Trying to make some kind of sense of the Brexit

[This post was originally published on Facebook at about 1:30am on Saturday June 25th, 2016]
Today has brought a range of emotions. Is one a range? It’s mainly been rage. I suppose disappointment is in there too, that’ll do for a range. But I’ve talked it through and I feel calm enough now to try to sit down and compose something to try and make sense of this mess the country has made for itself.
I was woken by my baby daughter at around 5 or so this morning. I thought I would check the results coming in before heading back to sleep, but 20 seconds later there was no chance of me sleeping. I couldn’t believe what I saw, and at various points today that has been repeated. But I’ll come to that.
First of all, let me say that those of us on the Remain side should probably follow Mark Rylance’s character in the recent Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies. Tom Hanks asks him if he’s worried about what the American government might do to him, a Russian spy who has been caught. Rylance replies, “Would it help?”. It can feel very cathartic to get wound up, shout and scream, to abuse those we feel have betrayed the country (more on them soon), but in the grand scheme of things, “Will it help”? The answer is no. It won’t. And besides, there’s still too much we don’t know.
First things first, technically the result isn’t legally binding. The Government could still decide not to go through with this. It’s highly unlikely, but it’s possible. An even greater outside chance is another referendum, which is being demanded already. If the first of these two options holds a 1% chance, the latter holds about a 0.01% chance as far as I can see but, to quote Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber (an apt film for this situation), “So you’re saying there’s a chance.”
Secondly, we don’t know what kind of deal will be done in negotiating out exit. There are a number of options and I’ll list them in no particular order, though starting with the least likely. It’s possible that whoever replaces David Cameron (more on him soon, too) could go to the negotiating table with the rest of the EU and eke out a deal which is acceptable to sell to the British public and keeps us in the EU. Beyond that, there are the Norwegian and Swiss models. Both are shitty deals but, from where we stand right now, but better than not being in at all. I’ll not go into details, I’m just saying they’re options which offer a little light at the end of this dark tunnel. We could get some kind of hybrid deal which isn’t either of those models but is something new entirely, giving us some access to some things and not others. Diffocult to pin that down to how good or bad it would be.
The final option, and the one everyone is assuming right now, is effectively the nuclear option – we go it totally alone. This is the one we should be really afraid of as I believe it leads along a path to irrelevancy. But let’s not worry about that just yet. Whoever takes over, and who knows, we may have a general election coming too, so it may not even be the next leader of the Conservative party, will have to gauge the mood in the country and come up with a deal that is palatable. There seems to be a pretty clear mood in a lot of the country and it may become clearer in the next few months as it dawns on a lot of the Leave voters what this really means.
But the point is that there’s an awful lot still up in the air so let’s not panic too much just yet. It won’t help. We need to approach this with clear heads.
So now I want to momentarily dwell on the aftermath. As the day has gone on, it has appeared that a significant chunk of the country is having buyers remorse. There are seemingly ever more stories of people saying they didn’t expect Leave to win and if they had known what it meant they would have voted to Remain. This highlights a couple of things. Firstly, that Leaving perhaps isn’t what the majority actually want. But also, the political naivety of a large number of voters in this country. As I mentioned earlier, I doubt we can get a second referendum, but this may be the one thing that we can cling to on that front.
So then we have to focus on the electorate. Not only are there a multitude of stories of people regretting the choice they made, there was also a message from Google today that the second most searched for term in the UK SINCE THE POLLS CLOSED was “What is the EU?”. People were voting on something they didn’t understand. The Leave campaign was successful because they made this vote an emotional one, not an intellectual one, and that has been the problem with British politics (and global politics, to be fair) for too long. You prey on people’s fears and you appeal to their hopes and you hope you can lay blame at someone else’s door. People don’t like to engage with facts. They’re not fun. Cold hard numbers don’t get the pulse racing. So people vote because they are told a bad thing will happen or because they are promised a good thing, but they don’t look for evidence. You can see this everywhere – the MMR vaccine scare, climate change – people don’t want to listen at an intellectual level.
I hope that if one good thing can come out of this sorry mess it’s that people will start to engage again. That people will set aside emotional arguments and look for the information they need to make a decision. And that parties may realise that they need to address the concerns of everyone.
The sad fact is that everything the EU has been blamed for should actually be laid at the door of the government. This one, the last one, anyone that’s been in power. This has been a slow downward slide with each successive government knocking another few bricks out of the wall and causing ever more disillusionment. With the majority of politicians agreeing that a Brexit was a bad idea and now trying to recover from the shock, we can only hope that this is taken on board by a lot of them. Anecdotally, a number of Leave supporters were keen to give the Government a bloody nose, without realising that in doing so they were also managing to cut off their own arms and legs.
So those railing against the rise in NHS waiting lists, the fall in availability of school places or housing, blamed immigration and, by extension the EU. That is the primary factor this has boiled down to. However, it is government policies of austerity that led to each of these things, not immigration. I’m not going to go into dissecting this too much, but safe to say that by failing to invest in things which “the common man” viewed as essential, they looked for a scape goat. The government had told them that austerity was important right now, despite the fact that you should always pay for your essentials and only try to pay off your debts when you;re making a profit. So if what we were doing was essential, it must be someone else’s fault, and so the myth of the evil immigrant began. This horrible people, coming over here, working and paying more into our tax system than they took out, taking our jobs but by dint of earning and spending money they also generated more income which generated more jobs and on and on. But the government couldn’t blame themselves so immigration it was.
This hotbed of unrest has been bubbling around for some time and was always going to come out some way, some how. A few years ago it was the riots in London, but that was seen as perpetrated by scum rather than a symptom of a wider malaise within the country. That could have been addressed at the time, but instead it was pushed back under the carpet and written off, ignored. And now it’s come home to roost.
In the run up to the 2015 election, the Conservative party, working under the assumption that they couldn’t win outright, made a manifesto promising all sorts of things they knew they couldn’t deliver. It was packed with promises that could be rolled back should they end in coalition, as they expected. But of course, the wild promises were taken at face value (much like the wild promises of the Leave campaign which are already being walked back – see spending £350m a week more on the NHS), leading to a majority for the Conservative party and a need to fulfil promises they never had an intention of keeping. The reduction in immigration was one of those, still lingering from the days of coalition, and the referendum was another. Now they had to go through with the vote – they had promised it after all (why it couldn’t be a forgotten promise is a matter for the Conservative backbenches and whips) – but felt confident it could be easily won. But they had no plan. When they talked to people they started to realise that their own policies were what led to people’s concerns and the Tories weren’t going to come out and say “Hey, it’s not the EUs fault, don’t blame them, we did it!”
What was more concerning was that the Labour party didn’t take this line. I have no idea why they felt they needed to join with the Conservative Remain campaign. They could have fought this battle with truth and scored some vital political points for when an election came calling. If they had started calling the Tories out, telling people, reminding people, that their stretched services were due to Conservative austerity measures, how exactly do they lose?
I like Jeremy Corbyn and the bulk of what he stands for, but it’s clear that there are significant problems with the way he is running his party. He is a great voice to have in Parliament, offering exactly the kind of voice the disenfranchised in this country need, but he’s failed to be a leader when it mattered most. It’s possible he can turn it around, but I have my doubts.
So with a complacent Remain campaign, the emotional narrative was seized by Leave and now we find ourselves where we are. We already had a lame duck Prime Minister – Cameron had already said he wasn’t going to lead his party into the 2020 election, but now he has walked away. Perhaps that is right – he led an incompetent campaign for something he was supposed to be passionately in favour of. But he also said that he didn’t “walk away from the big decisions” precisely as he was walking away from perhaps the biggest decision in this country’s history since 1939 and the decision to go to war with Germany.
This should come as no surprise. He was never a great leader. He was a man who could deliver a vacuous sales pitch and nail it more often than not (though not when it mattered most), but he had never distinguished himself as a leader. To my mind he was always the palatable face to the sinister evil that lurked behind George Osborne’s eyes of a serial killer. (I use the word palatable merely in relation to Osborne, and not to suggest that I find the man palatable). The one great thing that he can hang on his mast is the legalisation of gay marriage, but that was a gimme for whoever was in power, it was not his own work. Beyond that, what can he truly say he did for this country in the 6 years he led it? In a positive sense I mean. There’s plenty he could say he did, but I imagine he wouldn’t want it on his resume.
So where does all this rambling leave us? I don’t know. I just feel I needed to try to work through that story, see if I could make some sense of it. Hopefully there’s some kind of logical procession going on there. Hopefully it’s contextualised a few things. I think it has in my mind. I hadn’t thought about the riots and some of the other elements of this until I tarted typing, but I think it’s an important part of this story.
I guess now I look forward. I don’t think we have a great time ahead of us. The pound will bounce back up. Not to the level it was at (not for a while, anyway), but it won’t stay as low as it fell today. Same goes for the stock markets. I feel it’s inevitable jobs will be lost. Business will move elsewhere. Eventually some small shoots of recovery will come, but they will be longer in coming than the apparent majority believe. There will be pain. Not for all of us, but for enough, and those of us who are lucky enough to avoid most of it (and who knows if I will be one) should remember that not everyone will be that lucky.
And this country will go on. We’ll produce a surprising amount of writers and artists and musicians and scientists for a nation so small (though I feel scientists in particular may drop off significantly), but we will not take our place on the world stage in the way that we previously did. No longer will we be the gateway to Europe for America (and vice versa). I don’t know what that diminished role will feel like, no one does. I’m no great patriot. This country has done great things and it has done terrible things, and I feel that patriotism is probably best left for the sporting arena (though maybe not football given the behaviour or many of our fans in France right now). Our island status has left us insular as a nation and that means we often don’t appreciate how we are seen by the world. Instead we have this image of ourselves as the all conquering Victorians with the Empire stretching as far as the sun can see, but that country is long gone. I have often lamented (to myself mainly) that the biggest problem we have as a country is we don’t understand how we fit into the world, that we’re puffed up with self importance and the world is passing us by a little. If that wasn’t the case before, I certainly feel it will be now.
This morning I was afraid for the future. It seemed bleak. It was all gone. You maniacs. You blew it up. God damn you all to hell. But it’s not that bad. I mean it’s bad. But it’s not world-ending bad. I viewed myself as a citizen of Europe, grateful for all that it had to offer. I may never take advantage of the right to work or study in any of the EU nations, but my daughter could have (and maybe she still will have those rights). I believe we’ll all be poorer for these events, but then I feel we’re all poorer for having voted in the Conservatives in 2015, and we’ll be poorer for a number of other choices we make as a nation. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes you lose big. But as every casino knows, you’ll keep coming back. And in the lottery that our political system has become, we’ll take another shot at electing a decent government in a few years time, or maybe sooner, and perhaps this week’s events will shorten our odds of finding a good one just a little.
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Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips is based on a true story, but serious questions have been raised about the veracity of the events portrayed in both the eponymous gentleman’s book on the subject and this film. For the sake of this review, I am only talking about what happened in the film. The relationship of the film to what actually happened doesn’t matter for my purposes here. So…

Let me briefly set the scene. Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a family man who captains merchant vessels around the world. He’s been employed to take the Maersk Alabama from Oman to Kenya, sailing through waters off the coast of Somalia, an area known for hijackings. I think you can see where this is going.

If you didn’t know going in, you’d pretty rapidly realise this is a Paul Greengrass film based on the shaky-cam documentary style. It’s something Greengrass has used consistently in his career, through the Bourne films, United 93 and Green Zone, and it is entirely appropriate here, both generating a level of reality for the viewer and a feeling of ‘being there’. The style brings both urgency and tension to proceedings.

Another trait of Greengrass’ is even-handedness and again that is present and correct. Early in proceedings we check in with the hijackers to understand their motivations and background. It’s important to see these events as products of the worlds surrounding the men involved. The hijackers don’t choose this life for a life of adventure, it is because it is the only option open to them and humanising them in this way adds depth that would be missing from many other films. Indeed, for the most part the most remarkable performances stem from Barkhad Abdi, as the lead pirate, and his small crew.

The title of the film, and the general media narrative, might present Phillips as a hero but actually I’d argue that he makes some naïve decisions. This is an ordinary man under-prepared for some extraordinary circumstances who tries to make the best fist of a bad situation. He stumbles his way through with some good judgement and some bad judgement. It’s an admirable performance from Hanks, and one entirely without ego, but it’s one that takes on a whole new level when we reach the post-script. I shan’t say anything more about that, except to say that it is something I have never before seen on screen and is wholly believable and in keeping with events that have gone before.

As for the film as a whole, were it not based on real events, I would have serious trouble believing the way it unfolds. Again, keeping in check what I say so as not to ruin the experience, the developments seem very Hollywood, but these are elements which are undisputed by all involved.

Ultimately, the film is a success, but it raises an interesting comparison with a Danish film from earlier this year, A Hijacking. That film is a step-by-step procedural for how these situations ‘normally’ go, whereas Captain Phillips presents the extreme end of events. Ultimately, I am more interested with the psychology of the processes, how to deal with the people involved in such heightened circumstances and the effects they can have on those caught in the middle, something which is central A Hijacking. That film lacked the understanding of the captors and their background but ultimately was the more interesting movie. Captain Phillips is the more thrilling, undoubtedly, but these are closer to the thrills of a rollercoaster, while A Hijacking is the more interesting and enlightening study and, for me, that gives it the slight edge.

B+

Film Length: 2hrs 14mins – Feels Like: 2hrs 10 mins

A Field In England

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I don’t really know how to review A Field In England. It is clearly not a film for everyone – a black and white film set during the English Civil War with a cast of six that starts off as an odyssey in search of a pub and ends as… what?… a descent into madness and Satanism? That’s not really a spoiler given that I don’t really know what was going on.

I only managed to find two reference points for the film, and even then I’m not sure they’re appropriate. The first is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a comic play and subsequent film filling in the lives of two incredibly minor Shakespeare characters. In that piece, the two characters spend most of the time walking through countryside while musing on life, much as the first half of the film mainly follows three men on their quest for a drink.

But in the second half, things take a different turn. Whitehead (Reece Sheersmith) is revealed to be some kind of shamanic vessel that psychopathic Irishman O’Niell (Michael Smiley) wants to use to find an artefact of some kind.

Look, that’s a terrible description of what happens. And what happens isn’t really important. It’s about mood, about creating a sense of unease, it transcends the events it presents

The other touchstone that I have for it is Dead Man, a magnificent film from 1995 by Jim Jarmusch and starring Johnny Depp. In that film, Depp takes a trip out west in the 1880s to take up a new job. When he arrives he finds his job has been taken and quickly becomes an outlaw, before heading on a spiritual journey through the wilderness with a native American guide called Nobody. That film has a greater sense of narrative to it and, for me, is more successful in what it achieves, but both films are unsettling, both break from convention and both will only work if approached with an entirely open mind to the journey the director intends to take you on.

Ultimately, I can’t tell you if you’d like A Field In England. I know plenty of people who would hate it. I liked it. It’s not an unqualified success in my eyes, but it’s the kind of interesting experiment that cinema needs to stay vital as an art form. Pretentious much? Yes, but look, go with it.

B

Length: 1hr 30mins – Feels Like: 1hr 40mins

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.

Release the Houn… Books!


So. I am now counting down to the day of release. Except I don’t have a final date yet. Milliways Books have got their website up and running. You can download the first three chapters of the book for free, just to get you started. We’re working on the basis that this will prove to be the child friendly version of crack McDonald’s Happy Meals World of Warcraft something that is aimed at adults but I can mention on a blog post that might, at some point, be read by a child and that is really addictive. The point being, if you read the opening 3 chapters you will be desperate to read the rest. Because it’s really good, see?

Anyway. The website features links to Southampton Hospital Charities as Milliways are generously donating £1 from every copy sold on the website to the charity to be used in the children’s funds at the hospital. It also features a place where you can buy the book (£7.99 – a veritable snip, get yourself two, one for weekdays and one for Sunday best) and some other bits and pieces.

You can also see the brilliant cover there. But then, you can see it here too. Where, you ask? Why here:

The Marianna Voyages i: How To Fill A Black Hole cover

The Marianna Voyages i: How To Fill A Black Hole

See – good, eh?

And not only that, I have gone and set up a fan page for the book at Facebook. And another one, all for me.

It’s all go.

Anyway. The cover is done. The typesetting is almost complete. It should be off to the printers within the week, which means that it’ll be available for sale by the end of September. Probably earlier. I just don’t know how much earlier.

Now, I should probably get round to doing a proper post about something more writerly – some analysis of a filme or TV show or book or something, perhaps revisit my 3D post from before and update you on my thoughts. But not right now, I’m afraid. Sometime soon, when my life isn’t quite as dominated by releasing my first book. Which is kinda taking over at the moment.

Until tomorrow…*

*By tomorrow I merely mean some later date, much in the same way that the word was meant in the song over the credits of The Littlest Hobo.