Apocalypse for Strings

Jóhann Jóhannsson, Last and First Men (Barbican, LSO conducted by Daníel Bjarnason, 1 December 2018)

47216604_10161364073755284_4300837936473047040_nAs black and white footage of concrete construction unfolds on a screen through the mirk of dry ice, I think of Goran Stefanovski, who I so wish I talk to about this – this is film of the former Yugoslavia, it may or may not be Macedonia, and I have no idea if these are ruins or sculptures or… He would have loved the conversation. The cinematographer was Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who worked on the one-take Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015), but Jóhannsson directed it.
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Heart of Very Very Very Darkness

Martin McDonagh, A Very Very Very Dark Matter (Br/dge Theatre, directed byMatthew Dunster)

If you’ve seen the same author’s In Bruges, you know what to expect: humour of the blackest hue, a claustrophobic central relationship and lots of swearing. And Belgium.

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It’s not somebody who’s seen the light

Alan Bennett, Allelujah (Br/dge Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner)

Bennett has long since passed from tilter at the establishment to national treasure and still produces landmark plays with a political edge. Inevitably this is a late play — like all of us, he isn’t getting any younger — and like many of his works this has a public institution at its heart. It has a large almost ensemble cast and a closing series of monologues but, unlike The Lady in the Van and The Habit of Art it doesn’t really play metadramatic games. Those closing monologues remind me of Death of a Salesman — perhaps it is inevitable that a late play reminds me of lots of things.

At the heart of the play is the geriatric ward at the Bethlehem Hopsital in Yorkshire, which faces closure in favour of a larger hospital a number of miles away. As Colin (Samuel Barnett), a political adviser found with reasons to close the ward, comes to visit his dying father Joe (Jeff Rawle from Drop the Dead Donkey), some of the nurses and doctors have called in a documentary crew to film the geriatric choir that may yet save the place. Unfortunately, as the first act falls, a member of the hospital may well torpedo this plan.

One can’t help but feel that Bennett’s heart is — mostly — in the right place and the last forty years of government policies have jeopardised the success of a great national institution. Further, our paranoia about immigrants — and this play was written before the Windrush scandal broke — means that many of the workers in hospitals may not work for us much longer. But with singing and dancing oldsters we are in a fantasy land — how much is real and how much is what we want to see?

Suddenly I’m reminded of the social realist nostalgia of Terence Davies and the surreal memoir plays of Dennis Potter. The country may be going down the crapper, life may be shit, but at least you can have a sing song. When the geriatrics aren’t singing, their snappy dialogue seems like a dinnerladies reunion thirty years on, although perhaps Victoria Wood had been tuned by Bennett’s dialogue. The positioning of a song right at the end risks undercutting the play’s ending during the applause, as we are transported back to Victory Day and there is singing and dancing in the streets. We leave with a song in our hearts.

Three of the male characters may show where the play almost misfires, despite being an enjoyable and energetic evening. Firstly, the immigrant doctor, Ramesh (Manish Gandhi), whose immigrant status puts his career at state. You can’t help but be angry and this can’t help be political. Is he too angelic for the play’s own good? Meanwhile Colin, Joe’s gay son, is positioned as one of the play’s villains. At the same time, he’s lacking an arc. He arrives wanting the hospital closed and I didn’t get the sense of him learning anything, despite the trauma he goes through. He’s the son of a small town, born in the wrong culture, who managed to escape and he has been alienated and embittered by his experiences. But something is missing. Finally there is Andy (David Moorst), on the contemporary equivalent of the YTS, possibly a younger Colin, possibly a straight man in a small town that is more openminded than Colin gives it credit for. Too often he gets the cheap laugh. He is presented as the dim caretaker, risks performing clichés, unwittingly precipitates the crisis — and then vanishes largely from the narrative. he is not punished, he is not rewarded, he is not resolved, as closing monologues veer rather too much on the preaching, even if you disagree with the sermon.

The drama is dissipated.

There is laughter and there is sadness, but perhaps the game is too rigged.

Speech for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, 18 July 2018

My speech as Non-voting Chair of JudgesTM at Foyles, 27 July 2017.

We come to honour the modern Prometheans.

We come to honour those who steal fire.

We come to honour those chained to rocks.

We come to honour those whose livers are plucked out by eagles.

Well, maybe not the last, but do keep drinking.

Two hundred years ago, the teenaged daughter of two radicals, who had run away to Europe, published a novel in which a scientist brings dead matter to life and then abandons his offspring. We can read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in many ways, but in part it’s about technology and reproduction, about parenting and responsibility and about what it is to be human.

Those are some good themes.

Our authors are still exploring them, two centuries on. There were four debut sf novels on the shortlist this year and the other two authors are new to the Clarke Award.

Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time is set in a near future where people can have babies by donation or redesign their babies or even have be both parents. In a series of vignettes, intersecting in subtle ways, Charnock explores some of the social implications and some of the emotions of children and parents. It’s a book that demands rereading, our judges finding it subtle and “a quiet, unshowy book” that lingers for a long time.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne is set after apocalyptic events, with the few survivors scavenging in the bad lands in fear of the dreadful Company, in fear of the awful Magician and in fear of the bearful Mord, a huge, aggressive, flying bear. One survivor is Rachel, living in an uneasy relationship with a scavenger named Wick, who find a strange object she takes at first to be a plant, but turns out to be an animal and indeed sentient. They call it – him – Borne and Rachel raises him like a child, until Borne starts having ideas of his own. Our judges called it “absolutely bonkers” with “batshit crazy technology” – but, obviously, batshit in a good way.

Children, daughters, with ideas of their own are at the heart of Jennie Melamed’s debut Gather the Daughters, a postapocalyptic island community where daughters are very definitely property of their fathers and are abused in all kinds of ways. Whilst the society’s set up brings its own crises, the thrust of the novel is the young women’s attempt to assert agency. Our judges said this is “An important book which places the experiences of the abused and their testimony at the centre” and it offers us “Unspoken stories of the unheard”. It’s clearly in the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that seems more relevant today than thirty years ago.

Revolution features in Omar El Akkad’s American War, another debut, where we follow the actions of a child and then woman Sarat in the Second American Civil War after the death of her father. She is radicalized by a father figure and we see how she is driven to terrible acts. It is a tale of American politics told from the outside, which our judges felt “Turns sf’s power structures upside down” and marks “The end of the American century.”

Jaroslav Kalfař’s debut Spaceman of Bohemia straddles a historic revolution from the perspective of a lone astronaut on a Czech space mission to investigate a strange cloud which may threaten Earth. Not only do we get the story of his travels – and his encounter with an alien spider-like creature – but we delve into his past and the actions of his father and grandfather before the Velvet Revolution. The sins of the fathers may yet be visited on the sons. It is Swiftian and Kafka-esque, and Hasek-esque and our judges loved its “Sf exploration of recent Czech political history”

C. Robert Cargill has written in other modes and genres, but Sea of Rust is his first sf novel. It’s told from the point of a sentient robot, after an AI created apocalypse in the wake of a movement for robot rights. Humans have refused to acknowledge their artificial offspring and are usurped by their creation. Robots get finally to be human, with all their resourceful, wisdom, skills and their foibles, jealousies, politics and aggression. It has element of westerns – The Dirty Dozen, perhaps, with raids and sawbones doctors and ambushes and shootouts. Our judges found it “an unexpected pleasure” and “An effortless read”, and it, like Borne, is a whole lot of fun.

I think our judges had fun whittling down the submissions to six, and I thank them for their good humour and patience in the heart breaking process of agreeing which of the half dozen were dispensable and which we wished to choose as the latest winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The other five books will take on lives of their own and be read and I think we have a snapshot of the modern Prometheus and what science fiction can do in these dark and uncertain times. Words and stories remain important.

But one of the books had to win, as the eagles circled, eyeing our livers.

It’s time to discover the latest Titan.

Shelf Indulgence

The Bookshop (Isabel Coixet, 2017)

Sometimes the gun over the fireplace in Act One is a paraffin heater.

This film works really hard not to be liked. It’s set in and around a bookshop in a small Suffolk village set up by widowed Emily Mortimer, and everybody loves a bookshop. Well, not everybody, because Patricia Clarkson, channelling Glen Close as Cruella de Vil, would rather have an arts centre, for reasons which need not detain us and clearly don’t detain the film. Meanwhile, Bill Nighy, who increasingly leads me to poor viewing choices, is a misanthropic widower who likes books and likes Emily Mortimer. In particular, in turns out he likes Ray Bradbury.

What’s not to like?

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Musicals to Watch Out For

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, directed by Sam Gold. Young Vic)

I confess I know little more about Alison Bechdel than the Bechdel-Wallace Test and its origin in Dykes to Watch Out For. This is a failing, as I have read Maus and have copies of some Joe Saccho and Harvey Pekar, which is almost like having read them.
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Uncle Tom Cobblers

Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)

Remember, if there’s a gun over the fireplace in Act One, then…

Early on, we learn that little Charlie Graham needs an epi, and despite the fact that she could die at any point from anaphylactic shock, this always gets left behind. So, obviously, when her mother forces Charlie’s brother Peter to drag her to a party, she’ll make a beeline for the walnut cake. And things then take a turn for the worse, as stoned Peter tries to get her to casualty.


I’d very nearly given this a miss, but somehow I’d been convinced that this was Quality Horror, presumably on the grounds that Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne wouldn’t appear in something which was pants. How wrong whoever that was was.

Annie is an artist who makes miniatures of her life, including her family and her Nasty Dead Mother. For example, she makes a model of Peter failing to get Charlie to hospital.


The family is haunted, perhaps by guilt, perhaps by something supernatural, and there is a room in their huge house that used to be her mother’s and they now keep it locked, because…

One day she attends a bereavement session, but Annie lies about going to it, claiming she was at the cinema. Hubby, whose job is not entirely clear but involves reading large manuscripts and sitting at a big desk, has clearly never asked her about what she has seen. Personally, I think a bereavement session is more fun than movies. This allows her to bump into Joan, similarly bereaved, and get to know her. Joan introduces her to the wonderful world of seances.

This cannot end well.

It doesn’t.

Before long, we’re deep in Rosemary’s Baby territory and the only question is who is in on the conspiracy and who is disposable. This film could have been made in 1968 and frankly Lucifer hasn’t caught up with Second Wave feminism yet. The One must be prepared for. And so we get some risible low key special effects and some embarrassing nudity and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.

No wonder Gabriel Byrne looks so miserable throughout.

There’s some neat uncanny stuff, and Annie reminds me of Frances Glessner Lee’s crime scene models, but the ironies of Annie creating fake world whilst herself being a puppet never really pays off. The director likes tracking shots, but even these seem a little haphazard.