Writing is good for the soul

Having had roughly 6 weeks of no writing, aside from Theatre and book reviews, I’ve started to feel the effects. I’m every so slightly on edge, feeling the pull of something that I know is my creative muse wanting me back at the keyboard. There are a million little projects I have on the back burner, not to mention the growing and unfinished second novel. I think about it every now and then, with a little impatience, a little guilt and a surprising amount of attachment. I want to get it finished. It wants me to get it finished. Yet every other form of procrastination seems to get in the way. I know I’m not alone in this and have had this conversation before with many other writers. Yet I feel a horrible sense of my writing and my writers self slipping away from me, and I can’t let that happen. I’ve grown and changed over the years and yet my writing has remained a constant, a thing that ground me and settles me. Like a kind of therapy with often beautiful results. Even now, I started writing this with the worry that there was nothing to say. Turns out my fingers are leading me on the keyboard once again, the writer is taking over.

So, I’ve taken a week off work to try to remedy the ‘no writing’ time and to organise a new schedule. I need to figure out the writer I am now, the time that I have to put into my work, (which I am hoping will now be more since a few other commitments have come to an end) and to have a final plan to complete my novel. After all a rough draft that needs work is better than nothing. I feel that once this is done, I can take a breath and focus on other projects and new ideas. Until then, I’m being held back by this huge thing that I’m yet to complete. The sense of achievement will be incredible.

Another thing to focus on, in that week, is to get my first novel entered into a few competitions and to outline some new agencies and publishers to try. Something that has also been pushed to the back of my mind when other things have disrupted my time and attention. Having re read the opening chapters while preparing for one such competition, I became engrossed in the story again and realised, although I may have lost faith in myself, I had never lost faith in my characters and my story. I still believe in my work and believe people would like to read my novel. This also made me realise that it’s entirely possible for me to create something just as good in the future. It just means getting back to that mindset, of hard work and self belief. Avoiding the numerous distractions on offer. Maybe I can join a writers group again, attend more open mic nights, vary my reading material.

During the opening of an opera I recently attended with my friend and colleague, I had this awful feeling come over me, that the best of the arts had passed. What if the modern world, with all its distractions, temptations and opportunities for plagiarism and imitation, had no place for genius? What if we had no Shakespeare, or Hardy or Puccini of our time? Is this possible? Is this just my brain in overdrive at the first time exposure to a critically acclaimed work by a talented composer?

Sure we have some fantastic authors, screenwriters, directors, artists, but do we react to them in the same way? Are we in awe of them? Maybe it has something to do with the amount of choice on offer, the competition with so many other distractions. Or the fact that these days, everyone’s an artist, or a blogger, or a director of their own videos.

It got me thinking about my own situation and the need I have for quiet and stillness to create my work. A need which might now need to be artificially created, as opposed to the times when there was no TV, social media, mobile phones, traffic logged streets, but could surely be created if the desire was really there?

So my mission is to re-create this space. To settle back into a writing routine. Also a reading one too. I’ve given up on the current book that was proving a chore to read and not inspiring or exciting me. I’ve turned to a collection of short stories by Daphne Du Maurier, who I’m discovering was a brilliant suspense writer. I’m hoping her work might inspire an idea for a new short story, a project I’ve been meaning to return to for a while. The form would suit my busy lifestyle and challenge my tendency to exceed a planned word count every time! I’d also like to return to poetry, reading and writing it. A recent poetry review assignment, gave me access to a great new poet called Elizabeth Parker, whose debut poetry collection, In her Shambles, really inspired me to return to this genre. Her use of language and often quite simple subject matter reminded me that poetry doesn’t have to be niche or high brow at all. It can and should be completely accessible to all ages and backgrounds. Then, when the idea are flowing, I can perhaps return to a new larger projecta third novel.

Most importantly I’ve learnt that I need to persevere. To listen to that internal voice, that uncomfortable push and pull, and to keep writing. To make time, to relax and enjoy it, because it feeds me, it inspires me, it’s part of me and always will be. Writing is good for the soul, and right now, I need it more than ever.

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Discovering Daphne Du Maurier

I love that moment when you come cross a new or old author, undiscovered until chance finds you in their section at the local bookshop, or someone recommends them to you, or you just stumble across a book you bought years ago and have been meaning to read but has gathered dust behind the bookshelf somewhere, amongst a pile of similarly unread copies.

During my last, annual trip to the Hay Literary Festival and the beautiful town of Hay on Wye in Mid Wales, as predicted, I bought many more books than I promised myself I would, with no idea of where they would fit into my small bedroom, on my tiny bookshelf. One was a collection of Short stories by Daphne Du Maurier, best known for her suspense story ‘The Birds’, which was made into a film by Director Alfred Hitchcock. The film would make both Hitchcock and it’s author famous. A few years ago I read Rebecca for the first time and from the very first page and those chilling opening lines, Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’ I was hooked. I followed the novels every twist and turn, thinking of it in pretty much every waking moment and in my dreams. The character of Rebecca seemed so real, so transcendental that she haunted my thoughts. On finishing the book, I had the rare sense that it would stay with me, probably for much of my adult life.

It was years later that on returning to Hay Festival and browsing in one of my favourite book shops in the town, I came across a collection of Du Maurier’s short stories, which included ‘The Birds’. At this point it was the only short story of hers that I knew well. I had come across ‘Don’t look now’ while studying for my English and Creative Writing degree but did not remember much about it, aside from the underlying creepy tone to it and the shocking revelation at the end of the film version we had been shown. A few weeks ago I began reading that book of short stories, a lovely Virago edition, with a deep purple cover and modern, colourful illustrations, which held a gothic/mystery theme.

‘The Birds’ was first. I remembered the film as I’m a huge Hitchcock fan and it’s one of my favourite films. But to read the story which began the legacy, was really exciting. The suspense element was there as expected, the slow build up as characters are introduced and unsettling things begin to happen. But the ending, the final few lines of that page, left me amazed, frustrated and in awe. I flipped the page, searching for another paragraph or further explanation, I checked to see if pages were missing. But eventually realised that Du Maurier had in fact chosen to leave her incredible mystery at that point during the story. The moment when the family are preparing for their second attack by the birds, their neighbours dead and no news of help on the radio, the father taking the last cigarette from a pack he had been saving. Du Maurier had done it again. She had left me astonished, haunted and wondering what happened to those characters awaiting their fate. I finished the book of short stories within a week or two.

I happened to be visiting family, near Hay on Wye, when I finished the book. With an afternoon free, I decided that Hay was the place I could find what I was looking for, more books to feed by new obsession. During that trip I picked up two other collections of Du Maurier’s short stories, as well as Jamaica Inn (which I haven’t read since School) and The House on the Strand, all but one were the wonderful Virago print editions. There’s something satisfying and magical about finding a complete collection of books with identical covers. I really enjoyed scouring the shelves of half a dozen book shops in the hope of finding the one book I was looking for (originally I was just searching for Jamaica Inn). A lost art in today’s society, governed by online retailers and e books. I also picked up new books by Author’s I had read in the past and long forgotten, as well as classics I had never read. These might be the start of a new journey.

One of my books contains the story ‘Don’t look now’ which I decided to re read to remind myself of the story that had left me with such a disturbed feeling, imagining it probably wasn’t just down to the work of the film maker as I had perhaps thought with The Birds.

Du Maurier is one of the best suspense writers I have come across. She can set up a situation and draw you in to the story, linking you closely with the characters before pulling the ground from under you, sending you spiralling in a different direction before she leaves you haunted by her final words. Reading her work has inspired me to return to short story writing, to immerse myself in the world of suspense.

 

The future me

When I was a child, I always had this image of how my life would be when I was older. The key age I saw myself as was in my thirties. This, to me, was when I would be most grown up. At this age, I decided, I would have my own home, a good career, lots of confidence and a husband with a few kids maybe. Whenever I thought about the future, or I was unhappy in the present, I would see this future me, frozen in time, in stylish clothes, with perfect hair and a big smile, cruising through life, knowing all the answers. I decided that at this age, things would be how I wanted them to be. I would be living the life that I wanted.

It’s taken a lot of time between then and that point for me to realise that life is very different to how you imagine. Those idealised views aren’t always as possible as you imagine, filtered illusions of the future become distorted and changed over time. It takes hard work, sacrifice and a lot of luck to make it to the place you want to be. Even then, sometimes you discover it’s actually not what you thought it would be, or it’s not what you really wanted at all. After all, what you dream as a child and what you aspire to as an adult can be very different, depending on the life you have growing up.

From a young age I always wanted to be a writer. I loved reading and writing my own stories, my imagination was always in overload, looking for the next creative challenge. Roald Dahl opened a magical world for me, followed by Enid Blyton  and later R.L Stine, Stephen King and a host of other contemporary authors. I never really decided I wanted to be a writer. I think I just knew that that’s what I was meant to do. It’s cheesy I know but it’s like it chose me. The imagination, the drive and the desire was there. Everything else just depended on luck and circumstance. I had some positive comments about my creative imagination in school and went on to do well in English at GCSE and A Level . I studied English and Creative Writing at uni. Even during this period of my teens and early twenties I always figured that’s what I’d end up doing, not really realising how hard it was. I never considered giving up. I still don’t.

After Uni, and a small taste of success, with publication in the university anthology, I took menial jobs while still working on different projects. Short novels, short stories, poetry, flash fiction. I gave anything a go and I entered lots of competitions. I did well in some, making it to the shortlist, but never winning any big prizes. I’ve had my work published locally in magazines and newspapers and nationally in Mslexia magazine. I was offered a place on a mentoring course with a small publisher in North Wales who loved my work. I really enjoyed the course and got lots out of it, including an improved manuscript, but am still trying to find a publisher for this book.  I took part in some work placements, at two small publishers and a local Theatre. I continued to write, because that’s what drove me. Looking back now, I can see that I was making progress, small progress, but progress all the same. However, compared to the view of my future life, seen through the eyes of that imaginative ten-year old, it seemed rather different.

Then, I started reviewing for Theatre Wales, through my voluntary work for the local theatre. Years later, I took up a freelance job at a local newspaper, writing about local arts from Film and theatre, to arts exhibitions and creative events. After a year, I became the freelance reporter for my local area covering local news and events. I loved this job, as it involved writing every week, using my own initiative to find stories and create interesting articles for readers. Getting out and about to meet people helped my confidence and opened up my eyes to what was going on locally. I made some good friends and valuable contacts during my time working for the newspaper. I also learnt a lot about how print media works as well as writing non fiction for a variety of readers. Plus my skills were obviously good enough to finally be paid for! Unfortunately, this job came to an end and for a while I wasn’t sure where to go next. I’d always worked full-time job’s alongside my creative projects, knowing full well that the money was not enough to live on just yet. But I always had that craving for more creativity, more diversity and new challenges in my life.

So when I saw that Arts Scene in Wales were looking for reviewers, I jumped a the chance. Sure, technically it wasn’t a paid position, but expenses were covered and the exposure was great for my writing CV. With ASIW I’ve reviewed Theatre Productions across Wales, ranging from small stage productions by companies such as Torch Theatre Company, Theatr Mwldan and Mappi Mundi covering classics like The Turn of the Screw, The Woman in Black, She Stoops to Conquer and Pride and Prejudice, to touring West End productions such as Sister Act starring Alexandra Burke. I love doing this job because I get to write about something I love. It’s also lovely to have such positive feedback about my reviews and to see people engaging with them via the website or social media. They are also sometimes quoted in Theatre marketing which is always great to see. I never would have thought that I would end up reviewing theatre. Yet i’m so glad that I do.

I also do book reviews for Mslexia Max, Mslexa magazine’s online forum. They send me poetry, short stories and novels every few months to write about for their reviews section. I love being part of this too. I think it’s important for a writer to be actively involved in the arts, in as many ways as they can. I think it feeds the creativity, the living breathing desire for that spark. To feel something and to connect.

At the end of last year, the final step in my creative journey was realised. I had long known that I needed to find a day job that was more creative, that added to my personality and to my career goals. I needed something that was stimulating and in an environment that helped me to be creative, to be around other creative people. Finding that job has taken years. It has proved frustrating at times. Writing was not enough. I needed to know that there was more out there, that there were other creative types, that there were other things going on, exciting, innovative, collaborative things. I needed to feel that all of this was possible, that it happened every day.

I started working for my local Theatre, (the one in which I did some marketing volunteering when I’d left uni), at the end of last year. It didn’t take me long to realise that this was where I needed to be. Surrounded by creative people, by writers, actors, creative thinkers, readers, photographers, arts people.  In this environment, I feel happy, inspired, free to be myself. If I look at the many areas of my life, I feel as of things are finally coming together to create a whole. I have a job that is more creative, I write reviews for theatre and a writing magazine, I also tutor English, I am getting to the end of my second novel – admittedly I do tend to procrastinate – and in my spare time (I get some believe it or not!) I am free to do whatever else inspires me or relaxes me, such as baking, watching films, going for long walks and spending time with family and friends.

So if I look back at my ten-year old self, imagining a future me, with this perfect life and all the answers. I think I’d just say to her that there’s no set path in life. Some people make it in their 20’s, others take a lot longer to find their true happiness. I finally feel like I am where I belong in life. I may not have the big house or the family of my own just yet, yes i still struggle with my confidence sometimes, and I don’t always look stylish, but I’m happy and i’m doing something that I love. That’s got to count for something, right? Being in your thirties does feel different from you’d imagine. It comes with all those added pressures that you put on yourself. But there’s no set rules as to where your life should be at this point. You make your own rules. I’ve certainly made mine. Truth is, it feels great!

 

 

 

 

 

New Year, New Black Mirror

One of the things I look forward to most about the post Christmas, pre New Year period is the return of Charlie Brooker’s award winning Black Mirror series. Ever since being recommended to watch it by a friend, I have been hooked on Brooker’s fascinating view into a future world governed by technology. From blackmail at the highest level, to social media overload, digital implants and a big brother society, the outcome is usually bleak. His locations feel both familiar and alien. An abandoned warehouse, a house in the country, an office in the city. All contained in a future which is already in our reach: driver-less cars, robots, digital implants, popularity judged by social media scores.

Brooker got his idea for Black Mirror from watching Anthology TV shows such as The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected which explored the macabre and contemporary issues within a fictional setting, often avoiding censorship rules. As a Dahl fan myself, only discovering his earlier work when I became an adult, I see the connection. I recognise the fascination with the dark and disturbing, the delight at the slow unravelling of each story, the lasting effects of the message over days and weeks.

Brooker employs much of the same strategy in his Black Mirror series, although it’s looking at a very different premise. A future world governed by a dependence on technology, and the issues surrounding that when things go wrong. Brooker says that Technology often feels like a drug and that his series is set somewhere between this ‘delight and discomfort.’ The Black Mirror of the title is something you’ll find ‘on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold shiny screen of a TV, monitor or smartphone.’

Episodes are often stylised with an overload of colour and sound, making them appear as synthetic as their devices. Other times the view is bleak, washed of colour, amidst a vast empty landscape. Brooker has the ability to create atmosphere and effect like no other writer and producer, through a clever use of original story, relatively unknown actors and film style. We are always led straight into the action, even if it tension must build with our understanding of events.

Commenting on his work, Brooker has described Black Mirror as commenting on ‘the way we live now and the way we might live in ten minutes time if we’re clumsy.’

This season takes virtual reality to a whole new level. By midway, the series is actually quite shocking. Violence, sex, drugs, blackmail, forced control…it’s all there at a hard hitting level. Episode 1 explores the idea of virtual reality gaming at an extreme level. When placed in the wrong hands, new technology allows a computer gaming programmer, typecast as a lonely nerd, to take his co workers DNA and create copies of them in his computer game. His experiment turns deadly when a new co worker fights against his system, refusing to allow him to control her. This reminds me of a previous episode where Brooker explored the idea of a character entering a video game via a chip placed in their head. This did not end well either. A comment on the growing world of virtual gaming? A warning that there has to be a limit? The episode doesn’t end well for the programmer, as his own invention is turned against him. The ending caused much debate among fans and viewers. Does one bad deed deserve another?

Episode 2, takes the idea of child safety and protection to a whole new level. A very current issue in modern society, where it’s deemed no longer safe to let your child play outside alone or allow them unlimited internet access, for fear of what they might discover. After losing her child in a local park, a Mother decides to participate in a trial of a new programme to monitor children via a chip implanted in their head. After the chip is inserted she can view and control everything her daughter sees via a tablet. Whilst it serves to keep her daughter safe for the first few years of her life and to shelter her from unnecessary distress, as the child grows into an adult the effects begin to become evident. For a Mother who can’t face not knowing, and a child who is curious about the world. The final scenes of this episode are shocking in their violent content, and perhaps serve as a warning about the dangers of living a sheltered life. How can you then be expected to know the difference between good and bad? How can you know to avoid certain things, to make informed decisions? How can a Mother ever just let go if there’s the option to hold on to every moment in your child’s life, even the most personal ones.

Episode 3 is the most shocking of the series. After they are involved in a terrible accident, a woman must keep secret everything she had witnessed, for fear of losing everything. But when things become threatened by the appearance of her ex boyfriend, full of remorse, things begin to spiral out of control. Meanwhile, A young woman (Kiran Sonia Sawar collects evidence for an insurance claim, using a new system which records peoples memories of events. It’s not long before the guilty woman is forced to reveal what she knows, leading to horrific consequences for those involved.

Andrea Riseborough is outstanding in her role, going from a young and innocent woman wanting to do the right thing, to a mother desperate to protect her family, spiralling into a ruthless killer, determined to retain her freedom, at whatever cost.

In the final scenes of this episode, after killing the insurance woman’s husband, she hears their baby cry. I imagined that when she discovered the child, she would be overcome with compassion and remorse. That she would either turn herself in or go on the run, rather than kill the child. In the next scene, I was horrified to realise that she has killed the baby too. A baby who, it is revealed, was blind. In a twist of fate, the guinea pig which was placed in the child’s room as company, reveals the horrifying truth through it’s memories.

I’m not the only person to see there’s something rather disturbing about this particular story. Not just the volume of murders the protagonist commits, or the speed and assurance with which she carries out the violence, but also the gratuitous way in which the episode is filmed. Maybe if it had stopped at the death of the child, without the revelation of them being blind? If there was some show of remorse.

In the harrowing final scene, as the killer watches her son perform ‘We could have been anything that we wanted to be’ in the school musical of Bugsy Malone, we see a destroyed woman who knows too well the irony of those words.

After the heavy subject of Episode 3, we are treated to a somewhat lighter story in Episode 4. The theme is online dating and in this world, participants sign up for a programme where they are matched with potential partners and given an expiry date. After this, they must move on to the next partner, arranged by the system, which calculates date and reactions in order to find the users perfect partner.

We live in a world where online dating or dating apps is now the norm, and there is so much choice that people move on as quickly as they like. This episode is a clever exploration of the ideas behind these sites. Participants must live with their ‘partners’ until their expiry date. They live in an artificial world where every house looks the same, they return to the same restaurant to eat every night, they do nothing except keep fit and wait until their next match, they are never seen with other people except their matches.

The two protagonists of the episode are immediately drawn to each other, but discover their expiry date is only 24 hours. After this, they go their separate ways but continue to wonder about each other, particularly when they are paired up with people they don’t connect with, for long term relationships. When they are matched again they agree not to check their expiry date and begin to fall for each other. But curiosity gets the better for one of them and that changes everything. Spending time apart, they realise that they are right for each other and decide to try and beat the system, to escape the programme’s world. What happens when they do is extraordinary. On the other side of the virtual dating world, they meet in a bar.

This episode is closest to the real world. The idea that online dating or dating via apps works for some people, for others it doesn’t. If you believe in fate though, two people will meet whatever is thrown at them, because they are meant to be together. This episode is no San Junipero (2017 episode which won the series its first Prime time Emmy Awards) where two lovers are reunited after death in a virtual world. But it has a nice positive feel at the end of it. This is definitely necessary after the dark tone of the previous 3 episodes.

 

The Fifth episode of the new series follows three people to an abandoned warehouse, where a fierce robot awaits them. With her fellow humans dead and running across the wasteland for her life, a woman tries to communicate with the outside world. This study on the future of robotics, what they might be used for, is one of the most disturbing episodes. They are easy to adapt, are difficult to kill and fire trackers into their victims, so that other robots or ‘dogs’ can find them. We learn that the woman was trying to get something from the warehouse for her friend, who has someone at home who is very sick. We don’t discover, until the end of the episode, when the camera zooms into the warehouse across the man’s dead body and over to the box that he dropped on the floor, what they were searching for. The box is open, and lying all around it are several teddy bears. From this we can understand that the person dying is a child and that they were trying to get a soft toy to give them some comfort in their last hours. It’s a powerful statement on the idea of control and boundaries. Is this a world were technology has gone wrong? These guard ‘dogs’ have rebelled against the hands that created them? Or is it simply a world which is governed by such violent security measures, that no one can take what they want or need? We are left with these questions as the screen turns black.

The final episode of the series explores ideas of morality around public entertainment and technology mixing with medicine. Black museum follows the story of a British tourist who stops at an abandoned petrol station and discovers an unusual museum. The owner’s homage to criminal artefacts soon turns into something more than a disturbing hobby. The main attraction is a startling take on entertainment for the masses. The twist is unexpected and sees yet another invention being turned against it’s maker.

This new, darker more violent series of the award winning Black Mirror, makes us question what might be next for Brooker. How far can he push the bizarre world of social media, technology and future science? When will these theories catch up with him and what, if anything will his work do to change society? Is that even his goal? Or is he just providing entertainment, with a satirical look at modern boundaries?

These are all questions which will lead us into an inevitable fifth series. Despite it’s popularity, Black Mirror is still yet to find and retain some viewers. For others, like myself, it is the ultimate immersive drama. The talking point for many conversations and a thinking point for the future. Perhaps it is the 21st century’s version of Tales of the Unexpected, with the focus on a future very close to the reach of human experience.

Fargo Series 3. The best yet?

Series three of the Coen Brother’s franchise Fargo, created for TV by Noah Hawley, may just be the best yet. The black comedy crime drama has received critical acclaim and been nominated for various awards including several prime time Emmy awards, golden globes and a screen actors guild award for Billy Bob Thornton’s role in the second series.

Known for it’s colourful characters, dark yet humorous plots and photogenic real life North American location, Fargo has become a successful TV series in it’s own right. I’d even go so far as to say it’s achieved further success as a series, showcasing the writing and directing skills of author and screenwriter. The original film was nominated for seven Oscars including best picture, and one best actress and best screenplay for the Coen brothers. Hawley has gone on to develop the wining format with a range of new storylines and characters, each delving deep into the psyche of ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations.

Ewan McGregor takes up a dual role in the latest instalment. He plays brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, who, as a result of their father’s death, both have very different lives. Emmit is a wealthy owner of a car empire while Ray is a balding, pot bellied parole officer, with a grudge. Ray’s determination to get what he’s owed from his brother, leads him on a path of destruction, including an affair with his client Nikki, and a double murder case. McGregor shows his versatility in playing both roles, particularly when he must play Ray, attempting to pass as his brother Emmit, clean shaven and in a dodgy curly wig (only in Fargo) in order to access Emmit’s bank deposit box. Watching this scene unfold was fascinating.

Mary Elizabeth Winsted is Nikki Swango, Ray’s client who quickly becomes his lover. Swango is an ex con, with a radar for mis-justice. She quickly teams up with Ray to help him get his father’s valuable stamp back. Ballsy and direct, Swango is at the centre of the plan to burgle Emmit’s house and even leaves a shocking reminder behind when she is unsuccessful. Winsted portrays Swango well, making her likeable despite her faults. Her actions at the burglary scene remind us, with a horrified punch, that she’s a woman. When she is attacked by Vargo’s men and left for dead, she immediately plot revenge, just as she does when Ray is taken from her in a cruel twist of fate that no one could have predicted.

Emmit’s life, while may seem perfect, also begins to unravel when he attempts to organise repayment on a loan he took out with a shady company who seem less than willing to let it go that easily. Enter one of Fargo’s best characters to date, played by British actor David Thewlis. V.M Varga is a mysterious figure who becomes Emmit’s business partner and slowly manipulates him to sign away large sums of money to offshore accounts. Although far from the traditional villain, Varga has a strong East London accent and a penchant for classical music. His offices appear to be in an abandoned warehouse, with limited lighting and bars in the windows. What is rather extraordinary about the character is his complexities. He is foremost a businessman, authoritative and manipulative but he also appears vain, lonely and vulnerable. While we see him threatening and demoralising Emmit and his work partner Sy, he is also revealed to be bulimic, with the sick habit of picking his gums until they bleed. Thewlis really digs deep into the character, making us want to know why he is this way and what his personal life is like. Something about him unsettles you, yet you can’t quite stop watching him.

Carrie Coon is dedicated police officer and police chief of Eden Valley, Gloria Burgle. Recently divorced, with a son and step father to take care of, Gloria is the ultimate modern woman. She takes her job role extremely seriously and is unafraid of the threats she faces. When the case takes a very personal turn for her, she is all the more determined to solve it. But her discoveries eventually lead her to Varga, the complex man, who appears to have more than luck on his side.

Aside from the characters and the quirky storylines, (how many ways can a person die?), the reason I also love this series is the cinematic quality of each episode. The natural beauty of the North American landscape, which frequently appears snow covered with bleak open fields and long stretches of open road, adds a partially surreal and detached element to the story. The small town communities effected by the events are close knit, the people becoming irritated by every day issues. We first see Gloria Bugle waving her arms outside a shop doorway, in attempt to get the electric doors to pick up her movements. We later learn this is a common issue she has and it gets to her. Moments like these resonate with the viewer and add humour to the drama. The landscape draws you in and takes you into the world of the characters, it is also a consistent of the formula. If it suddenly changed to a sunny California, it wouldn’t work the same at all.

The Fargo based characters all have a similar vernacular too, the Minnesota nice of ‘okay hon’s’ and ‘you betcha’s’ which also transcends the three series. This helps to break up the scenes of violence and heavy intensity.

The music also adds to the authentic feel. Set in a very recent 2010, Series 3 is the most modern yet, with an eclectic soundtrack of jazz, rock and Russian chanting. This certainly helped to add to the intensity of the action scenes. In one clever move, the drum style tapping returns as Vargas goes to meet Nikki to discuss secret files she has on Emmit’s company. As the car moves up the abandoned street, out of town somewhere, we see a man tapping on something which links the soundtrack nicely into the visual.

The final scene of Series three is one of the most tense and gripping scenes in television drama that I can remember. As Gloria questions Varga and he refuses to admit anything to do with her investigation, a clock ticks in the background. Varga then reveals that in a short time, someone will walk through the doors and reveal something to her that she cannot argue with, and he will be free to leave. Her resolve doesn’t falter, but the camera moves to the clock, just above the door and remains there as the minutes tick away. Then the screen falls black. Infuriating yet brilliant, we will never know who the person is that Varga is talking about, if anyone will actually come and what Gloria will do if or when they do.

An open ending narrative such as this is not as common as people might think. Often criticised for not leaving the viewer satisfied, or even as a weakness in the writer for not really knowing what to do next. In my opinion, the open ended narrative works best in situations such as these. The storyline so far has been solid and clear, yet far from simple. The character of Vargas has appeared far from straight forward, readable or even understandable. His motions and indeed motives have been very unpredictable. Therefore an ending like this works perfectly. It fits within the story and the characters involved. Frustrating? Yes. An easy way out? Definitely not. In fact, it just sets the standard expected for the next series.

With Fargo, I think the Coen brothers have found a successful formula. As long as the TV series continues to stick to that, while bringing fresh ideas to the page and using consistently talented actors, as far as I’m concerned, they can do nothing wrong.

Dunkirk – Review

A dignified homage to Churchill’s ‘Miracle of deliverance’.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk tells the story of the miraculous evacuation of British troops by Naval and civilian vessels, from the beaches of Dunkirk during the height of World War 2.

Known for box office hits such as Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar, the award winning Director and Screenwriter was the ideal choice for such a big British film. He certainly handles it with dignity and style.

The most surprising thing about Nolan’s adaptation is the lack of dialogue for the first quarter of the film, and the limited dialogue thereafter. This story is not about the characters or connections, but rather the effect of one event on a community and a country.

The film begins in a small French town, where a group of soldiers have been driven back by enemy forces. As all but one of the group are shot down by enemy fire on the ground, one escapes through a French barricade announcing that he is British. We then see the full impact of his point of view as he stumbles onto the beach, where thousands of soldiers line up awaiting their fate. Moments later, an enemy plane flies over and the men drop to the ground as bombs scatter the beach. Two soldiers race the length of the beach with a stretcher, exertion in their features. They push their way through the crowds to get the injured man to the leaving ship.

What follows is a tense and fast paced 90 minutes as we experience events from the land, sea and air.

Dunkirk was filmed on one of the beaches where events took place 77 years ago. Knowing this is all the more poignant as we watch men wade through choppy waters thick with foam, packed onto the jetty, awaiting their turn to step onto the limited boats, with bombs and gunfire overhead.

Limited dialogue between the men, except to communicate when necessary ensured the focus remained on the action. One direction star Harry Styles (as soldier, Alex), failed to overshadow the other actors, Nolan keeping his presence and contribution to a minimum. As an actor, Styles delivered his lines with emotion and conviction, but didn’t particularly stand out for his talent.

Meanwhile two pilots monitor events from the air and fight off enemy planes, situated over the skies where real men would have lost their lives. In a clever move, one of the pilots is only revealed as the actor Tom Hardy at the end of the film, after he has shot down an enemy plane, to great celebration, cruising in over the beach on a near empty fuel tank before landing and being taken away by enemy soldiers. Hardy portrays his role with his usual commitment and intensity.

Sir Mark Rylance is captain of a civilian vessel, representing the small community of Dover and the surrounding area which joined the evacuation mission. Rylance plays the role with humility, determination and British spirit.

The only drawback of such a film is the references to military jargon. The first chapter of the film, highlighted by a rather distracting and perhaps unnecessary typeface, is titled ‘the mole’ which I assumed referred to the stage of the operation, but is actually the name for the area of jetty on the beach. It was also noted by one of my group, who has a Naval history, that the Naval Officers were wearing full presentation uniform on the vessels rather than what would usually be worn at sea. Perhaps this was just cinematic license? Or a way to clearly identify the officers and the crew?

Visually, Dunkirk is incredible. From fighter planes cutting through the clear skies, to clouds of smoke rising from explosions on the beach and exhausted men with oiled faces bobbing out at sea as ships sink in their midst. There are some impressive shots which portray the emotions of the soldiers without words. A lone soldier surveying the devastation, the aerial shot of several small vessels heading towards the French coastline. The glistening eyes of a Naval Commander (Theatre and screen legend Kenneth Brannagh) as he first sees the fleet of civilian boats that have come to their aid.

Winston Churchill’s infamous words play over the final scenes of the film as two British soldiers return home. Believing they will be considered cowards and the mission a disaster, they are surprised at the welcome they receive. Churchill’s words fade into the background as the crowds welcome the two men as the heroes they were. 330,000 British, French, Dutch and Belgian soldiers were evacuated during the Dunkirk operation and it’s still considered one of the biggest operations in military history. Nolan’s film does every justice to the men involved, without embellishment or exaggeration. With a cast of fine British actors and a talented screen writer and director an infamous story is finally brought to the screen for all generations to relive a fascinating moment in British history.

By Amanda Griffiths

 

Hay Festival 30

This was my eleventh year at Hay Literature festival in Hay on Wye, the book town near to Hereford just over the Welsh border. In its 30th year since very humble beginnings, the seeds of which were sewn around a kitchen table in 1987, this was probably the best yet. The first visit, a two-hour and twenty-minute drive visiting family on the way, was a chance for me to indulge. To be selfish and to return to the festival with only myself in mind. I walked the narrow pavements littered with stalls set up by local residents selling drinks, cakes, antiques, books and crafts. It was a scorching hot day. I took in the backdrop of rolling Welsh hills. The lush greens and browns. Excitement buzzing through me as i glimpsed the white tops of the marquees that spelled home for me. Inside I wondered through the festival, grabbing an iced tea from a familiar drinks stand, talking to the local stall holders, browsing new reads in the book shop. I checked the venue for the evening event I had a ticket to. Helen Fielding in discussion with Viv Groskop on the Bridget Jones franchise and the leap from stage to screen.

Later I walked back along the pavement into the town. Pubs, hotels, shops and houses were linked in unison with coloured bunting emblazoned with the festival message. Imagine the world. Words that seem all the more poignant right now. In the town square two students were performing poetry for £1. I was treated to Lewis Carol’s Jabberwocky by a jolly man with a cloth cap. There followed a brief conversation about the character’s appearance in Alice in Wonderland, which I admitted I knew better. But I praised and admired the men for their unique idea of bringing literature out onto the street, something which reminded me of the old days of street performance. Their chalk board was scrawled with familiar names like Keats, Wordsworth and Shelley. Their knowledge and memory of poetry was impressive. I have long envied the writers and readers who can directly quote their favourite poems or enter discussion referencing and comparing several different writers at one time.

That evening, I sat in a packed marquee listening to Fielding talk about her rise to fame as a comedy writer, and now winner of the Bollinger Everyman comic fiction award (for her fourth book Bridget Jones’ Baby). From her early days working as a journalist and writing books about her experiences in Africa, to the moment she was asked to write a sex and the city style column for the The New Yorker about her single life. This she exaggerated and adapted through the character of Bridget Jones which then went on to become a best-selling series of books and a film franchise. She admitted she was at first embarrassed to say she had written the columns, but later embraced it. As I listened to her talk I couldn’t help but see the Bridget in her. As she took her book from her ‘new’ handbag, which, Groskop noted, the author had insisted she bring on stage. Then popped a pair of fashionable frames onto her nose and said excitedly ‘my new glasses’. As she read a passage from Bridget Jones’ Baby, it was clear to see how much she loves her character and also how well she knows her. ‘I see everything through Bridget’ she commented as the interviewer asked if there might be another book in the pipeline. ‘Would people still want to read about a 50-year-old Bridget?’ The reaction from the audience was positive which delighted her. On a more serious note she fought of accusations that her books were anti feminist and commented that Bridget would be more accepted today, in light of the fact that being single at 30 is not a big issue anymore. 

My second visit to the festival was with a friend who had never been before. This time I was seeing everything through her eyes. Which encouraged me to see it differently too. We walked around and took some photos, sat on picnic benches under the bunting lined tents sipping coffee and homemade lemonade. We visited the food hall and tried different foods: smoked sausage, homemade pizza, brisket rolls and haloumi fries with chilli dip. Sat among other festival goers discussing arts and literature and politics. The ceiling of the food tent was decorated with cloth models of fish, meat and vegetables. It reminded me that Hay leaves no space empty. Everywhere is a canvas, everywhere is the blank page. The same goes for the town.  The castle was bubbling with life, the streets were filled with people selling things, promoting literature or events. Even the windows of the regular town shops had gone to every effort to create a display worthy of the celebration. In one of my favourite bookshops, while looking for folio editions of the classics we discovered a lovely cafe. Loose tea and homemade scones served in a modern building, walls adorned with book cover prints. The Importance of being Earnest caught my eye and reminded my friend to buy a copy.

We saw two events on the final weekend of the festival. Both of which left me inspired and excited. The first was a reading by the poet Simon Armitage of his latest collection Unaccompanied. Having accidentally discovered the Sheffield based writer at a free BBC event a few years ago, which focused on his involvement in The Great War: an elegy  a programme commemorating World War one. I really enjoyed the event and tapped into his connection with the war theme as it’s something close to my own heart and ingrained in my family history. This time I wasn’t sure what to expect, if the previous event was as impressive as I’d remembered. The hour spent in that tent, listening to the words of Simon Armitage reminded me why I love language, why I want to write poetry. He has a way with words, a dark yet often humorous message in each of his works. His ‘still life’ exercise, in which he picks a random object and writes a poem about it, to practice his craft, resulted in some clever interpretations of every day objects such as a chair or a bed. It was something which I immediately wanted to try myself. After the reading, we both bought the collection and queued up to have it signed. Simon was very gracious about our waiting and buying his book. I only wish I could have portrayed just how much I enjoyed the reading, and how much I admired him. My friend noted too how often when faced with someone whose work you have just heard and enjoyed, you’re not sure just what to say or how to convey something sincere.

On the second morning of our visit, we went to see a free event in the BBC marquee with Sherlock and Doctor Who writer and producer, Steven Moffat. I was particularly excited about this event, being a massive fan of the modern Sherlock and the writing of Moffat himself. The event was being recorded for Radio 4’s Front Row programme and consisted of an interview and question and answer session. Steven talked of his earlier work writing for shows such as Pressgang, Chalk and Coupling, while we were played sound clips of each. He vocalised his embarrassment at his early attempt at comedy, learning along the way and often falling for cheap gags and rude jokes. He sited the wonderful creations of characters like Sherlock and Doctor Who for giving him something more to work with. He appeared warm, funny and very graceful in relation to his great success with the two BBC shows. Although he will be completing work on Doctor Who alongside Christopher Eccleston after the Christmas special, the changeover he noted would be ‘slightly different than it’s been done before.’

More serious talk of Moffat’s treatment of women in his writing was offset by a question sent in by a ‘Mr M Gatiss’ asking what Sherlock ‘must never do’. This resulted in laughter from the audience and seemed to throw Moffat slightly, before he replied with ‘you can’t say your character will ever not do something. That’s just bad writing’ He then suggested the extent of Sherlock’s sexual experience was often in question.

We met Steven in the bookshop after the event, where he signed our tickets. He seemed very warm and genuine, asking if we were enjoying the festival and smiling when I announced my love for his work on Sherlock. Unfortunately I’ve never been a Doctor Who fan. But after hearing him talk so passionately about the show, maybe I’ll give it another go. After all, Hay is also about trying new things, about learning and growing as a reader and writer.

This year’s festival was certainly full of surprises and new experiences. Where else can you share your love of literature with others in one big tent, or a grassy patch in the middle of a field? Where else will you hear spoken poetry on the town streets, meet writers of best-selling TV drama or outstanding poetry? Where else in the world would you want to be in those ten days between the months of May and June? I know my answer.