Archive for the 'writing' Category

Quentin and Roald

5 February 2017


I’ve always loved Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl’s children’s books. They are the way we see these stories: the two men are joined together in the same way as A.A. Milne and E.H. Shephard, or Lewis Carroll and J.C.Tenniel.

For a few weeks more (until 1st May) the British Library is displaying a set of 10 further portraits of Dahl characters that were commissioned from Blake to mark the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth in 2016.

No claims for the quality of these images, snapped on a phone.

In a note that accompanies this small (and free) exhibition, Blake says,

The Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits ask you to imagine that a number of Dahl’s characters have been invited to come and sit for their portrait; they are depicted, not quite as they appear in the illustrations, but more formally. The perceptive spectator may notice that one celebrated couple declined to appear together, and another formidable personality obviously disapproved of the whole venture. Nevertheless, I hope you will be happy to see this group of well-known characters treated as though they were real people—which, of course, to many of us they are.

Anyway, Charlie is at the top of the post, and here are two more of the characters that did turn up for their new portraits. Matilda, of course:


And Danny, the Champion of the World, with his father.





The Deep Blue Sea

6 September 2016

National Theatre set designed by Tom Scott. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Terrence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea, which is on at London’s National Theatre, is literally a period piece. It premiered in 1952, and the devices and secrets that drive plot and characters are no longer issues. No spoilers, but attempted suicide is no longer a crime, gas no longer poisons you, a woman who leaves her husband to live with someone else no longer has to lie about it.

Rattigan, who was gay at a time when homosexual acts were illegal, would have known all about the world of secrets, allusion and indirect meanings, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the writing and characterisation are strong. He wrote the play after a lover, Kenny Morgan, had killed himself by gas. There’s no evidence for the claim Rattigan once made in a letter that he wrote an initial version in which Hester, the lead character, was male and gay–such a play would have been unperformable in Britain in the 1950s–there is a later “distaff” version by Mike Poulton that re-works The Deep Blue Sea as if it were Morgan who were the central character and had failed in his suicide attempt.

(On gas suicides, I also recall a play by Alan Ayckbourn, although I forget which one, where he plays this idea for laughs. A woman is lying in the kitchen during a party with her head in the gas oven while party guests traipse through not realising what she’s doing, and engage her in conversation.)

The Deep Blue Sea is a technical tour de force, set in one location and in keeping with Aristotle’s idea of “the unities”, taking place in just 24 hours, or so. The National’s set, seen in the image at the top of the post, makes much of this over-crowded block of bedsits, with its thin walls and well-meaning landlady, although it doesn’t manage to convey one of Rattigan’s stage directions, that it stands in a badly bombed area of Ladbroke Grove.

This is another period piece: for this would have been the Ladbroke Grove of cheap lodgings and Peter Rachman, not of David Cameron’s “Notting Hill set“. Not, in the ’50s, the sort of place that the runaway wife of a wealthy High Court judge would expect to be found.

One other period element of the play that I missed completely in the National’s version: that the struck-off doctor Mr Miller, very much the play’s “centre of good”, was gay and had been disqualified after being jailed for a homosexual act. It’s implicit, but the various reviews of this and other productions seem clear on the point.

But if the play were just a social history, it would not be worth re-staging. It still works in 2016 because at its heart it is a play about desire. Hester leaves her husband, portrayed in the National’s version as generous but not passionate, for a relationship with a younger man, a pilot who is still reliving the war through a haze of alcohol. It’s evident that sex matters to her. Freddy Page, for whom she left her husband, is “the devil” that the play’s title alludes to.

The deep blue sea, in contrast, is the challenge of living with herself, about to be a divorced woman, having transgressed the social and sexual mores of the time.For this is a choice. (And this is a spoiler).

As Terence Davies, who directed a film version of the play, observes of the scene near the end of the play between Hester and her husband Sir William Collyer,

When he asks her to come back, he says, “Can’t you see what I’m offering you?” She says, “Yes, and do you have any idea how difficult it is to refuse it?”

The trangressive women is always a rich theme, and especially so in the ’40s and ’50s, as a decade of film noir reminds us.

And in our cultural stories, perhaps the transgressive woman, or transgressives of any gender, find themselves dead or alone, as the play suggests. Which is one way of making sense of the paean to the virtues of doggedness in Mr Miller’s fine speech to Hester in the final act of the play. Keeping on keeping on is a virtue, no matter how hard it seems at the time.

Reading Wodehouse

7 August 2016

I’ve stayed away from P.G.Wodehouse, perhaps because I lack sympathy with the aristocratic milieu that his characters inhabit, but my brother, who appreciates writing, insisted. And so I bought one; not one of the Wodehouse series, such as Jeeves or Blandings Castle, which come now with a heavy precognitive load, but the standalone novel Big Money, published in 1931.

Perhaps I was attracted by the title, or perhaps by the Ben Elton cover quote: “Light as a feather, but fabulous.

And Ben Elton and my brother were right. The thing was a pleasure from beginning to end. 

I’m not going to spoil it, but the plot revolves around a penniless heir, Lord Biskerton, and his schoolfriend Berry Conway, now fallen on hard times and reduced to working for a living, and the arrival in London of an American heiress, Ann Moon, the niece of Conway’s boss, despatched to London for the season to escape an unsuitable match. (As in, “The Season“.)

Here’s part of Chapter 2, describing Ann’s social whirl in London:

“She saw the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Madame Tussaud’s, Buck’s Club, the Cenotaph, Limehouse, Simpson’s in the Strand, a series of races between consumptive-looking greyhounds, another series of races between goggled men on motor-cycles, and the penguins in St James’s Park.

“She met soldiers who talked of horses, sailors who talked of cocktails, poets who talked of publishers, painters who talked of sur-realism, absolute form and the difficulty of deciding whether to be architectural or rhythmical.

“She met men who told her the only possible place in London to lunch, to dine, to dance, to buy an umbrella; women who told her the only possible place in London to go for a frock, a hat, a pair of shoes, a manicure and a permanent wave; young men with systems for winning money by backing second favourites; middle-aged men with systems that needed constant toning-up with gin and vermouth; old men who quavered compliments in her ear and wished their granddaughters were more like her.”     

Unexpected alleys

One of the tricks in narrative is how the author, story, and reader stand in relationship to each other. They can be ahead, or behind, or on terms, as fully informed as each other. In crime fiction, the reader always knows less, is always catching up, as Tony Hancock and Sid James discovered in their classice episode, “The Missing Page“. 

In Big Money the reader is often ahead (you can see where it is going) but just as you think you’re going to get there Wodehouse takes you down an unexpected alley on the way, sometimes poking fun at his characters in a knowing alliance with the reader. 

And when Elton says the book is as light as a feather, it’s probably from passages such as this:

“When the public reads in its morning paper that a merger has been formed between two financial enterprises, it is probably a little vague as to what exactly are the preliminaries that have to be gone through in order to bring this union about. A description of what took place on the present occasion, therefore, can scarcely fail to be of interest.

“J.B. Hoke began by asking Mr Frisby how his golf was coming along. Mr Frisby’s only reply being to bare his teeth like a trapped jackal. Mr Hoke went on to say that he himself, while noticeably improved off the tee, still found a difficulty in laying his short mashie approaches up to the pin. Whether it was too much right hand or too little left hand, Mr Hoke could not say, but he doubted if he put one shot in seven just wehere he meant to. …

“At this point Mr Frisby said something under his breath and broke his pencil in half.” 

Finally, the plot is as elegant a thing as I have seen, with scores of moving parts ticking away unobtrusively in the background. I was reminded of Preston Sturges or the best of the screwball comedies. Unpacking it would, I suspect, be something of a master class.

Of course, it’s of its time. Lunch at the Berkeley costs 25 shillings for two (£1.25 in modern money), with a little change; characters can jump into the two-seater and drive down to Dulwich or Esher from Mayfair at the drop of a hat; Biskerton has run up debts of hundreds of pounds at gentlemen’s outfitters and suppliers across town; a man can’t be seen out without a hat; and everyone who’s anyone knows everyone

And being a comedy, of course all of the characters–and maybe this is a spoiler–get the ending they deserve. Well, most of them do.

Shakespeare in Silver Street

28 April 2016


It is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this month, so a good moment to write something about Charles Nicholl’s Shakespeare book, The Lodger. It’s about Shakespeare’s time lodging on Silver Street with the Huguenot family the Mountjoys, and I bought it on the strength of Nicholl’s fine book on the death of Marlowe, The Reckoning.

Silver Street, or Sylver Street, doesn’t exist any longer, bombed in 1940, but it ran east to west near the London Wall, close to the present Museum of London and south of the current Barbican complex. The Huguenot church in Fann Street is about five minutes walk to the north. The house was destroyed earlier, in the Great Fire of London, or before.

Old Map Showing Silver StreetsmallNicholl suggests Shakespeare was probably a lodger in the Silver Street house from 1603-1605, which would mean that he probably wrote Othello, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That End’s Well, Timon of Athens and King Lear while he was there.

Shakespeare’s stay at Silver Street is interesting to Shakespeareans because it gave rise to the one document from his lifetime that Shakespeare attested in his own voice, as a witness in a court case between the owner of the house, Christopher Mountjoy, and his daughter, Mary, and son-in-law (and former apprentice) Stephen Belott.

Read the rest of this entry »

Listening to McCartney

27 March 2016


When the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, died recently, Richard Williams posted a note on his blog about the recording of ‘A Day In The Life’, based on a long interview he’d done with Martin for Melody Maker in the early ’70s. Martin explained:

They decided that they were going to put a lot of just rhythm in it, and add something later. So I said, “Let’s make it a definite number of bars, let’s have 24 bars of just rhythm in two places, and we’ll decide what to do with them later.” … When they’d done it, I asked them what they were going to do with those bloody great gaps. Paul said he wanted a symphony orchestra, and I said, “Don’t be silly, Paul — it’s all right having 98 men, but you can do it just as well with a smaller amount.” He said, “I want a symphony orchestra to freak out.”

After some toing and froing, Martin booked a 41-piece orchestra, and wrote some structure for the orchestra, but also got them, in effect, to improvise around a long glissando. There’s more detail in William’s post, but the video on Vevo gives some sense of the atmosphere on the recording.

Anyway, youtube being youtube, that led me into a couple of more recent videos with Paul McCartney which were useful reminders that he has always been smart and curious, and despite his fame and wealth remains a human being.


There’s a long interview at Rollins College in the US with the American poet, and former US Laureate – Billy Collins in which he talks among many other things  about writing the three hundred songs he co-wrote with Lennon, sitting down for writing sessions of three hours or so, sessions which always produced a song. In the interview he talks about one session where they got stuck on a lyric involving “golden rings.”. The clip starts at the right place in the interview.

One of the students has a question about what it takes to succeed in songwriting, and McCartney talks about doing a lot of writing—getting better through practice, which is fair enough. But several of the stories he tells are actually about keeping your ears open, about the importance of listening.


The other video was a one man show he did in front of an invited audience at Abbey Road Studios, where he displays a gift for telling stories, even some comic timing.

This moment, where he does a solo version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on the standup bass played by Presley’s first bassist, Bill Black, has some magic in it. Again, it starts at about the right place:


And actually, it’s worth letting it run on a bit for this reason. After McCartney plays ‘Heartbreak Hotel” he wonders over to a Mellotron and does a nightclub style number, before talking about what the Beatles did with the Mellotron. He plays a few bars of the start of a fifty-year old song and the audience breaks into the applause of recognition.  (I’m not going to spoil the effect by saying which song it is.)

Billy Collins – who’s about the same age as McCartney – starts his interview by saying, “You were a Beatle weren’t you? That’s amazing to me,” and the students in the audience clap. Oddly, it’s only when the question gets put in that “Martian” way that you realise what a huge cultural space the Beatles still fill, half a century on.

“The last time I saw Richard…”

11 January 2015

There’s something arresting about the opening line of Joni Mitchell’s song “The last time I saw Richard,” the final track on her 1971 LP Blue.

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68,

And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday

Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe.

You know several things straightaway: The singer and Richard used to be in a relationship (otherwise why would she care, or remember where she saw him last), and that it didn’t end well, and that this was definitely down to him, not her.

She has your attention right there, right now.

“Richard” is probably Chuck Mitchell, briefly Joni’s first husband and also her musical partner for a short period in the 1960s. And in fact the song is a sustained piece of character assassination. A bit later on we learn that,

Richard got married to a figure skater

And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator

And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on

Even these days buying this stuff would be a pretty empty materialist gesture. But in 1971?

I was listening to Blue again after reading an article by Sean O’Hagan about Joni Mitchell’s golden period, broadly from Blue to Hejira. O’Hagan writes that on Blue she “single-handedly redefined the notion of the singer-songwriter.”

One of the reasons for this was her willingness to expose her intimate self in these songs. As well as writing about “Richard”, another, “Little Green”, alludes, cryptically, to her daughter, given up for adoption in 1965. Other songwriters were shocked. As O’Hagan relates, “On first hearing them, her friend Kris Kristofferson exclaimed: ‘Oh Joni – save something of yourself!'”

Song to the siren

6 December 2014

This post is about a single line:

“I’m as puzzled as the oyster.”

It’s from the original version of Tim Buckley’s song, “Song to the Siren”, seen at the top of this post: the lyric was by his former band member and regular co-writer Larry Beckett. Buckley, of course, had a brief, uncommercial, but influential music career in the late 1960s and early 1970s before he died of a drugs overdose at the age of 28.

“Song to a Siren” is probably his best known song, but initially Buckley played it once, on The Monkees TV Show (seen above) in 1967, and then set it aside after the singer Judy Henske, who was also the wife of his producer, made fun of that line. By the time the song appeared on Starsailor, in 1970, Buckley had changed it to,

I am puzzled as the newborn child.

You don’t need to be Shakespeare or Seamus Heaney to see that this doesn’t scan as well, or fit so well into the lyric, which is inspired by the famous Homerian sequence in which the Sirens try to lure Odysseus and his ship onto the rocks by their singing.

In fact, the whole lyric is infused with the sense of sea and water. The original stanza continues:

I am puzzled as the oyster
I am troubled as the tide.
Should I stand amid your breakers?
Should I lie with Death my bride?

Beckett’s answer to Buckley’s concern, shared in an article in the Guardian, a couple of years ago:

“A pearl is an object of great beauty caused by a grain of sand getting inside the oyster’s shell, which seemed apposite to me, what with the sea imagery and the sailor and siren confronting each other. Will beauty or pain rule all? But Tim believed the song was flawed and could never be performed, even though he agreed it was the best song he ever wrote. But then Tim always self-sabotaged his career.”

Starsailor wasn’t the success that Buckley had hoped for, and he died in 1975. “Song to the Siren” became visible again in 1983 when This Mortal Coil (actually the Cocteau Twins covered it, as a B-side. This version quickly became an A-side, and sold half a million copies. Since then it’s been covered by everyone –  Robert Plant, Bryan Ferry, George Michael, Sinead O’Connor, even Alfi Boe, are all on the list.

But the oyster has long been washed away.


“He maintains”

10 August 2014

Pereira Maintains was re-published by Canongate in English in 2010. An earlier version, from Harvill in 1995, was titled Pereira Declares. It’s an important difference, and I’ll try to explain why without too much in the way of spoilers.

The novel was written by Antonio Tabucchi, an Italian who spent half his life in Portugal. It comes with plaudits from the likes of Philip Pullman, Roddy Doyle, and Diana Athill, and a new introduction by Mohsin Hamid, the now celebrated author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

It is set in 1938, with Salazar’s dictatorship well-established and the Spanish Civil War raging on the other side of the border. It tells the story of the friendship between Pereira, the culture editor on a second rate Lisbon evening paper, the Lisboa, and Rossi, a Portugal-based Italian whom Pereira hires to write obituaries. As the story progresses, Pereira’s view of the world changes as he struggles with trying to do the right thing.

The style is deliberately flat, and the phrase “Pereira maintains” occurs repeatedly through the narrative. There is no first person, and no direct speech. You realise as a reader, slowly, that the sort of person who uses the phrase “Pereira maintains” may not be completely believing of Pereira’s account of events; indeed, that in 1938, all may not have turned out for the best for him.

As Andrew Blackman observed on his blog:

The two words from the title, “Pereira maintains”, occur regularly throughout the book to qualify what we’ve just been told. For example:

In Praça de Alegria there was no sense of being in a besieged city, Pereira maintains, because he saw no police at all…

The effect of these two words is incredibly interesting. Although the novel is narrated in the third person, these two oft-repeated words make it clear that this is Pereira’s own testimony – in that way it becomes similar to a first-person account, with all the issues of limited perspective and potential unreliability that go along with that. It also raises the question of who the narrator is – who did Pereira tell his story to, and who is now telling it to us, and why?

Mohsin Hamid says in his introduction that he read the book twice, once as “a reader” and once, after he had published his first novel, “as an apprentice”, trying to understand the technical structure of the novel. His reflections are worth sharing at a bit of length:

I began by trying to understand how it managed to achieve so much with so few words. But I was soon asking myself another question. How, with such serious and pressing concerns, did Pereira manage to be so difficult to put down? …

I found my answers in Pereira‘s form. Its brevity gave the novel a lightness that counterbalanced the weight of its subject matter. Moreover, because it was short it was able to move quickly, or at least was able to give the impression of moving quickly. But what seemed to me most striking about the form of Pereira was its use of the testimonial. …

The result is mysterious, menacing, enthralling and mind-bending – all at once. Through the testimonial form, Pereira makes detectives of its readers. We are unsettled and given more to do.


The world of Dennis Potter

22 June 2014

I have always been a big fan of the work of Dennis Potter, which is probably the most radical body of television drama produced by a single writer. Indeed, in the days before video recorders were common, I once wrecked a friendship by insisting on watching an episode of The Singing Detective, his masterpiece, in the middle of a dinner party. (I had warned the host beforehand that if I came I would do this: but I don’t think she believed me).

So I gravitated towards a recent article by Michael Newton that marked the current BFI retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Potter’s death. Newton captures one of the core themes in Potter’s work:

When a child wakes at night and cries out, and its mother comes and comforts him, saying, “There’s no need to be afraid … it’s all right … everything is all right,” is she telling lies? That question haunted Dennis Potter. In interviews, he shared [Paul] Berger’s answer, that, in ways mysterious to us, the mother tells the truth, everything really is all right.

Yet in play after play, Potter appears to offer the contrary thought.  … Potter’s gift was his refusal to hold either of these beliefs alone, and instead to forge his plays in the tension between.

There’s a second tension in Potter’s plays, Newton suggests, between “place” of his upbringing and childhood, which he described as “a sort of mythic Forest of Dean,” and “no place” (my word, not his) of popular culture and popular song. And maybe a third as well, of the “other place”, the not-Forest of Dean of Hammersmith, where he moved in his teens, or of Oxford, where he went to university. It’s not coincidence that the last scene in Pennies From Heaven, if I remember it correctly, plays itself out on Hammersmith Bridge.

Of course, Potter’s view of the world is so distinctive that there is no school of “Potterian” writers: he hasn’t had the influence on television drama that, say, Steve Bochco had with his formal and stylistic innovation in Hill Street Blues. But that’s partly because there is a deep political streak running through his work: notions of class, identity and power are never far below the surface, sometimes breaking through.

And in turn, I think, that’s because he was a product of that so far unrepeated moment in post-war Britain when the social system, unfrozen by the war and a progressive education system, allowed a generation the chance of significant social mobility. It meant that identity and opportunity constantly rubbed up against each other, throwing off questions as sparks.

Potter’s father was a miner, and Potter’s skill was to use these sparks to turn this modest – even ordinary – social background into extraordinary television drama. Autobiography shines through his work, which is deeply rooted, without it ever being explicitly “autobiographical.”

He also knew that the world took sides and that you needed to know which side you were on. It’s not in Newton’s article, but as he was dying of cancer, desperately writing his final plays, and at a time when Britain’s politicans spent their time fawning on Murdoch and his newspapers, he called his cancer “Rupert”. The passage where he explained this to Melvyn Bragg, in his memorable final television interview, is worth quoting in full:

I call my cancer, the main one, the pancreas one, I call it Rupert, so I can get close to it, because the man Murdoch is the one who, if I had the time – in fact I’ve got too much writing to do and I haven’t got the energy – but I would shoot the bugger if I could. There is no one person more responsible for the pollution of what was already a fairly polluted press, and the pollution of the British press is an important part of the pollution of British political life.

The BFI’s Dennis Potter Season runs until the end of July.


Hollywood on Hollywood

25 May 2014

Of course, if you want to win an Oscar, making a film about film-making is a pretty good way to do it. The Artist in 2012 and Argo in 2013 are only the latest in a line going back to A Star Is Born in 1937. Argo, no spoilers, is a film about the CIA pretending to make a film, and therefore gets all the upside of telling jokes about Hollywood while also having Hollywood as one of the good guys. And a bit more upside, since the story is mostly true.

John Goodman plays John Chambers, the make-up specialist who is enrolled in the plan to set up a fake movie to rescue six American Embassy staff who are in hiding in Tehran out of the country after the Embassy was seized by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979.

When the CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) goes to LA to meet Chambers, there’s some inevitable smart, knowing, writing:

Tony Mendez: I need you to help me make a fake movie.
John Chambers: Well, you came to the right place.
Tony Mendez: I wanna set up a production company and build a cover around making a movie.
John Chambers: That we’re not gonna make?
Tony Mendez: No.
John Chambers: So you wanna come to Hollywood and act like a big shot…?
Tony Mendez: Yeah.
John Chambers: Without actually doing anything?
Tony Mendez: No.
John Chambers: You’ll fit right in.

And just a bit later, it gets better, almost all because of the way that Goodman delivers the lines.

John Chambers: Look, if you’re gonna do this, you gotta do it. The Kominiacs are fruit loops but they got cousins who sell prayer rugs and 8-tracks on Le Brea. You can’t build cover stories around a movie that doesn’t exist. You need a script, you need a producer.
Tony Mendez: Make me a producer.
John Chambers: No, you’re an associate producer at best. If you’re gonna do a $20 million dollars ‘Star Wars’ rip-off, you need somebody who’s a somebody to put their name on it. [BEAT]

Somebody respectable, [BEAT]

with credits, [BEAT]

who you can trust with classified information, [BEAT]

who will produce a fake movie, [BEAT]

for free.

And CUT to Alan Arkin.

In other words: set-up/ set-up/ set-up/ set-up/ set-up/ payoff. And almost all of it done through the timing.

Thanks to Movie Quotes and More for the extracts.