On growth

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Trees in Western Cliff Wood

Last week I took the boys for a walk across some meadows and down to a river among some trees. Just a fortnight ago the grass had been short and the woodland portion of the path passable if a little twisty. Yesterday the fields were hazardously tall with thistles and scratchy grasses, and the footpath blocked with nettles. Undeterred, we scythed the blighters down with sticks and invented a new game – one point for every sting you take that you don’t complain about – making it to the pretty ford with itchy legs and plenty of points apiece.

But those nettles! Tall and loaded, all of a sudden.

It’s like the snowdrops that were sprinkled overnight like frosting, or the primroses that appeared suddenly in constellations as though clouds had cleared on a night sky, or the crashing wild garlic waves and gentle bluebell tides, or the fireworks of red campion, cow parsley and stitchwort bursting from all the hedgerows.

Or just the leaves, which took ages to appear, but when they did they burst onto the scene in almost autumnal glory, colouring every wood and hedge and garden in a week before ripening into luxuriant green. Now the land is heavy and full. The grass has been cut and baled already.

Everything seems to arrive quickly and in abundance. I should hardly be surprised that things grow, in the country, in spring.

But it’s the rate of change that is unexpected, bringing transformation swiftly after months of little variation. And it’s the impact of that transformation on us humans that catches me out.

It’s not just the visual renewal that affects us – although seeing the skin of the landscape ripple as the wind blows on high grasses and unfurled leaves, and watching the fields ease into colourful patchwork clothing after a drab winter, are both delightful – it’s the way that it changes our travel.

Some footpaths that were lost to deep mud in the wet months are now firm and treadable, yet many are blocked by hostile weeds, others by shoulder-high crops. The width of the lanes has been halved by eager hedgerows and the only way to drive safely is to trace the line of the hedge with your wing mirror, knowing that the light flaying from cow parsley and ferns is keeping your car far enough over. Visibility on roads and paths plummets; there is more shade, less road to see ahead, fewer views to the hills and more road signs buried in foliage. I guess winter brings dangerous conditions for driving but spring offers its fair share. Badgers, rabbits, squirrels and foxes are awake and wandering onto the roads.

What gets me is that everything feels so different. More alive, more hopeful. I’m reminded of nature’s ability not just to renew but to impress with magnanimity, to bestow more new and colourful life than I can possible take in, seemingly overnight, and for free.

I can’t help thinking of the idea that human organisations need to be treated as organic systems not mechanical ones. From what is happening in the country right now, that could mean accepting that growth only happens at certain seasons in the cycle; it comes when the conditions are right, but when it comes, boy will you know about it.

Hedgerows and the seeds that float


The hedgerows are bursting with pink, cream and yellow flowers, with cow parsley craning out into the road and bluebells hiding at its feet. The lanes are suddenly only half as wide and every bank is a display surpassing the best Chelsea show garden; for originality, spontaneity and vivacity. These ensembles cost nothing to create and will last for weeks.

Not forever though – at some point the farmers will tidy up the lanes and cut them back with tractor-mounted mowers.

The relatively modest hedgerow above is in Raddington, to whose tiny, wonky windowed church we walked down a long hill. We met yet another friendly landowner. Part of the footpath between two gates was being used to contain sheep having their feet done; the farmer apologised profusely and led us instead through her chicken enclosure, a polytunnel, and finally the goat paddock to rejoin the path.

We stopped halfway down the hill to rest and drink from the stream. White seeds floated gently by on the breeze. Nothing says summer like seeds drifting past in the air. Why are they so evocative and soothing? Perhaps both seeds and snowflakes remind us that we move and breathe in air as they fall softly through it, demonstrating its resistance, its support. They show up something that is often invisible about nature: it’s kindness. In the heat or warmth of the year the air freely, surreptitiously, sustains our life.

Or maybe it just reminds me of sitting in a sunny beer garden with a pint.

Bluebells

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I have been stunned by the bluebells. I don’t remember them growing up in Northumberland and I always assumed that the classic photo of them – a rich purple carpet fitted around the trees and stretching off into the wood – was the careful composition of a photographer working with a small, rare patch of flowers.

Not so. At least, not in West Somerset. This year, I see bluebells every time I leave the house. If I walk the dog near woodland, then we find a sea of bluebells worthy of any professional photoshoot. It feels indulgent and almost embarrassing for nature to put on such a luxuriant display.

I walked last week from Monksilver up Bird Hill towards Ralegh’s Cross. The path ascends through thick woodland with only an occasional glimpse through the branches across to Minehead and the South Wales coast. And for almost a mile, the path was flanked by a wide stream of bluebells on both sides, stacking up on the hill to the left and flowing down among the trees to the right. It’s by far the largest display I’ve seen, and as with most of the beautiful walks around here, I had it completely to myself. Well, apart from the dog.

I still love cut flowers in the house, but it does seem little silly to pay for a few stems that last only a week when the countryside is lavishing waves of primroses, wild garlic flowers and bluebells on every hedgerow and under every tree.

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‘Youngleaf autumn’

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This is not the picture I wanted to show you.

A week ago I walked the dog up from Fitzhead and along the ridge towards Milverton. The tracks impassable in winter due to the high mud were finally solid enough to walk on. Some of the fields were freshly ploughed and others were blossoming with oilseed adding earthy red and bright yellow to the patchwork of colours.

It was around 5pm when I drove back towards home, coming down off the ridge down this lane towards Croford.

That’s when the magic happened.

As we dipped down the hill the sun was low on the left, dodging through thin, hazy clouds which instead of washing everything out scattered the light in such a way that the colours of the quilted landscape became iridescent. This strange light, falling on the young leaves of the trees, which carry many more colours than green alone as they emerge, highlighted the yellows and oranges and browns of the wood that you can see on the hilltop – the site of an old fort – so that the view became autumnal; but instead of the bright colours of decay, that final flourish of dry gaudiness before the fall, this display was born of new life shimmering into existence on the delicate tips of woody fingers.

It was like nothing I’ve seen before in England, reminding me instead of the light in Provence, and yet more timid and ephemeral. In the spirit of naming things, let’s christen this a youngleaf autumn.

I was driving so I didn’t photograph it. Then I was away. When I finally got back up there today, the sun was higher in the sky and the leaves already conforming to the verdant scene, so that there was nothing to see except a hill and a winding lane and that will have to do.

But earlier in the day I was up the beech avenue on Heydon Hill just as the midday sun forced its way through the diaphanous young beech leaves, and that was pretty special too, and this time I did take a shot.

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On footpaths

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Until we moved to the country I didn’t realise how valuable our network of public footpaths and bridleways really is.

I grew up on the edge of a national park, and we used to go for walks, but I don’t think I ever understood the significance of rights of way. It felt as a youngster that the countryside was our playground. Striding along Hadrian’s Wall or Druridge Bay or rambling along a burn in Hexhamshire the last thing in our minds was land ownership. The country was for everybody, and the more adventurous you were, the more you got. If you wanted to loop a ropeswing round a branch or dip in the deep bend of a river, you got on and did it.

Then university came with it’s ‘Keep off the grass’ signs and security walls. Sure there were public parks, but even a small, leafy city is a stark contrast to the country’s least populated corner. Then we rented a house with a few paving slabs outside and a towering view of the back of a car park; followed by a garden that we actually owned and grew some herbs in but in reality wasn’t big enough to pitch a family tent. And we were too busy with pushchairs and highchairs and nappies and nurseries to go off in search of countryside again.

Even when we did, by moving to Somerset, one estate agent tried to ward us off a house because it had no garden. Pointing to the beautiful hills all around the building she said ‘it’s not like the old days when kids could go out and explore – now it all belongs to somebody’.

But she’s wrong. Maybe land is more valuable and better utilised these days, boundaries better maintained and ownership more socially established, but I have walked through that very combe on my way from one little village to another, between the patchwork fields and through the wooded ridge, along a track with views to the Quantocks then down through the fields among the sheep with their lambs – all entirely legally, by following public paths and bridleways.

They are everywhere. They are the network that opens up the country to us all.

All you need is an OS map showing the routes and you’re off. I’ve climbed hills with incredible views, tracked rivers through secret valleys and forests, circled lakes by the water’s edge, walked across undulating farmland and acres of the greenest grass. My favourite pastime is picking a virgin footpath off the map and heading out with the dog to see what lies along it. The map hints at the territory via steep contour lines or marked features – waterfalls, old bridges, historical ruins, pools and landmarks – but the reality is unpredictable and discovering it first hand is such a thrill. Invariably, I don’t meet a single other person on the walk. The countryside is mine again.

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Public footpaths are green dashed lines on an Ordnance & Survey map

You can’t walk like this in every country. My wife’s cousin lived in Australia and bemoans the lack of public access. Even if you get permission from one owner to walk on their land it’s impossible to tell at what point you have crossed a boundary and have become a trespasser.

In Britain we have this incredible historical matrix of routes and tracks that knit together the landscape and open up the land. That doesn’t even include the right to roam on uncultivated and common areas, or parcels of land shared by the National Trust, the Forestry Commission and the like.

Most of the footpaths are signposted and marked by arrows, kept clear, and correspond to the OS route. Occasionally the path disappears, or is blocked by a fence, but by and large there is a way through. Once when the track was uncertain a man hollered across the field that I was on private land. I shouted back that I thought there was a footpath and he said: ‘fair enough’.

In fact the landowners in West Somerset are remarkably friendly. Once in the middle of his farm a farmer greeted us with amazement because, ‘this path only gets used about twice a year’. Yet it was still signed and open. Another time I was shutting a gate on a field of young cows when the farmer drove up the track. I wondered if he’d take exception to the dog being off the lead but instead he said, ‘hold the gate while I turn around – I’m just looking for my bees’. Another owner asked me if I’d tried all the other routes around her land, pointing out new footpaths to explore.

I’m sure it’s more political when the landowner is a celebrity and the footpath in question crosses their high-walled Surrey estate, but round here people are happy for you to get on with it and enjoy the countryside. I try to stick to the path, keep the dog under control and not damage anything, in return for the pathways being accessible. Some owners marshal you in straight line with fencing but most allow you to walk openly over their land even when grazing animals or growing crops.

Which is brilliant. And it’s only now that I appreciate it.

It feels like such a privilege to explore our country like this. My advice if you’re staring out of a window at your neighbour’s net curtain wondering what you’ve got in life: move to the country, get a dog, buy a detailed map and start walking. The first two are optional; just get out on the trail. Our countryside is a gift.

Is the country better for writing?

And stepping westward seemed to be
A kind of heavenly destiny.

William Wordsworth

At the end of July we’re moving to the county where Henry Fielding was born and where Chaucer worked as a forester whilst writing The Canterbury Tales. It is the county in which Thomas Hardy dwelt for a time, where Arthur C. Clarke grew up, where John Steinbeck stayed to research and where T.S. Eliot chose to have his ashes interred. More recently, it is where Terry Pratchett dreamt up Discworld, where John Le Carré resided and where Fay Weldon and Charlotte Bingham are united in prolificacy, if not in style.

Specifically, we’re heading to the hills and moors where Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was penned, where his friend Wordsworth moped about for a year, in the wild country of Lorna Doone.

We have just been filmed for a TV property show about the move (on your telly in December) in which the storyline of ‘writer moving to country for inspiration’ will play a part.

It’s a pervasive myth, that the countryside is more inspiring for writing. I adore the graphic novel Tamara Drewe, with its old Dorset guest home packed full of frustrated novelists retreating to the pastoral to find the space to work.

But is the country really a better place to get writing done?

The occasions on which I’ve written productively in remote places in the past owe a lot to being away: away from family and work life, with nothing else to think about. This time the crew are coming too. I’ll be working still, with a much longer commute. There’ll be all the resettling of kids into schools and possibly all the work involved in modernising a historic building.

It certainly won’t be a retreat. The first time that we have to drain the septic tank will put paid to any romantic notions of the rural writing life.

As for whether or not it is a more inspiring setting, it is said that some authors face the window and some face the wall. There are those for whom a landscape stirs creative thoughts and those for whom it distracts. Looking out at the fields does not make me want to write: it makes me want to go out in the fields. The inspiration for my books is inside me. Writing needs no external vista: it is more the discipline of shutting out the view to single-mindedly type the internal ideas out.

More to the point, for an urban novel you’re probably better off in a city. And if you get energy from interacting with people and culture and ideas then you need to be around those too.

Plus there are the issues of improving as an author and getting published. Isolation is good for neither. In Cambridge I have been part of a writing group that has been critical for my novel in at least two positive senses of that word.

Of course, there is the Internet for research and culture and connection to other writers – as long as you can get it in your village. Practical considerations such as broadband access and the temperature of the room will have far more influence over my productivity than the scenic location. The discipline of creative writing is largely a practical one: arranging a warm, quiet, uninterrupted space in which to tap the keys.

On the flip side, as long as the practicalities are available, space is one thing that the country move will deliver in spades. I’m ridiculously excited about having my own study or shed to make into the perfect creative den (facing the wall, not the window).

And there’s more to the countryside than that. I find a pastoral setting the perfect place to clear my head and make good decisions. Writing is writing wherever you do it but I’m looking forward to cultivating a clear and focused mind for the work at hand.

Above all, it’s an exhilarating move all round; a new chapter of life after 17 years in a university city. It might not be the dream ticket that country life is often romantically conceived to be, but change and a new adventure are good.

Wordsworth did the same, living in Somerset for a time after studying in Cambridge. And it’s his ‘Stepping Westward’ that’s rattling round my head while we plan this move.

Yet who would stop, or fear to advance,
Though home or shelter he had none,
With such a sky to lead him on?

Swimming with dolphins in Akaroa

Nothing prepares us for our first sight of Akaroa’s tiffany blue harbour. We’ve been driving across Canterbury Plain, sparsely populated, each creek that we cross named on a yellow sign. Our spirits lift as we begin to climb into the volcanic round of mountains. Suddenly the vista opens out: green brown hills dipping their limbs into a long lagoon, its many bays like petals of a rare blue flower.

Akaroa harbour

We stop the car. Photograph. Drive round the corner and stop again. Photograph. Eventually we realise that the view is not going to go away. The harbour is gorgeous at every turn. It is deep, with a mouth gulping at the Pacific. The French originally used it as whale nursery.

We hadn’t expected the water in New Zealand to be so bright. It’s like the Indian Ocean filling Norwegian fjords. The boys lob stones into the shallows while we sit spellbound by the bay. Later, we paddle off the grey volcanic beaches.

Duvauchelle Bay at the end of Akaroa harbour

We’re here to swim with Hector’s dolphins. It’s hard to know what to expect. This is no Sea World. We’ll be out on the edge of the open sea, waiting for the wild creatures, the smallest and rarest of their family, to come by. The voyage out is just gorgeous. The mountains peel back on either side as our boat ploughs a wake through the cerulean depths. The simple joy of piloting these waters under a warm sun in a flawless sky is worth the trip alone.

Suited and booted

Nevertheless, all eyes are peeled for a glimpse of distinctly semi-circular dorsal fin. After a couple of false alarms, a pair is seen at a distance. The captain nears the dolphins and cuts the engines, but they swim off. The animals are wild and there is no guarantee that they will be interested in socialising. Another group seems friendlier, but by the time we lower into the water, they too disappear. We’ve been told the water is nippy, and New Zealanders and Americans in the party complain about the cold. They’ve obviously never swum in the North Sea. In fact it’s relatively mild. The cool water creeps inside our wetsuits in sweet contrast to the beating sun.

Hector’s dolphins

We return to the boat and move further towards the open ocean. Turn right, and it’s non-stop to Antarctica; left, and you’ll be on course for Chile. A more engaging pod is found, and we drop off the back of the vessel again. Floating is easy in the extra thick suits, and we make noises to get the dolphins curious. Three of four times they swim through our midst, ghostly white and only an arm’s span away. Then they’re done. So is Theo: despite his double layers, he is shivering. Back on board we drink hot chocolate and make our way towards Akaroa.

On the jetty, we hear that the other group had half a dozen dolphins round them at all times. One man calls it ‘life-changing’. Our encounter was more fleeting, and we get given a partial refund. But we would have paid in full to see the creatures even at a distance, and to ride in the breeze and warm sun through that sumptuous, sparkling lagoon.

Beautiful day

The power of the physical book

Books have power.

Not as much as stories. Stories predate books, and will outlive them too. The most important thing about the inevitable decline of books is that stories continue to be told, in whatever form keeps them alive, in the greatest number of minds. I don’t have a book fetish.

But there is no doubt that the physical book – the bound paper artefact – has power.

Today my photo book arrived. It tells the story of an adventure that my wife, four kids and I had in New Zealand. It tells it in photographs that I already posted on Flickr, and in words that I have already published on my blog. It goes into only a tiny amount of the detail we have related to our friends over dinner.

And yet.

And yet, it is a beautiful thing to behold. It is a beautiful thing to hold. It has weight, and sheen, and smell. I can flick through it, jump backwards and forwards among the pages, pass it to another person and watch her smile. I can crease it at my favourite pages, display it proudly on my bookshelf, write ‘Happy Birthday’ to my wife in the front. I can glimpse it in the corner and think, ‘there’s a thing that I made.’

I can’t imagine my children throwing this one away, as they clear out the attic when my wife and I are dead. They’ll flick through the pages too, and wonder at their young selves, and show their own offspring the time that Grandad marched them in the rain to see their first glacier.

Beyond that, who knows? But books have power, far more than the sum of the words within.

Film diary 2012

Remember all that sport last year? All that winning? I blame it for the lower tally of films watched, especially as we kept the TV licence after the Olympics. Oh look, Scream I/II/III is on again!

Anyway, I still saw a few. 2012 was the year that Almodovar had a dip in form (The Skin I Live In) whereas Woody Allen finally got one right (Midnight in Paris). Wes Anderson wonderfully became more of what he already was (Moonrise Kingdom), but so did Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams). I think I’ve finally fallen out of love with Herzog altogether.

Classic films are of course classic (Sunset Boulevard, On the Waterfront, Notorious, Psycho) and Tokyo Story is not the best film ever made. It’s up there though. For something entirely different, try My Summer of Love, Bombay Beach, Arrietty or Morvern Callar.

Twitter film reviews 2012

*****Outstanding
****Excellent
***Good
**Okay
*Poor
0–Atrocious

My Summer of Love (Pawlikowski 2004)**** Pitch perfect teen angst & eroticism in a bored Yorkshire village, tongues-speaking nutters & all.

Sunset Boulevard (Wilder 1950)***** Engaging story, glorious lead, cheesy noirish script & sharp shooting justify Hollywood parody classic.

On The Waterfront (Kazan 1954)***** So that’s what all the Marlon Brando fuss is about. Plus: Best. Priest. Ever.

Harry Potter 7/1 (Yates 2010)*** Series gets grown up acting, cinematography and CGI. Also gets moping and ennui: biding time before pt 2.

Harry Potter 7/2 (Yates 2011)**** Sweeping, dramatic, with outstanding effects intrepid story. Everything matures into a satisfying end.

Hannah Her Sisters (Allen 1986)**** Devastatingly acute relationship drama mixed with vintage comedy script. Moving, funny, thoughtful.

Intolerable Cruelty (Coen, 2003)*** Repeated views unlock the quirky genius hidden in mainstream romcom. Or maybe I just heart the Coens too much.

The Cat in the Hat (Welch 2003)*** 1-yr-old’s fave film. On constantly. Want to hate but Mike Myers carries it and we’re all quoting it.

Flags of Our Fathers (Eastwood 06)**** A little obvious, but true WW2 story w/ strong aesthetic, grown-up structure & visceral authenticity.

Midnight in Paris (Allen 2011)**** That’s more like it, Woody. Perky Paris stages whimsical tale about nostalgia living in the present.

Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood 2006)**** Same battle, different war. Moving stories of childlike Japanese soldier and his General in WWII.

Also rewatched A Serious Man at the weekend. I love the Coen tropes, the sheer craftsmanship, and the repeated ‘it’s just a story’.

Oranges and Sunshine (Loach, 2010)*** Emily Watson is intense in open ended, natural story about forcible migration of kids to Australia.

With all the great films available on the long haul flight, I ended up watching The Hangover, I and II.

Tokyo Story (Ozu 1953)***** Best film ever made? Not for me; but a gentle, understated masterpiece about parents and their adult children.

Also, The Royal Tenenbaums. Reader, I watched it again.

Bombay Beach (Har’el 2011)**** Surreal, choreographed documentary about 3 poor American lives. Beautiful, clipped, hope & despair together.

@geoffstevenson They loved [Lord of the Rings I]. Bit plot heavy, but plenty of cool monsters. Had to keep hiding Atty behind the fridge though.

The Skin I Live In (Almodovar 11)** The usual craft and a twisted sexual plot, but pushed too far. Anti-erotic, disconcerting, unrewarding.

Notorious (Hitchcock 1946)***** A perfect film.

Shadowlands (Attenborough 1993)**** Stuffy academia & pop theology of CS Lewis stripped away to leave a simple, devastating love story.

The Inbetweeners (Palmer 2011)** Embarrasing teen boy jokes, hilarious on TV, feel thin in feature length. Series has run its course?

3:10 to Yuma (Mangold 2007)**** Post-Unforgiven yet still a true Western. Magnificent leads from Crowe & Bale, do justice to superb writing.

Psycho (Hitchcock 1960)***** Deserves its reputation as a defining moment in cinema. One of Hitch’s best. And terrifying.

District 9 (Blomkamp 2009)**** Gory apartheid with aliens. Extraordinarily literal and uncomfortable. Overwritten but superbly acted.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Almodovar 1988)***** Hilarious Spanish farce involving a drug laced gazpacho.

Arrietty (Yonebayashi 2010)**** Straight telling of The Borrowers, with such tranquil mise en scene and music it’s an indulgence.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)***** Pure essence of Wes Anderson. Emotionally troubled kids, depressed adults, lots of cub scouts. Very very funny.

The Illusionist (Chomet 2010)*** 50s Edinburgh, beautifully drawn. Gentle story belies source (unproduced Tati script) & sensitive subject.

Morvern Callar (Ramsay 2002)**** Poignant study of childlikeness, of life lived in the moment. Tactile like Ratcatcher, but more mesmeric.

La Vie En Rose (Dahan 2007)*** Engrossing Edith Piaf bio. Cotillard deserved best actress. Overdoes timeline jumps though.

Shallow Grave (Boyle 1994)*** Bold debut with brash performances from young stars. Influential – but why didn’t they just split the money?

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog 2010)** The cave paintings are bewitching. The documentary is short, basic, laced with director’s nonsense.

The Social Network (Fincher 2010)**** If only real software was as sexy as a Sorkin screenplay.

Hugo (Scorcese 2011)*** Magic for the cineaste, but slow, sentimental and over CGI-ed. Perhaps the key is to see it in 3D in the cinema.

Mr Poppers Penguins (Waters 2011)** Jim Carrey with penguins. Bit hard to care about this one. Alludes to much better films than itself.

The Nutcracker in 3D (Konchalovskiy 2009)** Magical Viennese start dissolves surreally into Turturro’s rat king & Tim Rice’s lyrics. Panned.

Valiant (Disney 2005)* Pre-Toy Story animation despite coming a decade later. Gervais is offputting, even/especially as a dirty pigeon.

Whale Rider (Caro 2002)**** Idiomatic and understated Maori tale, simmering with universal emotion.

Taking of Pelham 123 (Scott 2009)** Yawn. A good idea dropped from the hands of Travolta’s terrible generic mad villain.

Previous years:
2011 film reviews
2010 film reviews
2009 film diary
2008 film diary
2007 film diary

Annus (partim) horribilis

I’ve had better years than 2012. Apart from an amazing adventure in New Zealand back in April, which was unforgettably exciting, it has rained more often than not, I’ve made little headway on the second draft of the novel, and I’ve seen the inside of hospitals and clinics more these three months than the preceding three decades combined.

In October I started struggling to cycle and to concentrate, and my heart was beating fast. The GP thought it must be asthma. My being out of breath got so bad that Mary insisted I phone the emergency doctor straight away. The nurse who called back said, “I can hear you’re out of breath – what have you just done?” When I told her I had only stood up to answer the phone, she arranged my first ever trip in an ambulance.

I had pulmonary emboli – multiple blood clots in both lungs. Often clots are only found postmortem, having caused fatal heart attacks or strokes. I was lucky not to have died. Apparently I have a strong heart. It’s rare for a 35-year old to suffer clots, and my age is probably one of the reasons I’m still alive.

Me, with pulmonary emboli, earlier

The strangest part of the condition is that we couldn’t identify a cause. No major injury or (recent) long haul flying, no history of embolism in the family. In May, when I’m off the anticoagulants, I’ll be tested for hereditary factors that may have allowed the clotting, perhaps needing the medicine for life. If it isn’t genetic, then the worry is that the same situation could arise again.

The hardest part has been the recovery – the grey area between serious illness and fitness. In hospital you know where you stand, or lie, with oxygen tubes and heart monitors and 17 syringes of your blood taken at once. And at some point in the future, I’ll be back on my bike, racing up Histon Road to the office, and throwing the children in the air when I get home.

But in between? In between is tricky.

You can’t magic blood clots away. Anticoagulants prevent any new clots forming and allow existing clots to naturally dissolve. But that takes time. Months, in fact. Plus my heart and lungs have taken one hell of a beating, and need time to repair. After a few fatigued weeks I pitched up to the office, only to end up back at the doctor with wildly irregular heartbeats. They were benign – but a wake up call that my major organs were trying to get better and I wasn’t giving them a decent break.

It’s frustrating. Especially when, having rested, I feel bright, only to get exhausted a day after doing normal things again. I find it hard to do nothing when I’m feeling okay in the moment. I’ve tidied every cupboard in the house. Some pulmonary embolism survivors take 18 months to recover. I’m not up for that.

It might be denial but I’ve never felt ill in myself, that is, my body has been struggling but I’ve felt perfectly well inside. Only on the first night in hospital did I consider that I might be dying – I thought how much better it would be to die now and have people say, “he could have been such an amazing novelist!” than to reach old age and prove without doubt that I’m not – although I did think how awful it would be for Mary. But since that night, and the disgusting hospital breakfast that followed, I have considered myself to be basically okay and waiting for normal life to resume.

I wish it would come quicker. I don’t feel like a lucky survivor. I feel on hold, annoyed at all this unexpected inconvenience. I can’t drink over Christmas or even next Easter, on holiday with friends. I haven’t worked a full week yet. I’ve had to cancel things I really wanted to do – from applying to a Creative Writing course and attending a writers’ workshop to running some fun new training for Fluent. I’ve had plenty of time off but been unable to write. We’re in Snowdonia at Christmas but I won’t be climbing any hills. And my wife is still having to do most of the work at home.

Mary has been incredible; quite apart from saving my life in the first place by making me phone the doctor (I’m not even the first person in the family for whom she has done that). Colleagues, friends and family have been tremendously supportive. I’m grateful for all of them, and for the myriad blessings of which my life is made – energetic children, living in Cambridge, Artificial Eye DVDs, friends releasing poetry collections and albums, cooking and eating fresh mushroom soup.

But I’m ready to feel completely better. So I’m writing off the second half of 2012, doing very little over Christmas, and hoping to hit January with more gusto. Here’s to more energy, more writing, more fun. I’m wishing you all what I want for myself – a happy new year.

Clotted history

The man with the thick Indian accent returns to my bedside.

‘There is no chickin alfurno,’ he says. ‘You want vegetarian sausage?’

‘What else is there?’

He checks his sheet and says something. I feel terrible asking him to repeat it but I really can’t unpick what he said.

‘Collillower pasda,’ he says.

‘No meat on the menu?’

‘No meat.’

We smile at each other. My smile has an edge that says ‘I need meat’. He says something about the other menu, something inscrutable that ends roastchickinstuffing.

‘Yes, that,’ I say, as firmly as I can.

Since coming onto the ward no one has told me anything apart from what is on the menu. The porter dropped me off by the bed and since then I have sat on it. I don’t know where the toilets are, if I’m allowed to unplug the oxygen should I want to visit them, where the water is if I’m thirsty, what is going to happen next. There is a thermometer cap in one of my shoes.

Eventually a nurse, also with an Indian accent, sits by the bed.

‘Do you live in house, flat?’

This question has been posed all around the ward. Every other patient has been asked it; some several times.

‘A house,’ I say.

This proves to be the easiest answer to an otherwise bizarre questionnaire. How much do I drink? My standard answer is in average units a week. But that confuses the nurse. I look at the questionnaire. She has misunderstood it. ‘The question is “how often does the patient drink more than eight drinks in one session?”’ I say. ‘And the answer is: not very often.’

My wife points out, ‘It says half a pint is one drink.’

Not where I come from.

‘Are other people worried about you?’ asks the nurse.

‘They would be if I drank half pints.’

In the neighbouring bed an old man with horribly bruised shins is being shouted at in an Indian accent by a doctor.

‘How do you like to call you?’

‘Well, my name is Joseph’, he says.

Around the corner, out of sight, another old man called Wallis Williams is also being shouted at. I have been asked twice if I am Wallis Williams. If anyone asks me a third time I will say that I am just to see what happens.

Jacob, Wallis and I are the only inhabitants of the ward. There is one empty bed and a toilet with a large female sign. After a while a young gangly nurse sits in a chair in the middle of the ward, angled away from Williams, but sneakily watching him.

‘I didn’t think you looked like a Wallis,’ she whispers to me.


I have told my story eight times. First to the GP, who thought it was probably asthma, despite my peak flow monitor performance. ‘You’ve got to kill the tiger,’ he says, pointing at the wall. ‘Imagine this tube fires poisonous darts and you’re about to be attacked. Now kill the tiger!’

I kill the tiger. The arrow shoots to the very end of the tube. I feel like I have won at the fairground, even without the ding of a bell.

‘Oh,’ says the GP, blowing down the tube himself to see if it is broken.

The next time I tell the story it is on the phone to the emergency doctor’s receptionist, then to the emergency doctor’s nurse and then to the ambulance crew that she sends around.

‘We might have to shave off your chest hair,’ says Greg the paramedic. ‘In squares.’

In the ambulance Greg’s female colleague tells me that she hates doing maternity calls because it’s not really an illness. And she hates traffic accidents because they are usually chaotic and if you don’t get there first you have no chance of imposing any order. Most of their calls come from the blind drunk.

‘Who calls it in?’ I ask.

‘Their blind drunk friends.’

Greg, while we wait in the unloading bay at the hospital, says that sometimes patients have to wait for three hours in the back of a cold ambulance before going in. As soon as they set foot through the hospital doors, the clock starts ticking, and the hospital trust gets fined if they are not seen within fifteen minutes. So during busy times, they are simply left outside. That ties up the local ambulances, meaning that emergencies have to be dealt with by vehicles coming in from other areas.

‘When I finally get free,’ he says, ‘I’ll have to go to Bedford ‘cause all their units are over here.’

My wait is thankfully short, and I tell my story for the fifth time on a bed in the corridor. The nurse says that I am ischaemic. I ask her how you spell ischaemic. I like to know what words are, especially when they refer to my heart. She does not know, and apologises. ‘It’s easier when you write it down,’ she says.

I tell my story for the sixth time to an assessing consultant. He says the blood from my veins is acidotic.

‘How do you spell that?’

He takes a second sample from an artery, digging round for twenty minutes in my wrist before tapping the spring.

‘Is the book good?’ he asks, glancing at The Blue Flower on my lap while he digs.

‘A bit flitty. I can’t get into it.’

‘I’m more of a movie man myself,’ he says. The consultant likes action and comedy. Taken was good, but Taken II was rubbish. I ask him to spell it. I cannot understand his accent. My blood is not acidotic after all.

I have not eaten or drunk anything since breakfast and it is two o’clock in the afternoon. I ask the movie doctor for a drink; he goes away and does not come back. I ask a Filipino nurse for a drink and he comes back, not with a drink but a form to sign. I ask what it is and he mutters something indistinct. I sign it. As it disappears from view, my wife arrives.

‘I think I just said the hospital can steal my stuff,’ I say. She gets me a four cups of water. ‘And where’s my laptop?’

The seventh retelling is to the senior consultant who thinks that it is probably a blood clot in the lungs. He sends me up for a CT scan. The radiologist looks like Liam Neeson in Taken.

‘Any problems with allergies?’ he says.

‘Not unless you’ve got any rabbits in here.’ He looks sinister. Don’t shoot me, I think, as I glide backwards, arms in hallelujah pose over my head.

The machine comes to life, hurling its band around my chest. I hold my breath when they tell me to, and could have held longer. I killed the tiger. I won at the fair. Dye shoots through a cannula into my blood stream. It feels like a warm hug on the inside, a hug that licks my balls. I can taste metal in the back of my mouth. It’s the closest I have come to sex for three weeks. Liam Neeson helps me up, still glaring. I haven’t got your daughter.

Finally, I speak to a chest specialist.

‘Tell me everything,’ she says.


My corner of the ward makes Harry Potter’s cupboard look inviting. A bed-sized alcove, yellow paint and a window looking out to a brick wall four feet away. The young nurse is still monitoring Wallis Williams out of the corner of her eye. Roastchickinstuffing arrives, seasoned by appetite. It is better than airline food, better than collillower pasda would have been. I imagine Gordon Ramsey, in the bowels of the hospital kitchens, yelling at the staff. ‘Don’t make dishes the porters can’t pronounce! You fricking wazzocks.’

The chest specialist speaks unambiguously. ‘You have multiple blood clots in both lungs. Now we just need to find out why.’

I am wheeled feet first to another ward, rushed up bright corridors from The Shining. The porter behind drives into the porter in front, as well as scraping the walls and crashing into doors. My feet get in the way. The Coronary Care Unit is lighter and more spacious. Wallis Williams would like it up here. How do you spell that? I ask the nurse, whose name is Ambuja. I am hooked up to thirteen wires and an oxygen tube and have seventeen syringes of my blood taken away. When I move, the monitor above my head alarms. The television cranes down to advertise at the side of my face. A few loose burps fly around the ward from behind the blue curtains. What do I do now?

At least no one has stolen my laptop.

I open it, and start to write.

Whangapoua

It’s an inch on the map but it takes us four hours. The road traces the Coromandel peninsula loyally around every headland and pretty bay. Out in the firth of Thames black boats and rigs harvest seafood; the signs for fresh oysters get our mouths watering. Eventually we cross the hills on an even windier road. From the top we look back to the islands off Coromandel town, and forward to sweeping yellow beaches. Logging trucks squeeze past, tyres red with mud, carrying timber freshly felled from the forest.

Coromandel and the Firth of Thames

This is where we imagine the kiwis to live, their eggs on the floor among impenetrable pines, vulnerable only to the invading stoats. Finally we hit the bottom and turn off towards our dead end. On the map the low road appears to go right through the sea. In fact it is flanked by swamp land; scruffy bushes standing in clear water. We reach the one store town, sporting a single petrol pump to prevent visitors from getting stranded. Every New Zealander to whom we mentioned Whangapoua assumed we meant somewhere else. Although we probably don’t pronounce it right (something like ‘fonga-po-a’ with a very light ‘g’).

Whangapoua exists because of the beach, where three generations of baches (beach cabins) have been lined up against the shore. We’re at the back of the village by the fields, but it only takes five minutes to walk to the water’s edge. The off-white sand arcs gently for a mile, pitched up against small dunes by the strong, metre-high waves. Sometimes there are a handful of other people further down the bay, at other times we are alone. At night the sun kicks back into the hills behind the headland, and the last light on the beach is orange and cool.

Whangapoua beach

In fact the town exists because of two beaches. The second is not accessible by road. New Chums beach, or starfish beach to the natives, was a local secret until a travel website listed it as one of the best hidden beaches in the world. It is hard to reach, but having seen the pictures of white dry sand and golden flats against tall, dark trees, nothing will stop us from trying.

Every step of the trek builds our romantic expectations. The sun is shining as we cross the river at the northern end of Whangapoua beach, following the shore of the headland as it fills up with rocks. At first we can walk between them, but then they pile up: large and irregular, hard to walk on. The older children clamber ahead, but Jude finds it difficult and the baby must be carried. A track emerges by the undergrowth that at first makes walking easier. But it has been wet, and deep brown mud and puddles appear in the path, crisscrossed by devilishly slippery tree roots. We debate returning to the slow rocks, but the path is beginning to rise slightly. At last, after some tears and a lost flip flop, it turns and crosses the headland saddle.

An impossibly blue flash comes through the trees, and as we descend we see more of the gorgeous bay. Theo and Huxley have already negotiated the meagre rocks on the other side and are running in the water as though they were born to do so. The sandy crescent is so lovely, backed by dark and steep vegetation, that our hearts soar and we are desperate to dive into the inviting waters.

New Chums beach

Small snappers jump out of the shallows as we plunge in and each wave leaves sunlit effervescence on the surface. It is like swimming in champagne. And the water is mild. After the first nip it becomes warm enough to forget about the temperature completely. The struggle to get here is forgotten. It is simply the nicest beach we have ever been to.

Wave breaking on New Chums beach

Back in Whangapoua, we eat fresh fish that our neighbour caught in the bay. At night, the air cools fast and ankles are assaulted by sand flies, while the strumming of a thousand cicadas is as loud as the stars overhead are numerous. A mantis climbs up the window. In the morning the boys catch him. They call him Moron for being so easily captured: they put a bucket down and he crawled right in.

The village is still a wild place, belonging to the creatures. A fat kingfisher sits on the power line, less colourful but bigger than its British cousin. California quail busy themselves around the fences and shrubbery while welcome swallows swoop red-head first above them. In the weeds by the dusty road spiders build web balls like candy floss, and we startle a tatty peacock and his white hen who make off up the hill. We could stay here forever, defending sandcastles from the sea, bathing in it and devouring its fruit.

Whangapoua beach in the evening

The Rob Roy Glacier

On a gravel road in New Zealand’s Southern Alps

The walking trail up to the Rob Roy glacier starts an hour from Wanaka, an hour up the Matukituki valley with tyres droning fiercely on the rough track and small stones peppering the underside of the car. Fields of winter feed for the sheep lie along the valley floor, small clouds of greenfinch swirl up from the dusty road in front of us and Australian magpies play in the fields. We glimpse large deer among the pine trees, fenced in. The dry fords we cross are full of pale dust and bright grey volcanic stones, cutting down to the low Matukituki River, which glows pale blue. It is lined in places with bright red autumn leaves caught on the banks of shingle, and dotted with pied stilts for relief. The droning stops, in a car park with a green toilet shed, a path beside the river the only way to go on.

Crossing the rope bridge over the Matukituki River.

We start along the gentler side of the Matukituki, and spots of rain cause consternation. Drizzle down here means it will be much wetter on the mountain, up the icy stream that flows from the glacier. But we cross the rope bridge anyway, and begin our ascent through the forest. When the path breaks into a clearing before angling up the ravine, we stop for refreshment by a sign that says, “Please do NOT feed the kea”. But there are no Alpine parrots today, perhaps because it is too wet, although we hear plaintive birdcalls among the trees.

What kea?

We have another hour and a half to climb, on a good path that is occasionally quite steep, or rocky, or half-slidden down the bank. Mainly we can see only the route and the trees around us, but occasionally a view opens out on the left, of the steely blue Rob Roy stream crashing down to where we came from, of bright lichen-coated trees smothering the opposite bank, and just once or twice, of the crown of the glacier itself on the mountain above, towering impossibly high over our heads.

The icy Rob Roy stream.

This wonder keeps us going. Theo is eight, and although he looks bedraggled in the wet, he makes his own way, clearly relieved when we stop briefly for each rest. Huxley is younger and only a few minutes into the trek begins to complain. But he has no option: I cannot carry him because it is too steep and we cannot turn back from our first glacier. I chivvy and praise, push and drag, and we make good progress through the forest. At first it seems as though we are alone on the mountainside, but occasionally a group of teenagers strides past. Towards the top, we meet more and more walkers coming the other way, all with smiles, from the spectacle no doubt, but also perhaps from the relief at not having to climb any more.

The biggest boost comes when thin but monstrously high waterfalls appear in the rock face on the left: icy melt water that is falling from the glacier, out of sight behind the mountain. These pencil lines would be hardly noticeable in a photograph, so thin at distance, but up close they must be voluminous. The water takes a long time to hit the ravine floor. Most of all they mean that we are getting close.

When we reach the rough clearing we are still a long way from the glacier but this is where the footpath ends. It is the viewpoint. There is no shelter, and my friend is right about the rain being heavier at this height. For that reason we do not stay long, but these few minutes are unforgettable. The parts of Rob Roy that we can see crest on top of the mountains like the tops of breaking waves. They are high above our heads, and myriad waterfalls run down from the peaks as gifts to the stream below. The colour of the ice is unique: white, but somehow blue in its whitest parts. It is power and it is beauty. We have come so far and yet we are humbled far beneath the glacier’s mount. It is unapproachable, but we have at least witnessed its splendour.

View of the Rob Roy glacier.

And that is enough. My Kiwi friends have a low tolerance for rain and cold, and for standing around. Only minutes after arriving they are back off down the slope, as though getting back to the car was always the point of the trip. I carry Huxley on my shoulders some of the way, where it is safe to do so, and for as long as I can. The rain lightens up, and the half hour between the bridge and the car park seems the longest stretch of all. But what a view, with blocks of sun roaming the open valley sides, the whole scene somehow transfigured by our meeting with the glacial king enthroned on its summit. I know now why those walkers were smiling.

The last leg feels the longest.

The drive back down the valley yields even more stunning vistas, and as we near Wanaka deep blue lakes with meticulous vineyards on their shores replace the colourful mountains of Aspiring national park. Old warplanes from the weekend air show curve overhead. It is hard to take a bad photograph in a place like this. Even in the rain.

Franzen vs Coelho on digital books


Two authors with very different attitudes to literature online spoke up recently. Jonathan Franzen defended the physical object of the book at a festival in Colombia:

When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring. Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

He seems to be conflating form with content. Books are lovely. Almost sacred. I still mostly read physical books. Ebooks will never compete with the sensual, material experience of a book, nor the ability to get a sense of the whole book by flicking through its pages and scanning endings and beginnings. That’s why I think the idea of free electronic version for everyone, alongside a premium special edition paper version for fans, might be a sustainable future route for fiction.

But it’s hard to see Franzen’s comments as much more than pure conservatism. So he doesn’t like screens. He should see how my one-year-old moves physical books around. That would make him weep. Pages of T.S. Eliot studded with raisins and stuffed under the sofa.

Ebooks, and the devices through which we access them, are going to continue to develop, absorbing all the advice and habits of people who love reading, who love books; they are going to become even more brilliant for reading and browsing, for sharing and annotating, for adapting to our quirks and preferences. That’s the beauty of the digital arena: openness, connection, and rapid evolution.

Franzen is wrong. There might be “a trillion bits of distracting noise” on the Internet, but that does not mean, “all the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.” (These are lines he gives to Walter Berglund in Freedom). There might be a terribly low signal to noise ratio on the Internet but there is reality and authenticity if you know where to look.

Take Paulo Coelho for example. The Brazilian author recently made headlines by advocating online piracy. It’s hardly surprising – when a pirated Russian edition of The Alchemist was posted online, it opened up the market and contributed to the sale of more than 12 million copies. That’s because:

When you’ve eaten an orange, you have to go back to the shop to buy another.

It’s not just his attitude towards sharing his writing freely that is polar opposite to writers like Franzen. He also blogs several times a week, posting videos and links and smart competitions that connect him to his fans and have contributed to him having more than 3 million followers on Twitter.

He uses the opportunities that the Internet age has thrown up to connect generously with people and spread his work. Readers are lapping it up.

I have a tiny bit of sympathy for Franzen. I wonder sometimes how the good stuff is ever going to rise to the surface in the rubbish-infested oceans of the Internet. It was much simpler taking a book off the library shelf. But unless the best writers embrace ways to publish and share their work online, they are part of the problem. Coelho is doing it better than most. I’m with Paulo.

Film diary 2011

The best films I saw last year were the unscrupulous Alec Guinness-soaked Kind Hearts and Coronets, the irresistible Bringing Up Baby and Duck Soup. Alongside these vintage comedies, Senna bewitched, The White Ribbon unnerved in black and white, and, having finally got round to watching it, The Shining proved to be truly original. And you don’t need me to tell you that SevenMemento and L’Avventura are all must-sees.

I enjoyed watching where Kubrick came from through his early films, while another favourite director, Malick, beguiled with Days of Heaven and the Palme D’Or winning Tree of Life. In contrast, Herzog began to seem small minded and unhinged, and Allen’s Vicky Cristina was an ugly cliché, a crude rip off of Almodovar.

Inevitably, as a dad, I witnessed countless children’s movies, half of them rubbish; it’s a shame that the Narnia and Harry Potter series don’t seem to fly. Coraline, on the other hand, is a sinister delight. The biggest surprise was Mr Bean’s Holiday and it’s good to know that Bugsy Malone has still got it.

So that’s another year gone. My Twitter reviews are below. Follow @gabrielsmy for more of the same in 2012, and let me know what films I shouldn’t miss.

Twitter film reviews 2011

*****Outstanding
****Excellent
***Good
**Okay
*Poor
0–Atrocious

First film of 2011 the delectable Royal Tenenbaums. Fast becoming a most-watched. New things each time, glorious pathos.

Despicable Me (Illumination 2010)**** Carell-voiced animation full of giggles. More for kids than adults but effortlessly amusing all round.

Mr Bean’s Holiday (Bendelack 2007)**** Strangely, taking Bean to the big screen produces a gem. Sweetly done and funny.

Broken Embraces (Almodovar 09)**** Relationships bolero around magnetic central tryst, as a friendship quietly holds it all together.

Stroszek (Herzog 77)**** Humble tragedy, as downtrodden Berliners go to Wisconsin to fade. Eccentric, downbeat; unforgettable final scene.

Duck Soup (Marx bros 1933)***** ‘Where is your husband?’ ‘Why he’s dead.’ ‘I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.’

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy 10)*** Quirky, palatable graffiti art documentary that sadly doesn’t reflect well on anybody in the end.

True Grit (Coens 2010)**** Straight-told Western, keen & out-loud funny from characters’ wooden delivery. Lead trio and scenery magnificent.

Rewatching ’Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ draws out the gritty performances and astonishing script. Genius. Choose love.

Encounters at the End of the World (Herzog 2007)** A documentary that stays in the literal shallows, and the human ones too. Disappointing.

The Order of the Phoenix (Yates 2007)*** A break in the darkening flow of Harry Potter films. Straightforward, satisfying; rewarding CGI.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Yates 2009)** The one with all the snogging.

Just watched Back to the Future with Mary and 3 engrossed little boys. The tension was remarkable. What a brilliant film.

Infidel (Appignanesi 2010)**** Brit comedy that mocks Muslim and Jewish religion from the inside, brilliantly carried by main actor.

Hellboy (del Toro 2004)** One for the fantasy horror fans. I liked the Indiana-Jonesy bits, less so the X-Men allusions. All a bit daft.

Also, boys have been watching Tales From Earthsea by Miyazaki’s son. Reviews were tepid, but looks good from the snippets I’ve seen.

Black Sheep (King 2006)*** Killer sheep on the rampage in this Kiwi horror mickey-take. Fond genre allusions and funny script. Good laugh.

Voyage of the Dawntreader (Apted 2010)** A better tale than Caspian but suffers from same identity crisis. Adventures but little soul.

Rewatched Barton Fink. Said to Mary: ‘as a writer this is so painful to watch.’ She said: ‘it’s painful to watch anyway.’

Rewatched Charlie’s Angels. Beginning to see the seams. Actually, it was mostly seam.

Senna (Kapadia, 2010)***** Emotional documentary, falling in love with Ayrton knowing that he’s going to die. Fast, triumphant, beautiful.

Brazil (Gilliam 1985)*** Excitable dystopian scifi satire w/ British comic cameos (& De Niro!) slams bureaucracy. Flash Gordon meets 1984.

Coffee & Cigarettes (Jarmusch 2003)**** Visually plush shorts of celeb self-parody. Waits, Coogan, Molina, Blanchett, Wutans & Murray best.

When Harry Met Sally (Reiner 1989)**** Sharp & witty comedy. That’s where Billy Crystal got his reputation! (Unlike Carrie Fisher).

Kind Hearts & Coronets (Hamer 1949)***** Pacy, wry, superbly delivered. Best Ealing comedy. Remarkable performance(s) from Alec Guinness.

Days of Heaven (Malick 1978)**** Uses acting instead of words – and place instead of scenes – to depict moving story about love & isolation.

Bringing Up Baby (Hawks 1938)***** Riotous romcom, pelts through the verbal & visual gags with charming characters & lots of shrieking.

Seven (Fincher 1995)**** Visceral thriller that deserves ‘modern classic’ for uniquely drawn characters, 90s styling and elaborate conceit.

L’Avventura (Antonioni 1960)**** Slow masterpiece about disaffected socialites who cannot love. While ingenious, hard to love itself.

Tree of Life (Malick 11)**** Theological narrative: creation to reconciliation (minus Christ) with 1 family’s grief as e.g. Yes, like Job.

Titus (Taymor 99)*** Bard’s most violent play suits the big screen. Cast is superb in anachronistic, freakshow style that emphasise REVENGE.

Coraline (Selick 09)**** Gothic kids animation. Visual treats, charming characters, buttons for eyes. With live actors it wd be terrifying.

Solaris (Soderbergh 2002)*** No doubt incomparable to original, yet this sci-fi is moody, stylish & disconcerting in good measure.

Meanwhile, Ace Ventura II prompts many questions among the kids, such as ‘what’s a virgin?’ and ‘what’s he doing under those covers?’

Curious Case Benjamin Button (Fincher 2008)**** Despite Gump-ish sentimentality, an affecting meditation on death, aging, love and dignity.

The Assassination of Jesse James (Dominik 2007)*** Cinematography and acting are stunning but long story loses its grip frequently.

The Shining (Kubrick 1980)***** Much emulated and hyperreal horror story still terrifying to watch. A masterpiece of film technique & drama.

The Killing (Kubrick 1956)*** Heist movie with Hitchcockian moments. A dated but satisfying romp.

Killer’s Kiss (Kubrick 1955)** A handful of remarkable scenes and moody shots in a noir that doesn’t quite hang together.

Watched The Darjeeling Limited again and loved it. Why did I not care the first time? Because I wasn’t a Wes Anderson fanboi back then.

I HATE to admit this, but the first Alvin and the Chipmunks was okay. Jason Lee carried it.

Black Swan (Aronofsky 2011)**** Intense, classical tragedy about drivenness & perfection with astonishing performances by Portman & cameras.

Harry Potter 1 (Columbus 2001)*** In light of later films, 1st is innocent, steady & charming. Still too scary in places for 8-y-old though.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Allen 09)** Ludicrous voiceover & characters’ Allen impressions kill any eroticism. A sketch for a better film.

The White Ribbon (Haneke 2009)***** Masterfully tense and exquisitely composed black & white period film teetering on horror’s edge.

Memento (Nolan 2000)**** Far easier to understand 2nd time. Still a gripping conceit & style, fulfilled by Pearce’s brilliant performance.

Mad Max (Miller 1979)**** Cartoonish, noisy, visceral, dystopian Aussie action. “Cult” – it appeals more out of its time. Hello Mel Gibson.

Once Upon a Time in America (Leone 1984)**** Leone’s swansong is NY gangster Ring-cycle. Masterfully, consummately, marvellously too long.

Rewatched Peter’s Friends. Overscripted and overacted but still enthusiastically delivered and moving. Made me cry, anyway.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Altman 1971)**** A frontier film all about atmosphere. Beautifully underwritten. Shame about rough production.

Tamara Drewe (Frears 2010)**** Sweet, funny, English. Possibly overrating this because I want a writers’ retreat in the country.

Bolt (Howard/Williams 2008)** Generic kids’ animation. We were all disappointed it wasn’t about a real superhero dog.

Rango (Verbinski 2011)*** Exquisite animation style and sound. Funny characters. But plot is basic

Bugsy Malone (Parker 1976)***** How to make magic: make a musical of kids as prohibition gangsters with custard guns. Simple.

Envelove

In 1994, as teenagers, my now wife and I started going out. We lived 320 miles apart, and in the first year wrote 110 letters between us. 

For my letters to her, I made my own envelopes. It was a flirting thing, and a creative one. Also, I didn’t have any proper envelopes. So I grabbed whatever was around my desk  – manuscript paper, magazines, plastic folders, and used them instead.

Looking back at them now, they represent a slice of my teenage life. They’ve got my infatuation, my love of adverts, my lack of money and my procrastination from school work written all over them. They also reveal a time when tobacco was widely advertised, when the Post Office promoted post codes and products in their franking, and when diligent postmen would try their hardest to get a letter to the correct address (their pen marks are visible on some of the less legible designs). 

Would I write these letters and make these envelopes as a teenager today, with the Internet and mobile phones at my disposal? Unlikely.

Some of this collection are from the years following, when Mary went to nursing college and I took a gap year before heading to Cambridge. (I’ve redacted house numbers from personal addresses). It still amazes me, given how some of them are addressed, that every single letter got through.

See the whole collection.

I am me, doing this now

I love that. Christopher Eccleston, in the This Much I Know interview in the Observer, says that his earliest memory is:

turning right at the top of our path on my bike and saying to myself: “I am me, doing this now.” I was about four. I turned right, said that to myself and shot off.

His simple, non-specific definitions of identity and activity perfectly convey the sense of being fully in the moment. This is what children do. Usually without the words. Reading this took me instantly to a handful of strong childhood memories, times of a strong sense of me-ness and now-ness: knocking yellow plums from a tree with my school bag on the walk back home; skateboarding down a long, gently sloping lane, sitting between my sisters on the board as we steadily picked up speed; squeezing through the cool gap filled with pencil-thin branches behind the shed in the garden.

I find myself reaching in my writing for moments like this. Not literally, because my childhood is scarcely big enough for a bookful of characters and stories, but in creating episodes that have a similar nature; a quality of immediate, body-stored immanence like those childlike saturated moments.

Moments that stand irrefutably as testaments to life, to reality, to truth. Moments that just are.

Of course, the paradox is that to describe the time in writing is to stand outside of it, to judge it from an older, removed standpoint. To take what was actually in the muscle and the nerves and translate it into words for the mind. To be through time instead of in it.

<As soon as a writer thinks about how she will describe an experience later that she is now, the moment is lost. Incessant notetakers and analysts become the photographer who is always there but never in any of the pictures, and whose subjects always look first and foremost like they are being photographed.

The four-year-old Eccleston had perfect words at the time for his moment, although the power of them is brought through a description that he gives us as an adult. At some point I’d like to write  a book in the first person present tense exactly to capture that immediacy and identity.

But how to convey it now, in the third person, past tense?

Eccleston’s words reminded me of Dave Eggers, in a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, when he somehow makes a moment more vivid by positioning us at some distance from the scene.

Please look. Can you see us? Can you see us, in our little red car? Picture us from above, as if you were flying above us, in, say, a helicopter, or on the back of a bird, as our car hurtles, low to the ground, straining on the slow upward trajectory but still at sixty, sixty-five, around the relentless, sometimes ridiculous bends of Highway 1.

This is ludicrously clever, conveying the sensation of driving by observing from a distance, yet by imagining oneself flying in a helicopter or fantastically on a bird’s back, projecting the experience of motion and giddiness and thrill onto what one sees.

He gives the reader a position from which the moment comes alive.

I’m trying in my own writing to take a position inside the musculature of the characters, to feel the physical sensations of the moment. How successful this is, I don’t know yet. But that’s how I’m trying to do it.

And I am me, writing this now.

Succeed as a writer: stop wanting to be one

Bowling with my son at his friend’s birthday party at the weekend I met a published novelist who also teaches English and creative writing. I won’t name her because I’m not entirely comfortable with reproducing private conversations in public without permission, but I thought that you might find something she said interesting.

She has held positions at both universities in Cambridge and has ambivalent feelings about teaching creative writing (although from her tone and the look on her face on Sunday I would say that the negative feelings are winning out). I asked her if that was because you can’t really teach talent.

‘No’, she said, ‘because you can teach technique. The reason I hate teaching creative writing is the high levels of delusion among the students. They want to be writers.’

They picture satisfied authors whose works of fiction are published and admired, who have made it, to the point of being able to devote themselves to penning whatever they want for the rest of their lives.

And that’s not how it works for most people.

So she tries to instill some realism. About most people who create fiction having to do it in their spare time. About the fill-in jobs and the bits and pieces that you have to do if you do want to make writing pay. About the hard work to produce a book that you are actually proud of, and then the small likelihood that anyone will want to publish it.

None of this will be new to you, if you’re writing yourself, or if you’ve heard me whining on about how hard it can be, but the next thing she said was more surprising:

‘The ones who are just doing the course for fun are the best, or the ones who are using the course to get something finished; because they don’t have unrealistic expectations, and because they actually get on and write.’

If you want to be a writer you’ve got the wrong focus. You’ve got to want to write, and then actually do it. Almost as though there is a paradox that to become a writer you’ve got to stop wanting it, and just start writing instead.

You’ve got to write because you want to, not because of something you want to become.

I talk about both on this blog: writing and being a writer. I do want to be an author but am realistic (I think) about the path I’m on. It takes time. There are no guarantees. My first novel may not get published. Nor my second. I already know how many I’ll produce without publication before giving up on that particular form. Then I’ll try something else.

So a good reminder, as my son came last in the bowling and I encouraged him that I was pretty sure he had scored more than the last time he played. Don’t worry about being a bowler, son, just keep on bowling.

Film diary 2010

In summary, Dekalog is the best thing that has ever been on television, anywhere. Synecdoche and Precious are instant works of art, worthy to be mentioned with proven classics like Regle du Jeu and West Side Story. If the Coen brothers’ films are this good after just a few years, they will be immortal in a few decades. And if you’re in a Hollywood rut then freaky Tideland, sensitive Swedish horror Let the Right One In, original Africa United or anything by Miyazaki should get you out of it.

On the other hand, the sooner someone makes sequel loo roll with NarniaPirates of the CaribbeanNight at the Museum and Scary Movie printed on the sooner I will soil it and flush it down the john with Failure to Launch. Enjoy.

Twitter film reviews 2010

*****Outstanding
****Excellent
***Good
**Okay
*Poor
0–Atrocious

Prince Caspian (Adamson 2008)** Huge budget, 11mins of credits, but fails to bring alive the weakest Narnia story. Doesn’t know what it is.

Naked Gun 2 ½ (Zucker 1991)*** Timing, script and Nielsen’s expressions make this just as funny as the original.

La Regle du Jeu (Renoir 1939)***** Energetic social commentary dancing cleverly between physical/intellectual, tragedy/farce, stage/screen.

Harvey (Koster 1950)*** Genial comedy with James Stewart back when people could write and act. Possibly overact, and the ending’s fuzzy.

Dekalog 7 (Kieslowski 1989)***** The masterclass continues. This time: casting, child acting, conveying emotion through camera movement. Wow

Porco Rosso (Miyazaki 1992)**** Tale of inter-war derring-do would be utter cliché if main guy wasn’t a pig. Delightful animation as always.

West Side Story (Robbins/Wise 1961)***** With photography, music, lyrics and choreography this good the dated elements don’t matter.

The Hudsucker Proxy (Coen Bros 1994)**** Underrated comedy – feisty yet composed. Diverting performances from Paul Newman & JJ Leigh.

Ponyo (Miyazaki 2010)*** Innocent cutesy animation about 5-yr-olds & fish. Mixed style, feminist undertones & surrealism = not Disnified yet

The Remains of the Day (Ivory 1993)***** One of my outright favourite films. Beautiful balance, yearning story, acting perfection.

Synecdoche, New York (Kaufman 2008)***** Miraculous.

Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock 1943)*** The suspense delivers & some glorious moments, also jumpy editing & unconvincing concepts. Sat pm film

True Romance (Scott 1993)**** Throws bullets, blood & trash around like it’s the 80s. Big cast who die fast & cool. Kitsch Bonnie & Clyde.

Tideland (Gilliam 2005)**** Accomplished child’s view of extraordinary surreal events. Includes human taxidermy. Funny/disturbing/brilliant.

Bottle Rocket (Anderson 1996)*** Launched careers of Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson. Amusing as study for seminal Rushmore. Aimless but charming

Burn After Reading (Coen 2008)***** Even better 2nd time. Enjoyed witty script & Brad Pitt as a dork. A comedy gem.

The Princess Bride (Reiner 1987)*** Reiner does Jungian archetype comedy in his under/overstated manner. Very drinkable.

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (Hewitt 1991)** I’m sure this was funny when I watched it age 14. Oh.

Tropic Thunder (Stiller 2008)** Tedious, ego-driven comedy that falls into the traps it tries to parody. Couple of good lines & explosions.

Pirates of the Caribbean 2 (Verbinski 2006)** It was on iPlayer. Did make me wonder what happens next.

Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (Verbinski 2007)** Menace depleted and intrigue devalued. Too long not to have any tension. Still a bit fun.

The Clone Wars (Filoni 2008)** Aimed at kids, this Star Wars animation had a destiny: to launch TV series and disseminate merchandise.

Chicago (Marshall 2002)*** Wanted to enjoy this glitzy musical more, but emaciated Zellweger & old tap dancing Gere made it difficult.

Kill Bill 2 (Tarantino 2004)**** Almost as incredible as vol 1, just with Thurman and dialogue a little stretched.

Night at the Museum 2 (Levy 2009)** Stronger than 1, but many weak characters. Comics ALL mimic Stiller’s faltering style. Tho Adams can act

Walk the Line (Mangold 2005)**** Bit linear, but beautiful performances from Witherspoon & Phoenix. Also: the music.

The Damned United (Hooper 2009)**** Sheen remarkable as Brian Clough. Expert evocation of 70s North – for fans of film, not just football.

How to Get Ahead in Advertising (Robinson 89)*** Hilarious, surreal tirade against consumerism, let down by over-talky script & abrupt end.

Scary Movie 3 (Zucker 03)** Leslie Nielsen’s still got it.

Dekalog 8 (Kieslowski 1989)**** The slowest episode so far, such that it exposes just how incredible the acting is. Timorous yet bold.

Failure to Launch (Dey 2006)* All that’s bad about romcoms including a female lead who looks like a foot. The one * is for Zooey Deschanel.

Mission Impossible 3 (Abrams 06)*** If the edgy explosions, murders & stunts ever paused there would be nothing betwixt. Luckily they don’t.

The Big Sleep (Hawks 1946)**** Swirling classic noir, excellent script (Bill Faulkner no less) –just don’t try to follow convoluted plot.

Also rewatched Fantastic Mr. Fox at weekend. It is terrific. Didn’t realise Anderson modelled Fox on Dahl himself.

Watched UP again last night. Gloriously crafted, but story too symmetrical, too contrived, too perfect. Sentimental music largely to blame.

Torn Curtain (Hitchcock 1966)**** Not his best but still classic Hitch: unbearable slow tension, awkward murder scene, careful acting.

A Serious Man (Coen 09)***** Consummate, no, EXQUISITE storytelling, regardless of subject. 3rd Coen film in row to ask ‘what does it mean’?

The Man Who Wasn’t There (Coen 2001)***** Wry film noir parody that celebrates and in some ways (acting, lighting) surpasses the genre

I’m Not There (Haynes 07)**** Lyrical biopic, fantastical in form but beautiful in sight & sound. Of various Dylan actors, Blanchett rocked.

Topaz (Hitchcock 1969)*** The usual intriguing themes, setups and tensions, just andante with terrible french accents.

Frenzy (Hitchcock 1972)**** Uncomfortably intimate and gritty London murder film with comic seam. Dated, but draws compassion.

Africa United too good to review in a tweet. I’ll blog it later. But my, @catsiye has done awesome. Full review

Also, watched The Sound of Music for the 1st time ever this week. Now I know where all those songs come from. Not as transfixing as Poppins.

Kick-Ass (Vaughn 2010)*** I don’t care enough about US teen movies & comic books to really get this but it’s original & superbly executed.

Let the Right One In (Alfredson 2008)**** Tasteful, pared down observation of loneliness and adolescence. In Scandinavia. With vampires.

Also, watched Nanny McPhee 2 with the kids. Those films really work. Reader, I cried.

Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino 09)**** Today’s Hitchcock with slow suspense scenes & breakout violence. Rich colour and characters too.

Dekalog 9 (Kieslowski 89)***** Love story that crafts gut-clenching and heart-soaring moments from a simple tale of compromised marriage.

Dekalog 10 (Kieslowski 89)***** The lightest episode saved for the end; a more dramatic tale handled with coy, understated brilliance.

Precious (Daniels 2009)*****Astonishing & deeply sad story of an abused Harlem teenager lost inside herself. Told brilliantly & with hope.

500 Days of Summer (Webb 2009)** Indy clichés meet romcom clichés with an inexplicably crap voiceover and flighty structure.

Inception (Nolan ’10)***** Wow. Emotionally, logically & chemically satisfying action film. All other action films take note.

Downfall (Hirschbiegel 2004)**** Intense, intimate portrayal of Hitler’s last days. Powerfully done (hence the parodies) but so, so dark.

The Hurt Locker (Bigelow 2008)**** An episodic look at the Iraq war through a US bomb squad. Inevitable suspense; disarming honesty.

Also watched It’s A Wonderful Life again at the weekend. Still fresh, charming, moving.

Paths of Glory (Kubrick 1957)**** Tense film about abuse of power in WWI. Nuanced characters, script and ethical stance.

Africa United review

It’s a curious feeling driving to the cinema to see your friend’s debut feature. You want it to be brilliant. You know how much hard work has gone into it and how talented the director is.

But you also attempt ambivalence. It will be okay if it’s not perfect. Like sitting on the edge of your seat in the ultrasound room as the nurse scans your wife’s belly, knowing that any moment she will proclaim the sex of your next child, hoping that it’s a girl (having got 3 boys already), yet accepting that it’s okay if it’s more of the same. Which of course it is. And was.

Because the first time you make a feature film can’t be easy. Especially with a small budget (only £3m for a multiple locations overseas) and a ludicrously short period in which to make the film. I spoke to Debs, the director, recently about just how challenging the time frame was, especially for a cast and crew who were largely first-timers. It was, she said, her annus horribilis.

In the event, waiting in Cineworld, I decided to suspend as much of my hope and resignation as I could and just try to enjoy the show.

Thankfully, it was easy. Africa United baptises you into colour, story and tongue-in-cheek humour from the opening line. It’s the tale of a random band of African children, starting in Rwanda, hitching, stowing, walking and paddling their way through thousands of miles and several borders to reach South Africa for the opening ceremony of the World Cup (or ‘warldcap’ as I now can’t help but hear it).

It’s instantly funny. The children’s wry comments are sometimes conscious, sometimes unaware of the satire, about AIDS and charity handouts and sex trading and the unavoidable stains of poverty and genocide. Though strange to imagine how one could laugh at these monumental atrocities it works perfectly. The children deliver the witty script in passing with a light touch.

The ensemble centres on the cheery, malaprop-prone orphan Dudu (played by Eriya Ndayambaje). He is relentlessly optimistic, like Mike Leigh’s Poppy in Happy Go Lucky, and invites the same kind of scorn from people who do not like happiness thrust upon them. Upbeat characters hold up a mirror to the miserable and judgemental, and I can’t help wondering if that is not in part responsible for some of the film’s less favourable reviews.

In context Dudu’s optimism and vision is the soul of the film. He and the editing move us quickly from scene to scene. This flitting could be seen as a weakness but it is essential to the tale. While we in the West like to cogitate about what this-or-that means, analysing the matter ever so seriously, in Africa you’ve got to lighten up. Move on. The horrors of the past cannot be changed. You begin to realise as you watch the film: this is the way to deal with deep tragedy.

The overall result is a southern Africa that dances swiftly and colourfully past our eyes, acknowledging ethnic warfare and disease and poverty in the lightest but sincerest fashion. There are segues into a charming animated story that punctuates the live action and is Dudu’s device for motivating the group. The deliberately rough collages reminded me of Wes Anderson’s Steve Zissou and evoke the improvisation of people without riches, while providing the play-within-a-play motif where the story has power to make sense of the present. As the characters move on from tragedy, we are invited to move on from our present stereotypes of Africa, and given a new story to tell.

Africa United tips its hat to Stand by Me and has been compared to Slumdog Millionaire but the most wonderful thing about it is its originality. The style is generous, hope-filled, visually rich, intimate, flighty, unrefined and, well, African. It feels like a fresh story-telling mode, a new voice and eye in cinema, with a novel narrative about the world’s oldest continent – fitting for the first ever feature film made in Rwanda.

I remember cooking for Debs Gardner-Paterson when we were students together, and she would sit on the floor mopping up curry from her plate with her fingers. Though based in the UK her background and life take in several continents, not least Africa, and this tumbles out gloriously in her work. Her poetry is in there and her belief in other people, drawing former child soldiers and local non-actors into the film. She has a unique history and this has given her an original voice. She has used it, admirably to paint countries like Rwanda in a new light.

Whatever the box office returns or the critics write, Africa United is a delightfully original movie. I always knew Debs would make great films and it’s a joy to watch such a sweet beginning. No need to worry after all. It’s a girl!