Slumdog Millionaire

January 31, 2009

Well, it consists of

“nasty below-the-belt potshots at the underbelly of the city, portraying Mumbai as the armpit among the metropolises… it’s crystal clear why this murky and squalid portrait of Mumbai has the Americans preening in delight. At one point after being thrashed mercilessly our hero Jamal tells American tourists, “You wanted to see real India? Here it is. “Now we’ll show you the real America,” the American lady replies, handing Jamal a 100-dollar bill. This, without any apparent sense of irony. This isn’t the ‘real’ India. This is India as seen through the eyes of a Westerner who’s selling desi squalor packaged as savvy slick entertainment.  There is a very thin line dividing slick from scum. Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t stop to make those subtle distinctions.”

If this doesn’t bear any resemblance to anything you’ve seen, it’s perhaps worth noting that this comes, only a few days ago, from an Indian film critic, Subhash K. Jha. Most of the Indian film critics I’ve read are generous to Danny Boyle’s film, to a greater or lesser extent, but there are places where the posters have been pulled down, the film denounced, and crowds have congregated to object against it. (There is a separate complaint about the level of payments made to the child actors, but Boyle has rebutted these.)

But I have to say that I loved the film. It’s not often that films are actually applauded at the end, and Slumdog Millionaire deserved every last smack of the hands. I found it hard to think of anything in it that wasn’t brilliantly conceived and executed – even the design and placing of the sub-titles, when needed, was unusual and inventive. And although I haven’t read Vikas Swarup’s novel ‘Q & A’ yet, the film would appear actually to have improved upon the original, in which the Who Wants To Be A Millionare host (Anil Kapoor in a terrific performance) apparently turns out to be contestant Jamal’s father, which would have left a truly saccharin taste in the mouth.

Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor in Slumdog Millionaire

Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor in Slumdog Millionaire

To most punters, this will have been the first film about contemporary India (India is usually seen through skilful adaptations of Raj novels, like Heat And Dust, The Jewel In The Crown, or A Passage To India; or else through the prism of culture-clash ‘issue’ films – set in Britain, for the most part; or else as Bollywood with a twist) they have ever seen. Not only pacy, with the dizzily oblique shots that made Trainspotting so good (and also better than the novel), Slumdog Millionaire takes almost all the Western stereotypes of India you can think of, and both upturns and bends them. We might think: poverty, call centres, trains, Taj Mahal, bright colours, hot spices, and leave it at that. But Boyle’s direction rampages through all these and more. His sensory intelligence is exceptional, showing us the slums of Mumbai as bizarrely beautiful from above and pitiful and mean on closer inspection. It doesn’t wallow in the proximity of wealth and waste, it just lodges it in our brains. It doesn’t dwell on outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence, or on the vicious trade in orphaned beggars – it flashes across both, enough to bother us badly.

Structurally, it’s faultless. The idea, even if borrowed, of using the successive questions and answers in ‘Millionaire’ as the trigger for the flashback life of Jamal, his brother Salim, and his childhood sweetheart Latika, is a terrific framing device, one which lets us into the seedy and the sweet, the violent and the comic, in equal measures. There is swift adventure, expert comedy (the gullibility of heritage tourism), and a series of narrative surprises – not least the moment when the American offers the money, which Subhash K. Jha picks out for scorn. The cheap trick would have been to make the Americans the bad guys. This film has no cheap tricks, except possibly a moment when Jamal appears to be hurling himself and Salim off a half-built tower-block.

There is so much this film does right. The ageing of the children, using three actors apiece, is expert. The flashing shots of obsessive viewers of ‘Millionaire’ as the show works to a climax – these are great (and mirror the obsession that the UK had with the show when it started out). The music is pounding and effusive. And the acting is repeatedly startling – not just the principals, but the minor players: the sign of a great film.

I think that Subhash K. Jha is missing many things about this film, which is one of the best ten I’ve seen this century, and they are summed up in a comment left for an Indian complainant on a web-site. It was from a woman in Edinburgh, who remarked that she liked Trainspotting, and that she liked living in Edinburgh too. This is fiction, intelligent fiction, with some eye-opening, but no preaching. This is no more a picture of Mumbai than Get Carter was of Newcastle, but it gives India its own voice in Western cinema more effectively than any previous film.


i.m. John Martyn

January 30, 2009

Another one gone, and only 60, although folk-jazz guitarist John Martyn had flirted with death on several occasions, and, having had a leg amputated a few years ago, and having ballooned to twenty stone, he must have guessed that his fighting chances were limited.

When you watched John Martyn at the height of his success, in the mid-1970s, when the albums Bless The Weather, Inside Out and Solid Air succesively redefined what you could do with ‘folk’, he was an agitated, happily alcoholic singer, who would punctuate his amazing performances with rambles and rants. What he had hit on, using the echo-effect of an Echoplex, was the device of singing against a guitar which was playing against a delay of itself. At the same time, he slowed and slurred his voice into an instrument, drawling the words so that they merged into the music (usually he was accompanied by Danny Thompson on double bass, which anchored the enterprise). The sound was stunning, and not at all unlike a sort of slow and enterprising scat. (There was a live album, too, Live At Leeds (then the premier venue),which he produced and had pressed and sold from his home, failing to persuade his record company to do it: in many ways, it’s his best.) At the end of this came Grace And Danger, which has grown and grown in reputation, but which was his last for Island Records – one of the key labels to be associated with.

Later in his career, especially during the dumps into which he fell in the mid-1980s, and when he toured with a drum machine, he seemed almost hell-bent on reversing his reputation. Onstage, he wore shades, and complained about the light, was angry with the audience, and didn’t play well at all, it seemed to me – even though he was playing to the completely converted. Only in the last decade had he somehow worked his way back into favour – with himself, perhaps, as much as with his music. In the last two years, he was given award after award – you can’t help feeling he must have known he was being feted because no-one thought he could last (he himself declared that he would make it to 70).

It was the mixture of reckless and sweet in his music that really appealed – songs about intangible feelings, long soundscapes of rhythm, an electric bonanza of effect and counter-effect. But here he is. on the cusp of that era, with ‘May You Never’, probably his most-requested song (which makes me think of something else, which I’ll add in a second):

When I saw Martyn in the 1980s, he objected in particular to his audience shouting suggestions to him: most frequently for songs on those three major albums. I have no idea to what extent it drives songwriters and singers mad to have to deliver up their most conspicuous successes, years after recording them. Dylan still sings ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ almost every night, just as Eric Burdon sings ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’ (not least because he never saw a penny from the original, which is another story). There is an early live album (Miles of Aisles) on which a shirty Joni Mitchell fends off a request by telling her audience that no-one said to Van Gogh ‘Paint “Starry Night” again, man’, and an album – Jazz-Blues Fusion – on which John Mayall ticks off someone who has the nerve to ask for ‘Room To Move’ with the words ‘Why did you come here? To hear an old record?’ Is this biting the hand which feeds you? Perhaps.

But there again, Janis Ian makes a point of playing ‘At Seventeen’, and ‘Fly Too High’, telling her audience they deserve it. And I think this is where John Martyn may have lost his way a little. To have had such huge success in his twenties, and still to be asked to re-visit those years when he was several, albeit less memorable albums down the line, that seems to have bitten him for a long time.

Grouchy or not, he was the kind of singer who inspired great devotion, rather like his contemporary, Roy Harper. That he survived so long when his friends at Island, Nick Drake and Paul Kossoff, pressed the self-destruct button, was an achievement in itself. His last perfomances, from a wheelchair of course, had a kind of heroism about them.

The 1911 census

January 29, 2009

I’ve been waiting for the 1911 census for a while, because I am still very unsure what my great-great-grandfather was up to – at that stage, at the age of 69, he had a nine-year-old son by a second marriage (conceived during his first), although it was one year after his second wife had died. Where was he? And there are plenty of other little mysteries to be solved, irritating little details about various bits and pieces of my various forebears and their families. Technically and legally speaking, the 1911 census shoudn’t have been kept closed so long – the 100-year-old closure is the result of a later law – but it’s too late to fuss about it any more.

But the bad news is that the National Archive, in every other way an eminent institution, has sold the right to digitise it to an organisation,, which is separate and different from, which is the company possessed of most of the really important lists (it’s no good, I do like looking up and down lists, and it’s useless to say otherwise), and which lost out in the bidding war. And the new company is charging a much heftier fee to have a look at it (some of it is already available, but not the North-East, so I can’t exactly gnash my teeth just yet) – and must already have made a colossal amount from the millions who can’t wait. One of the problems is that it is not (in my case, will not be) searchable in quite the same way, as far as I can make out.

Family history is not just about family, or history. It’s about trying to crack codes. The original transcribers (the enumerators) were often guessing what they could from the dodgy handwriting with which they were presented, and the indexers of the digital versions have also had to make a guess at the dodgy handwriting of some of the subscribers. So you have to use a bit of intuition, which is half the fun. In the 1901 census, for instance – and this gives you a fair idea of how my obsessions run – my father’s mother didn’t seem to be anywhere. Her surname was Catcheside. I knew that she had a sister and a brother, and that all three were born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, so I searched for all the Mabels (my grandmother), all the Thomases (her brother) and all the Dorothys (her sister) in Newcastle, looking for any surname which recurred and which had some semblance of Catcheside about it. It took a while, but I found it eventually as Caththsid. This isn’t something I am going to be able to do with the new outfit, without being charged an arm and a leg. (There was a nice detail in the earlier 1891 census entry. Her father had given his occupation as ‘shipbroker’, and his one-year-old son’s occupation as ‘will be shipbroker’. The enumerator had solemnly copied this down. Perhaps I should add that his son did become a shipbroker…)

1911 gives you a great deal more detail, and also, for the first time, it gives you the original writer’s handwriting as well. Suffragettes famously refused to fill the census in, on the grounds that, if they weren’t allowed to count, why should they be counted? But I’m afraid my family was a bit light on suffragists (or possibly, I am delighted, for selfish reasons, to say that there won’t be any gaps).

Ah well, that’s my retirement fund shot. I know I won’t be able to resist.

Charity shops

January 28, 2009

When my daughter was between the ages of five and eleven, when she permitted me excesses of behaviour which she would not tolerate at any price any more, we used to spend our days out in towns which had more than their fair share of charity shops. ‘Charity Shop Alert,’ I would say, and in we would prowl, looking for gew-gaws and trinkets (her) and cassettes (me). These were charity shops in the in-between stage. The junk shop style of charity shop no longer prevailed, but they were still filled with a fair degree of clutter, and there were undusted items here and there (often serving you behind the till). Nowadays, following Oxfam’s lead, a charity shop is quite a different experience.

You can find bargains, it’s true, but you have to faff about a bit longer to find them (and even I have had to give up the pretence that a cassette is a sensible purchase, which is a bit sad, since there is often quite a decent pile of them on display). Oxfam, of course, have cracked the books and records racket, and, simply by looking on the web, are flogging vinyl at a shockingly exact price. I came across a 45 in a Hereford Oxfam (for there are two in the city centre), and thought, fleetingly, I’ll have that at £1.99, until, looking very much closer, I spotted that it was for sale for £11.99. They had done their research.

And not only are the charity shops in apple pie order, unless you are prepared to wander right out of a central location, but also in alphabetic order when it comes to (say) books. They are even in sections, like mini-Waterstones. In Hereford, the Oxfam shop even had a sort of antiquarian section, but then Hereford is one of those cities a bit off the beaten track which are shabby-chic, allow themselves the luxury of electing or nearly electing Liberal Democrats, and which like to see themselves as just a bit posh.

If you want the old charity shop experience, you really need to go to a car boot sale or a jumble sale (and even there, the acts are being tidied up, as people realise that there is actually money to be made) or, in my case, just to stay at home. My home is a jumble: piles of this, piles of that (but the books and records in neurotically alphabetic order).

At the time of the recession before last, car boot sales were all about economics. People started flogging their stuff because they were hard up. And what then happened was that the buyers and sellers realised they actually liked getting their rubbish out of their own houses and into other people’s houses. (This is why there are so many TV programmes about auctions, the up-market car-boot sales: they are a legacy of when people began to buy and sell.) And there is a huge black market now in operation, which one can only assume will increase in the next couple of years, albeit becoming more frantic, in which buyers acquire bargains at car boot sales, and then flog them on eBay. Probably the best index of a country’s financial health will be the average sale price of eBay (someone must have this statistic) – never mind all the other graphs we are being shown. If eBay prices start to plunge, or sales fall off very badly on eBay, we are in even bigger trouble than we thought.

And the other economic indicator will be the charity shop. If you see a SALE sign on a charity shop window, we are in murkier and murkier water. We have lost our economic innocence.


January 27, 2009

Lifts: the things that go up and down in the day and the night. I have a hate-hate relationship with lifts. This is because I am, at heart, an exceptionally lazy person. I like to use up as little physical energy as possible, and am happiest when in my own head, or in someone else’s. So when a lift presents itself to me as an option – in a shop, in a hotel, although never yet in a private house ( I don’t move in the right circles – I don’t move at all if I can help it) – it looks unbeatable as a means of transport. A little carpeted room. A mirror in which to check how badly I have aged over the previous fifteen minutes. But also a slight sensation of sea-sickness (I have always had motion sickness, by which I don’t mean I am sick of moving, but that the slightest tilt and I am off-balance, which is why you don’t catch me on ships or boats or ferries or dinghies). The claustrophobia is all right. I don’t mind it. I may even be a claustrophile. But the going-up-and-down: no, that’s not good news.

I think: I’ll take the stairs. Even though it would be quicker by lift, even though I am impatience incarnate, and hate wasting time. So, if I see a lift, there is tension – do I go the quick way, or the way that doesn’t tilt my inner axis?

Nothing has ever happened to me in a lift. I have been neither traduced not seduced in a lift. I have never met anyone famous, I have never been trapped or tripped in a lift. Like everyone, I have fantasised about what would happen if the lift fell, and I jumped up at the very last nano-second. But all the science books, which are very unforgiving on this issue, tell the same story. I would break every bone in my feet, and the rest of my skeleton would follow, shortly afterwards. Given how much Hollywood has made out of lifts, and their failures, you would think that a little light excitement might have spilt over into real life: but no, the things just go up and down – okay, sometimes down when you want them to go up, but that’s about all.

Lifts have been homogenised, of course. That ‘litt;e carpeted room’ I referred to above is a creature of fantasy, which has replaced the ones you used to see years ago, which showed you the loops of metal rope going down as the lift went up, when you could see the gubbins in action, and when, in department stores, there were lift operators. I cannot imagine many more soulless jobs have ever been created. Being a commissionaire at least gets you out and about, and allows a certain creativity in the processes of being obsequious, but lift operators used to have to announce what was on each floor, and quite possibly where you were stopping, and about the biggest kick they got was to press the buttons. There must have been lift operators who went quite mad.

Nor, I think, were they permitted small talk. Some lifts (say, in tube stations) allow a certain buzz of conversation, between consenting adults and fractious children, but only when they are already known to one another. In most lifts, conversation and eye contact are avoided, or restricted to ‘Are you here long?’ (hotel) or ‘Is this your floor?’ (shop). These are conversations which, unable to go further than an opening gambit, peter out within a quarter of a floor’s ascent or descent.

Except in the North-East. Try keeping your thoughts to yourself up there, and people assume you’re mad. Home sweet home.

Therese Raquin

January 26, 2009

There used to be a bookish panel game on TV, in which well-known writers, at some stage of the proceedings, confessed to a novel or other literary work they hadn’t read. I seem to remember that Middlemarch featured quite frequently. It’s funny how you’re supposed to feel guilty about what you haven’t read, isn’t it? I have long since stopped feeling shameful. I haven’t read Paradise Lost (would you, if you’d been forced to read all Milton’s ‘shorter’ poems as well as Comus and Samson Agonistes, before being told, at 15, that, very sorry, the syllabus didn’t actually require anything other than Samson?), and I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow or any Proust or several of Shakespeare’s history plays. Or… but I haven’t space to confess.

However, there are some ‘classics’ (see blog two days ago – I have found another list of 1000 classics I must read before I die, and I am not going to do it) which I have been saving up for the rainy days of retirement. (H.G. Wells is surprisingly high on the list.) And one these has been Therese Raquin, by Zola. Circumstances, however, have conspired to bring forward my date where Therese Raquin is concerned: I entered a competition which involved knowing a French novel, and I thought, rather than dredge up bits and bobs of French novels I have read, let’s try one I’ve saved up. And it must be 30 years since I read Germinal (and I only did that for a student who wished to write about it. Let me digress a moment – very unusual, ha ha – and complain about the way things have changed at English Literature A level, which I no longer teach, of course, so probably know nothing about. In the 1980s and 1990s, students on the most popular syllabus, which my department was using when it was a pilot, used to have to write an ‘extended essay’, generally on three novels of their own choice. If you had a group of (say) 16, that meant, assuming no duplication, having to read over 40 novels just to keep up. It was great. Obviously, you’d read a lot of them already, because you recommended them, but some you hadn’t, and the whole syllabus forced teacher and student to read together. Needless to say, the course was eventually trimmed and closed. It was far too sensible. That was how I got to read Henry Roth’s amazing novel Call It Sleep, as well as Germinal, which I know isn’t English, but does that matter? Fantastic. End of digression).

Anyway, I read Therese Raquin, which you can do at a sitting, because it is so gripping (and quite short). That it came out in 1867 is nothing short of sensational. It would have surely been denounced in England, whereas it merely caused a bit of a hoo-hah in France, and went into a very speedy second edition. It is a murder story with all the menace of Poe, but without his stylistic flourishes and excesses, and it also has a wonderfully small cast, and a very short sequence of events on which Zola dwells, painfully, skilfully, making every scene quite gripping, even appalling. The murder itself seems to take forever, and there is a truly grim sequence in which the murderer visits a morgue to look for his victim, and the morgue, it transpires, is not only open to the public, but visited by the public, who come to look at the dead bodies out of careless interest. Boys, says Zola, of twelve and upwards, come to stare at the naked women, and, rather darkly, the translator of the Penguin edition remarks, ‘Young louts have their first women in the Morgue.’ Surely he doesn’t mean…

Anyway, it’s a bit late in the day for M. Zola, I know, but I recommend Therese Raquin to anyone who wants to have a rather superior sort of nightmare. It reminded me of something while I was reading it, and of course the list of 1000 Books etc., written as it is by a bunch of very-clever-clog-wearers, proudly informed me that James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is a steal from Therese Raquin. I think I’d have got that if left to my own devices: Cain is a bit of a hobby of mine, and I’ve read most of his 21 novels. Did you know that Cain was originally an opera-singer, before he decided on pulp fiction? There, that’s today’s useless fact.

Useless facts are in short supply. The trivia shows have been stealing them. Treasure that one while you can.

Words not to use in poems

January 25, 2009

In 1993, I went on a three-day workshop with the poet Peter Sansom, who co-edits The North, and runs the Smith/Doorstop imprint. He’s also the author of Writing Poems, Bloodaxe’s perennial seller. And a nicer guy you couldn’t hope to meet. My aim at the time was to unclog the effect of years of writing parody, to find out if I had a voice of my own after years of impersonation. I’m still not sure.

Peter had one golden rule (it’s mentioned in Writing Poems, too): do not under any circumstances use the word shard. This might strike you as very peculiar. But  if you were to start to teach poetry-writing, you would know exactly what he meant. There is something about the word shard that fatally attracts every other would-be poet, each of whom, quite innocently and separately, comes across it, and thinks ‘that’s a good word, a very good word. I’ll have that,’ rather in the manner of Burglar Bill. Of course, the entire group of writers (he must be sick of this) immediately wrote shard poems to twit him. But he was right. There are some words which turn up so often in the work of aspiring poets that an anti-preservation order should be slapped on them.

Here are a few more. They may seem irrational, but I promise you, they occur to people with an almost desperate frequency, and the result is an accidental smack of the hackneyed.

Seeps, seep, seeped: Don’t know why, but some variation of seep seems fatally to recur, usually to do with light, i.e. in a metaphorical, synaesthetic way. ‘Light seeped in through the window.’ Don’t do it.

Crimson: Much-beloved version of ‘red’, especially to do with dawn, but unfortunately also beloved of both Victorian poets and heavy metal lyricists. Avoid like the plague.

Translucent: looks good, but it’s actually quite a confusing word, since it seems often to be used to mean both ‘clear’ and also ‘as if through frosted glass’, i.e. not very clear. Usually used to make light seem posh. (Ditto pellucid.)

Myriad: poety word for ‘lots’, with a terrible whiff of archaism.

Languid, languour: these ones are marginal cases, but they always send me back to poems written between 1870 and 1920. They aren’t exactly archaic, but there are plenty of contemporary alternatives.

Evil: whether a noun or an adjective, this is just too heavy an abstraction for a contemporary poem – in fact, most abstract nouns are suspect (hatred; time – especially if capitalised; passion;  and so on).

Curlicue: I was caught using this by a friend, who said that she was always seeing it in poems, and I think she’s right.

Soul, mind: usually soul is used to indicate deep feeling, and is redundant because of it. I think you have to be very good to get away with it. Mind usually pops up to indicate inner feeling or emotion, in which case it too is redundant. Just think of the hopeless Michel Legrand lyric ‘The Windmills Of Your Mind’ – a text-book example of how not to construct metaphors.

Woe, sorrow: abstract nouns for feeling very unhappy, but never heard in colloquial language (quite a good test) these days.

Pent: maybe as in pent-up, but otherwise, a relic of reading Wordsworth.

Hence, thence, whence: any word which makes you think that the nearby verb should end in -est, as in Whence comest thou?, is best given a wide berth. Too biblical.

Yesteryear, yonder: if used, you are probably writing poesy.

Then: obviously permissible, but in nine times out of ten, implied by the order of the words, and their sense.

I have more bugbears, but that’s all for the moment. Feel free to suggest others, and forgive me if you find them in what I write (or rather, don’t. I need to be ticked off).