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!