Archive for May, 2009

Simon Schama and John Donne

Posted in Literature on May 29, 2009 by alexlarman

PD*10873767I was about to entitle this piece ‘in praise of Simon Schama’ but decided against doing so for two main reasons. Firstly, that would sound like something out of the Guardian, and secondly I was reading an (otherwise intelligent) interview with him in which he described himself as a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party, ‘probably to my death’. However, it isn’t Schama’s politics which I’m here to applaud, but his interest in John Donne. I attended an interesting and well-constructed talk by him and the actress Fiona Shaw last night at the Portrait Gallery, which was, brilliantly, held just by the recently (and happily) acquired Donne portrait, and acted as a kind of follow-up to his recent TV documentary about the poet.

I can honestly say that Donne was the first ‘difficult’ poet that I ever really engaged with. I studied him for A-level, and although I’d been exposed to the likes of Auden, Milton and Hardy before, Donne was the first poet who, after the initial incomprehension gradually wore off, it became clear that underneath all the ‘by my troths’ and archaic misspellings of ‘mee’ and so forth, Donne was a strikingly modern poet, establishing a persona that was equal parts wry, eyebrow-raising libertine, passionate, committed lover and, finally, shameless self-promoter as the Dean of St Paul’s. My interest in Donne coincided with my (then) fanatical obsession with the band The Divine Comedy, whose wry, witty lyrics of solipsistic excess appeared to tally beautifully with Donne’s more knowing poems. Somewhat to my shame, this obsession with personae and image persisted onto university (David Bowie phase now) and I ended up writing an essay on Donne in my finals in which I half-seriously put the case for Jack Donne, privateer and lover, as being a diabolic figure. Excess, excess, but it saved my degree. I later read a John Stubbs biography of Donne which I had to give up on because I grew so weary of the methodical, reductive way it turned virtually every poem into a piece of biographical comment; apparently the idea of Donne not writing a poem from straight personal experience was impossible.

I haven’t actually seen the Schama documentary yet but am looking forward to it. Interestingly, last night, Schama began by asking who’d studied The ‘Flea’ at A-level, which of course I had – but it transpired that it was fairly commonplace these days for that (apparently an ‘easier’ Donne poem than the rest) to be studied in isolation, rather in the same way that someone who has never read any Wordsworth might well know ‘Daffodils’. Yet it seems a shame that such a remarkably rich and interesting body of work might be left off the syllabus for fear it’s too ‘difficult’. Schama might have been occasionally criticised for being a populist and a media don, but frankly if he managed to get a few more people reading Donne I applaud his efforts entirely.

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David Nicholls – One Day

Posted in Literature on May 26, 2009 by alexlarman

nichollsIt’s not terribly often that I read a new piece of fiction by a not especially well known writer and become deeply affected by it, but the latest example of this small number of books is David Nicholls’ One Day. I’ve enjoyed Nicholls’ work ever since I saw the film adaptation of his excellent debut novel Starter For Ten – with James McAvoy, Alice Eve and Rebecca Hall skilfully and rather brilliantly redefining what a viewer might expect from the coming-of-age romantic comedy – and even though the follow-up, The Understudy, was more schematic and obviously commercial, it still showed that Nicholls was a writer to watch and to enjoy.

However One Day is in an entirely different class altogether. Somewhat suggested by Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘We Sat At The Window’, the narrative follows the 20-year friendship of its two protagonists, the charming, feckless, somewhat weak pretty boy Dexter Mayhew and his contemporary at Edinburgh University, the rather more down-to-earth Emma Morley. There is a great mutual attraction between the two of them, first indicated by a daring introductory scene in which the two of them are shown in the aftermath of an unconsummated drunken one night stand, but as Dexter goes off into the netherworld of the London media scene and Emma is stuck in McJob after McJob while she wants to be a writer, a gradual estrangement seems to set in between them. Yet this can’t be the case…can it?

The most interesting thing about his technique is that every chapter is set a year apart, on 15th July (or St Swithin’s Day, hence the Hardy connections), which means that connections vaguely hinted at in early parts of the book come abruptly to full fruition, as the narrative moves between Edinburgh, Greece, London and Paris, amongst other places. The characters, as ever in Nicholls’ work, are beautifully drawn. Dexter is arrogant, spoilt, not particularly bright and sliding through life on a kind of public-school charm (he’s a Wykehamist, perhaps slightly atypically of the breed) but nonetheless likeable and fundamentally sympathetic. Emma, by far the cleverer of the two, feels stuck in a pointless rut, far more in love with Dexter than he appears to be with her, and eventually embracing a teaching career (cue loveless sex with the headmaster) for no other reason than she thinks she ought. And then there’s her dalliance with the world’s least talented stand-up comedian…

About halfway through the book, I was enjoying Nicholls’ writing very much, and was looking forward to the inevitable happy ending, which was being knowingly telegraphed from an early stage. I was wrong. I don’t want to give anything else away, but by the end of the book Nicholls manages to have his cake and eat it in quite unexpectedly affecting ways, leading to an ending that is simultaneously moving, touching and humane. The cynical might carp at it, and it’s certainly true that this is unlikely to bother the Booker judges, but it strengthens my belief that Nicholls is gradually establishing himself as one of the most interesting writers of his generation. You can keep your Tony Parsons and Mike Gayles; this is the real thing.

Terminator Salvation

Posted in Film on May 21, 2009 by alexlarman

tsAnd so, after a massive scuttlebutt of bad publicity, revolving mostly around its star Christian Bale’s now-notorious on-set outburst and the former career of the auteur known as McG, the fourth Terminator film finally comes to cinemas. While it’s certainly better than X-Men: Wolverine or Angels & Demons, it’s probably roughly on a par with its predecessor Terminator 3, and nothing like as clever, witty or exciting as James Cameron’s first two instalments in the series. I am inclined to think that the PG-13 rating might have crippled it somewhat in this regard.

 Anyway, the opening sequence is certainly arresting. Marcus (Sam Worthington), a condemned man on Death Row in 2003, is visited by a cancer-stricken doctor (Helena Bonham Carter), asking him for what seems the umpteenth time for his consent that his body be used after his death. Eventually, he consents, if he is allowed to kiss her, which done, he comments ‘Now I know what death tastes like.’ Promptly executed by lethal injection, the action moves to 2018, where John Connor (Christian Bale) is at war with the evil Skynet, who have caused a nuclear holocaust, blah blah blah.

If you’ve seen any of the previous films in the series, you’ll know exactly what to expect in terms of the plot. Despite the apparent involvement of The Dark Knight’s co-writer Jonathan Nolan as one of the screenwriters, there’s very little philosophical meat here, bar an all too predictable man versus machine angle. Bale is saddled with a desperately flat and boring role (apparently much expanded since he took it on – it would probably have been best left as a supporting part) in which he is required to scowl a lot, bark orders and disobey Michael Ironside, phoning in a submarine-based part as head of the resistance. Talking of which, the resistance seem remarkably well-equipped given that the apocalypse has taken place, with a seemingly limitless supply of fighter jets, military equipment and, of course, big, shiny guns. The machines are, well, machines, completely lacking the interest or personality of an Arnie or Robert Patrick.

Then again, most of the pretty decent cast are wasted. Bryce Dallas Howard has nothing interesting to do as Connor’s wife – one wonders if a big scene, possibly the one that caused Bale’s on-set rant, was deleted – and Bonham Carter is in it so little that it seems as her role was drastically truncated during the production. Anton Yelchin pops up as the young Kyle Reese, to vaguely amusing effect, but is saddled with the regrettable necessity of having to utter one of the franchise’s two most iconic lines. There are vague attempts to make reference to the other films – Linda Hamilton is heard via a tape recording, and Arnie makes an appearance, of sorts – but with little coherence or real flair. McG’s direction is serviceable, vaguely MTV and bland. Still, it’s better than Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.

In fact, the best reason to see the film is Sam Worthington, whose daring above-the-title billing is more than justified by a charismatic, compelling performance as the film’s most compelling character. If it seems slightly strange that a dead man is resurrected fifteen years later, the story does eventually provide a sound (if predictable) reason for his presence, and actually Worthington ends up becoming a more central and heroic presence than Bale, an actor who seems to be specialising in having films stolen from him by his co-stars. The ending, changed from a ridiculous planned one in which a dead Connor ends up becoming a Terminator, is reasonably affecting on a human scale for being accomplished without explosions or absurd special effects. It bodes well for his performance in Avatar, from the real Terminator director, James Cameron.

This isn’t a masterpiece, or even a particularly good film. Nevertheless, for all Terminator fans, there’s a certain Proustian rush from hearing the clanging drumbeat of the theme, and, who knows, another instalment in the series may finally resolve the increasingly convoluted time travel paradox that seems to become more tortuous with every passing picture.

Moral decline

Posted in Uncategorized on May 18, 2009 by alexlarman

DigitalHousesOfParliament After a very enjoyable trip away, a return to Britain once again sees me having to face up to the country’s moral decline, specifically our politicans and what seems like a truly shameless display of snouts-in-the-trough expense account fiddling. I find numerous small items of marginalia interesting, such as:

1) The role of the Telegraph in this. After the rockiest of rocky patches over the past year or so, in which this paper has begun to resemble a kind of downmarket tabloid in broadsheet format, this is a good, old-fashioned print scoop (unlike their feeble attempt to spike the MacBride story), for which they should be congratulated. I wonder in passing precisely how much money must have changed hands for this rather spectacular piece of chequebook journalism – nobody is going to hand over a disc of MPs’ expenses purely out of altruism – and also why on earth they find it necessary to take a moral line, given that journalists are notorious for passing off just about every kind of vice under the sun as expenses.

 2) Some of the items claimed for. I honestly don’t know whether it’s worse to have claimed thousands of pounds for a moat and helipad, or to have made claims for packets of crisps and bathplugs. The first implies a kind of blithe disregard for the realities of how people live today; the second an obsession with taking every single penny from the taxpayer for every aspect of their everyday life.

3) The fact that all the three political parties are equally damned, with Labour perhaps slightly more so due to the fact that a) they’re in government, b) there are more claims and c) they’re the ones who apparently seem to have the widest range of opportunities for criminal prosecution.

4) ‘People are outraged and shocked’. Really? Certainly the extent of what’s gone on is surprising, but natural British cynicism towards its political classes certainly indicates that what has gone on shouldn’t really amaze anyone who has ever read a tabloid paper before.

Talking of moral decline, I made the mistake of going to see Angels & Demons at the weekend. It’s slightly better than The Da Vinci Code – as if it could ever have been worse – but it replaces tediousness with ludicrousness, as well as a very strange final act plot development where a character goes from being uber-heroic to villainous in the space of around ten minutes. Tom Hanks is as bad as he was in the first film, and despite the fact that just about everyone realised the original’s central flaw, that shedloads of exposition do not make for thrilling cinema, the sequel seems content to maintain the ‘you know…you also know’ school of dialogue. Ron Howard, fresh from the success of Frost/Nixon, at least bothers to put in a few sequences of suspense and action this time round, but they’re not executed with any pizzazz or interest. If only they’d let Brian de Palma have a go.

Advice for jobseekers

Posted in Uncategorized on May 1, 2009 by alexlarman

As I have often been involved with companies where procrastination is the name of the day, this little extract from Waiting For Godot seemed all too apt:

VLADIMIR:
I’m curious to hear what he has to offer. Then we’ll take it or leave it.
ESTRAGON:
What exactly did we ask him for?
VLADIMIR:
Were you not there?
ESTRAGON:
I can’t have been listening.
VLADIMIR:
Oh . . . Nothing very definite.
ESTRAGON:
A kind of prayer.
VLADIMIR:
Precisely.
ESTRAGON:
A vague supplication.
VLADIMIR:
Exactly.
ESTRAGON:
And what did he reply?
VLADIMIR:
That he’d see.
ESTRAGON:
That he couldn’t promise anything.
VLADIMIR:
That he’d have to think it over.
ESTRAGON:
In the quiet of his home.
VLADIMIR:
Consult his family.
ESTRAGON:
His friends.
VLADIMIR:
His agents.
ESTRAGON:
His correspondents.
VLADIMIR:
His books.
ESTRAGON:
His bank account.
VLADIMIR:
Before taking a decision.
ESTRAGON:
It’s the normal thing.
VLADIMIR:
Is it not?
ESTRAGON:
I think it is.
VLADIMIR:
I think so too.
Silence.