Saturday 12 November 2011



Thursday 29 September 2011

100% Dynamite - Part 4

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
Okay, this one is unusual on many levels, not least because it's the first in the project that I'm not reading in translation, but also because Ms Lessing has a massive body of work behind her, so the choice was a little harder to make. I plumped for this - her 1950 debut novel and the one that instantly made her name, so for the first time (though obviously not the last) I'm reading something for this project with a substantial amount of age to it.
For the first time on this mission, I'm having to skew my perspective to a different generation, something that's especially important when reading 'The Grass is Singing' because it's written from the English perspective of a woman trying to expose racism and colonial exploitation at a time when even the concepts were still radical and fresh. It's very easy to be shocked by Lessing's casual use of the derogatory language of fifties Rhodesia, but at the time there simply was no other vocabulary for what are loosely seen as workers, but in effect are little more than indentured slaves (is that the right word? Or have I just given these slaves false teeth?). So a word of warning then; for all Lessing's clearly apparent political standpoint and her indictment of colonialism, this is a novel of its time and some of its language and attitude reflects that.
The rosy eye of hindsight aside however, the great news is that this is a real novel, in every traditional sense of the world; no imagined biography, no post-modern reinterpretations of mythologies; this is a structured story about people and events with a coherent narrative that uses a simple tragedy to highlight a greater injustice - it even starts with a murder.
In technical terms, this is well-familiar ground - a body dripping blood, a grieving husband and cops bundling a slamdunk perp into the back of a paddy wagon in handcuffs. This is 1950, and I suspect Lessing is as much enamoured of the writings of James M Cain and Dashiell Hammett as she is the political stance of Orwell and Huxley. In fact, speaking of Cain, there's something of the Mildred Pierce about the central character, Mary, albeit in a tragic and grim reversal of her story arc, the arc which the novel then elegantly and movingly lays out in front of us as back story, with the reader constantly aware that this is not going to end well.
As contemporary as the language, structure and style are however, there's clearly a sense that Lessing is tapping all the way back to the height of the English novel's development when it comes to character dynamics. There is much that harks back to the Brontes and Austen in the story of a woman of relative sophistication dragged from the best that Rhodesia has to offer as society into the bush through an unsuitable marriage. Similarly, we can recognise the twisting sexually-charged sado-masochistic power exchanges of Heathcliffe and Kathy or Rochester and Jane Eyre in Mary's relationship with houseboy Moses. Similarly, the relationship between Mary and her Jonah of a husband, Dick Turner is a shifting interplay that echoes back from the harridans and wounded heroines of Hardy and the weak patriarchs of Dickens.
Ultimately, that relationship and its repeated failures form the core of the novel - for all that the 'Grass is Singing' has some brutal lessons to impart about colonialism and the appalling treatment of subjugated indigenous human beings in the dying days of Empire, its true strength is in the paradox that the very people who are (quite literally) wielding the whip are as much victims of the great imperial lie as its more obvious sufferers. It isn't the blatant brutalities and sins of colonialism that bring the protagonists down though; there's no great revelatory moment of cruelty or revolution, rather a slow drip of unfortunate circumstance, imagined slights, minute human errors, each one slowly eroding the security and well-being of the central characters, clawing them downwards into catastrophe.
Dick has been raised to believe in the invincibility of the power of the English, the agri-technology of the industrial revolution and the god-given supremacy of the white man; Mary has been raised to believe that civilisation is ice-cool movie theatres, elegant doilies and a house full of children to prolong the long pink shadow of the empire. Thrown into a barely finished shack on barren and intransigent land with a surly work force who smell independence in every nation around them and a financial system weighing Steinbeck-like on their backs ready to foreclose and steal their land, the imperial dream becomes a sweltering fester of disappointment, impotence and infertility. It's a very human and familiar story that seems to play out decade after decade around the world; an epic dream sold as manifest destiny that ordinary real human beings could never possibly fulfill.
And yes, there's a bigger picture behind the failing farmstead; an allegorical overview of the imminent self-implosion of colonialism, no more vividly apparent than in Mary's death, but this is a work free from polemic; the characters whose attitudes and beliefs are loathsome when viewed from this side of a new millennia are frail sacrifices to their own false expectations and dreams and so hugely sympathetic as a result. Given its time of writing, this is an astonishing and subversive approach to Lessing's core message; the Britain of 1950 would never have countenanced or cared about a simple diatribe suggesting that colonialism was bad for Africans; the genius of the seemingly conventional and familiar melodrama of The Grass is Singing is that Lessing is warning the reader that imperialism diminishes the oppressor as much as the oppressed.

Tuesday 23 August 2011


SWALC - LORD CLYDE, ESSEX RD N1 SEPTEMBER 10TH 1PM - 6PM ( for contact details)

Book signings are like boring speed dates, conventions are just weird. Here's a chance to meet a bunch of writers and artists from a wide gamut of genres, media and backgrounds in a natural environment - the pub - and just sit and have a chat about their work.

Top writers, artists, comedians and musicians will be milling about happy to talk at length (within reason) to anyone about their work in that most wondrous of British traditions, the local pub, with great beers, good wine, excellent food, games, performances, competitions, bookstall and a convivial atmosphere with no walls between creators and guests.

here's the list so far...

Gail Renard - author of 'Give Me a Chance', her autobiographical account of spending 8 days at the John and Yoko bed-in as a 16 year old.

Nick Harkaway - author of 'The Gone Away World', an award-nominated masterpiece of a debut SF/fantasy novel, mixing political satire, high concept SF, comedy, killer mimes... breathtaking.

Rufus Dayglo - acclaimed artist on the still-going-strong cult classic comic heroine Tank Girl and keen taxidermy collector and illustrated man.

Jeff Povey - award winning short-film maker, novelist and staff writer on Eastenders, Holby and loads more.

Philip Gladwin - writer and editor and brains behind the brilliant writing program and website, Screenwriting Goldmine (its like Script Doctor, but professional and proper like)

The makers and some of the cast of Peacock Season, an astonishing feature-length comedy starring the cream of the british stand-up scene and made for an amazing £38 and a lot of favours.

The Comic Book Alliance - a whole swarm of Britain's comic artists signing their magnificent new anthology book 'Spirit of Hope', a fabulous creation raising money for earthquake victims in NZ and Japan.

Abigail Blackmore and the Blind Date crew. Blind Date is a brilliant short film that we'll be airing and its already won Audience Awards at the LA and Austin, Texas short film festivals.

Some idiot called Si Spencer who's done Grange Hill, Eastenders and the Bill as well as loads of comics inc. graphic novels The Vinyl Underground and Hellblazer: City of Demons, the first page of which is actually set in the snug bar of the venue

Webley Wildfoot, who was there at the birth of a 'well known spin off to a popular family SF TV show' and has documented the traumas of the event in his 'entirely fictional' work 'Torch, Wood & Peasants'.

There's music from Paul Mosley, without a doubt my favourite contemporay musician; imagine Nick Drake singing Tom Waits songs to the music from Bagpuss with a bit of electropop and Hi NRG thrown in.

Shooting schedule allowed, the brilliant Justin Edwards (Thick of It, Sorry I've Got no Head - everyting) singing a couple of comic songs, plus more music, some poetry and a Lennon singalong at the end... and I'm STILL waiting to hear from more folk, so it could get even bigger.

There's going to be a bookstall, so you can buy stuff and get it signed, but also a book drop - bring a novel you don't want, take one of out of the box for free. I'll try and organise a few games too and it would be BRILLIANT if people came in fancy dress as a fictional character. There'll be yummy-licious bar-snacks on sale all day and weather permitting a barbecue in the elegant seclusion of the beer garden.

All you've got to do is rock up and just chat to anyone you like. No formal signings, no lectures or seminars, just a day in the pub milling about chewing the fat, drinking of the beer and relaxing. And it's all FREE!!!!

Friday 19 August 2011

100% DYNAMITE - The Nobel Project 3

The Desert by J.M.G. Le Clezio

So once again, I’m reading intercut dual histories, set many years apart, but Desert is a very different book to ‘The Way to Paradise’, dealing as it does with two anonymous and fictional unknown protagonists, their lives several decades apart somewhere in North Africa (and more on that ‘somewhere’ later).

The first narrative (which essentially forms a framing device for the second, longer story) concerns Nour, a young tribesman on an immense Saharan trek, following their Imam/tribal patriarch as many tribes flee white colonial oppression in the North to rendezvous at a sacred place to muster for an uprising. It’s an immense and incredibly moving story, a macrocosm rendered comprehensible by being seen through the eyes of a small boy, and it’s an all too familiar story of one of colonialism’s many ‘Trails of Tears’. Thousands upon thousands, dispossessed and unable to fully comprehend the futility of their situation, march in quiet optimism behind a leader who has never failed them – there’s a grim inevitability to the story as starvation, thirst and in-fighting slowly morph the optimism to desperation to nihilistic acceptance.

The second story takes place some decades later in a North African coastal shanty town, where a young girl, Lalla is undergoing an another all-too-familiar trope, the rite of passage from girl to woman. There’s no sense of hope here initially, only browbeaten resignation to the misery of the battered, fly-ridden shacks, the relentless heat and unchanging poverty. But Lalla dares to dream; she listens to the stories of the old fishermen who have travelled the world, she runs to the desert to the tribal vagabond kid she calls the Hartani and she dreams of the eyes of the mythical, mystic Blue Man.

Essentially the two narratives play as elegant counterpoint to each other; the slow erosion of hope and identity under biting desert winds played against the shanty girl whose imagination soars with the gulls and drives her to find an escape. And the links between the two characters, while never exactly delineated, are always clear. Lalla is a foundling, the daughter of a desert woman, Nour is among the last of the nomads. Le Clezio never fills in the precise drawstrings that connect the two, and the novel is all the better for that lack of exposition, because this is not a story about two heroes, but about nations, cultures, belief systems and histories – Lalla and Nour are simply our entry points and our exemplars.

But therein lies what was to me, a bothersome flaw to the novel. Le Clezio has chosen an epic, sweeping writing style, grandiose and majestic but deceptively simple in vocabulary. If Mueller uses the personal one-on-one familiarity of the classic fairy tale narrative, Le Clezio’s writing embraces the style of The Saga, or the Greek epic, where small stories are buried like mileposts in a vast plain of narrative. The problem with this style is that leaves no room for pesky little trifles like context and historical perspective. There are no dates, no recognisable place-names, no western historical indicators to tell us when and where this is happening. I absolutely understand that to have included too much of such detail would have been deleterious to the narrative style, but I found myself frequently wondering what the context was, which armies people were fleeing and when, and even where Lalla lives. It’s disorienting to be without a map or timepiece when you’re reading and while I applaud Le Clezio’s courage in rejecting these details, it made for a tough read – a two page foreword would have helped.

But that’s a minor quibble; this is a scorching novel, powerfully evoking the elements as human metaphor, personalising the political and painting the minutiae into a much broader tragedy of colonial evil.

Next Up: Hopefully more familiar ground with ‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing

Friday 1 July 2011

STILL not a press release

(so googleblog went a bit whack yesterday so please read the post below then this one)
Guests thus far at SWALC are...
GAIL RENARD who's written bucket loads of telly, was chair of the WGGB for a while and at the tender age of 16 worked her way into a Montreal hotel room to join John and Yoko's bed-in for a week. Her book about the experience 'Give Me a Chance' was released earlier this year, so come talk to her about meeting Lennon and join us in the Lennon-inspired closing singalong.
NICK HARKAWAY's first novel 'Gone Away World' is a critically acclaimed and utterly astonishing mix of political satire, action, SF, emotional heartache, comedy and killer mimes. Nick's a martial artist, inspiring blogger and the son of John Le Carre.
RUFUS DAYGLO took over as artist on the acclaimed comic book Tank Girl from Jamie 'Gorillaz' Hewlett and utterly made it his own. Rufus has a fine collection of taxidermy, some of the wildest tattoos you've ever seen, and he'll be sketching stuff for people and drinking beer.
PEACOCK SEASON is a truly astonishing dark feature length comedy movie about the ugly side of the Edinburgh festival. Shot on a princely budget of £58, the producers called in every favour they could to fill the movie with the cream of international stand-up. We'll be showing the trailer and various members of the cast and crew will be on hand to chat.
PAUL MOSLEY is an astonishing musician and designer; one time member of critically acclaimed 'Moses', as a solo performer he is without a doubt the best indie performer in London. Somewhere between Tom Waits, Nick Drake and Oliver Postgate's composer Vernon Little, Paul's latest album Bad Boy Blue comes with a lushly illustrated book. Paul will be doing a few numbers in the snug and leading the closing singalong at the old joanna.
PHILIP GLADWIN has written for and script-edited countless flagship TV shows, but more recently is best known for the online resource 'Screenwriting Goldmine', a treasure house for writers with a vast array of books and software. Phil will be mingling and generally impersonating a self-effacing George Clooney during the day.
WEBLEY WILDFOOT is a totally fictitious character whose book 'Torch, Wood & Peasants' bears no relation to any TV spin off from any other popular BBC SF show. In no way is it a true account of how shoddily a major broadcaster treats its creative talent, nor is it funny, insightful or contain a commissioned but never used script from the first series of an about-to-be revived show.
And there's me of course... I'll be there to talk about Eastenders, The Bill, Grange Hill, working with Neil Gaiman, Russell T Davies and writing graphic novels. In fact my latest GN, 'City of Demons' opens in the Lord Clyde, so you can take pictures of yourself IN the opening page of the book. How metatextual is that?
And there's LOADS more still to confirm... watch this space.

Thursday 30 June 2011

NOT a press release

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Thursday 9 June 2011

100% Dynamite - the Nobel Project 2

'The Passport' - Herta Muller

So, this is already turning out to be a fascinating project (for me, at least). From the lengthy work of Llosa, I turn to this slender 92 page novella of prose poetry. How to describe it?

'Chewy' is the first word that springs to mind, chewy in a good sticky-toffee way though it's a grim and hideous story. Friends of mine know I've been wrestling for many years now with my own prose-poem novella, so finding this was both a joy and a series of repeated axe-blows of despair. A joy because I see that I'm not crazy, it can be done, despair because Muller has chosen a totally different poetic style and makes it work supremely, whereas I'm wading through overwrought sentences channelling the spirit of James Joyce on a rare good day, and Stanley Unwin on all too frequent bad one.

Muller's writing style seems at first glance mundane; Short factual sentences, often stripped bare of metaphor and adjectives, but then out of nowhere comes an astonishing piece of imagery or a convoluted cobweb of repeated phrases. The closest I can come to a comparative is that it's like reading a nightmare narrated by the Brothers Grimm. There's a fairytale quality to Muller's construction of repetition, her seemingly casual insertion of a horrific visual image, and I guess that makes perfect sense because 'The Passport' is an allegory. Her story is very simple, but the reality of her story is so arcane, sinister and corrupted by evil, that Muller clearly feels the only way she can truly get across the enormity of the narrative is to retreat into archetypes of fable; the journey through the dark wood, haunted animals, demonic trees and protective talismans.

The plot, stripped down to its basics is simply this - In Ceacescu's Romania, a rural miller seeks a passport for himself, his wife and daughter so they can travel to Germany and escape the barbarism of communism. A passport isn't easy, and he has to bribe his way to the document in a series of increasingly humiliating and costly payments. A lesser writer would have written the straight skinny; the bribery, the corruption, the sexual exploitation, and while it may have made a stark and grim piece of documentary fiction, it would be far less of a read.

Muller knows that all such regimes are tainted by the culture of the nations they seek to oppress; many so-called communist states were riddled by the feudalistic cultural tropes of the nations' ancient history, so it makes perfect sense for Muller to tell her story in that context. By choosing the language of folklore, mythology and the ancient beliefs and prejudices of medieval serfdom, she makes it plain that her present day world of bureaucracy, cruelty and grotesque corruption is just as uncivilised and riddled with evil.

This truly is an astonishing book, unlike anything else you've probably read, Despite the brevity, it took me almost as long to finish as the previous epic, partly because it's sometimes like joyously and heroically hacking through a forest of thorns to reach the narrative within, but also because at times the imagery and language shine so immaculately that you find yourself stopping to read and re-read sentences, paragraphs and even entire chapters. The good news is that each chapter is short, sometimes no longer than a couple of paragraphs, and while there is a consistent through line, each chapter is presented as a separate and distinct short story. I wish I knew a lot more about Romanian folklore and history so I could appreciate this more fully, but at the same time, it really doesn't matter; Muller's fairytale archetypes are universal, but always approached with a fresh and startling eye and ear, and ultimately they are simply the trappings of the far darker truth of the core of the narrative.

And it's just so damn chewy. Delicious, like a toffee apple but packed full of barbed wire, owl claws and dying wasps.

NEXT: 'Desert' by Mauritian J.M.G. Le Clezio, a dual narrative set in pre world war 1 and post world war 2 Morrocco apparently, so once again, another history lesson.

Saturday 21 May 2011

100% Dynamite - The Nobel Project

'THE WAY TO PARADISE' by Mario Vargas Llosa (NPW - 2010)

So I had no idea about this book whatsoever, or its author, except he's Peruvian, which after Paddington and Michael Bentine, increases my knowledge of Peruvians by 50%. As a novel, it's a fantastic work of biography - actually it's two fantastic works of biography. Who knew that Paul Gauguin's grandmother was a French-Peruvian pre-Marxist revolutionary who travelled throughout England, France and South America (sometimes dressed as a man) recording the terrifying working conditions and appalling exploitation of workers and women? Not me, and the detail Llosa describes of both 19th century life and early 20th century Tahiti are immaculately researched and utterly fascinating.

There's no doubt that these are two astonishing stories; I knew nothing about Flora Tristan and it turns out she was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable women of the 19th century. As for Gauguin, I was aware that, in the words of Nick Cave, 'he'd buggered off and gone all tropical', but I knew nothing about his earlier life, his travels in Latin America or why he actually went to Tahiti and what he did there. So, result there - I learned enough about both characters to probably wing my way through either as a specialist subject on Mastermind (if they asked me on today, before it all slipped away). Shame about the writing though...

Llosa choses to go for a simple (and slightly irksome) double narrative of alternating chapters between the life stories of the two. It's actually a smart and well-used technique, to alternate between two p.o.v's, but it's one that's more commonly used for characters who's lives actually intersect, so we can get a sense of perspective, foreshadowing etc. In this case, as Gauguin never met Flora Tristan and barely knew anything about her, I can't help thinking that Llosa could have just written two separate books and spared me the hassle of having to skip back 20 pages each time to remember where we left the last chapter. Yes, there are parallels in their lives, but I can't help thinking that they're parallels that Llosa has chosen to weight in his favour, and ultimately, he doesn't draw any conclusions from those parallels, so why bother?

None of this is helped by Llosa's turgid writing style. I did get the impression that I wasn't reading neccessarily the best translation, but the translator can't be blamed for some of the terrible segues into flashback that Llosa employs. I once worked with a new writer on a massive script, and at one point his central character suddenly remembers an encounter from the day before. I told him he couldn't just have the character remember something; the audience needed a visual trigger to let us know why it was that the person popped into her head. All wide-eyed and innocent (I should stress, I love this writer dearly) he said 'Yeah, but she's looking out of the window. The first time she met xxx she was looking out of a window too'. We both laughed long and hard as I explained to him that 'looking per se' really isn't enough of a visual trigger.

Llosa could learn something from this... time after time we get links along the lines of 'And then you sneezed. Remember how you sneezed too that time twenty years ago in Peru?' as a device to begin a flashback sequence. And that's another thing; for some bizarre reason, Llosa chooses to address the entire narrative TO the central character, speaking directly to either Tristan or Gauguin. I'm sure there's some smart-ass literary term for it, and I imagine there might be some cunning purpose to it, but most of the time it makes the author sound like someone gently shaking and waking an elderly amnesiac to remind them who the hell they are and what they've been up to. Making your central characters seem enfeebled is not an endearing trait.

There's been a lot written on 'the imagined biography'; where a novelist writes a fully factual account of someone's life, but takes the liberty of getting inside the subjects' head and explaining their motivation. Peter Carey did a stunning job on Ned Kelly, and to be fair, everything in here rang true to Llosa's painting of the characters, but I always get a little rattled about a writer making up emotional reactions such as just how Gauguin actually felt after his sole homosexual encounter (if indeed it was the only one). Just how does Llosa know this stuff and is he doing a disservice to a real human being, who he clearly admires, by just making it up?

In essence, this is two amazing stories, written in a fairly irritating way. I'd recommend reading it, but only for the biographical reading and only if you're into Gauguin or 19th century French and Peruvian political history and proto-feminism (which fortunately, I am, so huzzah!)

Next up, Herta Muller, a Romanian German who apparently writes almost exclusively about oppression under Ceaucescu. Should be full of shits and giggles, I'm guessing.

Hello? Hello? Am I late?

So.... I kinda let things slide for a while. Well nearly two years. The idea at the time was that I'd start up the Script Doctor page on Facebook and do some kind of double whammy thing in here with weekly posts, going into more depth on the joy of being a writer and all its challenges.

I forgot though that I'm a writer, and as such, spend my time either avoiding writing, or actually doing it. The blogosphere seems to be a sort of halfway house for people who feel inspired to write, but don't actually have anything of any great length to actually write about. I don't mean that in a derogatory way - I subscribe to and enjoy reading a lot of blogs - but it's seems best suited to the well-worked comedy riff, opinion piece or review. I tend not to think that way; my mind either works in complete scripts and stories or long, sprawling narratives that take weeks and months of mapping out and planning; really not the kind of effort or space suitable for this medium.

At various points though, several people have said to me 'What happened to your blog? I liked that', and at various points, I've thought about something and decided 'that's quite a complicated thought process that would get kind of lost on facebook or twitter' and then just given up on it. Plus, right now I'm on a kind of manic upswing, fuelled no doubt by the sudden reappearance of Vitamin D in our lives, but also I think from several recent encounters with readers (I won't call them 'fans' - horrible term). The final straw was commencing my mentalist Nobel prize project; the goal being to read a major work by every Nobel Literature Laureate. Good or bad, I'm pretty sure they're all going to be quite big, complicated books, so if nothing else I can use this space to record my critiques here. To which end.... (see next post)