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Star Wars Episode 7: Ewoks in the Magic Castle

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So the big news this week for anyone interested in film or the world of the geek has been the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney for a staggering $4bn, Lucasfilm being George Lucas’ company and home to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. This sits alongside Lucas’ proclamations of the past few years about wanting to concentrate on smaller, more personal films, something which he first put into action with the $30m film Red Tails about African American fighter pilots in the second world war.

The news of the sale was accompanied by news that could both delight and strike fear into both the casual and dedicated Star Wars fan, possibly at the same time: that Disney intended to release a 7th Star Wars film in 2015, and to follow that up with an 8th and 9th and, no doubt, never stopping to churn them out. So what to make of this? Let’s dispense with the business side first…

It makes perfect sense for Disney; they acquire a brand which is a licence to print money, in Star Wars, and also get Indiana Jones, which could be worth a pretty penny too. As a very astute blog on the Guardian pointed out earlier this week, this purchase helps fill a gap which Disney have been trying to fill for some time. Disney have the 0-8 year old market (and a lot more people besides) locked up with Pixar, they have the Disney Princess market which does for the young girl market, Pirates of the Caribbean for the teens and teen girls, but they had been struggling to really grab the young boy market. Star Wars and their other big claim of recent years, Marvel Comics, fill the gap for boys from 5-15 perfectly (and, as a nice bonus, also have big appeal for boys 15+). So it makes sense for them. Whether $4bn is sensible is a matter for other people, but I can see them making that back pretty easily with all the toys, blurays, video games and everything else that comes along.

What about Lucas? Well, $4bn is a lot of money, and it will fund a lot of smaller, more personal movies. I have no more knowledge than most people but I’d be surprised if we see more than 1 movie every couple of years. What he does with the rest of that money is anyone’s guess and nobody’s business, really… Good luck and fair play to him.

What does it mean for the rest of us? Well, for starters it meant a million tweets like this one being sent on Tuesday night:


And also like this:


And it’s this second tweet that actually cuts to the heart of the matter of what you actually feel about this move happening. Star Wars may beloved by many people across a number of generations, but is it actually any good? I’d argue both yes and no, and it’ll come as no surprise as to how I differentiate.

The first 3 films (episodes 4, 5 & 6) are good, the next 3 (eps 1, 2 & 3) are not, really. I’m not saying that the original three films are Vertigo or Citizen Kane, just that they are enjoyable and well constructed blockbusters and that the latter three are not. Where the first three movies use classic archetypes to tell the stories, the latter may as well use cardboard cut-outs such is the lack of depth to the characterisation.

Back when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 I was at University studying screenwriting. I wasn’t a Star Wars obsessive, and I was someone who wanted the inside track, so I bought the script and read it before the film was in cinemas. Then I got to the end and thought to myself “Where’s the rest?” There was 40 minutes of story in the film and when I came to see the film at the cinema it became clear that they had crammed those 40 minutes of story into 136 minutes of screentime. It was dull, tedious and lifeless – everything the original trilogy could never be accused of.

But do we need to go over that in any greater depth? It’s old news now.

No, what I find interesting is the way in which Disney is deemed perfect because of some examples of great movies they have produced. The tweet mentions Wall-E and The Avengers (the latter of which is not all that, sorry), but could have broadened that out to just Pixar in general, along with The Muppets, Enchanted and Tangled – all great movies. These are mentioned by way of proof that Disney will do a better job than Lucasfilm did, juxtapositioning them against The Phantom Menace and Indiana Jones & The Crystal Skull, poor, poor movies, the pair of them.

However, let me give you another list:
• The Santa Clause (1, 2 and 3!)
• Around the World In 80 Days (starring the perfect ensemble of Steve Coogan, Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger)
• The Pacifier
• Beverly Hills Chihuahua
• The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
• John Carter

Those are a lot of bad films, and those are all Disney films produced during the 21st century. It’s not a pretty sight, and I didn’t even include the Pirates movies (terrible, but liable to provoke an argument).

The point is that yes, Disney have a lot of incredibly talented people and yes, the last 3 Star Wars films were terrible, but the combination doesn’t mean that the next Star Wars films will be great. They say that in Hollywood, “Nobody Knows Anything” but I think it’s safe to say that, no matter how good the output from the Disney/Lucasfilm deal, the next Star Wars film will make an awful lot of money. That much we do know.

Review: Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

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The biggest problem with The Casual Vacancy is that it’s not Harry Potter. It’s not a problem for me, and I am guessing that JK Rowling doesn’t have much of a problem with that either, but for a lot of readers this will be an issue. Not an issue, this will be THE issue. Because of the name on the front cover, a lot of people will read this book who wouldn’t have otherwise read it, and a lot of those people may find themselves disappointed, not because it’s not a very good book (it is), but because it’s nothing like what came before. I dare say that with a different name on the cover, this book would have garnered better reviews (they’ve been on the positive side of mixed) and generated greater respect for its author.

I came to this book as someone who had seen all of the Harry Potter films, read one of the books, and written for the same target audience. Why hadn’t I read more? I tend to read adult literature and I didn’t feel the need to read more of HP, to put it simply. It was nothing against Rowling. But I was intrigued by what she would write when it came time to move on. It was clear she was a good story-teller, but would she be able to get to grips with something aimed at adults? This always strikes me as a strange question. The assumption always seems to be that if you can do something for a kids audience you won’t be able to translate it to an older group but there’s no reason why not. It’s certainly something I had thought about. Before How To Fill A Black Hole I had always been writing about adult subject matter (albeit in script form rather than prose) and I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed.

Anyway, I picked up the book and got stuck in. It seemed like there was an early statement of intent. While the page numbers were still in their teens there had already been a glimpse of naked breasts as well as some upper-end swearing (with some F’s and a C thrown around). Rowling was clearly making sure we knew this was adult material and a world away from what she had written before.

What also became clear was that Rowling has a brilliant sense of character, bringing out the inner lives of her subjects vividly. I immediately recognised who these people were, I could picture them and understand how they lived their lives. These weren’t hollow shells fulfilling a role in a story, they were people living in a village; their actions were real, they were what these people would do; their interactions were wholly believable.  And this is crucial to the story Rowling is telling, which essentially is a butterfly effect piece: an event occurs in the first few pages and we follow the way the chain of events envelops a disparate group of characters.

The story concerns a vacancy on the parish council for the (fictional) West Country village of Pagford due to the untimely death of Barry Fairbrother. The council is currently deadlocked over a number of issues concerning the ownership and running of an estate known as The Fields, an area ‘true Pagfordians’ look down upon. The identity of the new councillor could decide the future of the estate. One simplistic way of looking at this might be to describe it as Miss Marple meets The Wire, though while there’s a death at the centre of the story, it’s not murder.

This backdrop allows Rowling the opportunity to write something of a ‘state of the nation’ piece showing all points of view regarding how underprivileged areas and people should be treated and whose responsibility they are. It’s the kind of thing that is rarely seen in this country (well – I’ve rarely seen, but I’m nowhere near as widely read as perhaps I should be). I have seen pointed out elsewhere that Rowling is in a pretty unique position having spent a proportion of her life in almost every strata of British society, and it seems she has taken on a position to comment on all of these.

(It also appears clear that she has a view on who is right and who is in the wrong, but given that this conforms to my own opinions, this may just be my reading of the text.)

There have been complaints that the book is too bleak a portrait, that every character is miserable and that life always offers some light, some laughs, along the way. I have to say that this was not my interpretation but that I can see how such views could be derived. Rowling’s characters rarely have good things to say (or think) about each other, be they husband and wife or vowed enemies and certainly one could view their portrayal as a depressing commentary on middle England, but I prefer to think of it as a richly dark and tragic comedy. Even so, the desire for light seems a view coloured (at least slightly) by the Harry Potter stories. Granted, these became bleak as they went on, and there is no one in Pagford who can be called the true personification of evil in the same way as he who may not be named, but even so, there was generally fun to be had along the way with the Weasley twins, with the new teachers and new spells, and with Quiddich. You will not find the same kind of entertainment on offer here, it’s true.

Some reviews have looked down on the quality of the writing but for me this was unfair and, indeed, petty. I am always going to side with a good story well told over pages of flowery language, and if you’re coming to this looking for flowery language (which I doubt many readers are) then you’ll leave disappointed. But Rowling does succeed in telling a very good story, drawing the reader into the inner lives of her characters, making them feel the pain and the heartache suffered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s especially good at writing the inner lives of her younger protagonists, making sense of the often nonsensical teenage years and yearnings, the way the raging hormones can push you into saying or doing things you know you shouldn’t.

This is a vividly created world and the occasional weak metaphor is no reason to dismiss it. But that said, one of the lines I have seen criticised was one that stood out for me as something to be celebrated:

“Krystal’s slow passage up the school had resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned.”

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on the writing (and my taste) from that. Granted, there are weak lines (“But then came the hour than changed everything” is overblown for a moment that just pushed the story onwards, like so many other moments in the book), but for me the individual lines are not what matters here, it is the greater whole, not the individual brushstrokes but the picture painted, and Rowling has created a rich tapestry of early 21st century middle England.

Sandi Toksvig – My Valentine live show – Review

Sandi Toksvig – My Valentine – Poole Lighthouse, Friday October 5th, 2012

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Sandi Toksvig starts her show My Valentine (directed by Pip Broughton) by warning the audience that it has, on occasion, been seen as a bit of a letdown, but she needn’t have worried as the two hours whiz by far so fast we can barely catch our breath..

The first half constitutes something of an autobiography and family history, covering her career (from the first – and only – all female footlights revue through to QI and The News Quiz), her childhood at schools on both sides of the Atlantic, and her family’s myriad connections and achievements in the arts (which range from her father’s role as Denmark’s first television foreign correspondent to her aunt and uncle’s position in the Algonquin Round Table alongside Dorothy Parker).

The credit from her career that perhaps resonates most throughout the entire show, though, is Call My Bluff, as the Dane consistently displays her love for the English language, contrasting it with the comparative paucity of the Danish language. That doesn’t stop her from teaching us a seemingly random Danish phrase – “I am the King of Denmark and I like strawberries” – a phrase which gains resonance later in the show.

Toksvig’s love of language continues in the second half, which could easily be seen as just an advert for Toksvig’s latest book, Valentine Grey, but ultimately becomes so much more. The book revolves around the story of a woman who decides to disguise herself as a man and enlist to fight in the Boer War, a storyline many could find unbelievable but that was inspired by a number of real life figures who made similar choices, and this is where the show becomes something more. Toksvig highlights these women, embracing their stories and imploring her audience to read up on the remarkable characters behind them. One such woman, Nadezhda Durova, rose to the rank of Captain in the Russian Cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. Upon discovery of her secret, rather than being criminalised as one might have expected of time, she was awarded further medals for her role. (Her story can be read in the translation of her journals, The Cavalry Maiden).

Alas, Sandi barely pauses for breath as she regales us with these tales and, having come for a comedy show and not a lecture, remembering all of the details proves nigh on impossible. But that doesn’t diminish the power of the stories or the passion Toksvig has for them, and neither does it weigh against the enjoyment of the show. Toksvig is a master communicator and spending two hours in her company is a pure joy.

(This is a slightly expanded version of my review originally written for the What The Frock blog. What The Frock is a Bristol based women’s comedy night (the comedians are female, the audience is mixed) run by my friend Madam J-Mo. Madam J-Mo’s blog is full of interesting, engaging and amusing pieces on pop culture, feminism and suffrage and is well worth a read.)

A Very Sensible Post

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Different people discover music at different times in their lives. For me, the breakthrough came when I was 15-16. In relatively quick succession I saw Kingmaker supported by Elastica, and then Suede’s debut album was released. The sounds of Madchester had largely passed me by and, while I had developed an affinity for REM, then only just breaking into the big time, my musical eduction was only just about to begin with the blossoming of the Britpop scene. I was a late bloomer, that was for sure.

Until that point, much of my cultural intake had been conducted via the computer, specifically a Commodore Amiga 500+. When other kids might have had footballers or pop stars adorning their walls, I had posters of games collected, in the main, from Amiga Power*, possibly the greatest magazine about anything ever produced. Yes, I read. Yes, I listened to music (generally, the bad stuff), and yes I watched the occasional film, but really, games were where it was at for me.

And as with any sub-culture, there were heroes to be had. There was Peter Molyneux, the genius behind titles such as Populous and Syndicate, and many more besides. But from the outside he always seemed too intelligent to be any fun, he was the Amiga’s headmaster. Then there were the Bitmap Brothers, the coders behind Speedball and The Chaos Engine. Theirs were games that built brilliant worlds inspired by steam-punk and with a fantastic visual style. But the Bitmap Brothers felt like the loners in trench coats who you would probably try to avoid (somewhat ironically, as I became a trench coat wearer myself just a few short years later).

And then there was Sensible Software.

Sensible Software were the Amiga’s crazy gang. You felt that they must have been the most fun to work with. You felt that it was amazing that any work got at all in their offices. They were the Amiga’s Monkees – a bunch of guys living in a crazy world, having fun, playing games, living the dream. I’m sure they worked very hard and it wasn’t all puppy-dogs and ice cream, but there’s no way it can have been a chore to wake up and go to work at a company that could create the soundbites used in Mega Lo Mania (the scientific reassurance that an invention is “Ergonomically terrific” and the gleeful shouts of “We’ve nuked them!” still get parroted at inappropriate moments) or the theme tune to Cannon Fodder (“War – Never Been So Much Fun”). Let alone the Amiga Power demo/freebie of a WW2 football match played with a hand grenade that would go off and kill your troops/players every so often.

Playing Sensible Software games was a joy because you could sense that they were a joy to produce. They managed to lace them with little jokes that meant it felt like they were playing along with you in spirit at all times.

I’m still a pretty dedicated games player now – I don’t have the same kind of time available to me now to play, but I still clock a fair few hours on the PS3, Vita and PC, as well as bits and pieces on the iPhone – but it’s rare to come across a game that is quite so full of personality as those old Sensi games were. Don’t get me wrong, there are great games around now – Portal 2 is one of the best ever produced – amazingly funny and frustratingly devious, while being eminently solvable. But because of the sheer processing power and size of the programming teams involved, it’s rare for a personality to come through. Have I explained what I mean well? Probably not. How about this:

Pixar animation is brilliant, but Aardman stop-motion animation has a bit more personality to it – you can (often literally) see the fingerprints of the creators while Pixar is smooth and polished. Well Portal 2 is smooth and polished – Mega Lo Mania was covered in fingerprints.

So are there the fingerprint covered games out there now or have things just got too big and that’s no longer possible? Undoubtedly there are, but they aren’t the best-selling games in the country like Sensible games used to be. You have to hunt them out. There may be the odd one available for download on the PS Store or through the XBox online side of things, and there are bound to be some on the App Store, but finding them is not necessarily easy – there’s a lot of stuff to wade through to find the gems.

Anyway, rather than dwell on how in my day all round here were fields and kids today don’t know their born, let’s get back to the point. I recently signed up for Kickstarter. If you don’t know, Kickstarter is a site where people can launch all kinds of creative ventures and ask people – anyone – to help back their project. Rather than have to find someone to invest thousands of pounds to get something off the line, lots of people can invest £10 or £20 and build it up. In return, those asking for money will reward investors with various goodies. A small pledge might net you a bookmark or some stickers, a larger pledge a signed copy of a book, or a massive pledge an invite to a movie premier and opportunity to hang with the stars.

So, what was the first thing I saw when I signed up? Darren Wall’s Sensible Software 1986-1999 book. It was kismet. The first thing I did was watch the pitch video and it brought all the glorious memories of Sensible’s greatest hits come rushing back. It’s a marvellous thing. Rather than describe it to you, why not watch it?

The pitch promises to “tell the story of Sensible through interviews and anecdotes from those who were there – including Jon Hare and the Sensible team – and a feast of visuals celebrating the company’s idiosyncratic, groundbreaking style” – and certainly the images on display on the site live up to the billing, as does the list of interviewees for the book, including many of the Sensible team, Peter Molyneux, Archer MacLean and Dominik Diamond.

The different tiers of support offer rewards such as dedicated copies of the book, 12 inch vinyl pressings of some of the great Sensible tunes and personalised Sensible-style posters.

Darren has set up a publishing company – ROM (Read Only Memory) – to publish this book and is hoping it is the first of many. As he says on the Kickstarter page:

This will be ROM’s first product, and we’re committed to making it the book we’ve always wanted to read ourselves.

We know our goal is ambitious, and it all goes towards making the book feel as special as it possibly can. We want the games to look even better than you remember them, and first-class print, multiple paper stocks and special inks will all contribute to this. And we want your feedback to make this the fans’ dream Sensible book – so please include your suggestions and ideas when you back us.

If amazing things happen and we exceed our goal, we’ll be speaking to backers directly to see how you’d like the project to evolve, whether that’s extra content, more contributors, or an even higher spec. We’ll also be seeking your input on ROM’s future endeavours. With your help we can make this the first of many products that document great moments in gaming history.

Of course I had to sign up for a part of this exciting project and I can’t wait to get my hands on the finished article in the middle of next year. If you had an interest in games back in the 80s and 90s I’d urge you to take a look – the memories will come flooding back – and, if you can, invest.


*I’ll have to do a post on Amiga Power at some other point.

Nick Clegg’s “Bigotry” Non-Gaffe

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Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has come under fire for a press release issued by his office in which opponents of gay marriage were labelled bigots. The press release was hastily withdrawn and it was stated that it was not Clegg’s choice of wording and that there was a more recent draft in which the partidular phrase was withdrawn. The original wording was:

Continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we ‘postpone’ the equalities agenda in order to deal with ‘the things people really care about’. As if pursuing greater equality and fixing the economy simply cannot happen at once.

Words I wholeheartedly agree with. The replacement phraseology was:

Continued trouble in the economy leads some people to demand we ‘postpone’ the equalities agenda in order to deal with ‘the things people really care about’. As if pursuing greater equality and fixing the economy simply cannot happen at once.

There’s not a huge difference there, certainly the essence is the same – why should we stop driving forward equality just because the economy is tanking? If modern politicians can’t manage even the slightest bit of multi-tasking, the country really is screwed (though looking around, maybe that’s the real issue).

What’s more interesting is the response from members of his coalition Government. Below is an extract from the Guardian article on the subject:

Peter Bone, the Tory backbencher, accused Clegg of having insulted millions of people “with deep convictions of religion and conscience”. Bone said: “I don’t see how that could have got published without it being the view of the deputy prime minister. He has got to rapidly get out there on the airwaves apologising. It is clear what he thinks. There is no way that the deputy prime minister of our country can be associated with that language.”

I’m sorry, but believing that 2-10% of the nation (I have seen estimates at either end of that spectrum) are not entitled to the same set of rights as the rest of the population just because of the sex of the person they fell in love with is bigotry, pure and simple.

Bigotry: Stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.
Now, Mr Bone is entitled to his opinion, but we should be living in a country where the rights available to one person are the rights available to all, and gender, race or sexuality should not determine which rights you are or are not entitled to.
Rather impusively, I decided to send Mr Clegg (or rather, his office) an email on the subject, supporting the use of the word ‘bigot’, and I am publishing it at the foot of this post. I did realise halfway through that there may be reason behind retracting the word ‘bigot’ from the initial communication. Essentially, the reasoning can be boiled down to “It can be easier to get someone to agree to something they don’t like if you don’t insult them and call them names while you do it.” It’s a fair point, and I totally understand why Mr Clegg’s office might want to distance themselves from the initial phraseology, but it’s important to point out and drive home the fact that people who do object to gay marriage are bigots and we shouldn’t afraid to call them that or to point it out.
There’s one simple thing to remember: You can support gay marriage and still be a bad person. You can’t oppose gay marriage and be a good person.
Dear Mr Clegg,While you may never have intended to use the word “bigots” in your email or speech, I fully believe that you should not be afraid to label these people for what they are. If they opposed inter-racial marriage you would not be afraid to call these people “racists”, and likewise those opposed to giving full rights to homosexuals should be labelled and highlighted as bigots.In 30 years time, the idea that LGBT people could have not been allowed to be married will appear ridiculous – something I am sure you agree with. But the longer we allow people with these opposing views to share them as though they are acceptable in a modem society, the longer a full acceptance will take.There will always be opponents to this kind of legislation and LGBT lifestyles on general – just as there are racists around us now – but that doesn’t make their views on homosexuality or attempted restrictions on the rights of those people acceptable, and nor does the fact that some of your coalition colleagues share those views.

Using Christianity (or any religion) as a reason for these oppositions is fine – they can attempt to defend their indefensible position however they like – but we live in a free country – a country where more people are likely to give their religion as Jedi than anything else – and people should have the same rights regardless of their religious beliefs. Marriage isn’t solely a Christian institution – it is, or should be, for everyone. If a church doesn’t want to carry out a gay wedding, that would be fine in my book, as long as those gay and lesbian couples do have somewhere to marry.

We are a multi-cultural and multi-religious (or non-religious) country and we shouldn’t have legislation shaped purely on the basis of the faith of an ever-decreasing minority. While I have had my issues with many aspects of this governments work in office, I wholeheartedly welcome Mr Cameron’s pledge to pass gay marriage laws by 2015 – it stands to be the government’s greatest legacy if it is achieved. I also understand that, in order to pass this legislation, tempering language in order not I rile opponents too greatly is probably necessary.

However, I would echo Peter Tatchell’s comment: “It is pretty clear that some people oppose marriage rights for gay people because of deep-seated homophobic bigotry. Nick Clegg should not be afraid to say so.”

Kind regards,

Benjamin Hendy

NB – a copy of this email may be posted on my blog at www.benjaminhendy.com – don’t worry – no one reads it. If you (or your office) reply, I may also post your response on there.

The Story of Sport

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The last 2 months in this country have been an amazing time for sport, and not solely because of the Olympic and Paralympic games in London. We’ve also seen a British winner of the US PGA Championship (Rory McIlroy) and, just last night, a British winner of the US Open tennis tournament in Andy Murray. Before the Olympics we had Murray in the Wimbledon final and also the Euro 2012 football tournament, though the less said from an English perspective the better really, and in a few weeks time we have the Ryder Cup which is quite possibly my favourite sporting event. Then, dotted throughout the summer, there’s been a great test series between the top 2 countries in the world of cricket, South Africa and England. It wasn’t as close as anyone had hoped. In fact, it wasn’t close. But it was still entertaining.

But why bring all of this up? It doesn’t seem like the closest fit with the other content of this blog. Not only that, but sport isn’t normally associated with the nerdier people in life* (Statto aside, perhaps) and I am a self confessed nerd (I mean, come on, I’ve written a science fiction book). But I have always held a passion for sport. When I was young I was always playing some kind of sport or other. Maybe not well, but I was playing it. And now I am forever rotating through a number of sports and trying not to get too distracted from the writing that must be done. But I have been thinking about what the true appeal of watching sport is, both in general and particularly to me, and I think it can be summed up in one word – narrative.

Yes, we look for moments of individual brilliance – Cisse’s goal for Newcastle against Chelsea and Usain Bolt’s 9.63 seconds in the 100m in London were both breathtaking – but what carries us through for the long haul are, one way or another, the stories. Those stories can be the course of the football season: The Premier League was Manchester City’s, then Manchester United’s and on the last day, seemed to vacillate between the two before, at the last possible second, coming down on City’s side. Or they can be the ebb and flow of test match cricket, with each session offering its own stories, and the bowlers and batsmen providing individual bouts of conflict.

The phrase’ soap opera’ is often used to describe some drawn out and unseemly saga – see the Kevin Pietersen fiasco currently raging in the England cricket team – but it would be truer to say that that is the role that sport as a whole has come to play, and the term shouldn’t be used in the derogatory manner in which it currently is, but as praise. These are the stories we cling to as a society. In many ways, they have supplanted Eastenders and Coronation Street.

The reason why both cricket and the Ryder Cup work so well for me lies in the combination of the micro and macro. They are team sports, but they are also individual pursuits, with those smaller battles against both foe and circumstance building to a greater whole. Batsmen and bowlers are battling each other and the conditions, golfers are head to head and against conditions and course. But perhaps the greatest beauty of the stories that unfold is that, more than fiction, anything can happen.

I recently saw the brilliant documentary The Imposter (this is going somewhere, I swear). I won’t reveal anything other than to say it’s about an imposter and should be seen. Beyond that, you should go I cold. Anyway, I heard an interview with the director where he related being asked why he had made the film as a documentary and not as standard film. His answer was that if he had made a ‘Based On A True Story’ film, no one would have believed it. The story is too ridiculous, too outlandish, that it couldn’t happen in real life. Except it happened in real life. By making a documentary the audience is prepared to believe the incredible circumstances presented.

The reason for this is that fiction has conventions. There is a narrative structure that is imposed, there are things you must reveal so that the story doesn’t fall foul of using a dues ex machine (Harry Potter can normally use magic to get out of his problems, but he must learn the right magic first, else it would feel like a cheat). Watch enough drama on television or in the cinema  and you become used to the conventions, you understand how the plot works, you can start to feel the twists coming. You can never be surprised.

What sport offers is a story that develops in front of your eyes that you can never truly predict. The best sports will always have that ability to surprise. As they say of American football, on Any Given Sunday any team can beat any other. And even if you can predict the overall narrative arc, such as in the England – West Indies test series earlier this summer (England won pretty easily), there will always be strands that surprise and delight, like Tino Best’s 95 not out.

And it’s all of this that makes me (a little) surprised that the nerd culture, which so often gets caught up in stories being told in one form or another, isn’t more caught up in sport*. I listen to The Nerdist podcast interviews with various ‘nerdy’ individuals and it’s noticeable how frequently both the presenters and guests will confess to having no interest in sports and yet be eating up so many other stories in so many other forms.

But over this sport-filled summer, I have noticed the frequency with which the commentators mention the ‘story’ of someone – “Mo Farah is such a great story, growing up in Somalia and moving to Britain aged 8…”. Sport used to be a niche thing, something it was easy to avoid and ignore, and it was often followed by people who were admirers of the feats the sportsmen and women could achieve**. Now sport is almost unavoidable (I don’t know how you could have avoided the Olympics over here, had you wanted to. Though why would you want to?), the appeal has to be broadened, it’s not just about the things people can achieve, it’s also about the journey they have taken to achieve it. Athletes are becoming actors in their own private Truman Show***.


*Yes, I am aware that ‘nerd’ can really be used to describe anyone who has an obsessive knowledge of pretty much anything, and hence you can have cricket (or baseball, for my US readers) nerds. Or nerds of any other sport. I’m using term in the more generic, mainstream sense here (alright, stereotypical), the sense that incorporates those obsessed by comic books, science fiction, fantasy etc and so on.

**I am also aware that there is a great appeal to the idea of belonging, of tribalism, around following a local sports team. One could argue that this is, in part, followers inserting themselves into the story. The ups and downs of a team’s performance are no longer ‘theirs’ and something for us to watch and unfold, but ‘ours’ and something to take part in.

***Brief Andy Murray digression. Andy Murray appears to be someone who refuses to take part in this Truman Show. He is often brushed off as being surly and miserable, but as Charlie Brooker pointed out, he’s not miserable, he’s just normal. All the other tennis players have done their media training and smile for the camera and answer the same bland questions over and over. Andy doesn’t seem to like that and so does what he needs to and gets on with his life. By all accounts he’s a funny chap and a bit of a pranker in his training sessions.

RIP Tony Scott

Today brought the sad news that Tony Scott had died. A man in his sixties, I hadn’t heard of him suffering from any illness and, as I read the newspaper report, I was struggling to work out what had happened. And then in the last paragraph or two they reached the nub of the affair: Tony Scott had killed himself by throwing himself from a bridge in California, half an hour or so from the home he shared with his wife and children. It’s a shocking end to a life and career that, perhaps, more than any other director in the last 30 years shaped the way in which Hollywood films were made.

I haven’t seen every film Tony Scott directed but I have seen a lot and, setting aside discussion of their artistic merits, they were certainly influential. There’s certainly an arguable case that Top Gun laid the foundation for the modern summer behemoths that we see today, even more so than Jaws and Star Wars. Spielberg’s films always had heart to them, they were centred on a human experience, and, while the Star Wars films (original trilogy) may have had an adherence to the principals that Joseph Campbell laid down, they also had complex stories and characters and built an intriguing world. None of these traits could be levelled at Top Gun, which predominantly focussed on visual spectacle, almost to the exclusion of all else, a trend which can, regrettably, be traced through to Michael Bay and the Transformers movies today.

This may sound like a strange way to commemorate a man, but a man cannot be blamed for the way in which his art is interpreted or who or what it influences – just ask JD Salinger, who’s novel The Catcher In The Rye was linked to Mark Chapman (killer of John Lennon), Robert John Bardo (who murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer) and John Hinckley Jr (who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan). Top Gun had its detractors but it also had a lot to recommend it, not least of which was the level of control exhibited over the visceral, testosterone fuelled action, something sadly lacking from the bloated and boring modern day imitators.

Success with Top Gun was followed up with Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Days of Thunder, but this success was overshadowed by his older brother, Ridley, who was riding high on the critical/cult success of Alien, Bladerunner and Thelma & Louise. But as the 90s developed roles seemed to reverse for a while. Tony was now making the more adventurous films, films which pushed away from the high octane background of their director, while Ridley’s output went through a lull incorporating 1492: Conquest of Paradise, White Squall and GI Jane.

This period represents the one which will stick in the memory for me. Tony Scott direct The Last Boy Scout (1991) – a brilliant take on the buddy cop movie and updating of the noir of the 40s starring Bruce Willis – True Romance (1993) – a brilliant version of a script by Quentin Tarantino featuring a magnificent scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken – Crimson Tide (1995) – a great submarine film which gets standout performances from Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman – The Fan (1996) – Robert De Niro returning to the dark material he was originally known for in a tale of an obsessive fan stalking his baseball hero – and Enemy Of The State (1998) – a quasi-sequel to the great Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation with Will Smith and Gene Hackman. Each of these films takes something from the arthouse and something from the multiplex and blends them almost perfectly in each case – you won’t find many better runs of intelligent mainstream entertainment on any director’s CV.

Of course, no one can keep a great run going forever but even if they weren’t brilliant, there was good solid entertainment to be found in the likes of Spy Game, Man On Fire and Unstoppable.

Just before publishing this post I read that Scott had been diagnosed with inoperable, terminal brain cancer, and he had clearly decided that he would rather not live than live through a slow and painful death – a difficult and sad choice. It is a very sad end for a man who changed cinema over the course of the last 30 years.

Rest In Peace, Tony Scott.

My Favourite Hitchcock

In honour of… a thing… The Guardian has been running a series of posts online called “My Favourite Hitchcock” in which their journalists write a short essay on their favourite Hitchcock movie, starting with their lead film critics Peter Bradshaw (Psycho) and Philip French (The Lady Vanishes). So I thought I would stick my oar in and have a go myself.

I like a lot of films and, being a bit of a film buff, will often get asked what my favourite film is. However, there are so many genres and so many great movies that picking just one is nigh on impossible. However, for the sake of these questions, my answer is always Rear Window and I shall tell you for why.

(Warning: This post will feature spoilers from the movie. If you haven’t seen it then you really should. Also, if you haven’t seen it, don’t read this just yet.)

A very simple plot overview to start with. Jeff (James Stewart) has broken his leg and can’t leave his apartment. He spends his days observing his neighbours out of his window. One stiflingly hot night he wakes and, in a bit of a daze, thinks he may have witnessed a neighbour Thorwald (Raymond Burr) murder his wife, but he can’t be sure. In the end he sends his girlfriend Lisa, played by Grace Kelly, to go and investigate. She finds the evidence and, ultimately, Thorwald is arrested.

The point of giving that very brief overview is to illustrate just how simple the story is. Hitchcock was known as the master of suspense for a reason. Here he takes a simple story and manages to slowly ratchet up the tension. If this were a modern film, this would be act one. “Not enough happens,” would be the cry from the executives, “make him a serial killer.” But this is a drama about real people in a real place. By taking his time and letting us get to know Jeff and Lisa, and become absorbed in the stories of all of the neighbours (not just Thorwald), we almost become a part of the film. As a viewer we have a direct surrogate on the screen. Jeff is stuck in his apartment – all he can do is watch – and so we become Jeff. By inviting us into the film, even the smallest details become more interesting, and the fear becomes more palpable.

And why is the fear heightened in this way? Well, it’s us investigating Thorwald, it’s we, the viewer, who sends in Lisa, sends in Princess Grace, to investigate. We put her in harm’s way and if anything happens to her, it’s our fault.

Hitchcock makes this point quite clearly as we enter the final section of the film. Jeff’s friend Detective Doyle has found supposedly conclusive proof as to Thorwald’s innocence and jeff and Lisa’s initial burst of disappointment is mirroring our own. We came to this film because it was a murder story. We wanted the viscera of death brought into our lives and Hitchcock tells us off in no uncertain terms:

Jeff, if someone came in here, they wouldn’t believe what they’d see … [Us] Plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known. You’d think we could be a bit happy that the poor woman is alive and well.

It is not Jeff and Lisa who are the ghouls but us, the audience. We paid to see someone die and we’ll be disappointed if we don’t get it. Hitchcock clearly knows this and there could be an unwritten addendum to that speech, an author’s aside, something to precede what occurs almost immediately after.

OK – if you want a murder, you can have a murder. If you want Thorwald to have killed his wife, I can give you that. But remember, this is what you wanted. You have Grace Kelly’s life in your hands and this is what you’ve decided. If anybody gets hurt, it’s on you.

Shortly after, one of the neighbour’s dog is killed and the culprit is quickly deduced to be Thorwald; the murder’s back on and pretty swiftly Lisa is sent to investigate.

The beauty of all of this is not just the story telling, though a brilliantly told story it is. The beauty is seeing Hitchcock’s fingerprints all over it. Throughout the film he is using his characters to tell off the audience.

We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.

I can smell trouble right here in this apartment. First you smash your leg, then you get to looking out the window, see things you shouldn’t see.

The film is a game to Hitchcock and he is toying with the audience like a cat toys with a mouse it has caught.

But not only that, the whole film is a lesson in story-telling. Each of Jeff’s neighbours has their own narrative which develops over the course of the film – Miss Lonelyhearts, The Songwriter, Miss Torso, The Newlyweds – they all have a mini-story of their own, all of which develop with only the slightest commentary from Jeff. These are like slimmed down silent films, vignettes dropped in to round out the neighbourhood. That we can get emotionally involved in the story of Miss Lonelyhearts, willing her to find love, is further testimony to the skills of a director on the verge of entering arguably the greatest purple patch any director has ever had, with To Catch A Thief, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho and The Birds all to follow in the next decade.

Back once again

I’ve been away. Sorry. It wasn’t anything you said. I should perhaps add that I’ve not been ‘away’ away – I’ve been here, I’ve just not been posting, and that is bad of me. So what do I have to say for myself? Nothing. That’s right nothing. I don’t have to answer to you. You’re not my real parents. I hate you. God, I wish I’d never been born. [stamps upstairs, slams bedroom door].

Sorry about that. I’m not sure what just happened. Anyway, I need to bring you up-to-date. What’s been happening?

Firstly, the book has sold pretty well. I got a massive boost when the lovely Zoe Ball gave me a plug on BBC Radio 2 (see the video I cobbled together and have placed at the foot of this post). I had sent Zoe the book on the off chance that her son Woody would enjoy it, and lo-and-behold, about 6 weeks later I get some lovely words and orders from Milliways (I am reliably told) went through the roof.

The book is now about to be reprinted (freshly emblazoned with some a quote from Zoe on the back cover) and will hopefully find its way into Waterstones in the near future.

In the meantime I have been working on the follow-up book, The Revolutionary Kind. I am still hoping that it will be out by the end of the year, but that is looking like a tougher and tougher challenge. How To Fill A Black Hole took me a loooong time to write and while I will be much, much quicker with TRK, I think having it on the shelves within a year of the first book was being a little over eager, especially when you consider I am still working a full time job at the moment. Still, I will push on and, fingers crossed, thy will be done.

As for the story, is there anything I can reveal? Well, it will be different in tone and a different type of story. I don’t want the books to become repetitious so each one will be bringing different themes to the fore. I don’t want to say much more at the moment, but if anyone has any specific questions, ping them my way and I can answer them. Or ignore them. You know, one or the other.

In the meantime, I intend to try to update this blog once or twice a week, keep it ticking over. It’s a good little warm-up exercise for the rather larger writing project at hand, if nothing else. I’ll probably be sharing some thoughts about various books, tv shows and films I have read and seen, things like that.

Stay tuned.

And now, Zoe Ball:

Never… Always… Sometimes Go Back (I wish I could use strikethrough in these titles)

An update, an update, my kingdom for an update. Not my words. Or anyone else’s. They have just mysteriously appeared out of nowhere. Anyway, wherever they came from, they prompt me to update you on the latest news. An update should have been forthcoming some time ago and the fact that it has taken so long is something I shall forever regret.

Oh well, what can you do?

So, let’s get the first bit out of the way in as business-like a fashion as possible. Sales have been slow and steady, but there has been encouraging word back from those who have purchased and hopefully this is something we can build upon. Some copies have been requested by wholesalers so people have obviously been requesting the book in their local bookshops – another good sign – and the next step is to hopefully get an order through from Waterstones. We’re working on that, but who knows how long these things take? I certainly don’t.

The link up with the charity has gone well, too, garnering a little publicity, including from the Press Association, but we are awaiting the game-changer moment when we get into the local newspaper. Sometime in the not too distant future I shall be visiting the Hospital’s children’s ward with the book and hopefully the combination of local author, new book, children’s ward, charity and photographs should see us gain some prominent coverage. Or a small column on page 22, I’m not going to be fussy.

The visit to the hospital ward has been delayed as, unfortunately, my CRB check (Criminal Records Bureau) doesn’t cover me for children and vulnerable adults, and so is being redone. This process takes 3-6 weeks and currently looks like it’s going to be closer to the 6 week mark, alas. Still, once we’re up and running, it’ll all be good.

All that said, I was still cleared to go in and visit my old middle school, now renamed Shirley Junior School. I attended from 1985-89 but the local school system has been reorganised and so now the children only attend for 3 years instead of 4 thus my visit to the top year was seeing 10 and 11 year olds, not 11s and 12s.

Anyway, they say never go back, and they are wrong. Not so wrong as to say you should always go back – I’ve had experiences before in my life where I shouldn’t have gone back – but the phrase could be modified to something less catchy like “Sometimes it is appropriate to go back and you really need to try to evaluate each situation on its own merits to see whether returning is truly appropriate.” I don’t think it’ll catch on.

It was quite a terrifying experience. I was to spend 45 minutes to 1 hour with each of 4 classes of 30 children across the course of the day. I have not previously spent more than about 8 minutes with 1 10 or 11 year old children, let alone a room full, and I fully remember just how cruel kids can be. I spent a couple of visits with the head of English at the school, Miss Dunne, discussing what kinds of sessions I could run with the children, slowly realising I could be even more out of my depth than I thought.

However, my fears were soon allayed, when I went into the first class at 9:30 last Friday morning. The support I got from the teacher, Mrs Ogles (not Miss Dunne, her class was the last of the day) was excellent, she joined in with the lesson, geed the kids along, and generally made me feel at home talking to them. Even better was the round of applause after each of the two readings I did. I set the children little tasks to do between each of the readings and then went to each table and quizzed the kids about the story and what they thought. The response was overwhelming positive and, it has to be said, it’s really what makes writing the book worthwhile.

Writing a book you spend an awfully long time in a room on your own staring at a computer screen trying to work out what combination of words might work best to get an idea which works in your head out into the wider world. Getting direct feedback from your audience, and such an enthusiastic audience at that, is brilliant. I can’t imagine that it would feel the same going in to talk to a group of adults in support of an adult-oriented book. Adults are cagier with their responses, if they have negative thoughts they try to cover them up, not wanting to offend. And I doubt I’d have been asked to sign so many bookmarks and pieces of paper had I been talking to adults (or arms, for that matter, though I did turn down that opportunity!).

As the day went on, I came to realise how different each class was and each teacher’s technique. When you’re a 10 year old at school, you tend to have just the one teacher the whole time, you aren’t exposed to the various methodologies of all the other teacher’s. With this opportunity I got to see how four different teachers within the same school ran their classes and how different each one was. Some joined in while others sat back and allowed me to (predominantly) run the session (something I wouldn’t have been comfortable with had I known that was how it would work, but actually turned out better than fine). They all had their own pieces of advice which I tried to accommodate as the day went on, and I feel like I may have learnt a lot more than the children did. I owe each of the teachers – Mrs Mendez and Mrs Herring in addition to Miss Dunne and Mrs Ogles – a great deal of thanks firstly for allowing me time with their classes and secondly for the help they offered. I just hoped that it proved to be a valuable experience for the children in their classes.

So then there is the aspect of going back. As I said, I last attended Shirley Middle School 22 years ago, and it has changed in many ways. Some of those are visible externally – plenty of building work has manifested itself, with a whole (small) street of houses demolished to provide some grass for the children to play on for starters. But other changes are only noticeable inside. Where once the walls were predominantly bare, now they are covered with designs everywhere. The chairs and tables are now bright reds and blues instead of grey, brown and beige. The place seems to be carpeted almost throughout. Some of the old rituals seem to have changed – in my day, when you came in from break/lunch, a few of the older children were stair monitors (including myself). Our job was to make sure that everyone who came in from break walked up the stairs is a safe and steady manner – no taking two steps, no talking, or you got sent back down and had to walk up the steps again. Now the job is done by teaching assistants and I didn’t see any of the talkers sent back down, just admonished for not maintaining silence. The school bell seems to have gone too. While being a stair monitor, I was also one of two children given the privilege/responsibility of ringing the bell at the end of the day and at lunchtime, but that too is now gone.

These were things I wouldn’t have remembered without walking up those stairs and witnessing the new forms the rituals had taken. I was taken back to being a 10 year old at the school, though I felt I couldn’t have been as young as these children seemed to me. I guess time does that to you. But going back to being a 10 year old at that school is what this book has been about. The genesis for How To Fill A Black Hole and The Marianna Chronicles as a whole was the fact that when i was 8/9/10 years old and I had finished my work in class I used to write stories about me and my friends fighting monsters in space. Looking back I realised I should write the book(s) that I clearly wanted to read at the time. I have said many times before that I am essentially writing these stories for a 10 year old me, but heading back to the school made it clear that this is not really the case. I am writing these stories for those children, and just as I have distinct memories of what went on in those walls when I was there, perhaps my book will become part of the fabric of those children’s memories in 20 years time.