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Thursday, 30 January 2014

Thesis Snipping

This week is turning out to be tricky. No novel work for me, though I've successfully managed to juggle PhD commitments with some rewriting since Christmas. The work I'm doing at the moment requires my full attention. My characters are battling for head space alongside Wilkie Collins and Edmund Yates characters and, to be quite honest, they're getting a bit muddled up there. The next time I go back to my novel draft it wouldn't surprise me if my placid but sarcastic characters began indulging in some accidental bigamy.

The crux of the problem is my fourth thesis chapter, also known as the thesis chapter of doom/thesis chapter from hell/thesis chapter I'm going to set fire to. I mentioned how much trouble I was having with it in November (here, with Victor Meldrew references). I said I was having 'wild ideas' about hitting the delete button. You know what I did the other day? Deleted over 8,000 words, the entire section of analysis, and went back to the drawing board.

I found that trying to rewrite what was already in there was a nightmare. Plot description mixed up with argument mixed up with quotes mixed up with points I didn't really know I was making - it was all a mess. Hitting the 'delete' button was a moment of trauma but I've started to build it back up slowly with 1400 words written in that last few days. I'm not exactly a self-confident type of person but I'm 90% sure that the words I've put in are far superior to the ones I removed. Then again, at this point, I would say that! To be honest, whether it's true or not, I need to believe it for now. Otherwise I'll just be stranded in no-man's land; safe in the knowledge that the work I had before wasn't good enough and incapable of moving forward. At least I'm moving, that's what I keep telling myself.

I have a supervisor meeting next Thursday. So that's a week to get things into shape while I'm away for most of the weekend... Ouch. Better not think of it in those terms either!

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Classic Film Review: Stage Struck (1958)

Stage Struck stars Susan Strasberg as Eva Lovelace, an aspiring actress who has travelled to New York intent on getting her big break, not realising quite how difficult that's going to be. She visits the office of big producer Lewis Easton (Henry Fonda) where she also encounters screenwriter Joe Sheridan (Christopher Plummer) and makes a favourable impression on actor Robert Harley Hedges (Herbert Marshall). Her hopes are repeatedly dented, though, especially because one role she might be good for is already occupied by the formidable Rita Vernon (Joan Greenwood). To add to Eva's problems, she's also fallen in love with Easton...

Unfortunately, the central performance in this film was abysmal. I suspect the intention was to make the character dreamy and flighty but it failed spectacularly - she became irritating, repetitive and the only moment I felt any sort of positive feeling for the character was when she was quoting Juliet. In fact, Strasberg's whole performance reeks of her trying to play Juliet throughout. This was disappointing because my first experience of Strasberg in Picnic (1955, reviewed here) was positive. I just don't think Stage Struck was a particularly good fit for her.

The rest of the cast improved matters. Christopher Plummer, in his film debut, was nothing short of sublime as Joe, the writer who falls hopelessly in love with Eva in a way that doesn't feel contrived. Equally, Herbert Marshall's performance as Hedges is brilliant. He provides a nice, calm foil to Strasberg which takes the edge off some of her more manic moments. Henry Fonda generally works well as Easton, although the love affair with Eva leaves much to be desired. I came away thinking that the Strasberg/Plummer pairing was much more desirable that the Strasberg/Fonda, though I appreciated the ending.

Perhaps the main trouble with this film was the central performance. There are some nice insights into comprising and how the theatre works along with some brilliant supporting performances. However, it lacked, for me, a lead character I want to see succeed. I'll admit, I wanted Eva to fail and go home to the country. Maybe not the effect the writers were going for.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Picking a Rewrite Speed

A little look at at my work diary for the past two weeks tells me that I've reviewed three classic films, two books and written three other blog posts. I've spent four afternoons going through a Wilkie Collins biog for every scrap of information I may ever need to know and a long evening arguing with British Periodicals to get some articles loaded up for a paper I want to write. I've created a 245 point list of terror detailing the changes I'd like to make on my thesis chapters as they stand and I spent one agonising day trying to write the appendix that refuses to be written. I've also finished the last third of a play and added nearly 20,000 words to a novel rewrite. Oh, and I did some babysitting and a Sheffield trip too. No wonder I'm shattered!

The thing about this novel rewrite is that it's one I can and should do rapidly. Effectively, it's another first draft. The characters involved in this novel have been in my head since I was 16. They've been in scripts, they've been in three different locations to date. I failed in 2011 to complete NaNoWriMo with them and then managed it in 2012 - after a location switch and a POV change. The NaNo draft was all from the POV of one character - Lauren - while my previous attempt had been from six points of view. You know what I'm doing now, right? Yep, going back to a structure where all characters get a section to themselves. Six different voices and an alteration in the organisation of the setting.

So I'm treating the rewrite as another first draft. Most of the general structure and relationships is staying the same but nearly all of the specifics are being altered. I've only referred twice to the first draft so far and that was for pieces of dialogue I didn't want to lose. Essentially, it's a different novel, albeit it with lingering and very persistent characters. If I didn't treat it like I do my first drafts (get it down, get it done, get on with something else) I'd be wasting time. The 'second draft' isn't going to be in any kind of decent state, just as the first draft wasn't. I need to get the new structure on the page, play around with the new voices, then fix it later. Just the way it has to be.

After that, there's an entirely different prospect. I've got a second draft currently standing at 14,000 words that requires concentration, precision, thought about every word. That will take much longer. It's all about knowing what different projects require. And, for me at the moment, it's all about working on them without stressing too much about what I'm going to do with them. Writing's enough right now. After all, this is the year of the thesis...right?

Friday, 24 January 2014

A Little Serenity

When I went on a cruise in October, the majority of the entertainment on board was grating to say the least. Cabaret acts and bad classical, not much in the middle. There was one singer and one pianist who captured my heart but, apart from those exceptions, the ship was a mass of noise with people everywhere, people practically coming out of my nose. Even so, I managed to find a little piece of serenity in the strangest place.

The buffet was understandably packed at mealtimes. You couldn't hear yourself think, let alone hear the music they put on in the background - I fail to see why they bothered really. But one afternoon, when I was pretty upset to be honest, I ventured in to afternoon tea. It was quiet, exceptionally quiet. I took a seat (and a few scones), leaned back and closed my eyes. Then opened them again. I could hear the music. What's more, it was Judy Garland and Gene Kelly singing 'For Me and My Gal'.

The beauty of being me is that it usually only takes me seconds to identify the song I'm listening to. From the first bars I knew this was the full-length screen version of the song, not the shorted recording Judy and Gene recorded to promote the film. I started singing softly, tapping along to the music. The way I felt at that particular moment, I couldn't help myself. Judy and Gene were just the tonic I needed and everybody else could take a running jump off the back of the ship.

I became aware, though, that I wasn't the only one singing and tapping. A few tables down to my left there was an elderly gentleman, also sat alone, doing the same thing. For the length of the song, we quietly duetted, both descending into some sort of conducting during the long instrumental. I closed my eyes, picturing that dance in the back of mind, but I was still acutely aware of my singing partner.

The song ended. His wife returned and we exchanged a smile. That was it. I never saw him again. But, for a few moments on a crowded ship, I'd located serenity. The fact that it involved Judy dancing with Gene shouldn't surprise anybody, least of all me.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Classic Film Review: Summer Magic (1963)

Summer Magic stars Hayley Mills as the daughter of a widow who is forced to sell most of their belongings and their house following a disastrous investment by her late husband. Nancy Carey (Mills) remembers this beautiful house they once saw in the country and has written, embellishing a little on their circumstances, to see if it's available. Osh Popham (Burl Ives), unofficially looking after the property while its owner is away, takes pity - without informing the owner. When the family arrive and settle in, Mrs Popham (Una Merkel) keeps threatening to tell the Careys the truth but good-hearted Osh keeps dodging around the issue. The cast is rounded out by Dorothy McGuire as Margaret Carey, Eddie Hodges as Gilly Carey, Michael J. Pollard as Digby Popham and Peter Brown as Tom Hamilton.

With songs by the Sherman brothers, I'm surprised this film isn't more popular. It's a classic Saturday afternoon family film with a mix of childish antics (such as the youngest boy's adventures with his dog) to the more grown-up preoccupations of love and rejection. The songs have slipped out of the popular consciousness for the most part, with only 'Ugly Bug Ball' being instantly recognisable. However, 'Flitterin'' is classic Sherman and it's pretty catchy, along with 'Beautiful Beulah' and 'Femininity'. It's noticeable that Mills is such a big star at this point that no one minds that her singing's below par - while Dorothy McGuire as her mother is dubbed!

With the arrival of a cousin halfway through, the film does feel a little bogged down with people. But, for the most part, it's sweet enough with various little plot lines to follow. Burl Ives is fantastic and Hayley Mills' performance is just what I expected. It's shaky in places but, ultimately, an enjoyable film, made all the better by Ives singing 'Ugly Bug Ball'. However, here's one you may not have heard...

Monday, 20 January 2014

Book Review: Starlight by Stella Gibbons

Starlight is the fourth Stella Gibbons novel I've read (and I still haven't touched Cold Comfort Farm, the most famous). It centres on a run-down house in London where elderly sisters Gladys and Annie Barnes live with the eccentric Mr Fisher - he changes his name every month for variety - in the flat above. They get a shock one day when the house is abruptly sold to a 'rackman' and the residents fear for their survival. However, the new owner simply installs his wife, Mrs Pearson, and her new German maid, Erika, in the house in the hope that it'll improve his wife's health. His wife, we soon learn, claims to have been a medium in the past and the other residents of the house begin to think she's possessed by an evil spirit. Rounding out the cast are the vicar and his curate and Peggy Pearson, the daughter, amongst others.

This was a much darker novel than the others I've read by Gibbons but still comic in tone. The last quarter, specifically, starting with a horrific attack referred to so casually at first that the significance of it is downplayed until it intrudes on the house itself up until the final pages is very dark. It was creepier than I expected, given the light-hearted tone of much of the novel. The flashes of darkness didn't really prepare me for the climax.

In terms of characterisation, Gibbons succeeds once again. Gladys is a chatterbox, the perfect character to follow around, even if you have to reread her speeches a few times to realise what she's actually wittering on about (think Miss Bates in Emma). Her sister, Annie, is much quieter and the soft friendship which springs up between her and Mr Fisher is so slight that it could almost pass the reader by - only one character comments on it, and it's not chatterbox Gladys. Mr Fisher holds his own secrets, walking Hampstead Heath by night with a purpose not fully revealed until the end of the book. Gibbons certainly has an interest in foreigners acclimatising to their new surroundings - Erika is an interesting enough specimen, especially when Gladys takes it upon herself to teach her English and how to do things. As for the rest - Peggy and her employers feel like the most superfluous of the cast, but they do serve a purpose, while the vicar and curate provide a nice contrast to each other in terms of personality and the direction their faith takes them.

The beauty of having Gladys as a primary character is that you go off on tangents without really noticing, as she links one thing to another and talks to the point of driving everyone to madness. Her interactions with the vicar and, especially, the curate are the most hilarious in the book. The actual meat of the plot - the medium and her problems - doesn't take up as much space as you'd assume it would. Starlight is another Gibbons novel that covers life in all its forms and this variety is perhaps why I enjoy her novels so much.

Although I've had issues with her endings in the past, this time I actually thought the finale fitted the book. It brought us back, as it were, from the murky events of the previous chapter, and provided a decent ending for two of the most important characters.

I don't think any Gibbons novel will overtake the fondness I have for Westwood but I found Starlight to be enjoyable and, yet, thought-provoking. A few too many adverbs for my tastes but not to the detriment of the book as a whole.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Classic Film Review: Carnival Boat (1932)

Carnival Boat stars William Boyd as Buck Gannon, a lumberjack frequently at odds with his father and foreman, Jim (Hobart Bosworth). One of the things they disagree on is Buck's relationship with Honey (Ginger Rogers), an entertainer on the carnival boat that occasionally docks nearby. Jim has been told he's to retire at the end of the season and is desperate for Buck to take his place but, apart from Buck's distractions, there's also a human problem in the shape of Hack (Fred Kohler), who wants the foreman job for himself.

This is a lacklustre film redeemed by a few good stunts. The title really is disingenuous when the majority of the action takes place at the lumber camp. The boat is very much peripheral and so too, sadly, is Ginger Rogers. Because we don't see much of the romance between Honey and Buck, it feels contrived and Rogers only really has one scene in this early film where the excellent actress she will become in a few years expresses herself properly. That's down to the script and lack of chemistry between her and Boyd. There's a comic subplot involving two lumberjacks where one is doing all the work and doesn't realise it and the other one repeatedly breaks his pipe by accident. It's a nice distraction from what can be a heavy film.

However, there are two good 'adventure' moments that make Carnival Boat worth watching. When a train is carrying too heavy a load while Jim is driving, the faulty breaks snap and the train goes hurtling down the tracks. Buck, alerted to the fact his father's in danger, uses the yard's machinery to get him close enough to the train to jump on - then has to negotiate his way to the front. It's a very good stunt, obviously a little dated, but strong enough to revive my attention when it was flagging. Similarly, the stunt that forms the finale of the film involves Buck and Hack going to clear a log jam, leading to some nefarious activity from Hack when he realises this is his chance to get ahead of his rival. It's less exciting that the out-of-control train but still enjoyable.

Ultimately, Carnival Boat suffers from not being what it professed to be. There are, though, redeeming moments, and as a specimen of stunt attempts from 1932 it's rather good. There are moments of humour and peril intertwined with boring ones. Really, a mixed bag.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Grandmother Update: Head, Meet Brick Wall

The last time I wrote about my grandmother on this blog was at the beginning of December. She'd moved into a shabby residential home and hated it - as did I. However, at the beginning of January, a place 'became available' at the home she'd always wanted to move into. It was the one we drove past every Saturday and she said, 'people say that's very good, you know, why can't I move in there?' We'd had her on the waiting list for months and she duly moved in.

The good news? The place is beautiful. Whereas everything about the other home was dank and shabby, this one is lovely. They're doing lots of work to it and they've just had an extension built; a conservatory with two flat-screen televisions, high-quality armchairs and some dining tables. Her room - admittedly, it's a bit far for her to come and go and involves four steps, but they will move her as soon as a better location becomes available - is ideal. Three chairs, lots of natural light, a view of the park in the distance: there's not much in there to gripe about. The food is excellent and, plus, the staff are wonderful. On our first visit I made a point of asking their opinion on how she was settling in so, on our third visit, four (?!) of them had a candid discussion with us about how she was getting on. The level of interest and friendliness is astounding and, really, I couldn't think of a nicer place for her to be.

So what's the bad news? Well, she still hates it.

Yesterday we got tears unlike any we've encountered before. She's sat in this beautiful conservatory loudly proclaiming the place to be 'hell'. And, unfortunately, my patience has worn thin. She was the one pressing to go into a home, making residents at her sheltered accommodation clamour for it. I knew how she would take it and I did my best to persuade her of the truth but to no avail. Now she's in a home, there's no getting her out and, honestly, if she's going to be anywhere, this place is the one to be in. But she doesn't see it like that.

I think I can pinpoint some of her problems. She falls apart without a routine and claims she 'never knows what she's doing'. Yesterday she claimed she had dinner at breakfast time which is, quite frankly, rubbish. The home tries to be flexible with the residents but not that flexible! The trouble is, of course, that when you're ninety and in a home, there's not much to do especially when you won't watch television, read anything apart from your paper or take part in the activities arranged. She just seems to sit with two women who are grouchy (and rather bitchy) being miserable all the time.

I know I sound heartless. Believe me, I'm not. I just think that this is the situation she wanted, the situation she deliberately put herself into, despite all warnings. There is no alternative now and, to be perfectly honest, it's not a bad way to spend your later years. She has to learn to reconcile herself to it or she's going to drive us away. I think the problem is that she only really cries in front of me and my dad - we get the misery and very little else. It's unpleasant all round and yesterday it quite upset me.

I've really tried to be a good granddaughter but I've had eighteen months of my own 'hell' trying to deal with her. From twenty five phone calls in a day to a home where she's utterly miserable, with reason, to this one where she's utterly miserable, without reason. I don't know what else I can do but twice weekly visits will soon push me to the edge. This should be about her - and it is - but I can't help worrying about the impact it's having on me. Selfish, I know, but I'm only human.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Classic Film Review: Second Chorus (1940)

Second Chorus stars Fred Astaire and Burgess Meredith as Danny O'Neill and Hank Taylor, two college students who repeatedly fail to graduate so they can continue with their lucrative college band. Following a disagreement over a girl, Ellen (Paulette Goddard), they both accidentally graduate and are forced to try their luck in the real world with their competitiveness rearing its head at every turn. Their initial auditions for Artie Shaw turn into a nightmare so they need to devise another way of getting into his band - and getting Ellen.

The main problem with this is that Danny and Hank are very unlikeable characters. The whole plot relies on their rivalry and this makes them deeply unpleasant. Even Fred Astaire's natural charm can barely redeem O'Neill and, really, Paulette Goddard's Ellen is as bland as the other two are nasty. Artie Shaw, playing himself, is also a little of a blank but at least he's honest - a welcome antidote to Astaire and Meredith.

There are some bright moments. Astaire's dance with Goddard to 'Dig It' (known to me as 'I Ain't Hep to That Step') is enjoyable, as is Astaire's solo dance number in the finale. Plus, the music of Artie Shaw's orchestra offers a decent backdrop to the whole film. However, the cons far outweighed the pros on this one.

Second Chorus suffered from trying to make the main rivalry too intense with no affection within it at all. It made the climax, where they work together, far too unrealistic. In addition, at this point, it seems the writers realised they needed Astaire to win the girl, meaning that Hank, a character who we've spent a lot of time with throughout the film, is abandoned in favour of as Astaire/Goddard kiss. It was a lacklustre conclusion to a lacklustre film that could have been so much better.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Faces of Anxiety

I would never have walked into my old office singing songs from On the Town (I waited until I was shut in the scanning room and then sang to relieve the monotony). Nor would I sit down with my four year old nieces and be a miserable old harridan who isn't much fun. The fact that different faces are required for different parts of your life is inevitable. Something I've realised, though, is that these 'faces' are the reason my anxiety's permeated every aspect of my life. There is barely a person alive I'm not putting a mask on in front of, very few people who could, if you'd like, appear on Mastermind with me as their specialist subject. Probably the ones who think they could are the ones who'd be forced to make up ground in the general knowledge section. What it comes down to is the toll this takes on someone. I freely admit I've always been a bit of a wimp so maybe this is something that affects me disproportionately.

The root of my anxiety is 'doing something wrong'. There are many reasons that's developed, none of which I'll bore you with, but the fact is that it remains an everyday problem. Not just when I step into the outside world either. If you're having to watch every word you speak, type or text all day, every day the default position becomes defence. You become insulated, isolated. You're so busy wondering what you said to whom and was that right and what if it wasn't and what are you going to say next that each day becomes a bit of a slog. And, yet, without communicating with people, online or otherwise, life quickly becomes a little drab. It's a conundrum, and one I really haven't grappled with until now.

Is there a solution? Do I try and stop being a different person to everybody in my life? That would require some home truths and I'm a wimp remember. But this policy of remembering who I am in every conversation, of remembering the boundaries and the masks, is growing heavier by the day. Perhaps it's no wonder I take refuge in fiction...

Monday, 13 January 2014

Book Review: Yorkshire Villans: Rogues, Rascals and Reprobates by Margaret Drinkall

This slim volume (141 pages) discusses crimes of various natures committed within the three 'Riding' areas that made up Yorkshire in the nineteenth century. As a consequence, you occasionally get references to places, like Middlesbrough, which were considered part of Yorkshire then but are no longer. The book is split into thirteen crime sections: Highway Robbery, Riots and Treason, Forgery and Counterfeiting, Stealing, Arson and Explosions, Child Murder, Manslaughter, Poaching, Burglary, Breach of Promise, Bigamy, Poisoning and Murder. Of course, there are crossovers between chapters but, on the whole, this categorisation works.

Drinkall covers dozens of crimes, from the routine to the odd and suspicious. Naturally, it's the latter that kept my interest, especially the stupidity of some people sticking close to the area of their crime or even, in the case of one poisoner, seemingly striking again. The wealth of little human stories in these pages obviously only give the information that can be found in official records. It makes for a tantalising read.

Some of my 'favourite' cases, if you can call them that, are: the explosion of a package thrown through the window of a house in Sheffield in 1861, the death of a Jane Gowland's illegitimate baby near York in 1839 and its subsequent discovery and the bizarre dismissal of charges against a servant accused of murdering her elderly Wakefield employer in 1860 in a case involving forged wills and exhumation. I think the saddest case in these pages, though, is to be found in the case of a mouse that finally roared. Joseph Dobson had endured years of hardship thanks to his father, still handing over money from his wages after he was married. In 1843 his father threatened to kill his wife for complaining about this deduction and Dobson took it a serious threat - shooting his father and going to the gallows for it. Of all the cases found within these pages, that may be the one that lingers with me.

Overall, this is a very interesting book for anyone interested in Yorkshire crime of the nineteenth century and the little eccentricities of the law which occasionally occurred. There is much in these pages to dispel the idea that sensation fiction was not, at least sometimes, drawn from life. For reference, see the chapters on bigamy and murder!

Friday, 10 January 2014

Book Review: Quicksand/Passing by Nella Larsen

The beauty of both these novels was that, however short, I still came away with the sense of having lived a great length of time with the characters. That's not a bad achievement when you consider that Quicksand comes in at 135 pages and Passing at 99 in the edition I own. Nevertheless, these two novels are exceptional, both in terms of content and execution.

Quicksand, a loosely autobiographical novel, tells the story of Helga Crane. Helga is essentially dissatisfied with her life, unable to articulate precisely what it is she wants - or where she belongs - as the product of a black father and a white mother. We first encounter Helga as she decides to leave the black boarding school in which she teaches, though her resolve is almost shaken by a meeting with the principle, Dr Anderson. She travels first to Chicago, where she is turned away by her maternal uncle's new wife, then on to New York. From there she goes to Copenhagen to visit her maternal aunt then she returns to New York, ostensibly for her friend's marriage to Dr Anderson but also because the creeping dissatisfaction that always seems to plague her has returned. After a chance encounter with a religious group, she marries a Southern preacher and moves to Alabama. Inevitably, though, this fails to lead to the happiness she hoped it would.

Helga's journeys are about exploring her dissatisfaction - what she wants from life and what she wants from a husband - but it also explores her roles in the various places she attempts to situate herself. In the boarding school, she detests the philosophy, in New York she finds herself bored by constant references to the racial cause while in Copenhagen she is a curiosity. Her hopes that her desires - physical and spiritual - will be fulfilled by marriage to the Southern preacher are soon dashed. Ultimately, Quicksand is a novel about belonging and desire and the sad reality of those hopes.

The chapters are short, frustratingly so, I thought when I first started reading. But then I began to appreciate the snapshots given by Larsen - further elaboration wasn't necessary. It also had the added effect of making Helga almost the only important character. Others passed through the pages but we don't really know them. In terms of focusing solely on Helga's experiences, this is very effective. In addition, the scant descriptions used to situate chapters in time and place are wonderfully evocative. Larsen's chief talent, perhaps, is making so much out of so little.

Passing tells of Irene Redfield and her friendship with Clare Kendry. They knew each other when they were younger in Chicago, sharing the fact that they are of mixed ancestry. By chance, Irene encounters Clare when she returns to visit her family and is fascinated by her, though also nettled by the fact that Clare 'passes' for white, which Irene herself could legitimately do if she so wished. At a tea with Clare and another friend, she encounters Clare's husband, John Bellew, a virulent racist whose views expose the threat Clare is under. Years later, Clare surprises Irene in New York after Irene has ignored her letter. Clare, it seems, misses her own kind and starts flirting with danger, visiting New York's black communities without her husband's knowledge. However, Irene also starts to suspect that something is going on between Clare and her own husband, leading to a brutal finale.

The main focus of this novel is people 'passing' for white and it takes up a lot of space. However, there are also readings underneath of sexual identity, with Irene's fascination for Clare provoking her into contradicting herself and over-thinking. Whatever the 'truth' of the situations within the novel are is never made clear, but there is enough suggested to make Passing linger long after reading. The climax, also, is one so surprising that it will probably haunt me for some time yet.

This book was read as part of the TBR Challenge 2014, details here.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Classic Film Review: Town On Trial (1957)

Town on Trial stars John Mills as Superintendent Halloran, a detective brought in to investigate the death of an attractive young woman who was adored by all the men of the community and loathed by most of the women. The film begins with the arrest of a mystery man and, as a police officer begins reading his statement, we are taken back to the day of the murder. There are three suspects highlighted: married Mark Roper (Derek Farr), the victim's ex-boyfriend Peter Crowley (Alec McCowen) and Dr Fenner (Charles Coburn). Halloran finds his methods under scrutiny as the murderer evades justice and threatens to kill again.

This was a tense film with some expected twists and some unexpected ones leading to a genuinely nail-biting climax, beautifully filmed and acted. John Mills is as dependable as ever as Halloran and the rest of the main cast is acceptable, with the exception of Charles Coburn who is thoroughly excellent. However, the supporting cast of wives, parents and friends is patchy in places and, though they add to the overall effect of the 'town on trial', occasionally their scenes feel a little laboured.

Another problem with this film stemmed from the romance between Halloran and Dr Fenner's niece, Elizabeth (Barbara Bates). There was no need for this relationship to become romantic - it was awkward and unnecessary, seeming only to provide an ally for Halloran who would criticise him at the crucial moment. I think the relationship would've been much stronger as a mere friendship and this would've saved the audience from some shoddy scenes between the pair. Taken otherwise, however, Barbara Bates is very good as Elizabeth.

Overall, I enjoyed Town on Trial. It kept my attention throughout, particularly with the gigantic red herring towards the end which was excellently played. This film is worth watching for the finale alone with Mills at his best. This is a tense mystery with a good ending - to the actual murder plot, at least.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Book Review: New Grub Street by George Gissing

New Grub Street is a biting analysis of literary London in the late nineteenth century. First published in 1891, it tells the story of a group of writers and their dependants. Jasper Milvain fashions himself as a 'modern' literary man, someone who will turn his hand to anything and fully expects it to be forgotten as soon as it has been read. He aims for financial success, not literary merit. In sharp opposition to him is his face, Edwin Reardon, a man of considerable talent who has faded under the grip of poverty. He cannot write well and so does not want to write at all. His wife, Amy, despairs of what she sees as his inability to try and a break emerges between them. In addition to this trio, other important characters in the novel include Milvain's sisters, Maud and Dora, who move to London when their mother dies and try to support themselves writing fiction, Harold Biffen, another impoverished writer, and the Yule family. Amy's cousin, Marian, catches Jasper's eye early in the novel but her poverty repels him. Marian has been helping her father, Alfred, research and write for years and dislikes her life. Both Amy and Marian live in the hope of a small legacy from their paternal uncle which would alleviate their stresses.

The main characters in this novel are easily distinguishable, though occasionally the supporting cast of names can get a little confusing. But, for the most part, this novel is about Milvain and Reardon and their differing fortunes. The depiction of Milvain towards the end of the book is very clever: although his star has risen, there's the sense that something is missing from his life. This provides an ambiguous conclusion to a life where everything has been decided on businesslike terms.

For Reardon, life is completely different. Once he and Amy part, there is the sense of inevitability about his fate and perhaps Gissing dwells too much on his poverty. However, as a character, he serves to demonstrate that non-commercial writing, however brilliant, can lead to destitution. It's a stinging indictment of not only the literary world at the time but the public which gobbled up three volume novels of no substance and failed to appreciate the talent of 'real' storytellers. Harold Biffen is another casualty of such a system, putting much effort into a realist novel about a grocer with the full knowledge that the public will not read such a story. The dual fates of Reardon and Biffen are a sad by-product of the 'trade' of literature.

New Grub Street is an excellent, if ultimately depressing book. There are some scenes of humour - including a daring rescue from a burning building which perhaps should not be as amusing as it is - but, for the most part, it is bleak and unrelenting. No character is wholly good, in the same way that no character in wholly bad. Reardon's pride adds to the wounds inflicted by his literary failures and Biffen's sudden affection for a woman assists in his downfall. As I said above, Milvain may prosper but it may not bring him complete happiness. This is a book about fortune and about the 'trade' of literature, something as hotly debated now as it was a century ago. 

Friday, 3 January 2014

Birds of a Feather Return

Last night saw the return of Birds of a Feather to television screens after an absence of fifteen years. Critics have been mixed - Digital Spy seemed to enjoy it while The Telegraph gave it one star - but a lot of the fans seemed to enjoy it. Personally, I loved it. Took a little bit to get going but once Dorien turned up on the doorstep it was back to its usual self. I was in fits of giggles at the end when 'Shrek' walked though the door.

One thing that intrigues me about the return is the shift from the BBC to ITV. Linda Robson who plays Tracey said that it was because the BBC only offered a half an hour Christmas special whereas ITV were willing to take a punt on a full series. She suggests there's a policy at the BBC not to do retrospective series, something that tallies with some of the irritating decisions of recent years (though you'll note there are still hopes to bring Only Fools and Horses back again and this time unfortunately without the input of John Sullivan). It's hardly a blanket ban on retrospective series, is it? But, even if such a thing existed, it would be excessively stupid, especially in this case. You see, Birds of a Feather proved in 2012 that it could be updated and revitalised as it toured the country in a very popular stage show, which I saw in Sheffield. A 'retrospective series' was a natural continuation of this success. I would've been disappointed if they hadn't given it a shot and thank you to ITV (not often I say that) for giving it a chance.

Of course, the next seven episodes could prove me wrong and the whole idea could be a terrible one but, somehow, I don't think so. It was like stepping into a comfortable pair of slippers last night and this time with social commentary I could actually understand. It'll take the new characters and actors a little time to gel but the chemistry between the main cast is there and always has been. The BBC have shot themselves in the foot with this one.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

...Onwards to 2014

2013 was a mixed bag on the work front but a lousy year all told. It was the year things finally got away from me and I can only hope 2014 will be an improvement. I have big things ahead. This post details the things I'd like to do, as well as the things I need to do.

2014 is, barring catastrophe, thesis submission year. It's been a long time coming and, I have to admit, the light at the end of the tunnel is frightening. Completion will bring its own set of problems but if I look towards them I'll panic and flee. So, let's just focus on finishing writing, submitting, the viva and... Actually, let's just think about the writing aspect. Everything else is too scary.

Some more conferences would be a nice idea - either just attending or giving papers, ideally the latter.

I want to work on at least three academic articles/papers this year. Since I have four ideas already, that shouldn't be too difficult...right? We're going with optimism here.

On the writing side, I don't want to promise too much. 2014 is the year of the thesis, remember. However, if I don't write then I go a bit batty so there will be work. What work? Well, I have eight novel drafts to play with. I want to do full-scale edits on, say, three of them (and I know which three, which is always good). I've already started putting the polished two out into the world. We'll see where that goes this year. A NaNoWriMo draft is on the cards too, along with finishing 'Kathy' (the novel I failed to complete this year) and maybe another draft about something close to my heart. I'm almost certain no one else could write this idea with the truthfulness required. The question is, do I have the courage? We'll see.

I'm taking part in two reading challenges this year: the Chunkster Challenge (books over 450 pages, details here) and the TBR Challenge (books languishing on my shelf for over a year unread, details here). I've picked out the books so just need to read them now. Easy...

I want to continue going to the gym 2-3 times a week, at least until my membership runs out in August.

I've asked for driving lessons as a birthday present in July. Whether this comes off is still undecided but I do need to learn and this year might be the year. Keep off Yorkshire roads in August.

I've been saying for four years I want to learn a little Italian. I don't really know why but it's a deep-seated thing I do intend to do at some point.

Farewell 2013...

Sure I'm not the only one thinking that 2013 went ridiculously quickly. It has been punctuated by the odd personal crisis and some things I really wish I could forget in the new year but it won't happen. On a professional front, though, I made a list of things I wanted to achieve this year in January. In addition, I made another list in September of things I needed to complete before the year was out. How did I do?

1. My PhD is obviously the most important thing in my life. With a little bit of luck I'll be close to completion by the end of the year - or at least I'll have all the blocks in place and just need to rearrange them a bit. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but goals were meant to be challenging.
Well, I'm close to having the blocks in place. Full drafts of all chapters need working on, as do the introduction, conclusion and appendix but - I think - we're almost on track. (More on this below)

2. Related to the above, I want to get some conference experience under my belt. Talking in public is not exactly something I'm good at but it has to be battled at some point and now is that time. I've submitted abstracts for a couple of conferences already but if they don't come off then there's plenty more to have a crack at.
Miraculously, I managed this one. I sat on the organising committee of the School of English Post Grad Colloquium and gave a paper to a select audience (okay, it was small but it still counts). Then in July I attended the VPFA conference in London and gave a paper there too. Experience under my belt so definitely a tick on this one.

3. Writing: In terms of priority for working on this year, I'd put them in this order: 'Lily', 'Danni', 'Liz', 'Lauren', 'Max' and 'Vic' (which is the actual order they were written in the first place!). Realistically, I think I'll only work on the first four of those - although all six would be nice. In addition, I'll try and resist adding new first drafts to my pot (excluding NaNoWriMo).
Further detail on individual writing projects is below but I will say that I did add two full first drafts and half of one to the pot. Whoops. Also this autumn, I parted ways with my agent by mutual agreement. Back to the drawing board, folks.

4. I'll participate in NaNoWriMo again - provided I have a decent idea come November.
I did. I succeeded too.

5. I'm working on a transcription (and introduction) of Edmund Yates's Black Sheep for Valancourt Books. By the end of the year I'd like to have made a huge dent in this - if not have it completely finished and submitted.
Unfortunately, Valancourt decided not to proceed with this. Fortunately, I'd only done a little of the transcription by the time they let me know.

6. Although I'm not quite sure where my work with 2020UK will take me this year but I'll continue working with the group.
Sadly, with too few cooks and too much broth (I think that's a good way of putting it), 2020UK and its successor TeamUK fell by the wayside. I couldn't devote the necessary energy to it and other people had similar problems. It's something that continues to upset me because working and communicating with like-minded people was excellent.

7. I'm not taking part in any reading challenges this year but that doesn't mean I won't be reading! My marvellous Christmas present of a Kindle (thanks to my sister and family) means I've started downloading loads of things I didn't have access to before. Some of them are work related (complete works of Wilkie Collins and some lost texts of Mary Elizabeth Braddon have already found their way onto the list) but others will just be plain fun. In addition, I'll be watching loads of classic films this year as my reward for doing some of the above stuff that looks terrifying in a list like this.
Haven't done as much reading as I wanted to but I have made a dent in the classics - two Anne Bronte novels, some Edith Wharton, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Bram Stoker and two Gaskells. In fact my collected book reviews list this year was very Victorianist - either traditional or neo-Victorian!

Goals from September

8. Final chapter of my thesis - Non-negotiable. This will be done and redrafted several times.
Well, it's onto four drafts, although they aren't complete redrafts, more like partial redrafts and more added to the chapter. However, it's certainly getting there. Didn't help that I spent a good proportion of December full of cold and unable to focus on my thesis.

9. Rewriting first chapter of my thesis - I'm pragmatic enough to realise the final work on this may end up being done in January. It's a hefty job and it all depends how long writing the final chapter takes me. More details on my thesis completion schedule can be found here.  
Haven't even started this. Again, illness was an issue plus the fact that I cancelled two supervisor meetings in December and my supervisor cancelled one. December was a wash-out on this front and January needs to be much better.

10. Research and write a Yates/Dickens article I've got in mind - Pie in the sky this one. I'll only have time to do it if the days are magically extended by fifty percent.
Pie in the sky indeed. Nary a minute of research done.

11. Research an article on dead insects in a Yates novel - Don't ask. Also, see above.
Likewise. I'd actually forgotten about this one!

12. Corrections on Downton Abbey essay when these come back - Non-negotiable.
Done, done and done. Yes, multiple corrections! I'll let you all know when the collection featuring my essay is out.

13. Finish sixth draft of 'Danni' - This is essentially a polishing exercise. I finished the fifth draft earlier this year and now I'm trying to make it perfect.
I managed this one. Apparently, the epic cold of doom removed the pressure from me to work on my thesis and I worked on this instead. It came in at around 77,500 words and I'm proud of the effort I put in. Word choices, pacing, characterisation consistency - the nitty-gritty of fiction writing and it was a delightful change to working on first and second drafts.

14. Finish first draft of 'Izzy' - I've been stopping and starting with this one all year and I know where it's going. Just need to get it finished. The first draft's about two-thirds done.
Yep, this one was accomplished too. Right before NaNo. I went from one first draft straight into another.

15. Finish first draft of 'Kathy' - This is less than 20k in at the moment but I would like to complete it before the year's out. 
Unfortunately, Kathy got left behind this year. I still think she's worth completing and hopefully I'll manage it in the coming months.

So what do we think? Nice mix of pass and failure there, rather more of the latter than I would've liked though. I need to pull my socks up. Funny, I said a similar thing last year...