"Teetering on the brink of a scandal"
People who have been closely following this blog (or indeed my life) over the years might have gathered that I once wrote a novel and, following a protracted discussion about its title, failed to get it published. Half of it has been sitting on the Authonomy website since said failure, where it has slowly gathered the internet equivalent of dust, albeit in the occasional quite gratifying form of nice comments.
So it's especially nice that Authonomy have decided they want to do something with it and will be putting it out as a HarperCollins digital original as part of their new imprint.
Exciting as this news is, it is as nothing to my excitement that in the short time since they made this announcement, an anonymous commenter on the blog has pre-emptively accused me of blasphemy. Is it wrong to hope that one day I'll arrive home and be confronted by people who haven't read the book wielding banners expressing disgust and outrage? I can fantasise; the publicity would certainly make up for the demographic who have been vocal in forums in expressing the equally irrational view that nobody would ever want to read a book with Jesus in. Apart from the speculation about my religious proclivities, others have been wondering whether I'm a fake person altogether, made up by Scott Pack to con the general public. Perhaps if I drop hints in the right places I can persuade people that I'm Jesus himself paving the way for a comeback.
The truth is, as always, less interesting than all of those things, but it is quite interesting and if nothing else shows what a tough and rocky and irritating and unpredictable road the way to publication is, and in case it is useful or at least entertaining to other struggling writers I will share it in detail closer to the date of publication. So watch this space. This one here.
In the meantime I have to perform a not-insubstantial rewrite; whilst on Authonomy the book gathered a fair bit of advice, some of which was very pertinent and some of which just pissed me off and much of which, even the stuff that pissed me off, turns out to have had a degree of wisdom in it. So if that was you... ta, advice taken.
And in order that I might continue to benefit from other people's wisdom, I'm minded to start putting up chapters from The Difficult Second Novel. So watch that space. That one, over there.
Do you think beauty is a stranger of mempip?
I gather that the BBC's Christmas adaptation of Great Expectations made quite an impression on people. Or at least, its star did. My twitter feed was hot with friends of all genders and inclinations saying a collective 'phwoar', and let's face it even with ridiculous Victorian sideburns Douglas Booth is androgynous enough to appeal to pretty much anyone.
For no better reason than this, his face was splashed across the front of at least one broadsheet last week and a cursory google search shows that The Daily Mail have created an entire frenzy over the fact that some people on thought he was miscast and somebody on Mumsnet didn’t watch it at all (outrage!) because he looked too much like Keira Knightley.
What kind of adaptation would draw so much comment for one man's pout without a word about - well, the adaptation itself? A pretty bland one, that's what. An adaptation as dreary as its grey, washed out colour palette.
No wonder Pip was such a pouty git: there was precious little in this world to be happy or excited about - nobody ever smiled!. So much for 'Such Larks, Pip' - I'd have left Joe Gargery, not to mention Miss Havisham and her bizarre vocal performance, long before Jaggers came to whisk me away. Where was Dickens' theatricality, his sense of humour? His beautiful balancing of the funny and the macabre? Or did somebody think they were making a Thomas Hardy adaptation, steeped as it was in forced melancholia, as self-indulgent and uninvolving (and, if you like, as pretty) as its main character?
The bar for adaptations of Great Expectations, one of Dickens' finest achievements, is generally regarded to be David Lean's 1946 version, itself arguably Lean's best film (so that's quite a high bar, then). One of the reasons why it is so successful is that Lean acknowledges that Dickens is himself a master dramatist, and instead of messing with the already brilliantly evocative material uses his considerable imagination to bring it to the screen in the most visually effective way. I hate to use the word 'faithful' in connection with any adaptation, as it implies that books can simply be picked up and filmed; but Lean's genius is to preserve the substance of the novel in a completely cinematic form (even down to the talking cows, a far scarier image than Ray Winstone plopping out of some mud). To mess with the substance - to try to communicate Dickens' story with a different language altogether - requires the arrogance and stupidity of somebody who thinks they're better than Dickens.
Enter Sarah Phelps, whose execrable Oliver Twist I have already had nothing nice to say about. Apart from turning Dickens' masterful dialogue into monosyllabic clichés, her main talent seems to be in translating richly compelling and complex worlds into broadest brushstrokes and then spelling it out again and again and again.
Perhaps Sarah Phelps thinks she's the first person to notice the theme of class in Great Expectations: 'what's that smell? It's dirt!' she had Estella telling the young Pip, and the first meeting of Pip and Herbert Pocket, a joyous and bonkers episode in the book, became another act of snobbery (WE GET IT! HE'S POOR!). After Pip's fortunes change, Dickens writes a heartbreaking scene in which Joe Gargery visits him and does everything wrong in a clumsy, good-natured way that is excruciating for Pip and the audience; this was obviously felt to be too oblique by Phelps, who instead wrote us a(nother) dreary, serious scene in which Joe told Pip 'you look different, you talk different... you're ashamed...' and so on. Leave it, Joe, he ent worth it.
Was there any ambiguity about Miss Havisham and her motives? Again, no. Dickens has her observing Pip playing cards and leaning forward to tell Estella to 'beggar him'; Phelps' rather more literal approach was to give her the line 'Estella, you must concentrate if you don't want your opponent to gain the advantage.' Hardly poetry in motion. And so on, all the way to the ending, an aspect of the novel which has been criticised for being inappropriately happy but which Sarah Phelps rather put into perspective with a final scene so sentimental it would have made Dickens vomit with shame.
The problem, as I pointed out four years ago is that Sarah Phelps is a writer with virtually nothing but Eastenders and Holby Blue to her name, and she treats Dickens in exactly the same way as she would a soap opera, reducing everything to a stock set of emotional responses. Miss Havisham's shocking death-by-combustion became a lengthy pop video following her from forgiveness through self-realisation and coming-to-terms-with-her-grief until letting her basically commit suicide (though if she hadn't set fire to herself she would probably have died from slow motion sooner or later). Magwich wasn't allowed to be a creepy burden forever, because of course he needed to become an Eastenders-style rough Father figure, over the course of many a lengthy Pip-getting-to-see-things-from-his-point-of-view scene. Yaaawwwwwwwn.
It's patronising, it's unrealistic and it reduces the works of one of the richest, most psychologically profound novelists to a pretty darn low common denominator when the BBC has proved itself capable of far better (I'd cite the excellent Little Dorrit of 2008 as a recent example). As Ray Winstone (unnecessarily, patronisingly) summed things up: 'Yer've made a mess of it, ent ya?'
If the BBC is going to continue to put such brilliant novels in such workmanlike hands, they had better continue to cast pretty people in the lead roles; I found precious little else to enjoy here.
And I'm not even going to get started on how a ukulele OUGHT to be played...
Perhaps it's just because I spent 2011 dipping into Sondheim's Finishing the Hat, which contains some of the most perceptive writing on lyrics I have ever seen, but I've suddenly become acutely aware of people writing in a poetical style when they really, really shouldn't.
In the summer I blogged about some extremely dubious words written for a pretty dubious-sounding opera care of Lee Hall; more recently I heard an interview with Johnny Daukes, who (inaccurately) claims to have written 'the first UK film written entirely in rhyming couplets' - although I haven't seen the film, the trailer has enough dodgy scansion, in addition to the half-rhyme 'game I control'/'playing the role' and the downright awful pairing of 'beretta'/'peseta', to suggest the depths to which the wordsmithery in the film probably stoops.
However, none of this prepared me for what my disbelieving ears heard over Christmas, the nadir of my whole experience lyric writing and possibly the very death of poetry itself.
But then, could anything prepare anyone for a couplet which rhymes 'bland enamel one' with 'Andy Hamilton'?
Somebody ought to be very ashamed of himself indeed.
We'll dance in the dark
This is curious: here's young band covering a Bowie song from 2002, which gives the lie to the myth that Bowie ceased to be influential (or write decent songs) after 1980.
Now, for my money they're doing a pretty good job - certainly there are worse Bowie covers out there. Far, far worse.
But is it just me, or does the cover - all wall-of-sound guitars and U2-bass (i.e. where the bass plays every note 16 times in a row) - already sound dated?
Particularly when you compare it to the original, with its throwback "Heroes"-era bass thrust into a grungy rhythm mixed with New Orleans trumpet interjections plus a vocal verging on Shirley Bassey-esque, yet with a transparent sound that lets you hear it all - which somehow manages to sound bang up to date nearly ten years after its release:
At least there wasn't a dead parrot
The word ‘Pythonesque’ always sets my alarm bells ringing, being generally applied to writing which substitutes something-a-bit-self-referential for actual jokes. This would seem to be doubly true when it is applied to comedy about Monty Python, as the BBC drama Holy Flying Circus demonstrated last week.
This was ostensibly a dramatization of the controversy surrounding The Life of Brian culminating in the famously bitchy TV debate with Malcolm Muggeridge. But it was actually largely an excuse to indulge in a 90-minute series of sub-Python sketches in which actors playing the Pythons (or at least thin caricatures of them) were put into wince-inducingly self-referential situations and parodies of vaguely recognisable actual Python sketches. There were forays into animation (supposedly the-world-as-seen-through-the-eyes-of-Terry-Gilliam), smug references to the fact that this-was-a-modern-day-drama-with-actors-and-we-know-it! (Cleese telling a newspaper vendor ‘It’s 1979, no one in this country knows anything about Islam!’) and moments of crudity the likes of which Python never stooped to (presumably because it was felt that ‘that’s what they’d do if they were writing now’).
It was obviously an attempt to tell the story in a style that affectionately nodded (and winked) at the source material, the kind of thing that has been far more successfully explored elsewhere – the very fine The Life and Death of Peter Sellers springs to mind. But Peter Sellers’ career is perhaps easier to pastiche because the main stylistic consistency is Peter Sellers himself, and when you have an actor like Geoffrey Rush playing him you can go to town with the possibilities.
Not that there wasn’t a huge amount of talent on display in the Python thing – some of the characters got short shrift (Terry Jones was characterized by an inability to say the letter ‘r’, John Cleese was Basil Fawlty and Gilliam was a one-dimensional manically-staring American) but the cast gave their all to what they’d been given to work with, which in the case of Charles Edwards’ Michael Palin was substantially more.
And left alone to play the scenes, free from surreal interventions, the cast really brought to the drama to life – the debate itself being the key example. Here lay the biggest problem with the drama – the story itself was far more interesting than the script’s desperate attempts to make it interesting, as evidenced by the genuinely compelling TV debate itself which the Beeb kindly broadcast afterwards. And the script was trying really, really hard – something which certainly isn't Pythonesque because however hard the Pythons worked at their material (and they didn’t always work that hard), it always looked - and looks - effortless.
This script was so willfully surreal and self-referential that at times it came across as a student Monty Python appreciation society revue – well-meaning but horribly heavy-handed. And no, the fact that it even described itself as heavy-handed in one of its sledgehammer moments of self-reference doesn’t make it any less of a flaw.
Here is my obligatory paragraph about why the incidental music didn’t help: the incidental music was the now-obligatory ‘comedy music’ that you will find in every Hollywood light comedy and every mainstream comedy drama. It’s the music that has pizzicato strings and high wind instruments quietly going ‘pom pom pom pom pom pom pootle pom’ in the background in such an unobtrusive manner that it’s actually quite intrusive. Always full of augmented fourths. Which is absolutely fine for Desperate Housewives, but for a drama about Monty Python? Come on!!! Surely you don’t have to be a musician to notice that a drama unsubtly aping a comic form that was never subtle to begin with isn’t served by music that gently pootles away in the background?
It’s not that I don’t admire the attempt, but the drama was ultimately a huge disappointment because of what it could have been. If it had one saving grace it’s that it wasn’t quite such a dreadful ‘affectionate tribute’ as the car crash drama about Graham Chapman that Radio 4 broadcast last year. Now, what was that called? (Lark pauses to google it.)
…oh, well that says it all: Pythonesque.
And I didn't even consider the phallic implications
Whilst filling my car up with petrol today, I noticed a little Land Rover advert on the pump which carried the following slogan:
Why get a car when you can get a Land Rover?
Before my tank was full of petrol I had already mentally compiled the following list:
1. I already have a car, presumably like everyone reading this advert - so that particular train has left the station.
2. Were I in need of a car and simply hanging around petrol pumps for the vicarious pleasure of seeing other people fill up theirs, I would still consider a car rather more within my budget. I don't know much about Land Rovers but I think they're pretty pricey.
3. I live in an urban area in the South of England; most of the journeys I make are along flat, well-maintained roads of insignificant gradient. A car does the job pretty well, I find.
4. I tend to drive on my own a lot, so to get a Land Rover would be pretty selfish both from a hogging-the-road and an environmental perspective.
5. A car is easier to park.
6. A car is easier to wash.
7. I'm not a 'car person', but were I to fetishise cars I don't think I'd find a Land Rover particularly attractive. Why get a Land Rover when you can get a Bentley?
8. Maybe through sheer unreasoned prejudice, or maybe for all of the above reasons, I tend to regard people in my situation who drive Land Rovers as dickheads. I don't want to be one of them.
Then, as I drove away from the petrol station, the following thought occurred to me: why on earth should I be justifying my decision to buy a car in the first place?
Indeed, isn't it down to the folk at Land Rover to tell me why I should get a Land Rover when I can get a car?
And indeed, isn't that rather the whole point of advertising?
Evidently, driving cumbersome cars and thoroughly thinking through your advertising campaign before spending lots of money on it don't go hand in hand; and since I doubt very much that the folk at Land Rover who paid for it live on farms, at least one of my prejudices would appear to contain a nugget of truth...
I'm not quite sure what to make of this. I've just had an email newsletter from Girton College's development office about what's going on in the old place - you know, the kind of things they would tell me in the telephone campaign if I was considered rich enough to be worth phoning.
Now, I don't know what other people's alma maters put in their newsletters in the way of photographs, but I would imagine that even the most traditional Oxbridge colleges include a few pictures of youthful, optimistic students smiling at each other in the library, or chucking around a rugby ball, or revising on the lawns. You know, standard trendy students-working-and-playing-in-a-relaxed-atmosphere sort of stuff.
Not so Girton! Apart from a standard e-newsletter image of the college's Great Hall (fair enough), news of the college's progress and development are accompanied by a close up of some embroidery in the reception room... and a picture of the 1943 netball team.
Doesn't exactly give the most up-to-date picture of college life, does it? And dare I say it, the stereotype of 'female college' does rather leap out of the email, even though the first boys were admitted to the college before I was even born.
Oh, but hang on... here are a couple of pictures showing how things have changed! Though perhaps not in the way you might have expected...
Exhibit A: "College supervision in progress"
Eh? My former college is educating dogs now? There was a big fuss made some years ago about an animal testing site opening not far from Girton - have the more intelligent animals ended up at the college, to be tested more rigorously at undergraduate level? And perhaps that's progress - after all, they said women couldn't be educated, but Girton proved them wrong!
I suppose it's not even clear who is giving this supervision - and I have to say, the dog looks rather more in control of the situation, calmly enjoying its student's response to a witticism about land masses or something.
But surely Girton haven't taken to giving fellowships to animals??? If only there were another photo in the email to clarify what's really going on.
Oh, hang on - Exhibit B:
"Buster supervising in the lodge"
Oh. I guess that settles it then.