Tag Archives: religion

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.

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Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade


Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.

It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.

Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.

Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity. 

Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.

Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.

And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.

Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.

At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.

But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.

The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.

Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.

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”.

Holy Rollers Film Review: Are stories “inspired by real events” killing creative cinema?


Waiting around on plush leather sofas with the nibbles before the screening of Holy Rollers, one of the laidback critics said; “this must be a young person’s film”. A few of the other veterans nodded and chirped their agreement through mouthfuls of crisps and gulps of Coke. They surveyed us seated young’uns; youthful writers and bloggers seemingly suited to this tale of wild, animalistic New York and Amsterdam abandon, starring modern rising star and Best Actor nominee Jesse Eisenberg. They began a conversation about The Hangover, prompted by Justin Bartha’s role in this movie.

It was a one sided debate that continued as we took our seats; a small posse of expert cinemagoers agreeing that they did not see the appeal or comedy in the outlandish drunken antics of middle aged Americans. For them its garish humour seemed emblematic of the sort of mainstream bile lapped up by the youth of today. Hollywood studios continually plump for safe, unintelligent films and when one of them catches on, they pounce on the premise to produce sequels. The Hangover 2 is on the way this year of course, spiced up with rumours of increasingly daft cameos.

Another filmmaking trend of recent years is the success of “inspired by true events” storytelling. Half of this year’s Best Picture nominees at the Oscars were based on actual events or adapted from existing works. Of the genuinely original creations born specifically for the big screen, one of the most impressive was an animated sequel in the shape of Toy Story 3. The Social Network, The King’s Speech’s only serious rival, represented another growing pattern; the events that inspire filmmakers are in the increasingly recent past. Historical drama like The King’s Speech is an age old staple but the reimagining of stories that were in the news not so long ago is a fresher phenomenon.

What an ever swelling chorus of commentators bemoans about this is that it’s lazy storytelling. The Social Network was undoubtedly excellent and an absorbing piece of art as a whole that captured something of the essence of our time. But it was so dramatised and adapted that it was almost a work of fiction, built upon very loose foundations of fact. Wouldn’t energies be better spent on new stories rather than the complicated and potentially offensive fictionalisation of recent history?

The trouble is that as the Oscars went someway to demonstrating, when films are based on something real and interesting they can prove to be more skilfully crafted and lucrative. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on films like The King’s Speech and The Social Network; they are a valuable, enriching and enjoyable part of culture. But they should not stifle the flowering of completely different and new tales. They should not be made at the expense of thousands of undiscovered, productive and powerful imaginations. They mustn’t kill off the storyteller.

Wow what a rant. You’re probably waiting for me to start talking about Holy Rollers. But this is the overwhelming thing that struck me about the film, and at once the key and limit to its success. It takes a mostly unknown true story from the recent past (1998) of Hasidic Jews in New York smuggling ecstasy into the States from Europe. It should be applauded for shedding light on this remarkable tale and this is one of the pluses of adapting the truth I suppose; otherwise forgotten personal histories are preserved on film. However when aiming for a reasonably faithful retelling, as the filmmakers do here, their execution is constrained and drama can be minimised. Holy Rollers was unavoidably predictable and failed to engage as a result.

For Eisenberg, playing real people is becoming something of a habit. The comparisons between his character here, Sam Gold, and inexplicably likeable Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, are there from the start. Gold is bright but trapped in the unfulfilling monotony of study, much like Zuckerberg, only here he’s training to become a Rabbi. Like Zuckerberg Gold craves an immediacy lacking from his life and is clearly reluctant to embrace his lifelong fate in the prime of his youth. There’s something geeky yet rebellious about him. On the other hand he wants to succeed in the way expected of him. He wants to rise through the community and avoid losing face by truly impressing the beautiful wife arranged for him by his parents.  

His best friend and neighbour, Leon (Jason Fuchs) is more dedicated and accomplished at his studies. Now and then Gold seeks to rebel against his failings rather than stick at it, and eventually Leon’s brother, Yosef (Bartha) is there to offer him a way out and considerable extra cash to impress his family and prospective spouse. He works for an Israeli drug dealer importing merchandise from Amsterdam via above suspicion Jews. At first Leon and Gold go together on the understanding that they are bringing back important medicine. When the truth comes out Leon is appalled and knuckles down to study. But Gold has got the taste for both the money and the lifestyle.

He starts to show his knack with numbers and profit to drug dealer Jackie, becoming more and more integral to his operation. He is intoxicated and confused by the teasing sexual charms of Jackie’s girlfriend, played by Ari Graynor. There are some awkwardly hilarious scenes between Eisenberg and Graynor where both really show their comedy credentials with pleasing subtlety. Gold’s religious upbringing collides with this new world and prevents him from fully embracing the hedonism and the drugs and the sex. His naivety leads to the breaking of whatever bond he had with the girl.

Aside from this intriguing relationship and sub-plot, the unravelling of the narrative is far too clearly signposted. The visual style of direction in the film remains unchanged throughout, becoming bland, dreary and uninteresting. Eisenberg’s performance on the whole is solid and he does his best with some big emotional moments, but they never really ignited my interest. His transformation from a young man stifled by his surroundings into one embracing an illicit freedom, and calmly instructing new smuggling recruits to “mind your business and act Jewish”, doesn’t quite sit right or convince. Having said this despite the similarities to his performance in The Social Network, he does show a slightly broader range and give a good account of his talent. The failings probably lie more with the script.

Bartha’s believability as the volatile Yosef is strong and there is something charismatic and mysterious about his character. But once again the limitations of the true story format prevent us from seeing him develop into anything that exciting. The premise and setting of Holy Rollers may be initially interesting but ultimately the trajectory of the story is all too plain from the beginning. It might be a faithful reconstruction and it has its worthwhile moments, but this is a film that feels sanitised and seems to only scratch the surface of issues that could be explosively entertaining with greater imagination and drama.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell


Sitting in a luxurious hotel lobby in Spain last week I came across an article by the actor Hugh Bonneville in The Times which was part of their Christmas appeal. It was about Liberia and in particular a young mum, who claimed she was 21 but was in fact 17. She was having her third child. Even if it survived birth it would struggle to make it out of childhood, such are the overwhelming health risks for children in Africa. I wish I could quote the striking figures about infant mortality in the article but they are tied up behind Murdoch’s News International online paywall, although that is another matter entirely. The unsettling truth is that I would not have lingered over the article had I not known I would be writing a review on a documentary about Liberia’s turbulent recent political history on my return to British soil. I was holidaying in a country with 20% unemployment and an expanding prostitution industry, and the depressing fact is that we are all guilty of choosing to focus on these more manageable economic and moral woes of developed nations, than look with unblinking eyes at the seemingly insurmountable challenge of Africa. We need documentaries like Pray The Devil Back To Hell to jolt us out of our ignorance and indifference now and again and spark good souls into action.

Having said this, badly made documentaries can also turn an audience away from an issue, so it was an enormously important and difficult task that directors Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker took on. They were trying to summarise a long and bitter struggle and in particular distil the bravery and brilliance of ordinary women that formed a peace initiative that restored calm to their country. Liberia had once been envied as one of the few independent African republics, but just like other nations on the continent it encountered its terrible problems when the dream of a nation founded by free slaves on equality went sour over generations, leading to a sporadic civil war raging from 1989 to 2003. The conflict reached new and devastating heights at the beginning of the 21st century, so events remain chillingly fresh in the minds of those involved and are surely too close to be dismissed as mere history. Given the harrowing plight Liberians still face today according to The Times appeal, it’s clear this documentary had the potential to convince viewers why Liberia was as deserving of sympathy and aid as other better known African nations in crisis and poverty.

This is the story of an unlikely coalition of brilliant women, and given their brilliance the filmmakers are wise to let the women tell the story in their own words. From the beginning we are guided by the words of the charismatic leading light of the movement, and from then on the documentary is a painstaking fusion of moving interviews and dramatic archive footage. Initially the speakers set the scene of everyday life, then emotional interviews detail the atrocities carried out, both by the rebels supposedly fighting for democracy and the government forces commanded by President Charles Taylor, elected on the back of a campaign of fear. Having thus captivated the audience the film plunges into the remarkable story of the women that set out angrily to put a stop to the bloodshed in their villages of their friends and relatives. This story speaks for itself and is a tale of the power of peaceful protest that we in cynical developed nations may not think possible in the modern age.

Originating as a Christian movement the women’s plan for peace soon spread into the Muslim community and these two often divided groups of mothers proceeded to present a formidable and determined united front. Indeed the film is certainly a convincing advocate for the continuing good of religion in the modern world when its message is simplified to easily understandable, universal goods, namely peace in this case. Wisely the directors do not ram religion down the throat of the audience however; it is a key factor behind events but comes second to the sheer humanity of the story.

What’s especially extraordinary is that not only do the women force peace talks with their organised action, but they maintain the momentum to ensure the implementation of genuine democracy for their country, even after the ceasefire, to keep the widespread violence from making a comeback. As the momentum of the campaign builds so does that of the film and it’s easy to get swept up in the struggle. This is a story full of big and shocking ideas and issues but one with an ultimately idealistic message. There are rapes, murders and corruption, religion, race and reminders that our interconnected modern world means those in developed countries cannot afford to sit back and let the suffering play out (extracts from articles show that President Taylor had links to Al-Qaeda and other threats). In the end though the very real and authentic rhythms of African rhetoric, chanted by peaceful protestors clothed in harmless white, won the day. People power and perhaps as the Spice Girls said, girl power, conquers in a world where the odds are stacked against it. There is certainly something irresistibly inspiring about it all.

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter some atmospheric opening titles with colourful African images and music, along with a concise running time of 72 minutes and the powerful likeability of the women, avert a gloomy lecture of a film. In any case the drama of the story itself would make it hard to make a boring film about such stirring events. Even with the ongoing challenges suggested by the article that I read this story has a happy ending that makes it possible for help to reach those who need it most in Liberia. One would certainly hope that now heartfelt donations go directly towards the care of children and young mothers like those I mentioned at the beginning, rather than into the pockets of corrupt officials or towards the production of weapons. Watch this film over the festive season to see how deserving many Liberians are of our gifts and goodwill. Watch it to spare a moment for those less fortunate than ourselves. Watch it to be gripped by something real, not a contrived and fake blockbuster but a story with actual characters that personify a selfless Christmas spirit.

Armistice Day 11-11-2010


“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

Hearing a wise, sombre voice of experience gently intone these lines every November is always disarmingly moving. And so it was today at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month. Even the date has a twisted, bizarre symmetry and significance. You cannot help but feel refreshingly tiny and naive, as part of something greater, a unified more meaningful whole. You cannot help but feel guilt for getting so caught up and needlessly emotional about your trivial everyday concerns.

I arrived at the village war memorial in the church grounds a good half an hour before the silence was due to begin. So I crossed the road and sat down on a damp bench. From here I could watch the folk of various hues arrive and take their places. From what I remember of last year’s silence, which was rain soaked, the turnout was poor. Today however, despite a definite wetness to the agitated air around us, a sizeable crowd gathered. It was a disappointingly predictable bunch, consisting of the elderly, the vicar, the handful of children from the local schools compelled to go by their teachers. I was the only youthful attendee besides a young couple who also preferred to hover at the edges of this familiar crowd.

Of course many did not attend because they were at school or work and observing silences of their own and it is right that they do not greatly alter their usual daily routine, as the sacrifices were made in order to allow the continued existence of everyday life. But it was disheartening to know that acquaintances of mine, with nothing better to do, had stayed at home. My generation’s lack of a sense of history is depressing. And even if the stay-aways did bow their heads in a private moment of reflection, which is of course fine, it is a shame they could not make the trek to a public event to prove to the older generations and doubters that the youth of today are not so very different, and just as capable of respect. Whether or not we would have coped so well with the challenges faced by generations tasked with terrifying world wars on the continent, is another matter.

I am sometimes of the opinion that donning the respectful poppy too early can detract from the overall message of Remembrance. The overwhelming poignancy of the moment itself should be preserved and anything that diminishes its intensity is a threat to the longevity and colour of the tradition. However it is obvious in a modern world that the British Legion requires a good deal of time to build the profile of the day, to raise funds for those it still cares for today and to educate those youngsters completely unfamiliar with the concept. It is just sometimes a shame, purely from the point of view of a historian, that the vibrancy of reflections on the two great world wars of the twentieth century is endlessly diluted. Whilst the sacrifices of servicemen and women in modern conflict are just as worthy and brave, the motivations behind these conflicts are often more dubious and they do not cast the shame shadow as the two major conflicts. As well as remembering the cruelly cut short lives of soldiers and military personnel, the key message of Remembrance Day, it always seemed to me, was that never again would war be permitted to swell to such terrible, destructive size. By annually reflecting and re-examining the memories, we as a nation would never forget and strive for a peaceful world.

I have often felt adrift and without a purpose in this twenty-first century world of ours and it was easy to daydream in my younger days of living in a previous era; exotic times of unity and meaning and excitement and daring. But glancing at the faces of those so obviously personally touched by catastrophic events, I was reminded of why I should feel lucky. For the sort of national unity, togetherness and purpose felt during the world wars was forged from extraordinary hardships, and the dreams of people then are our realities today. We owe it to them to make the most of what was won for us and dream up our own inspiring visions of advancement. No doubt many are put off from attending a “service” at a memorial due to the smattering of religious attachments. Personally I do not find any sort of contradiction in respectfully staying silent during the prayers, bowing my head whilst others choose to say “Amen”. I found some of the rhythms and imagery of prayer adding to the tears welling in my eyes. Most of all, regardless of faith, the torrents of unified mourning, respect and sadness needed a focus, which the vicar and his Bible provided, at times. Powerful beyond words though were the lines, mumbled by all:

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

Thoughts on … Never Let Me Go/The Canal/The Dice Man


I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.

First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too.  It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.

 I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.

I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.

The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.

Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.

If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.

From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.

Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.

The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.

The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other.  What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality?  Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.

I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.

These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.