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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

ARC Book Review: Tinseltown by William J. Mann

The full title of this book is Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood. It centres on the murder of William Desmond Taylor in 1922, examining all available material to try and pin down the culprits after all this time. More than that, though, this book serves as a portal into the early world of Hollywood. Other people discussed at length include actresses Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Minter and Virginia Gibson along with Adolph Zukor, the ambitious founder of Paramount. This book attempts to uncover the 'real' Hollywood of the early 20s and, for the most part, it succeeds.

While the murder investigation does form the centrepiece of the book, it certainly isn't the only strand. I liked the fact that it begins with the day of the murder then flips back to document how the main players got to that point. Although I knew the murder was coming, sometimes I got so engrossed with the power plays of various people that I forgot about it. As a consequence, it came upon me as a bit of a shock, mainly because by this point I was emotionally attached - not so much to Taylor himself but to Mabel Normand. Mann's portrayal of Normand is nothing short of exquisite and, out of all the names who touch these pages, for me, the representation of Normand lingers most strongly.

Mann's style may not be to everyone's taste but it certainly works. He has painstakingly recreated as much of that period as possible using, as he explains in a note at the end, as many primary sources as he could get his hands on but, beyond that, he has immersed himself and his reader in the possible thoughts of his primary protagonists. This kind of speculation is just that but it works because of Mann's level of research: there is always the sense that his speculation stems from deep involvement in his subject and his use of photographs and weather reports to visualise what a street would've looked like from the view of one of his protagonists works extremely well. Similarly, the use of very short chapters, flicking around from person to person is something I enjoyed once I accustomed myself to it. Mann uses enough markers and reminders to satisfy his most forgetful readers and keeping all the major players in the air is a shrewd move for maintaining interest.

The book claims to offer the solution to the mystery that has foxed film buffs for ninety years. Do I think the conclusions are plausible? Yes, I do. Mann doesn't manipulate the evidence to fit his theory. He presents it all, including that for other suspects. In the end, though, the circumstantial evidence accumulated via Mann's diligent recreation of the Hollywood milieu swings it for me.

Tinseltown isn't only a gripping read but an excellent depiction of a world long gone. If you're interested in the early days of Hollywood and the power plays of the era then this book is highly recommended.

I received an ARC of this book direct from the publishers, HarperCollinsPublishers. And here's a nifty trailer for it:

Monday, 29 September 2014

Westgate Writers: Retrospective

For the last couple of months I've been working with the Westgate Writers, a group chaired by writer Steve Dearden. The brief was to explore the train station: people were recruited by an ad in the Metro but I bumped into the call-out online and accessed it that way. I jumped at the chance because the relocation of Wakefield Westgate station fascinated me as I passed the construction site last year each time I went into town. It became a habit with me to note how it was going (and, truthfully) criticise various aspects. Although I don't use the station daily, I travel to Sheffield a fair bit and the simple act of demolishing the old station buildings has thrown up a lot of thoughts and feelings. Coupled with the shininess of the new station, this little patch of land down the bottom of Wakefield centre proved to be fertile territory for fiction.

As with all these things, I didn't know what to expect from the group. But it turned out really well. There were six of us plus Steve, a nice size that worked well for the final performance slot. We had a little fun with writing activities involving prompt cards, song lyrics and idea dice but what really came out was the amount of work you could connect to the station, As a place where you're in transit, of course, many stories could be planted onto that location without growing organically. We did a little of that but, for the most part, our stories grew out of the station itself. At one point another member of the group said that I really didn't like the new station because I kept criticising the change. Well, I'm back and forth on it but I do miss the markers of the old decrepit buildings, the same way you miss anything that's been a part of your life for so many years.

Our work came together on Saturday. The first half of the event was Steve discussing his project 'Wake Lost Wake Found, details of which can be found here, which was fascinating. Then the Westgate Writers got up and presented our work in a manner that mimicked like the transience of the train station. I read out two little pieces which I was quite proud of and, I'm told, the event was a success.

Working with the Westgate Writers has been brilliant. Talking about writing and listening to work isn't something I've done much of since my MA and it's ridiculously beneficial to my writing process and confidence apparently. So thank you to Daniel, Gregg, Jim, Nigel and Stefan for being part of it and especially thanks to Steve Dearden for being such an excellent chair. It's been a pleasure to work with you all.

(My post-event drinks with a little green friend courtesy of a big not-green friend)

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Priority Lists

One of the departments I used to work for tried to be rigidly organised, giving us each of us lists every day about what we were doing and in what order. I did like knowing that and being able to jump straight into another task without having to (me being a summer clerk) hang around somebody's desk until they took pity on me and found me something to do. However, the lists could also have detrimental effects - if there was a task I was no good at or didn't know how to do, the fear would eat away at me until I got it done. Similarly, you couldn't skip a task without explaining/asking for permission first. It became a mini dictatorship and I came to loathe those bits of paper, despite the good they were still doing me most of the time.

So how does this relate to my current predicaments? Well, I'm drowning over here. It's funny on one level, terrifying on another. I'm going to trial giving myself a daily priority list which tries to balance the things I need to do with the things I should do and those I'd merely like to. If it underlines the problem rather than aiding it then I'll discard it as a failed experiment but with my little piece of yellow paper next to me I feel...well, overwhelmed and yet safe in the knowledge that I have a plan.

This is what today looks like:

  1. Blog x 2 (for here and One Yorkshire Voice)
  2. Type up short story edits for submission tomorrow
  3. Check the proofs for my Downton Abbey/Upstairs, Downstairs essay which came through yesterday and need a swift turnaround
  4. Two hours minimum on thesis chapter edits
  5. Final meeting of the Westgate Writers before our event on Saturday
  6. Novel work
Now I could just sit here laughing at the implausibility of all that or I could get on. Perhaps I should've factored lunchtime into all that... 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Classic Film Review: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as Matt and Christina Drayton. Their daughter Joey (Katharine Houghton) returns home from holiday unexpectedly and has a surprise for her parents - she's engaged. The fly in the ointment is that her fiancĂ©e, Dr John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) is black. Joey's liberal parents have their views tested by this relationship and when Mr and Mrs Prentice (Roy Glenn and Beah Richards) arrive to join them for dinner the bonds of both families are tested. Rounding out the cast is Isabel Sandford as Tillie the maid and Cecil Kellaway as Monsignor Ryan.

As Spencer Tracy's last film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner holds a special allure for classic film fans. Certainly, I was as much interested in the power surrounding it as I was the film itself. Given that Tracy was seriously ill during filming and died only seventeen days after it was over, you'd imagine that allowances would have to be made for his illness. He doesn't look well, certainly, but in terms of his acting, he remained on top form. The final lengthy scene where Matt makes a speech to his guests about love is intensely moving. For many, of course, this scene is tied up with the Tracy and Hepburn myth and there is no hiding Hepburn's emotion in the final scene. It feels as though we're witnessing a private occasion. As a final exercise in his own quiet and beautiful style of acting, this film does Tracy proud.

And what of the rest of it? Well, the chemistry between Katharine Hepburn and her real-life niece Katharine Houghton makes their scenes a pleasure, though Houghton is not as compelling away from Hepburn. Some of her scenes with Poitier feel like fillers but that's possibly because the crux of the plot is not their relationship so much as the reaction to their relationship. Poitier's best scenes are John's heartfelt declaration to Matt and Christina about his love for their daughter (watch Hepburn in this scene too!) and his argument with his father much later. An unsung brilliant scene, too, is that between Christina and Mrs Prentice in the garden. However, my favourite moment also comes courtesy of Hepburn as she sacks a colleague and tells her to be on her merry way for criticising her daughter's relationship. I don't often clap in the middle of the film but I did then.

Ultimately, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner reflects attitudes of the time. It can seem dated now but that can only be a good thing. It's a film with some brilliant moments and a decent heart and, as Tracy's final screen appearance, it can't help but be captivating. I felt as emotionally wrought as Katharine Hepburn when the credits had finally rolled.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Westgate Writers Event - This Saturday

This Saturday (27th September), I'll be taking part in an event at the Wakefield Lit Fest. I'm part of a small group of writers who have been working with Steve Dearden to create pieces which, as the brochure says, 'explore the new Westgate railway station in words'.

That brief was delightfully vague and we've all come up with some rather diverse work, linking to the station as well as other things. Some of it's humorous, some of it's a bit dark and, as yet, we don't quite know which of our little pieces we'll be showcasing. Steve has been an excellent chair, giving us crazy tasks to stimulate our creative brains. The other aspect of the event is presenting Steve's commission piece from last year's festival - 'Wakelost Wakefound'. Described as 'part online novella, part photo essay', more information can be found here.

The event is being held at The Orangery on the 27th between 3pm and 4:30pm. It's free and everyone's welcome. Look forward to seeing you there!

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Escaping the Reeds

There's a moment in one of my favourite films, The African Queen, where Rose (Katharine Hepburn) and Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) are suffocating. The titular boat has been travelling through reeds and, despite their best efforts, they get stuck. They use the oars to try and launch their way through, they get out and pull, only to be assaulted by leeches. Even after this discovery, they are forced to get back in the water, just to have another shot at getting out of there. All the while, they're finding it close and hard to breathe.

If anything serves as a metaphor for how I've felt this week, that scene does it. Trapped, overwhelmed, lost: as though every breath was an effort. Each time I made an attempt to move, each time I dipped my toe in the water to try and navigate an escape, the leeches got me in the form of a memory. Sitting at my computer on an evening has been a device of torture. Far too many connotations and links. But, here's the rub, it's very difficult for me not to sit at my computer to work. All my thesis stuff and writing drafts are on it; my life's work, if you will. But little point in being at the computer when all I do is burst into tears. That's not focusing, in any sense of the word.

Yesterday became my 'getting back in the water' moment. It was my first Sheffield trip since all this kicked off and it was a doozy. Looking at it now, it's probably best to define it as a three hour panic attack that lasted from mid-morning until I got to my meeting at two. It involved some rather unpleasant scenes at the train station where I paced around and looked thoroughly crazy then one of those embarrassing moments on the train itself where I'm standing in the vestibule weeping, just weeping. With the aid of a friend, I made it up to uni and my meeting but I felt as though the life had been sucked out of me again.

My meeting went well, very well. Some positivity began to creep back into my mind, the possibility that I can get through the next few months. Though, when one of my supervisors asked me to think beyond that, I couldn't. With everything that's happened over the last few weeks, I don't have that ability. I just need to look at the smaller picture. The bigger one terrifies me.

Travelling home, I tried to think of ways I could force myself to work. Because the reeds are still there, threatening me every time I sit down to work. So what could I do to turn things around? Well, how about actually turning things around? By the time my dad got home from work I'd made a start on turning my desk around. For four years I've been staring at the same blank wall. That wall has been the scene of many hopeful projections, none of which came true, so perhaps it was time for a change. This is what my view was before:

Turning the desk around has had a few unintended consequences. I feel hemmed in with my chair but, bizarrely, not as hemmed in as I did when I had half the room to kick back in. And, also, I'm now facing my iPod. It's a funny thing, the music coming towards me instead of creeping over my shoulders. It's almost like hearing it anew. This is the low quality version of my desk now:

Of course, Rose and Charlie escape from the reeds in The African Queen. But the reason is largely beyond their control. The rains come, lifting up the boat and transporting it to safety. Maybe that was my meeting yesterday; the thing out of my control that grabbed me and yanked me through. For the moment, I'll ignore the fact that when Rose and Charlie reach safety, they blow up their boat... That may be a metaphor too far right now.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Book Review: Dying in the Wool by Frances Brody

Last summer, when I read A Woman Unknown (reviewed here), I vowed to go back and discover the Kate Shackleton mysteries from the beginning. Dying in the Wool is the first in the series, serving as a good introduction to Kate as well as being a very intriguing mystery that kept me guessing.

Kate has done some investigative work in the past, for families who want conclusive answers on why their men didn't come back from the Great War. The job offered to her by old friend Tabitha Braithwaite is the first where she accepts remuneration for her work and takes on an ex-policeman, Jim Sykes as her partner. Tabitha wants to know whether her father, who disappeared in 1916, is alive or dead as she's getting married and wants him to be present. Kate begins her investigations, finding most of the people she needs to talk to quietly uncooperative, but there are a few chinks in the village's armour and, as she finds them, the situation begins to unravel, though not without a few casualties along the way.

There's a little bit of scene-setting towards the beginning of the book, introducing Kate's father, housekeeper and general background. For the most part, it slots well into the narrative of Tabitha's request and, if this is indeed the first Kate Shackleton mystery you've read, then it's very useful information. I liked the characterisation of Kate in this first book, especially the way her investigative abilities and love of photography intersect and occasionally collide.

The pace of this works quite well. It's a cosy mystery with a few grisly moments and some sharp writing. I liked the fact that not everything was neatly tied up in a bow at the end and appreciated the characterisation of a few of the more odious villagers. They came across as distinctive, always a difficulty in this type of novel. There was also a delicious scene where Kate meets up with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I'll leave you with one of her thoughts about him:

'I needed to divert Sir Arthur from his other-world views if there was to be an earthly chance of his talking sense.'

Friday, 12 September 2014

A Song for a Moment

I frequently say, both aloud and in my head, that there's a song for every moment. As a rule, I've found it honest enough. There is generally a song that, if it doesn't encompass the moment, at least makes the moment bearable. That's why me and my iPod are pretty much inseparable - it can get me through the stickiest spots. There are a few songs I can usually rely on to make me smile with their energy; for instance, 'A Parade in Town' or 'High Hopes' or 'Our Time'. These galvanise me, dupe me into thinking I'm okay when I'm not. Sometimes they even manage to alter my mood properly.

But this time the old remedies aren't working. Me and my iPod aren't getting on. Oh, I'm still listening to it when I'm out because otherwise I'd have to deal with people and I listen to it at home to try and fool myself (Marni Nixon is currently singing 'I Whistle a Happy Tune' at me, for reference). But, for maybe the first time, music isn't really helping. Not music I know anyway. There are connotations there, links that would once have made me smile and now bring me perilously close to tears. Most of my Judy songs are off-limits. You can forget all about Liza and Ella Fitzgerald is breaking my heart daily. Everything I used to find comfort in is now increasing my pain.

So I've taken to YouTube a lot. My reasoning is that I'll listen to songs I don't know that well, then they can't have any resonance. For the most part, this has been working; however, when a song hits me, it really hits me. The other night though, while I was scrabbling around for another artist to search for, I landed on Anthony Newley. Of course, I wasn't about to click on 'What Kind of Fool Am I?' but there was one that drew me in, knowing it vaguely and wanting to be reminded. 'Who Can I Turn To?' is from The Roar of the Greasepaint - the Smell of the Crowd, a show I'm fairly unfamiliar with. I'm no longer unfamiliar with the song.

It's no exaggeration to say that I've listened to it thirty times now and sung it myself over and over and over again. It certainly sums up how I feel but I'm not sure it's doing me any good. It's crystallised my problem again, perhaps drawn me back into it (though that suggests I got away from it in the first place, something I don't believe).

There's one thing for sure - I can't stop listening to it.

'Who can I turn to
When nobody needs me?
My heart wants to know,
And so I must go
Where destiny leads me.

With no star to guide me,
And no one beside me,
I'll go on my way
And after the day
The darkness will hide me.

Maybe tomorrow
I'll find what I'm after,
I'll throw off my sorrow,
Beg, steal or borrow
My share of laughter.

With you I could learn to,
With you on a new day.
But who can I turn to
If you turn away?'

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Classic Film Review: None But the Lonely Heart (1944)

None But the Lonely Heart stars Cary Grant as Ernie Mott, a drifter who reluctantly returns home to help his sick mother (Ethel Barrymore) run her shop. He has a relationship with Aggie (Jane Wyatt), the understanding girl across the road who takes him as he is, but he's also drawn to Ada (June Duprez). However, her ex-husband, Jim Mordinoy (George Coulouris), doesn't much like their relationship and when Ernie starts working for him it spells trouble.

Apparently, the novel this was based on focused on a much younger protagonist but, I suppose, the studio wanted a vehicle for Cary Grant and shoehorned him into a role that he really doesn't fit. The only scenes that do sparkle are those between Grant and Barrymore, though Grant still looks out of place. Barrymore, for her part, is excellent in an understated performance befitting the ill mother worried about what she's leaving her son with. Jane Wyatt is reasonable as Aggie, though she struggles with some bad dialogue, but June Duprez doesn't impress as Ada. Perhaps it's the character that's too wispy but she certainly doesn't come across as the type of girl the cynical Ernie would fall in love with. Their relationship is integral to the finale but, really, it feels superfluous for most of the film.

The whole thing lacks a direction. For the first half an hour, there's not much at stake, it's all scene setting that could have been done much more quickly. Also, despite the spectre of Ma Mott's impending death, there isn't much for Ernie to lose throughout. There are only a few moments of tension, befitting the small-community feel of the film but meaning it comes across as a bit drab.

Ultimately, None But the Lonely Heart fails on several levels but it does showcase the talent of Ethel Barrymore, and that's never a bad thing.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Classic Film Review: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The Greatest Show on Earth stars Charlton Heston as Brad Braden, the manager of a struggling circus. To ensure success for the coming season he has engaged The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), despite the fact that this will displace his own girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), from the centre ring. The two acrobats begin a deadly game of chicken high up in the air while the circus presses on from town to town. Meanwhile, Buttons the clown (Jimmy Stewart) hides a dangerous secret, mobsters fleece the customers and the elephant trainer has an unhealthy obsession with Angel (Gloria Grahame).

This is really Cecil B. DeMille's homage to the circus. As such, it's spectacular but, also, rather lengthy and long-winded in places. The narrative is stretched by over-long circus scenes, designed to show the skill of the real acrobats and performers drafted into the film. And, while on first viewing these were entertaining, they would put me off watching again because I like more story than stunts when I watch something.

That said, the plots are interesting but the main love triangle feels a little laboured. Brad is a dull character, though much better as a circus manager than Holly's love interest, while Cornel Wilde does a better job as the charismatic Sebastian. Hutton reins her usual boisterous performance in a little to create a sympathetic character in Holly who still gets to fly around and continue her battle with Sebastian. The culmination of that is well-played by both Wilde and Hutton. For me, though, the quiet star of this is Jimmy Stewart as Buttons. Even in full make-up, masking much of his expression, he still managed to give an excellent performance that stood out from the rest of the cast.

I liked how the plots all intersected for the explosive finale, which also stayed true to the characters. I did enjoy the film but the circus set-pieces make it doubtful I'll be interested enough to watch it a second time.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Taking Stock

Apologies for the radio silence. It's been a tough few weeks. Actually, everything since my birthday at the end of July has been a mini-nightmare, all conspiring to make this one gigantic monster that's inclined to chase me down the street with fangs bared. I'm holding him off for now but I can't say it's easy.

The less said about the thesis at the moment, the better. I just have to hope the problems I'm having with that (not completely of my own making this time) will iron themselves out. As a side note, I hate Edmund Yates and Wilkie Collins with every fibre of my being. I'd be happy never to see a passing reference to them ever again, though I'm told that feeling fades...eventually.

So - the writing. There's still some good news in the bag that I can't share with you yet but, beyond that, I'm really pulling my finger out. Last week, I took the time to focus on my writing and made a little progress. As I intended to do back in May, I've done a little planning ahead so that one novel ('Max') is ready to be second-drafted. I also cheated a little on my resolution not to do any 'proper' writing and made a concerted effort to finish the second draft of 'Lauren'. We're nearly there with only two and a half chapters left to write and it's hovering around the 60,000 mark at the moment. I've changed a lot about this (added five viewpoints for a start) and it's very rough but getting there, plot-wise. Everything needs tightening etc but that's a job for draft three.

My plans after I've finished that may change. Currently, what I want to do is work on the sixth draft of 'Lily'. That will require concentration, focus on every word, and may not sit comfortably alongside my thesis edits which, at this point, require the same thing. Not to worry - I've got several short stories to write and rework and I'm working on a play rewrite, which I need to submit to somewhere specific by the end of the month. I haven't got much out at submission currently but that's going to change.

To say I'm using my writing as a distraction wouldn't be far off the mark. August was atrocious, punctuated by problems with the boiler that still aren't resolved, a re-emergence of my anxiety issues and some rather more serious problems. My grandmother was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Even when they're 91 it's something you don't want to hear and the doc isn't planning on telling her because of her dementia problems. I've got mixed feelings on that one but my dad and aunt are the ones with the rights over her, not me. As well as that bombshell, I broke up (very amicably, as it happened) with my partner of nearly nine years and there have also been other things going on I can't really discuss on a public forum like this. However, what it all boils down to is a great shift in how I define myself. I've got to change my mindset and fight some long-ingrained habits. Learning to be yourself without other people around to bounce things off can be tricky but, hey, it's not as though I have a choice right now.

I've learned a couple of things in the last month. The first is that I have a renewed confidence in my writing abilities and I really need to hold on to that. The second is that honesty is truly the best policy. It might've made me ill, it might've caused a minor earthquake in my little world, but I feel a bit better for it. Not that I can keep a grip on that perspective constantly. Just have to roll with it for a while, I guess. Finally, the third thing I learned is that I can be strong. As I tweeted last week, I've essentially taken a blowtorch to half my life over the last month. Maybe it was stupid but once I'd struck the match, it was out of my control. And, in all seriousness, the fact that it is all out of my control now is vaguely reassuring. I did the right things for once, the brave things, and the fact that it didn't quite work out is not down to me. I have many things to reproach myself about in the past but, this time, I think I behaved fairly well.

So I'll just continue to roll with the punches. As I've been typing this, a man arrived with no warning to paint our windowsills and the saga of the boiler continues on Wednesday. I may be lonely at the moment, very lonely, but as long as I have my characters around I suppose I'll get through it. Betty Hutton can also help...