The Bloody Inches

The Bloody Inches are islands in the lower River Tay and I think about them quite a lot. Their name has fascinated me since I first heard it, although until recently I didn’t know how they gained it. It turns out that a Northern warlord (perhaps Danish, perhaps a Viking) called Ragnar Lodbrok (or Regner Lodbrog, or Ragnar Lothbrok, or possibly Great Aunt Mathilda – history is a little fuzzy on who exactly he was, what exactly he can be confirmed as having done, and who he eventually fathered) was defeated on those islands in the mid-ninth century and driven from Scotland. (Here’s a link, though I think it adopts a more authoritative tone than it can really justify. The story’s about halfway down the page.)

I like the name Bloody Inches. It speaks, very eloquently, to the grim-hearted striving after something that only sheer brute stubbornness is going to accomplish. And it acknowledges that whatever progress is made is only made in tiny increments.

It’s been going through my mind recently because I’m still plugging away at The Wings of the Dawn. Some of you may know that the current word count is hovering at around 207,000; of rather more import is the fact that I am now in the last third of the novel. In other words, it’s the final act.

This is enormously intimidating, because now I have to start putting my cards on the table. I’ve thrown out threads, plot notions, hints and suggestions for the last – gulp – 650,000 words and now it’s time to find out if, in fact, I’ve been all talk and no trousers. Now’s when I have to start justifying the faith of the people who will have read the story until this point. They’ve invested emotional capital in this story by choosing to care about it: now’s the point when I have to start coughing up the rewards for that dedication.

And here’s my confession – I’m worried. Scared, in fact. Because while I have a reasonable idea of where the next five chapters are going – well, four-and-a-bit if you include the stuff I’ve already written – it’s the five after that, the final five, that are a whole lot less clear in my mind. (One thing I’m clinging to: I know exactly what happens in the epilogue.)

Years ago I did a bullet-point plan for the trilogy. I still have it, and occasionally I look at it and laugh, because I fairly swiftly wandered comically far from it. But it was nice to have, in the same way that even if you’re a confident swimmer it’s nice to be able to look over your shoulder once in a while and see the lifeguard standing on the shore. Now that I am finally out of sight of land, I am intensely aware that there’s no one standing by to fling me a rope: now I get to find out if I will sink or swim.

Here’s the thing. On the days when the writing’s going well there is literally no better feeling that I know of. Days when the writing comes easily, when the story flows, when you can reel off 2,000 words – 2,000 good words – at the drop of a hat, are brilliant. There have been occasions when I have struggled to type because my hands were shaking from the adrenaline backwash of the world’s best feedback loop – the loop that says this is good – I can do this – I’m having fun – I like what I’m writing ad infinitum.

I had a day like that a few weeks ago. But since then I’ve been struggling. Nothing seems to flow (though looking at the words on the page, you can’t tell. There’s a reason for that, and it’s called ‘professional pride’.) There hasn’t been a clear path through the undergrowth in my imagination.

So, I’ve been doing what I do when this happens. I’ve been tidying the supporting documentation. I’ve been making sure that the ships in the file called ‘Ships’ (there’s a time and a place for creativity) are up-to-date – that the ones that have been destroyed are marked as unavailable, and the locations of their destruction are noted down. This isn’t busywork, incidentally – first of all it wards off continuity errors, the bane of every long story; and secondly it’s always easier to play any game if you know what pieces are left on the board. Good writing days are much more common when you’re not having to stop and think about what ships you can use or what characters are where. If all the tools are to hand, the task gets done a whole lot more quickly.

(A brief aside: it’s surprising how easy it is to lose track of this kind of stuff. For this book I introduced a whole new class of ships, Duke-class Stealth Frigates, and I gave myself a resource of 18 of them. It wasn’t until earlier this week, when I realised that I needed 4 for a scene and couldn’t remember which ones were still extant, that I discovered that no fewer than 13 had been written off. That made me blink and sent me scurrying to a list of Dukedoms on Wikipedia, so that now I have added more to the class and the Gloucester, Wellington, York, Lancaster and Argyll have been joined by the Roxburghe, Aumale, Chandos, Rutland, Montrose and Qwghlm.)

I also know the title of the next chapter – ‘Nachthexen’ – which is a reference to these formidable ladies. I also know I want to know more about the German response to their activities, which rather suggests that my next non-fiction book – once I’ve finished reading this biography of John Dee, which has been providing me with all kinds of useful information that will yet make an appearance in my novel and which will go some way to tying up some the threads I mentioned earlier – is likely to be this one. But that’s next month’s problem/opportunity/task. This month I’m still trying to achieve the basic, fundamental order of business for any novelist: finish the current chapter. I can do it, too, if I average 730 words a day for the next 10 days. So for the remainder of the month, I will be claiming, as best I can, the bloody inches.

And here is your moment of Zen for today:

J11 Cutting Detailed Obverse Desktop

A Robinson J11 ‘Pom-Pom’ emerges from the tunnel and shuffles through the cutting with a train of loaded Trout ballast wagons.

Posted in Fulcrumania | 2 Comments

If I wrote an episode of Doctor Who…

I got started on a life of sci-fi geekery with Doctor Who. However, since I was only 5 in 1989 when the show was cancelled, I grew up without it on television. My introduction was literary: my primary school library had a good selection of the Target novelisations.

Now that I’m in the position of actually having got my hands dirty writing sci-fi of my own, I’m able to feel less compunction about confessing a great dream of mine: I would love to write an episode of Doctor Who. And if I did, this is how it would begin…

INT. THE KELVINGROVE MUSEUM – NIGHT

We follow a man, a janitor who looks like the Doctor as he appeared as a school caretaker, as he wheels a bucket and mop through the main hall of the Kelvingrove Museum. The hall is dark but lit by bright shafts of moonlight.

The janitor – we do not see his face – stops and starts to wash the floor, whistling the hymn Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah.

As he whistles and mops the floor, the masks suspended in a great display all silently, and in unison, turn to look at him. He works across the floor and the masks follow his every move, their grins and grimaces frozen but their blank eyes watching…

THE MASKS
Will you guide us? Will you be our guide? Lead us.

The janitor reels back, clutching his heart, terror on his face. We see it is not the Doctor. He sprawls on his back, falling over the mop bucket, dying of a heart attack in a pool of dirty water.

THE MASKS
Not the leader. Not the gathering storm.

One mask turns to the others and addresses them –

ORION
He had but one heart. He was not the guide. [pause] Where is the Doctor?

OPENING TITLES IN.

Imagine all of these, late one night when you're alone, wordlessly turning in unison to look at you...

Imagine all of these, late one night when you’re alone, wordlessly turning in unison to look at you…

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A Non-Infectious Sense of Humour

Dear Readers, I know there must have been some particularly malignant alignment of the stars when I find myself agreeing with the Daily Mail. I pride myself on the extent to which I and the Mail oppose each other with implacable hostility. The only way this agreement  could have happened, you may be thinking, is if some entity even more noxious has emerged from under a rock, and the Mail and I both shudder with revulsion. And Dear Reader, she has.

Katie Hopkins was just interviewed on Radio 4. Who her? Her is that most loathsome media creation, a ‘television personality’. This is someone who is famous for having been on television. They have no other qualification to excite our interest. (In fairness, she does now write a newspaper column too. But that came later.) In the radio interview she was trying to defend her publication of some explicitly hateful tweets. Two in particular caught my attention. This is the first:

2453E6C800000578-0-Television_personality_Katie_Hopkins_provoked_outrage_after_she_-m-19_1419934535129…And this is the second:

2453E67100000578-2891039-image-m-27_1419935175743Much has already been written elsewhere about the repugnance of treating a volunteer nurse, who flew to one of the poorest nations on earth in order to try to combat the spread of one of the most frightening diseases on the planet, as nothing more than a ‘sweaty Glaswegian Ebola bomb’. Since it’s self-evidently a horrible way to talk about someone, I don’t feel the need to further elucidate that particular ghastliness. What I do want to talk about, though, is the idea that these comments are defensible as ‘jokes’, and that they speak to a wider political point about Scottish Independence and the health service. This is the defence Ms Hopkins has mounted but, unlike someone risking their life to treat victims of a haemorrhagic fever, it just doesn’t wash.

I know, as it happens, quite a lot about infectious disease and epidemiology. I wrote a book on the subject. And one of the things I learned is the incredible specialisation, both of training and equipment, required to safely treat someone infected with a Level-4 biological agent. (A BL-4 agent is one that is highly contagious and for which no vaccination or cure exists). This specialisation, naturally, comes at a significant financial cost. In the UK we are fortunate in that we have no endemic viruses that are this dangerous. The risk, therefore, that these things will afflict the population is relatively small, and comes exclusively from people or objects (‘vectors’) travelling into the country from abroad. As was the case with Pauline Cafferkey, the nurse who arrived in Glasgow.

Arriving into Glasgow is not, however, the most common point of entry into the UK for international travellers. That would be Heathrow, on the outskirts of London. London is also the largest city – and, therefore, the biggest potential reservoir into which a disease could slip. So because the infection of London represents the biggest threat, and the traffic a Heathrow represents the biggest risk, it makes complete sense to have the expensive, specialised facility required to combat rare infectious diseases at the place where these things are most likely and most dangerous.

Going a little bit further, one could argue that London’s dominance and Heathrow’s pre-eminence (the things, in other words, that make them the biggest risk factors in starting an epidemic) are due to the way in which money, and hence economic growth, is distributed. Much has been said about the ‘North/South’ divide in England; the division is even more pronounced between England and Scotland, and until very recently the reason for that was because of the extent to which politicians in Westminster, not Holyrood, governed Scotland’s economic affairs.

Which leads me back to Ms Hopkins ‘jokes’. The problem with them is that there is no way to deconstruct them and still find them funny once you know the background. The humour rests on a foundation of ignorance – not knowing how diseases work, not knowing how treatment centres work, and not knowing how epidemiology works. Douglas Adams once commented scathingly on such humour, and he had the right, since he built an entire career out of being funny while at the same time being extremely clever. However, once ignorance is negated, once you know the facts, the only way to re-construct the Twitter comments is as follows: “Not so independent when you need the facilities that, for historical and practical reasons, you have not had any need for due to your being economically sensible, eh Jocksville?” and “Sending terminally ill patients to the one facility on the landmass that stands any chance of being able to cure them due to healthcare decisions made in Westminster? Scottish NHS would require different capabilities if it were independent, but since it isn’t, the point is moot.”

Equally as unfunny as before, but at least this time they’re not contemptibly mean-spirited. It’s a start.

Your moment of (somewhat sweary) Zen:

And

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Bringin’ the Boogie #5

Good evening, Dear Readers, and time for one of these posts. I think I once promised they would be a monthly occurrence; given that the last was in January 2010, I think we can safely say I have failed totally and miserably. Anyway, here we go: 5 tunes I’ve been listening to recently. You’re welcome.

#1: Electric Light Orchestra – Long Black Road

#2: Stevie Wonder – Heaven Help Us All

#3: Dead Man Fall – Bang Your Drum

#4: Bruce Springsteen – O Mary Don’t You Weep

(Now that‘s how to have a jamming session!)

#5: Van Morrison – Into The Mystic

And your moment of zen for today:

Gresley P2 'Cock O' The North', a 2-8-2 steam engine that was possibly the most powerful passenger locomotive ever used in Britain, hurtles through Starlingford's cutting at the head of a long, fast fish train from Aberdeen.

Gresley P2 ‘Cock O’ The North’, a 2-8-2 steam engine that was possibly the most powerful passenger locomotive ever used in Britain, hurtles through Starlingford’s cutting at the head of a long, fast fish train from Aberdeen.

Posted in I'm Your Boogie Man | Leave a comment

On Being Best Man

Dear readers, but particularly those from St. Columba’s, some of you have asked about my brother’s wedding, and more specifically about all the stories I had the opportunity to tell in the course of giving the best man’s speech. So for those of you who know Philip, and who were sadly unable to attend the wedding in Northern Ireland, here is that speech…

Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends and Family, Philip but most particularly Sara; it is my responsibility at this point to tell you a little about my brother. And on this occasion it’s not just a responsibility but a positive pleasure. So I thought, Sara, that as you begin your life in the company of this…this, I would highlight certain characteristics that, provided you bear them in mind, should ensure that Philip’s behaviour comes as no surprise.

The first is Philip’s insatiable curiosity. Philip loves asking questions. And he loves receiving the answers to those questions. Philip, for instance, asked the question “What happens when I stick this stone up my nose?” and received the answer “You get taken to casualty.” Philip asked the question “What happens if I eat all the sweeties in the packet labelled ‘Paracetamol’?” and received the answer “You get taken to casualty.” Philip asked the question “What happens if, when travelling at high velocity on my toy car, I turn the steering wheel sharply?” and received the answer “You get flung off…and taken to casualty.” And if I can interrupt myself for just a moment, it’s wonderful to see that Philip is such an extraordinarily fast learner that only last week, a mere twenty years after that incident, Philip passed his driving test!

Occasionally Philip’s questions have provoked slightly different answers. The answer to the question “What happens if I eat my nappy?” was “Once he stops laughing, the chemist assures you you’ll be fine”; and the answer to the question “What happens if I throw my brother’s raincoat into the fire?” was “The fire brigade are summoned to put out the resulting blazing chimney.” Well done, Philip, for at least managing to vary your questions sufficiently to invoke a different emergency service. But as should now be clear, Sara, my family considers you a true answer to prayer. Not only because you are a smart and beautiful woman who clearly loves Philip very much; but because you have received extensive professional medical training. Philip needs you.

The second characteristic is Philip’s desire for the unambiguous presentation of information. It does not matter whether this is presented orally or visually: there must be no room for confusion. Even under circumstances where no one else would have considered confusion to be possible, Philip finds a way.

For example, Philip was with the rest of the family on a small boat when an airshow was being held over Bangor Bay. My father, keeping a careful eye on the sea ahead, called out a warning: “Big wave, everybody; big wave!” My mother held on to a handrail. My sister Alison held on to a handrail. I held on to a handrail. Philip let go of everything and waved both his arms in some lunatic semaphore at a bemused Spitfire pilot.

And like I say, visual confusion is equally probable. I don’t think anyone will forget the family lunch we had at a carvery in England when Philip was allowed to select what went onto his plate. We hadn’t time to warn him that those looked like very odd Yorkshire puddings before he’d taken an enormous forkful of his profiteroles-and-gravy. So Sara, when talking to Philip, or leaving him a note, or in fact communicating in any way at all, make sure that he understands exactly what you mean.

Otherwise, he might be surprised. And Philip’s startle reflex is exceptional. Although he is alone in the family in suffering no phobias – an occasional terror of low-flying bananas notwithstanding – he will jump. And he will jump further, and cause more havoc in doing so, than anyone else I know. Do not let this man be responsible for holding the popcorn when you go to the cinema. Philip’s startle reflex is so strong, in fact, that when he was living in Aberdeen the sight of Shelob the Spider, in the third Lord of the Rings film, caused him to somersault backwards off his bed, land with a crash and a shout on the floor, and summon his landlord to the bedroom door to see if he required prayer.

Finally, Sara, one characteristic that I don’t think has been mentioned by anyone – Philip’s sleeping habits. When I was small, and Philip was very small, he used to creep into my bed and sleep there. And what an exciting range of postures and positions he made use of! His favourite, I recall, was a sort of capital-L shape, with his head on the pillow and his backside pointed heavenward. He could sleep like that quite happily all night.

Actually that’s…that’s not entirely fair. That’s not entirely true. Philip wouldn’t sleep like that all night. Philip would sleep like that for thirty seconds. Then he would find some equally improbable contortion and avail himself of that – all without waking up. So Sara…good luck. Oh, and later you should really ask him about his ‘party clothes’. His answer is likely to be quite revealing.

Now perhaps, ladies and gentlemen, Philip and Sara, you’re thinking that this all seems a little one-sided. A little along the lines of ‘let me tell you some of the many, many ridiculous things my little brother has done.’ You would be right. We’re pushed for time and these are stories I have been waiting literally years to tell. But more importantly, they are all true. So, having established my bona fides, my position as a reliable narrator, let me finish by saying I wish there were more time for other true stories. I would love to tell you all about Philip’s extraordinary kindness. His servant heart. His Christian witness and his love for his friends and his family. But since there isn’t time now, Sara, I am delighted to remember that you will have the rest of your life to learn these things for yourself.

 

So Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends and Family, please raise your glasses for I give you – the bride and groom.

 

My Dad, laughing; Sara, supporting; and Philip, adopting the universal 'Oh no!' position.

My Dad, laughing; Sara, supporting; and Philip, adopting the universal ‘Oh no!’ position.

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Spem in Alium

Sir Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett

A man I loved, a man who had a profound and permanent and life-enhancing impact on me, died yesterday. I just wish I had been privileged enough to meet him.

We are not good, in this country, at being male and acknowledging the often fundamental influence other men have on us. We are awkward at it. We don’t necessarily acknowledge our role models, or our friends or mentors. We mumble something about them being good guys and shuffle on to some other topic of conversation. We inhibit ourselves, and in so doing I think we do ourselves and others a disservice. We should acknowledge, with gratitude, the things done and said for us and to us by those who take the time and make the effort to guide us.

I have been very fortunate in having some good men do this for me. First was and is my father. He is a fundamentally decent man – and if you think that that is damning with faint praise, I invite you to consider fully the overwhelming implications of the phrase. The second is a man called Neil, whose curiosity about and interest in almost everything taught me a whole lot about how to approach the tricky business of living; the third is a man called Archie, who came alongside me when I was horribly unhappy and living in a very particular species of hell, and helped more than he ever knew (and, when I later went to work on the Logos II, gave me as a parting gift the watch that I wear to this day); the fourth is Phil, who in addition to being my modern languages teacher at school became a friend who challenged me to explore whatever potential I possessed.

The fifth died yesterday. His name was Terry Pratchett.

I know that the internet now resounds, and the papers soon will echo, with eulogies for this great literary figure. I know the majority of these will be written either by journalists for whom this is their job, or by friends for whom this is their responsibility and their honour. I am neither journalist nor friend. I stake no claim, and Terry never knew I existed. I was just one of the millions upon millions who bought his books. I was a statistic, a contributor to his bestseller rankings. He had no conscious relationship with me.

And yet…

Stephen King once said that the secret of telepathy was writing. That true meetings of minds happened countless times a day via the printed page. Terry Pratchett did that for me, and there are very real and practical consequences as a result. Terry Pratchett played a significant role in making me who I am.

The beginnings of my story are woolly. This is wholly in keeping with Terry’s philosophy: the start of his book Soul Music is about the difficulty of finding the point at which you can say “We begin here…”. Pterry (as he was known on Usenet, where he was an early and enthusiastic adopter of the forum opportunities of the internet) had been a peripheral figure in my early childhood, where his Bromeliad trilogy and its associated TV series had featured only dimly. (I would later revisit the books, and enjoy them, and wonder why on earth I hadn’t shown more appreciation for them when I was young enough to be of the age for which they were clearly intended). I knew of Terry; he was just one name among dozens that I, always a bookish child, carried with me. But when the life-changing moment eventually came around, it came in a way I am sure Terry would have approved of. It happened in a library.

The Carnegie library in Bangor, where I grew up, was a building of two halves. The front half was the adults’ section, a dark, glowering kind of a room, with forbidding free-standing shelving units built out of angle iron coated with chipped gloss dark-green paint. I have seldom seen a room that announced more clearly that it was Not For Children. The back of the building, however, was different. There was a much lighter, airier room back there, where the shelving was much more friendly and painted a pale yellow. The room stretched off to your left when you went in, while to your right was the librarian’s desk and even – an impossibly exotic device, this, in the days before I ever used any kind of computer – a microfiche machine, where you could happily spend hours pretending you were capable of reading at superhuman speed as text zipped from one side of the scope to the other. Against the wall in which the door was set were yet more bookcases and it was here, one wet afternoon when I was maybe 7 or 8, that I came across the first Discworld book I would ever read.

Discworld is a world and a mirror of worlds. Flat, circular, and carried through space rotating on the backs of four great elephants that themselves balance on the shell of a mighty turtle, the Discworld was a place where stories could happen. And not just any stories – fantasy stories. And not just any fantasy stories – funny fantasy stories.

I learned this when I read the book in the damp library. The book was called Feet of Clay, and it was a murder mystery that featured golems. It was also startlingly, even incandescently, hilarious. I was alone in the room apart from the librarian, and I remember being mortified as I started to giggle. I stuffed the sleeve of my jumper in my mouth as I kept reading. It didn’t help. The book got funnier. My sleeve got wetter and I started making odd noises and turning odd colours. Eventually, of course, I lost my battle and frightened the librarian, because mirth that has been bottled up can, like anger, explode with great violence when it finally finds a release. I laughed until I cried, and then I spent half an hour reading her the funniest bits and making her laugh too.

It was an important day for me. It was the first time I was able to use the power of the written word to make a complete stranger laugh, and I discovered how much I liked it. It started me on the path that eventually led to The Heckler columns in the Gaudie, still by some considerable margin the toughest, funnest job I’ve ever had (if you think that’s exaggeration, consider this: my self-imposed task was to take a thousand words and use them to make 4,000 people laugh, and to do it on a different topic every single week), but more importantly it was the start of what was to become the longest and most important reader/writer relationship in my life.

It did this in two ways. First of all, the Discworld books became the biggest single drain on my limited finances. I got £10 pocket money: each novel cost £6.99. And there were dozens of them, so the books incidentally condemned me to a life of genteel poverty (little did I know the precedent this would set).

Earlier I mentioned being ‘horribly unhappy and living in a particular species of hell’. A debate that has rumbled on for years, and featured such distinguished antagonists as Michael Moorcock, China Mieville and J.R.R. Tolkien, considers the charge that literature, particularly fantasy literature, is inherently ‘escapist’, and then further considers whether this is, if true, a good or a bad thing. I don’t know, but I do know this – the Discworld books made me happy when very little else did, and when I was reading them the ghastliness of my circumstances was held at bay. I will be eternally grateful to Terry for the lifeline he unknowingly provided.

Secondly, in the character Sam Vimes I found someone I recognised but who also provided me with a standard against which I would measure myself. I wouldn’t have said that he was my hero – I was and am allergic to the word – but he was one of two people I desperately wanted to emulate. (The other, if you’re interested, was Leonard Cheshire – there’s nothing like aiming high!). Sam Vimes is a policeman, a copper, who when he first appears (in Guards! Guards!) is a drunk captain in charge of the tiny and discredited Night Watch. He eventually winds up, many books later, as the sober Commander of the City Watch, happily married, a father and a duke.

The version of Sam with which I mostly closely identify is the one we see in Thud!. I understand completely and intimately the idea of a Guarding Dark (read the book if you want to understand the reference – it’s far too involved to go into here). Vimes is allergic to injustice, trusts his judgement, and sympathises (in the fullest meaning of the word) with his fellow man. To this day the compliment of which I am most proud, and which has now come from several people who know or knew me very very well, is “You know who you remind me of? A Discworld character called Vimes…”

There was an article recently that reported a new perspective on Terry Pratchett: not as an author, but as a philosopher. I don’t know that it makes sense to think of him in that way (or, more accurately, that it makes sense to think of him in that way more than it makes sense to think of any other gifted novelist as a philosopher. Tolstoy, for instance, had some pretty deep things to say on human nature, as did Joseph Heller or Ray Bradbury, but I’m not sure the mantle of ‘philosopher’ sits easily on any one of them) but I do know that he is someone who had a very fundamental effect on the way I think about the world. For that reason I think that of the Discworld books his most important is Night Watch, which asks very very important questions about the nature and morality of power and authority. He also questions religion, most pointedly in a book called Small Gods, but he does so sensibly – and as a religious person myself, I can tell you that there is frequently nothing more helpful than someone making very sensible criticisms of the things you believe. The only way to get answers is to ask questions, and Terry asked some really good ones. No doubt he would be amused, rather than appalled (he was no Richard Dawkins), to discover that his atheism strengthened my Christianity. It was because of my love of Pratchett that I was once called a ‘lapsed atheist’, and it was probably because Pratchett’s puckish sense of humour so freakishly perfectly aligned with my own that I considered this a great compliment and was very pleased to receive it.

Terry Pratchett was – how hateful is using that tense! – a kind of literary alchemist, who turned into gold the things we deprecate. His view of the world was one suffused with wonder, and amusement, and kindness. As a fantasist he was peerless, because the internal logic of the outlandish scenarios he concocted remained inviolate and impeccable. As a humorist he was one of the very best the UK has ever produced (imagine! There was a time in this country when Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams were both alive and writing!) and as a moralist he was impassioned about all the right things – about dignity, and justice, and about opposing the abuse of the meek by the powerful, in whatever form that took.

Sir Terry Pratchett was not my friend. He did not know me. But I knew him, was deeply affected by him, and I shall miss him terribly.

Posted in Beginnings, Hecklericity, Home thoughts from a prod, Tyrannosaurus Lex, Webworld | 1 Comment

The Sound and the Fury

I went recently to see Fury, the new film starring Brad Pitt, set in the penultimate month of WW2 in Europe and following the crew of a Sherman tank, the eponymous ‘Fury’, as they advance through Germany.

Tanks for the memories

Tanks for the memories

I was really looking forward to this film. I like war movies; Brad Pitt has made some really good films when he’s been given the right kind of role (Se7en, Fight Club); Shia LaBeouf was rumoured to be not terrible on this occasion; the director is the same guy who made the excellent Training Day; and the technical guys had done their research properly and had secured the use of the only working Tiger tank in the world. Oh, and hello to Jason Isaacs.

And by and large, I wasn’t disappointed. The bits of Fury that worked worked extremely well. The story follows Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman, most recently seen starring in the Percy Jackson series of childrens’ fantasy films), a clerk who has been in the army for all of eight weeks, as he replaces Fury’s co-driver and bow gunner, who has been splattered across the interior of the tank. Ellison’s first task, in fact, is to scrub down the seat in which he is to spend the remainder of the war.

Pitt, the sergeant commanding the tank and nicknamed ‘Wardaddy’, leads his group of four Shermans as they go to relieve American forces pinned down in a town they have just liberated. On the way, war happens, including an infantry-supported assault on anti-tank guns and an encounter with a vastly more powerful Tiger.

The technical bits of the film, like I say, work extremely well. A couple of comparisons are worth noting. To me (other opinions are available), the film at its best is reminiscent in tone to Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant Cross of Iron. It also has the most accurate tank battle I ever recall seeing. There are a lot of Shermans in A Bridge Too Far, for instance, but none of them ever looked as though they were doing anything more than providing movie-magic pyrotechnics. These tanks look as though they’re actually hammering lumps out of each other. They also – and this seems to be an obscure point to highlight, but bear with me – look as though they’re firing real tracer rounds, which criss-cross the screen like lasers from Star Wars. In fact the comparison with Star Wars rewards further scrutiny, because the last tank battle I remember seeing on a big screen is the finale to The Phantom Menace. That, too, is a film featuring armoured warfare but it’s clearly a children’s movie. Those tanks float over pristine green turf: these ones grind through the mud and over corpses and clatter and howl and batter through a landscape that must submit to them.

But for all that, the points at which this film falls down are precisely those points at which it does not acknowledge its own childishness. Although its nods towards real life and the real experiences of tank crews are very well done (one of the most gruesome – but accurate – scenes in the movie involves a Sherman, a tank notorious for carrying a lot of petrol in a relatively thinly-armoured hull, fully living up to its German nickname of ‘Tommy cooker’) it misses the most fundamental and oft-repeated recollection of the tankers whose memoirs I have read, which was that the job was mostly about ‘just getting on with it’. It might be grotesque or terrifying but you had no option but to get on with it. Fury on the other hand attempts to freight every moment with significance. At its worst it adopts a kind of ‘Boys Own’ stance that it tries to simultaneously endorse and deny. Inserting something like a love story (not a love story, exactly, but certainly something that owes more to This Means War than, say, Bad Lieutenant) into the middle of it seems like a bad idea (although the tension of the subsequent ‘dinner party’ offers the most suspense of any scene in the film); while the very end falls horribly into schmaltz of the worst kind.

Fury is half really good movie and half Hollywood nonsense. It’s great to see a war movie that looks this good: if only it had had the courage of its initial convictions and overcome its poe-faced desire to be A Movie About Something Important it might have been a good war movie. B+

Shermans on Starlingford

Shermans on Starlingford

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