Archive for the 'writing' Category

The banana skin and the manhole

14 December 2013

There’s a story about a conversation between the Hollywood screenwriter Charles MacArthur and Charlie Chaplin. 

“How, for example, could I make a fat lady, walking down Fifth Avenue, slip on a banana peel and still get a laugh? It’s been done a million times,” said MacArthur. “What’s the best way to get the laugh? Do I show first the banana peel, then the fat lady approaching, then she slips? Or do I show the fat lady first, then the banana peel, and then she slips?”

“Neither,” said Chaplin without a moment’s hesitation. “You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps over the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.”

There was an excellent piece of banana skin and manhole business in the last but one show in the current series of the BBC comedy Hebburn, which has just finished. (UK readers can find it on iPlayer for another couple of weeks). Without giving away any spoilers, the McGuffin of the story was an edition of the Telegraph magazine in which there was an extract from Jack’s secret diary of his wife Sarah’s pregnancy. Jack calculates that no-one in Hebburn – not an affluent town – reads the Telegraph, and reluctantly shreds his own copy. 

But – of course – a copy arrives in town, and gets left by mistake on the sofa in a recording studio where Jack’s sister happens to be (banana skin). But before she sees it, the sound engineer scoops it up and takes it out with the other rubbish. From then on the plot ticks inexorably towards the manhole moment and the discovery of the offending article by a friend of Sarah’s. You know it’s going to happen, but you don’t know how or when: it creates a point of comic tension.

I like Hebburn, not least because it’s blessed by the acting of Gina McKee and Vic Reeves. Although the second series is less dark than the first, it’s managed to develop the characters so they feel fuller (they could easily have descended into thin North-eastern cliches). You also know immediately that the scriptwriters, who come from the area, like their characters rather than regarding them as clotheshorses to hang jokes on (Little Britain, anyone?). I also like the fact that their lifestyles in the show correspond with how they might be in actual life; these are people who live in post-crisis Osborne-land, who don’t have much money, and the storylines and quite a lot of the humour reflect that. In contrast, when you watch Big Bang Theory you wonder how Penny, working as a waitress on minimum wage, manages to afford to pay for an apartment on her own when Sheldon and Leonard, both better paid, have to share. Or at least I do.  

The photo of the cast of Hebburn at the top of this post comes from its production company, Baby Cow Productions, and is used with thanks.  

Bryan, William, and Nanette

11 May 2013

Bryan Forbes, the film director, has died – a British director who managed to have a fairly successful career on both sides of the Atlantic. He directed interesting British films such as Whistle Down The Wind, but for me The Stepford Wives is the one that has stuck in the fabric of the culture.

If you haven’t seen it (I’m pretty sure that this isn’t a spoiler) it is set in a small town in Connecticut in which the men become disatisfied with their wives and set out to turn them into clones of what the “good wife” should be. It was made in 1975 and you don’t exactly need critical theory to locate it as a story sparked by the feminist wave of the ’60s and early ’70s.

Anyway, the screenplay was written by William Goldman, from the book by Ira Levin, and it’s one of the films Goldman writes about in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade.

In fact he opens the chapter with an epigraph, a couple of lines of dialogue between him and Forbes:

FORBES: I think Nanette might be rather good for the part of Carol, don’t you?

GOLDMAN: She’s a wonderful actress; I think she’d be fine.

“Nanette” was Nanette Newman, Forbes’ wife, then in her early ’40s. A good actress, as Goldman describes her, “but not a sex-bomb”. And casting her has a big consequence for the film. In Levin’s story, as well as being willing and supportive providers, the women are male sex fantasies as well, all shorts, thighs and cleavage. That wasn’t Nanette Newman, however:

“By having Nanette Newman in the part, the whole look of the film had to alter. Forget the tennis costumes. Forget the parade of Bunnies walking through the A&P in shorts on their perfect tanned legs. She can’t wear the clothes.”

And so the Stepford Wives in the film end up in long pastel dresses. Goldman, looking back at the film, clearly thinks this is a problem.

But you never know how things will turn out. That other version of Stepford Wives, without Nanette Newman, would be unwatchable now, the sexism right there “on the nose” rather than embedded in the psyche, a period piece that screamed the mid-70s at us. As it is, long dresses and big broad-brimmed hats and all, it still stands up as a story – and one worth re-making 30 years later – about men who’re so threatened by intelligent, independent women that they’ll …. Now, that would be a spoiler.


1 March 2013


I’m indebted to my colleague Walker Smith for pointing me to this New Yorker article by Brad Leithauser article on concision. It’s actually quite long, given the subject matter, but I just wanted to pick out a couple of things here while recommending that you go and have a look at the whole thing.

The first is a haiku – concise by definition at 17 syllables – by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, from The Haw Lantern:

Dangerous pavements.
But this year I face the ice
With my father’s stick.

Leithauser’s commentary:

[T]he poem evokes a complex, compromised psychological condition. There’s comfort in the notion that Father is sheltering us with that stolid stick of his. And there’s anguish and vulnerability in the implication that the stick has been transferred because Father has died—recently, within the past year. As we set off from home into the freezing outer world, all sorts of emotional accommodations must be discharged.

One other thing I enjoyed was the way he elegantly sidestepped the notorious New Yorker fact-checking department (his brackets):

(Someone told me that Marilyn Monroe once remarked that she enjoyed reading poetry “because it saves time.” I like this quotation so much that I’ve never dared to confirm it; I’d feel disenchanted to learn it was bogus.)

I don’t know either, and I’m certainly not going to go and look. I’d be as disappointed as he would be if I discovered she didn’t say it. But the whole piece is a writerly pleasure.

The image at the top is from the blog Between Fashion and Death, and is used with thanks.

The secret of Groundhog Day

9 February 2013


It turns out that Groundhog Day is twenty years old this month (going by its US release) and The Guardian has an engaging article by Ryan Gilbey, who has just written one of those natty BFI guides to the film. I’m a fan (how can you not be) and I’ve written about Groundhog Day before, but Gilbey has an interesting take on why it has become a classic – and gone into the language.

1. The writer ruthlessly expunged all references to the 1990s.

[Scriptwriter Danny] Rubin urged [Director Harold] Ramis, with whom he shares a writing credit, to expunge any nods to the 1990s: “You’ve gotta take all this out,” he said, “because this movie is really going to go on for years and years.” Compare this with Judd Apatow’s films, which are peppered with gags about early-21st century celebrity culture. … our descendants in 2063 will have no trouble understanding Groundhog Day when they download it on to their frontal lobes.

2. The film refuses to explain how TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) got trapped in Groudhog Day:

There is no magical fairground machine (Big), no mantra (Shallow Hal), no curse (What Women Want). … Rubin was urged to write a Gypsy-curse scene explaining the loop, which Ramis wisely never shot. The mystery has only fortified the film’s magic.

3. Or any explanation of how long he is there:

It could be 10 years or a thousand, however long it takes him to memorise the personal histories of Punxsutawney’s townsfolk, and to become, among other things, a pianist, an ice-sculptor and a doctor (“It’s kind of an honorary title,” he shrugs).

4. The film has a classic redemptive story structure. I’ve written about redemption stories here before, and the article suggests that Groundhog Day borrows here from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

There’s more. It’s just plain clever in the way it disregards many of the Hollywood conventions. Terry Jones enthuses, for example, about the way it subverts structure.

“Normally when you’re writing a screenplay you try to avoid repetition. And that’s the whole thing here, it’s built on repetition. That’s so bold. The way they get through it is to short-circuit everything, so just when you think something is going to happen that you’ve seen before, the film gets to it before you and changes or abbreviates it in some way.

And the artist Gillian Wearing compares Groundhog Day to films such as L’Avventura and Last Year in Marienbad. She tells Gilbey:

All those films reinvent structure and create a new conceptual framework that makes you understand them. They share an almost surrealistic vision, and they pose philosophical questions.

In short, Groundhog Day succeeds because it is, says Gilbey, that rare creature: “an art film in mainstream clothing.”

The picture at the top of this post is from What The Movie, and is used with thanks.

Silvers on editing

26 January 2013

The New York Review of Books is about to turn 50, and its editor, Robert Silvers, now in his eighties, is the subject of this week’s ‘Lunch with the FT‘ profile.

One of the paragraphs is unmissable, at least if you’re interested in words and writing:

Editing, Silvers advises me, is an instinct. … “You see something in a piece that you can’t understand, and you have to say, ‘Can it be clearer?’ Issues that are left out, you have to raise them. You see dead or tired metaphors, you have to get rid of them.” He pokes at the sprouts in his little bowl, explaining how various phrases are tired or misused – “compelling”, “key”, “massive”, “context” – before looking down. “On the table!” he cries. The metaphorical table, he says, is now terribly overburdened, “with ‘issues’, ‘phrases’, ‘treaties’, ‘wars’ … ”

For the rest of it, you’ll have to buy the FT. But I can reveal that he thinks that long-form journalism will survive, and seems distraught that there’s so many words out here in the blogosphere that he and other critics can’t get a handle on. The interviewer was Emily Stokes.

The picture of the rather ascetic cover of the first issue of the NYRB is from its website, and is used with thanks.

Orwell on writing

21 January 2013

It’s 63 years today since the writer George Orwell died, and 110 years since he was born. And to mark the occasion, Penguin Books, the Orwell Estate and the Orwell Prize have joined forces to launch an annual Orwell Day. (I discovered this through reading a short and entertaining column about 1984 and Animal Farm, repurposed by Margaret Atwood in The Guardian.) Penguin have marked the first one by reissuing his books with new covers.

Leaving to one side for the moment the thought that Orwell might have found the idea of such a day a little, well, Orwellian, my modest contribution was to go back to his fine essay “Politics and the English Language” and extract from it his six rules for writing clear English:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I think these have held up pretty well since Orwell wrote them in 1946. I do quite a lot of editing, and sometimes have to help colleagues with their writing style. Sometimes, 60 years on, I send them back to read Orwell’s essay. Of course, rule (vi) gives the writer enough rope, if they need it, and not always to hang themselves. While doing the research for this post, I found a couple of others which teased out some subtleties. They are here, and here.

this picture of George Orwell at the top of this post is from the Unleaded blog, and is used with thanks.

Walking ‘A Christmas Carol’

24 December 2012

23122012335I spent an afternoon just before Christmas on a walking tour in London of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which seemed appropriate at the close of his 200th anniversary year. We started near St Dunstan’s, where Scrooge lived, and ended at the graveyard that once belonged to the church of St Peter Cheap, near Cheapside, where Scrooge is taken by the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come to see his grave.

In between we stopped in the lee of St Michael Cornhill, where Scrooge had his office (close to the The George and Vulture in Castle Court, one of Dickens’ favourite haunts), in Leadenhall Market, which in an earlier incarnation may have been the location where Scrooge sent the boy to buy the turkey for the Cratchit family, and the Royal Exchange where Scrooge is also taken by Christmas Yet To Come.

A Christmas Carol, written in six weeks, was an instant hit when it was published in 1843. While a lot of Britain’s modern Christmas traditions were imported from Germany by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, our guide argued that Dickens had played a large part in the 19th century (re)invention of Christmas, connecting a new urban Christmas with rural Christmas traditions that were dying out. Historian Philip Allingham agrees:

It is A Christmas Carol, published on 19 December 1843, that has preserved the Christmas customs of olde England and fixed our image of the holiday season as one of wind, ice, and snow without, and smoking bishop, piping hot turkey, and family cheer within.

Piecing together the story, it was striking how this idea of Christmas was constructed through newly developing industrial age media. The Christmas tree gained popularity after a story in the 1848 Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News featured the royal family’s tree at Windsor, according to the guide, with the description a “pretty German toy”; many of Dickens’ other Christmas stories were serialised in the new mass circulation magazines serving an increasingly literate population; the Christmas card itself grew in popularity because of the falling cost of printing and the introduction in the 1840s of the penny post. And Dickens, in Christmas Carol, was the first to use the phrase “Merry Christmas” in print.

Perhaps it is not surprising that when Dickens died, a Cockney barrow-girl was overheard saying, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”

The photograph at the top of this post, of the Christmas tree in Leadenhall Market, in by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons Licence: some rights reserved.

Ahkmatova’s Requiem

22 September 2012

It’s impossible to be in St Petersburg for any length of time, as I was recently on holiday, without engaging with Anna Akhmatova’s long poem Requiem. It was written out of her experience of Stalin’s arrests and purges of the 1930s, and in particular of going to the Kresty prison, where her son Lev was detained, in the hope of getting food to him.

As she writes in her own preamble to the poem,

One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’. On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear (everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face.

Requiem was mostly written between 1935 and 1940; one sequence is dated later. In the climate of the times, it was impossible to publish such a poem in the Soviet Union, and in fact it was too dangerous even to be found with drafts or fragments of the manuscript. (Akmatova’s first husband was shot in 1921, her second arrested several times and eventually died in the gulag.) Her rooms were bugged by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, after 1946. So Akhmatova would be visited by an actress friend, and the poet would write lines of the poem in the margins of a newspaper, while making small talk. These she would pass across, and as the actress memorised each one she would write another to be remembered. And then, before the end of the meeting, the newspaper would be burnt in the stove.

This reminded me of the “human books” that are part of (small spoiler alert) Ray Bradbury’s story Fahrenheit 451.

And of something else. The picture of women petitioning authorities, in many countries, for information about relatives who have been arrested or disappeared is a defining image of the 20th century, in Chile, in Argentina, in Russia. Akhmatova was writing of the USSR and Stalin, but the story she told in Requiem – as with so much of her work – is a universal one.

The photograph at the top of the post, of the image of Ahkmatova outside of her former house, now museum, in St Petersburg, was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

‘Up from the depths’

29 August 2012


I’ve been reading Vassily Grossman’s book The Road, a collection of stories and reportage. Grossman may have been the finest war correspondent of the Eastern Front, a Soviet Jew whose mother certainly died at the hands of the Nazi Einzatzgruppen in the Ukraine.

This fragment of ‘The Old Teacher’, a story from The Road, seemed to be worth sharing here. The moment: The German army is 20 kilometres away and is likely to arrive in the village in only a day or so.

The night was dark from because heavy clouds had shut out the sky and covered the light of the stars. And it was dark from the darkness of the earth. The Nazis were a great falsehood, life’s greatest falsehood. Wherever they passed, up from the depths rose cowardice, treachery, murderousness, and violence against the weak. The Nazis drew everything dark up to the surface, just as a black spell in an old tale calls up the spirits of evil. That night the little town lay stifling, gripped by something foul and dark. Something vile had awoken; stirred by the Nazis’ arrival it was now reaching towards them. The treacherous and the weak-spirited had emerged from their cellars and gullies and were ripping up letters, Party cards and books by Lenin; they were tearing down portraits of their own brothers from the walls of their rooms. Fawning speeches of disavowal were taking shape in the hearts of the poor in spirit. Thoughts of revenge – for some chance word or some market place quarrel – were being conceived. Hearts were being infected by callousness, pride and indifference.
… And so it was in every town – large and small – where the Nazis set foot. Murk rose up from the beds of lakes and rivers; toads swam up to the surface; thistles sprang up where wheat had been planted.

The picture of The Road at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Spies and danger

28 August 2012

Eric Ambler’s critical reputation seems secure – several of his novels are published as Penguin Modern Classics, and both Graham Greene and John le Carré paid tribute to his influence – but his popular reputation seems to have faded, at least to judge from bookshop shelves. I was reminded of Ambler by an endnote in Andy Croft’s rollicking verse novella 1948, where he acknowledges that he borrowed one of his characters, Tamara Zaleshoff, from the thriller writer, and since then I have read a couple of his pre-war novels, Epitaph for a Spy and Uncommon Danger (US: Background to Danger).

Ambler set out to subvert the thriller genre when he started writing:

I intended to make fun of the old secret service adventure thriller as written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, Dornford Yates and their cruder imitators; and I meant to do it by placing some of their antique fantasies in the context of a contemporary reality.

Indeed, in his introduction to Uncommon Danger, Thomas Jones of the LRB observes of the thuggish Mailler in Uncommon Danger, the nastiest character in the book by a good margin, that “it’s tempting to see him as a satirical portrait of the archetypal hero of the moribund thrillers that Ambler was so determined to supersede, unmasked and revealed for the cryptofascist brute he really is”.

In the place of the firm-jawed heroes of Buchan and Yates, Ambler’s stories instead feature ordinary men (mostly men) who find themselves caught up in events outside of their control which they don’t fully understand. As Tom Watson puts it an engaging blog post,

There is always a moment in the Ambler novels when the dupe – a novelist, a salesman, a teacher and the like – realizes with sinking fear that they’re not in a movie or an Agatha Christie tale; that the danger is real and outlook fairly grim.

In Ambler’s world, both crime and politics (and there is always politics) is a dirty business. And as his central characters try to work out what to do, they are often wrong. As they stumble through, they find themselves used, but try to do the right thing nonetheless.

All of this may make them sound a little earnest, but Ambler’s plotting is precise, if sometimes as complex as Chandler’s, his judgment of pace exact, his cliff-hangers frequent, his writing a pleasure. (Mailler, for example, is introduced as being “at one time the only professional strike-breaker in America with an English public school education”.) Several of his books were made into films, and Ambler worked in Hollywood after the war.

And his surprises are many, for Ambler is usually one step ahead of both his readers and his central characters. In Uncommon Danger Kenton, wanted by the Austrian police, spends much of a coach journey as he runs for the Czech border by turns patronising and being dismissive of the English salesman Hodgkin, who is also on the bus. At the last moment (small spoiler alert) Hodgkin points Kenton at the path for the border, before listing all the mistakes he’s made during the day that could have been his undoing.

Eric Ambler was a leftist, and his pre-war books are overlaid by the rise of fascism across Europe. In his world, unlike Buchan’s, capitalism, or at least capitalists, were likely to be at odds with democracy. As Jennifer Howard writes of his novels in a good introduction in Boston Review,

They can also feel alarmingly contemporary, especially when they tackle the dangers of mucking around in other countries’ political affairs—cautionary tales for their own age that haven’t lost their relevance in ours.

Unlike the black and white world of the earlier secret service thrillers (or of some of the Cold War thriller writers who followed him), Ambler’s novels are permeated by shades of grey tinged with darkness. As Kenton reflects in Uncommon Danger, as he ponders going to the police,

It was all very fine to say that Right triumphed in the end, that Justice sought out the guilty and punished them. In actual practice, Right and Justice were far from infallible. Stupid, honest and blind, they blundered in pursuit of their quarry. The innocent sometime crossed their paths.

Or again:

The Foreign Ministers of the great powers might make the actual declarations of their Governments’ policies; but it was the Big Business men, the bankers and their dependents, the arms manufacturers, the oil companies, the big industrialists, who determined what those policies should be. Big business asked the questions that it wanted to ask when and how it suited it. Big Business also provided the answers.

Thomas Jones writes of Ambler that he “was simply several years ahead of his time”. As we lurch into another era where business interests decide on politics while politicians play populist games, he seems further ahead than ever.

I borrowed the picture from an excellent post on the subject of Ambler’s writing at Tom Watson’s blog, and it is used with thanks.