Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Must... obey...

It's interesting seeing which rules we decide to follow. Sometimes even the most anarchic or contrary people are fanatical about following certain rules.

Take 'Use By' dates on food. To me these are sacrosanct. I often creep down to the kitchen at midnight for a cull of the fridge and cupboards, to remove anything that is going out of date. I really believe that teams of scientists have worked out that a food product is perfectly safe to eat at 11.59, but as toxic as a test-tube full of ebola virus at 12.01 the next day.

Jennie, on the other hand, would happily eat a piece of pork that has been in the fridge for six months, on the basis that
- 'the dates are just a suggestion'
- 'it's been in the fridge, it'll be OK'
- 'they just put those dates on to make people waste food and buy more'
- 'it's going to be cooked before we eat it'.

And yet the same woman would buy a parking ticket 2 minutes before the free period starts, just in case the Man comes around.

It's madness, I tells ya.

Meeting writers: what's the etiquette?

In 1967, humourist Paul Jennings recounted attending a literary soiree where the presence of T.S. Eliot was the main attraction. 'In this room there should be the beating of eagles' wings. All the available poets in London are here, and there are some who have come in specially from Greek islands.' As he awaits the moment when he and his wife will be introduced to Eliot, Jennings ponders - 'Soon it will be our turn. What shall I say? You have formed my soul?'

I have yet to meet a writer who may have formed my soul. But I have met a few, and the problem of what to say is always there.

For me it all started in around 1967. I liked the Roger Moore Saint TV show, probably the first adult TV I ever watched, so I was excited when my dad said we were going to meet 'the man who writes The Saint books', one of his MENSA buddies. However, this was not Leslie Charteris, a somewhat exotic fellow who had 'prospected for gold, fished for pearls, worked in a tin mine and on a rubber plantation, toured England with a carnival, and [driven] a bus.' Rather, it was a man who collected music boxes, lived near Eastbourne, and had adapted some of the TV scripts for paperback publication. As a six-year-old I had little to say under these circumstances, so moment of tongue tied embarassment for both of us ensued.

Between then and now, I've crossed paths with authors a few times. These have rarely been memorable encounters (though I was apparently the first person to ask Hal Duncan for an autograph outside of an official signing event, and I did, heroically, manage to ask Paul Cornell a non-Doctor-Who question at a round table discussion.)

What approach should one take when meeting writers? I'd like to avoid
- producing the author's complete oeuvre for signing
- asking absurdly detailed questions, such as 'on page 148 of the second volume of the Gryphiad, Volus has a poniard but in the previous chapter he had a dagger - is this a clue to the fate of Ardrad?'
- coming across as over-friendly, eg blurting out an invitation for our families to go on holiday together
- making it seem all business - 'just sign the damn book, I'm going to sell it on Amazon (but I might wait until you're dead to bump up the value.) So no need to personalise it...'

I suppose none of the folks I've mentioned are household names. I did find myself standing next to Terry Pratchett at a bar once. Now many's the time I've heard people discussing Discworld stuff that is to me completely opaque, or (worse) listened to memorised passages being declaimed with humorous intent. I am not able to participate in this kind of thing. Had I spoken to Mr Pratchett (who, being admirably generous with his time, would I'm sure have responded) back then all I could have said would have been 'Hey Terry, I read a couple of yours once, can't remember much about them - is your recent stuff any good?' So I didn't bother and concentrated on catching the barmaid's eye instead. But! Having read a recent interview in Interzone, I would have something to say to the hat-wearing fan favourite! Turns out he too admires the work of Paul Jennings, a relatively forgotten humorous writer who wrote a column in The Observer in the 1950 and 1960s. (See what I did there?) Perhaps I could have started a conversation about Jennings' poetic flights of fancy. Did he remember "How to Spiel Halma" , Resistentialism, the Submerged Log Company? How about "The Dwarfs of Birmingham"? We could have had one of those annoyingly opaque-to-non-cognoscenti conversations, maybe even declaimed memorised passages... Perhaps next time.

Pretty (sad) in Pink

In the past month I've been to a wedding, a baptism and two funerals. Caught up in the vaster movements of life. A thread of pink has run through this time...

At the wedding, four of us had independently decided to wear pink shirts - victims of some random middle-aged fashion meme. This had the effect of making us look like
- an off-duty Irish Showband
- early arrivals for the Pride march
- bachelors who had yet to master seperating colours for washloads.
But it was a nice coincidence.

Today was the funeral for Neil (aka Frank), following his sad and sudden departure. One of his work colleagues spoke at the do afterwards, and among other reminiscences described how Neil would wear a pink shirt on the days when a big financial transaction got completed. (He was a finance director. I know little about the inner workings of financial organisations, but I get the impression of massively complicated, high-value processes converging on a big scary deadline. The wearing of a pink shirt at these times would therefore be an act of some panache.) This was followed by a toast - after which I noticed that the work people, male and female, had all donned pink shirts of some kind for the funeral. Not a coincidence, but a moving tribute.

I just hope I get remembered as wholeheartedly...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Anticipating hols...

Found these pics of the place we'll be staying in September (well, the garden anyway)- can't wait!

The Garden of Casa Zalama (Spain)

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The padlock at the centre of the universe

One day in 1973 (maybe a year or two earlier) this enormous padlock was placed on the railngs outside my Junior School, St Nicholas in Portslade. This was a marvel to the kids - why was it there? Could we get it off somehow?

You could move it up the railing, move it down again, stand on it...

No-one has ever removed it and it's rusted solid now. One time I even saw a small plant beginning to sprout from the keyhole. I suppose it will always be there until someone saws it off or removes the railings.

Most times I visit I walk past it and give it a reverential pat.

Sometimes I fancy that it holds everything together - that it is a centre of the universe - were it to be removed, things would unravel.

if the sky slips away
seconds cease to succeed
inside becomes beyond
other is now ours
kaleidoscopes lose all symmetry
green growth grasps past lanes -
this may be why.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Why superhero films aren't very good

Contrary to popular belief, I don't love superhero films. I just watch them when they come out, lured by the promise, always slightly let down. Somehow, superheroes work in comics. Stories in the superhero mode work on TV (Smallville, Heroes, Buffy.) But movies... despite the huge budgets, just don't seem to cut it. I don't just mean obvious stinkers such as Supergirl (which may have lead DC to kill off the 'actual' character in the comic, out of shame) - it's the good ones too. Here's my theory as to why:


Comics are serial stories with beginnings, but no ends. Think about it - the narrative of Batman started in 1939. It has never ended. There has never been a conclusion, any final 'closure', a 'Reader, I married him' moment. And it's the same with most major character superhero comics. (Graphic novels such as V for Vendetta are different in that they're not based on serials.) Movies, on the other hand, do have endings. Even if sequels are expected, each individual film has a climax and some form of conclusion. Thus, the best comics-based films have great beginnings but tail off into disappointing battles and showdowns. This is as true of Popeye and Annie as it is of the long-underpants characters. (Robin Williams once quipped about Popeye, in which he starred, that "If you watch it backwards, it has a plot." It certainly didn't save the best until last - somehow we get from the heartbreakingly-beautiful opening scene of Popeye rowing into the harbour of Olive Oyl's village, a masterpiece of choreographed detail, to a fight with a rubber octopus.) TV has more scope - many episodes give scope for stories to develop in an open-ended way (always opening out to new possibilities) without the need to shoehorn everything into two hours.
The sheer longevity of comics series allows characters to develop, supporting casts to be built, attachments to form between reader and character. Perhaps longrunning soaps work in a similar way (albeit bounded by more realistic rules governing aging and dying.) Movies struggle to build the same narrative momentum. For instance, in the comic I wept at the look on Johnny Storm's face when he heard about his sister Sue's miscarriage; this scene had emotional power as by then I had read hundreds of Fantastic Four stories over a period of years. I knew these characters and had grown up with them. If this event occurs in a future FF movie it will be based on characters I have known in total for a couple of hours, and probably seem like a cheap moment of emotional manipulation.
(Spiderman films try and get round this problem by being incredibly long. At the end of #3, I felt like I'd been subletting Peter Parker's apartment, I'd spent so much time looking at it.)

Comics is an art form that punches above its weight. Lines on paper, 4-colour print, rapidfire production within tight genre conventions, an audience that has to include kids - really, none of the stories have much right to be any good at all. Many aren't. But the best have grandeur, power, emotion, wonder... and few of these qualities make it into the big budget movies. The recent Fantastic Four sequel is a case in point - in the original comic, Jack Kirby's drawings of an unshaven Reed Richards, desperately trying to invent gadgets to stave off the apocalypse, have as sense of human urgency - the whole thing has scale. In the slick, megabucks movie it's all too.. overt. A multimillion SFX-fest we've waited two years for owes us a massively impressive experience, and anything less than overwhelming awe leaves us short-changed; some drawings with speech balloons in a monthly kids' comic don't owe us anything, so when they deliver a soul-stirring epic we've been significantly over-rewarded.

The movies stick pretty closely to the source material - heroes in costumes, for instance. TV gives itself more freedom, eg Smallville retelling the Superman story with 'no tights and no cape', or newly-minted stories such as Buffy which have used some of the most effective aspects of comics storytelling and ignored the rest.

So why will I be there next May seeing how Iron Man turns out? Well, superhero movies can deliver brilliant moments - the sculpture-in-motion of Spiderman against beautifully-lit citycapes; Christopher Reeve's first flight; Johnny Storm's bravura skywriting. In-jokes for fanboys embedded in all these films make me feel as if I'm in a big geek family. Before they became the established religion of cinema, the very fact that superhero films were being made with some art and ambition was a big miracle: after queuing to get into Tim Burton's Batman, I found myself weeping (yes, again - crying is my superpower) at the opening credits - just from the a sense of redemption and amazement that we had gone from Bob Kane's crudely-delineated 1939 comic to this event that had the citizens of Wolverhampton waiting excitedly in the rain. But then the actual film started and it all went downhill from there...