Film threat

StarredUp2

Two violent films, seen within 24 hours of one another. Starred Up is out this week on DVD. Joe is in cinemas. The first, from debuting writer Jonathan Asser – who, as a psychotherapist who’s worked with prisoners and young offenders, knows of which he speaks – is a prison drama. And already you’re thinking: oh no, not another prison drama. It’s true, the genre has long since hardened into if not cliché, certainly formality. But Starred Up – and you’ve heard this before, but stick with me – is different.

Yes, it resonates with the clanging of metal doors and gates, and makeshift weapons are furtively manufactured from toothbrushes and razor blades, and everyone says “fuck” or “cunt”, and there’s a sadistic, unsmiling deputy governor whose faith in rehabilitation is not devout, and a prisoner hierarchy with an unlikely, weaselly geezer at the top, and lags walk around in a circle in the exercise yard, but … it’s not about prison, no more than Hunger or Un prophète were about prison. It’s about a father and son.

Jack O’Connell, whom I never really saw in Skins but appreciated in Chris Chibnall’s United and James Moran’s Tower Block, is the son, and Ben Mendelsohn, one of the Aussie breakout stars of Animal Kingdom and brilliant in supporting roles in Killing Them Softy and Girls, is the father. The son, Eric Love (brilliant name), has been “starred up”, that is, moved from a young offenders’ institution to a grown-ups’ prison, where his dad, Neville, has carved out a functional life for himself, nearer to the top of the tree than the bottom, but he’s no Mr Big. He and his son have been estranged for most of Eric’s life, who grew up in care. He’s still in care. So is Neville.

What differentiates Starred Up – the best work from Scottish director David Mackenzie since the brooding and alarming Young Adam (although I’ve enjoyed plenty of his commercially under-loved work) – is that from the first scene we glimpse the human being under the self-generated armour of Eric’s cocksure invincibility when, after the long walk through the prison induction system to his cell, the door is shut on him and he allows his face and posture to retract from self-preservation and convey sadness, frustration and fallibility. It’s incredible acting from O’Connell (this film will make him if he isn’t made already), and infuses the rest of the film with depth.

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Eric is a coiled spring of curtailed ambition whose reflex reaction is to lash out (a request for the borrow of a lighter results in a brutal attack very early on), which makes his introduction to a modest therapy group run by Rupert Friend all the more jarring and counterintuitive. This is not a film about fairytale transformations, but the way Eric’s story plays out is not predictable. Nor is the way the father-son reunification unfolds. Mendelsohn plays Neville as recalcitrant and proud – also a man who thinks with his fists and would clearly have parented with slaps had he actually attempted to do so – but not without a heart. Friend is a chameleonic actor (proven by his transformation into an American CIA officer in Homeland) who is utterly believable from word one as this voluntary shrink whose commitment to rehabilitation is everything Sam Spruell’s cold governor’s isn’t. A peacemaking speech he makes later on in the story where he calls the black prisoners in his group “black cunts” and Eric “a white cunt … I’m a cunt, we’re all cunts” is far more profound than it sounds.

Asser’s screenplay, worked through over a number of years, with the help of many professionals at workshops – to whom he pays sincere tribute in interview – was also honed during the tight 24-day location shoot at Belfast’s former Crumlin Road Prison and the infamous Maze, with Mendelsohn particularly involved in fine-tuning his character. All of this shows in the incredible depth throughout, even in exchanges that seem trite or functional. And there’s a terrifying stand-up stand-off in the therapy group that’s as exquisitely and exactingly choreographed by Mackenzie as a dance routine.

However, and here’s why I suspect Starred Up only showed for a week at my local arthouse in March and then disappeared: it’s defiantly repellent stuff. Strong meat. Hard on the ears as well as the eyes. A film I love, but not a film I would recommend to anybody with a weak constitution. A low-level threat of violence persists throughout the entire 106-minute running time. It’s not if, but when it explodes. The violence is not as explicit as it seems (that’s clever directing and editing), but the sheer physical force with which it erupts is quite distressing. Blades, table legs, teeth, fists, all are pressed into service. Fathers and surrogate fathers are attacked by their sons and surrogate sons, and their sons and surrogate sons are beaten back. It’s tactile-Oedipal. And they’re “all cunts”. (It was a hot evening when we watched the DVD but we eventually had to close the skylights for fear of our neighbours being offended by the language.)

I appreciate that the violence inherent in the system is a valid subject for fiction, and Starred Up is a supremely intelligent depiction of that violence. But I would actually warn people from watching it. You have been warned. (Actually, I found myself wholeheartedly evangelising it to a woman I met at the Inbetweeners 2 aftershow and literally gave that warning.)

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I’d read a lot of praise for Joe, the new film from director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express – that’s some CV), adapted by Gary Hawkins from the 1991 novel I’ve never heard of by Mississippian Larry Brown (about whom Hawkins once made a documentary). It’s also violent. It’s also about fathers and sons, and surrogate fathers and sons. It’s also tactile-Oedipal, and a lesson in restraint. What a coincidence.

It’s also very different. Shot in areas around Austin in Central Texas, it’s not quite a Southern Gothic, although the relationship between Tye Sheridan’s 15-year-old grown-up Gary and his good-for-nothin’ dad Wade, played with unadulterated authenticity by non-actor and actual alcoholic drifter Gary Poulter (who died after filming), is a dark entry indeed. In the very first scene, Gary berates his wizened soak of a father without any fear until Wade slaps him, hard, around the face, and retreats to his preferred cycle of guzzling spirit and passing out. Gary’s surrogate father turns out to be Joe, an ex-con played with admirable restraint by Nic Cage – a restraint that has earned him endless plaudits, although it turns out that this is all relative.

Joe runs a gang of casual workers – all black – whose task it is to literally poison trees to make way for a corporate re-planting, a job they merrily do without gloves, let alone masks. But their camaraderie and joshing are genuine and inspiring, and there’s two-way respect between the workers and their genial employer. Everyone knows Joe has “a past”, and he himself explains that “restraint” keeps him from “hurting people” and keeps him out of jail. He drinks, loves his guard-dog (who lives in the crawlspace under his home, always tethered), and uses prostitutes. He also knows his way around skinning and butchering a deer. He’s more than a little bit country.

Violence erupts more than once, and again, that threat lingers. It’s difficult to relax into the scenes of socialising and ball-breaking, as bad things are always round the corner. The director paints his pictures in dark greens, buff browns and queasy yellows, but finds beauty in the way sunlight bounces off surfaces, or through a glugged bottle of rose wine. Coincidentally, Mackenzie creates a red light in Eric’s cell when material is fixed up over the only window – an effect akin to that which Green conjures for the brothel. It ain’t pretty, this backwoods world he depicts, but it is not without natural beauty, perhaps best personified by a box bridge (a key location) that’s being gradually wrapped in vine. You can poison nature at the behest of a corporation, but it always finds a way. Perhaps, Joe seems to be saying, male violence is a natural state, and restraint is unnatural.

The characters in Starred Up are in a physical prison. In Joe, they’re out in the wide open spaces; there are worse places to work than a forest, even if you’re poisoning it, but it still feels like a high-viz chain-gang, especially as the workforce is exclusively African-American. When hardworking, personable Gary and – briefly – the workshy Wade join the herbicide detail, they are in the minority. But there’s little to elevate Wade from the bottom of any social heap: he’s cruel, selfish, vicious and callow. When he launches into an implausible breakdancing routine, it is the only ray of humanity we are privileged to see. (We must imagine that Poulter, who apparently enjoyed acting in the film, started a Twitter account and had been in and out of rehab, was more redeemable than Wade.)

Gary’s relationship with his father is less complex than Eric’s with Neville. Gary is the de facto adult, but Wade is dominant through threat of violence (and actual enaction of violence); we barely see the submissive mother, who also seems to drink, and Gary’s sister appears to have been rendered mute by family life. He’s the one who must go out and earn money (he saves to buy a truck from his new role model, Joe). I won’t go into the plot, as you may wish to see it, but I have to say, I felt Joe was over-praised. I felt like I’d seen all this before. Calling a drama noir doesn’t instantly bestow it with class. Some of the story is too neat – the way it’s bookended, for instance – some of it is too messy. There’s no resolution to some strands (such as Joe’s relationship with an ex who sort of moves in with him and then just moves out), and too much resolution to others (a stand-off that brings Joe’s relationship with the local law enforcement to a head).

There’s a scene in Joe that’s more explicitly violent than even the most violent scene in Starred Up. (People in the cinema audibly groaned and said “No!” when it happened.) I’m not against violence artistically, or politically, but I can personally do without seeing a skull being caved in, or a cheek slashed with a blade. There are a lot of movies about violence. We live in a violent world. Hundreds of men, women and children are killed every day in acts of violence – albeit much of it long-range, and not perpetrated with metal bars on bone – and these acts do not act as neat catalysts for dramatic resolutions.

But I can tell you, I was in the mood to watch The Inbetweeners 2 last night.

 

Script-wanker!

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If you’re even halfway intrigued as to what this script is, with its unhelpful title Script Title and its near complete lack of information on what’s supposed to be its title page, and why it might have “Andrew Collins” stamped diagonally across it like a watermark (an addendum to every single one of the 139 pages therein), then I’ll let you in on my big secret, assuming you don’t take Radio Times, or click on the regular Twitter links to my tireless work for the magazine. I played a very small part in The Inbetweeners 2, which enjoys its world premiere tomorrow night and opens nationwide on Wednesday.

When I say I played a small part, I’m not in it. Not even in the background, as I have been in other productions I’ve worked on (uncredited as “Man With Hummus In Pub” in Grass, and “Man Walking Behind Bench” in Colin). In fact, I suspect you’ll have to stay to the very end of the credits – possibly even after the Dolby logo – to see my name, as I was a “script consultant” on it. Although I was told by the writers/producers/directors/creators Iain Morris and Damon Beesley that mine were the “first outside pair of eyes” on their screenplay, I may be one of a whole raft of script consultants credited. Either way, and as prosaic and self-effacing as I am naturally being about my small part, I am very, very, very excited to have any credit whatsoever on an actual film.

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I have written a fairly exhaustive piece for Radio Times about how it all happened, and you may read it here. What I didn’t manage to get into that piece is that, as script consultant, I was invited to attend the first, full cast read-through at a church in Shoreditch in London’s fashionable East End in November. On that day, I assume for top-level secrecy, the film was referred to as The Long Goodbye. I can’t say for certain how many people attended, but it must have been around 100, maybe more, counting the entire cast, all those producers and key production crew. Even though I was a script consultant (I think Robert Popper might be one, too, although he might also have an even fancier title), I was asked to read for a certain castmember who wasn’t able to attend. They only had one scene, but it was nerve-wracking all the same. I’m only a script consultant!

It was a memorable event in my chequered career. As will be the act of seeing my name whizz past in the end-credits roll at the premiere in London’s busy Leicester Square. Can it really be four summers since we last attended an Inbetweeners premiere in Leicester Square? Yes it can.

I attended the premiere of The Inbetweeners Movie in the sweltering, post-riots heat haze of August 2011, even though I didn’t work on it, as I am a friend of Bwark, Iain and Damon’s production company. I don’t attend many premieres, mostly out of choice. But it’s always weird walking up a red carpet when you’re not famous. Best thing is to hold your head up, eyes front, and walk as fast as possible. My most vivid memory of the night was standing talking to Rhys Thomas and Lucy Montgomery in Leicester Square after the film while a drain overflowed next to us, flooding foul effluent on the piazza, as if in mockery of the film’s baser instincts. It’s weird, but sort of not, that none of us could have known that the film would break box office records over the following weeks and go on to take £57 million, a record for a British comedy.)

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I am minded at this sensitive stage of the cautionary anecdote told by Richard Attenborough. In 1942, aged 19, he attended the gala charity premiere of In Which We Serve, the film in which he made his credited debut (playing “Young Stoker” – I know, it’s no “Man In Pub With Hummus”). He, too, sat expectantly through to the end credits, with his family in tow, and discovered that his name had been missed off. That’s showbiz. He never worked again.

To reiterate: I have not seen The Inbetweeners 2. But I have read it, a number of times, and even suggested changes and additions to it, all of which may have been ignored. I look forward, in an almost parental way, to seeing how it came out. There’s at least one disgusting gross-out moment, I’ll tell you that much and risk excommunication. Or at least there was last time I read Script Title. Curiously, script consultants don’t get invited to Australia to consult on set.

Areas of outstanding booty

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I was being both playful and deadly serious when, last night, after the watershed, I Tweeted:

I fucking hate fracking.

I added a PS in brackets – (I waited until after the watershed to Tweet that – it doesn’t work with dashes or asterisks) – a hint of levity beneath the hard crust of protest. Hey, it’s a stupid medium. Sometimes only a stupid joke will do. It doesn’t mean that serious intent is out of the question: attention-grabbing is half the battle. Anyway, a number of like-minded folk re-Tweeted my 15-certificate statement. Also – and I was sort of expecting this – one man objected to the basic underlying implication of my Tweet. He wrote:

if you’d been born in the late 1800’s would you have hated underground coal mining?

There’s no apostrophe in “1800s” but I wasn’t going to pick him up on that and be a prick. So instead I petulantly replied:

Yes.

I have no way of knowing what I would have hated in the late 1800s, as it was a very different time. Anyway, then I went to sleep. It was after 10.30. This morning, I found that the man had not let it lie. He’d responded, with a trace level of passive aggression, I felt (and no initial capital letter again):

presumably you have a masterful alternative to fracking up your sleeve, that the energy companies have failed to note

So I gathered my thoughts and, with about 15 years of being very interested in green issues behind me, I typed:

Use less energy.

Touché? Who knows. I only publicised my aversion to fracking in the first instance to reflect the fact that, far from being a destructive, money-motivated process only being perpetrated in faraway North Dakota and East Texas, it’s coming to the UK with an awful lot of political will behind it (and by that, I mean corporate will, obviously, as waived through by politicians with financial interests in energy companies). I care about this, and not because it’s literally going to happen in my urban backyard.

National parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, world heritage sites, all will be fair game for exploration and drilling for shale gas across this land once the bids are in for “onshore oil and gas licences”. But don’t worry, ministers are asking energy firms to “submit an environmental statement” before they are allowed to start tearing the arse out of Britain in the name of cheap energy and profit. This statement has to be “particularly comprehensive and detailed” if they want to frack on or near a protected bit of the map. But since when did a bit of paperwork stop big business?

I’m glad this brutish form of gas extraction actually termed hydraulic fracturing comes colloquially giftwrapped as “fracking” from its heartland in America, which nobody seems to have noticed is a bigger country than the United Kingdom. You just know that the marketing departments of the energy giants looking for a piece of the action, or “fracktion”, will be tearing their hair out trying to come up with a way of rebranding it. Too late. The word fits.

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Here’s the truth: I don’t have a magic solution to the country’s energy problems or the world’s, but I do know that the people in charge (by whom I mean the people who run the private corporations that run our governments) have known that the world’s oil was going to run out for decades. In 1956, Shell geoscientist (ie. not a hippy) M. King Hubbert predicted that “peak oil” would be reached in 2000. They named a curve after him. It certainly looked pretty dicey by the Millennium, although other experts have adjusted the end of days to the more palatable 2020, by which time the world will have solved the problem, apparently. Forgive me if I have zero confidence in that happening. The Market has failed to sort everything out previously. Why trust it this time, when so much is at stake?

It’s the Shale Of The Century! Just as Ed Miliband’s compromise solution for the railways is to allow the public sector to bid against private companies, it’s always a “competition”, as that’s how free market economics works, even when an apparent “Labour” party is tinkering with it. (It’s capitalism that led us to this precarious point where the massive oil-consuming nations have encouraged everyone else to consume more oil in order to compete in the global market and thus, we are running out of the stuff.) The “competition” for UK fracking licences is, we’re told, “likely to attract significant interest from energy companies keen to explore Britain’s new-found shale reserves.” Of course it is. There’s money to be made. It’s a gold rush where individuals with a pick and shovel may not apply. (This is a shame for all those fashionable men who have massive beards, as they already look like gold prospectors.)

Bad luck if you’re in the Bowland basin of the north-west, a central belt of Scotland and the Weald in the south-east. We must hope that the protests that sprang up in Blackpool and Balcombe about the potential for environmental damage will be replicated in these new areas of outstanding profit. The licensing round was announced while the MPs were on holiday, so they can pretend they didn’t know about it.

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The Tory Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon told the other Lords and Ladies, “We recognise there are areas of outstanding landscape and scenic beauty where the environmental and heritage qualities need to be carefully balanced against the benefits of oil and gas from unconventional hydrocarbons.” Planning consent is going to be a pushover. Eric Pickles is going to bypass the usual channels and sign it off himself.

And yet … there may be hope. From Conservative voters. Who live in many of the areas that are to be fracked. If they don’t actually live in rural constituencies, there are the exact types to aspire to do so (fantasy Countryside Alliance members who actually live in the suburbs), and they don’t like it up ’em. Quite why Cameron is prepared to put the interests of the corporations that fund his party above the actual individuals who might vote him back in without the pesky Lib Dems is beyond me. He is, if nothing else, shallow, self-serving and bloodless. Dozy, platitudinous twat that he is, surely even he can see that this is a potential electoral timebomb. (Unless, of course, he never really was in it to help anyone, and is only an ideological zealot up to a point. I’m not sure which is the more skin-crawling: a rightwing bastard, or someone pretending to be one.)

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Greenpeace are not happy (“The government has fired the starting gun on a reckless race for shale that could see fracking rigs go up across the British countryside”), nor are the Green party (“Many campaigners have campaigned for decades to get national park status, and they are given for a reason. The idea that they could be offered up to the fracking firms is a scandal”), but, according to the Guardian, Shaun Spiers of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, seemed fine with it, assured by the government’s “highest possible safeguards.” (Good luck, rural England, with this bloke backing your protection.)

In the interests of balance, I would say that the British Geological Survey has estimated that shale gas deposits under your house and garden could supply the country with energy for up to 40 years. And luckily, in order to extract it, all the energy companies have to do is sit near it with a tanker and it will magically evaporate out of the rock under the soil and fill the tank, which can be then safely and noiselessly driven away.

The Institute of Directors said three cheers for “a dynamic, productive and well regulated shale industry in the UK.” Pardon me if I sit on my hands and save my applause for later. The man on Twitter who thought he was being very clever probably thinks I am a lily-livered, bleeding-heart, anti-business Guardian-reading lefty with no answers to his difficult questions. He’s kind of right. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be furious about the fact that nobody has done anything about our untrammeled consumption of energy thus far except invent energy-saving lightbulbs. Why didn’t we – and why don’t we – just turn the lights off when we leave the room?

 

 

6razil

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A lobby of green-ink heart attack candidates in the Sunday Times Culture section’s You Say TV forum (to whit: “What about the 50 million licence fee payers who don’t like football?”) have been wishing for four weeks that World Cup 2014 was all over. It is now. Thanks to the fleet left foot of the German substitute who looks like my niece’s boyfriend Shane – Mario Götze – who misshaped the bottom corner of the Argentinian net in the 112th minute from a cross by André Schürrle, Germany are now four-times World Cup champions, and this is their first team to win it since the Wall came down. A new star will have to be embroidered onto their shirt. Götze already is one, a 22-year-old symbol of Germany’s “New Generation.”

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The Maracanã, pulsing with coloured lights from above like a sea anemone as the sun went down, hosted a thrilling final, whose single goal and singular lack of shots do not quite describe the action within. Having ungratefully humiliated the host nation and sent the whole of Brazil spiraling into despond – forced, by default, to cheer them on – Germany were the stronger side, but Argentina’s defence was stout. Unfortunately for the South Americans, their “demigod”, as Alan Shearer describe him, Lionel Messi, was only occasionally the best player in the world, and couldn’t finish.

However, and this is now a commonplace, Germany were a team: unreliant on demigods or talismen, they were eleven men, who simply looked for each other, passed clearly and cleanly, cleared some space, created chances, and, more often than not, converted those chances into goals. Only one last night, but it only required one. Stoically, they dealt with the zero-hour loss of Khedira – injured during training – by replacing him with Christoph Kramer, who was himself rendered dazed and confused by a shoulder to the bonce, and replaced by Schürrle. This is how a good team works. It is a sum of its parts. Brazil, as we have seen, cannot function without Neymar. Argentina, in this instance, couldn’t win without Messi. Messi was there, but not quite.

Let us not sanctify Germany; one or two of them did their fair share of diving (albeit not at the theatrical level of Holland’s Iron Robin, whose supercilious grin made him one of the most difficult to like stars of the tournament, right through to the pointless Third Place Playoff against an undead Brazil). But there are eleven reasons why Germany are the first European side to win the World Cup in South America. Oh, and one of those reasons happened to be the best keeper of the last four weeks.

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As Gary Lineker said to the shy and retiring Alan Hansen during the suited-up half-time mull, “You like stats.” Here are some I’ve lifted from the BBC Sport website:

Germany have won the World Cup for a fourth time. Only Brazil (5) have more wins. Argentina conceded a goal in extra time at the World Cup for the first time.
Argentina failed to have a shot on target in a World Cup game for the first time since the 1990 final v West Germany. Germany are the first European team to win a World Cup in the Americas.
Germany’s total of 18 goals is the most in a World Cup since Brazil scored 18 in 2002. Argentina only trailed for seven minutes in the entire tournament.

It was, of course, over for Brazil a lifetime ago on Tuesday, just after Germany’s second goal from Klose, when they went to pieces before the eyes of the world. Or, if you prefer to dig back a bit further: the moment Colombia’s Zuniga high-tackled Neymar in the quarter final and put him out of the frame. Or, if you prefer, the moment in the same match when captain Thiago Silva got sent off, for surely it was the lack of a cohering skipper as much as the lack of what Sam Matterface later called “a goal-scoring striker” that took the legs out from under Brazil. (Or Brazeel, Brazeeel, as I still call them, after the ITV theme tune, an affectation that has taken on a melancholy air.)

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The semi final against Germany at Belo Horizonte has already gone down in the World Cup and even footballing annals as one of the most shocking ever played. And that’s according to people who’ve seen a lot more games than I have. It certainly left a lot of people horizonte. The word “humiliation” is an emotive one, but in the case of Brazil’s 7-1 drubbing – and that particularly surreal five minutes during which they scored four and the numbers went up like the counter on a pinball machine – it has hardened into cold fact. It really was all over before half time. Records were being smashed so often, there was no time to stop and appreciate the fact that Klose’s goal made him the World Cup’s highest ever scorer. (One of the reasons we didn’t have time to take it in was Kroos’s first of two, which he scored a minute after Klose’s.)

Over the last 20 years I have watched a lot of international football matches at two-year intervals, and there has been nothing like Brazil Germany, which was almost eerie. The volume on the majority Brazilian crowd dipped around the 20-minute mark and only recovered once when little Oscar pulled one back in the 90th minute. (Oh, and when they collectively booed their team off the park at the end of each half. Incidentally, you had to give shy and resigning coach Scolari some credit for taking the blame. He wore a “Forca Neymar” baseball cap as he went off, presumably with a lining of irony.)

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It has been a memorable World Cup, already fading away like a white Rubicon of referee’s foam. All those South American players crossing and prostrating themselves before God – and, conceivably, Christ the Redeemer – to no appreciable avail. Enough yellow cards to build a replica Yellow Submarine. Two African sides in the final 16. So much offside. So many talismen. So much pointless, Jonathan Pearce-flummoxing goal-line technology at the beginning, and so much less of it at the end. So little Phil Neville come the end, too. So many goal-of-the-tournament contenders! My own favourite – hope it’s one of yours – was catapulted from the toe of 23-year-old Colombian forward and ingenue James “Haymez” Rodriguez against Uruguay in the last-16. It was art.

He also won the Golden Boot with six goals in five matches, ahead of Muller and Messi.

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So much finely sculpted and greased hair. A few poodles. One or two headbands. In Neymar’s two-tone creation, a tribute to the drummer of Kajagoogoo. One ridiculous rat-tail sticking out at any angle from the otherwise shaven head of Rodrigo Palacio which, knowing my luck, will turn out to be a tribute to a dead member of his family, something he hasn’t cut since they perished, or something, in which case I’ll delete this aesthetic complaint. Apparently, Thierry Henry’s cardigan cost £505. You can’t buy that kind of style. And Adrian Chiles won’t stuff his tackle into those one-size-too-small M&S short again. He rather ruined the view when ITV’s gang were seated out on the Opinion Terrace. Only Fabio looked truly attractive with his legs out. But some kind of medal for the salmon-skinned Gordon Strachan and Neil Lennon for being outside at all. I wonder if anybody watched the Final on ITV? I mean, anybody at all.

I like the fact that, come the Final, I was able to name ten out of the eleven starting German team from their faces during what I still controversially think of as Deutschland Über Alles – albeit less of the Argentinians during Canción Patriótica Nacional. It’s small personal victories like this that make the four-week commitment worthwhile. This means that, in two years’ time, I’ll know about four of them, of course. But it’s a start.

I still haven’t quite got to the bottom of why a taciturn Scot in his 50s is “retiring” from sitting in a chair and talking about football, but farewell, Alan Hansen, in any case. You picked a good one to go out on.

Writer’s blog, Week 29, Friday

Diary1979

It’s Friday. Not quite the end of the working week, as I have to write and clip Telly Addict tomorrow. Yesterday, I found myself in Hastings, just for one day, and – a complete stranger in town – I was surprised and delighted to run into an old friend from Chelsea School of Art, who was in the year above me and whom I may not have seen since the 90s, maybe even the 80s: Peter Quinnell (whose website is here should you wish to commission one of his fabulously arch collages, which he has been perfecting for 25 years). The reason I mention it, is that he called me “Andy.” Because when he knew me, in the mid-80s, I was called Andy.

I dug out my 1979 diary, above, as it marks the first transition from my birth name Andrew, to what I felt was the cooler and more casual Andy. As you can see, I carefully Letrasetted “Andrew Collins” onto the Boots page-a-day diary to confirm ownership, presumably when I first got it, for Christmas 1978. However, this was the year punk broke in Northampton (sorry, but it was), and certainly the year puberty broke in my endocrine system, hence the later branding, in punk-styled ransom lettering, carefully sealed under Sellotape: “Andy Collins. Private!”

The name-change, aged 14, was non-negotiable. It went on all my exercise books. I practised writing it, and elongated it into an artistic “signature”. I was saying to the world in a first flush of defiant individualism: Andrew – he dead.

It’s weird to be called Andy again. But perfectly normal for Pete to do so, as I was sealed in the aspic of time as far as he’s concerned. Still Andy. Still a student. Twenty eight years have passed since he graduated from Chelsea; 27 since I did. We all reinvent ourselves to a degree, although he was instantly recognisable when I saw him unlocking his car on Hastings’ Old High Street, and he only had to look twice to recognise me coming towards him. I must have looked something like this when he last saw me:

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And now I look like this.

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Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego … If you can identify which film that quote comes from, you’ll be ahead of me here. Yesterday I was tasked with telling the 46-year story of the Planet Of The Apes franchise for Radio Times, to tie in with the fact that the second rebooted entry in the series Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is imminent, and the first, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, is showing in two Saturdays’ time on C4. This is the kind of piece I am retained by the magazine to write. Most of the time, the film section is headed up by a straightforward actor/director junket interview, but occasionally, it remains unfilled until the last minute – Wednesday afternoon – when I must step in and provide a 750-800 word feature from scratch. It’s a bracing commitment.

As previously stated, I do not romanticise my own writing ability. If anything, I have delusions of adequacy. But I know I can write quickly, and to a reasonable professional, spell-checked, word-counted standard, and I never play the prima donna or tortured artist. Brief me at 2pm and I’ll deliver 800 words by 3.30pm. (Luckily for me, the sub-editors at Radio Times are wizards, so you’re always going to look better on the page than you ought.) Anyway, the reason I bring up the Apes feature is that, rather than just trot out the story, I tried to personalise it. This is encouraged. I reflected on the early 80s and an era in which my school- and then college-pal Paul Garner and I were obsessed with movie makeup effects.

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This imported 1983 issue of horror/fantasy/sci-fi journal Cinefantastique, which we both pored over as it were a holy sacrament, sums up our religion during that devoted period. In gory detail, its vast cover story unpicks makeup genius Rob Bottin’s work on John Carpenter’s The Thing, a film Paul and I were dying to see. Although both of us loved drawing and caricatures – Paul actually produced a full-size, Mad magazine-influenced spoof of Planet Of The Apes (one of our favourite films) – he was the ingenious one who also moved into 3D model and mask design. I just sat on the sidelines and thrilled to his amateur triumphs: a full-head werewolf mask, a Woody Allen forehead and glasses (which I wore in a play). He went on to earn his living as a commercial artist, storyboarding and creating incredible bespoke prints, usually with a horror/fantasy/sci-fi theme. Once you’ve seen Peter Quinnell’s work, you might want to browse Paul’s.

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See, there’s a link here, and it was too good not to get down while I sit here in the Library. In writing about my fanboy love of makeup artists for next week’s Radio Times (they’ve headlined it, “Confessions Of A Fanboy”, which it kind of isn’t), I reminisced about my friend Paul, who pursued his love of art and design and made it his profession. Although I’ve seen him on and off into the current century, he will still think of me as “Andy”. In visiting Hastings and bumping into another friend, from college, who also called me “Andy”, I was once again reminded that I never pursued my love of art and design into a full-time career – although it opened the door for me to journalism, so I couldn’t have got here (wherever here is) without it.

I reverted from Andy back to Andrew in the late 80s, when I sought to establish myself as a professional illustrator, and had an invoice book and an accountant and my first answering machine. I drew the covers of these.

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I seem to remember I was discouraged by the design agency that employed me from signing the artwork, as it might be considered self-aggrandising by the client, Trinity-Mirror. So after all that fannying around about Andrew and Andy and Andrew (and, at one pseudonymous stage, Boone), I was anonymous.

I was the man with no name. The unknown artist. It squashes a man’s ego.

 

How to review books written by your friends: some tips

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I am a published author. I like to self-pityingly think of myself as a former published author as the publisher of my exponentially worse-selling memoirs never writes and never calls, but the writing fraternity don’t need me to add to their woes, as the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society have just produced a report that says writers’ incomes are dwindling fast and only the 1% can actually live off rearranging the English language; cue: death of novel, end of world etc. Anyway, a large proportion of book reviewers are published authors. Ergo, authors are constantly reviewing other authors. (After all, what is an author if not a reader with a typewriter?)

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It’s a minefield, and Private Eye‘s Books and Bookmen column is particularly hot on exposing elbow-patch nepotism, whether between authors locked in a critical love-in, rival publishing houses locked in internecine warfare, or simply pals giving good notices to pals. Writing is a lonely furrow, so writers tend to be sociable, and always up for a free drink at a reception or launch.

I have not reviewed that many books professionally. Both the Saturday Times and the Saturday Mail have teased me with what looked like regular book-review work in the past, and I enjoyed it while it briefly lasted (the Times even tasked me with providing the first, overnight review of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, but I fear this was an administrative error). I’ve reviewed quite a few titles here. The commissioning editor of this blog obviously fancies me. But I do know this much: it’s much harder and more time consuming than reviewing, say, records or films. You have to read a book, for a start.

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If you ever find yourself in the precarious position of having to review a book written by one of your friends, here are my tips:

  1. Declare an interest straight away.
  2. Specify the depth of the friendship, which will help us know whether or not to trust you.
  3. Go out of your way to make at least one critical judgement if you’re otherwise praising the book.
  4. If you don’t like the book, do anything in your power to get out of reviewing it.

Duly armed, I shall now review three books written by three of my friends.

ExtraOrdinaryLifeFrankDerrick81The Extra Ordinary Life Of Frank Derrick, Aged 81 by JB Morrison (Pan Macmillan, £7.99 paperback) is unique among the trio for being a novel. It is JB Morrison’s first book, but Jim Bob’s fourth. I am Jim Bob’s friend. I have known him since Sheriff Fatman, we send Christmas cards to each other, support each other in our respective careers (I recommended him for the Mark Ravenhill Barbican panto gig; he lets me hang out backstage at Carter reunion gigs) and occasionally have a coffee. We have never been to each other’s houses, but I know where he lives and he knows where I live. He has previously thanked me in the acknowledgments of his novels as I have read them in galley form and told him they were good, which they were. I love the fact that a man so renowned for his witty and clever lyrics has transferred that skill to prose. Important disclosure: he didn’t send me Frank Derrick to read, so I’m not thanked in it, and I read it when it was already a book. Maybe this JB Morrison is a bit less matey than Jim Bob. It helps to create a professional distance.

I loved the book. In Storage Stories and Driving Jarvis Ham, quite a lot happens but it is told in a sort of downbeat, matter of fact way. The same approach applies to this tale of a Sussex village octogenarian widower as he convalesces after being knocked down by a milkfloat, but – beyond the accident (“Frank had a broken toe, the one next to his big toe, the little piggy that stayed at home, which was also his prognosis: to stay at home”) – very little happens. He is assigned a carer, an intrusion he initially resists, but in the form of Kelly Christmas, turns out to be a ray of light that illuminates his life (“it felt like a whirlwind has swept through his flat”). That’s pretty much it. But what a vivid picture of old age, male pride, smalltown politics and the arse-ache of familial responsibility Jim paints. Economically, too.

On the low crime rate in the village of Fullwind: “The sound of sirens meant that somebody had left the window open and the TV up too loud during Midsomer Murders.” A new pair of glasses are “so light he might forget he was wearing them and begin a hunt round the flat to find them.” Winning £2.40 on the Lottery, Frank is “almost too embarrassed to collect it … It felt worse than not winning at all.” Jim is a quiet observer of people, and Frank Derrick is his best novel. Although I was all for the Kurt Vonnegut-style drawings in Storage Stories, and the music biz allusions in Jarvis Ham, by narrowing his focus, he’s upped the narrative ante. It’s harder to write about something extra ordinary and make it extraordinary. I can’t think of a negative thing to add, for nepotistic balance. Er, the name Albert Flowers was a bit on-the-nose for the man in charge of Villages In Bloom.

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Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen (Coronet, £18.99 hardback). Now, is Mark Ellen my friend? Well, if we bumped into each other this afternoon, we would, I suspect, hug. He’s someone I’ve known for 23 years. Before that, of course, I read his pop magazine and watched his rock TV show, then read his next two pop magazines. In 1992 he interviewed me for a job and thereafter gave me the job, at the second of those magazines, Select. Such is his voluble, non-hierarchical personality, even if he is your boss, he becomes your pal. If you’ve seen him on telly, or heard him on the radio or a Word podcast, that’s what he’s like. I was around Mark Ellen for five years of my magazine publishing career on a nine-to-five basis, feeding off his boyish enthusiasm, if that’s not too prosaic a word for whatever it is that fizzes around his veins. Freelancing for him at Word was even more like being in his and David Hepworth’s gang. I sorely miss the excuse to drop into the office and soak up Mark’s vibes, or shoot the £50-man breeze with him over a recording device. And now he’s written a book about it all.

Rock Stars Stole My Life!, presented and penned like a sidebar in Smash Hits, it actually reads like Mark’s half of a spirited conversation (and his was never as little as a half). It’s exclamatory, endearingly vague, citation-free and all over the place. It begins “somewhere over Greenland” on Rihanna’s Boeing 777, where the elder statesman of pop journalism is among a more youthful press corps and, in less than a page, ticking off the first of his print-trade neologisms: “I wander down the aisle to see if I can scare up some more booze.” Mark really does use the phrase “scare up.” So in love with the intricacies and left-turns of our old pal the English language is he, such daft verbal ticks become lifejackets as he bobs about in the ocean of nonsense that is pop and the pop industry. Herein, he turns his life – well, his professional life, he’s not big on the old private life, beyond fond passing mentions of his wife Clare – into a 40-chapter Hoary Old Rock Anecdote.

Each tale is turned on the lathe of froth with a flourish and a curlicue throughout – to say they are “embellished” suggests they are untrue, but it’s not that. Mark cannot use a grey, functional sentence. It is not in his bones. Henceforth, whether he’s recounting early festival safaris “sleeping in fertilizer sacks”, his first, faltering steps at the NME, or the full flowering at Smash Hits and the subsequent executive-level eyries at EMAP, we get “records of every stripe”, copy that comes in “screeds”, the video boom that comes in “warm trade winds”, machinery that “cranks into action”, Toyah being “of no audible talent”, the Beatles being “cheese-scented”, the Q Awards negotiated over “long months of fragile protocol”, and “m’learned friends” are mentioned more than once. His style bounces across the facts like a beach ball. It’s difficult to take your eye off it. And the getting there is half the fun.

Though Mark’s writing is decorative, it’s actually as economical as Jim Bob’s. We can see the elder rock journalists in the Knebworth press paddock when he describes them as “roguish characters in leather jackets … forking smoked salmon off paper plates.” When he notes that new partner-in-speechmarks Tom Hibbert was a fan of Big Star, all we need know is that they were “thin, lackadaisical men from Tennessee who played chiming melodies with a mournful cadence and a doomed, romantic sheen.” (It was always a great injustice to the rest of us that Mark declined to review records for the magazines he ran.) He is generous, namechecking other talents as he goes, showering humble compatriots like Hepworth, Andrew Harrison and Paul DuNoyer with bubbly approbation, and never less than effacing about himself. (When he becomes “editor-in-chief” he calls the title “embarrassingly grand-sounding.”)

More than a passing interest in music and magazines is a prerequisite but that’s obvious. If you happen to have lived quite a lot of the book, as I have, it will sing to you. Not least when, just prior to he and Dave jumping the good ship EMAP to go it alone, we learn that the company’s “upper corridors” are suddenly stalked by “highly paid strategists hell-bent on evolution.” What was once the “greatest place to work imaginable”, had become “infiltrated by wiry creeps in designer shirts.” I remember it well. To declare an interest, I get my sole namecheck on page 319, when the Word podcast is hymned and he enthuses that I am “still besotted with Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine.” Which is where we came in.

MemoirsOASGDQ Memoirs Of A Shoegazing Gentlemen by Lord Tarquin (Sonic Cathedral, paperback). Last night, I attended the launch of this tiny but rather beautiful edition because its author, David Quantick, is my friend and since he moved out of London I haven’t seen him very much. Sonic Cathedral is celebrating its tenth year as an independent label specialising in Shoegazing music by producing its first ever book, the collected columns of “Lord Tarquin”, originally published in the NME between October 1991 and February 1992, Shoegazing’s peak. They appeared in the “humour” section, Thrills, edited by Stuart Maconie, with me looking over his shoulder as our desks adjoined and he, too, was my friend. I’ve known Quantick since 1988, when I first walked into the NME. He, Maconie and I formed a comedy triple-act at the turn of the century and took our show (about music journalism), Lloyd Cole Knew My Father, to the Edinburgh Fringe, and onto Radio 2. Quantick had always appeared on our Radio 1 shows, and we had a certain, arch chemistry. (We even had a few huffs during the tense making of the Radio 2 series, which proved how much we liked each other.) For a long while, we were all three represented by the same agent.

To revisit Quantick’s wryly wicked words in stout pamphlet form, exquisitely designed and illustrated by Marc Jones, was a tonic on the train home from last night’s launch at the Heavenly Social, wherein a solo-strumming, flat-capped Mark Gardner of Ride, and three quarters of Lush (host Miki, DJ Phil, guest Emma, all looking hale) provided the royalty. (Andy Bell also turned up, but after I’d left.) The “Lord Tarquin” conceit was then, and remains, that the Shoegazing scene was populated by poshos. It wasn’t, strictly, but it felt that way, with its Thames Valley epicentre and its languidly studenty sound (and one or two actual well-heeled members). Blur, Lush, Chapterhouse, Slowdive, Catherine Wheel, Revolver, even Chicane, all were dragged into Quantick’s world of privilege, boarding, “double deten” and “botheration” at Shoey House school. Tossed off at the time, they may have been, but these short-form lampoons are rich with imaginative language. It is very much in the sculpted spirit of one Mark Ellen.

“Just popped back from a round of fives in the Lower Quad with Russell from Moose! Top-hole shuffle! Russell was ten up on a double shubunkin when he dropped the bally spinnaker! The cream buns are on him next time we pop into Mrs Shoggins’ tea shop in the village!” And so it goes. We might all toss something off as funny and daft as the memoirs of Lord Tarquin. That there is a label specialsing in Shoegazing music at all – never mind that members of the bands affectionately pilloried in a music paper 22 years ago are happy to grace the launch of said satire – simply proves my 20 Year Rule. It’s one that only people who’ve lived for 40 years or more can appreciate: that everything comes round again after 20 years; all you have to do is wait it out, and not fall out with anybody or die in the interim.

Not available in all good bookshops (whatever they are), Memoirs Of A Shoegazing Gentleman is available to purchase here and, before that, from Sonic Cathedral’s stall at the Independent Label Market in London on Saturday (12 July).

Now, fun over, back to reading the introduction of Thomas Piketty’s Capital. I have never met Thomas Piketty and he is no friend of mine, so my review of this book will be pure and unsullied by soppiness and nostalgia when I review in about … a year and half’s time?

Who? What? Where? Why?

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To quote my own blurb from the Guardian website: “Telly Addict Andrew Collins continues to look beyond the World Cup for essential TV and finds major head-scratching new drama The Honourable Woman on BBC2, revisits the dark Gothic horror Penny Dreadful on Sky Atlantic during its end-of-season crescendo, and admires two arts documentaries: Imagine … Monty Python: And Now For Something Rather Similar, and Rebels Of Oz with Howard Jacobson, both on BBC2. Plus, a sublime fake ad from Last Week Tonight With John Oliver on Sky Atlantic.” Now, back to the World Cup …