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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.

Managerial Merry-go-round: Fulham have got it right but Villa look certain to get it wrong


Who did Mark Hughes think he was kidding? As a storm of press speculation linked him to the Aston Villa job, as it did ludicrously just days after his appointment at Fulham at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, he announced his decision to resign from the helm at Craven Cottage. He insisted his decision wasn’t influenced by the approach of another club or his desire to apply for any available vacancies. He left a club that had treated him excellently and given him the chance to revive his coaching career following the disappointment of his tenure at Manchester City. And just weeks away from a Europa League qualifier on the 30th June, he left Fulham well and truly in the lurch.

Now though, in a very short space of time, the tables have completely turned. Just as fortunes can shift dramatically in a moment on the pitch, they rise and fall erratically behind the scenes too. Credit must be given to Randy Lerner for turning his nose up in disgust at the way Hughes handled his departure from Fulham. He swiftly turned his attention to other targets, leaving Hughes deservedly in the wilderness.

 Credit certainly must not be given to the tabloids that linked Hughes with the Chelsea job though. Roman Abramovich wants to win the Champions League; it is his holy grail. Mark Hughes may have a connection to the club but that will mean nothing to the Russian. He will look at his track record and see he has not even been that successful in the Premiership. His tendency will be to go for impressive foreign coaches anyway, even if, like Scolari, they turn out to be mistakes. Hiddink will go to Stamford Bridge.

Whilst Lerner took a surprisingly honourable and praiseworthy course in steering the search for a replacement for Gerard Houllier away from Mark Hughes, the candidates he began to focus on were far from praiseworthy. The revelation that Villa wanted to initiate talks with Roberto Martinez was a complete shock. The Wigan manager kept the club in the Premiership with a late run of form by the skin of their teeth but their survival was hardly a triumph of his ability to lead. In fact it was his coaching style, aiming for an unrealistically fluid and attacking team, which left them vulnerable to the drop.

Some might say that the decision makers at Villa wanted Martinez to get them playing good football and that their players are more capable of it. In all likelihood though the appointment of Martinez would have signalled a downgrading in ambition from the club, admitting that they couldn’t attract big name coaches or big name players to compete with the likes of Spurs and Man City for European places.

Now the rumours are that next in Villa’s sights is Bolton’s Owen Coyle. Coyle’s track record, both at Bolton and Burnley, suggest he’s a better manager than Martinez, but he’s still hardly an inspirational choice. And in the case of Coyle, it seems daft of Villa to make an approach when the only answer they’re likely to get is “no”. Coyle played for Bolton and has got them scoring goals as well as keeping clean sheets. He has too many reasons not to leave the Reebok. He must believe he could finish above Villa with his Bolton side. There’s still a chance he could say yes but he would be foolish to surely.

Carlo Ancelotti was never going to step down from Chelsea to Villa’s level and Rafael Benitez knows he can wait for a higher profile job if he is patient. Steve McClaren is available, along with the shunned Mark Hughes, but fans reacted viciously to rumours of an interview. This is harsh given the way McClaren has grown as a manager in Europe with FC Twente in particular but inevitable given his England track record. David Moyes is a manager of Martin O’Neil’s calibre but he ruled himself out of the Villa job last summer.

Meanwhile, as Villa struggle to find a decent manager, Fulham appear to have found the perfect one. Of course it’s too early to say for sure but Martin Jol appears to be a spot on fit for the hot seat at Craven Cottage. He is very much in the mould of Roy Hodgson, in that he has extensive experience in Europe and of course the Premiership with Spurs. He knows the Europa League well, which bodes well perhaps for another exciting cup run if they can get through the qualifiers granted them by their place in the Fair Play tables. He can also bring a bit of cutting edge to Fulham’s attack, which has been lacking, with his knowledge of Dutch and German styles. He has already started to release players as he begins to remould the squad, so it can compete on all fronts, probably with the backing of funds from owner Mohammed Al-Fayed.

Perhaps whichever mediocre candidate gets the Aston Villa job will surprise us. But hopefully Randy Lerner will stick to his guns on Mark Hughes, so that someone in the game gets their comeuppance.

DVD Review: Rabbit Hole


Nicole Kidman’s performances can simultaneously win her further legions of adoring fans and additional ranks of grumbling haters. She is wonderful to some, whiny to others, miserable to endure for many and majestic for millions. But it’s generally accepted, even by her diehard supporters, that she seemed to peak in the early years of the 21st century. Her last genuinely astounding performance in a really good film was some time ago. Stars like her that hit a critical rut have a way to clamber out though; after amassing enough power in mainstream blockbusters they can produce their own projects, perfectly tailored to their talents.

This is what Kidman does with Rabbit Hole, adapted for the screen by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play. The character of grieving mother Becca is perfect for her, resembling past roles in Birth and The Others, and providing a bearable outlet for her notoriously divisive bouts of cold and complaining emotion. Even though this is the sort of portrayal we’ve come to expect from Australia’s most successful export to Hollywood, the raw subject matter somehow suits her trademark moody and restrained introspection. You couldn’t call this a bad performance; in fact you feel like you have to say it’s a good one.

In contrast to Kidman’s recent record, co-star Aaron Eckhart is someone on the up and he doesn’t do that progress any harm here. Howie is Becca’s nice, normal husband, doing his best in an impossible situation. In the opening act of Rabbit Hole Kidman’s character is being as irritating as we know she can be from some of her previous roles. Watching this with a friend she moaned that she didn’t like Kidman usually and that she was typically “wet” again in Rabbit Hole. As I’ve said though, you do sympathise with her behaviour because of the grief, even if you might find the efforts of Howie more appealing.

The acting in Rabbit Hole is hard to criticise, with the two leads ultimately convincing, even as we lurch from one dreary standoff to another, with the odd shouting match in between. The supporting cast are good too, with Dianne West as Becca’s mother doing a great job of articulating experienced grief, sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) authentically rebellious, Sandra Oh as a rounded fellow mourner at a support group and newcomer Miles Teller as the awkward young driver unlucky enough to bear the burden of responsibility and blame on his well meaning, naive shoulders.

Even the script is mostly hard to fault. The quality of the source material shines through, with the truth and wit of the dialogue rising above that of most films. Conversations about the most difficult of subjects are realistic and feel as though they are ripped from real everyday lives. The film is refreshing for approaching grief from an underused and understated angle; eight months on from the drama of the death, this is the story of the shift from the constant tears to keeping appearances of normality. Lindsay-Abaire is fond of metaphor, with mixed success. Some symbols, like that of grief changing in weight until it’s like a “brick in your pocket”, are poignant and moving. However the entire film is a metaphor and crucially this is the one that is less evidently a success.

 Rabbit Hole slowly unravels with not much happening and Becca literally getting on with the housework; reflecting the emptiness left behind after loss. The film as a whole is a grim trudge through nothingness. This may be an accurate picture of the reality of grief, a painful journey back to normality, with no big and sudden revelation to make things better, but it’s a story that doesn’t translate engagingly from stage to screen. There are glimpses here of why the play must have been so powerful and well received. It’s easy to see why Kidman saw in this the chance for her critical rebirth. But without the intimacy of theatre and very little happening in the plot, this is one of those films that leaves you exhausted and aching from concentrating on being respectful to the subject matter.

Sophie Ivan, reviewing Rabbit Hole for Film4, sums up the film perfectly: “Rabbit Hole is a film that’s easier to commend than it is to like”. No one will want to say anything bad against Rabbit Hole; but very few people will enjoy it.

Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood proves that the likes of Transformers: Dark of the Moon won’t save 3D


Last night I watched the last in the series of Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood on BBC 2. I actually watched it on TV! You can watch it here on iPlayer:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b011vmsd/Paul_Mertons_Birth_of_Hollywood_Episode_3/

I really enjoyed it and will be trying to see the first two episodes somehow. This episode chronicled the death of silent cinema, which Merton shows to be at the height of its creative powers when the technology for talkies arrived. Silent films starred ingenious performers, and were shot in inventive, imaginative and inspiring ways. They could afford to make classic escapism for the masses as well as experimental pictures, which also more often than not turned into hits by capturing the public’s lust for the cinema in new ways.

Talkies, Merton argues, brought the quality and the standards crashing back to basic levels. Yes audiences could hear the tinny voices of their beloved stars but they lost much of the magic of cinema when it was silent. They lost the live musical performances accompanying the pictures in theatres. They lost the moving camera angles, zooming in and out to visually dazzle and excite. They lost the cults of intoxicating mystery that grew up around actors, as soon as they heard their ordinary or often foreign accented voices. Instead there was wooden dialogue in front of static cameras. Imaginations were stifled and limited.

It’s impossible not to compare the arrival of the talkies with that of 3D films in the 21st century. In my view it’s obvious that the shift is not so dramatic. Sound is a far bigger leap forward than three dimensions. This seems an odd thing to say; when in theory 3D should mean the action literally happening in front of you. But we know the reality of 3D is mostly gimmicky after seeing the offers of studios in cinemas.

This might suggest that greater efforts are needed to improve the technology, so it’s truly as transformative an experience as listening to sound for the first time in a movie theatre. However Merton’s documentary focuses on the ability of good storytellers to adapt. Irving Thalberg, who died in his 30s, was the extraordinary man at the centre of last night’s episode.

A German immigrant, Thalberg grew up in New York, after being born with a weak heart. He spent long periods of his childhood mollycoddled and stuck in bed through illness. During this time he read classic literature, plays and autobiographies. And followed the fortunes of the film business.

Then he got his big break and headed to Hollywood as a secretary to the head of Universal Studios. He was unexpectedly promoted to Head of Production, because of the qualities he showed his employer, where he established a reputation in his early twenties, before moving to MGM in the same role. His influence transformed MGM‘s studios into a vast dream factory with all manner of storytelling resources on site. He handpicked films for suitable directors, mixing traditional stories with bolder projects. He ensured that before release all his films were screened to members of the public, which led to scenes being re-shot frequently. A modest man, his name never appeared on any posters.

Thalberg’s MGM was at the top of its game when talkies arrived, courtesy of rivals Warner Brothers. But before his death Thalberg oversaw a successful transition to sound, with that same focus on good storytelling. As a producer he called the shots, made decisions in the company’s financial interests, but never compromised a good story.

3D audiences have been declining and champions of the technology pin their hopes on Michael Bay’s third Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon. In press previews the 3D is said to be cutting edge, mind blowing and the best yet. But as this Guardian writer, Ben Child, points out, Bay’s films are so loud and bombastic that they simply become tedious. And the only real hope for 3D is that someone, a great individual of Thalberg’s ilk, can steer a truly great and inventive film project to fruition. One that makes the best of 3D‘s unique assets but one that, above all, tells an unbelievably good story.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2011/jun/10/transformers-dark-of-the-moon-3d

The House of Fiction: English Stately Homes


http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/11/country-house-novels-blake-morrison

The above link leads to a feature piece in The Guardian by Blake Morrison about the relationship between the English country house and novels. It points out a recent trend for both bestsellers and box office hits based upon them, from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro to Ian McEwan’s Atonement. And the piece is prompted by the release of next month’s The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst.

I don’t have a great deal to say about the subject but urge you to read the article. It does an admirable job of attempting to explain the continuing appeal of a surely overused setting. Costume dramas on television are mostly far too common and predictable, always set in the same beautiful but samey surroundings. I do my best to avoid them unless they standout for some reason. But novels set in such cavernous buildings, stretching on and on, filled with history and possibility, remain surprisingly diverse. Perhaps because they continue to attract the best of British writers.

McEwan used Atonement to meditate on the very idea of storytelling and writing fiction. He explored youth, love, sex and passion. He touches on high politics and decision making of immense importance, as does Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day. I have always enjoyed Atonement less than McEwan’s other novels, but The Remains of the Day is the best of Ishiguro’s I have read so far.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a book confined to a stuffy setting with the standard conflicts between staff and intrigues between different social classes. But Ishiguro’s book encompasses so many themes, through the narrow lens of his butler’s restrained narration in a grand and important location. Darlington Hall plays host to international conferences but also humorous misunderstandings, battles of professional pride and tender personal affairs.

For me though the crucial features of good novels like Atonement and Ishiguro’s Booker Prize Winner, were not dependent on the setting. Bryony Tallis’ manipulative and naive vendettas could have been as strong and affecting in any home. Stevens the butler could have perhaps worked in a hotel. And indeed it was his job, his life consuming occupation, that made for such a compelling novel, about culture, class and personality. The butler seems to be the perfect mould for a distinctive, humorous and subtle character of great scope and hidden emotion.

Having said this though, the houses and halls did play their vital background roles. It’s difficult to imagine Stevens in any other setting. It’s tough to envisage a symbolic fictional location that could mirror quite as well the themes of appearance, dignity and decay.

There is really nothing wrong with the continued use of stately homes in novels, as long as the story being told is always a different one, reliant primarily on characters, plot and ideas, rather than ready made sets for the drama. You can’t just add water to the stately home to create a bestselling novel. But they provide pretty firm foundations on which the ingredients of a great novel can be built.

 

DVD Review: As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mills and Boon: Sorting the fakes from the real thing


A friend of mine has hit upon the genius idea, in where else but the pub, of starting a Mills and Boon society at his university. “Regular” readers might have noticed my own Mills and Boon parody when discussing where to take the continuation James Bond novels next. Googling Mills and Boon and looking  for genuine extracts is a tricky business indeed, so frequent and believable are the imitations.

http://www.dailyfunnystuff.net/the-latest-mills-and-boon-novel-a-story-of-unbridled-passion

The first time I read this, in a different and less obvious context, I assumed this story entitled “The Welsh Lovers” was an actual Mills and Boon tale. I didn’t read all the way to the end for sometime because I was laughing so hard at what I thought to be the real and utterly serious sentences of a romantic fiction author. It really is extremely difficult to spot the spoofs at times because Mills and Boon is so cliche it is easy to imitate. The line “breathlessly we rolled together in the now damp grass” could so easily be real. “Now damp” is just the sort of far from subtle innuendo certain strands of the Mills and Boon books specialise in.

 

Rivals beware – Barcelona’s brilliance has reignited the hunger in Sir Alex


Manchester United were always going to be the underdogs at Wembley. Beating the Catalan giants required the best from every one of the eleven Red Devils. Rooney delivered to give the fans hope, only to fade away amongst chain after chain of world class Spanish passing sequences. United just weren’t in Barcelona’s league.

But no one in the world is right now. United were right to believe in themselves and in the opening ten minutes their positive tempo took the game to their intimidating opponents. Their unity and players like Rooney, Giggs and Hernandez, meant they could hurt even the likes of Messi and co. It was an upbeat pace impossible to maintain however and as soon as Guardiola’s side got a grip on possession, England’s representatives in the clash between Premiership and La Liga were always going to be chasing the game.

Now though, with the battle lost, hardened veteran Sir Alex Ferguson is ready to launch a new war. As crushing as the defeat at Wembley was for United fans, they might be able to take some comfort in the fact that their seemingly immortal manager is to carry on for at least three more years. And not just carrying on with his job as well as he always has done but tackling a challenge so big that it can ignite and excite even the 69 year old Scott: wrestling Champions League dominance from Barcelona.

I’m not saying that Fergie had lost the hunger. He is the type of man who will never lose the desire to keep on winning and this ferocious and clinical lust for triumph is a key ingredient of his monumental success over the years. But there’s no doubt his Achilles heel has always been Europe. He knows this is where the strength of his legacy crumbles, even after a second trophy in 2008. This year he proved that he has mastered the tactics of Europe to reach the end without conceding an away goal. His team proved to him that they were a unit capable of following his instructions to the final. But not to the trophy and not past Barcelona.

The signs of an even greater determination for glory and greatness are already there. The manager knows that the effective blend of youth and immense experience his team has benefited from this campaign, is about to become imbalanced. Even before the Champions League final defeat, Fergie was aware that he’d be losing Edwin Van Der Sar and Gary Neville, and in all likelihood Paul Scholes, to retirement. He knew Ferdinand’s fitness was an increasing concern and that Ryan Giggs will have to be rested more often. These pillars of experience will need replacing.

Current players will be expected to step up with the departure of such Old Trafford greats, with greater importance falling upon the likes of Rooney, Vidic and Fletcher than ever before. Young players from the FA Youth Cup winning side, such as the promising Ravel Morrison, will be encouraged swiftly, but carefully, through the ranks. But after the “hiding” his team received at Wembley, Sir Alex knows quality and efficiency are also issues he must tackle.

I say efficiency because the likes of Nani and Berbatov, despite being pivotal at points, have not been trusted at others because of their inconsistency. Berbatov is undoubtedly a great talent, a genius with the ball, and you feel for his undeserved fall from Premiership top scorer to Champions League final exile. But his future is in real doubt at the club, with serious offers likely to be accepted. His manager prefers the partnership of Hernandez and Rooney and will be even more ruthless in his quest to catch the Spaniards that have humiliated him twice. Nani too, could be tempted by a move. Fergie needs to be able to rely on everyone for every occasion to better the Catalans.

All of this means that this summer will be the busiest in a long while for the red side of Manchester. Sir Alex, by failing to accumulate replacements for his ageing stars in previous years, has left himself with a mammoth shopping list. But he is supposedly backed by funds from the Glazers and he’s given himself three years to catch the world leaders. He’ll need all the time and money he can get.

Who does he want this summer though? Well De Gea looks pretty certain to replace Van Der Sar in goal and Fergie will hope that the Spanish Under-21 keeper is a steady long term replacement, after the trouble he had replacing a certain red nosed Dane between the sticks. Also reportedly in the club’s sights is Villa winger Ashley Young, Everton rising star Jack Rodwell and Lens defender Raphael Varane. Fergie would love Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder to fill the boots of Paul Scholes but a move looks unlikely. With the likes of Obertan, Gibson, Kuszczak, and Brown also all likely to leave, along with possibly Nani and Berbatov as well, the task could yet grow harder still.

With fierce rivals City having plenty of oil money to burn and Arsenal looking to be busier again too, in many ways Sir Alex Ferguson has picked the worst summer to begin a major rebuild in pursuit of an almost impossible goal. But if one name continually defies expectations in football and gets what he sets out to achieve, it’s his.

Short story: The Lonely Tree


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadow Line – Episode 5


Let’s not muck about: this was the best episode yet. The first twenty minutes to half an hour in particular, were as gripping as anything on TV. The quality of the opening alone made this the highlight of a bold series.

What made the beginning so absorbing was the reveal of the much talked of, but never seen, Peter Glickman, and some superb writing and acting. Indeed it was the acting above all else that made this so good, especially when Stephen Rea’s Gatehouse squares up to Anthony Sher’s Glickman. Before that unbelievably tense encounter though, we’re treated to Sher’s portrayal of Glickman’s alter ego Paul Donnelly, who lives a simple life as a clock shop owner in Ireland.

The unlucky passing of an old business associate, an American flashing plenty of cash, transforms our Irish accented and mild mannered old chap devoted to his clocks into a slick and ruthless criminal. The script excels itself as we see Glickman follow the man from his shop, cleverly work out the number of his hotel room and then pull off a near perfect murder.

The conversation between Glickman and the American in his room is chilling and realistic. The moment Sher’s performance switches from one persona to another is astounding. Glickman is a quietly menacing character very much in the mould of Gatehouse but also somehow on another, less predictable level. The murder itself was surprisingly brutal, jumping out at you just as Glickman is showing a compassion Gatehouse seems to lack and contrasting starkly with the meticulous but unnoticeable preparation.

Accomplished ad hoc killing complete, Glickman slots seamlessly back into the shoes of an old fashioned and harmless shop owner. He has cultivated the last resort escape route of his alter ego for twenty years, making regular but short appearances in Ireland as Donnelly to flesh out the believability. Echoing all the talk of him dividing his life into boxes in previous episodes, he describes his double life as a room kept ready for him and where nothing looks odd when he moves in full time, because really, he’s been there all along.

Despite his calculating nature and devious credentials to match Gatehouse, Glickman nevertheless seems more human than Stephen Rea’s character. He claims to have genuinely loved his girlfriend and to deeply regret not having the opportunity to say goodbye. Later in the episode he meets Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede for a dead drop on a bench, ignorant of the fact that he’s been banging the woman he misses. She has sought comfort in the arms of the florist/drug trafficker, somewhat predictably after last week’s flirtatious behaviour, because they both live in the “loneliness of the past” or something.

Anyway what do we actually learn when Gatehouse and Glickman have that awesome standoff? Admittedly I’ve been putting off an explanation because I’m not quite sure I’ve digested it all. But the big thing that surprised me, amongst the quick fire, back and forth dialogue was that Gatehouse is Glickman’s “controller”. I always assumed Glickman was the real big cheese and that Gatehouse was pissed because he’s the hired help, albeit a rather active, expert and efficient employee. But I guess a theme of the series is that people appear to have roles and responsibilities which they don’t, to protect the real puppet masters (e.g. Bede).

Glickman got Wratten out of jail because the two had been working together for thirty years. Gatehouse disapproved because Wratten was threatening to expose something massive, an extremely secretive operation called “Counterpoint”. Gatehouse implies he wanted the satisfaction of killing Wratten himself, rather than having him eliminated in jail. Glickman of course ends the conversation by trying to blow up Gatehouse, unsuccessfully, thus postponing the real showdown for a later date.

Crudely ejected from his cover life, Glickman tips off Gabriel about the drugs, kick-starting an unveiling of police corruption on a huge scale and taking us closer to the truth about Gabriel’s memory loss. The police are selling drugs from the evidence room (Honey and Gabriel discover UV codes; two sets from the police and one from customs) and even very top officers know about it. Gabriel, in trying to confront his superior, is confronted with his own apparent corruption and the extent of the rot. Blimey.

As if that wasn’t enough for one episode, Bob Harris pulls out of the deal to buy Bede’s drugs, only for his rent boy to bump him off and take his place. Someone must be backing him and this becomes one of the new mysteries, along with what exactly is “Counterpoint”?

As I’ve said before, this is a series that can infuriate as well as inspire, with some of the many references to “shadows” in this episode deflating the subtlety somewhat. But undoubtedly, The Shadow Line is now beginning to reward commitment in a big way.