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Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 2: United on BBC iplayer


My second suggestion of anti-Royal Wedding medication for the ordinary man, following the sensational spectacle of Thor, is a single strong dose of BBC drama United, shown on Sunday and now available on iplayer. If Thor was grounded in fun fantasy then United is rooted firmly in poignant and period storytelling, of the sort the Beeb does so well. In fact with budget cuts beginning to bite, our national broadcaster has made it clear that quality dramas like United and The Crimson Petal and the White are the future of BBC2 in particular. If future projects are as good as these then it’s a wise as well as an economical decision.

United is the story of the tragic Munich air crash that killed most of Manchester United football club’s first team, as well as reporters and staff, after a successful European cup match in Belgrade. The squad’s flight was stopping over in a snowy Munich to refuel and the players and coaching staff were keen to return in time for their league game that weekend, and thus avoid a points deduction. For most football fans the catastrophe that cruelly cut short the life of so many of “Busby’s Babes” is the stuff of familiar legend. I have been a Manchester United fan since the age of 6 and was raised on the fairytales of pure footballers from both before the disaster and after it. The men directly touched by such devastating events forged the foundations for Manchester United to become the world famous and successful club it is today.

Rest assured though, United is a good drama and an absorbing watch, pure and simple. For those without the background in football heritage or even those that can’t tolerate the game, this is a captivating human story of careers, celebrity and comebacks. Most importantly this is an extremely British tale and the perfect anaesthetic for ears bleeding profusely because of the hypocritical and imbecilic and meaningless whining of Americans pleasuring themselves over the blandest, most lifeless 24 hour coverage of the exterior of Bucking-HAM palace.

Despite the subject matter United is not all doom and gloom. For over half an hour from the start we are welcomed into the heart of a football club going from strength to strength. But it’s not about the football; it’s about the characters at the club. We are treated to finely honed BBC costume drama detail, from the 1950s fashions, to the dressing room, to Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams itself, rendered lifelike with impressively unnoticeable CGI. Most pleasing of all is the delicious double act formed between David Tennant’s Welsh coach Jimmy Murphy and Dougray Scott’s understated but charismatic portrayal of United’s most celebrated manager, Matt Busby.

Most of the time, Tennant steals the show, as he does in almost everything he’s in. It is by no means one of the more important judges of an actor, but Tennant continually succeeds at accent after accent, this time believably carrying off the musical Welsh tongue. This role also allows him to show off other more vital aspects of his talent too though. He has tremendous fun motivating the players as a coach with vision and then more than copes with the emotional side to the story when the drama hits. The majority of Doctor Who fans may now be fully warming to Matt Smith but Tennant remains a class act and it’s actually refreshing to see him embracing parts as diverse and interesting as this one.

It’s fitting that United is mostly told from the perspective of a young Bobby Charlton. He’s now a Sir and a national treasure, but then he was just a lad that wanted to play football. And he ended up living through a harrowing and traumatic experience. Yet he came out the other side of it and was lucky enough to have been part of the great team before the crash, and the even greater side built from the ashes. Jack O’Connell, who plays the young Charlton here, does a really good job whether he’s stumbling through the plane’s ripped ruins and grimacing at explosions, practicing on the pitch or gazing up in awe at the stadium.

As a production United really does ooze quality. The acting is top notch, the music is touching and the directing beautiful, particularly at the snowy crash site itself and in the dressing rooms. It also deals sensitively with an immensely emotive issue. The question of blame is delicately raised and wisely the film does not nail its opinion to any specific interpretation. Some will blame those who were desperate to play abroad and then make it back home in time for the league match, and indeed Busby blamed himself. Some will blame the league officials who refused to grant a postponement to the fixture after United’s European trip. Some will insist the officials at the airport and the mechanics and the pilots should have taken more care. But the sensible will just accept the terrible tragedy of it all. The enormous grief.

Of course the overwhelming and important cost of the crash was the human one, with so many young men dead. Their families and girlfriends and mates were robbed of their lives prematurely. As a drama United undoubtedly tells that tale. It often seems callous, stupid and emotionally ignorant to talk of the cost to the game of football. I call myself a football fan but much of the time the game leaves me unmoved. I do not live and breathe the game, I no longer care greatly as I used to as a child when one of my favoured teams does poorly. It takes a great occasion or an unusually interesting story, or an exciting match with beautiful passages of play, to truly ignite my interest these days. But there certainly was a significant cost to the game of football after the Munich crash, and it was a cost that mattered almost as much as the loss of their lives. United tells that story too.

It mattered that such a great and talented team was almost completely wiped out, because it mattered to them. It would have mattered to those that died and it mattered to those left behind. It mattered to the fans that mourned them and even the people that knew them. It’s too easy to talk with nostalgia of how football used to be, with starting elevens as opposed to giant squads and meagre salaries and basic training pitches; the modern game is too often ignorantly slated as excessive junk. Watching United though you can see the appeal of that nostalgia, of an old school approach brimming with romance, you can understand those who knew it firsthand ranting and raving at the money making machine that’s replaced it.

Nowadays you wouldn’t get Tennant’s character, a first team coach, ringing round top flight clubs begging for players in the aftermath of a disaster so that the locals could see a game and to maintain the winning philosophy of a club. It just wouldn’t be possible. Or necessary. You wouldn’t get a fairytale quite as magical as the one that swept a ramshackle team, comprised of youngsters and amateur unknowns, to the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley just months after the crash.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried watching United. I might have been predisposed to an outpouring of emotion because United stirred up a long since cooled love in me for the beautiful game. But I defy anyone not to be moved by such excellent acting, such accurate portrayals of grief and commitment and passion. I have been reminded by United that anything, be it art, table tennis or cartoons, that takes you out of yourself and absorbs you, helping you to forget pain and grief completely just for a moment, is a worthwhile and admirable activity. Something worth fighting for.

The Royal Wedding is more likely to make me vomit than get teary but I know it would be more acceptable to sob down the pub over the achievements of football greats than the nuptials of a posh Prince. So when the women are welling up at the sight of a dress or a bouquet, tell them you’re not dead inside you’d just rather save your sympathy and admiration for real royalty.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Swan


Some people are perfectionists. You cannot imagine them any other way. They strive again and again to be the best, to fulfil their wildest, finely crafted, unblemished dreams. We all know people that work themselves into an unfathomable, illogical frenzy about the slightest flaw. You worry about what will happen to them if they ever completely lose perspective and fall through the cracks of their own expectations. How far can they push themselves, what lengths will they go to in the quest for perfection? Will you lose the person you know as they struggle towards faultlessly achieving their goals?

Black Swan is a film about the extremes of the perfectionist and the mania that can ensue in the dizzy rush for excellence in art. It’s packed full of themes about creativity and control, trust and tantrums. Is talent about honing your skills again and again until they’re technically sound, or something more intangible you must simply give into, like desire? Can anyone ascend to stardom and maintain their youthful innocence? Just how destructive can all consuming ambition be? Most of all, whatever questions Black Swan raises, it is a piece of beautifully pure, utterly gripping drama.

Drama as powerful and captivating as this is rarely found at the cinema these days. Perhaps because of the influence of and sizeable chunks of Swan Lake used in the film, Black Swan has the sensual quality of a stage production. Frequently it is flinchingly shocking. Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky ratchets up the tension and paranoia to chilling, unsettling but completely compelling levels. The whole thing is a visual feast. Most surprisingly of all, given the sheer number of scares jostling for position and all the hype around the film, there were more than a handful of moments in which the auditorium was plagued by infectious giggles.

Most of these laughs come via Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy, director of the New York ballet company. He is amusingly frank with Natalie Portman’s Nina, as is Mila Kunis as Nina’s dancing rival Lily. Both of these supporting cast members give excellent performances but it’s Portman’s Oscar worthy turn rightly stealing the headlines. In the past I’ve found her acting irritating, especially her regular appearances as an English rose type figure, with stereotypical accent. She was the only thing I mildly disliked about V for Vendetta. But here Portman’s character is meant to be prissy and annoying, and despite this as her delusions worsen and multiply you find yourself rooting for her to overcome her demons. Her portrayal of mental confusion and paranoia spiralling into madness is startling.

Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s controlling mother, who has projected her disappointments from her own curtailed career onto her daughter. In a sickly sweet, cotton ball world at home Nina lives as a little girl, primed only to succeed as a dancer. This suffocating environment is far from helpful as Nina works to try and embrace the role of evil, seductive Black Swan as well as the pure, fragile and perfect White Swan Queen. Her director continually tells her to loosen up and the suffocation from Nina’s home life spread throughout the film, haunting her and the audience. Nina projects her own anxieties onto the confident, relaxed Lily, who soon becomes a recurring, taunting theme in her fantasies.

At the beginning of the film, Cassel’s director tells his dancers his will be a “visceral” reworking of Swan Lake. And Black Swan is certainly visceral. Of course it touches on all the themes I mentioned earlier, but in reality it’s far too over the top to explore them properly. Above all else it is a fantastical and theatrical story. You’ll be gripped by the drama, haunted and confused by the plot. Sucked in by claustrophobic visuals, charmed by stunning dance sequences and engaged by superb acting; Black Swan has a bit of everything and its vividness is inexplicable. You won’t see anything more sensual this year.