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Sunday, 31 August 2014

August Rereads

Despite the fact that I acquired a mountain of new books for my birthday, I felt the irrepressible urge to go back and reread some of the ones already on my shelves. I don't reread as much as I'd like to. I often glance at my collection and think 'I want to take another look at you' but then the TBR pile gets in the way. However, I must've needed the comfort of books I know because I've been on a rereading blitz.

First up was Tell it to the Bees by Fiona Shaw (reviewed here). It's no exaggeration to say this is one of my favourite novels - this is my fifth or sixth reread since 2010. It's become an annual treat to pick it up when I'm feeling low and submerging myself in a forbidden relationship set in the 1950s. At least I've got out of the habit of needing to read it all in one day because now I can fully appreciate the final chapters without my eyelids drooping. What I haven't got out of though is wanting to read it again as soon as I've put it down.

My second reread was All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (reviewed here). The story of an 88 year-old woman sick of being treated like a child by her family struck a chord. Rereading this affected me much the same as watching Angela Lansbury on-screen in Driving Miss Daisy did - it reminded me to focus on the person, not the age. There's an irony attached to all this that I'll maybe explain one day soon.

My third book was Landing by Emma Donoghue (reviewed here). Definitely a departure from the two above, it was my first Donoghue and therefore retains a special little place in my heart. I've been meaning to reread it and, for the most part, I enjoyed it again. However, like All Passion Spent, it made a point that I could've done without.

Finally, I reread Emma by Jane Austen (reviewed here). I actually read this two years ago this month and I've been looking at it longingly all year. I think my desire to reread Emma was actually what started this little rereading spree. I enjoyed it once again, of course, finding it amusing and still completely relevant to modern life. But, on a more personal level, Emma's journey led me on one of my own. Perhaps that was why I wanted to reread it all along.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Commemorating Reading Time

Last night I was tidying my room (don't ask) when I came across a very grimy jelly candle on my DVD shelf. It should've really been thrown out years ago, maybe when the dirt began seeping into the jelly, but I've clung onto it. Because, of course, there's a story behind it.

When I was working at a company in Stockton in 2008-2009, I travelled in a little early every morning. Better to be early rather than late. And, being me, I took a book to the break room and sat there munching crisps from the vending machine (wasn't big on proper breakfast, sue me) reading until I reluctantly went to do some work. For the most part, I had the break room to myself. It was always half dark, always gave the impression that I shouldn't be in there and should just start working early instead. Towards the end of my time there, though, I found I had company. Whereas I chose a table, she chose an easy chair and read over there. I smiled at her as I walked out of the room and we had one proper conversation - one. Nevertheless, she became a part of my morning.

On the day I left I saw her in the break room and told her it was my last day. Later, I was just getting back from lunch when I saw a little bag on my desk. It was this little candle. I was perplexed, having already been given my HMV vouchers as my leaving present, but my supervisor told me a woman none of them really knew had just dropped it in. When I walked past her desk later (it was the first time I realised she worked on my floor), she smiled and asked if I liked it. I said thank you, she waved it away and that was that.

You know, I never even knew her name. It's a bit perverse that I've kept a memento commemorating the amount of time I sat silently in a room with another human being while both of us read but, then, it's me. So maybe it's not that perverse. I appreciate the fact that a virtual stranger was going to miss my presence on a morning, as I would've missed hers had she been the one to leave.

I'd include a picture if it wasn't really, really grimy. Everything on that shelf is. Perhaps I'll just clean around it this time, see how long it'll last for.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

News: A Wakefield View of Westminster - Available Now

(Cross-posted at One Yorkshire Voice, my political blog)

Dartside Press have just published a compilation of my political blog posts and articles, gathered from four years of observation and irritation. Spanning 2010-2014, the pieces in A Wakefield View of Westminster have been collected from various sites, edited and, where appropriate, commented on. It's rather fun looking at predictions from three years ago and seeing where we've actually ended up. Well, fun and depressing in some cases.

I'm fairly non-partisan, though I have to admit that Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg come in for quite a lot of criticism throughout the collection. On issues such as Europe, HS2, the bungling of welfare reform, democracy and party politics, I'm very vocal - and unapologetically so. These are just my opinions, of course, but I hope they're an entertaining read.

The book can be bought from Amazon here.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Classic Film Review: The Informer: (1935)

The Informer stars Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan, an Irish rebel who sells out his friend for the reward money, intending to take his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame) to a better life in America. However, when the attempted attempt leads to his friend being shot, Gypo's guilt overtakes him on a lengthy night where he drinks himself stupid then tries to extricate himself from the mess he's got himself in to. The cast also includes Una O'Connor and Heather Angel as the victim's mother and sister, along with Preston Foster as rebel Dan Gallagher.

The central performance in this film is extraordinary. Oscar-winning and intense, Victor McLagen depicts the sudden changes in Gypo's mood from the early scenes where he's scurrying around the foggy streets to his final scene with Una O'Connor as Mrs McPhillip. The reason it works so well is that it's utterly realistic. When Gypo tries to extricate himself in an interrogation with the rebels you can actually see the cogs in his mind working. His remonstrations may not be realistic because the point of getting there is so obviously catalogued for the audience. A similar thing happens during another interrogation later, more painful to watch than the first as he tries desperately to save his own skin.

Some of the other performances pale in comparison to McLaglen. Margot Grahame and Heather Angel are occasionally a little too outlandish in their roles, though Una O'Connor is excellent in her relatively small role. Preston Foster, too, exudes a quiet authority well-suited to his part. Some of the other faces melded into one but there were flashes of excellence throughout. In addition, the fogginess and murkiness of Ireland at this point in history is depicted brilliant using the sets and lighting. While some films of this era can feel plastic, I was focused throughout this on the story, not how unrealistic the sets were. Something I wasn't keen on all the time was the Oscar-winning score. While the repetition of certain refrains was welcome, occasionally it intruded on the action when silence may have been better.

For the most part, this film is thought-provoking and difficult to watch. John Ford thoroughly deserved his Best Director Oscar for this one.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Classic Film Review: Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Foreign Correspondent stars Joel McCrea as John Jones, an American reporter who is sent over to get 'facts' about the impending war in Europe. He is tasked to get an interview with a Dutch diplomat, Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), but is at first unsuccessful and instead becomes friendly with the head of a peace organisation, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), and his daughter, Carol (Laraine Day). In Amsterdam, trying to obtain another interview with Van Meer, Jones sees the diplomat shot and he gives chase along with Carol and fellow journalist, ffoiliott (George Sanders). What Jones discovers after the chase is that Van Meer is actually alive. But who's behind this conspiracy and can Jones survive long enough to make sense of it?

An early Hitchcock, this is a cracking film. McCrea's quiet yet tough portrayal of Jones makes him a good hero, well coupled with Laraine Day's sassiness as Carol. The last time I saw Day (in Mr Lucky (1943), reviewed here) I enjoyed her as a society girl but not as a love interest. There were some similar problems here though, for the most part, she had more chemistry with McCrea than she had with Cary Grant. Equally, the father-daughter represented between Herbert Marshall and Day is very good. I've seen Marshall in a few things now, most recently Stage Struck (1958, reviewed here) and he's always good value. This role is no exception and I watched all his scenes intently. Also, George Sanders as ffoiliott is outstanding. One revelatory scene sticks in my mind but I can't explain it without ruining a part of the film so I'll just say that he played it perfectly.

Some of the plot twists are predictable to a modern viewer but the last fifteen minutes or so is a spectacular alteration that I certainly didn't see coming. It may seem a little contrived and bizarre but, for me, it rounded off the film nicely and gave the main cast a chance to shine for a final time. Throughout the film is an undercurrent of war propaganda but this only really boils over in the last few minutes as Jones sends a broadcast back home and the American national anthem is played over the credits. Quite clearly a call to arms but it doesn't detract from the excellence of the film as a whole.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Classic Film Review: The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story stars Katharine Hepburn as socialite Tracy Lord. She's about to be married to the rather boring George Kittredge (John Howard) but ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) is determined to cause mayhem before the ceremony. He's instrumental in getting journalist Mike Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) into the wedding but he may not have banked on the attraction that springs up between his ex-wife and Mike.

Picking between the three leads of this film is nearly impossible. Hepburn shines in the role she was born for while Grant is perfect as Dexter. However, if I really had to pick, then it's Jimmy Stewart who steals the show. His drunk scenes with Cary Grant are downright hilarious, I'm smiling just thinking about them. But the chemistry between the cast as a whole is excellent. Ruth Hussey impressed me again (I saw her last month in Tender Comrade, 1943, reviewed here) and her scenes with Stewart are brilliant. There's also one gorgeous scene between Hussey and Grant which lingers in my memory. In addition, I loved the little relationship between the Lord sisters, Tracy and Dinah (Virginia Weidler) and the dynamics of the rest of the family.

The dialogue in this film is fast, witty and sometimes difficult to follow. It's both intelligent and funny, something sadly lacking in many so-called romantic comedies. Hepburn does aloof so well and her crash back down to earth is satisfying and fun to watch. If I had to pick a favourite scene (apart from Stewart's drunk ones), it would probably be the one in the pool house when Dexter interrupts Tracy and Mike and an argument ensues. That scene probably sums up the themes of the film, as well as being brilliant acted by all parties.

I can see why people call this Hepburn's best film. However, my soft spot for Bringing Up Baby (reviewed here) and The African Queen (reviewed here) and, for me, The Philadelphia Story doesn't quite knock them off the top spot. Still an excellent film though.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Taking My Characters For Walks

A couple of months ago I blogged about how I was writing longhand again, indulging in short story writing to satisfy my craving to write without being submerged into a novel draft. Well, I'm still enjoying it. I've got several written and typed up, they're now waiting for some conscientious editing which may have to wait until I've fulfilled my quota of conscientious thesis editing and have seen how much conscientiousness is left over. But it occurred to me the other week that I was being a little peculiar - again.

I had wandered into town to have a coffee and do some writing but I hit a stumbling block. I'd envisioned a character as a bit of a harridan and my plan was for her to be humiliated (yes, I know, mean) but I couldn't get from A to B. So, instead of going home after my coffee, I told myself I wouldn't head in that direction until I'd figured it out. Unfortunately, Wakefield isn't exactly big enough to make that sort of dream a reality. So after walking the character around a shopping centre and a few streets, I turned my feet towards the retail park. Then it started to rain. The things we do for our stories.

Eventually, I realised that, yes, I was looking at it wrong. This character had more to her, the reason she was being a cow was intrinsically linked to the main thrust of my story and I hadn't noticed. Would I have reached that conclusion without taking her for a walk? Well, probably. But it wouldn't have happened so rapidly. And I wouldn't have got so soggy.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Classic Film Review: The Stars Look Down (1940)

The Stars Look Down tells the story of a coal-mining community who have been asked to mine a section they believe is unsafe. The mine owner refuses to show them plans to demonstrate it's safe but, after a three month strike, their will is broken and they go back to work. Amidst all this is Davey Fenwick (Michael Redgrave), a socialist who has worked in the mines but has now obtained a scholarship. His aim is to become qualified and make a difference to his community including his father (Edward Rigby), mother (Nancy Price) and brother Hughie (Desmond Tester). But he encounters Jenny (Margaret Lockwood), the spurned girlfriend of his old friend Joe (Emlyn Williams). She wants a husband and wraps Davey around her little finger, persuading him to give up his studies and become a teacher back in his home village. There, Davey becomes increasingly worried about the dangerous place his father and the rest of the miners are working in but his pleas fall on deaf ears.

As an snapshot of working Northern life, this film works quite well. The insular community is depicted, along with the insular family life. Mrs Fenwick really doesn't see the point of her son getting an education and why he thinks he's better than his family and that's something replicated across the town. The mine owner Mr Barras (Allan Jeayes) is an interesting character who does suffer for his greed but also likes his status too much in the first two thirds of the film. His choices have a direct impact on the impending disaster.

One of the criticisms I had is that the film seems cut in two. The first two thirds are primarily about Davey, Jenny and Joe, with the film even following Davey away from home. Then two of the characters who have been integral to the plot (particularly Joe for reasons I'll leave you to discover) disappear. I wanted to see their reactions to what happens but by then the tone of the film has shifted and the focus is on Davey and Barras.

Enough foreshadowing is done to demonstrate that there will be a problem with the mine and the pay-off is as grim and as realistic as any modern cinema could hope to convey. There's one scene where the alarm goes and everybody in the area is suddenly running which lingers in the memory. The claustrophobic tunnels and the efforts to find the missing men may seem a little protracted but they were utterly gripping. I won't, however, tell you how the film ends. You'll have to find that out for yourself.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Classic Film Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty stars Danny Kaye as the titular character, a daydreamer who has always been pushed around but suddenly finds himself involved a real-life conspiracy where he is unfortunately himself and not one of the suave, muscular men he imagines himself to be in his daydreams. He crosses paths with Rosalind van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo) who is trying to keep a highly important book about hidden treasure from nefarious men trying to get their hands on it, including the exceedingly creepy Boris Karloff as Dr Hollingshead. Rounding out the cast is Fay Bainter as Mrs Mitty, Ann Rutherford as Walter's fiancĂ©e Gertrude Griswold and Florence Bates as Mrs Griswold.

This is a very vibrant film, making full use of colour and light, particularly in the dream sequences. However, what frustrated me about the dream sequences is that, while they were fun and useful towards the beginning demonstrating Walter's inner life in comparison to his real one, once the actual action had got going and he was in the middle of a real-life adventure, they were no longer necessary. After that they just seemed an excuse for fancy costumes and a few songs.

Danny Kaye was wonderful as Walter though. The put-upon, 'yes, Mother', forgetful character really flourished throughout and there are few actors who match Kaye for facial expressions and the ability to deliver hilarious one-liners. He's also a very good physical comic, as evidenced by the windowsill scenes amongst others. I can't think of another actor who could've done this role as much justice as Kaye did.

The rest of the cast was superb too. Virginia Mayo played the mysterious blonde to perfection, though I did want to know more about the character, and Ann Rutherford and Florence Bates created quite a little double act as their growing apprehension about Walter's impending marriage to Gertrude made itself known. There's a brilliant scene where Walter is trying to keep Rosalind's presence in the house unknown so it appears he's acting completely insane and Gertrude and Mrs Griswold's reactions to this are hilarious. Fay Bainter also works well as Walter's mother but, then, she is an excellent actress generally.

If the dream sequences had been pared back, I would have completely enjoyed this film. As it was, I was shaken from the action at unnecessary moments which irked a little. However, overall, this was a brilliant, colourful film that relied on the charisma and hilarity of its leading man to produce a vivid impression. Well worth a watch.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Book Review: Jill by Amy Dillwyn

First published in 1884, Jill tells the story of a well-bred heroine who hates her home life and so decides to venture out into the world and get by working for a living. After learning about her childhood and her father's second marriage, we follow her through her first position as a day-governess then she manages to land a job with a distant relative, Kitty Mervyn, who wants a travelling maid. Although generally a self-centred person, Kitty brings out an affection in Jill that surprises her. For a brief time, the supposed class barriers between them fall away but the friendly relations can't last and events are soon taken out of Jill's control by malevolent forces.

The only way I can describe this book is that it's a complete and utter romp. Suspend your disbelief and jump in. Jill is a compelling character, from the way she organises her escape from home to her escapades on Corsica with Kitty. She conveys things to the reader with a strong sense of humour and her interactions with other characters are laced with sarcasm and insight. I particularly enjoyed her dealings with her first employer, a neurotic woman who is dreadfully worried about contamination and disease. Jill skilfully handles her in a scene that is both satisfying and beautiful to read. The book is essentially made up of episodes and I'd imagine it would be a good book to read aloud with many decent break points. I especially love how Jill lambastes the conventions of romance and sensation early in the book and then Dillwyn goes on to make use of them in a very tongue-in-cheek way. The sense of a connection between the reader and Jill/the reader and the author is strong in this book.

It's not all light-hearted though. The tone shifts abruptly towards the end of the book when Jill is involved in an accident which leads to a profound change in her outlook. Because the rest of the book has been so much like a romp, it's difficult to accept the gear shift, especially considering what it leads to. However, on reflection, the scenes are made all the more potent by what has come before and they are certainly memorable.

Jill is a book with many strands. The affection Jill feels for Kitty is an important aspect, governing her behaviour at times but I didn't get a full sense of why she felt so strongly for her until the Corsica incidents. It also deals with issues of class and gender as Jill passes as a maid and is promptly pursued by a valet who doesn't want to take 'no' for an answer. In a light-hearted way, it raises some interesting questions, some of which I suppose are as valid today as they were 130 years ago. Jill concludes one chapter with this which struck a chord with me on first reading and does so again now: 'Yet I myself told lies unhesitatingly whenever I found them convenient; so what right had I to complain of other people for doing the same?' This book doesn't read much like a Victorian novel and perhaps that's why I enjoyed it so much.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Classic Film Review: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Letter from an Unknown Woman stars Louis Jourdan as Stefan Brand, a former concert pianist who travels home one night having been challenged to a duel. He intends to leave town to avoid it but a letter has been delivered that captures his attention. It's from Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) and begins with the proclamation that she may be dead by the time he reads it. She had fallen in love with him at first sight many years earlier and much of the film is comprised of flashbacks to show how their relationship developed and how it came to be that the intimate letter was from an 'unknown woman'.

I've heard it said that this film is Joan Fontaine's finest and I'm happy to concur. She is outstanding, as much of a presence here as she was in Rebecca eight years earlier (reviewed here). It was impossible for me to look away from her face in any given scene, though sometimes I wanted to due to the strength of emotion she was portraying. A couple of scenes stand out in this regard. The scene where she flees her mother and stepfather and returns to see Stefan is heartbreaking, as is the scene later in the film where she realises that he doesn't remember her at all. Fontaine's ability to convey so much in one look is what makes her one of my favourite actresses and this film showcases that tremendously.

Jourdan is well-cast as Stefan, particularly in the present-day scenes as he struggles with what he's reading. He portrays his charming selfishness perfectly until it eventually cracks under his realisation. The rest of the cast is good but mostly in the background. This film belongs to Fontaine and Jourdan - and more Fontaine than Jourdan. However, a word must be given to the exquisite direction, especially in the scenes where Lisa is watching Stefan. These scenes are works of art and the film as a whole is put together so lovingly.

I can't think of a bad thing to say about Letter from an Unknown Woman. It left me feeling as though my heart had been ripped out but the ending did the story justice. I think perhaps this is Fontaine's finest film, but I'll have to continue my journey through her filmography to confirm that.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Classic Film Review: Charade (1963)

Charade stars Audrey Hepburn as Regina Lampert, a woman who returns to Paris from holiday to find that her husband sold all their possessions and was then murdered on a train. The police want to know what he did with the money, so does government official Hamilton Bartholemew (Walter Matthau) and three strangers who turn up at his funeral. Regina is supported at this difficult time by Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), someone she barely knows who seems to be hiding a few secrets of his own. As it transpires that her husband's murderer is out to get her, believing she has the money, it becomes a race against time to save her life. And where is the money?

I adored this film. Hepburn and Grant work brilliantly together, large age-gap or not. Sometimes with films you get the impression that the cast were having as fun a time putting it together as the audience subsequently gets in watching it and this is one of those films. The witty dialogue between Regina and Peter Joshua during their first meeting sets the tone for the rest of the film and it's downright fantastic. They bounce off each other so well and there's a warmth between them that's unmistakable.

As for the story, it kept me hooked. I was a few steps ahead of the narrative but, really, I just enjoyed the ride. It was very well-written with numerous twists and turns and some clever digs at the thriller genre. We've got a rooftop fight, a dead man in a bath, concealed identities and a tense stand-off in a deserted theatre. It cranks up the atmosphere whilst still remaining amusing. Almost inevitably, my favourite scenes are Grant/Hepburn ones: the early scene already mentioned, the scene in the club where they're roped in as volunteers and the brilliant shower scene that had me in fits of laughter. My favourite moment is probably when Regina asks Peter how he shaves inside that famous Cary Grant dimple.

Charade rocketed onto the list of my favourite films, joining the likes of Bringing Up Baby, The African Queen and Rebecca. That company should indicate quite how wonderful this film is. Completely recommended.