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idelba007pic

…I saw Idris Elba’s name coming up a lot earlier this week in connection with more information released back into the wild as a result of Sony’s current embarrassment. (Sorry palindrome fans, I just couldn’t make it sing somehow.) Apparently, apart from thinking that Angelina Jolie can’t act and possibly thinking about leasing Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios, one of the things that Sony executives like to spend their time doing is thinking about who should be the next James Bond, and – not for the first time – Elba’s name has come up in connection with this.

First and foremost, the thing to remember is that Daniel Craig is still in-post and will be for at least another twelve months: he’s already started shooting Spectre, after all. He’s contracted for the film after that, as well, though Eon do have form when it comes to unexpectedly dumping successful Bonds – just ask Pierce Brosnan. Whether Craig is retained for the c.2018 Bond movie will probably depend on how well Spectre does with the critics, but I’d be surprised if he went. So I doubt the job will be up for grabs much before 2020, by which time Elba will be 47 or so, which would make him the oldest person to take on the role.

But putting this to one side, is colourblind casting an option when it comes to a character like James Bond? There’s no question that Elba is an accomplished and charismatic performer – I thought that this was someone with a lot of potential the first time I saw him, which was in 1998’s Ultraviolet – but, inevitably, issues of ethnicity and diversity raise their heads when this kind of question is asked. The New Yorker, for instance, ran the following impressively subtle and ambiguous cartoon on the topic.

idelba007cartoon

I wouldn’t have said I was a particularly heavyweight Bond fan, but as this is just about the only major franchise from my childhood I still feel a genuine sense of investment with, maybe I should reassess my position. Certainly, on the ‘could a black actor be plausibly cast as Bond?’ question, a couple of things leap to mind – both regarding exactly who the main character is in the series of Eon films.

The notable thing about Casino Royale is that it is a hard reboot of the Bond series: this isn’t just a new leading man, but a new version of the character, and this is made clear in the movie. This naturally gave Craig and the film-makers a lot of latitude which was, perhaps, denied to Pierce Brosnan. The logical question for those of us who worry too much about trivial stuff is, therefore, one of whether we’re supposed to regard all the preceding films as happening to the same person.

The Bond films are so connected to real-world geopolitics and technology that it’s very difficult to argue that they don’t all happen in or around the year they were released, and this instantly makes it massively implausible that the man who visits Jamaica in 1962 is the same one dropping into South Korea in 2002. Clearly there have been most likely a number of soft reboots along the way, but the question is when this happened.

There is a school of Bond thought that, actually, in the context of the films themselves James Bond is only a codename assigned to a succession of individual agents (in same way Matt Damon’s character is renamed Jason Bourne in that other franchise). It’s an idea, I suppose, but one with virtually zero evidence to support it on-screen beyond George Lazenby’s jokey cry of ‘This never happened to the other feller!’ at the start of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Set against this must be the same film’s painstaking efforts to make the audience believe that Lazenby-Bond is the same guy as Connery-Bond (Bond clears his desk and encounters props from previous films), not to mention various references to Roger Moore’s Bond having been married to the Diana Rigg character from OHMSS.

There are usually so few continuity references between Bond films, so few recurring villains, and such an absence of ongoing plotlines, that you can insert the reboots and rewritings of the character’s history pretty much anywhere you like, although the first seven films all seem to be in continuity with other, while some version of the same events seems to have happened off-screen to Roger Moore’s Bond – hence the marriage references and the brief appearance by supposed-to-be-Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only. (In the same way, the appearance of the tricked-out DB-5 in Skyfall is presumably meant to suggest that Craig’s Bond has been through some version of Goldfinger – rather a shame we didn’t get that film instead of Quantum of Solace, but never mind.)

Anyway, it will be interesting to see if the next change of Bonds triggers another hard reboot. Normally I would doubt it, but casting a non-Caucasian actor would really demand it, I suspect: colourblind casting is one thing, but colourblind recasting another.

This still begs the question of whether casting a non-Caucasian Bond is viable, even following a hard reboot. I suspect it depends on how you view Bond himself – if he’s just a generic tough, wise-cracking, ladykilling, male-power-fantasy-fulfilling cartoon, character then there’s nothing that ties the character to any particular ethnic group. If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to see him as a coherent, aspiring-to-be three-dimensional character – specifically, the one created by Ian Fleming – then it may be a bit more problematic.

Fleming himself obviously never conceived of Bond as anything but white – he admittedly describes him as ‘dark’ at one point, but also likens him to Hoagy Carmichael. There’s also the fact that Fleming writes Bond as – by modern standards – an appalling racist. ‘Koreans were lower than apes,’ is a representative insight into Bond’s thought processes in the original novel of Goldfinger. On the other hand, this aspect of the character has understandably been dropped from the movie version.

One bit of Fleming which has been retained is Bond’s heritage as a Scots-Swiss orphan. The question, if Fleming’s conception is to be retained, is really one of whether a Scots-Swiss Bond can also plausibly be a non-Caucasian Bond. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I must confess to feeling dubious about the prospects of this idea.

But, if we’re going to think about this in terms of Fleming’s conception of the character, then we’re talking about a white Bond, a very traditionally British Bond, a son of privilege, an elitist, a snob, an imperialist. The question is not just one of whether an acceptable version of all these characteristics can be brought to the screen by a non-white performer, but whether any non-white performers of note would be interested in doing so.

In short, then, I would say that a non-Caucasian Bond is possible, but it would be a departure, and a version of the character more widely removed from the source material than any other up to this point. You might say that Bond has already evolved a long way away from Ian Fleming by this point, and I would agree, but only up to a point. Much of the success of the Craig version of Bond is, I think, down to the way in which the films have authentically returned to the roots of the character. Stepping too far away would undeniably be a risk.

 

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Strange Fruit

A restaurant, early November 2014:

apple
‘Ah, m’sieur, I see you have finished. Was everything to your satisfaction?’

‘Um, well, no, not really…’

‘I am most sorry to hear that. What was the problem?’

‘Well, you know me, you know how much I love the Special Famous Pie. I’ve been eating it for decades, after all…’

‘Mmm-hmmm?’

‘Well – I couldn’t help noticing – you’ve changed some of the apple in the Special Famous Pie to blackberries.’

‘Well, as I am sure m’sieur knows, the recipe for Special Famous Pie is constantly evolving…’

‘Oh, sure, I know. Watching it evolve and become more sophisticated down the years is part of the pleasure, and I know that the way you change the kind of apple you use for the main filling is an essential part of what makes it Special Famous Pie.’

‘And so what is the problem…?’

‘Well, Special Famous Pie is apple pie. If you start putting different fillings in it’s not really the same pie, is it?’

‘Well, sir, I have to say that the new pie is very popular with many people. You may have seen a number of recent blog posts with names like Why Special Famous Pie Could and Should Be Made With Blackberries. I should say that we are probably going to change all the apple to blackberries in the not too distant future. ‘

‘You are? Why in God’s name would you do that?’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir, I’d no idea you were that type of person.’

‘What type of person?’

‘The type who is prejudiced against blackberries.’

‘I’m not prejudiced against blackberries, I just don’t want them in an apple pie. I want apple in my apple pie.’

‘Yes, m’sieur, but it’s not called apple pie. It’s called Special Famous Pie. It doesn’t have to have apples in it, don’t you see?’

‘You’ve been making Special Famous Pie for over fifty years, and it’s always, always had apples in it. You can’t suddenly change the heart of the recipe and claim it’s the same thing.’

‘Well, m’sieur, you must recall that Special Famous Pie was invented many years ago, when we lived in an apple-dominated culture, and blackberries have for a long time been under-represented in restaurants…’

‘So make more blackberry desserts. It doesn’t mean you have to put blackberries in the apple pie. It is possible to have both, you know.’

‘Ah yes, but making our Special Famous apple pie using blackberries will be an important statement of principle.’

‘Which principle would that be?’

‘That apples and blackberries are equally good.’

‘No, the statement you’re making is that apples and blackberries are identical, which they are plainly not to anyone with taste buds and a brain. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are fundamentally different things.’

‘M’sieur, it’s very important to have more blackberries in restaurants.’

‘And I’m not arguing with you, but as well as Special Famous Pie you make a lot of other bland and rather dreary apple dishes – you invent a new one every couple of years. Why not stop making those and try making a new blackberry dish instead?’

‘Well, those dishes are not as popular or important as the Special Famous Pie. Also, making an apple dish with blackberries sends an important message that the two of them are of equal importance.’

‘I think it’s sending the message that you’re wilfully trying to ignore the fact that apples and blackberries are two different things. Also that there’s something wrong with apple pie that can only be fixed by making it with blackberries. Which isn’t really much of a fix at all as you’re no longer making apple pie in any meaningful sense.’

‘M’sieur, we are not changing anything. It will have the same name, it will be cooked in the same oven, most of the same ingredients will be same, it will still be a delicious fruit-based dessert -‘

‘Yes, but it was conceived as an apple pie, it became popular as an apple pie, it has five decades of accreted history and traditions as an apple pie, and making it without apple basically means you are making a different pie!!!’

‘The new style Special Famous Pie is going to be a delicious pie, sir.’

‘Yes, I’m sure it will be very popular with people who have it as an article of faith that there is no actual difference between different kinds of fruit. And I suppose there’s even a chance that it will be a good pie. But it won’t actually be Special Famous Pie, because that’s made with apple. That’s an essential part of the character.’

‘The character, sir?’

‘The character of the pie, I mean. What you’re talking about is a new pie with a completely different character. I can’t believe you’re doing this. You wouldn’t do this to any other dish.’

‘Well, that’s what makes Special Famous Pie so special, sir, that we can do this to it. No other pie has both a tradition of regularly changing its recipe and is so non-specific about its ingredients.’

‘You mean that because it isn’t specifically called Special Famous Apple Pie, the apple which is the main ingredient is somehow dispensable? That’s nonsense. You have no idea about what makes Special Famous Pie work.’

‘Well, perhaps, but we are in charge of it and we can do what we like. In the end it is only a pie, after all.’

‘Maybe so, but it’s still a pie I love and it makes me very angry to see it mucked about with this way. If there is no place for traditional Special Famous Pie with apples in it I’d rather you just stopped making it entirely than carried on with this slightly absurd travesty of a pie.’

‘Well, m’sieur, look at it this way: if the new style pie fails we can always go back to making the old pie. I expect we will alternate between apple and blackberry fillings anyway, in future.’

‘But – but – you’re still making two different kinds of pie and pretending they’re the same one. You’re still ignoring how the world actually works. Apples and blackberries are two different things.’

‘I’m sorry, sir, I will have to ask you to keep that kind of opinion to yourself in a public restaurant from now on.’

‘From now on? You actually think I’m going to carry on eating here?’

‘Well, m’sieur, you said yourself you have been eating and enjoying Special Famous Pie for decades, so of course you will carry on eating it, no matter what we do to it…’

‘No! No! Have you been listening to me? It’s not the same pie any more, no matter what anyone says. I’m damned if I’m going to eat blackberry pie and pretend it’s sort-of-like-apple just because you tell me there’s no difference. If I can’t get proper Special Famous Pie, I’ll take my custom elsewhere, thank you very much.’

‘Ah well. We will see you again, when we change back to apple for a bit.’

‘I think you presume too much of my loyalty. This whole situation makes me very, very angry. Can I speak to the head chef, please?’

‘Alas, m’sieur, Mr Moffat is out to lunch.’

‘No kidding.’

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In one sense, writing 50,000 words is quite easy. You write a word. Then you write another word. And then you do the same again and again, another forty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety eight times. Nothing could be simpler.

So why, then, did I so signally fail to complete NaNoWriMo in 2012 and 2013? For the underinitiated: this is the challenge where one undertakes to write 50,000 words of sequential fiction in a thirty-day period (technical it’s supposed to be a novel, but I think this is veering dangerously close to delusions of grandeur). I’m not sure, but I think clues may be found in the manner in which I managed to actually finish the damn thing this year, for the first time since 2010.

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

Perhaps the nature of that 2010 win was also significant. As I was (ahem) resting from paid employment at the time, I was able to devote all my time to the project and ended up with a 115,000 word manuscript, which – when run past a professional author for comment – transpired to be irredeemable tripe with no discernable structure. This was a blow to my confidence as a writer of long fiction which it took me a long time to get over.

I blame Stephen King, and especially his book On Writing. This is an inspirational tome and no mistake, but it also promotes Mr King’s potentially lethal strategy for novel-writing, which is basically ‘have an idea, start writing about it, do 3,000 words a day until you reach the end and then stop’. In other words, don’t bother planning what you’re doing. Just trust to the creative winds.

It took me a long while to figure out that what may work for an intuitively gifted storyteller like Mr King is not necessarily going to work for the average garret-dwelling spod. I have come to the conclusion that this sort of behaviour is not going to end well for most of us. It’s like going on a 300 mile drive without bothering to check the atlas, and no real sense of where you’re actually heading to in the first place. You may cover some ground, but you’re unlikely to end up anywhere it’s worth being.

Reluctantly parting company with the King Doctrine was probably the first step towards having a chance of concluding a NaNo with a story that actually has some kind of narrative merit. Realising the importance of structure, I invested in a number of other pieces of advice which I must confess I found to be of varying usefulness.

Near the bottom of the heap, although this may be a user-friendliness issue, is the near-mythical Plotto, by William Wallace Cook. This is not so much a writer’s guide as a plot generation tool, but not one I actually found any use. Perhaps it’s just that the Kindle edition is somewhat clunky to navigate through.

More interesting than genuinely useful was 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald Tobias, which is strong on general information but weak on actual mechanics and detail. A step up from this, despite being somewhat disingenuously titled, was Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters, which has some useful stuff on many archetypal characters and the two main types of character arc. It’s one of the few writing handbooks I’ve read which comes close to being actually generative (i.e. giving you proper ideas).

Lani Diane Rich (aka Lucy March), professional author and writing tutor, weighs in with what she considers to be the seven crucial anchor points of essential narrative. I was rather dubious about this when I first heard about it – it seemed rather too formulaic at the time, and also that many great stories didn’t seem to stick to the scheme – but am prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.

This is largely because of the single biggest factor in getting me across the NaNo finishing line with something I’m reasonably pleased with: to wit, Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, a meticulous guide to the core competencies of storytelling in general, and structure in particular. Brooks breaks the story down into four chunks, assigns key plot moments and responsibilities to all of them, and then goes through what the essential plot beats are, where they need to fall and how they inter-relate. His book is perhaps a bit too strongly aimed at the aspiring professional – I have no real ambitions in that direction, as I already have a job I love and which I suspect is better for me than full-time writing would be, even if I had the talent and perseverance to think about taking it more seriously – but sitting down on November 1st with the first 37 scenes of a 50-scene novel already planned out was an enormous advantage, and without Brooks I would not have had this map to start with.

What I wrote is, in all likelihood, not very good. Ray Bradbury said that the first 500,000 words you write are inevitably going to be rubbish, and as far as long-form fiction goes I suspect I still have several hundred thousand to go before I hit the good stuff. But, whatever the problems with the characterisation, exposition, theme, description, and – yes – the structure, it does at least hang together on one level.

And, more importantly, I feel like I have fiction writing back. After the great disaster of 2010, apart from the abortive NaNos of 2012 and 2013, I’ve barely written a word of fiction. Plenty of reviews and other nonsense, as you can see, but nothing else. And I always missed it. I couldn’t figure out what my blind spot was in terms of long-form fiction, but now perhaps I have. It feels good to have this option back – the process of writing the NaNo 14 project has been a very satisfying one and I suspect it will be well before November 2015 that I have a go at something else. But not yet. Now is the time all-consuming and wholly unjustified smugness, which is something else I’ve always had a talent for.

 

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A brief glance at the stats for this blog tells me that, as of this writing, there are somewhere in the region of 650 film reviews hereabouts. I have been writing these on and off since 2001, and fairly solidly since 2010 (sometimes at the rate of three or four a week). At a conservative estimate, I must have written about 600,000 words about films, all told (the last two novel-length stories I managed to finish, in comparison, amounted to only 230,000 words between them). I have never really thought very deeply about the nature of film writing in all this time: or at least I hadn’t until I read Hatchet Job, the latest movie-related tome by Mark Kermode.

Kermode’s first book was the story of his life in film; his last one was an extended series of moans about the things he finds particularly irksome about modern films and the contemporary movie-going experience. I liked it, even if I found it a bit on the negative side. Hatchet Job, despite the title, is a bit more balanced.

kermodeHJ

Kermode opens by celebrating the most memorable result of the film critics’ art: the devastating negative review, kicking off with ‘Forest Gump on a tractor’ (The Straight Story) and taking in ‘Miss’ (Battleship), ‘an explosion in a stupidity factory’ (A Good Day to Die Hard) and some of Kermode’s own most vitriolic utterances, such as ‘An orgy of dripping wealth which made me want to vomit’ (Sex and the City 2), before going on to question, if not the value of film criticism in the modern world, then certainly the need for professional film critics as a species.

This is the core theme of Hatchet Job, which Kermode comes at from a number of angles: the decline in the respect in which critics are held, the sometimes strained relationship between critics and film-makers, the current crisis in the lot of old-school print critics in an increasingly digital age, and so on. Along the way Kermode gets to indulge himself on many topics which will be familiar to long-term followers, such as the plight of the skilled projectionist, the careers of Ken Russell (Dr K like) and John Boorman (Dr K very no like), and how lovely Silent Running is, as well as some which may be new, such as the unreliability of the automatically-moderated reviewing system on Amazon.com and the pernicious influence of test screenings on film storytelling.

He is, as you’d expect, very good company throughout, even when dealing with unpromising material without a great deal of interest to anyone not specifically interested in the lot of film critics (he is touchingly eloquent when paying tribute to two deceased giants of the field, Alexander Walker and Roger Ebert, even though it is clear he is rather more simpatico with one than the other). If you know much about films, you are unlikely to learn a lot, but at least you will hear things for the second or third time in a highly entertaining way.

You might expect Kermode to be precious and possessive about his status as someone who’s paid to watch and talk about new films for a living, and perhaps he does come across as slightly self-mythologising when he expresses his belief that ‘[f]or a critic’s opinion to have value beyond the mere joy of the savage put-down or the well-constructed defence, I believe they must have something personal at stake, something about which they care, and which they are in danger of forfeiting.’ (He’s talking about the bubble reputation, by the way, not an actual job.) Yet his argument does sort of hang together. I rarely make much use of critics myself, especially since I stopped listening to Kermode’s own radio show (sorry Doc), but this is largely because I just found myself writing my own reviews as a response to theirs rather than to the film itself, but on an instinctive level I know that I’d rather read a review from someone with a track-record and a real name than by some anonymous username on the internet.

On the other hand, though, doesn’t this just make me a massive hypocrite? My own name isn’t on this book review, after all: why should you give a damn what I think? Why should my opinion have any special value? Well, you might well say, in the case of a cruddy little blog like this one, which on average is read by no-one at all, what does it matter? Speak or stay silent, it doesn’t make any difference.

And yet, and yet. All other things being equal, I wouldn’t write at all if I didn’t think there was at least some chance of getting read (to do otherwise would be, to quote Stephen King, ‘quacking into the void’). And yet Kermode himself argues that ‘writing for free in an arena where someone else is getting paid eventually undermines the possibility of anyone being properly remunerated’. This sounds a little protectionist, I suppose, but there is a grain of truth here, surely – if the reviews on the blog are any good, then I may be taking bread from the mouths of film critics’ children – if they’re not, what’s the bloody point in them anyway?

I don’t know. I suppose the brutally honest response would be to say that if a professional critic with the resources of a national paper behind them can’t come up with something more useful and entertaining than an amateur nobody sitting behind a laptop in a garret, they don’t deserve to be in the profession anyway. And perhaps this is true. It has still made me question exactly why I am so rigorous about writing up every new film I watch, even the really boring ones.

As I’ve said in the past, I have a pronounced OCD tendency, and I think doing the reviews helps control this – also, feeding the OCD helps fend off the depressive tendency I also possess. So perhaps there is a therapeutic aspect to all this. Thinking about this has also made me realise that starting writing this blog regular coincided fairly closely with my stopping writing ‘substantial’ fiction suspiciously closely. I said in an ‘interview’ (it was a webzine feature where completely obscure individuals took it in turns to ask each other silly questions every week) a few years ago that writing is just about the only thing in the world, other than watching the 1970s Doctor Who title sequence, guaranteed to make me happy, and so perhaps obsessively writing endless film reviews has taken the place of producing fiction.

In which case it looks like that the main purpose of this blog is not to actually share opinions and judgements on films, but to shore up my mental equilibrium. If I actually ever say something worthwhile and useful about a film it is a fortuitous fringe benefit and nothing else. I’m not really sure how to process this little nugget of increased self-knowledge, but then that has largely been the story of 2014 so far for me. If you are the starving child of a professional film critic, I apologise, but I fear it may be pathological on my part. And if you are not, but you are at all interested in films and serious film writing, you will probably find Hatchet Job to be an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

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I had a slightly odd experience a few weeks ago. One of my students approached me – one of the pleasant, engaged ones, but a guy who always looked slightly fragile, somehow – and asked if he could ask me a personal question.

I have a stock answer for this situation (along with most others). ‘You can always ask,’ I said pleasantly.

‘What advice can you give about coping with depression?’ he said.

Well, for what it’s worth, I told him that the most important thing is to try not to just sit and wallow in it, but keep yourself busy as far as you can – but more importantly, to remember that depression isn’t you any more than flu is you or athlete’s foot is you when you’re suffering from one of those: just because your brain chemistry gets messed up, that’s not your fault any more than you’re to blame for copping a virus or (spirits forbid) a cancer. He seemed to take it on board, but I felt compelled to ask him something in return.

‘Why are you asking me, this, in particular?’ There are over a dozen teaching staff members where I work, after all, some of who knew him better than me, to say nothing of a top-notch student welfare team.

‘I recognise the look on your face sometimes,’ he said. This came as a shock, as I hadn’t really felt I’d had a particular incident so far this year. Still, it only goes to show. I just wish he’d paid that much attention to consonant clusters.

black dog

I was, I suppose, about 15 when I really became aware of the fact that every now and then I just felt… low. Flat. ‘Sad’ never really feels like the right word, which is one of the reasons why I shied away from the D-word for a long time. I suppose I first started to notice little interludes where I just felt hollowed-out and listless much earlier than that, but it was a few years before it started to dawn on me that, perhaps, there was perhaps a little bit more to it than just feeling down at the end of bad days.

I don’t know, though. I’m always reluctant to make a fuss about this stuff, as I’m aware I suffer from this much, much less than other people. I mean, it’s not nice, and it’s to some extent debilitating in terms of my being able to, you know, do productive stuff in my free time, but actually getting up and going to work has never been difficult. I am perhaps somewhat lucky in that the OCD-tendency which is also an element of my personality to some extent counteracts the blues and keeps me active.

I’m not even completely sure why I’m writing this, other than because I find writing about the world helps me to make sense of it, and, as I said in an interview many years ago, writing regularly makes me happy. I’m not posting this as a cry for help or in the expectation of a groundswell of support, because, to be honest, neither is required – managing this condition is something I’ve got used to. This is only out in public because I have come to the conclusion that writing something that no-one is ever going to read is a foolish waste of time and energy (this, by the way, is why I’ve more or less given up writing fiction).

Perhaps it is also the case that my shadowy companion has been visiting me more regularly in recent years than has sometimes been the case. Possibly there are sound real-world reasons for this: after having firm short- and medium-term goals for many years, in 2012 I found myself having achieved them all and at a bit of a loss for anything to do. Inactivity doesn’t suit me well – I need to keep the engines of my mind revved up – and there are possibly also personal issues to consider (but, hey, there’s a limit to how confessional I’m prepared to get).

This is how it feels. I was going to say it feels like being behind a sheet of glass, not quite able to properly engage with the world. But it’s more like being made entirely of glass: thick, cloudy, heavy glass. You don’t feel sad all the time. You don’t actually feel anything at all. You feel, as I said, flat, hollowed-out. You don’t really want to talk or interact with other people on anything other than a professional level. You find it very hard to settle down and focus on anything other than the most passive and undemanding pursuits. Work days are usually okay until you get home. Weekends are more awkward: you spend the day idly going back and forth between different computer games and websites, occasionally toying with doing something more productive but finding no enthusiasm for it, no value in it, whatsoever. And you wonder: is there something genuinely wrong with me, or am I just being appallingly lazy?

But you remember the upside to this as well, for all that it seems much rarer than the bad days: the times when your passions consume you and the work itself, whatever it may be, is reward enough in itself. At these times my productivity is phenomenal: once upon a time it was writing of various kinds, these days it’s more likely to be painting or model-making. When you’re up the danger is that you think it’s going to last forever – it won’t, of course. But the two modes of this are alien to each other, mutually exclusive in a very real sense. You can’t think yourself into the up headspace when you’re down, nor vice versa. You just have to negotiate your path between the two states and remember that nothing lasts forever.

I am down at the moment, as you may be able to tell. No, hush, it’s not necessary. It’s too early to say how long this particular bout will last, but I think I am dealing with it pretty well. I’m not entirely sure why I’ve written this, as I said, but this year has – so far – largely been about getting a more honest sense of myself as a person, and there’s not much point to that unless you share that with the wider world one way or another. Relax, there’ll be another cynical film review along in a minute.

 

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Once again November has come and gone and I find myself not having written a novel in any real sense of the expression. So what, you may say, this is no different to the previous ten months of 2013 in which novel-writing did not really feature on the list of things I did. This is a fair point, and yet…

navelgazer

As you may or may not know, November is the time of NaNoWriMo, the popular – if, it must be said, very badly named – international creative writing event. National Novel Writing Month is an annual event where people from all over the world sit down and undertake to produce 50,000 words of continuous fiction over a thirty day period. This is the fourth year in which I have set my sights on the NaNo prize, and the second in a row in which I haven’t actually come anywhere close to achieving it.

I say ‘fourth’, but the first year I sort of did NaNo without even being aware of it, sitting down to write a novel in the space of about a month and only later becoming aware of the fact that thousands of other people were doing the same thing at the same time. Nevertheless I knocked out 116,000 words of a story which had been kicking about my head for over sixteen years.

Finding myself at a loose end I did NaNo properly in 2010, this time turning up 115,000 words (needless to say I had no other real commitments). It seems rather incredible to me now, but I had genuine hopes that one or other of these productions had enough merit to potentially be publishable in some form, given a bit of rewriting and polishing. My experience of a ‘re-edit your MS’ course from a pro author showed me otherwise, mainly because the first one would have been unmarketable and didn’t have a proper ending, while the second was essentially the beginning and end of two different genre novels (both favourites of mine) inelegantly welded together: the structure was irretrievably busted in both cases.

I was doing a Diploma course in 2011 and so skipped doing NaNo, but decided to have another crack last year: getting the structure right was my main concern. After getting 5,000 words into a post-apocalyptic quest story which I never felt completely happy writing, I made the elementary NaNo aspirant’s mistake and switched to new story: a fantastical sex-comedy-satire with a contemporary setting – I got 12,000 words into that, but then illness and a real-life emotional situation got in the way of my finishing it (or so I told myself, anyway).

17,000 words is only about a third of the way there. At least, I’m telling myself, this year I got to 23,000, which is a slightly better showing: and given I dropped out after less than three weeks it’s fairly respectable. Why, you may be wondering, did I stop so early? Well, to be honest, once again I wasn’t exactly feeling the story, and it had also become apparent than even if by some miracle I hit 50,000 before the month’s end I still wouldn’t be anywhere close to the end of the story – at 23,000 I was still some way from the point I had pegged as the end of the first act of the story. (See? Thinking about the structure.) Without the pressure of the NaNo deadline I knew the thing was never going to get properly finished.

(Just to put this in perspective: an acquaintance who was also doing NaNo suffered a close family bereavement, gave birth, and still managed to hit the 50,000 words mark. Given my own main distractions were conquering ancient France in lengthy games of Rome: Total War and enjoying the golden anniversary celebrations of my favourite TV show, I really have no excuse.)

A fairly sad chronicle of failure, I think you’ll agree (I haven’t even mentioned this year’s Camp NaNo fiasco, or ScriptFrenzy in 2011). Why am I going on about it? Why not just forget about the idea and spare everyone the stress and the breast-beating?

A fair question. While I have one (very, very minor) published credit to my name, with a couple more hopefully on the way, I have no serious ambitions to become a professional writer. I have a career which I find very fulfilling – and which, truth be told, is probably healthier when it comes to my mental state than just beating my head against a blank page for hours every day. Yet the compulsion remains, at NaNo time, during similar events, whenever: unless I’m much mistaken ‘write more fiction’ was on my New Year list last January. Has it happened? Nope.

Given I clearly feel some desire to write more fiction, and I’m not lumbered with any of those things which eat the time of most people – full-time jobs, dependent family members, especially active social lives – why this litany of failure? I’m horribly afraid I may just be lazy. Writing fiction is hard work if you want to do it properly – I believe Ray Bradbury said the first half-million words he wrote were all rubbish, but a necessary apprenticeship in the craft. Beating up the Gauls or reflecting on the positive social impact of Doctor Who are both much easier.

Writing a film review is a piece of cake compared to producing a piece of fiction of comparable length – your topic is pre-selected for you, and the structure is usually fairly standardised. You know what you’re going to say, too. Fiction is tough – I was going to say everything comes from within, but of course that’s not true. Let’s just say a much higher proportion of it does.

Okay, so it’s difficult, you may be saying. Nobody’s forcing you. Either do it or don’t, but don’t waste our time going on about how hard it is, and how useless you are. Don’t you realise that what you’re doing is displacement activity? You could actually be doing some writing now instead of bleating about how you’re not doing any writing.

You know, that hadn’t actually occurred to me until I sat down and typed it. Perhaps you have a point. Perhaps I am just attempting to name and shame myself in the hope that this may motivate me to actually produce something. I don’t know. The itch remains, but it seems that I’m not sure whether I genuinely want to scratch it. It’s a little confusing.

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To start with today, a rare glimpse behind the curtain to where the magic happens. As regular visitors may have noticed, I recently watched the complete Babylon 5 – 110 episodes of the main show, another 13 of the spin-off, plus seven TV movies of various flavours. This ended up taking eight months, and to say this was longer than expected is a bit of an understatement. Still, I enjoyed it, and it filled some of the gap in my life which was left at the conclusion of my Diploma course (as well as arguably being a slightly more worthwhile undertaking, but that’s just the state of my career for you).

And I find I am missing it – not the watching of the DVDs, but the thinking about the episodes and the writing of the blog. I suppose the logical thing to do is just to write more full Doctor Who reviews, but I’m sort of half-way through a project in that department at the moment and I do like to mix things up a bit.

On the other hand, I don’t want to launch into something quite so time-consuming and comprehensive quite so soon (which is not to say that doing the same thing for the original Survivors, in particular, doesn’t appeal), which sort of limits me to doing odd episodes here or there. I suppose the issue I’m grappling with is whether or not to write about every old TV show I watch on DVD, and if not, how to decide? Just the really good ones, or the really unusual ones, or the terrible ones, or what?

Oh well. For the time being I am just going to wait for the spirit to move me, which didn’t happen with the last few episodes of Hammer House of Horror, but did happen with a 1969 episode of The Avengers entitled Love All. This is from the final season of the show, which – so far as I am aware – is somewhat divisive amongst those who really like it. Everyone agrees that the two Diana Rigg seasons are brilliant, iconic TV: the question is whether the final Linda Thorson season is, in places, even better, or just rather disappointing on the whole.

Certainly season 6 is a different animal from any of its predecessors. The format has undergone a bit of a tweak, in that suave superspy Steed is no longer working with an amateur partner, but a fellow professional agent – specifically, Linda Thorson as Tara King (my dad actually prefers Linda Thorson to Diana Rigg, which given her general resemblance to Maggie Gyllenhaal and occasional penchant for thigh-flashing I can sort of understand). Also new on the scene is Steed’s boss, Mother, an obese, wheelchair-bound mastermind plated by Patrick Newell.

The general tone and look of the stories have also changed – the Rigg seasons’ regular excursions into full-on SF seem to have been curtailed, but the imagery of the series has become much more deliberately whimsical and surreal. On some levels the programme is marginally more down to Earth, but in others it’s weirder than ever.

As a result some of the Thorson episodes just come across as silly, thinly-plotted nonsense, but when they’re good, they’re really impressive. Love All is an episode full of interestingly strange ideas and good gags. It also makes more diligent use of that old ‘plain woman takes off glasses and lets down hair and is suddenly stunning’ trope than anything else in the history of the world.

As the story opens, something is afoot in the Missile Defence Department: secrets are being leaked! (Stolen secrets and high-level sleepers and double agents are very standard in The Avengers, so no-one seems inordinately bothered apart from Mother.) It quickly becomes apparent that top department bigwig Sir Rodney is to blame, as he is inadvertantly telling them to his girlfriend (Veronica Strong), who happens to be the department’s cleaning lady. The image of him passionately wooing a very plain woman in an apron with a fag hanging out of the corner of her mouth is funny, and plays to all sorts of cultural stereotypes about posh Englishmen and their fondness for women who clean.

Unfortunately, Sir Rodney is overheard by a security man, and at his girlfriend’s urging shoots him dead, eventually going on the run after a brief interview with Steed. Sir Rodney goes round to the cleaning lady’s house where he meets a stunning dolly-bird claiming to be her niece. Later, the cleaning lady herself emerges and the two drive off together – but she puts a bullet in the hapless civil servant. A remarkable transformation takes place (not all of it on-camera) as a quick tousle of the hair, some make-up and a change of stockings reveals that cleaner and dolly-bird are one and the same person.  Strong really does look very glam in her dolled-up persona; kudos to her for throwing herself into the dismal old drab side of the part as well.

Anyway, a slightly spurious trail of clues lead Steed and Tara to the offices of Casanova Ink, a small publishing house specialising in romantic fiction. Here the show seems to be satirising both Mills and Boon, publisher of thousands of this sort of title, and Barbara Cartland, the notorious romantic novelist who wrote a staggering number of books of this type (over 700, including 23 in one year – she left 160 unpublished manuscripts when she died, the sort of workrate which makes Michael Moorcock look like JD Salinger and me feel like giving up ‘serious’ writing entirely). Running the place is Patsy Rowlands, veteran of several Carry On films, which tonally we’re not a million miles away from here. The gag is that all the romance books are written by a computer, explaining the authors’ astounding productivity (shades of Roald Dahl’s The Great Automatic Grammatizator, published some years prior to this episode being written).

Well, needless to say, it turns out that the genius behind the novel-writing computer (Terence Alexander, playing his third Avengers bad guy in as many seasons) has come up with a way of using ‘microdots’ embedded in books to send subliminal messages that cause the reader to fall helplessly in love with the next person they see. Said microdots are in heavy circulation at the department, and all the top men there are madly in love with the cleaner, allowing him to extract various juicy secrets and sell them to foreign powers.

loveall

Another gritty and demanding Avengers storyline, I think you’ll agree. Well, it gets a bit dicey near the end as the villain manages to make Tara fall in love with him and nearly persuades her to die for love (apparently Patrick Macnee cracked a rib in the scene where he saves her from jumping out of a window). However, once the obligatory poorly-doubled fisticuffs are out of the way, Steed hits upon a cunning ruse – availing himself of about two dozen of the ‘microdots’ (which actually look like watch batteries), he sticks them all over his waistcoat. All the villains promptly fall for him, allowing him to round them up and take them off to the authorities with the greatest of ease.

Well, okay, it’s not deep and it’s not remotely sensible, but it’s a proper story and not just a series of lifts from other places and quirkily stylised set pieces. It hangs together pretty well as a plot (given the standard Avengers conventions), it says some witty things about English culture and society, and in places it’s properly funny. The – er – cognitive dissonance between Veronica Strong’s drab and glam incarnations really is striking: unless you’re in on the gag it’s almost impossible to tell it’s the same person.

But the best performance award probably goes to Patrick Macnee, of course: given a scene where he’s confronted with a gang of beautiful women, all of whom are in love with him, he’s absolutely in his element and soars as only he can. Thorson is pretty good, of course, but it’s Macnee who’s basically carrying the series at this point.  A strong episode all round, then, but is this as good as the best of the Rigg episodes? I’m reluctant to say, not having watched a lot of Rigg recently: I shall have to refresh my memory. Watch this space – or, to choose a more apposite phrase, stay tuned.

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