The brothers Grimsby: definitely mad for it.

When it came out on DVD, I bought a copy of The Brothers Grimsby because the two main actors are both highly skilled. Mark Strong is a ubiquitous performer who has excelled in so many films, from  Our Friends in the North to Sherlock Holmes, from Kingsmen to Anna Karenina and RocknRolla. He has been in Prime Suspect and also in Twelfth Night. Strong is a versatile and consummate performer and in this film he stars alongside Sacha Baron Cohen.

Baron Cohen studied History at Cambridge before being tutored by a French drama teacher called Philippe Gaulier,whose style of physical theatre, mime and clowning owes much to Jacques Lecoq, the guru of movement-based theatre. Other students of Gaulier include Emma Thompson, Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicite and Helena Bonham Carter, who have all acquired strong skills under Gaulier’s tuition. Baron Cohen’s training has been evident in all of his clown roles and Grimsby is no different.

I could take or leave Ali G: I didn’t like Bruno and I refused to be offended by Borat. I did quite enjoy The Dictator and I believe that there is a place in comedy for iconoclasm and pushing barriers. This said, I laughed out loud at The Brothers Grimsby from start to finish. It is a genuinely funny film.

The story is straight from the Blood Brothers genre: separated as orphans, Sebastian becomes a secret agent with MI6 and his elder brother, Nobby, is a heavy drinking football- mad father of eleven who lives in an English fishing town. The brothers have been separated for 28 years but Nobby is ever-hopeful that they will be reunited one day. They finally meet at a benefit where Sebastian is attempting to foil an assassination attempt. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong and there are scandalous occurrences involving Daniel Radcliffe before the brothers embark on a picaresque adventure to save the world. Their exploits culminate in a climax of action in Chile at an England vs. Germany football final.

There are some hilarious scenes. Without giving away too many spoilers, the spy on the run and his hapless brother hide from assassins inside an elephant’s vagina. Nobby imitates James Bond in South Africa and seduces the wrong woman. Nobby’s kids save the day more than once and there is a beautiful speech, Braveheart-style, at the end of the film where Nobby incites the football fans of Grimsby to rise up and fight against oppression. The end of the film is predictable but hilarious as fireworks explode in strange places and even Donald Trump has a minor role, albeit an ignominious one.

The Brothers Grimsby is a film which didn’t receive good ratings. This is probably because the same old jokes about penises and oral sex and bottoms are reinvented in a new context. I found it funny, quite harmless, charming, satirical and, in its own way, a bit of political lehrstucke in the Brechtian style as family loyalty is supremely important for Nobby. It’s not the type of film I watch often, but it is pure escapism  and it’s lively and iconoclastic and well performed. It’s best watched as a mates’ film, with a few beers and some tacos after a hard day when belly laughs are needed most.

It is also quite uncanny how Baron Cohen and Strong evoke a parody of Liam Gallagher and Vin Diesel as two bungling spies. It’s conceptually both clever and ridiculous, as most of Baron Cohen’s stuff is. I enjoyed it!

 

 

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Book review: Diski and Rosoff

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I’m still on my quest to read books by authors I wouldn’t usually choose, looking at genres which are new to me, discovering what I can learn as a writer from them. I recently heard a keynote speech by Meg Rosoff at a writers’ conference and I decided she clearly knows and can explain fluently how her creative mind works as an author, so I bought her novel ‘How I live now’ and I read it last week.

I then read ‘Apology for the Woman Writing’ by Jenny Diski. She is my sort of writer. I’ve read half a dozen of her books before. Diski, the unofficially adopted daughter of Doris Lessing, died this April and I’ve always admired the way she writes and her conviction to delve into any subject, taboo or otherwise, so I read ‘Apology’.

Meg Rosoff is a really ‘neat’ writer. I use the word about her work, not only in deference to her American birth and the implied meaning of both ‘terrific’ and ‘undiluted’, but also to suggest the more universal meaning of her writing being  ‘well ordered,’ ‘smart’ and ‘adroit.’

Diski writes beautifully: her phrases are muscular and intelligent and she paints pictures with words which not only evoke a character or a setting but do so with conviction and flair.

I read ‘How I live now’ in two days. I discussed Rosoff’s work with a friend who has boundless insight into YA novels and she shrewdly recommended that I read this one first. Rosoff’s story is about an American girl, Daisy, who comes to stay with cousins in the UK: the country is ravaged by civil  war. Daisy has her own teenage issues which she brings to the story and she falls in love with her cousin Edmond and they live a blissful and natural existence until the war rips the children’s home apart.

Rosoff is strong on issues: Daisy has a problem with eating and it is an integral part of who she is, and it is a direct result of her past. Rosoff does not provide fairytale stories or easy answers but when Daisy is on the run for her life with her young cousin Piper, her needs change and new resolutions begin to occur in her life as other problems arise.

This is a book I wish I’d read as a teenager. The characters are natural and imperfect and I believed in their lives and shared their problems. Through Daisy’s eyes, we understand her background, her passions and the horrors of the war which she must learn to deal with and surmount. The tragedies, killings and heartaches which stem from the war are never diluted and the result is that the story has impact and there is tension throughout.

Jenny Diski’s ‘Apology for the Woman Writing’ is a third person account of the life of Marie De Gournay in the 17th century. It deals with a young woman who shirks the three choices she has available to a person of her class and gender: to become a wife, a housekeeper for her ageing mother or a nun. De Gournay discovers as a child the secret pleasures of  her father’s library: she reads the classics and she teaches herself about translation, then she encounters the work of essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne. On meeting him, she stabs herself with a hairpin as a gesture of her devotion. This is the beginning of her obsession and her ambition to become a writer

Of course, the journey is difficult for Marie who is awkward, spontaneous and determined, and Diski shows us the hazards which lie in wait for her in a world where intellectual discussion and writing exist only in male-dominated society.

Diski writes with clarity and accuracy and we quickly understand the pressures which lie in wait for Marie. The story begins with her as an older woman, wheezing on her death bed, attended by an ancient cat and an impoverished servant. Marie’s story is never going to be easy reading.

Nor is Michel de Montaigne a perfect mentor for Marie. He is conceited and inflexible, entrenched in his gender and cultural expectations, so he views her as an oddity, impressed by her mind but but not able to fully accommodate her intense desire to learn.

Both books make fascinating reading. Rosoff’s novel is a quick read with a younger audience in mind, and Diski’s story is a study of a slice of history from the perspective of a gifted but eccentric woman. It is a novel which, of course, makes us consider gender politics today with regard to women’s intellectual contributions to society.

Diski and Rosoff are important writers and I enjoyed both books. Rosoff writes a romping good read for young adults but her work goes beyond that, as she is a driving force for youngsters to accept who they are and to deal actively and positively  with the hand life offers them. Diski shows us a woman with potential and how a male-dominated society fails to take her seriously.

Both women write brilliantly in their own genre and there is much to learn from their style, from their incisive minds and the content of their books.

Fiennes shines as Richard III

Several years ago I saw Ralph Fiennes as Prospero in The Tempest. It was directed by Trevor Nunn, at the Theatre Royal, in 2011. Ralph, as in Salph and Sound, had only been on stage for twenty seconds. He hadn’t spoken a word. He simply raised a digit slowly into the air and -pow! Thunder crashed  and lightning split the stage. That is the sort of performer he is: autocratic and accurate and absolute in his instinct.

The Tempest isn’t one of my favourite Shakespeares but Fiennes as Prospero was commanding and powerful, yet vulnerable and utterly convincing. We were in Salph hands.

So, Fiennes as the villainous Richard the Third in Rupert Goold’s Almeida production, screened live to cinemas on 21st July, could only promise to be thrilling  theatre.

The play begins with Richard’s skeleton being discovered in a grave in a Leicester car park. The grave is the centre point of the stage and sets the context for the play as the archaeologist pulls out the twisted length of a spine and lifts it high. The lights change and we are in the fifteenth century and Richard sways forward, dragging the audience into his seething monologue:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking glass;
I, that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.

Fiennes delivers to us a callous misogynistic Richard who is ambitious, cunning and intent on achieving power at any cost. He dissembles and lies to other characters but with the audience he is honest, brutal, sometimes exposed in his weakness, but always scheming and self-obsessed.

There are times when he is funny. The scene where he pretends not to want the crown, but holds out the Bible and feigns piety, is hilarious: Fiennes becomes a master of stand-up comic timing. But then there are the murders and the deliberate schemes to strike his enemies and we know everything he does is done to further his own position.

The scene in which he persuades Anne to marry him while she is mourning over her dead husband’s corpse is outstanding. A difficult scene to achieve for actors- one minute Anne curses him, spits at him, then he asks her to kill him: she almost does it, then agrees to marry him. However, the rapport sizzles: we understand the motivation for Anne’s acquiescence in the face of Richard’s power, his craftiness and his sexual assault of a vulnerable woman. Anne becomes prey and victim and we the audience believe every moment. She is merely a step towards Richard’s achieving the crown: I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.

Richard’s interaction with women is a key theme of the play. Fiennes’ King holds no respect for women. He has no natural affection  for his mother and he repels Margaret’s bitter curse with a single swipe. He is indifferent to the fact that he has brutally murdered Elizabeth’s sons: he tells her that he will marry her daughter as recompense:

If I did take the kingdom from your sons,
To make amends, I’ll give it to your daughter.
If I have kill’d the issue of your womb,
To quicken your increase, I will beget
Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter

Goold then directs the scene shrewdly and with breathtaking impact: Richard rapes Elizabeth. He is violent in his abuse and she quickly leaves the stage: she has not acquiesced, but she is shaken and violated, and when she has gone he shows no remorse, but calls her a : Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!

It is perhaps at this point that we realise the monstrous king must die.

Fiennes is outstanding as Richard but this isn’t a one-man show. Vanessa Redgrave is magnetic as the cursing Margaret, carrying a doll which represents dead babies, feeding it alcohol from a glass. There is a powerful and tender scene where the three mothers, Margaret, Elizabeth and  the Duchess of York, combine their sorrow and lament the death of their children. Margaret advises Elizabeth to experience as much bitterness and pain as she has known in her own life and the three women combine in a curse as powerful as anything in Macbeth:

Think  that thy babes were fairer than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is:
Bettering thy loss makes the bad causer worse:
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.

The performances of Aislin McGuckin, Joanna Vanderham and Susan Engel as Elizabeth, Anne and The Duchess of York are powerful: although they are each in turn the object of Richard’s maltreatment, they are still vocally compelling and each creates a taut and credible victim while demanding to be heard in their own right. They are no pushover, demonstrating the extremity of Richard’s heinous behaviour towards them. James Garnon as Hastings is perfect: the scene in which he realises Richard has duped him and he is to be killed is a triumph of characterisation. Finbar Lynch makes a superb Buckingham, perfectly balanced as a liar and cheat and as a victim of Richard’s fickle allegiances. Daniel Cerquiera’s Catesby is exactly right: the noble thug who does all Richard’s dirty work with impressive efficiency.

Each moment is a gem – there are no sagging scenes in the play. The final action where Richard is visited by the ghosts of his victims, and the Earl of Richmond has a contrastingly peaceful night’s sleep, is intense and thrilling as both men sit at the same table and the ghosts speak first to Richard then to Richmond, and we sense the outcome of the next day’s battle.

The final battle scene is everything it should be- loud, crashing and quick, with Richard repeating his famous lines A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse! until we can only hear the gasped word horse! and he is killed and falls into the grave where, as the lights fade, we see the archeological excavation and exhumation in February 2013 in Leicester.

Richard the Third ends with a satisfying reminder of where it started: the back story has been filled in and Goold has shown us history on stage. Fiennes has created the character of Richard with physical and vocal perfection: there is the dragging leg and the hunchback, but he does not wheedle or whine. Rather, he plots and simpers and cajoles and threatens; he is mentally incisive and always dangerous. He licks blood from the block where Hastings has been beheaded. He searches the audience for assassins to help him. He is commanding and sinister and lethal and in control.

I would have loved to have been at the Almeida and seen Richard the Third live. It was a close second, though, to be in a cinema auditorium  with another twelve or so people, having the opportunity to watch this fantastic production as it is performed in the capital.

It’s an interesting plot factor that  Richard seizes the chance to rule a divided country in difficult times. He sees the opportunity open before him and through his crazed ambition, his ability to deceive and his unswerving determination, he takes his country from stability to division and chaos. Fiennes said of the play that it resonated with what is happening in our own current political climate: “Not through our doing but just because of events happening around us. Suddenly it became full of a pertinence that perhaps it hadn’t had before.”

Of course he’s right. This is exactly the time to be watching Richard the Third and to be considering our own political parallels. Perhaps we’re not so Salph!

So where do we start looking?

 

A book in the hand…

There are some things which are improved by time.We don’t have to sideline everything old in favour of something new. When they are left to develop, whether it is an idea, a favourite jumper or a bottle of brandy, some things just keep on improving. The same can be said of a book. Holding a pristine book, unread, unexplored, is a thrilling feeling: no blemish of a fingerprint, the endless possibilities of a good read jumping from each page. But think of the deep fulfilment of finding an old book, knowing its crumpled cover has been turned over by many hands, its pages bruised and thumbed and avidly read.

Second hand book shops smell of dust and warmth and love: the books hold the scent of every person who has touched a page and there is promise of so much magic. As you move around the shelves and sift out a book, sliding the title towards you with interest, there is a secret shared between the binding.

I picked up some ancient books on a market stall this week. A coverless copy of Victor Hugo, with stained pages, the past leaping out, letters black against the grey. The book lay in my palm like a prayer, and then the bookseller held out another book by Alphonse de Lamartine: maroon cover wrinkled, dry as an old fig, the gold letters of Poésie almost worn away.

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I continued to search, touching each book lightly with my fingers and found Tout Compte Fait and Réflexions sur la question juive, by Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, side by side as they probably are now at the Cimetière du Montparnasse.

The books cost me five euros altogether. That’s currently just over four pounds; a pound each and a few pennies for each piece of genius.

Last week someone recommended to me that I read a novel called The Butcher’s Hook. It was brand new and cost me £6.99 and I will give it away to anyone who wants it for free. I read the first hundred pages.

Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus may be old, battered books, creased and coverless, but they hold a special place in my heart. And now they are on my bookshelves.

Review: ‘The Shock of the Fall’ and ‘Thursdays in the Park’

I’m on a quest to read popular novels that aren’t the type of thing I’d usually read. Novels which might make one of my most respected literary  friends wrinkle her nose and push it aside if I offered to lend it to her. The sort of writing I’m not steeped in. I’m doing this because, as a writer, I want to know what readers of commercial fiction read and what’s popular and then I’ll try to analyse why.

I’m steeped in Amis and Achebe, Brontë and Bashevis Singer, Camus and Carter, De Beauvoir and Dostoevsky and I love modern writers like Matt Haig and Paul Kingsnorth, Sunjeev Sahota and Emma Donoghue and Sarah Winman and Roddy Doyle. So it’s probably fair to say that I’m going to struggle with Hilary Boyd’s ‘Thursdays in the Park.’ I picked it out because it’s about an older protagonist, and I’m interested in how writers create the older protagonist, as I have one in in my first novel.

Boyd’s central character defies the stereotype of young heroines:she offers readers a role model or a lifestyle they can look forward to when they’re older, or she simply champions the older reader. So I read Hilary Boyd’s novel about 60-year old Londoner Jeanie who falls in love with Ray the Aikido teacher and is fed up with her sexless marriage to dull, rich, controlling George.

It’s a romance and that’s pretty much what the book is about. I never felt particularly close to Jeanie who was, to me, a middle-class heroine, attractive, popular, just like all the other stereotypical romance heroines, but older. That, in itself, was disappointing. Jeanie and I never bonded, although I did feel a bit of sympathy when I found out poor George had been abused as a child. Well done Hilary Boyd for not being scared of that one.

The signposting was a bit of a problem for me: I knew what would happen next on every turn. And then I struggled with the holier-than-thou perfect daughter Chanty and the silly spoilt son-in-law, and Jeanie’s unbridled passion for the man she chats to in the park who mistakes her for the two year old’s mum, rather than her Granny. (Oh yeah, right?)

I’m not really the target audience for this book. I noticed that Hilary Boyd had the usual difficulties making the romantic or sexy scenes different or unique – a problem we all share, where the protagonists look at each other with heaving hearts and sigh a lot and shrug a lot and shake their heads with disbelief. I did learn something from Boyd though; she’s empathically behind her character all the way and she creates feasible human dilemmas. I suppose Jeanie wasn’t enough of a feminist protagonist for me; she didn’t rebel enough, and her acceptance of the views of others, especially George, didn’t convince me to care about her sufficiently.

I wouldn’t want to be Jeanie and I couldn’t make the leap of sympathy but I’m sure ‘Thursdays in the Park’ is  popular with the reader who likes her novels easy to read and happy at the end. On my masters’ course we were often asked: what does the central protagonist want and what stands in the way? This one was simple. Jeanie wants Ray and George is blocking her path to ultimate happiness with a man.

I read ‘Shock of the Fall’ by Nathan Filer and the blurb told me that Filer’s novel follows in the footsteps of Mark Haddon. Filer is a mental health nurse so it’s clear he knows his background. The book is written from the point of view of Matt, whose unhappy situation stems from his brother’s death earlier in the story and we follow Matt’s progress as we are quickly hooked into the idiosyncrasies and dilemmas of the character.

Nathan Filer does two things I like a lot. First of all, the voice which tells the story is really engaging. Matt’s character is unique, surprising and speaks to the reader as someone we come to understand and know and like, unlike Jeanie whom we know everything there is to know about from page one.Secondly, the novel is well shaped, not linear and although it leads the reader to where you know you’ll ultimately end up, the journey has a few surprises on the way and this deepens the reader’s compassion for Matt and his family and we care about the impact of what has happened to brother Simon.

This is definitely a ‘safe hands’ book:  Filer’s story is so well organised and his character speaks with such clarity and credibility and authority that the novel is captivating. Add to that the bittersweet humour and the contrast between the harrowing scenes and the touching moments, and it makes for a memorable read. Cleanly written, cleverly contrived, ‘The Shock of the Fall’ works well on the levels of both a story well told and a learning journey for the reader.

I’m glad I read both books, although I enjoyed one much more than the other. But my journey isn’t just for my own reading pleasure: I’m building an understanding of what is popular, of what readers want and what works for them. And then it all goes into the writer’s bag of learning to be sifted and synthesised, so that I know what to aspects to reject and what techniques will work for me as I continue to develop my unique voice.

Words to stem the storm or at least hold the tide back for a moment.

So the world is imploding. All sorts of worms are crawling out of the opened can.The negative feelings of the disenfranchised are manifesting themselves as widespread disagreement and arguments and dissatisfaction and we’re seeing Facebook memes of Pooh Bear and Piglet healing rifts between polarised friends. Everyone has a strong opinion – thank goodness for Free Speech, but now we live in a world where the Emperor’s new clothes are off and no-one will acknowledge the nakedness. Lies are legitimate political currency now, and so are double crossing and hatred, all coming fresh from the mouths of the political right this week. Before the vote, the unhappiness and untruths were an undercurrent, now we have a tsunami: Gove spitting vituperative statements of Johnson’s ineptitude, the Tory leadership oven hotting up to explosion point and Jeremy Corbyn, though many still love him, lugging a Labour party which might snuff itself out in the next General Election. And Farage, the most ineffectual and dangerous of stand-up comedians, humiliating himself with his pathetic hubris at the European Parliament.

This week was all too much. It’s time to rise above the stench of the detritus. Thank goodness for the solidarity of a writing group.

Most writers agree that a good writing group is what makes a difference between basic writing and honing our skills. A regular writers’ group is essential, using the balance between astute critiquing and positive praise if we are to improve and develop style. I’m fortunate to still be in touch with many talented writers from my MA group and I have a number of trusted readers, who are writers and poets, who will always give me a straight opinion.

Then there is our local writers’ group, a group of some ten or twelve people who write short stories and poems and memoirs. I joined the group in September last year so that I could keep myself on my toes, finish my first novel, start a second and dabble in creating  different characters and perspectives and genres.

Our tutor is a real enabler, a poet and always full of ideas, offering great stimuli and weekly feedback on our work. Then there is the group itself with so many clever writers. One talented woman may well now embark on completing an exciting children’s book. A woman whose memoirs of life in London in the fifties and sixties thrill her listeners each week. An ex-policeman’s writing is invariably warm and measured and dry and witty. An artist/ musician’s stories of local life are genuinely moving, funny, clever and hugely entertaining. An actress/ performance poet, professional and iconoclastic is always uniquely surprising whether she writes comic or poignant pieces. Each week, local writers deliver smooth stories, witty and lively responses and ideas which leap off the page. Even better, it’s great to see creative people flourish and become even more confident and articulate.

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Tutor and writer listen to others read. Photos by Julie Mullen.

Last night we celebrated with  a writers’ party, a local reading in a cafe where several of us came together to stand in front of a microphone in turn and humbly offer our poems and stories to an audience. It was a great way to end our summer course, and an opportunity to revel in how far everyone had progressed. There were stories about a gifted magical girl, drunken bets on racehorses, childhood mischief in Paris, sex and washing machines, a nasty uncle who raced greyhounds.Every tale was a gem and truly entertaining.

Politically, it’s a changing world and a pivotal time for us all now. We’re expected to accept lies as truths whether they are promises on buses or vows not to stand for PM. The Bullingdon boys and the Etonians and Gove now have it their way and they have become reckless, their mayhem is all around us and many of the disenfranchised people have voted with their emotions and their misplaced trust. We will live with the consequences as best as we can.

Thank goodness for friendship; thank goodness there is talent, that we can share creativity and meet with thinking people. This is, of course, not to ignore or stop the fight against xenophobia and dishonesty and corruption and political  duplicity and ongoing perfidious betrayal of the ordinary person. But it is important to remember that there is much in our world to love, to enjoy and to celebrate. There are so many people to say thanks to, for friendship and support, whatever their views, however they voted. This blog is for them all, to remember that the way forward is to be joyous and mindful and that we are bigger than any divisions; we will change what we can when we can and, meanwhile, we’ll celebrate the present. After all, it is just that, the present, and the present is a gift, isn’t it?

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 Our MC for the night. Photos by Julie Mullen