#KeepTheBan on fox-hunting, for foxes’ sake!

To follow my previous blog on fox hunting, firstly, I’d like to thank all the people who sent me lovely responses. Hope and compassion are alive and people are active against the ban, and that is very reassuring.

I have tried over the years to calm my passionate nature over this issue and I now attempt to demonstrate calm logic. It is difficult not to be angry where violence against a living creature is the central issue, but I have found that people seldom listen to arguments which involve fluffy animals and are more likely to respond to cool facts. Of course, this argument is flawed as, if we were to substitute a different animal- a pet cat, a horse, people would become outraged and quickly validate their anger. However, I am always happy to revert to logic.

I have also tried to be compassionate towards people who hunt: I don’t accept it as either their right or their culture, but I avoid calling them ‘scum’ and other emotive insults as it doesn’t provoke positive discussion between equal partners. I have been on the end of some fairly nasty anti-sabbing behaviour in the past where I was abused at the hands of hunters and where there was no discussion, of course, but that involved only a few individuals and it is interesting to see that the courts are now prosecuting people who attack anti-hunt protesters. That is how it should be according to the law: hunt saboteurs should never be at risk for protesting against bloodsports. It would be even better if there were no protest because there was no fox hunt. I have dealt with this issue in my blog: allowing the hunters to have ‘fun’ without killing an animal is possible. I am not a kill joy but I am also not a killer.

I thought, rather than make further arguments myself on this blog post, I’d attach some very clever statistics and facts, below, which put a rational argument in place.

Of course, most people who will read this blog know these facts already. But wouldn’t it be great if… imagine, if… someone who was on the side of the hunt read it and actually had the strength of resolve to change their mind.

Thanks for reading my blog and thanks for keeping the faith.

Two poems for Holocaust Memorial Day

For those whom we remember and those we will never know.


Spring prayer after winter

These months have been brick cold and here

Threadbare blankets hold ice, soft from our mouths’ sucking

Two were taken out this morning, stiff

As dawn frost and blue white

Their coughing clogged in the night with their breath.

I sit and shiver and wait for spring.

Our shaven heads feel the wind’s cut

The day’s toil seals our skin with sweat

Bones remain brittle within thin rags.

Snow falls in darkness, flakes against shadows

And settles soft like an embrace on spikes of wire.

The chimneys belch fire and ash by day

But we shiver as we watch the distant warming.

I pray through still lips for the end of winter

That spring will wrap me in her shawl a small moment

That grass will dare to poke through mud mashed by so many boots

I pray for a warm cup in clasped hands

For soup to soothe knotted starvation

For sleep without sobbing and jagged cries

And the shape of sentinels black across bunks

I pray that spring will melt the metal in my shivering heart

And the sounds of trains approaching and the choking stench of coiling smoke

And the fear which lurches as we stand bare and broken in lines

Will stop with the start of a new day

Evening at supper

The bushes part and eyes move.

A rabbit in each hand

Nanny gap tooth grins

Full chuckles in her belly.

‘She got two pheasants out-a back,’ says Daddy

‘An’ hotchiwitchi (*) to bake.

She alright for now.’

The pan’s steaming and smoke twists from the logs are lovers ‘twining.

Vapour vanishes in the night studded with stars

Like a blanket full of light holes but warm.

The bushes come together and eyes become metal barrels.

The smell of baking clay and sweet juices fizzing hot,

Sister at the pump washing splashing light against iron shadows,

Laughter fiddles music in the air,

Children chase then sit chewing quiet.

Nanny sucks on bread sops in gravy.

The old ways are diamonds in her fingertips

Secrets simmer in her eyes.

Smoke dies down to sleep in the starlight

Dogs settle to gnaw on bones.

Silence sits soft for a moment. Then

Gunfire spatters in the air and bodies roll red.

The men come out and kick the huddled dead

Take what they can find and leave.

(*) Hotchiwitchi= hedgehog

High rate for the H8ful Eight

I need to review my habit of going to the cinema and buying tickets in Row A. I choose to sit at the front, partly because I am a bit myopic and partly because if I don’t sit there, someone with a big head will come and sit directly in front of me. However, Row A and the pre-film warning about bloody violence should be enough to persuade me to move back to Row D.

But it never does. I still spend the gory moments peeking between my fingers. And ‘The Hateful Eight’ doesn’t disappoint with its gory moments.

A Tarantino film is always a big deal to go and see, because his other films have been so ground-breakingly creative and quirky. Expectations are always high. ‘The Hateful Eight’ takes place inside a stagecoach during a snowstorm in Wyoming, and then most of the film is set inside Millie’s Haberdashery, which is a stagecoach lodge. It is some time after the American Civil War, maybe in the 1880s or 1890s.

The premise is that a bounty hunter, John Ruth, is bringing in a murderer, Daisy Domergue, to be hanged in the next town. The drama comes from the fusion and interaction of the characters in the lodge and the constant undercurrent of tension that Daisy will be aided by one of the other characters to make an escape.

The film is divided into six chapters and the action revolves around the enigmatic character of Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren and the rapport, stuffed with farcical dishonesty and machinations, between a strong cast which includes Tim Roth, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mark Madsen and Bruce Dern. Walter Goggins as Sherrif Chris does a plausible impression of Jim Carrey throughout the whole film and it is good to see Channing Tatum featuring in a slightly more demanding role as bad boy, Jody.

The action is bloody beyond all expectations and, as you know, I will never offer spoilers, but there are scenes where other directors may have offered a murder with a pint of blood and Tarantino will give you a truck load, complete with recognizable bits of brain. It is definitely the hyperbole of violence which makes those moments horrifically and hysterically funny.

Tarantino has always been the master of using music as a quirky semiotic in his film and there is a great moment where Bob the Mexican plays Silent Night on the piano during a scene of mischief. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is cheekily used to make moments impactful, too.

For me, two things make this film great. Firstly, Tarantino’s ability to mix shock and the unexpected with credible twists and turns. I spent little time wondering what would happen next or trying to predict outcomes, as I was so involved in the moment of the storyline.

Secondly, the action is so fast-paced and when the story does slow down, the skilful acting makes each moment a morsel of brilliance. For example, Samuel L Jackson has a monologue about killing a white man: I won’t spoil the excitement and tell you who it is or when, but just take a moment to listen to the arrogance, the hubris, the lethargy and the resentment in his voice. Superb!

It is part of Jackson’s repertoire of  moody moments throughout the film which make his character effortlessly brilliant. The same is true for the other actors. Roth is a genius: you dislike and distrust him before you know what he is. Madsen and Jason Leigh are multifaceted and interesting and Demian Bichir as Mexican Bob is hilarious.

Add to the superb acting Tarantino’s gift for keeping an audience in suspense then throwing the unpredicted into the mix, and you have a great film. There are moments of sheer brilliance: the rough rapport between Russell and Jason Leigh, filled with almost unnoticeable seconds of tenderness; the symbolism of Major Warren’s letter from Lincoln, the snowstorm outside and the crackling heat inside the lodge. The flashback to ‘what happened before’ is as exhilarating as it is elucidating and moments such as the coffee, the  ‘huevos’ and the final ending will stay with you for a long time.

You will know Tarantino’s style  by his previous films. This one does not disappoint. It surprises, it shocks, it provokes thought: it is at times a bit uncomfortable and at times it makes you laugh perhaps when you shouldn’t but, above all, it goes way beyond the visual spectacle of white snow and red blood and it offers some stunning performances from some well cast and superbly directed actors. It has venom and intelligence, wit and mischief. It is a drama which takes place in a single room, but this isn’t Chekhov’s ‘Cherry Orchard’!

Go and see it. Get row A!

In pursuit of the unspeakable: fox or foe?

Tony Blair said in 1999 that Conservatives were  ‘the party of fox hunting, Pinochet and hereditary peers: the uneatable, the unspeakable and the unelectable.’

I can go back a little before that when, as an adolescent, I was in a pop-punk band and wrote a song which made me a bit notorious. Plugs were pulled on us when we performed it in pubs. We had our car tyres slashed and we were harangued in public places. The song was called ‘Mr Tally Ho!’ and I didn’t hold back on my opinions. The chorus went:

‘Mr Tally ho, Mr Tally Ho, ain’t there nothin’ better than your bugle to blow?’

Halcyon days. I used to go sabbing with my Dad on Boxing Day; my Mum went out and screamed at the local hunt in her typical Manchester-Irish way, telling them what she thought of their ‘sport’.

So there’s my background and I can easily be dismissed as biased. That was before I stumbled across a doe in the woods one day, dead, savaged by the local hunt and left for later.

Then I met Scott, who told me, his eyes shining, how he had been ‘bloodied’ as a child, his face smeared with fox blood, after his first hunt, and he told me I had no idea how exciting that was to a kid, the chase, the catch, the victory.

Then I met Jenny, a wonderful person, horse – mad, posh as hell, who loved all things equine, including the social life and the dressage and the smart, red coats and the thrill of the chase.

Scott and Jenny were great people.

I liked them; I didn’t ever like what they did.

I have been through the rigmarole of their excuses. ‘You should see what foxes do to chickens. They are a menace.’

I have a neighbour who keeps his chickens safely penned in. There is a fox who comes round my house often, making the low haunting sound in the night. My Dad said the fox is searching for the mate. There are no dead chickens next door. There have, however, been many a dead rabbit on my kitchen floor, decapitated, eyeless, bowels strewn for yards. My cat, The Dude, would then roll over provocatively and ask me to rub his tummy. Animals’ nature, not mine. I think I know better than to chase the cat around the garden for two hours and then give it a slow death.

As part of the Tory election manifesto last year, they promised to “give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote, with a government bill in government time”. The government has since calculated it would be unlikely to win such a vote.

It is clear that fox hunting should be, as MP Tracey Crouch, a patron of the Conservatives Against Fox Hunting group, said, a ‘pursuit from the past’ and should be ‘consigned to history’. Even some Tories recognise that it belongs with other violent and feudal traditions such as witch burning, droit de seigneur and peasant flogging. It does not cull foxes effectively and that is not it’s intention, whatever the hunters protest. It is a sport.

I love sport and I am all for fitness and fun. Horses are beautiful creatures, although I wouldn’t saddle one up and whip it, but riding is exhilarating and I so don’t want the beagles to be killed off because they are no longer useful, so there is an answer which is a pure compromise but which should make lovers of the chase very happy.

The hunt meets in it’s usual way, wearing the pretty red suits and sharing a slug of brandy together in the dawn mist. Jeeves won’t lose his job. He can set off first, on a horse with a long rag on a rope, dragging a scent which the dogs can chase. After a while, so that Jeeves has time to bash on through the countryside, taking care not to damage the environment or anyone’s cat, the hunt give chase and have a jolly good romp through the woods, blowing their bugles and getting hot and sweaty, until Jeeves drops the smelly rag and they can leap on it and devour it.

All good fun and not a fox in sight, then down the pub for a pheasant or two, or maybe a delicious nut roast and some wine.

‘The Homesman’, a ‘homely’ woman and why I was bored with it all

Picture the scene: I invite round some friends, we order a nice take- away and watch a movie. Expectations run high as we choose the 2014 film ‘The Homesman’, starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and also starring Hilary Swank and Meryl Streep. There’s a good cast, a promising film, and critics are calling it the best film since Eastwood’s ‘The Unforgiven’, so we think it will be good. The wine is open, the slipper socks are on and the food is delivered bang on time: crispy papadums, a tasty sagwalla and some nice basmati rice. We all snuggle down and press the on button, and the title comes up: ‘The Homesman’.

Firstly, we are treated to Swank, whose character is self-sufficient and independent and a dreamer. She is Mary Bee Cuddy, 31 years old, single and single-handedly working her smallholding in 19th century Nebraska. She ploughs, she pumps water, she cooks, all this in a dress, with a smile on her face as wide as the Nebraskan landscape. She invites some grubby local farming guy to dinner, proposes marriage after singing sweetly to him and he has the audacity to turn her down. We discover he thinks she is ‘plain as an old tin pail… and bossy.’

I write this gender imbalance off as 19th century patriarchal culture and I continue to try to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the movie.

Mary Bee then volunteers to cross difficult terrain in order to fetch three ‘mad women’ back home, to be cared for in the church, because the dishonourable menfolk of the town refuse to make the journey; she is brave and determined and has leadership and team spirit. Before she begins her quest, she saves the life of a weak, aimless army deserter who is a cheat and a coward, who calls himself ‘George Briggs’, and she cajoles him into accompanying her, as recompense for her charity.

The ‘mad women’ have lost their wits through abuse and bereavement and their men are quite happy to let them go, like they would send an old mare to the knackers or chuck out a broken chair, so the wives are packed up, chained and barred in an old wagon.

Swank is great in this film. Her character is plausible and poignant: she has guts and panache, but it ends badly when she proposes to the unprepossessing and unpleasant Briggs. He turns her down but, when she appears at his sleeping bag, naked, he is kind enough to give her a quick seeing to, and of course this reinforces her lonely plight, and there is a shocking outcome the next morning.

We are led to believe that such was the dilemma of women in the 1850s, a choice between bad marriage or the lonely and demoralising social lowliness of spinsterhood. So good old Briggs brings the loony ladies to a sweet home where the church can look after them, after he has meted out a few punishments to some bad men and become a bit of a rogue hero on the way, binge shooting and setting fire to a hotelier who will not give them food.

He buys shoes for a barefoot sixteen year old, telling her sentimentally that Mary Bee was the best of women, and then he abruptly suggests that the kid marries him. No wonder she turns up her nose. It was enough to put me off my roti.

Everyone wants to look good, of course, but that ‘good’ should not be decided by someone else: certainly not the contemporary George Briggses of this world.

If the film intended to show me that a woman’s lot was not a happy one – there they all are, strong, lovely, and alone in an unforgiving landscape while the only male, a whisky-soaked deserter, was there to judge them plain or mad, turn down their advances, chain them up and call all the shots – then it did it’s job well. I would go further. Swank’s Mary Bee was neither plain nor useless, although Lee Jones’ Briggs was both of these things his rejection cost her dearly. The film gave me no logical reason why she should be so suddenly desperate, other than the prevalent history and culture, and it is odd that she proposes to the one-dimensional Briggs out of the blue, moments after castigating him for his bad character.

The ‘mad women’ were parodies, stereotypes, hissing and wailing at one moment, then staring into space, and then being meek, doing as they were told. They were neither credible people nor objects of pathos. They were tangential to the story, other than being ‘mad’ and, once deposited at the church where kindly Meryl Streep, a vicar’s wife, said they’d be looked after, they were forgotten for the rest of the film. Their care, cure and rehabilitation didn’t matter at all. Despite being the impetus for the story, there is no emotional investment, by the audience, in them or in their future.

I got nothing from this film. It was disjointed in its story line and I thought it was a little unclear about it’s purpose. It was indulgent and too long, and if it intended just to be bleak and show us how tough it was to be a woman 150 years ago, then Tommy Lee Jones’ character didn’t serve to make that point credibly. Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee begins the film strongly: then all of a sudden she is so desperate, even a bum won’t have her, so she immediately loses all hope.

I didn’t feel that the positive role model who failed so miserably made much sense – the wonderful Hilary Swank, giving up so readily when she had so much to offer – and for so little in Tommy Lee Jones! Maybe that was the whole point, but then the film went on to turn the hapless Briggs into some sort of quasi-messianic dispenser of justice who gambled and drank and danced on a boat while his memo to Mary Bee floated off into indivisibility, becoming, just as she was, unnoticed. Was that the point, as he ambles on to the end, drunk and raucous?

It’s at this point that if the film’s moral is one which shows women’s meagre lifestyle and their few options, I hope women of our time have changed considerably, and are no longer faced with the lack of choices which caused Mary Bee to do what she did. I am surrounded by airbrushed Facebook images of females who put up gorgeous pictures of themselves so that friends and various sycophants will tell them how lovely they look. Some people still dress little girls as pink princesses and urge them to simper and stamp their feet: the aspiration is that they will ‘break hearts’ when they grow up but we should maybe urge them to break rules and to become independent, strong and to follow their own desires.

I know women who deny themselves and castigate themselves so they will not go unnoticed, or that they will appear more attractive to others. What they look like is of most importance to them, and it comes before health, happiness or self-respect. How good they look is entirely based on someone else’s opinion. Like poor Mary Bee Cuddy.

The most beautiful women I know radiate inner confidence: they don’t care less about what others think of their appearance. Of course they look good and want to look good, on their own terms, in their own skin. One woman I know is fifty, attractive because of her wit, her iconoclasm, her intellect and her refusal to take on board others’ expectations. Another one I know is in her twenties, fiercely clever, fiercely independent, following her own future – no one would dare to write on her face book page ‘Oh you look gorgeous, babe.’ She knows she looks good, but she is focused on much bigger issues like having fun and being successful on her own terms. Everyone wants to look good, of course, but that ‘good’ should not be decided by someone else: certainly not the contemporary George Briggses of this world.

I didn’t like ‘The Homesman’ as a film: it was lengthy, prevaricating and, at times, pointless, but if it tells us anything, it is that Mary Bee should have ignored the old drunken bum, not rescued him and gone on instead to live her own life, singing and ploughing and cooking, and looking great pushing the plough and horse in her dress, and she should have paid no attention to those who called her plain and bossy. She was strong, lovely and admirable.

Mr Nice Guy might have turned up one day – they usually do, there are many of them out there – and the ones she propositioned weren’t worth the paper from my takeaway meal. And, of course,  if Mr Right didn’t turn up, she could have invited the three ‘mad women’ round for peach pie and had a bloody good time on her own terms.

The Revenant: Man v Nature, Man v Man?

I decided to test the hype for myself: I went to see ‘The Revenant’ at the cinema last night, sitting on the front row, right in front of the Big Screen. I wasn’t put off by the preamble warning about blood and gore and detailed injuries: I knew this was a film about some guys enduring the hardships of nature and that there would be a few battles and some token bloodshed. All the hype is right, though. It is a bleak film.

Directed last year by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the film is in cinemas now and it’s likely to win Oscars. The acting, sound track, cinematography, make up and costume and direction are all exceptional.

You will never be on the receiving end of spoilers from my film reviews: I absolutely respect that you want to go to see a film, suspend your disbelief and enjoy it without some inconsiderate writer butting in to tell you what happens in the best bits and what you should think. So, I will lay down a few hors d’oeuvres- in more ways than one, and hope that you’ll want to go and see it for yourself. (Remember this pun for when you watch it!)

‘It begins with a bloody battle which makes Macbeth look like a church tea party.’

I am the right person to review this film: as a female, a vegan, an animal lover, a pacifist, a believer in human rights, I should not have enjoyed this film at all. There are so many reasons why I should have found it too shocking or gratuitous. But it is an honest film, and if you can accept all the blood and guts and focus on the screen, watching the tale unfold, accepting the depiction for the story it is, the film is outstanding.

It begins with a bloody battle which makes Macbeth look like a church tea party. This is a violent film and the setting is harsh and brutal, like the men’s lives. The story line is predictable: it is a picaresque. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), sets out to achieve something important to him, a task of love and duty, and he has skills as a tracker, so we know where his journey will take him. His arch-enemy, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), is wicked, ruthless, cunning and must pay the price for his deeds. Catharsis and confrontation are inevitable from the opening scenes.

There will be criticisms: it is, in many ways,  DiCaprio’s ‘Passion’- he suffers, martyr-like, for his pure love and  then he rises ‘from the dead’ to complete his mission. We even see him in a church with Christ crucified as a backdrop. But we accept that the film is a platform for a remarkable actor who has always been prodigious. You may have seen him in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ as a teenager in the intense role of Arnie Grape.

There are some almost unwatchable scenes in ‘The Revenant’, some involving animals, and some involving combat, slaughter and  violence. There are only two women in the film: a dead wife and a rape victim, so some might say this is something of an andro-centric film. However, I think it has a universal significance for it’s visual and allegorical link to the savagery of nature. The characters are important but never developed: we know as much about them at the end as we do in the first few minutes. They are there as part of nature, to pit their wits against its forces. But none of that matters. They represent aspects of humanity and human behaviour and the will to survive hardship and loss.

The acting of Hardy and DiCaprio is everything you would expect: two sublime performers, both in the scenes they are together and apart, they are two instinctive dramatic geniuses of our age. Performance is an integral part of what makes this film work aesthetically.

And then there is the setting.

The scenery is stunning: snowstorms, rushing rivers, tall pines, huge skies and all the forces that nature can throw at mankind. The animals suffer and are killed  for their skins, for food and they are there for man’s taking, use and abuse: there is prejudice and suspicion amongst men, but the film is about survival, and DiCaprio’s Glass does exactly that. He survives against all possible odds.

It is hard to believe that some scenes, such as the one with the bear, are created by CGI: they are so realistic. ‘The Revenant’ is best seen on a large screen – get seats in rows A or B! The power, impact and colours of nature are truly overwhelming, and there is an irony there too, as the film was made against a time bomb of global warming, as DiCaprio has been saying in interviews about the film.

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is perfect and never obtrusive: much of the soundtrack, however, is silence, breathing, animal noises, the environment: all constant semiotics for the struggle between one  man and the elements or one man against another.

It is a brutal film, a shocking one, but we are safe in the hands of the actors: our journey is one where we readily believe the task Glass sets himself and, when the ending comes, it is exquisitely performed, the twists and turns highlighting hero meets villain against an unyielding backdrop. There is the reappearance of the ghost of ‘Braveheart’ in the last moments but the law of nature has triumphed and we forgive a moment of gratuitous sentimentality and revel in the power of the performance.

‘The Revenant’ is not a film for those who do not buy into the significance of the wilful traverse through an unkind environment, or Glass’ reasons for wanting revenge. It is not for those viewers who are easily shocked by the detailed gore or the harshness of man’s treatment of other men, women and animals. However, it is spectacular in its brutality and it’s a great film for those who enjoy breathtaking cinematography and consummate performances. I wonder if there are better male actors at the moment than Hardy and DiCaprio: I doubt it, as they are completely absorbing, credible and inspirational.

I hope the film wins many awards: it deserves to be remembered as a ground-breaking film on many levels: acting, directing, cinematography, sound, CGI. Nothing is held back: the excessive killing and bloodshed, the violence, the cruelty of nature and of mankind, and the battle of two forces, one against the other.The characters and the storyline, while not impressive for their depth, are detailed, perfectly delivered  and always moving.

I think it is, and will become, a great film of our time.

Snow Cake – Alan Rickman’s best film?

As the plaudits and praise rightly pile up about the late and impressive actor, Alan Rickman, people will ponder his best films. Of course, the blockbusting and memorable films such as ‘Die Hard’, ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ and ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’ will be high on most people’s ratings. But I have seen little praise for ‘Snow Cake’ and I think it is one of his most astonishing films. If you haven’t seen it, watch it: you won’t be disappointed. It was directed by Marc Evans and was released in 2007.

It features Rickman as Alex Hughes. He is lonely, emotionally stunted and he has been in prison. Travelling through Canada, he picks up a teenage hitch hiker, Vivienne, and the story begins. No spoilers from me, but I cannot listen to Free’s ‘All Right Now’  without remembering the impact of the scene which propels Alex to visit Vivienne’s mother, Linda, played by Sigourney Weaver. Linda is autistic and we, through Alex, begin to see beyond her inability to express emotions and her obsessive -compulsive domestic habits. As we watch their relationship develop, humour, humanity and warmth bring about a bond between the characters which is both touching and compelling .

Carrie-Anne Moss excels as Maggie, a neighbour with whom Alex becomes romantically involved. The three characters merge and move apart, leaving you the space to form conclusions about human relationships.

It is a  film which is profoundly well-performed by three supreme actors. The premise may be unlikely, but the commitment to plot and character makes it not only plausible, but makes it impossible not to connect with Alex Hughes on an emotional level. Rickman’s Alex develops from a quirky outsider to someone we warm to, we respect and, eventually, he is heroic.

Weaver’s performance is detailed and intelligent: it brings dignity to a role which could have been predictably sentimental, contrived or a parody stereotype of someone with autism. Instead, scenes such as Linda and Alex on the trampoline are poignant and powerful, and there are the impactful moments where we realise that she has more ability to be perceptive than we initially give her credit for: the Scrabble game where Linda invents words is one such example.

Rickman’s performance is a triumph: slowly, through his languorous, stunted initial rapport with the other characters, we realise the depth of his loneliness: we find out his back story and we celebrate his later achievements.

The visual backdrop underpins the characters’ dilemmas: the small town Canadian setting is snow-laden and stunning. Rickman and Moss have an exposition scene by a lake where water drips from melting ice: the cold is physical and emotional and there is a kind of healing in the acceptance of the hard landscape which turns into a thing of beauty.

‘Snow Cake’ is, in some ways, a gentle film: in other ways, it is disturbing and allegorical. It typifies what Rickman does so well: he develops a character gradually; he is aloof, a little awkward, and then the ice melts and we realise he is funny, likeable and, above all things, he is a good man, despite past mistakes. His performance, alongside Weaver’s in-depth and complex portrayal of Linda and Moss’ strong, philosophical foil, Maggie, add up to a thought-provoking and satisfying film, set amid scenery which will take your breath away.

Of course, we will celebrate Alan Rickman through Snape and Gruber and the Sheriff of Nottingham. He was a tremendous actor. But spare a couple of hours to watch ‘Snow Cake’. It’s a great celebration of the man’s talents and a powerful film which you won’t forget in a hurry.

Remembering four great talents…

“I, that did never weep, now melt with woe
That winter should cut off our spring-time so.”

Henry VI

The last few weeks have seen the passing of several people I have greatly admired; all of them have left us too early; all of them will leave a huge gap in so many people’s lives. They will also leave a legacy which renders them part of arts culture as we know it. That is not enough: it would be better to keep them here with us, but it is all we have and we are grateful to have it.

Lemmy Kilminster, Motorhead’s bass guitarist and singer, great innovator and a man who knew how to enjoy life. I went to the gigs, bought the music, played it too loud, and still wear the t-shirt. Only someone who is such a virtuoso and such a character could be forgiven for the lyrics on Jalibait, which are probably not his finest. But for his performances, his irreverent persona, his music, his lifestyle and his chutzpah, I say thanks.

David Bowie was there making special music since as far back as I can remember. I had a friend who was in love with him, and in love with Ziggy Stardust. I have his albums – some I love, some I don’t completely get. He was, though, the Man who Sold the World – Cobain’s version always comes to my mind. For his uniqueness, his unrivalled talent for creative self-reinvention, his daring to be eccentric, for being a role model who always dared to create new ideas, I say thanks.

Alan Rickman is the voice and the face of so many brilliant films. He was a genius and his phlegmatic British persona was such a great fit in everything from Sense and Sensibility to Robin Hood, from Die Hard to Mesmer, from Perfume to Les Liaisons Dangereuses. I have a friend who was in love with him purely for his performance in Truly, Madly, Deeply. My own favourite and unforgettable Rickman performance was his role in Snow Cake, which you must watch if you haven’t yet seen it. His rapports with the different characters bring the film to life – he and Sigourney Weaver are electric on screen together. Theatre and film add such joy and richness to our lives. Rickman’s performances were wry, sonorous, sexy, sardonic: he was a complete performer, and while he will be best remembered as the complex hero Severus Snape, there is no performance in which he fails to shine. His character and his rapport with Emma Thompson made, for me, the film Love Actually watchable. For being a hero and a great villain, I say thanks.

Of course, there is a huge difference between the world mourning a cultural icon and losing someone you personally know. It is tremendously difficult to find words to translate someone’s life without sounding crass or facile, but sometimes it is important to communicate how much a person has contributed to enrich so many others’ lives.

Kelly Housecroft, Drama teacher and teacher of teachers, has also passed this week. She was a great role model, a strong intellect, a huge talent, a devoted mum and a genuinely lovely person. It was a gift to have known her. She was a rare talent and leaves a space which won’t be filled.

I will give the last word to Alan Rickman because his words are so resonant. Four people, talented and special, leave a huge legacy. Those of us who can remember their gifts to the world and how they touched our lives are blessed and richer for having known or experienced them and their talents. They are unforgettable and live on in their gifts.

Iain Banks, Petina Gappah, Saul Bellow and me: a writing lesson

Most writers read a lot. I remember one of my brilliant tutors on my Master’s course telling me I have an ‘ear’ for writing and I replied that I read all the time. She suggested the two weren’t always connected, but I believe that good writers inspire good writers.

To that end, I have just finished reading three books, all which have inspired me for different reasons. Even books I don’t like inspire me, on reflection: that Donna Tartt wrote the magnificent ‘Goldfinch’ after she wrote ‘The Little Friend’, which I found slow-moving and indulgent, is a real inspiration to me as a writer. We can all write our best works and be brilliant in our judgement and sometimes we will write at our worst. It’s normal.

But on to Bellow, Banks and Gappah. They wrote the first three books I read after Christmas. (Most of my presents were books, and long may that continue!) Three more different books you could not choose, but each in its own way inspires me to want to write as well as I can and, indeed, to start scribbling straight away (if scribbling is what we do at keyboards).

Iain Banks’ ‘The Quarry’ is a great read. The persona is a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. It is at this point that I could have been put off, shrugged and thought about bandwagons , but eighteen-year-old Kit is no stereotype and Banks has been careful to make the character’s idiosyncrasies his talents and to develop an interesting, quirky and heroic protagonist.

The story is a kind of Peter’s Friends, or Guy’s friends: Kit’s father, Guy, is dying and his University friends of old come round to share time, drink, take cocaine and other substances and look for a significant, lost video.

No spoilers from me now, but some great characters. Some I warmed to – Hol is just like me in so many ways – and some I disliked, such as Pris and Rob and Ali and Paul. What I found inspirational about the novel was the skilful way Banks writes, strong prose which guides the reader where he wants them to go. He is a virtuoso storyteller. The pace is fast and not indulgent and the prose is sometimes hilarious and sometimes poignant, yet rarely sentimental. Banks’ storyline is – dare I say it – nothing special. The skill is all in the telling. That is a great lesson in itself.

How I wish I could write like Saul Bellow. As a writer, I enjoy writing description, but I usually keep my evoking of person and place respectfully shortened to allow my reader to use his or her own imagination to fill in gaps and render it personal. You know the thing- a sketch, an outline, some unexpected detail then let the reader run with it. Not Saul Bellow. In ‘Mr Sammler’s Planet’, the descriptions of Sammler go beyond his blind eye and bushy brow; his daughter Shula’s wig is a thing of wonder to the reader and the thief on the train is described far beyond his expensive camel-hair coat. I love the way Bellow writes. A little like the wonderful Gogol, Saul Bellow is sitting at your shoulder, telling you how he sees it. And he tells it with such accuracy and lucidity. That is inspirational.

I highly recommend both books if you haven’t read them, and the same is more than true for Petina Gapppah’s ‘The Book of Memory.’ I don’t know why I haven’t read it before; it is an important book.

Firstly, it is inspirational for the way the story begins. Grab your reader from the first sentence. Give them a knock-out punch which will make them reel throughout the rest of the pages.In the first few lines, we realise that Memory’s parents sold her, she is on death row and is accused of killing the man they sold her to. So there is a plot you so want to unravel as a reader.A great lesson to any writer is give the reader a puzzle and make them want to solve it with what happens now?

Memory is an albino woman in a prison in Zimbabwe and her story is told to her lawyer, enabling easy access to storytelling and flashbacks. Another lesson: set it up right and the story will flow. And a third lesson: create a character who is interesting, resolutions not resolved, an interesting past and an unforeseeable future and you have magic the reader cannot resist.

I am researching for my second novel. I have a few shreds of ideas and I can’t help but analyse what inspires me in other writers. Of course, I will look at material and ideas outside books, but it is important, I think, to gain inspiration from as many places as possible. One good place to start is always to consider what other writers do well and then ask myself how I can apply it freshly to my own work.

The other side of the same coin is to ask myself what doesn’t work for me as a reader and how can I avoid making similar mistakes in my writing. Unnecessary indulgence in description, (the boring bits!), too much telling and not enough showing, accidental writer intrusion and characters I don’t engage with (either positively or negatively,) are high on my list.

My next move in my research plan is equally inspiring: I will undertake some travelling to locations, some on-line research and some calm restful thinking which involves a beach or a long walk in the countryside.

Reading lots of books, walking, thinking, finding out. Are there any down sides to being a writer? That will follow in another blog post, I think.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

I recall the excitement last year amongst readers, when people found out Ishiguro had a new book out, his first in ten years. I must admit, I admire his muscled, perfect prose and his ability to lead the reader through a story, revealing just the right amount of information to spur the plot and the intrigue forward. However, I didn’t much like ‘Remains of the Day’: however good it was, it didn’t resonate because I couldn’t connect with the desires and behaviours of the refined, stoical characters.

‘Never Let Me Go’ was clever, political and shocking: a dystopian, science- fiction theme with plausible and engaging central protagonists is always impressive. Ishiguro’s characterisation  of Kathy is poignant and the love triangle involving her, Ruth and Tommy is at once funny and fragile against the backdrop of an  orphanage of cloned children bred for transplant organs.

‘The Buried Giant’ is something else. It is a book I would buy for my friends. I finished reading it in days. It is ‘Siddhartha’ meets fantasy fiction. It is about ogres and dragons and arthurian knights. It is set in seventh century Britain. The protagonists are an old Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who set off on a journey to their son’s village. They are not allowed a candle to light their dark and humble home because they are old, and their world is enveloped in a mist, both figurative and literal, which makes them forget the past. Killing Querig, the she-dragon, will rid the world of this mist but do they really want to remember the past?

Axl and his ‘princess’, Beatrice, remind me of Nell and Nagg in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Endgame’, the couple who live in dustbins. They are restricted, wholly symbiotic and we fear for their safety. Having a past you don’t remember can only result in trouble and Beatrice’s recurrent pains in her side make her vulnerable, so we cannot as readers invest in their future .

There are some great action scenes in ‘The Buried Dragon’: being attacked by pixies in a boat, fighting ogres in a burning castle. There are some exciting characters: Wistan, the warrior, the enigmatic Edwin with his dragon’s bite and the archaic Sir Gawain. The book bursts with imagination and it is a great story for lovers of fantasy fiction. It would make a great film, and the animation and CGI would thrill viewers of all ages.

It works well on the level of symbolic or allegorical meaning: the omnipresent mist hints at a world where it is better to forget the Britons’ betrayal and slaughter of the Saxons and to live in a present where memory is unimportant; to recall the past would be to evoke prejudice and bitterness. Of course, the denying of knowledge  forces the characters to live in a state  of uninformed naiveté, and there is a childlike quality to Axl and Beatrice’s relationship which keeps them both harmonious and superficial.

It is a brave novel for Ishiguro to have written. A new author wouldn’t dare to offer such a book for adults, and I know there are many people who are disappointed in ‘The Buried Giant’, being fans of his earlier, cooler prose and his use of language which represses meaning and demands subtextual analysis. The sales for the Juvenile market of Fantasy Fiction in 2014 was 45.5 million, and I wonder whether Ishiguro may lose some adult readers but gain a new wave of younger ones? Certainly, at times there is a sense of parody in the action and the language is often contrived and heavily stylised. But this is Ishiguro, after all. He can write what he likes.

Yet, I love this book. I think it is fresh, thoughtful, bold and innovative. Yes, the story and the characters may be simplistic, but it is a story which is at all times well shaped and well told, and the simplicity evokes an old world where the characters are kept in the dark and shapes of unimaginable creatures lurk beyond the fog.

The past is shrouded a mist and the future is dark and unknown  The story is tender, troubled and it tells of a couple whose lives are a blissful ignorance and asks about the importance and danger of the acquisition of knowledge.

It is a novel for our times.