evseymour

Word on the Wire

Month: October, 2014

NOSTALGIA FOR BIRMINGHAM

‘I was born in West Bromwich,’ I said.
‘Well, someone has to be!’
This poorly judged remark came back to me slap bang in the middle of an episode of ‘Peaky Blinders’ when the blokes from West Bromwich were asked to protect the passage of ‘goods,’ aka weapons, travelling by canal from Birmingham to London. I swear my heart thumped a little harder when I heard the dialect of my roots. This is not the only reason I love ‘Peaky Blinders’. Smoky dirty Birmingham in the early twentieth century was not so very different to the sulphur-tainted air of the Birmingham of my childhood, and although I never stumbled across ‘gypsies’, I was aware of mysterious blokes from places like Gornal who trained horses in a rough and ready fashion.

Anyway enough of me, and back to Peaky Blinders. I was a huge fan of the first series, yet the second seems stronger in every sense. The writing is fabulous. There’s a stellar cast of actors, including Helen McCrory and Sam Neill, whose depiction of a vengeful, double-dealing Northern Irish Inspector puts him on the same level as the bad guys he’s trying to nick. Thomas Shelby, played by a brooding Cillian Murphy, who inhabits the part as closely as a hand inside a glove, continues to magnetize as he schemes his way into taking a slice of the action in London. Deep down, I know I shouldn’t really like a guy who condones slicing through his opponents with a razorblade but, as with all the best anti-heroes, Shelby is not all bad by any stretch and when tormented in love, his Achilles heel, we suffer with him.

Tommy’s desire to turn the business from an illegal venture to legal is reminiscent of Michael Corleone’s plans for the business in Godfather III. In the same way Tom Hayden, the lawyer, took care of keeping the Corleone family above board as much as possible, Aunt Polly’s son, Michael, is employed as an accountant charged with covering up illegal accounting activities until such time as the Shelbys can emerge as an ‘on the level’ enterprise. Naturally, every good gangster family has a ‘psycho’ and Paul Anderson plays coked up and stoked up Arthur Shelby to perfection.

Primarily a family drama, ‘Blinders’ is rich with relationships and conflicts. I’m nine-parts looking forward to tomorrow night’s episode and one part dreading it: one can’t help suspect, that things will end in tears.

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WHAT A LAUGH!

Last week, I had one of those low energy moments. I’d gone to bed tired, slept and woke up tired and wired, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, I’d got a number of plates spinning and was in danger of at least one of them whizzing off and smashing over my head. So by the end of that particular day, I could just about string a sentence together but didn’t have the aptitude, or the desire, frankly, to sit down and read anything, let alone a good book. Help was at hand. My other half had spotted the signs of my imminent crash and burn and, after one hell of a pep talk, plonked a DVD in my hand. ‘We’re watching this tonight.’

Now I’m not Jude Law’s greatest fan, but oh my goodness, he gave a storming performance, dare I even say a Dom Perignon of a show, in ‘Dom Hemmingway’. The opening scene has to rate as one of the most bizarre I’ve clapped eyes on in ages. Picture this, if you dare, Dom in prison giving a soliloquy in praise of his… ahem… member (cock, if you want to use Dom’s description). It goes on for ages, as does the blowjob he’s given. Now, before you think what poor taste and I’ve scraped the barrel, the writing was exceptional and vaguely reminiscent of the fabulous Shakespearean style passages spouted by Ian McShane in ‘Deadwood’. If you watch ‘Dom Hemmingway’, you’ll see, in a brilliant piece of plotting, that Dom’s private bits have a star role in a climactic scene and not at all in the way you’d expect.

So what the hell is the film all about, you may ask. Well, foul-mouthed Dom is out of prison having kept his mouth shut for twelve years. His silence has nothing to do with loyalty and everything to do with what loyalty will buy on his release: loot, and lots of it from his Russian gangster employer. Things don’t go according to plan and Dom, who has a combustible temperament, is in grave danger of cocking it up (no pun intended). Only his sidekick, Dickie, magnificently played by a long-faced and long-suffering Richard E Grant, can save him from his tendency towards self-destruction. Amazingly, there is a hidden story that is utterly heart-warming: Dom’s clumsy attempts to make up with his daughter for all the bad years he put her through. It’s not clichéd. It’s not cheesy. It’s credible and provides a wonderful flame of hope that Dom can redeem himself. The film is tagged as ‘Raucously Entertaining’. Indeed it is, but it’s so much more and, for a bargain price and ninety minutes of my time, sheer magic.

A KISS FOR RICHARD FLANAGAN

Last night, I caught the tail end of the Man Booker 2014 prize, which was won by Richard Flanagan for his novel ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North.’ Flanagan, an acclaimed screenplay writer, drew on his father’s horrific experiences during the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in World War II to write his story. Amid the televised congratulations, I learnt a couple of things that made me do the equivalent of screeching to a halt.

The first was that Flanagan had written five novels and destroyed each, deleting the works even from his hard drive because he didn’t think any of them either did justice to the subject or paid respect to what his dad had endured.   I don’t know how difficult this must have been for him. He maintains that he just set light to his manuscripts. I suspect there was a lot more going on inside his head than thoughts of literary arson.

I have deleted passages from my own work. The first time (after a lot of sighing and cursing) I felt a major sense of loss. I’ve manuscripts lurking in the attic that, thankfully, will never see the light of the day. I keep them because I kid myself that they might come in handy, that I might even nick a bit while knowing, deep down, there is more likelihood of a squadron of pigs flying over our house.   To explain to a new writer the importance of the delete button requires a modicum of tact, charm and insistence. ‘But I really like that passage. It’s my favourite and it took me ages to write’ is often the riposte.   But if it drags on pace, is utterly irrelevant, or out of context, it will do more harm than good. ‘Yes, but…’ and so it goes on. Excision is not an easy sell.

Flanagan took twelve years to write his winning novel. As soon as I heard that, I thought, ‘Heck, how did he earn a living?’ The truth is that with a wife and three children he struggled and he is not ashamed to state it. Thank God for some honesty on the subject. For every writer who makes a fine living from penning novels – and I don’t use the verb to disparage – there are hundreds who barely scrape by. Most writers recognise this. Others don’t. When we were thinking about having a conservatory to create more space (we’ve since jettisoned the idea) I was advised by a good writing friend not to mention that I’m a writer. Baffled, I enquired why. ‘Because they’ll think you earn a ton of money,’ she said. We put it to the test and she was right.

So Richard Flanagan gets my vote for more than writing a sublime novel that had the judges falling over themselves. However harrowing the story, however gut wrenching, it’s gone straight onto my list of must-reads. Frankly, I want to kiss the man.

CHELTENHAM ROCKS!

It would be heretical of me not to begin this blog by mentioning the Cheltenham Literary Festival, which runs from October 3rd to the 14th. My daily walk often takes me through Montpellier Gardens so I observed the park transform over the week leading up to one of the most fabulous and prestigious literary festivals in the UK, if not the world. This year, I watched with more pleasure than usual and a sense of ease, unlike last year when the sight of project managers made me faint. And no, this has nothing to do with the virility or otherwise of the mostly male crew, and everything to do with the fact that I took part in a panel on crime writing.  I suffer badly from ‘stage fright’, a revelation to those who know me and have seen me in action. Thankfully, I always rise above it. (In the early days when I was a new writer, I once memorably froze. My mind emptied of words, thoughts and pretty much everything else.) So, hand on heart, once I’ve wobbled to a seat, sat down and opened my mouth, nerves kick in and I’m articulate.

I’m not taking part in the festival this year, the highlight of my week then was the launch of the new weekly newspaper, the Cheltenham Standard. Invited with my book reviewer hat on, I, or rather we (other half) rocked up to Lily Gins and entered the crush. The mayor and mayoress were in attendance, Fiona Fullerton (ex-Bond girl and now successful property developer) appeared, and I got to talk to journalists on both the Standard and sister magazine, Cotswold Style, PR people, Press officers and folk from the Everyman theatre, and many more. It would be fair to say that, in a couple of hours, I met more movers and shakers on the Cheltenham media scene than I’ve done in two years of living here. One of the big highlights was getting my paws on the first edition of that week’s newspaper. I’d written a book review of ‘The Monogram Murders’ by Sophie Hannah who appeared at the festival on the same day as publication.   Which brings me to my main point.

When I started writing this blog my intention was to comment on books I’d read, creative writing and the arts in general. Time devoted to reading is now time also devoted to reviewing. Yes, I can report on the glorious return of ‘Peaky Blinders’ with the smouldering Cillian Murphy reprising his role as Thomas Shelby. I can comment on ‘Hell on Wheels’, a superior Western with one of the most original villains I’ve seen in ages in the form of the ‘Swede’ played by Christopher Heyerdahl, and the sublime BBC production of ‘The Driver’ featuring David Morrissey. But if it’s book reviews you’re after, check out the Cheltenham Standard website and follow the link. There, you’ll find, to date, reviews of ‘The Judas Scar’ by Amanda Jennings; ‘The Monogram Murders’ by Sophie Hannah, and if you check out tomorrow’s edition, ‘Vagabond’ by Gerald Seymour. Next up: ‘Silencer’ by Andy McNab.

 

 

I DO LOVE A GOOD BAD GUY

Robert McKee, the creative writing guru, is heavy on what he calls the ‘Forces of Antagonism’. I’ve been known to use this phrase myself when talking about ‘bad guys’, most often within the context of fixing a story that isn’t quite developed or feels a little thin. If a writer ramps up his (or her) ‘bad guy’ and gets right underneath his skin to explore what lurks beneath and makes him tick, the story itself will spark with vitality and instantly become a ‘meatier’ proposition. Conflict is the name of the game in thrillers and if the murderer/thief/spook/con man is a pale and wilting foe, there isn’t going to be much for the main protagonist to bump up against. Your good guy/main protagonist can only really show the reader what he’s made of (mouse or man/woman) if he’s got a worthy adversary with whom to struggle.

Many writers will tell you that they love creating villains. I’m among them. I enjoy rummaging around in damaged psyches and letting rip with writing about the extremes of human nature. It’s not necessarily a case of the more evil an antagonist, the better. I prefer to think in terms of how the heck did they become that damaged in the first place? The smartest writers explore this aspect to avoid the creation of cardboard, two-dimensional caricatures rather than fully fleshed out characters. Perhaps this explains the popularity of psychological thrillers – it allows the writer to get to grips with what makes good people go bad, something that can happen to any one of us, given the right stressors. And maybe that’s the scary bit.

Even bad guys have Achilles heels when it comes to their nearest and dearest, or chums. The Lannister clan in ‘Game of Thrones’ provide one of the greatest fictional examples of inter-generational evil, yet they are not vile, individually or collectively, all of the time. The exception, perhaps, is King Joffrey Baratheon who seems to have pure evil running through his DNA but, as he’s a result of an incestuous relationship, his bizarre and barbaric behaviour can be cheerfully explained away by the fact that he’s bonkers! Writers like James Patterson, whose bad guys read like an encyclopaedia of mental disorders, embrace this device warmly and it’s a trademark of his novels.

Meanwhile, the rest of us hunt around for more mundane motives: thwarted in love, neglected or abused childhoods, inheritances going south. This usually involves a healthy dose of the seven deadly sins, greed, lust, avarice and that old chestnut the root of all evil, loot, the most popular. Plenty there to get your teeth into which is what every writer wants.