Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Giving an Author Talk

For anyone interested, I'm about to start teaching a course on: "Giving an Author Talk".

The course will be held in Leicester on 6 Wednesday evenings, starting on 21st February.

It should be good for anyone who hopes to get published or wants to to improve their public speaking skills. And hopefully it should be a lot of fun.

If you'd like more information, please e-mail me here

Friday, January 26, 2007

Lunching with Crime Writers

I was in Derby having lunch with some friends who are crime novelists the other day. We were just about to order when someone raised the subject of ‘how to dispose of a body’. Not the best lunchtime discussion, you might have thought. Especially as someone raised the option of feeding the remains to pigs. Would it change the taste of the pork, she wanted to know?
Let this be a warning to you - never lunch with a crime writer.

At this point one of the others present asked if any of us found what we write disturbing. No, was the general answer. Some found what the others wrote unsettling. And three people stated that the process of writing helped them to deal with things that might otherwise have given them nightmares.

So that was that, except to say that the meal was very enjoyable and that the writer sitting opposite me – I won’t name names - ordered sausages, gravy and mash. He tucked into it with apparent enjoyment, in spite of one or two people asking if he could detect anything unusual in the flavour.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

Dr Nicholas Garrigan escapes his father’s dour presence by signing up to work in a medical station in rural Uganda. He may be treating the poor, but his motivation is adventure. He likes drink and dope and women – black or white, married or otherwise. These he finds.

He also finds, or is found by, president Idi Amin. On learning that Garrigan is Scottish, Amin takes an instant liking to the young doctor and invites him to become his personal physician.

Watching events unfold, I found myself willing the fictional doctor to run. Amin is going to turn into a monster. That is history. But in the film it is still 1971 and the signs are not yet clear.

They say that a frog dropped into scalding water will hop straight out again. But Garrigan is stepping into a pleasantly warm bath. The president seems clown-like at times, charismatic at others. He has wealth and pleasure at his disposal, some of which he bestows on his young doctor. He is strong, perhaps ruthless. But that’s what it takes to govern a newly independent country, isn’t it? The temperature rises a degree at a time.

The brilliance of this film is in the characters of Amin and Garrigan, played by Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy. The portrayal of Amin is multi-dimensional and terrifyingly believable. His relationship with Garrigan is paternalistic, domineering and corrupting. The doctor has fled from one father to be adopted by another. The dynamic between the two is mesmerising.

The insanity of what is happening in Uganda is revealed gradually as the president slides into paranoia. Towards the climax of the film, where some of the horror of what is happening is graphically revealed, Amin confronts the terrified Garrigan with the words: “This is real.”

Superlative performances and a fine script combine to make this film feel very real. It also feels close. We see the Asians being expelled from Uganda. How many of my friends and neighbours in Leicester were among those thousands, forced to leave with nothing but the clothes they were wearing? And what of the people who stayed? I remember seeing Enoch Olinga speaking at a Baha’i conference in 1976. That wonderful man was later killed in Uganda, together with his wife and three of his children, victims of unknown gunmen. No one knows the number murdered during Amin’s rule. Three hundred thousand is the figure quoted by the film.

The numbers are incomprehensible. Butchery of this kind is incomprehensible. But through the film, the tyrant is revealed as human. The steps that led to the madness are small enough to be believed. Just about. That doesn’t make this, our history, easier to cope with. But hopefully it will make it harder to forget.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Miss Potter

Beatrix Potter was the children’s publishing sensation of her day. In terms of book sales she was the Edwardian equivalent of J K Rowling. She was also a lady of remarkable drive, insight and wide-ranging abilities.

If you’ve seen the trailers for this biopic, you’ll know that ReneĆ© Zellweger plays the eponymous writer/artist and Ewan McGregor the publisher with whom she becomes romantically involved. You will also know that Beatrix Potter’s beautiful illustrations are seen coming to life on the page. It was this latter point that gave me cause for concern as I queued up to buy my ticket. It looked altogether too cutesie for a depiction of the life of such a woman.

Surprisingly, this aspect of the film seldom felt out of place. I found myself accepting that we were being given glimpses into the mind of the writer and artist who, for many years, considered these fictional characters to be her only real friends.

The film opens with her trying to sell her first book, Peter Rabbit (a story that my family used to have a vinyl record of. I still remember my complete fear and fascination for the thing as a child, especially the bit where poor Peter squeezes under the gate.)

We see Beatrix Potter’s rise to fame and fortune, her first romance, her refusal to play the part of the upper class unmarried woman, her arguments with her family and ultimately her move to the Lake District.

My only complaint is with ReneĆ© Zellweger’s portrayal of Potter, which I couldn’t believe at first. Perhaps it was a memory of Zellweger playing another famously unmarried thirty-something. It wasn’t an easy role, of course. Characters that spend so much of their time living in internal worlds are notoriously difficult to portray in movies (much easier in novels). Whatever the reason, I found her harder to accept than the other members of the cast, who all gave excellent performances.

A good story has its own momentum, however. I soon forgot my reservations and by the end I was completely absorbed in this gentle, beautiful and genuinely poignant film.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Why all the film reviews?

Why all the reviews?

Here is a list of possible reasons, some of which may be true.

  • A friend was kind enough to give me some Vue Cinema vouchers last year - a perfect gift.
  • An editor once told me that he went to see 50 movies a year so he could keep up with trends in fiction. The movies are often a couple of years ahead of written fiction, he said.
  • An author once told me that going to the movies is a tax-deductible expense for a writer of fiction.
  • Having to write a review makes you think about what you have seen – not just in general terms.
  • I love going to the cinema.

Monday, January 15, 2007


The man in the box office frowned as I offered my money. “You do know it’s not in English, don’t you?” Presumably he’d had complaints from customers thinking they were going into a standard Hollywood action thriller. But a film set just before the collapse of classical Mayan civilisation, directed by Mel Gibson, was always going to be subtitled.

No one knows why the Mayan civilization fell. The remnants of great cities, complete with vertiginous pyramids, were rediscovered by explorers hacking into the jungle during the last century. All seem to have been abandoned long before Europeans reached the Americas.

Apocalypto opens in the forests of the Yucatan peninsular at some unspecified time in history. Our hero, Jaguar Paw, is one of a group of men hunting game. We see village life and the ominous image of refugees from some terrible event walking through in search of new lands to settle.

The fall from grace comes swiftly. A raiding party destroys the village in an orgy of explicitly depicted violence. Those who are not killed are captured and bound, with the exception of our hero’s pregnant wife and child, who he secretes in a deep pit – a place that will be both their hiding place and their grave - if he can’t get back to rescue them in time. Jaguar Paw and his friends are then lead off towards a fate they don’t know but which we can guess. For the Mayans apparently practiced human sacrifice on an industrial scale. “Come back to me,” his wife pleads, which sets up all that follows.

For me the high point of this movie was the journey towards the apex of a pyramid and an appointment with a razor-sharp ceremonial knife. We pass from their forest home through landscapes increasingly despoiled, past the pox ridden and a starving population. We feel the bewilderment of Jaguar Paw and his companions as they are dragged through environments as alien to us as they are to him. They reach the city with its crowds of tattooed, scarified and pierced men and women, up to the place of death where sit the corrupt and corpulent heads of a civilisation heading for its apocalypse.

For that journey alone it was worth seeing this movie. Also for the fascinating array of faces, each beautifully individual and distinctly non-Hollywood. But what followed - a substantial chunk of the film – though gripping in action terms, felt wildly improbable. And the ending, which I won’t give away here, seemed to me starkly anachronistic.

I do admire Mel Gibson for producing movies that he wants to make rather than pursuing an ideal of middle-of-the-road commercialism. But ultimately Apocalypto left me with the sense of an opportunity missed. This could have been a great film.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Another film review...

Pan's Labyrinth

Easy enough to say that this movie is about a young girl and her pregnant mother, caught up in the Spanish Civil War. Easy to say that the girl escapes from time to time into a living fairytale. Much harder to tell where the fairytale begins and ends and to divine the relationship between it and the real world – or indeed to decide whether fauns and fairies and giant toads aren’t in fact more real that the brutal world of her stepfather, the fascist captain who is trying to eradicate the last communist fighters from the wooded mountains.

People tell the girl she is too old to be reading books of fairy stories, but they in turn are following narratives of their own imaginations. Even the captain, who dwells on the story of his father’s military heroism and is obsessed with the fantasy of having a son of his own and then dying in battle.

The motif of the labyrinth is everywhere, physically as a stone maze on the edge of the forest, visually in the elegant cinematography where long tracking shots take you on unexpected journeys, sometimes back to where you started, and metaphorically in the film’s many narratives, some of which reach their goals while others come to a dead end.

The violence of the war and the sadism of the captain make parts of this film hard to watch and I had to look away from the screen once or twice. Perhaps it was the proximity of an innocent girl that made the dehumanising violence depicted in the film so disturbing.

But for all that, this is a film I will have to see again, perhaps many times. The themes and images are so subtly layered that they dwell long after the credits have rolled. They leave questions in the mind and might even change the way you see the world. What more can be asked of any work of art?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Casino Royale

Great empires need revolutions every few centuries or they fall into obscurity. Perhaps that is why the Bond franchise has survived so long, periodically jolted out of its torpor by a new lead actor. If the basic formula remains, it is still Bond, isn’t it?

But can the franchise survive this most recent incarnation? Along with the introduction of a new lead actor, Daniel Craig, the tried and tested formula has been swept away. Where is the super-villain? Where is the world domination plot? Where is the corrupted scientist fashioning a diabolical super-weapon? I searched in vain for nude women in the title sequence, for a super-lair in a dormant volcano or for escapes through ventilation ducts. In short, and most shocking of all, the plot came close to believability.

True, there are nods to the old days, but each time we are reminded that this is going to be different. When asked if he would like his cocktail shaken or stirred, Bond replies: “Do I look as if I give a damn?”

Some of the old cosiness has gone and we are left with a brutality that reflects the original Fleming novels. Bond makes mistakes. He feels emotional as well as physical pain. It isn’t always easy watching and I was dismayed to see young children in the audience. How did this get a 12A certificate?

If I have one gripe it is with the punctuated storyline. It almost felt like four episodes of a drama that had been run together. But that is a small complaint about an otherwise excellent film. Perhaps there is life in the old franchise yet. Bond is dead, long live Bond.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Interviewed by e-mail

The writer and journalist Ambrose Musiyiwa contacted me last year to ask if I'd mind answering some questions by way of an e-mail interview. Over the following month or so, a series of interesting questions arrived in my in-box. Answering them was a fascinating process.

I've been interviewed many times, but never previously by e-mail. Just before Christmas, Ambrose sent me the finished article. You can find it here:

I could recognise my own words in the article, but because I'd never seen all the bits put together, it felt as if I was reading something new. It was a strange experience. And I have to say, I am delighted with the result.

Many thanks Ambrose.