My second stint at the very rewarding Northern Writes conference for young adult creative writers. It’s now in its eleventh year and is brilliantly organised by Aberdeen City Library’s Curriculum Resources and Information Service, especially Helen Adair and Jacqueline Adam. Hosted by Steven Knox, the Head of English at St Machar Academy, it’s a terrific event. The kids are, of course, fantastic. As usual, so many write better on the day than I do; honorable mention to Hannah of the final group of the day, who conjures up the most vivid image of anger as a slithering, red-clawed, sharp-toothed beast in the belly. Lovely stuff!
The other writers on the day include Pam Beasant, Keith Gray, Stuart McHardy and David Smith
Two excellent innovative theatre productions in a couple of months – and both inspired by a serial killer.
Like “London Road”, “The Missing” – the stage version of Andrew O’Hagen’s seminal award-winning non-fiction bestseller – looks at the effects of horror on those who are peripherally involved. In the former’s case, it is an ensemble piece that examines the lives of those living in the midst of the Ipswich stranglings; the latter, another ensemble piece, begins with the nightmare of the serial killings by Fred and Rose West and spins off into a meditation on those who are left bereft by disappearances.
There are other similarities. Both are considerations of the relationship between awful events and the journalists who report them. While the media pack who invade London Road are central to the play, here O’Hagen’s journalistic journey begins after the scrum has dispersed, but is no less an analysis of the relationship between the reporter and the event. At least in O’Hagen’s case, his story is one of involvement and engagement, of discovery rather than prurience; in the after show discussion, O’Hagen talks of the “pornographic” attitude of the press to sex murders, and we sense a little of that at the beginning of the play, when the O’Hagen-like character – deftly played by Joe McFadden – tortures the mother of Lynda Gough with insensitive questions and thinly veiled accusations of negligence for not having reported her missing. However, by the end, the character has invested much in the unfolding tales of those left behind, including that of the sister of Helen Puttock, the third victim of Bible John.
The play – and the original book – sensitively explores the notion of “killability”, a phrase offered to O’Hagen by a lone policeman at the West house in Gloucester. O’Hagen’s persuasive premise is that certain people are more inclined to go missing than the majority of the population, and they are vulnerable in some way; the young, the poor, those in the sex trade, the mentally ill and socially incapable, the itinerant, women. One baulks at this assignation of victimhood, but, as he points out to an audience member who raises the case of Martin Amis’ cousin Lucy Partington, exceptions do not disprove the rule. In a society where, especially in the 1980s when the book is set, “care in the community” has become a euphemism for abnegation of responsibility, it is undeniable that there are many who simply drop off a radar they were barely on in the first place.
The cast is excellent. McFadden is charming, and it’s nice to see Brigit Forsyth (of “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads”) performing so powerfully. Myra McFadyen, in her introduction to the final song (The Cocteau Twins’ gorgeous “Song to the Siren”, perhaps a little clumsily used since it featured in the similarly themed “The Lovely Bones”), reveals the most beautiful voice imaginable.
This is terrific theatre; it is short (90 minutes) but wholly gripping, and leaves one wanting more. It’s another notable success for the National Theatre of Scotland. Bless it
A film that is everything it’s cracked up to be.
Of course, the plot is well known to anyone with two brain cells and an interest in literature (worryingly few these days, perhaps) so there’s no need of a spoiler alert, but I won’t give away the baddie, other than to say it’s just who you would expect it to be. However, the book and its TV version perhaps gave away the game a little too easily, and the film version, constrained as it is by brevity, manages to keep what is in the originals a major plot line which makes the ending inevitable as a more subtle subtext. If you don’t know the plot, it may just surprise you.
Of course, this is a film about bastards doing bastardly things under the guise of loyalty to country or ideology. What is actually going on is one big self-referential, back-slapping, self-conceited game of chess, played out not for any apparent gain but for the sake of one-upmanship. If one cannot trust any information from any one from any where, what is the point of it all, other than the game itself?
Gary Oldman promised so much in scene-chewing early roles as Sid Vicious and Joe Orton, and then seems to have spent so much of his talent playing cartoon villains (“The Fifth Element”? “The Book of Eli”?) while frequently buried under a ton of make up and prosthetics (Mason Verger in “Hannibal” or “Dracula”). Only in the recent “Batman” series has he been allowed to play a part with real dignity in Commissioner Gordon, but even that is a two-dimensional comic character. So it’s great to see him in a role that reveals what a brilliant actor we always thought he might be. It’s a magnificent performance of understatement; Smiley is the least smiley of people, a cold, obsessively self-controlled individual who seems to eschew personal engagement as much as possible. Thus, when the veneer cracks and we see the real human under the surface, it’s stunning. His gentle but pitiless dismantling of a character on an airfield is a chilling glimpse of cruelty; his anguished, silent reaction to his wife’s infidelity, glimpsed through a window at a Christmas party, is a brief moment of momentous vulnerability; and his flash of anger at his prey’s stupidity is a hint of an actual moral code. However, the most gobsmacking scene is when, describing his meeting with Karla, his Soviet arch-rival, he forgets his audience and inhabits the scene, talking to an invisible person, lighting a non-existent cigarette. It reveals a compulsion that runs too deep to be healthy. I can now forgive him for “Lost in Space.”
The rest of the cast – almost uniformly British and at the top of their game – is excellent. Tom Hardy invests the part of a “mechanic” used to doing terrible things with some real moral ambiguity: I don’t want to end up like you, he tells Smiley and his sidekick Guillam, I want out, I want a family. Fat chance. The rest of the Circus crew are arrogant and callous game-players, jockeying for position and for the ear of the Minister (who is also an arrogant, callous game player). Colin Firth is as handsome as ever, but that handsomeness is invested with a flabby loucheness that, by the end of the film, is distinctly repulsive, while Toby Jones (who was wonderful as Truman Capote in “Notorious”) is the perfect little clockwork dictator. The only character we can feel any sympathy for – a young Russian woman attempting to defect to escape the brutality of the man she is married to – is summarily executed, her brains spattered across the wall of a torture cell simply to send a machismo message from one spycatcher to another.
It is all about sex, of course. There’s a rich undercurrent of it throughout the film. Sex drives most of them, whether it is Guillam’s homosexuality or Haydon’s bisexuality or Smiley’s infatuation with his barely glimpsed, erotomaniac wife. Esterhase is a preening little peacock strutting his stuff with two women on the dance floor, Tarr is a bullish sexual predator, Prideaux a yearning, jilted lover, while men gather round the desk of a new blonde typist in a perfect re-enactment of 70’s sexism – and yet it is all so suppressed, so contained, so… secret. Wonderfully done.
And the look is perfect. There’s that distance that you would expect of a Swedish director like Thomas Alfredson – just take a look at his chilly “Let the Right One In” – and the graininess of the print combined with the perfectly realised cheap and smoky interiors gives it an unmistakable Cold War feel. It is a throwback – and a much more successful one than “Super 8” – to the heyday of the 1970s, evoking reminders of “Callan”, “Public Eye” and, of course, the Alec Guinness original series.
It’s an absolute shoe-in for some Oscars, hopefully for Oldman, and I’m sure it’ll spur further le Carré adaptations; “Smiley’s People” is an obvious choice. The one I’d really like to see, though, isn’t a Smiley novel at all: “A Perfect Spy” is le Carré’s greatest book and, I think, one of the best British novels of the last fifty years. Oh, that would be a belter.
I have a review of Colin Lever’s highly recommended book “Understanding Challenging Behaviour in Inclusive Classrooms” published in today’s Times Educational Supplement Scotland.
It’s a really good, practical work that offers advice on how to identify issues and strategies to deal with them. Find the review here:
Dearie me. Radio 4’s flagship morning news programme just can’t help baring it’s confrontational teeth these days.
Rob Bonnet interviewed Oscar Pistorius, double amputee and world class sprinter. Right from the start, Bonnet, a mild-mannered presenter who warned the audience that the interview didn’t end well, went for the jugular in the most winsome of ways.
“What about the debate about whether your carbon fibre blades give you an edge?” he was asked. “I don’t think about it,” he said. “Is the debate distracting?” Of course, if he’s just said he doesn’t think about it, it can’t be distracting, can it? But Bonnet had an agenda to get through. “No,” he replied, “because I know the facts about the science of my blades.” “What are the facts?” Bonnet asked, not having done his homework. “The blades don’t enhance performance,” was the short and justifiably sharp reply.
“You’ve always been controversial,” says Bonnet, obviously going for the charm offensive with the South African. “Do you think the IAAF will allow (“allow” stressed rather too forcefully) you to compete in both?” Pistorius, in a graceful and diplomatic answer, gave clear details of his talks with IAAF officials and his constructive relationship with them. “So you think you will be allowed to compete in both?” Bonnet asked, displaying a complete inability to actually listen to what his interviewee was saying. “I’m confident I can get the qualification times,” Pistorius answered.
Bonnet then raised Dame Tanni Grey-Thomson, the wheelchair-bound athlete, who had expressed the opinion that Pistorius shouldn’t compete in both because it would devalue the Paralympics. “What do you think of that?” he asked. What was Pistorius expected to say? Was he supposed to start a slanging match with a revered Paralympian on air just to satisfy Today’s need for a barney? “She’s a friend,” he said. “I think she’s been misquoted.”
“But can’t you see that point of view?” Bonnet asked. “Absolutely not,” said Pistorius. “You can’t see it?” said Bonnet.
“Have the other 400 metre Paralympic runners welcomed you?” came next. “It’s not been said, it’s like asking me if I welcome them. You can’t run a race with one person. I have had a lot of support from them,” said Pistorius.
Then came the clincher. You would have thought that Bonnet would have felt the vibe going wrong, realised that he was alienating this magnificent and courageous athlete. But no – he bashed on to a stunning conclusion.
“No question you are an inspiration to some,” he said, “but to South African athletics you might be seen as an inconvenient embarrassment because you’re taking them into uncharted ethical waters.”
What? Because you are an athlete with no legs, you are an embarrassment? Why not ask a black athlete of the 1930s if he felt he was an embarrassment because he was upsetting the status quo by having to share a shower room with whites?
Quite rightly, that was enough for Pistorius. “I think that’s an insult to me and this interview’s over,” he replied. Bonnet blustered and pleaded. “No, no, it’s not expressed as an insult,” he said. Oh yes it was, Rob. Most definitely. And Pistorius pissed off very pissed off. Good for him.
“Today” is a great programme. I love it. But come on, for goodness’ sake take stock of this need to rile and rankle and recriminate. There was no call for an adversarial tone with Pistorius, just as there was no need for an adversarial tone with Graham Linehan in June. There wasn’t a single positive question to Pistorius that celebrated his achievements; sometimes, heroes should be treated as heroes, and not be set up like Aunt Sallies just to be torn down. Do that, and you lose the sympathy of your listeners: “Today” certainly lost mine today.
Canadian AOR hero Ron Sexsmith packs out the O2 for a whistle-stop tour of his many, many recordings. He’s a consummate pop-rock singer-songwriter, and I can hear a barrow load of his antecedents, from Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney to Andrew Gold, Randy Newman and even (and I’m sure he won’t be all that pleased with the comparison) Gilbert O’Sullivan. So he’s a kind of “all things to all men” singer, which has the advantage of attracting a huge audience of knowledgeable fans who have bought into his music emotionally; however, it’s not quite individual enough to convert me from an admirer to an acolyte.
He certainly knows the three-minute pop song inside out. The numbers come thick and fast because of their economical structure: it’s all verse-chorus / verse-chorus / hook-quick solo / verse-chorus. Bish-bash-bosh. Thank you very much, Glasgow. That plays well to the crowd because they get to hear all their favourites; for me, though, there isn’t really any time to get into any one song and revel in it.
Having said that, there are some really, really good songs. “Just My Heart Talking” is really well done, as is his co-composition with Feist, “Brandy Alexander”, which the band perform with some fine harmonies. I’ve always liked “Cheap Hotel” for its contrast of lush, romantic melody with brutal lyrics about domestic abuse. He also performs a storming, stripped down Costello cover, “Every Day I Write the Book”.
The slower, more introverted numbers are a little samey for me, depending as they do on intricate lyrics; words are Sexsmith’s real strength, though, even if he does occasionally rely a little too heavily on idiom. And he also does jauntiness that is a bit too pat at times for me: “Get In Line” reminds me a little of the Crossroads theme. So at the end of the night, I’m impressed but not wowed.
But that’ll do nicely. Sexsmith is a fine songwriter and has a rich voice which is nevertheless engagingly vulnerable at times, particularly when he flips into a minor chord and has to hit a wonky note. His band is very good too, especially guitarist Paul Bushnell who provides a clean sound and understated solos. Not bad at all, and certainly worth seeing.
Matthew Firth, editor of Front & Centre, was kind enough to send me a copy of Issue 4 the magazine from way back, with a review of my short story collection I’ve never seen before.
What surprised me were the stories Matthew singled out in the review. “Unto Myself” is the longest short story I’ve ever written, and I have to say I was proud of its plotting, characterisation and visualisation. It took a long time to get right, but I think it worked out fine and would be good on screen; it would need to be done in Gaelic, though, so if you know any film directors from Stornoway, let me know! It’s not a story many people notice, though; “The Practicality of Magnolia” and “Twitchy” tend to catch the eye.
And he drew attention to “How Will You Grieve”, an unashamedley emotional tale of grief that I thought was one of the weakest in the collection: however, I value Matthew’s opinion, so if he says it’s solid, I’m not going to argue. I just didn’t think, as an inveterate dirty realist, he’d notice a tearjerker like that.
Here’s the review in full:
“Raymond Soltysek’s Occasional Demons differs from a lot of first collections of short stories. Unlike many first efforts, Soltysek shows considerable muscle and flexibility as a short story writer. He does not find one format that works and then hammer away at it for 160 pages. Soltysek is just as comfortable writing about a horny middle-aged man trawling the dreary streets of Glasgow for hookers as he is writing about an unassuming priest on a remote Scottish island who finds himself an accomplice to murder. As well, Soltysek shows not only flexibility with respect to characterization and plot, he blends styles effectively in this book, for example, mixing in vernacular Scottish language when needed, but not using it as an over-powering device. This conscientious control shows Soltysek’s poise and maturity. Occasional Demons is a successful book as a result.
The most intriguing story is “Unto Myself”, a longer work centred on the aforementioned priest. The priest’s transgression brings upon him not the perils of Christian guilt but the wrath of a local pagan woman with the “sight”. Here Soltysek documents clashing traditions in a small pocket of Scotland. He also gives us a glimpse of some of the contradictions inside us all. “How Will You Grieve?” also stands out, as a man is so overwhelmed by his father’s demise that he somehow fails to notice or comprehend that the rest of the UK is reeling after the death of Princess Diana. Life events are put in refreshing context here; why shouldn’t we grieve for those we know and love instead of some distant icon? But I still couldn’t help being drawn to those unlikeable male beasts that crop up here and again in the book. In “The Bus Fare Down the Tubes” a man is spitting venom after leaving his wife and suffering the torment of a frustrating job.
Soltysek has written a provocative collection of short stories. He is one among many fine new Scottish writers bursting into prominence.”
Thanks, Matthew. I still haven’t quiet “burst” yet, but I’m working on it…