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BlogalongaBond: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 5 – The Rebel Flesh


I am rather late with my thoughts on the latest episode. This is because in a lot of ways I thought The Rebel Flesh was scarcely worth commenting on. Not because it was bad but because it was mostly a setup for next week’s The Almost People. My suppressed OCD instincts could never allow me to skip an episode though. Judging by the build up to next week, it would seem that we’ll get some fairly substantial answers to aspects of the story arc, as well as a dramatic conclusion to the story established here.

The trailers and promotional material for The Rebel Flesh all emphasised the aspect of the Doctor mediating between two sides in a war, without necessarily condemning one as the enemy. This was all rather ominous given that the weakest episodes of last year’s series came via the Silurian double bill, in which the Doctor was reduced to an ineffectual peacekeeper. However thankfully not only does next week’s finale look far more satisfying than last year’s, as a standalone ideas piece this was superior to the disappointing Silurians.

Matthew Graham’s script has some very interesting ideas and manages to be original despite treading well explored sci-fi territory. The Doctor gets some fantastic lines when he is calmly and seriously explaining the rights and beauty of the flesh but I can’t help feeling Graham doesn’t carry off the scattier moments as entertainingly as Moffat or even RTD in the past. Matt Smith’s increasingly assured and diverse performance helps gloss over these occasional weaknesses in the more playful chunks of dialogue though and one line did manage to capture the mysterious, funny and mad side to our temperamental Time Lord: “I’ve got to get to that cockerel before all hell breaks loose! I never thought I’d have to say that again.”

The concept of the Gangers is suitably chilling for the tone of the new series and delightfully unsettling. There are genuinely complex ethical questions that arise from such a technology. Doctor Who is at its best asking those sorts of questions and sparking intelligent debate. But of course it also has its essential ingredients. Here we get some typical running around and down corridors, as well as scary gooey faces and a dark, near future setting.

With the somewhat obvious creation of the Doctor’s Ganger, and its emergence at the end, many are wondering if this is connected to the big question marks of the series surrounding the Doctor’s death in episode one. It would seem to be an easy get out clause. But for some reason my instincts tell me it would be simultaneously too simple and complex a solution. Too simple because Moffat doesn’t like answers you can see coming and too complex because clearly, despite their similarities, the Gangers have underlying faults and differences that make them monstrous. And I’m sure the Doctor will be of the opinion that there can’t be two of him dashing about the universe, for reasons of cosmic law and order.

Elsewhere in this episode we are still being fed teasing reminders of Amy’s pregnancy, with the Doctor scanning her inconclusively once again and telling her to “Breathe” before he darts of to try and stop the solar tsunami doing too much damage. Also Amy’s and Rory relationship continues to be pushed and strained. This week Rory has another love interest, in Ganger/human Jennifer, which is a nice role reversal for the hapless husband, often just reduced to a comic presence lusting after the TARDIS redhead.  Theories swirl in the online fan community, with some suggesting Rory is fading in and out of reality. Seems random? Don’t forget his disappearance through a crack in time and space last year and his return as an auton. Also the Doctor has forgotten about Rory a few times this series, including in this episode. Such moments appear to be simple humour at first glance. But maybe they’re not.

On a second viewing I thought Raquel Cassidy’s performance as factory leader Cleaves was quite appalling and irritating. That’s right just a random jibe at a hardworking actress there.

Stay tuned for next week’s The Almost People, which will nestle nicely before the Champions League final. Superb Saturday viewing.

Source Code


Source Code is being compared to almost every film under the sun. It’s Groundhog Day meets Inception meets Final Destination meets Moon meets something totally awesome by Hitchcock. If you have a goldfish memory then you might appreciate being told that it’s a bit like this year’s The Adjustment Bureau, but better. It’s an unconventional and emotional sci-fi.

Duncan Jones, apparently the offspring of David Bowie no less (I actually do some minor research for my reviews!), has followed up his 2009 critically acclaimed debut Moon with another “certified fresh” hit. His direction in Source Code is assured and you wouldn’t guess this was Jones’ first big budget feature; there’s nothing tentative about his approach. The camerawork and characterisation for a film that constantly relives the same eight minutes needs to be intricate and skilled; it remains exemplary throughout, making Source Code an irresistibly stylish and satisfying watch.

For me though it’s Ben Ripley’s taught, clever and zippy script that’s the real masterpiece. It tantalisingly drip feeds the audience information on the central premise of the Source Code; technology that allows the military to send someone into the last eight minutes of a recently deceased person’s life. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Captain Colter Stevens must find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train before he strikes again, from inside the body of a teacher he’s never met, as he simultaneously tries to figure out what happened to him after his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan.  

The genius of the script is that it brilliantly builds tension and fully formed characters on top of an ethically fascinating central idea, despite being predictable on a few occasions. I guessed fairly early on, for example, who the bomber was. I could pretty much work out where things were heading for Gyllenhaal’s character. But I was still hooked and I was still knocked sideways by the surprising emotional impact of the film’s conclusion.

For some the film’s life affirming and rather cliché ending might be a turn off given the originality and sharp execution of what went before. Perhaps it’s just that my emotions are in tatters and unusually receptive to sentimentality. But for me everything that made up the thrilling ride that was the first part of Source Code, added to the emotional effect of its climax. It didn’t feel fake and soppy, but raw and real.

Gyllenhaal convinces completely as confused everyman, then as determined hero and finally as grief stricken and resigned to his fate. The film would have fallen apart had his performance not matched the material and direction. Michelle Monaghan plays fellow passenger Christina as the sort of woman you could fall for in eight minutes. The chemistry between the leads is as convincing and addictively sexy as that between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau, but the writing and the story as a whole here is far superior, much more intense, despite similar themes of fate and free will.

If I could explode two myths about Source Code it would be these; that it’s the best action film of the year and that Jeffrey Wright gives an awful performance. Firstly Wright simply looks poor in comparison to the other actors, Vera Farmigan, Gyllenhaal and Monaghan, because he’s given the worst of the script’s dialogue; technical babble to explain the Source Code. He’s also the only two dimensional character in the whole thing, but with the exception of one particularly expositional passage his performance never spoiled things.

To its title as “action film of 2011” then. I would not describe Source Code as an action film. It is thrilling yes, it’s full of gripping drama yes, but these elements come from characters and the pacing of the plot. Fight scenes, gun fights and chases are minimal and restrained. This is not a film reliant on explosions (despite one devastating and recurring blast). If it’s stunts you’re after there will be better ones in cinemas this year. It enthrals without the set pieces.

 But if sleek, modern and thought provoking storytelling is your thing then see Source Code. It will be the best sci-fi film of 2011. It might make you cry and in the warm afterglow of this film in the spring sunshine you’ll look at everything in your life more closely. It’s unlikely Source Code will change your life but for as long as it lingers fresh in the front of your mind, you’ll appreciate it more.

The failure of Reading and Writing Month – An apology and explanation from Mrt’sblog


If anyone at all follows my blog they would’ve noticed the disappointing petering out of Reading and Writing Month. I feel I should explain as briefly as possible why a project I was very excited about and had big plans for did not turn out as I had hoped.

What happened then? I suppose the simple answer is: real life. It’s an excuse all the same I know but when it came down to it I couldn’t motivate myself to either write for my blog all that much or do enough reading because of actual events and “dramas”. I used to make the mistake of using this blog as an emotional outlet for “real life” and I have no intention of ranting again here and spoiling what I’ve worked hard on. But I also once said I would write on this blog should I ever find that elusive state known as happiness. I may as well say now that for most of 2011 so far I have indeed been happy; the happiest I have ever been probably. I am grateful to have felt that even if it was fleeting.

Enough of that though and back to blogging matters. It really is most regrettable that I have a real life at all sometimes. I am frequently full of ideas for writing but most thoughts never become blog pieces or creative works. Often I know that if I try to realise an idea and rush it to some sort of completion, its quality will disappoint. I know that an awful lot of the words I vomit onto these pages are not examples of the best work I can produce. Sometimes it’s just imperative that I produce something or air my views on whatever issue I am passionate about, no matter how inadequately.

For Reading and Writing Month for example I had numerous ideas in the pipeline. I planned to write on literary classics like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita, comparing their taboos. I planned to write my own short stories after amateurishly examining a selection of some I had managed to read. I wanted to discuss the future of reading with the coming of Kindles and IPads and audiobooks etc. I intended to explain why I rarely re-read books, and ask why we come back to old favourites when there was so much to discover and consume. Do we all have bibles for certain things, like good writing or storytelling, which we like to re-read to learn again? Like revision almost. Or do we re-read to recapture a feeling? Generally I wanted to have finished reading a lot more books than I did.

More recently in terms of general blog writing I’ve wanted to comment on the Libyan situation and the ethics of a no-fly-zone. Trips to Fulham football club and controversial Champions League games would have once spawned some thoughts. Various television programmes from comedies like 10 O’Clock to dramas like Christopher and His Kind have tempted me to put pen to paper, or finger tips to keyboard more accurately, but I have simply lacked the confidence, the time and the reserves of happiness to begin.

This is incredibly self-indulgent but it does annoy me that a) I don’t write enough and b) I don’t write well enough. Lots of things interest me and I want to write about most of them, but the task often seems insurmountable. The recent impingement of my real life on my blogging has forced me to rethink my writing habits. I shall have to accept that I can’t do it all. Especially if I’m to keep reading. And if I’m to do anything at all with at least a degree of adequacy. So I’m considering drawing up a more regular timetable for posts on particular topics. Film pieces will probably still emerge in a regular messy pattern, but perhaps other things I should simply talk about once a week on a certain day.

It will be sometime most likely before I do anything concrete about this. But it will probably soon have to be done out of necessity and I’m hoping it might help improve both output and quality. If you do drop by now and then I’d love any feedback or suggestions on what readers want and what Mrt’sblog can do better.

In the meantime I am personally trying to convince myself of the positives of Reading and Writing Month, despite its undoubted failure. I read a good mix of short stories and who knows maybe in future I’ll draw on them to write my own. At least for now I have good stories I can return to. I’ve generally rediscovered my taste for reading, not that it ever really went anywhere, even if progress is slow. I’m currently devouring, well gently chewing, Room by Emma Donoghue and soon I’ll start on Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman, now a film called The American starring Mr Clooney. After these reads I’ll return to the list from Reading and Writing Month and try to make headway once more.

A heartfelt sorry from Mrt’sblog then, to myself at least if no one else is that bothered. Do follow me on Twitter (@Mrtsblog) and give me that feedback (constructive or completely pointless, all comers welcome)

BlogalongaBond: Thunderball


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I only discovered BlogalongaBond recently. But blimey what an excellent idea. Talking about 007 once a month for two years, and each film in turn; blogging bliss for Bondian fanatics like me.

Then I realised I had just missed the boat for writing about Goldfinger. My first contribution to BlogalongaBond would have to come hot on the heels of a month’s glowing discussion of the world’s most famous franchise’s most iconic entry. How was I going to compete with that? I couldn’t rant and rave about every single classic scene moulded into cliché by endless reference and repetition. As many bloggers said when reviewing Goldfinger, it was THE Bond film and in the eyes of many every one since has aspired to its formula and fallen short of its magical mix.

After watching Thunderball though, I remembered why it’s always been more than the shit part of the National Lottery to me. I loved Thunderball growing up as a boy, and I love it now. For me it is better than Goldfinger. Aside from From Russia With Love, Thunderball is the film that best captures the origins of the character; Ian Fleming’s James Bond transplanted onto the screen.

Thunderball the novel was a return to form for Fleming, who had taken a break after Goldfinger to produce a collection of short stories, For Your Eyes Only. The book introduces the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time and provides Bond with an excellent enemy for two other brilliant novels, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. Of course the films made Blofeld Bond’s ultimate nemesis from the outset, whereas prior to Thunderball, in the literary world of Bond his primary foes had been unorthodox Russian organisation SMERSH. Lampooned in the 60s by Bond spoof Casino Royale, SMERSH sounds unavoidably silly compared to the sinister SPECTRE headed by mysterious Blofeld.

Interestingly the physique of Blofeld in the novels is quite different to that presented in the films. The most memorable portrayal of Blofeld is perhaps Donald Pleasance’s scarred little bald man in You Only Live Twice. In Roger Moore’s time the character is reduced to being dropped down a chimney in a pre titles sequence. Thunderball showcases Blofeld at his best; unknown, all powerful and faceless.

Thunderball also shows off Bond at his best. In a PTS far superior to the aforementioned Roger Moore effort in For Your Eyes Only, we learn everything we need to know about 007. In my view Thunderball’s PTS is also better than Goldfinger’s despite the prevailing view being that Goldfinger’s is the most flawless of the series. As several bloggers pointed out, Bond’s ridiculous duck disguise in Goldfinger spoils the other elements somewhat and to me Thunderball’s PTS is a stronger standalone mini-story, which also ties back to the main adventure.

Steven Spielberg once said that to him, James Bond was a detective, a suave Sherlock Holmes with a gun. For the directing legend Bond was at his best when distilled to this level and he tried to replicate elements of this when creating his Bond equivalent, Indiana Jones. I certainly think that description is a simplification of Bond’s character. But the mighty Spielberg has a point. There’s plenty of sleuthing and relying on Bond’s instincts in Connery’s early films, and particularly Thunderball. It’s something the modern films lost sight of and need to get back to.

Bond is certainly knowing and observational when he unmasks the widow in Thunderball’s PTS as an enemy agent. Connery’s charm, charisma and comedy are turned up to the max and the whole sequence looks stylish. Bond quips and flirts with his female assistant. Then in a brutal, ahead of its time fight scene that the likes of Jason Bourne and the modern 007 are returning to today, Connery kicks his opponent’s ass, savagely strangling him to death with a poker.

The PTS then ends with an outrageous escape via jet pack and gadgets galore on the sleek Aston Martin. These tongue in cheek gizmos aside, the gadgets in Thunderball are at the pitch perfect level. There’s a wonderful scene with Q in which sensible but clever gadgets are introduced that will return to prove vital in the plot. Connery’s sparky dialogue with Desmond Llewelyn is the best in the entire series.

So after the PTS we know who we’re dealing with; James Bond 007, licence to kill, with girls, guns, gadgets and grisly action galore. It’s then that the film introduces the masterly plot that remains durable, relevant, captivating and even slightly plausible today. Goldfinger took Fleming’s immense imagination and made his ideas work better on film than they did in the novel. In Thunderball Fleming’s fantastical schemes once again marvel and delight, and shock and scare, this time sticking closer still to the original story. It’s a testament to the story’s selling power that a major legal tussle over the rights to a remake led to the 1983 unofficial entry starring an aged Connery, Never Say Never Again.

The legacy of the nuclear arms race remains an issue today and the power of rogue atomic weapons to frighten certainly endures. The enormous importance and scale of events adds terrific drama to the story. It’s a drama any Bond film needs and thrives off of; the global significance bearing down on 007’s shoulders as he conquers personal hurdles to unravel it all. Coming up with the perfectly judged plot remains the biggest challenge for those behind new Bond films today because they can’t compete with Fleming.

Thunderball is the first of the films to deal with Fleming’s fascination of the sea and the underwater world. Today it is increasingly difficult to find exotic locations for Bond when holidays can whisk you practically anywhere in a flash. But the colourful realm beneath the waves, glowing in a turquoise tint, remains another mostly inaccessible world. There’s something alien and yet attractive about the monstrous creatures living amongst the sand and sun rays. There’s something dark about anyone who can master this environment and exploit it for his own gain. Something secretive about the tropical depths.

Emilio Largo had a tough act to follow. Auric Goldfinger is the master villain to beat with his distinctive characteristics and fondness for a verbal duel prior to some ghastly fate waiting for our hero. Largo also struggles to impose himself when the magnificent early scene, with one of THE Ken Adam set designs, showing the SPECTRE meeting makes it clear that he is merely a puppet and drone himself. The true power lies elsewhere. This definitely makes him a different kind of villain. He doesn’t compete with Goldfinger but he doesn’t lack menace or do a bad job either.

What about the girls then? For me in Domino and Fiona Volpe we have two of the best Bond girls ever. Pussy Galore, as played by Honour Blackman, is iconic for sure but mainly because of Fleming’s outrageous name. Domino comes across as one of the most beautiful girls that even Bond himself has ever seen in the novel, and Claudine Auger doesn’t do a bad job at all of visually representing this on screen. As for Volpe, she is incredibly sexy and seductive. Her bright red hair set her out as dangerous, but also as red hot. The scene where she is waiting for Bond in the bath and he offers her merely shoes to put on, and the dancing scene at the Kiss Kiss club where she dies, are two of the most memorable in cinematic history for me personally, never mind the Bond series.

During Bond’s scenes with Volpe there are some cracking Bondian quotes from the script and Connery also delivers some of his best lines in the role sparring with Largo: “Do you know a lot about guns?”, “No but a little about women”, for example.

Another reason for Bond’s scenes with Volpe being so memorable for me, particularly the ones at the Mardi Gras, is the film’s score. I think Thunderball is the first time Barry uses the “00 theme” and his variations on the Bond theme itself to provide tense music are catchy and complimentary to the action throughout. Even when the film has aged less well, for example the scene in the health club on the rack and the unintentionally comedic speeded up careering of the boat at the end, the music remains superb. Tom Jones’ title song is no Goldfinger, but it’s undoubtedly addictive and Bondian. And besides I hear poor old Shirley so much that her voice starts to grate.

In the end it’s for those moments in which we see what purists call the “real Bond” that I remember Thunderball. When Connery calmly kills the Professor in Dr.No after he’s had his six shots I knew that was a truly Bondian moment. It marks out the detached killer in Bond’s character so well. He is so used to living his work that he carries it off with a ruthless efficiency that looks effortless and irresistibly cool. There’s another moment like this in Thunderball. When Largo’s chief henchman Vargas is sneaking up on Domino and Bond on the beach, Domino spots him. Bond turns, almost nonchalantly rolling over, to fire a harpoon through his chest. This is the assassin in Bond. The moment’s slightly spoilt by Connery’s quip, “I think he got the point”, but even this dark humour becomes part of the character that fans can love.

Watch Thunderball and you’ve hit the 007 jackpot; never mind the riches of Goldfinger.

Library Love: Do the closures really matter? – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


I’ve never been a library lover. I’ve never taken to sitting there, in some dusty corner of my local archive of books, losing myself not just to the act of reading but the musty, hushed atmosphere of the place itself. I don’t depend on libraries for my books. I haven’t been to one in years.

When it was announced that libraries across the country would be closed down, I was frankly unmoved and more concerned about prioritising the threats of more devastating cuts to public services and investment. Reading will not end without libraries. In many ways they are outdated and unappealing. The future of reading, writing and knowledge lies elsewhere.

But recently I’ve been thinking about the issue again. And it’s certainly wrong that the Coalition are getting away with the quiet removal of libraries and other amenities, just because they happen to be less important than other areas in danger of being swallowed by the avalanche of cuts. The government is constantly striving to be radical, often for no practical reason. In all their years of opposition our current leaders appear to have built up such extreme levels of restless energy that they desire to drastically change everything, regardless of its merits. Some things are less broken than others; they should stop wasting time and money by meddling in too many areas.

I’m not saying libraries do not require government attention. Part of my attitude to them is down to the problems of the system. However they are also something that democratic, educated, developed nations, ought to be preserving rather than eradicating.

As I’ve said, my view of libraries is largely passionless. But once, reading both the novel Fahrenheit 451 and an explanatory introduction from its author, Ray Bradbury, I was entranced by the power, mystique and heritage of the institution that is the library. Across the world they have been the foundations of our knowledge, the records of our history, for centuries, if not millennia. Particularly in modern Britain they are vital bastions of cultural identity and heritage; a heritage the government is unthinkingly decimating with its deficit hacking cuts. Most of the cultural organisations hit by the government’s spending plans require little funding but produce massively disproportionate benefits. The case for the pluses of cutting them is wafer thin.

I began by stating that I had never been a library lover. This isn’t 100% true. As a boy, my attachment to reading began with the free books of the local library. Back then I discovered that an hour is better spent with a book than a games console, and that hour would be unbeatably absorbing. I only read trashy children’s and teen fiction, detective stories like the Hardy boys for example, but gazing around at the shelves it was then I knew that the written word and the ability to devour them was the gateway to entire worlds and experiences and information.

I still didn’t like reading in the library itself, an unattractive mid 20th century building, but I liked taking the books home. I liked that it was free and always remembered that reading needn’t be expensive from then on. I liked learning how to interact with the librarian and make my choice. It taught me more than just the importance of reading. Of course then I didn’t realise how meagre and disappointing the choice at my local library really was. That’s the main reason I abandoned it at quite a young age, and the same factor behind me shunning my school library as a source of information and a place of work throughout my school years.

I still think that only the most wonderfully impressive libraries retain a magical air; provide the sort of feeling I got for them reading Fahrenheit 451. Great historical libraries with their own stories and vast collections are beautiful, captivating buildings. Even an ordinary academic library, when devoted to your favourite subject, can be inspiring. Whilst regular local libraries lack the architectural magnificence and legacy, they remain vital lifelines, if only for a handful in the community.

 David Cameron’s Big Society, “DIY” and “help yourself get on in life” message, is in many ways perfectly encapsulated by the library. And yet he cuts them. He removes hundreds of local centres for people looking to educate themselves, for children encouraged into reading and away from useless, sometimes harmful diversion. Instead of getting rid of libraries he should be increasing access to them and strengthening the ones that are already there; with wider stock and more attractive, better designed spaces. The Prime Minister’s political party no longer seem worthy of the name “Conservative” but the changes they propose are hardly for the better. I’ve made it pretty clear here that libraries have not been integral to my reading life for a long time. But it seems to me that the Big Society, if it is a real concept at all, would depend on community assets like the library for cohesiveness and development.

Obviously I don’t think we’re heading for quite the apocalyptic decline in information and knowledge vividly rendered in Fahrenheit 451. But Bradbury’s work highlighted that reading and access to learning can be a right as much as health care can be in civilized, fair society. And with the decline of independent bookstores and even Waterstones, libraries could have remained an inexpensive safeguard and positive starting point for the young. In a way the cuts have rallied some communities around their local library. But most will simply fade away, like so much else to be cut under this government. I feel part of a generation that is less widely read than any before it at times. So for me, for nostalgia’s sake at least, the loss of libraries is a grave mistake and a regrettable shame. They should not be allowed to die enveloped by the silence demanded within their walls; a nationwide, noisy debate about the future of reading should begin.

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.