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In the past fifteen years, I have watched British film attempting to assert its Britishness, but I have found that the terrain it maps out seems wholly foreign to my own experience. Largely this felt like someone else’s cinema, or rather a cinema functioning almost exclusively as PR for the notion of that New Modern Britain every successive government has offered up and failed to deliver.

The best job I ever had was as a volunteer with the Jameson Dublin Film Festival in 2003. In exchange for a measly three hours handing out tickets, I could go see as many festival screenings as I wished and rub shoulders with the invited cinema personalities. I met Javier Bardem! I got into a fight with Jim Sheridan‘s wife (less proud of that one). It’s as close as I am ever likely to come to the ‘film industry’.

And yet looking back it was a surprisingly hollow experience. I have been to film festivals since and they are all quite similar in their fascination with celebrity and the glossing over of any genuinely startling work of film into single word reviews exchanged over a cocktail. ‘Controversial’. ‘Disturbing’. ‘Perverse’. There is a sense that the naieve aim of film festivals – the promotion of film as an artform – has been lost in favour of celebrity gossip and flashy marketing.

Every now and then I am reminded of the true value of film criticism, of the pleasures it can offer and the engagement with the medium it encourages. Enter Carl Neville.

This book contains a series of linked essays describing the rising star of the British Film Industry in concert with the populism of Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia‘. Neville identifies how the films of Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle combined to elide the recent memory of Thatcherism. Realism in cinema is eschewed by the popular box office hits of the period and the new gloss of paint given to government by Blair‘s success in defeating the Tories  allows for an aspirational tone to enter political discourse – that of course was not acted upon. Neville also treats of the rise of ‘New Laddism‘, as both a reaction to the ‘New Man‘, of the 1980’s and an endorsement of consumer culture.

All of this, Neville argues, is encapsulated in 90’s cinema and onwards. In Four Weddings and a Funeral he finds an attempt to turn back the clock on Thatcherite Britain to the bucolic era of Waugh, whereas Trainspotting obscures the realities of drug addiction and a crime-ridden underclass by fixating on the notion of ‘choice‘. This nominally Scottish film is revealed to be a voyeuristic skin designed for middle-class England. Its magic realism and irony does not serve to deepen its themes as a work of cinema, but to raise a laugh and replace the awareness of the realities of heroin-addiction and social depravity with a hyper-kinetic cartoon:

The opposition between a non-judgmental imaginative rendering and a patronizing realism assumes that in some way McDonald, Boyle and Hodge are more on the side of the underclass by representing them as attractive, even enviable, rather than suffering and pitiable.

It’s a startling critique of a film that has transcended its initial controversy to become one of the best-known recent films in British history. The films of Danny Boyle in particular are focused on throughout this book, with the author calling attention to how the use of vicarious fantasy avoids any encounters with harsh realism. Another example given for this process is the evolution of the football hooligan sub-genre, from Philip Davis’ I.D., with its disturbing account of an undercover cop embracing the weekend violence of hooliganism, to Frodo Baggins enjoying a thoroughly middle-class misadventure in Lexi Alexander’s Green Street.

Fantasy has replaced any concern with the realities of life in modern Britain. It is not all doom though. Nevillie is particularly appreciative of films like Adam & Paul and Morvern Callar (that rare thing, a masterpiece in its every iteration – the soundtrack is an absolute delight). Sexy Beast compares the misery of London’s criminal underworld to sunny Spain, where Ray Winstone‘s Gal can finally build a life for himself. But it is The Queen which offers Neville the opportunity to return to the boogieman of this piece, Tony Blair, media literate, hysterical, with a canny ability to replace ideology with emotionalism.

This book gave me a welcome slap in the face. Impassioned argumentation and impressively cineliterate.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

See, places like Maganda, places that have been done to death, tourism-wise, are going to be all the rage soon. Why? Because global warming has got people wanting to see what’s happening to their planet, with their own eyes. They want to see those polluted rivers and those rising sea levels and those last little squares of tropical rainforest. Because it’s too late. They’ll pay a lot of money to do it, too. Call it guilt, call it morbid curiousity. Either way, travel is going to turn into one big global rubbernecking session, with everybody racing to see the ecological car crashes.’

It is an odd thing to realize that I have crisscrossed the world four, or five times, but I have seen so little of it. What is worse is when I realize the road I am driving down looks identical to the M50 motorway in Co. Dublin. Sometimes life in English-speaking countries feels like wandering through a massive airport. All the stores are the same. Fast food is an essential element of city-life. We even watch the same television shows, movies and music videos.

I understand the attraction to visit countries where a different language is spoken, where the culture needs to be studied to be understood. Unfortunately it often seems as if these places are the destinations of choice for boozing tourists. Centuries of history can be summarised in a single guided tour.

Author Mic Looby once worked for Lonely Planet and you can tell how it informed his story of roving tourism guide writers. My only concern is whether any of this book was true!

Mithra is a struggling editor at SmallWorld, a guide book publishing company. She does not make much money and an accidental affair with a colleague has caused her no end of grief. When the new management, represented by the Global Facilitator, begins downsizing the company, Mithra’s position is abruptly ‘phased out’, only for her to be almost instantly offered a new position. She is to be made a writer for the latest SmallWorld guide book on the tropical island of Maganda. The only catch (apart from having to pay her own way) is that her predecessor Robert Rind is refusing to answer any emails. She will have to inform him that he has been fired in person and obtain his updated notes on the island nation.

When she arrives she discovers that Rind is a phantom, known by everyone on Maganda but rumoured to be either dead, or vanished into the mountains. Wherever she turns she meets rival travel guide writers, who prefer to sit by hotal pools and write their accounts using their internet connection, instead of visiting the locales they are describing. Mithra also discovers that the SmallWorld guide to Maganda is ridiculously out of date. It seems as if Rind is not quite the legend she thought him to be and has instead been simply writing lies for years.

Throw in increasing civil and social unrest, a looming launch campaign for the new guide book and conflicting reports of appearances by Rind and Mithra begins to wish she had never left her stultifying office cubicle.

Paradise Updated is both a sly send-up of the tourist guide-book industry, as well as a comedic take on Marlow’s search for Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. While Rind is eventually revealed to be similarly megalomaniacal, he is also crippled by hypochondria. Particularly with regard to the condition of his bowels and there is much scatological humour to be found in these pages. The blackly comic tone is quite similar to Evelyn Waugh, particularly his novel Scoop, with the tourists that descend on Maganda blithely oblivious to the injustices suffered by the native population.

A light read, with a sharp sting in the tail, making for a very promising debut.

Things will get better. In fifteen years’ time and that’s such a little space – 90 per cent of the people living in Britain will be over eighty. There won’t be the energy from evil any more than there will be the energy for good.

I have got to stop reviewing books that have been adapted to film. I waste most of the review commenting on the differences between the film and the text. Plus this blog is dedicated to books and yet my love of cinema insists on creeping back in.

Still I was astonished at how much the screenplay based on P.D. James‘ novel diverged from the text. In his commentary on the dvd for Children of Men philosopher Slavoj Zizek comments on how the religious subtext of the book is dropped for more cinematic themes such as terrorism and a breakdown in multicultural society.

Both stories come from the same root, however. By 2021 the human race is doomed by a worldwide epidemic of childlessness that has lasted twenty five years. Theo Faron a fifty-year-old Oxford historian has begun a diary that provides us with an insight into how the quiet extinction of the human race has changed Britain. A new system of governance has taken over in the wake of global panic, ruled by his cousin Xan Lyppiatt, the Warden of England. Under his rule order has been restored to the country due to his wide-ranging policy changes and of course the increasing depopulation. Cities are quiet and safe. Criminals are deported to the Isle of Man. Immigrants from other countries are invited to England to do menial jobs, referred to as Sojourners, but are returned to their countries of origin once they become elderly.

The infertility event is designated Omega, with the last generation of humans born in 1995 known as Omegas. Theo describes them as being over-entitled, spoiled brats, who regard their elders with undisguised contempt. There are even rumours that there are roaming gangs of Omegas in the abandoned English countryside. Their youth is something incomprehensible and threatening to the dispassionate and increasingly listless older population. Some women who were of child-bearing at the time of Omega have never recovered from the psychological trauma. Dolls are wheeled about in prams in imitation of real children. There are even christenings of newborn pets. Animals it appears were spared divine punishment.

Theo’s diary also describes his relationship with Xan and  their time spent together as children, which allows him to believe he is untouchable even as his concerns about the nature of his cousin’s power over Britain grows. He is contacted by a small group of dissidents, the Five Fishes, who contact him in the hope that he can use his influence with Xan to repeal some of his policies. Initially dismissive of their utopian plans,Theo is an unwilling co-conspirator, until he is given a reason to hope for a possible future for the human race. It takes nothing less than a genuine miracle to wipe away his privileged sceptism.

At times Theo Faron feels like a character from an Evelyn Waugh novel who somehow became lost and wandered into this listless dystopia. James herself draws attention to this, by having Xan utter the line “How too Brideshead, dear boy. I feel the need of a teddy bear.” The early half of Children of Men is a fantastic eulogy to a dying Britain, with Theo a curator for a culture that will soon vanish, singing the praises of emptying churches, libraries and museums. The violent Omegas are strangely alien to him, remiscent of  The Midwich Cuckoos and Burgess’ Droogs (much like Alex’s friends, some are even conscripted into the police). The abandoned villages and seaside holiday resorts transformed into destinations for assisted suicide are beautifully evoked.

However, as Theo becomes more and more involved with the Five Fishes the novel changes, becoming an unusual mixture of thriller and religious allegory. Incredibly P.D. James has fashioned a twenty-first century neo-Nativity. Xan makes for a charming Herod, a politician who acquired ideology to suit his passage to power and finds it difficult to relinquish, even in the face of the end of the world. There is an amusing aside when The Beatles classic All You Need is Love becomes a rallying cry for evangelists.

Children of Men is more a novel of ideas than a work of science fiction, questioning the meaning of life without purpose. Remarkable.

The complete stillness was more startling than any violent action. The body looked altogether smaller than life-size now that it was, as it were, stripped of the thick pelt of mobility and intelligence. And the face which inclined its blind eyes towards him – the face was entirely horrible; as ageless as a tortoise and as inhuman; a painted and smirking obscene travesty by comparison with which the devil-mask Dennis had found in the noose was a festive adornment, a thing an uncle might don at a Christmas party.

Evelyn Waugh is a writer I can return to again and again. I think Vile Bodies was the first of his books that I read as a teenager, which was something of a revelation. It was the louche pessimism of his writing that impressed me, equal parts self-aware and flavoured with schadenfreude, combined with a rapier-like wit. It would seem the man himself was a thoroughly unpleasant character – if you are interested in reading about Waugh’s life I would recommend Selina Hastings’ biography – but I always find myself putting down a book of his with a big grin on my face. The copy of The Loved One that I read was a gift from a friend back in Dublin to mark our leaving for Australia. Sadly this edition, published in 1956 and having survived all the years in-between did not last one day with me. The cover was torn off. I feel terrible about that.

Dennis Barlow is a failed English poet who has been unsuccessful in breaking into the Hollywood film industry. Fortunately he has managed to befriend Sir Francis Hinsley, chief script-writer for Megalopolitan Pictures and a fellow Englishman. Barlow has even managed to take up residence in the “only knight in Hollywood’s” home, despite the objections of the expatriate community represented by Ambrose Abercrombie. The general feeling is that Barlow in not making a decent stab at success in America is letting the side down quite a bit and making them all look a bit foolish. There is also the sneaking suspicion that he is something of a parasite, having latched himself on to Hinsley. Barlow’s solution is to find work at The Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery. If anything this adds insult to injury, but worse is to come. One day Megalopolitan Pictures summarily dismiss Hinsley after twenty-five years service. Distraught the respected man of letters does the only honourable thing and takes his own life.

Abercrombie leaves it to Barlow to make the funeral arrangements, which leads him from his less classy workplace smelling of burnt dog hair to the far more up-market Whispering Glades. Offering a number of religious and non-religious services, the funeral home works according to a number of obscure philosophies designed by its founder Wilbur Kenworthy, the self-described ‘Dreamer’. The dead are referred to exclusively as ‘Loved Ones’, who are greeted after death by the eternally happy ‘Waiting Ones’. Whispering Glades, therefore, are in the business of making the corpses under their care as life-like as possible, so that they will be well-received in this ‘whites only’, paradise. The necropolis itself is divided up into a series of themed graveyards, notable for the ostentatious level of detail.

Barlow becomes professionally envious, as he feels his position at The Happier Hunting Ground is tantamount to being ‘lower class’, somehow. He spots an opportunity to attach himself to a beautician at Whispering Glades, the wonderfully named Aimée Thanatogenos. Passing off examples of classical poems as his own work, he begins to woo her, much to the dismay of his rival for her affections, Senior Mortician Mr Joyboy. Barlow’s only worry is that before she agrees to marry him, allowing his stay in Los Angeles to continue, he might run out of poems to plagiarise.

This is a wickedly funny book about English class versus American largesse. Waugh’s descriptions of Whistpering Glades are inspired, in particular an island dedicated to W.B. Yeats’ poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, although they got rid of the bees, so that there would be “no sore fannies and plenty of poetry.” Whereas Abercrombie presents a mask of cheerful bonhomie in the face of America’s overtaking of Britain, Barlow sees his situation in entirely cynical terms. Who has money? How can he get some? Readily exploiting the people in his life, he has decided that if cannot write poetry, he will instead live comfortably.

Deliciously wicked and absurd, I loved this book.

It was not a bang, it was a rumble, not overloud, but it thudded into all corners of the morning like a great door slammed in the deepest hollows of the sea. Beside me a heavy wire stay unexpectedly quivered like a cello string for a moment, then stopped.

Now, standing up unsteadily from the sea, was the famous Mushroom.

‘Where were you when it happened?’ Isn’t that the refrain after any major event, or historical signpost erected in hindsight? ‘What were you thinking when you heard the news?’ Historical accounts give a narrative to the events that overtake us throughout our lives, establishing a meaning, or telos as the philosophy lecturers say, out of the reports and findings that are pored over. The twentieth century still defines us, that is to say our understanding of the past one hundred years define us, our ideas of nationality, culture, who we are as peoples. The danger lies in being too selective in what we remember and what we ignore.

Robert Fox’s book is a collection of different writings on the twentieth century. It features easily digestible extracts from personal journals, biographies, reports and, as the twenty-first century approaches, web-blogs. There are even selections from the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, folk songs from Woody Guthrie and gonzo ramblings from Hunter S. Thompson. The book begins with the age of discovery and ends with the century’s extended epilogue that followed the events of September 11 2001. A ‘clash of civilizations’, along religious lines on a scale not seen since the Second World War.

This book also describes the evolution of how we account for our history, the changes in the language employed to describe momentous events. Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium is an adventure that equals the race to the Antarctic between Scott and Amundsen. Britain’s Edwardian Age is seen as the last gasp of the Empire, with the fallout from the tragic expedition to the South Pole a presentiment of the dark days ahead. We refer to the First World War, placing it in sequence. To the peoples of Europe it was known as the Great War, which spread from the mainland to Africa and felled the Russian Tsarist regime. Fox presents John Reed’s ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, once more, reporting the spontaneous cry ‘Revolutionary discipline! Property of the People..’ during the attempted sack of the Winter Palace. We have an account from the son of a Turkish soldier, whose father was left to die by his fellow troops somewhere on the side of a road. Then there is the Easter Rising in Dublin, seizing the opportunity to try and fight a beleaguered British occupation.

The cracks that followed a ‘peace that brings more victims tomorrow(a quote from a Serbian General from an article published in 1993) inevitably pulls Europe towards a second conflagration. The Spanish Civil War becoming a testing ground for German Blitzkrieg; the new form of journalism that evolves on the hoof courtesy of writers such as George Orwell soon coming to define the style of war reporting; the burning of the Reichstag; the grim doom levelled on European Jews by an insensible madman; and the centrifugal force of the conflict sucking in armies from America, Japan and Australia. Finally the testing of the atomic bomb at the Bikini Atoll, a death-warrant for the whole of humanity prematurely signed with the swirl of a mushroom cloud.

Fox darts and weaves between enemy lines to give a broader appreciation to the conflicts he covers. The story of a British POW escapee’s encounter with a sympathetic German lepidopterist in Occupied Italy was a favourite of mine, as well as the suspicion Robert Graves receives for carrying a copy of Nietzsche’s poems, portrayed in the press as ‘the sinister figure behind the Kaiser’. Then there’s Evelyn Waugh’s contribution to travel writing:I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the tops and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have even seen in art or nature was quite so revolting.’

Fox’s selections are both intimate and revealing. I wonder if we even now realize how soon history will leave us behind.

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