Should we call this Marmaladepunk? 

18 December 2014

(Paddington – a review, with very mild spoilers)


How good does Paddington have to be to avoid parents hiring ruthless Peruvian mercenaries to track the makers through the streets of London and cut them into narrow strips?


Pretty damn good, is how good.


How good is it?


Pretty damn good. With some odd, unlikely caveats of which you should probably be made aware. Let’s do the easy stuff first:


It’s cinematically gorgeous. Occasionally it’s so gorgeous it’s almost painful; Caro-and-Jeunet gorgeous, with unexpected moments of surreality to gloss emotions so that the film’s world becomes its own microcosm. It takes the very best of recent imagemaking – like the visualisation of Sherlock Holmes’s process from both the big and small screen – and reworks it in the rich style of the best children’s illustration. It’s as if Aaron Becker’s fabulous Journey had a lovechild with Scrubs, and then someone threw steampunk and marmalade over the whole thing and added some ground up Tim Burton sprinkles.


Paddington himself is sweet, stern, and innocently destructive on a formidable scale. Given three pieces of celery, a rubber band and a gas oven, this bear could level a major metropolis – mysteriously without actually hurting anyone. If the CGI is a bit palpable at times, it’s still amazing, and the little stowaway brings rejuvenating chaos into the heart of a British family who are spiralling into a life of quiet desperation. He’s easy to love, even when he’s doing appalling things with toothbrushes. Sally Hawkins is magical, Hugh Bonneville is so persuasive that I had to ask Mrs H repeatedly whether I’d gotten dull since we married. She says not, but I may take her motorbiking across Tuscany with some pansexual communist art historians just to make sure.


The movie is clever. The kids’ plot works fine, has moments of high drama (my four year old was seriously alarmed at times; your mileage may vary) and slapstick (with bannisters). Occasionally thrown in are some fairly chancy bits of adult-grade humour, some of which are very funny, a few of which miss the target and clunk to the floor. The parental backstory is heart-wrenching. Nicole Kidman, for whom I have in general a pretty limited tolerance – for all the reasons everyone else seems to love her – is great: chilly, genuinely terrifying, and perhaps somewhat inappropriately smokin’ hot as the film’s elegantly dressed (Fifth Element/medical bondage/Puppini Sisters) villain. Yet another woman who’d be great as Doctor Who. (Yes, I have a list.)


So what’s not to like?


Subtext, baby. The place where it gets weird is the subtext. It’s constant, a bit inevitable and a bit unnecessary, and it flaps around like one of those unmoored ropes in shipwreck flicks that eventually take someone’s arm off.


The subtext is immigration, and it is not incidental. It’s right there, in your face, quite a lot of the time. From the moment the makers of the film decided to kick the action off with a colonial explorer making first contact with a tribe of intelligent bears in the jungle, there was going to be a queasy vibe to the whole thing to the grownups in the audience, and even the basic loveliness of the film doesn’t make it go away. Paddington finds himself in a London that was supposed to be friendly, but which – like Mr Brown – has lost touch with its loving self and become cold and unwelcoming. He’s “not like other people” because he’s a bear from Peru. Peter Capaldi as the nasty neighbour wants to send him back where he belongs – because otherwise there’ll be loads of them, taking over the street. People keep talking about whether Paddington should be handed over to The Authorities, and while the nightmare image that accompanies the word is an orphanage that looks a lot like Arkham Asylum or the Overlook, it could just as easily be an Immigration Removal Centre. The soundtrack points up the parable: everywhere he goes, Paddington is serenaded by a calypso band, and his anthem “London is the Place For Me” was actually performed by Aldwyn Roberts (aka Lord Kitchener) as he disembarked the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948.


So what you have here is a cute kids’ movie about a bear in a duffel coat which for whatever reason has a deliberate but not terrifically nuanced immigration narrative in the background. There’s also a post-colonial whisper in the form of a noble savage inadvertantly revitalising a dimming marriage with an emotional truthfulness we civilised people have forgotten, while the daughter of the original explorer longs to undo her father’s compassionate disgrace – he went native, you see, finding humanity in the Peruvian bear tribe – and fulfil his neglected destructive duty by stuffing Paddington and putting him in a case in the Natural History Museum. The hilarious cross-dressing gag that got so much play in the papers is really not the most serious problem you’re going to come up against, though it’s drab man-in-a-dress humour that really belongs in 1989.


All in all, this is a classic children’s film: a flawed, beautiful thing fraught with the appalling sins of adults concealed behind a hefty façade of candy floss; ridgid with sexuality and lust; steeped in murder, emotional trauma and (implicit) death. In other words, very traditional fare, and exactly the kind of thing you’re supposed to take your family to at Christmas.

The Force Awakens

28 November 2014

I will say this: I’m not crash hot keen on the Wibbly Sword Of Evil Flames. I am, however, delighted by the sense of gaffer tape and dirty space ships. Oh, and while there were hints of lens flare, not too much.

Consider me cautiously onside.

And also a massive Star Wars junkie.

On Pretending

04 November 2014

[Note: as of now, a superior and updated version of this piece with fewer repetitions and better metaphors is available on the Independent website. It’ll be in i on Thursday 13th Nov if you are in desperate need of a paper copy, and features among other things an image of me in which I look like Rhys Ifans as Mycroft Holmes. Which is either cool or really, really alarming.


Also, I’ve just noticed that even in the updated version I somehow failed to namecheck Ian McEwan, which is unforgivably goofy of me. Sorry, sir.


No, he doesn’t read this blog.]


TigermanChipKiddRyanHeshkaI do a lot of pretending. I’m a novelist: I spend a great part of my day pretending to myself that I’m in a different world, being a different person, faced with decisions I pretend I haven’t created. I pretend I don’t know about the traps and disasters lying in wait for that person, dangers I’ve imagined for them to drag them through the narrative I pretend I’m not creating to the place I want them, often in despite of their own good sense and to their considerable disadvantage.


But more than that I pretend I don’t care.


Perhaps that’s about being a Brit, some kind of cultural aversion to taking things seriously. If you take something seriously, after all, you might have to defend it, fight for it, be rude to someone about it. David Niven, in 55 Days At Peking, makes the perfect British statement of self: having refused to flee the city and thereby compelled the ambassadors of the other national powers to remain also, he is asked how the minutes of the meeting can possibly reflect the situation without causing great embarrassment to his fellows. Simple, he replies. We shall record that in the initial vote on the matter one person was at odds with the others, but that – after some debate – unanimity was achieved.


It’s a posture we love, and one that we share with the Hagakure: matters of great significance should be treated lightly. You can see it in the way we approach sport, at least sometimes. It almost seems as if trying too hard is cheating. It begins young: I remember going on a school sport trip to Holland. The team there practiced every night of the week for at least two hours. We had perhaps four hours a week. We lost, of course, but we just about made it look even, and counted ourselves moral victors because we didn’t practice sport as a religion, but a hobby.


We pretended we didn’t care.


I still wish we could have won that last game – but I also don’t. It would have been glorious, but it would also have been a shame. It would have made a mockery of the hard work of a group of people who cared more than we did. They deserved that victory. Hard work, ironically, is the other virtue the Brits are supposed to respect. In fact, “sweat of the brow” is the basis of copyright here, rather than the US argument from utilitarianism or the German one that proceeds from identity.


And so to the stage. I do public appearances. I’m bluff, hearty, goofy. I wear loud clothes and I read the funny bits. I occasionally get taken to task for one thing or another, and I acknowledge my fault, my flaw, my failure, and I move on. Usually I mock myself to grease the wheels. Part of the job, the show. Prize lists are out and you’re not on them? Nature of the world, means nothing, prizes are a lottery. It’s a problem for your publisher, who needs to sell more copies, not for the artist (and never mind the commercial corollaries, the reflection in the size of your advance, for the moment). Review in some paper or other is negative? That happens. People can respond badly to a book, even a book others like, just a shame it had to be the critic chosen to write about you. Other papers will be positive. Amazon, Goodreads, book blogs. The local paper. Friends.


I never engage negatively with reviewers. If someone says something that enrages me – and they do – I do what I do on stage. I make a joke about myself and move on. Sometimes people say things that are manifestly wrong or even apparently malicious. That’s fine, too. It’s a response. Don’t read it, measure the column inches. Love the controversy. My skin is thick with various forms of privilege, after all. As an example of a type, I can take it. As a person, I can slide it off, as long as I believe I can. I pretend to myself, and leave the hurt behind. It’s not much of a hurt, after all. A brief sting. A day of self-doubt. A chocolate bar, an episode of Penny Dreadful.


An enormous amount of a writer’s life is performance. I find myself wondering, at the moment, whether I do too much of it. I feel it might be nice to retreat into a more Pynchon-like performance by absence. I love the stage, but it also eats me alive. I’m caught somewhere between introversion and extroversion. Performance is natural to me, joyful, but it is also exhausting. I can feed on it, but the expense is high too, like being a carnivore: I have to chase down my meals. I’d quite like to eat more vegetables, quietly, on a hillside somewhere, and butt the occasional tiger off a cliff with my horns.


This kind of piece, by the way, is completely forbidden. It represents the moment when a duck, running across the surface of the pond to take off, catches one webbed foot in a wave and goes nose-down into the water. It means recommencing take-off, lurching and flapping and spraying mud-brown spume everywhere, quacking and flailing to achieve escape velocity so that I can return to my new book, believe in my own choices, and be the me I need to be do make it all real.


So what brought this on? What on Earth could motivate me to say any of this out loud, break the fourth wall and perhaps more importantly the first one?


Honestly: it was the Goodreads Choice Awards Fiction list for 2014. Tigerman is in there.


Let me just gloss that for you, because it may not seem like much, but it stopped me just now like walking into the corner of a table, and I’m still struggling with it.


Tigerman is listed in the Fiction category.


Two years ago, Angelmaker was listed in the SF section. My books are hard to categorize, they’re crossover with elements of the fantastical, so they usually end up in SF. SF is also my natural starting place: it’s what I read as a kid, and it is a literature that challenges the real, which is what I like to do. But even now, with the fantastical waterfalling into the mainstream and the world more SFish than it has ever been, the label still closes doors. Talking to someone the other day, I mentioned that I’ll on stage at the BFI this month talking to William Gibson about science fiction films, and I saw his interest falter. SF wasn’t proper writing to him. In an effort to stop the conversation dying a cold death, I explained the kind of thing I write about. “You’re crossover,” he said immediately. And that made everything okay. I don’t want to think about that right now, about the reasons for it or why it’s absurd.


Tigerman is listed in the Fiction category. It has escaped that moment, at least today.


Tigerman is listed in the Fiction category. That means it will almost certainly lose.


Why? Because Haruki Murakami is listed in that category too: arguably the world’s most popular author of the not-quite real right now, an international bestseller of the kind of thing I do. (I had an urge to write “try to do”, but no. Be honest. It’s what I do.)


When I grow up, I want to be a bit like him.


Margaret Atwood is listed in that category. Shortlisted five times for the Booker. Winner once. Icon. Pioneer of the odd in English language literary writing. If Murakami is Hephaestus the smith in my personal pantheon of craft, Atwood must be Arachne.


David Mitchell is listed in that category. Author of Cloud Atlas. Twice shortlisted for the Booker, listed in 2007 among Time Magazine’s 100 must influential people in the world. Like Murakami and Atwood, someone I need to learn from. My classical knowledge does not extend to a Greek divinity for him. Apollo, perhaps, or Dionysus.


And it goes on. Roxanne Gay; Emily St. John Mandel; Jojo Moyes. Names to conjure with. Names I admire. I cannot imagine losing in better company.


I have to acknowledge, today, that I do care about this. I don’t care about winning, but I care about being seen in this way. I care about my book being alongside those books, been considered in that mode. That is something I wanted, partly without ever knowing that I wanted it because until it happened I was pretending I was just pretending.


So thank you, world. Seriously. Thank you.


10 October 2014

Google says David Tennant is my puppy.

Who wants to touch me?

David Tennant appears in a list of Google images associated with a search on "Harkaway puppy"

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Drop me a line! Forgive me if the response is not immediate - I tend to get rather behind. If something requires my rapid attention, please tweet me or get in touch through my agent, Patrick.

Cheers, NH





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