Thursday, 24 December 2009

Happy Christmas.

It's a repeat post - but seasonal - & if you are new to this blog, you might not have seen it last time.  A homage to my very happy childhood in Southgate, North London which occasionally looked like this at Christmas time. Merry Christmas everyone!


Snow falling, snow on snow - almost forty years ago. On a warm winter night, at a blanketed bus-stop, four year old hands clutch a calendar of lions - a prize for attending mother’s Old Girls. A glimpse into the impossibility of life before us, a chorus of “aahs” and “how sweet”, and this gift of shiny yellow baring teeth, a talisman to wave at older siblings who visited, instead, exotic aunts in their exotic flats in Petty France, and got tea and several kinds of cakes. And the snow falls on other midwinters, when the dining room is dark and cold, inhabited by the ghosts of exotic dead aunts. Dead aunts who spent their remaining days under our curious gazes, in the neat white double bed, presided over by the cold, gold crucifix, and the visiting priest giving last rites, a blessing on the way out of life to – where exactly? Heaven, mother says, and leaving behind the cold, white bed.

Snow falls on snow, on the way to catch a glimpse of father’s life, seated in the front row, while boys dressed in perplexing drag, sing of pirates or fairies and we are all examined by many eyes, specimens of teacher’s children – his life outside school grounds.

And the evenings of Blue Peter and Jackanory and the nights of childish fights and games, and stories round grandmother’s bed in the candlelit, power-cutted dining room. Grandmother, whose eyes and teeth and voice are just the right size (no wolves here), and whose presence banishes dead aunts into the night. Grandmother, who nonetheless, spots hidden grape-stealing fingers, once the light returns and banishes seven year-old naughtiness from her sight.

Snow falls on snow as Christmas comes around, And the lights of the hand-picked, hand-painted Christmas tree colour the dining room; the milk bottles freeze and the bluetits steal the cream;and all through the house there is more than one mouse awake. There are muffled giggles through the night and Father Christmas cannot come till we sleep but sleep is not possible tonight and there are rustles and chuckles and the waiting is impossible, and no sign of coal-dusty appearances, and we are waiting and we are waiting and we are waiting…

… and suddenly we are awake and he has been and left in his wake treasures to share:

between three - a father-made dolls house, complete with working lights

for two - a pink plastic pram, to mimic mother, and push through snow and ice.

for all of us - a collection of slightly singed books, rescued from the flames of a rather unfortunate bonfire (how that happened, no-one knows).

. Snow falls on snow, and a houseful of children are thrown out into the back garden and the recreation ground, booted, scarved and gloved, sliding down the slippery slope, again, and again and again, till at last the joy of snowball fights pall and we return to the hot-chocolated kitchen and the iron-boarded mother who steams away the cold. And in the dining room at night time dead grandmothers meet with dead exotic aunts, and the journey from living room to bed, becomes in the darkness, an epic voyage, with brave advances and cowardly withdrawals and stairs taken three at a time to avoid the open, black dining room door where dead aunts and dead exotic grandmothers expose their groping dead fingers to grab us in the dark (no matter what mother says) until we reach the safety of the landing and at last to bed and pillow fights. And only the Christmas tree lights are bright enough to banish such ghosts from sight. Father Christmas comes again and again and again, until he is one day exposed as a big brother wrapped in a counterpane from top to toes.

Snow falls on snow and there are carol singers in the night, and sometimes we join them in the orange sodium light to sing of snow and bright angels. And now we are old enough to tramp to church for Midnight Mass where we listen to long sermons, breathe in the incense, and experience the miraculous birth - shepherds, kings, and angels, peace on earth. And the twelve-year old night when snow freezes traffic so that we abandon the bus on the way home from school (or it abandons us) at frozen traffic lights, with walking the only option, a slipping, and a sliding that very soon palls, so snowfall is cursed, and at last after two hours of icy travelling we arrive home to a tomato-souped kitchen and a threadbare holey-jumpered father who steams away the cold.

Snow falls on snow and life expands beyond the house and the fights and noise of all these girls and boys, and friends extend our experiences beyond the bounds of the local recreation ground. Now boyfriends banish the ghosts of dead aunts and grandmothers from the dining room as we sit in the cuddling armchairs springing apart at the inopportune opening of the door by mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers. Then boyfriends leave and we grieve for a while, and the home-worked dining room becomes haunted by the ghosts of kisses past, till Christmas comes again and we realise we are surrounded by friends who laugh in passing at the tiny hand-picked, hand-painted tree that colours the room. And how fast our childhood has gone and it is time for us to take our leave, but before we do we celebrate the twenty five years that have passed since our parents made their vows in the impossibility of life before us. And so we go to church and sing a chorus of snow falling on snow.

Midwinter:long, ago.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Picture Perfect (1) - The Gruffalo

In honour of the 10th anniversary of the classic picture book, The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler, I thought I'd start a whole new series of articles on picture books. I am an unashamed fan of children's fiction. Loved it growing up,  loved it as a grown up re-reading (well before Harry Potter made it OK for adults to read kid's books), and love sharing my favourites with my children. But, I have to admit, it is only since having nieces and nephews, and then children of my own that I have really been struck by the brilliant art of picture books. With great picture books, the wonderful interplay between the image and the words on the page are a joy to read to toddlers, and their reactions are even better. Since Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler are the dream team in terms of writing and pictures coming together - The Gruffalo is a great place to start.

I first came across The Gruffalo at my godson's 2nd birthday party. He'd been given it as a present, and at some point in the proceedings when the toddlers were getting restive, I picked it up and started reading it to them. It was an instant hit, and I was so entranced I rushed out and bought a copy for my family. I've lost count of how many times I've read it over the last 8 years, but it's one I never tire of. So what is it about this particular book that still draws my children back and gives it an unheard of 25 five star ratings on Amazon ?

As a writer, of course, I've got to say it starts with the writing (though I promise to come back to the pictures later). Like many a good young children's writer, Donaldson opts for the rhyming story. Rhymes are of course perfect for pre-schoolers, they're easy to read out loud, easy to remember, and ideal for the inevitable "again,again" moment, but Donaldson's rhyming is superlative. She doesn't ever fall into the trap  of the simple and obvious - she does what grown up poets do, and goes for the rhyming  sound rather than the look, "good" with "wood", "said" with "sped", "gruffalo", with "know". And, if I'm not mistaken, the main rhythm of the piece is good old iambic pentameter. Hard to pull off at the best of times, but she does it lightly, so the words really trip off the tongue and the conversations seem very natural:

"It's terribly kind of you, Fox, but no-
I'm going to have lunch with a gruffalo."

The other brilliant thing she does is to use the rhyming to build up to the central climax. The mouse meets the fox, the owl and the snake and has the same conversation 3 times. He can't go with them  because he's about to meet the mythical Gruffalo, who he describes in ever more lurid detail. As they disappear off in fear, he laughs "there's no such thing as a Gruffalo" until the third occasion, brings him face to face with the monster, and "Gruffalo" becomes "Gruffal-Oh". It's a magic moment, aided by the fact you have to turn the page to get that punch-line. And, the rhymes are then repeated slightly differently as the Gruffalo and the mouse meet the three animals again and the story works to its resolution.

Of course, the book wouldn't work if it was just clever rhyming. The narrative at the heart of the tale is wonderful. A quick witted mouse uses his brains to avoid being eaten by three predators by making up a story about a terrible monster. Just as he is congratulating himself on his brilliance, he discovers the monster is real, and has to talk himself out of trouble, by tricking the Gruffalo into thinking he is more dangerous than he looks. It's a classic simple tale  of the hero winning against all odds, and Donaldson pulls it off brilliantly.

But if the writing powers the book forward, it is Axel Scheffler's wonderful pictures that give it life and energy. Look at the front cover above, doesn't it just say open me up? The mouse's eyes seem bright, and he is always drawn in action with a smile on his face - reflecting his clever, witty character. The Gruffalo,  is a great mix of menace and stupidity. He has the orange eyes, the purple spines down his back, the tusks, the jaws that the mouse describes, and he's enormous. He could squash the mouse with his foot, and yet, there is something aout the way his jaw is drawn so low down, and his eyes seem so incredulous, that suggests he has half the brain the mouse has. The other characters are equally well drawn, as are the tiny background details, bugs and butterflies with smily faces and open-eyed wonder. It's a perfect marriage with the text, and is one reason why this book will sell for ever.

So Happy Birthday to The Gruffalo! Many thanks to Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler for the years of pleasure. I'm sure (if I'm that lucky) I'll be reading it to my grandchildren.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Strike Up The Band

OK - time for another short story I feel. This little piece came out of a writing class with the wonderful Dennis Hamley. He gave us two postcards and we had to find a way to incorporate them in a piece. My postcards were of three men with no faces in colourful suits and a man taking his head off. This story was the result. It's been rejected by a magazine (not their kind of thing they said) and has yet to make it on a longlist anywhere,(one day, sigh) but I rather like it, even if it is a bit on the dark side....

I see him every morning, when I step out of the house to get the milk. Every morning at seven o’clock. Sometimes it’s ten past, I don’t always get out of bed on time these days. Every day he smiles, “Good morning,” before taking his head off with his bare hands, whilst behind him the fiery sun explodes through the clouds. His mouth is open in, laughter? Rage? I’m never quite sure. He does it long enough to know I have seen him, the neckless head, the headless neck. Then he places it back, says “I’m feeling light headed today.” or some other smart alec remark and walks away. It is no use trying to trick him, to stay in bed, to refuse to go out. If I don’t make it to the door, he enters the house, does his little turn and leaves me to face up to the day ahead.

The faceless men are always there to observe our morning encounters. They stand grey-headed on the opposite side of the street. Their featureless bodies not entirely dreary, on account of the colour of their suits. I’ve been seeing them every day for weeks now, but it still never ceases to intrigue me, why, when everything else is uniform, they choose to dress this way. There’s Mr Tartan, with his red and black squares. Next to him, Mr Flower Power, in his mustard-suit adorned in bold florals - pink, blue, red and white. Last of all, Mr Stripes dressed in irregular diagonals - greens, reds, yellows, oranges, a surprise of purple.They never speak, but sing an early morning chorus:

Let the drums roll out,
Let the trumpet call,
While the people shout, “Strike up the band."

I have stopped shouting at them to shut up, it upsets the neighbours. It upsets my wife, who asks me why in God’s name I am standing on the doorstep yelling nonsense again.So I go back inside, the song ringing in my head. I take the milk to the fridge as my wife doles out the assignments necessary for the smooth running of Operation Schoolrun. When all are fed and watered; have lunchtime provisions; all teeth are clean; shoes polished fit for a sergeant-major - I dispatch my family in the four by four, and I can leave the house to go to the job I am supposed to attend each day.

The job I am supposed to attend each day, but have ceased to attend for several weeks now. My wife doesn’t know. She must never find out. Every morning as she takes the children off, I dutifully walk down the road to the train station. I am always pursued by my grey-faced, colourfully-suited choir.

There is work to be done, to be done,
Let’s have fun, fun, fun,
Come on son of a gun, gun, gun, take your stand.

I take the train as I am supposed to, but only for two stops. At Southend Central, I get out and walk through the back streets, coming down the hill by Never Never Land in the cliff gardens. I used to play there once, before the cliff falls and the vandals, in a time when every nook and cranny spelt adventure. Now there are keep out signs, the paint is peeling off the play-houses and I don’t want an adventure ever again. As I reach the pier, my grey men are singing from their mouthless faces with gusto,

Form a line oh,oh,
Come on, let’s go.
Hey leader, strike up the band.

I suppose I don’t mind them really. Some days I even quite like their singing. It gives me something to hum along to, so I don’t have to worry about anything else. About the fact that I am not at work. About the fact that I stopped going sometime ago, around the time my friend with the detachable head arrived. Around the time my personal choir started following me around. So I sing along as I start out down the pier, the tune beating my path over the creaking boards out to sea. Through the cracks between the wood, I can see the water deepening from the brown, muddy shallows, to the green swirly depths where the motorboats launch. The wind strengthens its grip on me. By the time I reach the end of the railway line, the water is grey-green, the air sea-fresh. Of course, since the fire, there’s not much to see out here: the burnt out buildings of 2005, adding to the blackened timbers of the previous fires further on out to sea. Only the lifeboat station has survived the latest conflagration intact – still on hand to rescue those in need. I’m not sure there’s any salvation for someone as lost at me, but I like to sit here, tucked in a corner, out of the wind. I like watching the fishermen and the large ships going up and down the estuary. Sometimes, I pretend I’m on board a ship, far out to sea, a long way from home. It’s better than staying at home, at any rate, sitting with my memories.

It doesn’t do any good to remember. It leads me to places I’d rather not be. Places where I was sent by the grey faceless men. The men who make all the decisions without ever living through the consequences. The faceless men who send others into war zones, they would never dare enter themselves. Like the convoy on the way to the Christmas Panto. Andy, Pat and Dean dressed as clowns in their tartan, floral, stripy suits, wearing silly noses and making daft jokes. Alec, smart Alec, not so smart that day, poking his head out of the side of the humvee we borrowed from the Yanks. Alec, smart Alec, not so smart that day, whose head was lifted right of his neck. A headless neck, a neckless head, as the roadside bomb exploded beside our truck and we were sent helter skelter, and all the while on the radio I could hear the sound of singing:

Form a line, oh, oh.
Come on, let's go.
Hey, Mr. Leader,
Hey, Mr. Leader,
Please strike up the band!

Saturday, 12 December 2009

What should women write about?

Here's an interesting discussion about women writers by Rachel Cusk in today's Guardian.  It is eighty years apparently since Virginia Woolf wrote "A Room of One's Own" and fifty since Simone de Beauvoir wrote "The Second Sex." Cusk takes the time to consider whether anything has changed since these two greats wrote their seminal works. She concludes, rather sadly, that no it hasn't. Women still have to write about war rather than domesticity to be taken seriously.

I can see where Rachel Cusk is coming from. Male writers still do seem to get lauded in a way women don't, and domestic novels are sometimes given less credibility than they should - but I'm not sure I entirely agree. Domestic novels are challenging in that the repetitive nature of housework itself doesn't make for interesting reading(it's bad enough having to do it). But, a really good writer, of any sex, can make us interested in a person living an apparently quiet life, by the way they make us engage with their situation. Look at what Marilynne Robinson does in Housekeeping, Gilead and Home, and you'll see what I mean. Because she makes the characters so believable and their ordinary lives  absorbing, and she writes so well, she is quite rightly lauded. The Best 100 books of all time; the Pullitzer Prize; and the Orange Prize aren't bad for "domestic novels". And it's not only women who write well about domesticity. Raymond Carver's wonderful short stories collection, "Elephant" is full of careful crafted tiny snippets of ordinary lives, which make sense to us because of their very ordinariness.

As a writer, who happens to be a woman, I'd be the first to acknowledge my gratitude to Woolf and de Beauvoir for challenging the status quo of their time and clearing the way for us to follow. I was lucky enough to go to the kind of girl's school that built on their formative work, and to grow up in a household where it was a given that women were as good as men. It's never been my gender that's stopped me writing - but my busy life. In recent years that's included family, but before that it was the demands of my job. Needing to pay the bills rather than being female has been the major disincentive to my writing (something that Woolf never had to worry about!) In fact, it was only when I stopped paid work for a while to look after the children that I cleared the head-space to allow myself the thinking time I need to write.

As for subject matter, I believe I should write about things that matter to me. Sometimes this will touch on domestic, sometimes on politics or philosophy. Often it's a combination of both. If people don't like it or choose to label my writing in a particular way - that's their problem not mine.

Besides, isn't it time we learnt to transcend gender altogether? After all, isn't that what Woolf was saying in "A Room of One's Own"? When a female writer becomes as great as Shakespeare, we won't care that she's a woman, all we'll care about is what she has to say.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Sublime Screenplay (1) The Sopranos

From the very first episode, my husband and I loved The Sopranos. We never fell by the wayside, as we did with Lost, Heroes and the like, loving it so much that we were prepared to follow it into the inexplicably late BBC2 scheduling, put up with the gaps in transmission and gradually fill our shelves with the box sets as each series was complete. When it came to an end, we were desolate (until we discovered The Wire that is). But now, two years after the series finished, we find ourselves dipping into the box sets and still being entranced by the stories, no matter how familiar they are. So what is it about this particular TV Series, that always draws us back in (no matter how many times we think we are out)?

Like all good TV it starts with the screenplay.  David Chase and his team of fine writers  have created a world, a set of characters, a story that we can believe in. The directors, actors and producers, put flesh on it - and in this case, the cast are all terrific, and the direction superb -but they'd be nothing without the words.

There are several features of the Sopranos that make it stand out above the crowd and I'd like to take a moment to highlight a few of them.

1.The situation.

The genius of the Sopranos lies in its premise. Tony Soprano (the wonderful James Gandolfini) is your average working class American made good. He has a wife, two teenage children who drive him crazy, an elderly mother, and as we open the show, he is suffering from panic attacks due to an apparent mid-life crisis. A man who wonders what happened to the "strong silent type" is forced to face up to his emotions by going to therapy. So far, so normal, except that of course, Tony Soprano is anything but. He has another family - the Mafia - his whole existence is based on a life of violence and crime. It is this that makes the show stand out. We are naturally drawn to Tony - we sympathise with his problems, we admire his struggle to be a good father, we are concerned by the state of his marriage, and yet he does unspeakable things, again and again and again. The duality of good and evil in one person, the question of whether he will be redeemed, the fact that Tony is like us in so many ways, makes for absolutely compelling TV, and from episode 1, we are hooked.

2. Recurring stories.

The Sopranos is very strong on narrative, and not only that, on repeated narratives. Time and time again, we see the same story, but told in a different way to keep it fresh. Here's a sample:

Young Turk Rising - In Series 1, this is all about Tony and his nephew, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli - a standout performance). Tony is constantly frustrated with Christopher's unreliability, Christopher with Tony's lack of trust. Christopher wants more responsibility, but Tony (rightly) feels he lacks commitment and focus. This one never completely goes away - and the Tony/Christopher relationship is pivotal to the whole show - but by Series 2, Christopher has settled down and is rising up the organisation and has people under him. Ironically, now it is Christopher who feels the burden of mentoring two young men. They too are impatient for power and glory and gradually spiral out of control, with tragic results. By Series 3, another young man comes into the frame, the son of Tony's oldest friend, the deceased mob boss Jackie Aprile. The twist on this version is that Tony promised his friend to keep young Jackie out of the business, but is powerless to stop him, and when he comes under the wing of the slimy Ralph Cifaretto, we know there's a disaster waiting to happen. The final version of the story is Antony Junior, Tony's son. Unlike the other young men, AJ is not reckless, aggressive or bold, yet his inability to stay at college, or hold down a job, leads him to drift. There is always a risk he will end up in Tony's world, though Tony continues to make efforts to prevent this right to the very end.

Respect Your Elders - Series 1 centres on Tony's relationships with his mother, Livia, and his uncle, Junior (Dominic Chianese). Tony is a good son, but his mother is a mean, manipulative, depressive (a brilliant turn by the late, lamented Nancy Marchand) who drives everyone away but Tony whom she treats abysmally. She's the only person who can do this without being killed, because she's his mother and has his utter respect, whatever she does. Junior was one of Tony's mentors when young ( a mirror of the Christopher/Tony relationship), but in old age he is fractious and petty, with a tendency to see slights where none are intended. He is both a liability and a danger to Tony's business and their relationship is fraught. Tony is torn between his desire to look after his elders, and his struggle to deal with their daily irritations. By the end of the Series he has learnt the truth about his mother, and rejected her, and found a way to control his uncle. In Series 2, Bobby Baccalara, Junior's driver is worried about his sick father, a hitman. Bobby's father has the opportunity for one more hit, which he seizes with relish, but Bobby is desperate for him not to do it, because of the state he is in. A rather extreme version of most people's worries about sick parents. As we move through each Series, Junior and Tony reach an understanding till Junior develops Alzheimers with terrible consequences for Tony. And in Series 6 this story is developed in a different way through Tony's friend Paulie, whose discovery of a family secret causes him to reject the mother who has only ever been loving and kind.

Who Can You Trust?  Trust is at the heart of all Tony's work relationships. Doing business with mafia colleagues, all out for themselves, he has to constantly check he is not being shafted. Protecting himself from the FBI, he has to watch for the friend who has been turned. Being the head of the operation, there is always the risk of rebellion in the ranks. In Series 1, this is played out with the story of Livia and Junior, plotting against Tony. In Series 2, Tony's friend Pussy returns after a brief disappearance, raising questions about whether he is working for the FBI. Richie Aprile, Jackie's brother, comes out of jail, to manage the Aprile crew. He feels passed over in the system, and has a short fuse, but is a great earner - how far can he be relied on? Series 3 and 4 introduce us to Ralphie Cifaretto, who becomes captain of the Aprile crew, another brilliant earner for Tony, but also the most unpleasant character of the whole show. Tony detests him, but needs him, and the question is for how long? In Series 3, Adriana (Drea de Matteo), Christopher's long-suffering girlfriend, is approached by the FBI, will she turn and can she now be trusted? Series 5, sees Tony's cousin, Tony Blundetto return from prison, and try to go straight.  The pivot of this story is that he and Tony are very close, and would do anything for each other. But he, too, has a strong temper - can he be relied on to stay out of the business and not cause Tony any trouble? Finally, in Series 6, yet another captain of the Aprile crew, Vito Spatafore, causes Tony anxiety when it is discovered he is gay. In such an intensely homophobic culture, can Tony give him a pass?

Each of these stories makes sense for the characters involved, and are entrhalling in their own right. But the added beauty of them (except perhaps the FBI stories) is that they could all happen to anyone. Isn't middle age in part about mentoring the next generation? About caring for the older generation? And managing difficult staff problems?

3. Multi-layering.

Another brilliant part of the show, is how multi-layered it is. It consistently works as straight drama but often there are a variety of meanings. For example, a Series 6 episode, The Ride,  tells the story of Tony's men sorting out a local fair in celebration of an Italian saint. There are problems with the church paying enough to them for the event, and so Paulie, Tony's often unreliable colleague, cuts corners. As a result a ride breaks, people are hurt, and Tony is furious. But intercut with this story we see Tony and Christopher seizing on an opportunity to steal some wine, and that Tony enjoys the high he gets from taking this "ride", something that doesn't happen to him much these days. Christopher, who has been on the wagon for two series, falls off dramatically, after drinking some of the stolen wine which leads to him taking a "ride" of heroin.(With thanks to my dearest other half for pointing these connections out).

The series is always good at reflecting modern life subtly. A man trying to convert Tony wears a T shirt protesting about Terry Schiapo, whose life machine was turned off; Tony is confronted with the reality of health insurance when he is in hospital.Christopher works with some people of Arabic extraction, but are they really terrorists?

Another clever aspect of the show is the constant references to other mob stories - Jimmy Cagney movies, Goodfellas, The Godfather - which both remind us of the genre, but also reflect our attitudes to the Mafia. All the characters love to refer to key scenes in these movies, almost as if they are creating a heroic myth about themselves. Whilst the subsidiary characters - the doctors, lawyers, priests on the right side of the law - are all shown to have a ghoulish fascination with both Mafia on screen and in real life, a nice little dig at those Sopranos fans who relish  the blood and guts.

Films are also often used to directly commentate on the action. Thus, when Tony's mother dies, he is watching a Cagney movie, where the son is selfish and the mother loving, a complete reversal of his relationship. When Christopher murders a bent cop, the TV is showing a cop show, where the cops are heroes. Tony likes to suggest he is a soldier, and is often seen watching war movies, as if to emphasise his role as a military leader.

4.Corruption and Complicity.

And then, there's complicity. Within minutes of being introduced to Tony and Christopher we watch them carry out an act of horrifying violence. Though quite tame by the time we reach the end,it is an indication of things to come. We are being invited to participate in the life of a man who commits violence on a regular basis, and as an audience we become complicit.

But it isn't just us. It's everyone who Tony touches. His wife, Carmella (Edie Falco), tries to lead a good life, raising their kids, going to church, doing charity work. But she knows it is built on the back of horrible crimes, which she tries not to think about most of the time. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), Tony's therapist, struggles to keep a professional distance with the "moral neverneverland" he inhabits, yet she too is drawn into his world, giving advice on situations, that in her heart of hearts she must know will lead to someone, somewhere being hurt, and in one episode becoming drunk and aggressive herself. Tony's kids don't escape either. Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), an intelligent (if somewhat brattish) teenager, seems to see things clearly at the beginning, though she is happy to use Tony's credit card. As she grows up Tony's behaviour impacts drastically on her life, and after one moment when she could perhaps confront him and walk away, she chooses to stay. From that point on, she like her mother, ignores the basis on which their family life is founded, and by the end is engaged to the son of another mob man. The chances of her staying uncorrupted in the future seem pretty unlikely, particularly when Tony has noted several times how like him she is, and she is developing a career as a lawyer. AJ (Robert Iler) is less forthright than Meadow, and has an ambivalence about the Mafia. It seems glamorous, but he hasn't really got the stomach for it, yet he too enjoys the comforts it brings, and it is hard to see him being able to  break away.

Other pleasures include the wonderful range of characters (I haven't even mentioned Janice, Tony's sister, or Silvio, his right hand man) and the strong sense of humour that runs through it. Christopher's attempts to break into Hollywood are a joy as are the many blackly comic moments when various people are trying to dispose of corpses without attracting attention. And memorable one liners abound:

"Cunnilingus and psychiatry have bought us to this" (Tony on realising there's a hit on him because he mocked someone's sex life)
"Never mess with the Russians" (Tony to Janice who then goes and does exactly that)
"He killed sixteen Czechoslovakians, guy was an interior decorator" (Paulie mishearing Tony on the phone - he killed Chechnyans and was a Russian Green beret)
And of course, "You fat fuck" (everyone to everyone)

That's just a small taste - you can see more here.

Oh, and the ending was so bold that it infuriated and delighted fans in equal measure. So much so, that people are still talking about what it all means. I tend to side with this interpretation, but there are others. I just love the fact that we were made to think right up until the very last minute.
So there you have it, a show that doesn't hide the moral repugnancy of its main character. A show that isn't frightened to depict the true violence of the world it portrays. No matter how stomach churning the various beatings and murders are, there is always a point to them. And a show that isn't afraid to treat its audience as a group of intelligent human beings.

Salut - David Chase - you've created a masterpiece.

Bada Bing!

Monday, 23 November 2009

Plug of the Month

Last Christmas by Julia Williams

Not being a fan of carols in September, I have been avoiding the dreaded "C" word for weeks. But, since we are now only a month away, I realise it is time to divest myself of my Scrooge tendencies and start getting ready for the big day.

And what better way to begin the festive season then to give a shout for my lovely twin sister, Julia Williams? Her latest novel, Last Christmas, is a perfect holiday treat:

It's the most wonderful time of year. Isn't it? Discover the true spirit of Christmas with this seasonal treat for fans of Love, Actually and The Holiday. Discover the true spirit of Christmas...Catherine Tinsall is dreading Christmas. As the 'Happy Homemaker' she is an online sensation, but the reality couldn't be more different. With Catherine's marriage in tatters, her children running wild and her mother increasingly forgetful, seasonal cheer is running low. Husband Noel also hides a secret: he's facing the axe at work. Until he chances upon the village of Hope Christmas, deep in the Shropshire countryside, which could be the second chance he's searching for. If he can save it from the developers! In Hope Christmas itself, schoolteacher Marianne Moore is trying to heal her battered heart. But Christmas is a time for families, and memories of what she's lost haunt her at every turn. Meanwhile, Gabriel North faces a lonely Christmas but hides his sadness for the sake of his son. Will his wife ever come home? Or does love lie elsewhere? All four need a Christmas miracle. And it might just happen - courtesy of a mysterious guardian angel ! Forced to reassess their lives, will Catherine, Noel, Marianne and Gabriel discover what the meaning of Christmas really is? An irresistible gift of a tale that will warm the hearts of Christmas-lovers and Scrooges alike!

This is a light, funny read ("The Happy Homemaker" is particularly inspired) and is already selling like hot mince-pies. I'd love to see it rise even higher in the bestseller lists, so all you chick-lit lovers (or lovers of chick-lit lovers) go out and buy your copy today!

Friday, 20 November 2009

A Case of Mistaken Identity

My lovely twin, Julia Williams, tweeted about this very common problem today. So I thought it apt to post this poem. It started life as a sonnet, and I'm inclined to agree with my tutor, probably should have stayed that way. But to meet the mad structure I set myself on assignment, it's become a villanelle, and I can't be bothered to turn it back...

Shall I forgive you? It happens quite a lot-
a stranger greets me in the street, or on a bus -
it causes confusion more often than not.

Did you suffer from such a delusion? What
were you thinking? That I wouldn't make a fuss?
Should I forgive you, since it happens a lot?

Perhaps you understood at first - but then forgot
alike was not the same - that there are two of us.
I know it's confusing, more often than not.

Suppose I tried again? Gave you another shot?
Perhaps, after all, I've been making too much fuss.
Could I forgive you, since it happens such a lot?

It’s not surprising, really, that you’ve lost the plot.
You're not the first to be bemused by two of us.
It can be confusing, more often than not.

Maybe, after all, I’ve been making too much fuss.
And...if I can absolve the person on the bus,
surely, I can forgive you? It happens such a lot -
causing confusion more often than not.

Coming soon on Plug of the Month - Julia Williams - Last Christmas - currently doing rather well in the bookshops.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

London Launch of "How to Fall" and other fine poetry collections

Karen Annesen, Anne Berkely and Carole Bromley invite you to the launch of their new collections (3 poets for the price of 1!)

How to Fall – Karen Annesen
The Men from Praga - Anne Berkeley,
Skylight – Carole Bromley

On Thursday 3rd December 7-10pm (short readings at 8pm)

At The London Irish Centre, 50-52 Camden Square, London, NW1 9XB 020 7916-2222

Compere Roisin Tierney as part of the London Irish Centre Reading Series.

Nearest tube Camden Town (Northern Line) Nearest train Camden Road Silverlink. Bus routes 29,253,274.Free parking after 6.30pm

This should be  a great event. If you can't get to London, don't worry, there'll be events in Oxford and Wallingford in the New Year. Watch this space!.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

This writing life.

Earlier this week I contributed to a blog discussion on the She Writes website about where I write. I said, I write anywhere, because I have to. In a crowded life, competing with the demands of family, work and writing, with no room of my own, I have no choice. And generally, I think it works for me.

Yesterday, this theory was tested to the utmost, by a request from  the Guardian to contribute an opinion piece to their Comment is Free blog. I'd submitted a response to their Question of the Week back in May on behalf of my good friends at Peace News and the editor had remembered me. I wasn't going to turn down a request from the Guardian, but the request came at 4 o'clock and the deadline was 6. I had tea to cook, washing up to do, a washing machine to empty, a work phone call to make,  and my husband and I were going out at 6.30. I swallowed hard, said yes, and the clock started ticking.

Luckily, the subject was something that I feel passionately about - the death penalty, specifically focussing on the case of the John Allen Muhammed, the Washington Sniper who was executed at 2am this morning. The Guardian editor said he'd send me some links to the background, so I thought I'd do the washing up, while I waited, and start putting together some arguments in my mind. Ten minutes later, I checked my email, no message yet, and my son wanted the computer. That's OK, I said, I'll use the laptop in the back room. No problem, except, having to work with no mouse, an unfamiliar keyboard and Disney Channel blaring in the background. I began to type, intermittently flitting between googling websites about the case, death penalty laws in Virginia and Maryland, and murder rates around the world. Then a quick break to peel potatoes, put on the sausages, and back to it.

The piece began to take some shape, the Guardian emailed some useful links, then suddenly it was quarter to 5, and I hadn't made my work phone call. I jumped up, ran to the phone, was pretty relieved no-one was there and left a message. Passing the kitchen, I peeled some veg and went back to work. At quarter past five, my husband returned. Aha, he said, I've caught you. Ah, I replied cannily, But I am not frivolously wasting time on the net, I am earning us money by writing for a national newspaper. Besides, I have been super efficient and dinner is nearly done. He was  suitably  impressed, and left me to it. At half 5, I was beginning to sweat. I couldn't work out my conclusion and some of my thoughts still felt thin. I took a break to put tea on the table, which my beloved wonderfully supervised, and returned to the laptop. The disappearance of Hannah Montana at this point was greatly welcome, but by the time tea was over, at 5 to 6, I still hadn't got a last paragraph. My husband popped his head over my shoulder, It's very good, but you've quoted Tolkien? (he's no Lord of the Rings fan).

Still, I was in to the final strait. Slightly breathless and a bit sweaty, competing with the TV switched back on, and trying not to worry as the minutes ticked past 6, I finally reached the last word. It was 100 words over, but it would have to do. My husband did his last chivalrous task of the evening by saving it on the  laptop's version of word, and the deed was done. Only quarter of an hour late as well.  I gobbled down to tea and off we went for our night out. Later that evening, when we were able to look at the post,  we were stunned to discover 93 comments had been left. They weren't all pleasant, but, what a reaction. The debate has raged all day, and finally closed after 400 comments. That's not bad for my first ever opinion piece.

I didn't speak to the children for two hours, and I never got the washing machine emptied, but something had to give. I was quite pleased with the final article,and amazed at the furore it provoked. With a bit more time, I'd have couched things slightly differently, had something to say about the victims, and been more careful with my use of statistics. I'm also acutely conscious, that whilst I was writing about some of my core beliefs and enjoying the experience, a man was being put to death, and thirteen families were still grieving for the people he killed. Nonetheless, I think it's important that those views are expressed and debated and it was wonderful to be given the chance to state my case.

I feel I gained my spurs as a writer today. And I'm immensely grateful for the opportunity.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Something from the archives...

Thought it was time to share something a little light-hearted for once - as with all my writing, any critique(positive or negative)very welcome.

Final Fling

Love, so they say, changes everything.

For Tim Forsyth, the timing couldn’t be worse. He is not looking for love, he is looking for a First. Not any old First either; no, he wants to get the highest Economics mark the university has ever seen. He aims to be the Economist of his generation, to create a twenty-first century approach to the subject, win the Nobel Prize. He has a schedule to keep up. He simply doesn’t have time for love.

Tonight though, he has let Ed drag him away from his text books to a party at the Union Bar: the Final Fling. By day, a café of dubious reputation; at night, cheap alcohol is served, and the tables are pushed back to reveal a wooden dance floor that has seen better days. For one last night before the exams people are determined to party hard. They huddle together round tables littered with empty beer glasses and bottles of wine. Couples fondle in corners. The dance-floor is crowded, the music is thumping, the room is ringing with shouts and laughter. It feels hot and sweaty.

He notices her as he reaches the bar. She is a few people down, waving a ten pound note. She is dressed
simply in hipster jeans, a blue camisole and a white wrap-over shirt on top. As she gives the barman a note, he catches a tantalising glimpse of breast. She has a heart-shaped face, and a soft mouth; her dark brown hair is tied in loose plaits. She picks up her drinks and floats back to her table. She serves her friends and sits down. Tim can’t take his eyes off her.

“Wow.” Tim turns to Ed.

“She’s fit all right.”

“I saw her first.”

“I’m sort of taken at the moment. She’s all yours.”

Drinks purchased, Tim wanders over to her, leaning forward with a smile,

“I bet you look good on the dance floor.”

She smiles back at him.

“Watch me,” she says, studying his walk back across the room.Her friend Siobhan is dismissive,

“What a cheesy line.”

“He’s got nice eyes,” she says, “And he dresses well.”

In his crisp white shirt and tight blue jeans he looks like he’s stepped out of a frat boy movie.He’s cute, she thinks, though Kaz Whiting is not looking for love either. She aims to enjoy life, wherever she is. When she is done here, she is going to go round the world. Love would interfere with her travel plans: she simply doesn’t have the time. But… he has a look about him that is rather tempting. And… it’s been a while.

“He’s a bit too good looking, don’t you think?” says Siobhan.

“Naa, he’ll do nicely tonight.”

“Kaz!!” the table laughs in outrage.

The girls get up to dance. The music is playing a loud repetitive beat. Kaz loses herself to the rhythm. She moves her body in one fluid motion: she is dancing for the handsome boy. She unties her wrap around shirt and pushes her arms down her body, caressing her hips. Seeing his appreciative reaction she turns towards her friends, twisting her bottom and lowering her shirt down her back. She gyrates to the increasing tempo, the shirt falling off the end of her arms. As the music reaches a crescendo, she turns back to face him, pulls off the shirt and throws it on the floor. Sweat rolls down her back, and trickles down her nose. She picks up her shirt, drapes it over her bare shoulder and saunters towards him.

“Coming then?”


“My place, of course.”

I can afford one night, he thinks, just one.

He follows her out of the bar.

But once is simply not enough. They meet again and again. Still they come back for more. They are creatures of the night: tangled limbs locked in wordless embraces that end too soon. As darkness makes way for watery dawns, even Kaz is forced to creep away to the constant drumbeat of revision.

Daylight brings frustrations. They meet for brief lunches, crammed between the endless hours of study. Their conversations are somewhat unsatisfying.

“Why do you smoke dope?” he asks. “It’s illegal, smells foul, and rots your brain.”

“It makes me feel good. You should try some, it would relax you.”

He shakes his head, and wonders whether she is too much of a distraction. He has work to do and she seems a little… well… shallow. But as she gets up to go, he glimpses her marvellous breasts and his doubts disappear.

“If you didn’t run so much, we’d have more time together,”she says.

“Running helps me wind down. You could always come with me.”

She thinks, as if. She wonders why they are together, he seems a little… well… driven. Then he smiles at her with those blue eyes and her reservations vanish.

What we need, they think, is more time together. What we need, they say, is a holiday. They sneak away from studying to browse on-line holidays. They dream of just the two of them, no distractions, undiluted love.
They settle on a barge holiday.Just the thing, thinks Kaz. We’ll snuggle up cozy at night, rise late, meander down river from pub to pub.Can’t wait, thinks Tim. We’ll plan a route, do ten miles a day, get round the whole circuit in a week. It’ll be great.

How they long for that time to come.

The exams end in a blaze of celebratory sunshine. They part company for a while, visiting family and friends. Their next meeting will be at the boat-yard. They cannot wait.Creatures of the night, how will they fare by day?

Tim sees her first, his spirits rising at the sight of her breasts. Then he hugs her and smells the cannabis in her hair. For a moment he wonders if this is such a good idea. Kaz grasps his hand, dragging him onto the deck of the narrow-boat and his spirits rise again. They go down below to explore the living quarters. The roof is low, Tim bangs his head and curses. They squeeze through the thin corridor into a small sitting room, two benches with drawers underneath and pink cushions on top. Beyond this is a tiny toilet and shower room, a double bed with lurid purple bedspread, and a minute kitchen.

“Small is beautiful,” he says, “So are you.” He pulls her towards him. They fall on the bed together laughing.

“That was lovely,” says Kaz afterwards, thinking how nice it would be to linger here for once. But Tim is up
almost immediately, pulling maps from his kagoul, planning a frightening looking schedule. She wonders for a moment if this is such a good idea, but then she is caught up in his enthusiasm. She, too, is eager to get on with it.

The first few miles of their journey take them through the outskirts of the city. It is not a pretty sight. The footpath is covered with nettles, littered with shopping trolleys, rusty bicycles and broken glass. The canal runs through an industrial estate, disused red brick warehouses, a scrap yard, a large car park. The water is rank and black, their prow forcing its way as if through treacle. Rain begins to fall softly. They make slow progress till the city is eventually left behind. A field of red poppies blazes beside them, but they barely notice it. All they are conscious of is grey rain and the smell of manure; even the cows look miserable. Their clothes begin to get damp. Water trickles down Kaz’s nose, and down the back of Tim’s neck. This is not quite what they had in mind.

At first Tim takes control, planning early starts, thrilling to each milestone passed. This is no kind of holiday, thinks Kaz. Water trickles down her nose, this is not quite what she had in mind. By Monday, she is in a state of rebellion. She refuses to get up and they are late getting away. When they finally get going, Tim is
fretful. Water trickles down the back of his neck, this is not quite what he had in mind.

Sometimes, when Kaz is steering, Tim goes for a run. She watches him disappear up the towpath in the driving rain, and feels deserted. When he returns, he laughs at her for being a slowcoach: a joke she doesn’t appreciate. When Tim is steering, Kaz often takes herself downstairs. She rolls herself spliffs that leave the cabin rich in aromatic smoke. If he comes below, the smell irritates his nostrils. He returns to the surface, impatient to breathe clean air.

The narrow-boat fills with steaming wet clothes that are never quite dry. The windows condense constantly. Below deck they get in each other’s way. Even the bed feels crowded. They begin to argue about everything.

How they long for the holiday to end.

On the penultimate day of their holiday, their results are due. The rain stops and allows a watery sun to come out, as they go to the pub to phone Ed and Siobhan. Their simultaneous cries ring round the garden,

“A 2:1. I don’t believe it!”

Kaz knows that this is more than she deserves. She skips about, shrieking out loud.Tim sits with his head in his hands. After all his hard work. He deserves more than this.

“What’s the matter?” she says.

“It’s not a first.”

“You got a 2:1 – that’s great.”

“It’s the end of everything.”

“Lighten up. It’s just an exam. Come on share a spliff with me to celebrate.”

Now she is laughing at him. He sees her in a new light. If she hadn’t come along flashing her tits, he’d have done it. It’s all her fault. He marches back to the narrow-boat and collects her stash, cigarette papers, lighters, hash. He throws the lot overboard. She watches as they float away in the current.

“Why did you do that?”

“I’ve blown my career, thanks to you.”

She looks at him as if seeing him for the first time. He’s so fucking uptight. That cannabis cost her a lot of money too. Well two can play at that game, she thinks. She dives below and returns with his running kit.
Before he can stop her, she is throwing things in the water: one final fling, and the trainers sink with a loud plop.

“You silly bitch, they’re worth a lot of money”

“I don’t care. This was supposed to be a holiday, not an endurance test.”

She storms off. It has started raining again. He thinks, sod it, I’ll moor here for the rest of the day. She’ll be back.

She does not return.

She walks across the fields shaking with rage and tears. The rain soaks her. He’ll follow her, surely he will.

He doesn’t.

She hits a road, stands there with her thumb up. A passing motorist takes pity on her, and drives her to the nearest town.

When love ends, life resumes.He finds solace in the salary a Merchant Bank offers. By Christmas, he has enough to buy a flat in London’s Docklands. She works two jobs to raise money for her trip. In April, she boards a plane for America.

Time passes. Love comes calling again. Kaz literally runs into Bob at Golden Gate Park. When they catch their breath, they like what they see.

“Been running long?” he asks her later.

“Only since I’ve been travelling. My ex used to run and it drove me nuts. Now I find I can’t get enough. Funny, isn’t it, how lovers change you?”

Tim meets Susie at Ed’s birthday party. She is plump, and blonde. Above the noise of the music, he shouts,

“My, you’ve got curves in all the right places.”

She laughs, and beckons him to sit down. They start to talk. Presently she fumbles in her bag, drawing out cigarette papers and some dope.

“Want some?”

He hesitates, then thinks, why the hell not? “Alright, then. Thanks.”He takes a drag of the sweet smelling cigarette, puts his arm round her. Ed winks at him, and he winks back.

Love changes everything.

Copyright c Virginia Moffatt 2008

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Probably the best bookshop in the world...

As the above picture illustrates, the Parisian bookshop,  Shakespeare and Company , deserves to be called a bookshop. The place is heaving with books. Also the odd chair, bed and enthusiastic volunteer. I was lucky enough to spend a Faber Academy workshop here two weeks ago and it didn't disappoint.

The story of Shakespeare and Company is a romantic one. Sylvia Beach, an American living in Paris, set  up the first shop by that name in  rue de l'Odeon in 1915. It soon became a centre for Anglo-American literature, due to Sylvia's excellent catalogue and her support for writers young and old. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Joyce, Gide were among the regular visitors that she helped out financially and practically. She championed freedom of speech, printing Lady Chatterley's Lover when it was banned in England, and Ulysses, when Joyce could not find a publisher.

In 1941, when Germany invaded Paris, Shakespeare and Company was forcibly closed. Although legend has it that Hemingway liberated the shop at the end of World War 2, Sylvia Beach never re-opened. But ten years later, a new bookshop was set up on rue St Boucherie, by another American, George Whitman. Called Le Mistral, it continued in Beach's traditions, welcoming new and old writers, and providing a hub of literary activity in the Left Bank. Writers who passed it's doors then included Ginsberg, Burrows, Miller, Nin. In 1962, Whitman received the ultimate endorsement from Beach, when she attended a literary reading, and gave permission for him to take on the name Shakespeare and Company.

Today George Whitman still lives above the shop he founded. His daughter Sylvia and her partner David, continue to run the place with the same warm welcome. Young writers or "tumbleweeds" are encouraged to stay, sleeping in beds among the bookstacks, on the condition they help out for two hours a day and read a book a day. As my daughters said when I told them -  what a deal. Published writers can spend time sleeping in the writers studio that looks out across the Seine to Notre Dame. And unpublished writers like me, get the chance to sit in workshops in the small library, with books piled from floor to ceiling, listening to church bells and soaking in the wealth of writing history around them.

As publishing gets more cut-throat and independent bookshops struggle to make ends meet, it is a wonder to find such a place as Shakespeare and Company. Even with Sylvia's modernisations, it still feels like a place that puts people before profit and books above business. In this day and age that seems nothing short of a miracle. A truly magical place, and a must see for any writer and/or book-lover who visits Paris.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Short Cuts

I  had to laugh when I read this article on Raymond Carver. Carver is held up (rightly) as master of the sparse and the subtle. But blow me, his first collection of stories only turned out like that because his editor Gordon Lish ruthlessly scythed his way through some very purple prose. And apparently the author hated what Lish did so much that his widow has republished them in their original form. Which leads me to wonder, is Carver, Carver because of Lish, or because of himself? And which is better, unadulterated or edited Carver? I must get both collections and find out.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Plug of the Month

It gives me great delight to announce the publication of Karen Annesen's poetry collection - "How to Fall". Not only is Karen a good friend and my personal creative writing therapist, but she is a damned fine poet too. Don't take my word for it, this is what the experts say:

Annesen is one of those poets whose cumulative effect is greater than that of any individual poem - Sheenagh Pugh

A poet of the very first order - Bernard O'Donoghue

I'll let you know the launch date, but if you can't wait till then, "How to Fall" can be ordered on line from Amazon or via the publishers. Get your copy to day...

Monday, 12 October 2009

Thanks be to...Faber Academy

We writers often hear about the dire state of publishing in this country (as if we haven't got enough reasons to put us off writing), so it is refreshing to discover a publisher willing to try something new. Faber and Faber launched the Faber Academy in 2008 and since then they have run writing workshops in London, Dublin and Paris, as well as day schools on writers, and six month courses in novel-writing, screenplay and poetry.

Having just come back from their second Paris weekend, I can't praise them enough. To be able to learn and talk about writing from two highly-regarded novelists, Sarah Hall and Andrew Miller, in the enchanting setting of Shakespeare and Company (which deserves, and will get, a whole post of it's own) was an experience that will stay with me for many, many years. It wasn't cheap, but it was more than worth the money to be in such an encouraging and supportive atmosphere. I know creative writing courses are ten-a-penny these days, but the Faber Academy comes from the point of view of a publisher interested both in nurturing talent and supporting independent bookshops, and that - for me - makes it unique.

So very many thanks to Patrick Keogh at Faber for his enthusiasm in initiating and organising the course; Sarah and Andrew for great classes; Sylvia and David at Shakespeare and Co for their warmth and generosity; and to my lovely course mates. Highly, highly recommended.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Art and Craft (2) William Golding

I wasn't a great fan of William Golding, I have to admit. I studied
"Lord of the Flies" when I was 13 and found it too painful for words. But I have recently been converted to his writing on the back of having to write an essay about "Darkness Visible". I wanted the essay to reflect my response to the immediacy of the first few pages,which are extraordinary, so I deliberately didn't read beyond them at the time. And I managed to miss that "Darkness Visible" is a line from Milton's "Paradise Lost". This means some of my guesses don't quite hold up. Still, I think this piece does point out a few of the techniques he uses very effectively, and I learnt a lot about writing from reading this novel. And the rest of the book is terrific too.

I'm posting it today, because I happened to be in the Oxfordshire Records Office yesterday (they are very nice people, have a cafe and it's close to my children's school). They currently have an exhibition celebrating 500 years of Brasenose College, complete with Golding's Nobel Prize award, which was a sight to see on an otherwise uneventful afternoon.

Reading "Darkness Visible" prompted me to return to the "Lord of the Flies" which I enjoyed a lot more this time round. So I hope this whets your appetite enough to give Golding a try...

Illuminating the Darkness - An analysis of the opening of “Darkness Visible” by William Golding (pp 9-14)

The beginning of “Darkness Visible” is deceptively simple – a group of fire-fighters watch a blaze in the Blitz. World War Two has been in shown in literature and film so often, a scene like this can seem quite trite. However, Golding is not a common-place writer: in his hands, it becomes something quite extraordinary.

The novel opens in the Isle of Dogs, in London’s Docklands. The word “evacuated” indicates that we are probably in war-time, which is confirmed by the presence of barrage balloons, bombs and searchlights. This setting is so familiar to us it could be a cliché. However, Golding’s take on it seems slightly unusual. A less skilled writer would have shown us a German Dornier bombing ordinary houses, resulting in casualties being pulled from dusty rubble. Here, the bombers aren’t mentioned till they depart, the bombs seem to appear “mysteriously” in the sky. So we see the devastation of war, not in the physical effects it has on people, but in the poignancy of their absence,

“there had been as many languages spoken as families that lived there. But just now, not much was being said.” (p9)

The second comment is slightly humorous, but it is humour tinged with sadness, a subtle effect that piques our curiosity. We are drawn in further by the film-like technique that moves from a broad sweep of the landscape to concentrate on particular details. We start with a description of the streets, before focussing on the fire, then the “men” watching, and finally on three particular crewmen: the musician, the bookseller and their leader, the captain. We are given no physical descriptions of these people, but we are allowed to eavesdrop into their thoughts. The little hints Golding gives us about them - the musician has learnt to understand the sounds of war, the leader seems to be struggling with his emotions - help us develop sympathy with them, and bring us into their story.

There’s enough in this opening to attract our interest as a reader, but what else is Golding doing to maintain our involvement? He uses a very effective technique by placing two vital facts early on. One is that the area has been “evacuated officially”. The other, that the crew are waiting for the “delayed action” of the unexploded bomb. The first is there to emphasize how unlikely it is that there could be anyone in the fire. The second shows that, even when the bombers leave, the danger is far from over. Having laid these narrative seeds, Golding then proceeds to tell his tale, which he paces well using a second technique – interweaving a vivid description of the fire with the thoughts and emotions of the crew watching.
For the majority of the passage, the men are motionless, held still by their impotence in the face of a blaze which is “out of control”. In fact, it is the fire that seems to be the central character here. It is a “great fire” - only natural windbreaks created by burnt buildings can hinder its path. It is a “furnace”. Its light is so strong it illuminates the whole street. It consumes everything. It seems “permanent”. It is vibrant - a “red curtain” with a “white heart” that makes a “roaring” noise. It is so powerful that even the “least combustible materials” are melting. The author wants us to understand that nothing can possibly live in these flames. However, he counterpoints this by showing the crew-men remembering improbable escapes, such as the bookseller living through a wall crashing on him. This helps create a seeming contradiction in the reader’s mind: it is impossible to survive such a conflagration, yet people survive the impossible. This sets up the idea that such a miracle might be about to happen here.

There is a shift in emphasis on page twelve, as Golding slowly builds up the dramatic tension. First the musician stops listening for bombs and starts “attending to the fire with his eyes”. The bookseller notices and swings round, to see what the musician and crew are looking at,

“where now, humanly speaking, the street was no longer part of the habitable world…. something moved.” (p12)

The bookseller and the others look away, perhaps because they can’t quite believe it, perhaps because they are frightened of what they might find. It is only then that the captain sees what they see. Simultaneously, the bombers leave, suggesting that the men might now be safe. This is a moment where another writer might reveal what they have seen, but Golding continues to build up the tension by delaying the revelation, creating uncertainty in the reader’s mind. Like the firemen, we are not sure what to believe, until the captain says “look again”, and we are finally told, “what had seemed impossible” is true, a “figure” has appeared in the glare. But still it is “impossibly small”, because Golding reminds us (bringing us neatly back to our starting point) the place has been evacuated - there should be no children there. This is quickly followed by the second narrative seed coming to fruition. As the men finally move into action, the bomb goes off. The passage ends in a climax that is doubly dramatic, the men are in danger, and the impossible has happened - a child is emerging from the flames. The reader is left with two important questions that will drive the story forward - how did the child get there and what happens next?

Golding uses language in many interesting ways in this piece, but there is insufficient space to account for them all, except in relation to the narrative tone, which is particularly interesting. The opening pages are packed with long words, such as “lambent”, “diminution”, “augmentation”,
“perception”, “interpretation”. This has a rather distancing effect and can be off-putting for the reader. Distance is also created by the fact that no-one is referred to by name, and the events themselves are at arms-length – the bombers are invisible, the sounds of explosions are far away, even the fire is down the street. I think Golding might have two reasons for doing this. One is that war has a numbing effect. Even though the events we see are dramatic, they have lost their power to shock - illustrated by fact that the fountain of water from the bombed pump doesn’t draw a crowd, as it would have in peace-time.

A second reason is more subtle. The language may be deliberately formal and distant to invoke a spirit of the times – the avoidance of showing feelings known as the ‘stiff upper lip’. This is built on by the use of understated dialogue such as, “I’m not happy”, and “chaps”. Golding deliberately undermines this tone through his sarcastic comment, “Indeed none of the chaps was happy” – how can they be in these conditions? The description of the captain does this further. He is literally trying keep his lips stiff, they “were set so firmly together” that “the front of his chin trembled”. His men seem almost embarrassed by this, yet it is the captain who acts when they see the child, the captain who rushes on, despite the bomb. Golding seems to be suggesting here that showing emotion does not necessarily make a man weak.

The narrative is thus structured very effectively, both to build dramatic tension and draw us into the story, and the ambiguous tone is intriguing. But what is Golding’s artistic vision, and how does he achieve it? I think it is obvious from the title, “Darkness Visible”, that the author is after something complex - after all making darkness visible is a contradiction in terms. I would suggest the “darkness” Golding is trying to illuminate is illustrated by two key passages.

“whereas Pompeii had been blinded by dust here there was if anything, too much clarity, too much shameful, inhuman light where the street ended. Tomorrow all might be dark, dreary, dirty, broken walls, blind windows; but
just now there was so much light that the very stones seemed semi-precious, a version of the infernal city. “ (p11)

I think Golding is suggesting by this, that, whilst Pompeii was a terrible tragedy, it was a natural disaster. Here, the destruction is being done by man, and the light of the flame, makes the “darkness” of man’s ability to kill momentarily visible. Further on, he returns to the same idea by describing the child’s face. One side is bright, but this is not an effect of the light, “The burn was even more visible on the left side of his head”. Just as the fire makes the damage to homes and communities evident, the burn on the child’s face shows the true darkness that bombing does, it harms and mutilates children.

The striking use of biblical imagery in this section, suggests to me that Golding is also writing an allegory. The fire is described early on as “a burning bush”, which immediately brings to mind the story of God speaking to Moses, the implication that God is making some kind of announcement through the blaze. This is further suggested for me by the use of “white” lights that look like “tents” in the sky. This reminds me of the transfiguration scene in the New Testament, when Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, bathed in white light and attended by the prophets Elijah and Moses. His apostles propose that they build tents on the mountain for them. It is a story that also has parallels with the moment Jesus is baptised in the river. A white dove appears in the sky, telling everyone that he is the son of God. I think it is possible that Golding is using these images to suggest that the fire is announcing something special. The child who walks out of the flames is a representation of an important Christian idea - the sacrificial victim who could be the salvation of the world. There is a little bit of ambiguity about this though. It is easy to assume the child is good because it is a victim, but the description of it “condensing” from the smoke and flames does feel a little sinister. It is possible Golding is playing with the idea of good and evil through the physical features of the child, half damaged, half pure. Presumably this question will be answered as the novel progresses.

The fire seems to me to stand for the whole world, and indeed, Golding tells us this more than once. The “very substance of the world” is burning. The fire seems to be “permanent”, the “world” has become an “open stove”, “the world was being consumed”. Like the flames in the Book of Revelations, this is an apocalyptic blaze that seems to suggest the end of everything. It may also represent the need for the world to be cleansed of its inhumanity, before it can start anew.

The use of the phrase “infernal city” seems to reference the city of Dis, in the hell of Dante’s Inferno. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, Dante’s poem is also allegorical, and deals with the themes of good, evil and the possibility of salvation. Second it provides us with an allegorical purpose for the presence of the bookseller and the musician. I would suggest, like Virgil in the Inferno, they are there to remind us that art helps us to face up to sin and evil, and to transcend it.
The captain also seems to be there on purpose. He is the first to act when he sees the child, and he shows immense courage when the bomb goes off. I would suggest he symbolises the importance of compassion and bravery in the face of unbelievable horrors.

Golding is using his initially ordinary looking story to address several important themes: the nature of good and evil, the futility of war, the possibilities for human survival, the need for salvation. He adds weight to this by clearly placing his novel within the literary tradition. References to Pompeii and Artemis, remind us of the classical world, whilst Dante provides us with a link to modern literature. The fire, river and the title seem reminiscent of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. The subject matter and allegorical aspects are similar to Thomas’ poem, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death of a Child by Fire in London”, whilst the fire reminds me in places of Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland.”

The novel was published in 1979, but like any good historical novel it says as much about its own time as it does about the period in which it is set. Golding is writing from a post- nuclear world, which seems reflected in the description of the white heart of a red flame - exactly what a nuclear explosion looks like. The horror of the Holocaust seems to be referenced in the idea of the world collapsing, which was how many felt at the time. Golding is also writing a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, which was considered particularly horrific because of its effects on civilians. A famous image from that war is the picture of a burnt naked child running to safety. Surely Golding had this in mind when he wrote this passage?

For a novel to work, it has to engage the reader from the outset. Does Golding’s opening achieve this? I think this might be a matter of taste. The rather distant tone at the beginning could be off-putting to some, and they might be deterred from reading further. I did have that initial reaction, but a second glance drew me into the narrative. I became hooked by Golding’s development of dramatic tension, his complexity of thought, and juggling of contradictions. As a writer, I feel I have been presented with a master-class in writing that will stand me in good stead. More importantly, as a reader, I am desperate to read on, which seems to me the ultimate mark of success.

Copyright c Virginia Moffatt 2009

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Not quite plug of the month...

...because I've already done my lovely twin, Julia Williams once. But thought it worth mentioning that she is author of the month at ChicklitBlog this month. Hurrah.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The weird way writing works.

I'm one of those writers who takes a very long time to get anywhere. I had the first thought about my current work-in-progress way back in 2003. I didn't put a pen to paper till 2007 and 2 years down the line, have still only managed to get half of what's in my head, out. In my defence, I have been busy with other things - child-raising, working, and latterly studying for my Creative Writing Diploma - but I had hoped to have at least finished the outline draft by now.

Ah well, it didn't happen, so I decided I'd go for it in the summer. Last summer was particularly productive and I thought, in my naivety, it would be the same again. wasn't. My trusty Moleskine was not completely empty by the end of our time in Tenby, but all I managed was a bit of a chapter. And every time I tried to sit and write, I just couldn't. In fact, any time I tried to do anything at all, I just couldn't. So in the end, I decided that it was nature's way of telling me to take a break.

So, I have. And though I've gradually started picking up on my other commitments, my lack of writing has gone on, and on, and on. Every time I've thought about my 1943 characters I just haven't been able to progress their story. Even though I know the general arc, I can't seem to get down to particulars. Finally, a week ago, I typed up and edited that pathetic remnant of a chapter, pretty crap but at least it's something. Yesterday, I forced myself to finish that and start another one. Most of it was even worse quality, but suddenly, just before bed-time, out of nowhere, I started putting down some dialogue that felt like it might, perhaps, be worth preserving.

And then in the wee small hours my brain started whirring, and I began to think - if she does that, he'll do this, and that's why that person is saying such and such, and the other one is behaving in that way...And, suddenly, I feel I might just be getting started again. So, if I can just finish this section, and then one more, I've nearly completed the whole thing... Well, the first terrible draft that no-one will see.

That's when the real work begins.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Little poem

Not a poet really, but poems are easy to blog. This came out of another of Jenny Lewis's wonderful poetry classes. A response to a picture (I leave you to guess what of)

CD collection.

This is all that is left –
half the names gone, the hard edges
blurred by the white light of the lamp.

Our music has left the room.
Elvis has left the room.
You have left the room.

All I have are hard edges,
a carved up half-life.
Nothing worth saving is left

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Nothing more thrilling...

...than walking into Blackwell's and finding my sister's poems in the very prominently displayed Rialto. A very fine poetry magazine it is too, and greatly enjoyed reading Joanna's sonnets over a capuccino. Also available from Borders!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Plug of the Month

Joanna Clark (aka my big sister) has the first half of a series of sonnets in this month's Rialto Magazine (67). Very exciting. Please check them out!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Art and Craft (1) Graham Greene.

A life long love.

I have loved Graham Greene ever since I was a teenager when I used to pull his slim volumes off our crowded bookshelves. Studying The Power and the Glory for “A” level gave me an opportunity to reflect on his writing in more depth and confirmed for me what a wonderful writer he is.

Greene novels are easy to read: his prose is clear and elegant, his books often quite short. However, his subject matter is always complex - his characters struggle with their flaws and their consciences, making the wrong choices for the right reasons. They live in dangerous and desperate worlds in colonial Africa, South America, Asia. Even when they are in England they are not safe. Greene is brilliant at evoking time and place, people struggling with events in landscapes that are often alien to them. The other great strength of his writing is the undercurrent of politics, faith (religious or otherwise), who we are in the world, and the effects of what we do. His novels are brilliantly crafted and always stay with you long after they are finished.

Green is often described as a Catholic writer, and several of his novels do reflect his understanding of his religious beliefs. He, however, felt he was a writer who happened to be a Catholic, and although some of his greatest works have Catholic preoccupations (The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, Brighton Rock), others seem to me to be focussing on his interests in the political questions of his day (The Confidential Agent, A Gun for Sale, The Quiet American, The Human Factor).

Greene was prolific, as well as his main novels, he wrote and adapted screenplays (some of his own work). He was a fine travel writer (one of the reasons that his landscapes are so well drawn), and though he is best known for his serious fiction, he could show a light comic touch. Our Man in Havana is a hilarious account of a local diplomat creating a fictional plot to keep the intelligence services happy, only for it to run completely out of control. (And like a number of his political novels, seems quite prescient). In my view he is one of the finest twentieth century English writers, and I hope, if you haven’t already read him, you will discover it for yourself soon. In the meantime, let’s take a brief look at how he went about it.

A master at work.

You could pick up almost any Graham Greene novel and find evidence of his fine craftsmanship. I am going to concentrate on the openings of two of my particular favourites, The Heart of the Matter, and The Quiet American, which are great examples of his skill.

Introducing the main character through others– Both novels start with a technique that Green often uses. The scene opens as a broad canvas, only to narrow down to particular information and to the person who matters most. Thus,
in the Heart of the Matter, we begin with a character Wilson sitting in a West African hotel, observing first the street below, then interacting with a fellow guest, Harris who draws our attention to Scobie, the novel’s hero, walking down the road. The Quiet American also starts with a street scene (this time in South Vietnam) as the narrator Fielding, waits for his friend, Pyle, who is late. When Pyle doesn’t come, Fielding goes downstairs, where he sees a girl, Phuong. Over the next few pages we discover details about Pyle through their conversation until the police pick them up and take them to the police station. Pyle’s absence hangs over them, but it is only as we near the end of the chapter that Fielding works out why - Pyle has been murdered.

In both introductions, Greene cleverly builds up our sense of the importance of Scobie and Pyle by letting his other characters tell us about them. In Scobie’s case it is Harris who gives us the local view of the man – he “loves” the natives so much, “he sleeps with them”, he has an intellectual, unpopular wife, he probably takes bribes from the Syrians. In Pyle’s case, we have Fielding’s view of him through the prism of his encounter with Phuong – she has changed her hair because of Pyle, he is usually punctual, he doesn’t smoke. Later on Fielding tells the policeman that Pyle was a “quiet American”, he remembers him as being serious, a great reader. As he wanders back to the flat with Phuong, Fielding reveals a last shocking truth – before he died, Pyle was responsible for the deaths of at least fifty people. In both cases, we feel we are not being given the full picture, and that is hook enough for us to want to read more and find out the truth of who Scobie and Pyle are and why their stories matter.

Scene setting – Greene is a very effective scene setter. He uses the tiniest of details to show us where his characters are. Thus in The Heart of the Matter we are told the negresses going to matins are trying to “wave their wirespring hair” – immediately telling us that we are not in England. He tells us we are by the sea, Wilson has recently “emerged” from the port, there are black clerks and their wives, an Indian on the balcony, the rooves are “tin” and “corrugated iron”. The arrival of a “black boy” bringing gin, confirms for us that we are somewhere in colonial Africa. In The Quiet American, Greene is similarly economical. The “old women in black trousers” are squatting, it is February, but “too hot” for them to be in bed at midnight. A trishaw passes, and the lights burn in the distance where American planes are disembarking. This is obviously south Asia, again confirmed by the description of Phuong, with her “white silk trousers” and “long flowered robe.”

Character development – I have mentioned how both openings give us information about the central characters, but they are also very good at building up detail about the subsidiary characters too. The opening paragraph of “The Heart of the Matter” give us some very clear clues about Wilson. With his “bald pink knees”, a “very young moustache” we immediately sense his youthfulness and inexperience. In the next paragraphs we learn that “his pallor showed how recently he had emerged” from the port, that he “had no car” and is “intolerably lonely”. This marks him out as a newcomer to the country and one who doesn’t appear to make friends easily. He likes romantic poetry but keeps this secret. He wants passionately to be “indistinguishable” from the other men, to be more masculine, but his “eyes betrayed him”. They are mournful like a dog's – showing that he is a man of feelings. When Harris mentions Scobie’s intellectual wife, we know Greene is giving us a clue that Wilson will be naturally drawn to her.

The beginning of The Quiet American is most revealing about the character of Fielding. Throughout the chapter, he insists he is anxious about Pyle's whereabouts. Yet this is counterposed with the knowledge that Phuong used to wait for Fielding, that she has left him for Pyle. Though Fielding has the sensitivity not to hurt her by making cruel comments about their new situation, he thinks about bedding her if Pyle doesn’t show up. He says the opium stops his desire, yet he still wishes out loud that he were Pyle. Immediately we are not sure about his motives. When the police come knocking at his door he remembers the stories of people who have disappeared, and reveals he is a journalist. That knowledge and his response to the policeman’s insistence they come, show us he is a seasoned ex-pat who knows the dangers and pitfalls of the country, unlike the naïve and uninitiated Pyle. (An interesting reversal of the Heart of the Matter, where Scobie is the old hand and Wilson the newcomer). The encounter with the policeman Vigot, is even more revealing. On the one hand, Fielding claims innocence of Pyle’s death, he has an alibi. Yet his throw away comments suggest otherwise. “ ‘Not guilty,’ I said. I told myself it was true.”, “I told myself I was innocent.” The chapter ends with Fielding asking “Am I the only one who cared about Pyle?” and we are left wondering if this is true.

Foreshadowing – Graham is a master of foreshadowing. He lets us know early on in both novels that we are looking at tragedy. From the moment we see the vulture in The Heart of the Matter, we know this will not be a happy story. Scobie’s first appearance is a lonely walk down the street, and the minute he is mentioned the vulture flaps his wings. Though Wilson doesn’t think this moment is important at the time, Green very economically tells us that it is, ”He couldn’t tell that this was one of those occasions a man never forgets…
…a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined – the taste of gin at mid-day, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird”. As he walks out of sight Harris says “Poor old Scobie” and we know he is doomed.

Similarly in The Quiet American, we know the moment Fielding goes down to the street, that Pyle is not coming back. Throughout the conversation with Phuong, we sense something bad has happened. Phuong’s comment that he won’t be long, is intended “to comfort” Fielding, Fielding finds excuses for his absence. The whole scene feels muted and melancholy.When they arrive at the police station, Fielding picks up the sadness in Vigot’s tone, and we know before we are told that Pyle is dead. Whilst this is tragedy enough, the ambiguities that Greene shows us in Fielding’s character hint that there is more to this murder than meets the eye. We are left at the end of the chapter knowing that there is more sadness to come.

I could say more about Greene’s dialogue, his cinematic approach to his writing, the delicacy with which he weaves the personal and the political, but I’ll leave it there I think. If you've read these wonderful books and have anything to add, (or critique me for!) please do comment. If you haven't, I hope I've whetted your appetite for a fine, fine author, at the peak of his skills.

Friday, 24 July 2009

To the Lighthouse

I'm taking a much needed fortnight in Pembrokeshire, so the blog will go quiet for a while.Though I'll be technology free, I will be bringing my birthday Moleskine notebook (as used by Picasso and Hemingway) which I hope will help me make some progress on the central (& most difficult) section of my novel. I have the characters, I know what happens, just not quite sure how to write them. In the meantime I wish you happy holidays.

If you are a new visitor - I hope you enjoy what you find here. Please feel free to comment on anything you read.

Don't forgot to get your copy of "Strictly Love" by Julia Williams from Sainsbury's.

See you in August.

Coming soon...
And IntroducingAnne Booth; Art and Crafton Graham Greene; Plug of the Month - Karen Annesen

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Rave Review

Every now and then I come across a book that lifts me out of the stratosphere. A book that I instantly love and know I will read again and again. When I get one of those, I'll be posting a review (and there are a few in my back catalogue that will get a mention too.) So first up is a recent read and a new birthday acquisition...

"Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson.

It was Nick Hornby's wonderful collection of essays on reading, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree that alerted me to this novel. I thought a book that inspired a complete atheist to joke that it made him want to leave his partner and family for the priesthood must be quite something.It went straight onto my to-read list. Since then I've discovered several people who highly recommend it, and a couple of weeks ago,I was finally able to lay my hands on a copy.

It's always a bit nerve-wracking when a novel has been hyped as much as Gilead in case it doesn't live up to the expectation. I needn't have worried - this really is a modern classic. It tells the story of the Reverend John Ames, a preacher in Iowa, who is dying. He is writing a letter to his 7 year old son, passing on all the stories and reflections he'll never get to tell him in life. So we are treated to a long love letter describing family history, personal friendships and life as a small town preacher. That sounds very mundane, except this one manages to incorporate reflections on grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, pacifism, war, slavery, the meaning of life, the meaning of God, love, friendship, living ordinarily, the nature of fathers and sons. We hear about Ames' father the pacifist preacher, and his grandfather, the war wounded bellicose preacher who delivers sermons whilst packing a pistol. We learn about Ames' life long friendship with Boughton, a fellow minister, who is also dying, the death of Ames' first wife, and his late and happy re-marriage.And as the book proceeds, we discover Ames struggling to welcome home Boughton's wastrel son who may or may not have changed for the better.

Throughout these stories Robinson does something extraordinary, that I am not quite sure I have ever seen in fiction before. She presents us with a character who is truly holy and good, yet at the same time exhibits fallibilities - such as his lack of tolerance of the young Jack Boughton, his jealousy that Jack gets on well with his wife. It is done so subtly that as Ames never comes across as sanctimonious or unbelievable, but as a rounded human being with weaknesses just like the rest of us. When I finished the novel, I felt I had been in the company of a very wise old friend, one who I'd love to visit again and again. That's quite an achievement.

The other quality Robinson brings to novel-writing is her command of prose. Her writing is luminous. She doesn't waste a word, and is able to conjure up emotions and physical settings that linger long after the book is finished. The story of the young Ames and his father looking for their grandfather's grave in the dustbowl of Kansas ends with the pair of them praying in a bedraggled graveyard. The boy opens his eyes and sees the sun and moon hanging at equidistant points in the sky, transforming the landscape to a place of beauty and transforming their experience accordingly. In another section, Ames visits Boughton, and remembers breaking into his bedroom as a boy so they could go and play. The juxtaposition of this youthful memory with two old men near death, is beautifully controlled and incredibly moving.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. A lovely, slow read that purports to be about one tiny little American town, but takes you much further than that. A deserved Pullitzer winner and a great introduction to a wonderful writer. I'm off on my holidays this weekend, with all three of her books (the other two being Housekeeping and Home) in my bag. If you're looking to discover a new author this summer, I'd suggest you do the same.