen insists on not being mistaken as a chicken, which should also provide humour. I then reflect the importance of possession and identity in the novel as shown through Of-fred and the Commander, with my own Chief Executive in the real world and White Queen and Red Princess Down the Elevator Shaft. Nick is also confused throughout by the hen’s version of his identity, just as Offred doubts what little is left of herself due to other characters’ views of her.

I reflect the dystopian aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale with the debris strewn lobby setting. I also have Nick descend into chaos (as Offred does) via the fall in the elevator shaft; an image that appears in the base text when Offred describes betrayal as “like being in an elevator cut loose at the top”. I suggest that Nick has perhaps been betrayed, with textual references like “She had told him he had a French face”. I show that something has been taken away, as women’s rights were in the novel, with the list of “no guards…” I also reflect the anarchy seen in the novel through the “joyful abandon” of “trash”.

Creative Writing: The Handmaid’s Tale and Alice in Wonderland Transformation Mash-up: Part 1


This afternoon I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland and thus a piece of creative writing I did for my English A-Level. It sticks in my mind because unlike most of my work, which I look back on with distaste after thinking it was ok at the time, I still think this piece is rather good. You know, for me. The A-Level Coursework assignment was to transform a text from one genre to another. For one piece I adapted parts of Hamlet into the beginning of a Sherlock Holmes-esque tale. For this one, which I am considerably more fond of, I took Margaret Atwood’s first person dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and adapted it in the style of Lewis Carroll’s fantastical nonsense. I truly embrace the random and baffling nature of Carroll’s tale, so I will post the explanatory commentary seperately to aid understanding. I really enjoyed writing this and I think I acheived what I wanted to do, echoing the themes of one book with the style of another. I was also aesthetically influenced by Nathaniel West’s Hollywood novel The Day of the Locust. As if it wasn’t strange enough already. So here we go then, I shall add it to my blog for my own pleasure at least:

The Chauffeur’s Tale

  1. 1.    Down the elevator shaft

Nick was starting to get rather bored sitting in the waiting room with nothing to do; once or twice he had plucked magazines from the table only to toss them back. It was a hot day and the bulky fans only stirred and swirled the air. His eyes felt heavy and tired.

He decided to head for the bathroom, splash some water, pull himself together. On the way he passed a potted plant, the usual sort of framed picture, an incompetent receptionist, a uniformed chicken and a brown leather sofa. Nick was already washing his hands when it occurred to him that chickens rarely adopted such an assured posture or wore uniforms. Neither did they often stalk the corridors of powerful corporations or wait impatiently for elevators.

“Hey! Hold the doors!” shouted Nick as he dashed out into the hall, just in time to see the elevator ease shut. For a moment he pondered returning to his seat, but curiosity, fuelled by prolonged boredom and a further glimpse of what was surely a bird of some sort, compelled Nick to wait for the next descent. He would fall further than he could ever imagine.

*

You’re late.”
Nick could not think what on earth he was late for. He had an appointment to keep certainly, but there had been no time arranged and some bimbo would no doubt fetch him. It hardly seemed to matter whether Nick concluded the business now in any case. Except Nick wasn’t in the waiting room and couldn’t recall what it was he did, had done or was doing.
“I said you’re damn late. And you can’t address the meeting looking like that, you’re a mess. I know you’re all a bad bunch, but they’re all under the impression you’re different and the best of ‘em.”
You? They?” Nick could stand now, if he dipped his head. All his clothes were caked in dust.
“Men, terrible, the lot of you. Hardly time to go into that though. They’re waiting.”
“Who are they?” coughed Nick as light returned to his eyes revealing “the chicken! Of course the elevator cable snapped, and, and…”
“Chicken indeed,” hissed the bird, proudly smoothing its uniform, “I am a hen.”
Nick suddenly felt terribly awkward as the bird was deeply offended by his rash remark. He groped around in his mind for the sort of diplomatic language he had not utilised since the playground standoffs of his youth, to no avail.
“Sorry, I’m not myself. I think I’ve had a fall. You must have a name?”
“Well of course you have, after a shock like that. No time for names. Out you go.”

Nick found himself looking out over something resembling the lobby of the building he thought he had entered an hour or so ago. And yet it was surely not that building. There were no guards, no staff, no doors, and no roof. A great crowd buzzed noisily below in anticipation of some great event. The gleaming, textured marble was grey and lifeless; neglected and battered by the scorn of a frowning black sky. Only stars studded the horizon where skyscrapers had bunched. Trash was strewn about with joyful abandon as if a festival had taken place. There was a draining absence of colour, except in the varied faces and heads of the crowd; dogs, cats, chickens (probably hens), dwarves, monkeys, children, rats, women and bears. All of them gazed at the cracked far wall, faces illuminated by a jumpy black and white projection. The film was no more than thirty seconds long and of appalling quality, but Nick recognised himself, holding the door for the Chief Executive of Masterton’s International and his mistress.

“Things must be clearer now.”
“Not really.”
The footage continued to play on a loop and the faces remained transfixed by it. Nick gawped at the sight of himself amplified to such a height. He touched his chest and compared the reality of it to the six foot wave of white light that was his torso for the people in this odd audience. He cringed at the flashing imperfections of his face, the thick creases around his forced smile. She had told him he had a French face.

“The activists know you are coming. They wish to hear from you firsthand what Offred is like. You will inspire them to freedom with your tale. It is written.”
Nick prayed that no one in the crowd would turn around and see him. If they did, they might become a mob. What did this fat hen want from him? How ridiculous she looked in her mismatched military garments, bursting at the seams, with her dangling beard flapping as she spoke.
“I’m sorry you’ve got the wrong man. I’m not important and I don’t belong here.”
The hen blocked Nick’s path as he turned to leave.
“That is you is it not? That is you and your Commander and your lover the sacred Offred. She was brave and came to you out of passion and a desire for freedom in defiance of the wicked White Queen. You love each other.”
Nick almost laughed. How strange the way events could be seen. Stranger still how they could still be meaningful; in fact have more importance, when viewed completely incorrectly.
“I don’t know who Offred is or the Commander or a White Queen! But yes that’s me…”

And he was holding the door for them, for her, as he had done so many times. Her elegant legs towered for all to see; the image was inescapable, a taunting reminder for Nick that the thought of her, of Laura, had once utterly consumed him. How could he possibly explain the sordid, uncertain reality of it all to this deluded bird? He could not be sure how he had felt, let alone decipher her true feelings. He was certainly angry now, looking back at how he had allowed himself to be toyed with and used as bait by the Chief Executive’s wife in a pathetic attempt to save her sham of a marriage. Even if he had lured Laura away the old man would have found someone else. Most of all it had been unprofessional to indulge his emotions whilst on business. His paymasters at Coppletons were relying on him for accurate inside information of Masterton’s International’s dealings, not for him to become entangled in some meaningless office soap opera. Nick had been lucky to get what he needed.

Nick tried to explain that Laura was just a girl. Yes they’d been lovers, but she would never have given up her lifestyle for him. In the end business came first for both of them.
The hen went quiet for a moment, then swallowing her rage, spoke again calmly.
“I don’t believe you are being honest with me or you do not truly know all the facts. Offred, our Red Princess, could never have been happy or content with any aspect of her slavery. In any case you work for the resistance and will eventually free Offred, heralding a new age. The Book says so.”
This time Nick did laugh.
“I must be dreaming! I was a spy but I didn’t resist anything. Hell why would I change the way things are when the money’s so good? Whoever wrote this Book of yours has a taste for romance and grand ideas instead of the truth.”

Nick was wondering if he should pinch himself to wake up and whether there was ever such a thing as a true story, or if they were all reconstructions at best, when the hen blew a whistle and shouted..“BLASPHEME!” The sound of marching feet approached.

Adapting good and successful novels: One Day, A Very Private Gentleman (The American) and Room


I’ve discussed the business of adapting books into films before on this blog, and indeed the increasing phenomenon of the adaptation as opposed to original screenplays. I’ve bemoaned the lack of creativity in the film industry, leading to such a focus on both true stories and transformations of already existing fiction dominating this year’s Oscars, for example. But for all my ranting and raving there’s something irresistible about a good adaptation, because if your source material’s good there’s a good chance your interpretation of it will be. It’s like a kind of quality guarantee.

Then again it’s a treacherous tightrope to walk, especially when you’re bringing not only a good novel but a commercially successful one to the screen. Films based on novels with a huge and devoted following will benefit from the diversity and commitment of that fan base at the box office, but perhaps also suffer critically if they don’t capture the brilliance of the book.

After mingling the words in your mind and arranging them on the page, watching their finely tuned order blossom into a bestseller and basking in the praise and revenue, it must be hard for an author to relinquish control of his characters, no matter what the financial compensations. This is presumably why many decide to remain attached to the cinematic versions of their creations as writer or producer or something, even with the risk of their original being tarnished and overshadowed.

David Nicholls did just this for the adaptation of his immensely successful One Day, choosing to write the screenplay himself. There is now a trailer online for the film, which can be seen over at Empire Magazine via this link: http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=30843

I was absolutely absorbed in One Day when I read it and funnily enough I think I read it in roughly one day. It’s one of those books that you have to try really hard not to call a “page turner” because of how limp and cliché that sounds. It really is difficult to put down though. It became an ever present feature of the landscape of bookshops for a long, long time and still lurks prominently in the shadows. No doubt it will enjoy a revival with the release of the film. It was not the usual sort of addictive trash either. There was an organic originality to the concept, a humour and truth to the writing. The two main characters, Dexter and Emma, were fabulously realised. It was at once epic and emotional, experimental and accessible.

It did divide critical opinion, but the overwhelming consensus was that it was a cracking read, a verdict echoed at tills across the country. It’s the story of Dexter and Emma, who meet and sleep together one day at the end of their time at Edinburgh University. In bed they discuss the future, their hopes, fears and dreams for it. The novel follows them on the same date of the year, whatever they’re doing, for every year that follows their meeting. It mostly focuses on their relationship as friends but also charts their development as people, journeying through alternative aspects of British history like dodgy 90s TV along the way.

It was quite a few months ago now that I read One Day but I am still excited about seeing its rebirth in cinemas. It will be difficult to bottle up the simultaneously intimate and epic feel of the book for the audience, but as I’ve said before what really matters is capturing the spirit, the essence and sentiment of a story. The trailer certainly seems to strike some of the right emotional chords, as One Day really was enormously touching and moving as well as gripping. It may simply be that my age, one of transition between worlds, allowed me to inhabit Dexter and Emma’s shoes perfectly and marvel at the rollercoaster of their lives, grounded in those student beginnings. But then again, One Day shows snapshots of its key characters at a variety of ages, so anyone should be able to jump right in and live their human journeys. Perhaps that is part of the secret to its appeal.

Three Cs are very important for a good adaptation: cutting, casting and creativity. Nicholls would certainly have had to ruthlessly cut chunks of his already lovingly crafted and edited novel for the screen, as well as find the right leads. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess are the chosen ones, and they seem to fit the bill in the trailer, in spite of wavering accents on occasion, as Empire point out in their commentary on the footage. I’ve also recently seen and reviewed The American, starring George Clooney, which was based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. Screenwriter Rowan Joffe changed aspects of the story rather dramatically, including its conclusion, for a modern and cinematic update to the book. Despite my gripes about the increasing frequency of adaptations, it is possible to be really creative and bold with them, with the added benefit of a proven base material to work with. Joffe was certainly creative, as was Clooney, who needed to exhibit the right physical mannerisms to convey the book’s character in miniscule brush strokes, compared to Booth’s first person narration.

Having now both read the book and watched the film, Joffe appears to have done a good job in creating The American. And as I’ve said, perhaps what is most admirable is that he has created something, not merely transplanted the book to the screen, which can be the worst mistake when adapting something that’s already celebrated art. The original novel, written in the first person about a gun maker nearing retirement, was impossible to adapt as it was. It needed more drama and would lack the charismatic voice of the page. It needed new sources of charisma.

The film does drop key themes of the novel. Interestingly as a student of history, Booth’s recluse (known as Signor Farfalla or Mr Butterfly, as his cover is painting them) is outwardly repulsed by the idea of history and progress, unless it is the history of ordinary men. And yet his narration repeatedly comes back to the idea through imagery, symbolism and anecdotes. Mr Butterfly claims that he is truly influencing history by providing the weapons for assassination with deft craftsmanship behind the scenes. But what the novel hints at, which a film couldn’t do in the same way, is that the narrator is struggling with the idea that after his retirement no one will remember his life’s work. If he has altered history it is unnoticeably so. He never says as much but the light implications are there and extremely fascinating.

Booth was also a constant traveller, as well as a writer of history, which might explain Mr Butterfly’s anecdotes of the world and some of his eye for detail, along with his warped fascination with the past. One of the ways the film captures the incredibly vivid and visual style of the book is through director Anton Corbijn’s direction. Corbijn used to be a photographer, and in the film this becomes Clooney’s character’s cover and he never gains the nickname Signor Farfalla, only The American. This somewhat spoils Booth’s unassuming character blending into any background, but the essence of him remains the same and the parallels with the striking visuals of the film and the descriptions of the book are appropriate.

The American is a very minimalist and restrained production. You get more from the book in terms of the character, but still not a great deal, so Joffe reflects this with the dialogue. This is still a man in isolation with a unique existence, who forms meagre relationships that are still too much for a man of his profession. He is growing too susceptible to these ties with age. What I liked particularly about The American is that it stands alone from the book and one can be enjoyed without the other, just as well as the two together. They are distinctive and different but enjoyable entities of subtlety.

Of course some books should simply never be adapted. Something about them cannot be replicated and without this something any adaptation becomes a pointless exercise. A bad adaptation of such a book is painful and a great shame. I think that Room by Emma Donghue, shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize, is such an un-adaptable book.

It’s been a while since I finished reading Room, and in any case my observations and insights would not compare to fellow blogger Tom Cat’s: http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/room-emma-donoghue/

I will briefly say why I think any adaptation would fail however. Room is reliant on the first person narration of Jack, a five year old who has been imprisoned since birth in a small room with his mother. This is the controversial novel inspired by the Fritzl case. I was sceptical about reading it and presumed it to be an exercise in creative writing drawing rather shamefully off of ghastly deeds in the media.

After I read the first pages of Room however I was hooked enough to buy it. And Jack himself is never abused. The novel is bleak and harrowing at times, but usually because of what Jack doesn’t say. The obvious implications, for example when Jack counts the creaks in his mother’s bed from his hiding place of the wardrobe, are the chilling thing for the reader.

What Room is really about is a unique five year old, nurtured with extremely intimate and confined love from his mother. As Tom Cat points out in his review, the philosophical points potentially there to be explored are many. Instead of really delving these depths however Room is more intriguing for its characterisation of Jack and the original voice Donoghue gives him. He makes incredibly perceptive observations about the modern world through both his innocence and ignorance. Occasionally his impressive vocabulary doesn’t quite sit right and convince, despite it mostly being explained away by his intense education from an early age; sometimes Jack obviously uses Donoghue’s word or phrase rather than his own. But the fact that this only happens now and then is a remarkable achievement.

For the most part Room is a heartbreaking, funny and thrilling story that takes a fresh view of modern life and culture. Everything good about this story derives from Jack’s completely original and skilfully executed narrative voice though. Many of the reviews of Room call its concept unique, but it really isn’t that astounding, simply ripped from extensive news coverage. It’s the clever angle from which Donoghue approaches her story that’s so wonderful and this couldn’t be transformed into film, no matter how they attempted to do it. Voiceover would not work; we are witnessing the thoughts tumbling through Jack’s head not a commentary of events. Jack’s innocence wouldn’t transfer to the screen, so neither would the appeal and success of the novel.

Super injunctions: Why should I care if the dressing room is full of whores?


This week super injunctions have once again, ironically, been in the news, largely thanks to a confession from the BBC’s Andrew Marr. He believes the balance has strayed too far in favour of gagging the media, despite having his own super injunction to conceal an affair. He supports the call of many to put the rules back in front of MPs for debate. Why should such extreme privacy only be available to mega rich politicians, TV stars or footballers?

 They may be able to keep a lid on certain stories with their fat cheques but they can’t stop us discussing the issue itself. And it’s a difficult and ethically complex problem. On the one hand we can’t have censorship coming before free speech, but to live in a free society privacy is also important. Continually we are told that if a story is in the “public interest” it shouldn’t be hidden away under lock and key. But what does that actually mean? The hypothetical (but all too common) “footballer and a prostitute” scenario, is wheeled out by both sides of the argument again and again.

Those speaking up for the principle of super injunctions argue that what anyone does sexually is their own business, just as their health or bank details are. Footballers are private individuals that just happen to be prominently in the public eye. But the reason they are so closely studied by the media and their fans is not what they do off the field, but on it. Any personal problems they may have, whether it’s the fallout from shagging Imogen Thomas, an addiction to scratch cards or a fear of candyfloss, should be resolved in their own time and space without intrusion.

On the other hand of course the opponents will bellow in outrage that footballers are role models for our children and should behave as such. They may be talented but with such lucratively rewarding contracts they should act responsibly in return, and concentrate on delivering the best performance they can, week in week out in a professional manner, without the distraction of off the field turmoil. Season ticket holders, investors and fans in general may all feel justified in wanting to know whether their star striker is wasting his wages and fitness on whores after training sessions.

I have to say I have more sympathy with the pro-privacy side of the argument, when it comes to footballers and their whores at least. Of course with the ludicrous money they’re earning they should be focusing on giving our clubs’ the best they can offer on the pitch every weekend. But frankly I don’t care about their numerous and identical scandals. It’s an inevitability that young men, their wallets brimming with cash, end up disgracing themselves and living dangerously. If they can play brilliantly and indulge their dirty hobbies in private, then so be it. I don’t watch football to judge morality.

It’s only when the scandals are published that they become disgusting influences on our children, when the role models become corrupted and misery heaped on the club and the player’s personal life. And as for the “public interest” argument, there are minimal grounds for exposure for the genuine good of the population. The public’s interest in rumour and gossip is another matter altogether to their wellbeing and rights.

Ignore what I just said though. I may not be at all interested in hearing of their latest filthy fumbles, but for everyone to turn a blind eye would mean the disrespectful bastards get away with it time after time. Enough of them already escape the consequences by wielding their wealth for a super injunction or a quiet payoff for the mistress. Countless clowning cocks lucky enough to play football for a living probably simply get away with it because they’re not good enough, or famous enough, for anyone to care if they cheat on their wives and the mothers of their children.

There will undoubtedly be cases when it’s best and fairest if privacy is maintained. There will be others with a real and pressing “public interest”, far more vital than a lustful midfielder’s latest lay, that must see the scrutinizing light of publicity. The only sensible way to deal with the issue is on a case by case basis.

When it comes to football though, like it or not, there is a paparazzi culture for finding out the bedroom deeds of the Premiership’s so called “stars”. The players know this is a fact of life as much as we do. If they want their right to privacy preserved the only way forward is for them to start behaving gratefully and respectfully. They should appreciate what they have enough not to jeopardise it. There’s no need for super injunctions without scandal in the first place.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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