Every Complex Problem

14 Dec

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong. (H.L. Mencken)

To be honest I don’t know much about HL Mencken other than the fact that he gets a mention in The Sun also Rises (Also known as Fiesta) and, on the strength of the comments made in that novel, I don’t think Earnest Hemingway was a fan.

On the other hand, I kind of agree with Mencken on this point at least.

The trouble is, of course, that the world often seems to be full of people who are quite determined to believe that these clear and simple solutions aren’t wrong, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, but are, in fact, the only solution.

And, of course any aspiring politician with more ambition than integrity (which would be most of them, it seems) will latch on to these clear and simple solutions and peddle them for all they’re worth to all the people who already believe them to be right.

One of the most obvious examples of this kind of (non)thinking can be seen in the current urge to curb immigration.

Essentially the line of (un)reasoning goes as follows. You can’t get a house/job/GP appointment/ a place for your kids in the local school. Therefore there are too many people in the country. Therefore the problem is immigration. Therefore if we stop people coming into the country and repatriate those immigrants who’re already here, then everything will be nice again.

Except, of course, it won’t.

You still won’t be able to get a house if there aren’t enough houses being built and you still won’t be able to get a decent job when the economy has been ‘rebalanced’ to provide high paid jobs to the privileged and low paid insecure jobs for the majority. You also won’t be able to see your GP when you want to if the resources that are put into the NHS have been squandered in yet another top down reorganisation (even when you’ve been solemnly promised that no such thing will happen). And you’ll struggle to get your kids into a decent school when Local Education Authorities are starved of resources so that politicians can fund their pet educational projects.

But this is all complicated and problematic and recognising, let alone addressing any of these issues would require a bit of serious thinking. And why should anyone bother with that when it’s so much easier to fall back on the usual exchange of sound bites and slogans and easy to remember, drip dry policies that can be explained in a few column inches or in a brief, stage-managed TV appearance.

This is, of course, a fundamental problem with trying to run a democracy in an industrialised, capitalist society that is dependent on mass media for the communication of ideas.

It’s worth taking a look at the phrase ‘industrialised, capitalist society’.

A society that is industrialised is one that has the capacity to feed, clothe and house a far larger population than one that is pre- or at least non- industrialised. This large population is one that can support and indeed necessitates mass media, word of mouth can only go so far in a population of millions.

A society that is capitalist is one that is defined by the capitalist mode of production (as Karl Marx would tell you, if he was here).

One of the characteristics of capitalism is that it turns everything that has a value into a commodity. (And incidentally devalues anything that can’t be turned into a commodity). In other words, most of the things you might want, including information, will have a price and there will always be someone willing to sell it to you.

As a consequence it is the business of the media to ‘shift product’, be that a physical item like a newspaper or a book, or advertising space or something else that can be sold and therefore raise revenue. (With public service media outlets the need to ‘shift product’ is a little more indirect, but circulation and/or ratings still count if the outlet is to justify its existence to those who control its funding).

Given that the easiest way to guarantee a mass audience/readership is to confirm what the majority of people already think they know, or at least to avoid contradicting anything they believe to be true, those media outlets that reach the greatest number of people will be those that avoid challenging the majority view on anything. They will also be the outlets that keep things simple, that avoid long, involved arguments and that won’t burden their customers with a lot of bothersome facts or figures.

So in the more downmarket hovels of the media, you will seldom find any serious attempt to look at how many people actually come to live in the country, what they do, how they live, what they contribute and whether or not they might enhance or enrich the communities they live in. What you will be offered instead are anecdotes about individual immigrants who might have criminal records, engage in anti-social behaviour or, horror of horrors, actually use public services that they are perfectly entitled to use.

These individual cases will then be held up (explicitly or implicitly) as being typical of all immigrants. This use of facts which may, or then again may not, be accurate in themselves will therefore contribute to a perception of immigrants that is unfair, untrue and of no use to anyone except bigots and racists and those who would seek to profit from them.

You can incidentally see a similar pattern of reporting where other vilified groups, notably benefits claimants, the homeless, people who depend on food banks and, of course, asylum seekers are concerned.

There is a way to correct this irresponsible and divisive kind of reporting.

Don’t buy crap newspapers and don’t watch garbage TV programmes. Complaining is no use, writing to your MP is pointless, simply damage their revenue stream and you’ll soon find the media sorting themselves out.

This leads me to a more general point about politics.

The political system we have in this country can be characterised as government by millionaires on behalf of billionaires and a great many people are sick to death of it.

A healthy democratic political system depends on the quality of the politicians who participate in it, and the media that report on it. And both of these, in turn, depend on the extent to which members of the general public (that’s us, by the way) are willing to engage in politics.

If we won’t take the trouble to pay attention then we will allow lazy, complacent journalists to allow politicians to spout off their lazy, complacent platitudes. And if we do that then we have very little to complain about if democracy descends into the shallow pretence of free choice where all we’re offered is two or three versions of the same thing wrapped up in different packaging.

It is very easy to despair of politics and politicians and far too many people fall into despair or indifference or the lazy, cowardly assumption that nothing we can do will make a difference.

But at the heart of all this there is the fact that when our political system doesn’t work properly people get hurt.

So it’s not good enough to say, ‘politicians are all the same’ and ‘they all lie through their teeth so what difference does it make?’ or to fall back on the old Anarchist slogan, ‘don’t vote, the government will get in’ because the government will get in anyway.

The only difference will be that the government that will be elected when the majority of us don’t vote will be a government chosen by those few zealots, activists and ‘bee in the bonnet’ merchants who can still be bothered to put their cross in a box.

And what that means is that we’ll get a worse government than we could have had if we’d all paid attention and actually tried thinking about what we need and what we want instead of just assuming that all we can do is make a selection from the limited set of options that the political parties choose to offer us.

And, say what you like about the result, our recent Independence Referendum was pretty effective in getting

people stirred up and getting them involved.

As an aside, I note with interest that whenever you hear anyone complaining about the referendum, it’s alleged divisiveness, the abusive and stupid behaviour that some (a tiny minority) just couldn’t resist, the way that the referendum allegedly brought the work of the government in Scotland to a standstill, you’ll find that they’re always Unionists. They are, in fact, those who are, or those who support, those who are already well established within the Westminster system. (Or in the case of UKIP those who, for all their attempt to cultivate rebel chic, would dearly love to become well established within the Westminster system).

On the other hand, some of us are willing to put up with the odd internet troll and the occasional egg being thrown (not that I would advocate or excuse either) if that’s the price of getting people involved in making the decisions that will affect their lives. I should scarcely need to add that I would very much prefer it if none of us had to put up with this kind of behaviour, but it’s better than a sulky, brutish apathy that allows politicians to do whatever they like.

I think it’s perfectly obvious by now that the majority of our politicians are willing to put up with low turn outs and declining party membership if that means that they can carry on offering their clear, simple solutions without having to worry too much about whether or not their wrong.

But there is an alternative, and it is this: the only politician worth a damn’ is the one who has good reason to fear losing his, or her, job. And, of course, the way to instil that kind of fear is to make sure they know that you’re a/ paying attention and b/ willing to vote them out of office if they don’t behave themselves. (NB and this is really crucial, voting a politician out of office cannot be done by NOT voting. It can only be done by voting for someone else).

So if we want to make things better in our country (and it is OUR country) then we have to start, or continue, to pay attention to what appears in the media and what our politicians do and say. More than that we need to be willing to punish those who behave badly. If you don’t like the crap that appears in your newspaper, stop buying it. If you don’t like the crap you see on TV, then stop watching it. If you don’t like what you MP. MSP, EMP or Local Councillor does then pick someone else and vote for them.

The kind of tribal loyalty that the established parties have depended on for generations (in the West of Scotland that means Labour, but elsewhere it will be other parties) is worse than pointless it’s counter productive. All it means is that one party will ignore you because they think they already own your votes, while the other parties will ignore you because they don’t believe you’ll ever vote for them regardless of what they do.

So the last thing you want to do is be a party loyalist in a safe seat, because if that’s what you are, you’re a complete irrelevance in the political process.

And if you think on the basis of any of the above that what I want to do is to subvert the way we do politics in this country, then you’re dead right. I can’t think of anything else you can decently do with it.

Advertisements

Brainssssss (Or Why We’re All Looking Forward To The Zombie Apocalypse)

7 Dec

On the face of it, The Zombie Apocalypse may not seem like something we should be looking forward to with eager anticipation.

After all, it will doubtless be a source of some inconvenience to those who become zombified and I dare say the rest of us will face some appreciable degree of hardship, and probably even some risk to life and limb, as we seek to avoid joining the shambling hordes of undead flesh eaters.

On the other hand, there will definitely be something of an up side to all the devastation, carnage, cannibalism and general mayhem.

For one thing the Zombie Apocalypse will be a great leveller. Social, racial and class differences will finally be put in their rightful perspective by the general and shared need to avoid being munched on by the walking dead and, as a result, the world will finally become a true meritocracy. Only your skill and judgement in staying alive will count. Other factors will be irrelevant.

Another point is that, in the face of wandering herds of ravenous brain-dead cannibals, you are likely to find that all those troublesome worries and concerns of day to day life in our allegedly civilised society will lose their importance. Worries about how you’re going to pay the bills, what you’re going to get your granny for her birthday, how to avoid all that humiliating deference you have to show your moron of a boss will fade into the background as you find yourself much more focussed on the really important things in life. Things like finding a safe haven, scrounging food and choosing a suitable weapon with which to fend off the zombie hordes.

You may also find yourself making new friends and gaining new skills.

People that you would normally avoid, or even look down on, will all of a sudden be revealed to be persons of merit worthy of your esteem.

For example, the red-necked survivalist named ‘Cleetus’ or ‘Bubba’, whose banjo playing always used to irritate you, will now be your best pal. After all, who else is better placed to offer help and advice when fortifying and modifying your newly acquired vehicle in order to create the supercharged, armour-plated and fully zombie-proof battle wagon that you’ve always wanted?

After all, who else can boast the skills required to sneak around in the dark, despatching zombies efficiently and with the minimum of fuss and brain splatter? And who else can brew up moonshine in a still improvised from assorted household goods?

Of course a certain number of practical issues will need to be addressed. First and foremost, you will need a suitable choice of attire, and I would suggest a practical, rather than aesthetic approach here.

Leather, for example, can be very stylish and should also be bite resistant. Mail armour would, of course, be preferable and would give a rather fetching, slinky look to one’s ensemble, but it is rather heavy, by no means rainproof and also has the disadvantage of being somewhat hard to come by this century.

Kevlar, on the other hand, is not only light and flexible, it’s also hard wearing and has the advantage of being cruelty free. The uninitiated may well assume that kevlar is difficult to find, but any decent biker shop should have a wide selection of garments made from kevlar and other durable, weatherproof materials. These garments can be expensive to buy, at the moment, but this consideration will, of course, be quite irrelevant in the event of the zombie apocalypse.

Another important decision to be made will be in the matter of weapons.

In the United States, particularly south of the Mason Dixon line, firearms will be relatively easy to find. In the United Kingdom, however, while you may be able to find a shotgun without undue difficulty in rural areas does, you will be hard pressed to find any kind of gun without a good deal of effort. Unless, of course, you happen to have criminal tendencies, or be fortunate enough to be a close acquaintance of someone who does.

This should not be a source if undue discouragement, however, because while firearms can present certain advantages in the matter of fending off marauding zombies, there are also disadvantages to this option.

Clearly the ability to despatch a zombie at some distance is desirable, and a bullet in the head will do the job quite efficiently, but the difficulty with guns is that they are of limited value without ammunition. And ammunition is quite heavy to carry in bulk and does tend to run out at the most inconvenient times.

As an aside, it is worth noting that so many people come to grief by persisting in the habit of shooting zombies in the chest. Clearly this is a waste of time and ammunition. The only way to kill a zombie is to destroy the brain, therefore you must ALWAYS go for the head shot.

Unless of course one is threatened by a large number of highly mobile zombies in which case the precision required for an effective head shot will be difficult to achieve. In such circumstances it can be advisable to aim for the legs. This will not kill the zombies, of course, but it will slow them down quite considerably. Zombies may well feel no pain, but even the undead can’t run, or even shamble, on shattered leg bones, so they will be restricted to crawling, or dragging themselves along using their arms. This will then allow an opportunity either to retreat or to despatch the zombies on an individual basis.

But in the absence of ready access to firearms, one can always opt for a bow, although this requires almost constant practice to maintain an appropriate level of skill. Or a crossbow, a weapon that requires little more skill to use than a firearm, and is considerably quieter, but is every bit as useless as a gun once the ammunition is gone. Having said this, at least a crossbow bolt is reusable.

Regardless of one’s access to any of the above weapons one will always need a backup for when the ammunition runs out or the zombies get to close and what this boils down to is the choice between a sharp implement or a blunt one.

Either way, the length, weight and even the aerodynamic qualities of the weapon should be taken into consideration.

In particular, you need a weapon that is long enough to give you sufficient reach to keep the zombie out of biting range, but one that is not so long as to be difficult to wield.

One of the reasons why the Scottish army were defeated at the battle of Flodden, for example, is that they had been rearmed with 15 foot long pikes, which were considered state of the art weaponry, but which were, in the absence of proper training, unwieldy and virtually useless. James IV would have been better advised to have let his soldiers use the weapons they were used to.

In a similar vein, one should also choose a weapon of sufficient weight to be effective, but not so heavy as to be too tiring to use repeatedly.

The aerodynamic properties of a weapon may seem to be quite marginal, but if one is faced with a large number of zombies requiring repeated strikes, this apparently marginal factor may become quite significant.

These are, of course, matter of personal choice and will depend on the physique, fitness and skill of the individual.

Choosing between a sharp or blunt instrument is also a matter of individual choice. A sharp implement will appeal to those who favour decapitation over bludgeoning, but one must be aware of the risk of blood spatter which, depending on the variety of undead cannibal one encounters, may represent a significant risk of infection.

Something that is far less a question of personal choice is the matter of who to despatch and who to allow to go on living. Clearly those identified as zombies, or those infected persons who are likely to become zombies, should be dealt with firmly and decisively. Those who are not infected, should however, on the whole, not be killed.

Clearly, if we are to act on this principle we will need to have a robust and accurate means of identifying who is, or is not infected.

While even the most cursory visual examination may reveal those who are well and truly zombified, as they will

tend to be encrusted with dried blood about the mouth, lower face and chest, one may find that in conditions of poor visibility etc even a cursory examination may not be possible and in any case the early stages of zombification may not be obvious to the naked eye.

A detailed physical examination should determine whether or not someone has been bitten, but this will require the co-operation of the subject, which may not be forthcoming, and in any case a physical examination will require relatively close proximity, which may be inadvisable. Therefore other methods should be employed where possible.

One can, of course, carry out a careful observation of the subject’s behaviour in order to determine their level of physical co-ordination since a loss of fine motor skills is generally symptomatic of infection. On the other hand, some people are just clumsy, so this test cannot be considered definitive.

Alternatively, one may wish to engage the subject in conversation, as the infected will tend not to be great conversationalists. On the other hand an over reliance on the conversational ability of the subject as a determining factor may result in an unacceptably high attrition rate amongst the aphasic, or even just those of a taciturn disposition.

Significantly, one should not necessarily assume that someone is, or is about to become, a zombie simply because they hold and express views that appear to be inconsistent with higher cognitive function.

Therefore, decapitation of those whose taste in music, films or whose voting habits one disagrees with must, generally speaking, be considered excessive. A sharp blow to the head should be quite sufficient to the occasion and, if challenged, one can always cite the fact that zombies feel no pain and then congratulate the subject on having successfully passed the test.

Of course in amongst all the uncertainties resulting from the zombie apocalypse, there will always be some certainties that we can rely on.

The most notable of these are as follows:

1/ If you hear an unexplained noise from

a/ outside

b/ the cellar

c/ the attic

It is not the wind, the dust settling, or a stray kitten. It is DEFINITELY a zombie and you should take appropriate steps accordingly.

2/ If you see a young child wandering around on his/her own, do NOT approach. It is a zombie and should be despatched at your earliest convenience. (Actually the child may not be a zombie, but shooting irritatingly cute and precocious kids may be one of the great advantages of living through the zombie apocalypse. The true philosopher will always take his or her pleasures where he or she can.

3/ NEVER say any of the following

a/ I can handle this

b/ I think we’re safe now

c/ Everything’s going to be alright

d/ You know, I think Justin Bieber’s greatly underrated as a performer.

If you do, you WILL die a bizarre and horrible death.

4/ If a zombie appears to be dead, it isn’t. It’s just resting. Be sure and kill it before you do anything else.

By following these simple principles I’m sure we can all have a rewarding and enjoyable zombie apocalypse experience.

The Use of a PYT as a PV for a PT Does Not Necessarily Prove Misogyny (But it Might).

29 Nov

Horror films have often, and sometimes quite rightly, been accused of misogyny. This is hardly surprising given that a great many distinctly unpleasant things happen in horror films and they very often happen to women. I can’t offer any statistics on the subject, but it’s my general impression, having watched quite a few horror films in my time that a disproportionate number of these unpleasant happenings either happen or are threatened to happen to women.

There is also the question of the way women are actually portrayed in horror films. For example, either as weak, silly and generally in need of rescue, or alternatively as predatory, deceivers and seducers. But I think this is a separate and more general issue and certainly not one that is specific to any particular genre.

What I intend to offer is a structural examination of how horror films work, why this tends to encourage the use of female characters as victims or potential victims and why I don’t think that this is necessarily misogynist in intent or in effect.

I think the best way to explain this is to consider the mechanics of how to put together the kind of scene that one would expect to see in a horror film.

At the heart of any self-respecting horror film there has to be a Potential Threat (PT).

This can be a vampire, a serial killer, a monster or a herd of zombies. (As I have suggested elsewhere, one zombie on its own isn’t much of a threat – and would probably feel quite lonely, zombies are nothing if not social creatures).

In order to demonstrate that the PT is indeed a threat, he, she, or it, has to inflict varying degrees of unpleasantness on someone. Otherwise the audience may conclude that the PT is, in fact, some perfectly harmless member of the community who just happens to be wearing a boiler suit and a hockey mask and carrying a steak knife, chain saw or possibly a flame thrower for some entirely innocuous purpose.

Therefore the PT needs to have at least one Actual Victim (AV) and, in order to maintain some degree of tension over a period of time, someone who can be seen to be in danger from the PT, but who is not immediately dispatched. What one might call a Potential Victim (PV).

Otherwise they’re really not much of a threat and you’re going to end up with a pretty bland horror film.

Now, in order to be effective the PV has to have certain key characteristics.

First and foremost, the PV has to be someone the audience will care about. In other words, the PV has to possess some quality that the audience will engage with. The second key characteristic that an effective PV must possess is that they must appear to be vulnerable to the PT. If the PV seems capable of fending off the PT then there isn’t much for the audience to feel any sense of foreboding about.

These points are relatively obvious, but it’s worth looking at how they impact on the options available the filmmakers.

There are, of course, many ways to encourage an audience to engage with a character. One of the most effective is to hire a really good actor, someone who can engage an audience through the quality of their performance. This can be expensive and it will also require a certain amount of screen time to give the actor an opportunity to show the audience who their character is.

What is sometimes a safer and easier option is to hire a popular actor, someone that the audience already knows and likes because of their previous body of work. This can be very expensive.

Another option would be to find a really good scriptwriter who can create a really interesting and engaging character for an actor to portray. This requires hard work and talent and although it’s generally nowhere near as expensive as hiring a really good, or really popular actor (not always the same thing) it will still cost a certain amount of money. It will also, like using a really good actor, require some screen time.

Hiring a good director will generally be more expensive than hiring a good writer, but usually less expensive than hiring a popular actor, but again, the use of skill and creativity to make a character attractive to an audience will require a certain amount of screen time.

All of the above options can be very effective. But if one assumes a low budget, limited talent, and a general sense of urgency about getting on with the gory bits that the audience is actually paying to see, then a simpler option is to forget all of the above and just hire an actor who looks nice.

This need not be expensive, and requires only basic competence from all concerned. It’s also an option that will require very little screen time to exploit, since all you have to do is show the actor to the audience and they will, hopefully, be engaged.

When one considers the demographic that horror films tend to be aimed at, which would be (mostly) young(ish) men, then the obvious choice when selecting an actor who will looks nice to them, is to choose an attractive (probably) young woman* in order to play a role that one might characterise as a Pretty Young Thing (PYT)**.

Clearly some women also like to watch horror films, but this doesn’t present a difficulty since women also seem to like looking at attractive women. (Look at the cover of any women’s magazine and you’ll generally see a picture of a woman. Not the same kind of picture that you would see on the cover of magazines aimed at men, to be sure. But this fact does seem to indicate that while women may not (and almost certainly don’t) look at pictures of women in quite the same way, or for the same reasons, as men do, (regardless, I suspect of sexual orientation – men tend to be far more visually oriented than women) they do still like to look at pictures of women.

So it seems reasonably likely that a PYT may well engage women just as effectively as men although probably in a different way. (I think this point applies quite well unless the PYT in question is really wimpy and useless in which case I suspect that most women, far from engaging with her, will want to give her a slap).

So if you can put a PYT on the screen, you will probably engage most of your audience with a minimum of effort and expense.

Another major advantage of using a PYT as your PV is that you don’t need to work very hard to find a PT who can provide a plausible sense of menace. All you really need, in fact, is an actor with a suitably sharp implement. (Hockey masks, boiler suits, gloves equipped with blades on the fingers and clumpy boots are optional extras, and you don’t even need an actor who is particularly big. After all, how big do you need to be in order to threaten a PYT if you’ve got a suitably sharp implement at your disposal?).

When carried out effectively, for example in Halloween, the formula works very well.

But then again, John Carpenter also had a very good actor in Jamie Leigh Curtis, (Donald Pleasence was also brilliant) a very effective script and sure hand in developing atmosphere and character and generally scaring the living crap out of his audience.

A far less competent version of the formula can be seen in Friday the 13th Part Whatever It Was. (I can’t remember the number but it’s the one where they spend most of their time on a ship going to New York).***

This film dragged on for a seemingly interminable running time with an apparently infinite series of deeply unattractive teenagers being carved up for no obvious reason unless the film makers had simply set themselves some kind of quota to meet. It’s not the only horror film I’ve seen where the PVs totally failed to engage my sympathy, but at least with a film like Nightwing I could have a certain amount of fun from cheering the bats on. (I’m referring here to the rather disappointing 1979 screen adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s rather good novel of the same title which is not to be confused with the later superhero film and TV series).

Of course there are variations on this basic formula, and arguably the variations are much more effective than the original formula.

For example, in Predator we had Arnold Schwarzenegger and his impressively pumped up pals tramping through the jungle with enough military hardware to fight a small war.

Clearly there’s no point in sending some character armed with a steak knife to threaten these PVs, you need something much more formidable than that. And, of course, that’s exactly what we get in the titular predator. He’s bigger than Big Arnie, better armed than the entire troop of pumped up pals and also invisible. (He’s also, as Schwarzenegger’s character points out, an ugly mother f*cker).

But then again, this stripped down and rather efficient little horror film wasn’t exactly produced on a shoestring and it featured Arnold Schwarzenegger at pretty much the height of his popularity (ie before he decided to try his hand at comedy). In other words, there was no need to depend on a PYT since the budget was big enough to afford a popular actor. (Having said this the film does still feature a female character, Anna played by Elpidia Carillo, who’s somewhat less vapid than your run of the mill PYT, but still essentially there initially to be dragged around, and latterly to be protected, if not actually rescued by the pumped up pals).

Another, and rather more radical departure from the basic formula is to eschew the PYT option and go for a tough, smart heroine who can and will fight back when threatened. This was clearly a large part of Joss Whedon’s thinking in creating Buffy Summers, given that any vampire who tried his or her luck with Buffy was definitely taking his or her life (unlife?) in his or her hands.

Ellen Ripley (Alien) and Sarah Connor (Terminator) are similar in a way, but different in as much as they aren’t born with a mission to take on the monsters. They’re simply women who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and have to use what skill and courage God (in the form of Ridley Scott and James Cameron) gave them in order to survive.

Come to think of it, Laurie Strode (Jamie Leigh Curtis’ character from Halloween) is also a heroine in this mould. She’s a pretty normal teenager (which means much tougher and smarter than the normal inhabitant of a stalk and slash feature) who just happens to find herself in danger and manages to kick some pretty serious ass in self-defence.

Her ass-kicking is, regrettably, not quite serious enough to save us from a whole series of sequels, but this is often the trouble with clever and effective films – they tend to be successful and therefore spawn all manner of inferior sequels, spin offs, rip offs and ‘homages’ ad nauseam. (And it’s worth remembering quite how original Halloween was in bringing the horror genre out of the creepy mansions and crumbly castles and sticking it right in the middle of the picket fences and lawn sprinklers of suburban America. It may seem like an obvious cliché now, but it wasn’t back then).

So the basic formula, which is effective in a workmanlike sort of way, can also, like so many formulae, provide the basis for variations that are much more interesting.

And I would argue that those who stick more closely to the basic formula are probably acting more out of laziness, lack of funds, lack of imagination or lack of skill than misogyny. I also like to think that the effect of this formula, since it depends on the sympathies of the audience being with the PV, as opposed to the PT, and so also probably not misogynist.

There are exceptions, obviously.

Freddy Krueger may have started out as the villain in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, but as the franchise progressed it changed and Krueger became more like an anti-hero than an out and out villain. There’s a similar invitation to the audience to collude with the villain in the last scene of Silence of the Lambs.

These exceptions are, however, simply ironic variations on the basic formula I have described. (It’s also worth noting that the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise typically featured strong female characters who played a decisive role in the plot while Clarisse Starling was clearly far more than just another PYT).

Therefore, even the use of a PYT as a PV for the PT does not necessarily demonstrate misogyny in the plot of a horror film. It’s far more likely to be yet another example of film makers exploiting a tried and tested solution to the problem of how to engage an audience with the minimum expenditure of money, screen time and effort.

(And if that last sentence didn’t make any sense to you, you’ll just have to go back and reread the rest of this post).

* Clearly sexual orientations vary, but I’m not persuaded that the tendency of men to engage with female characters is necessarily predicated on sexual attraction, although that will often be a part of it. Misogynists aside, I think most men tend to have some kind of protective response to a woman who is perceived to be at risk. This may be nothing more than the (less un)acceptable face of male chauvinism, but it’s a rare, and pretty suspect man who doesn’t have this response to some degree or another.

** The term PYT is intended to indicate a particular type of screen character (ie young, pretty underdeveloped and very often with very little to do except be threatened, rescued, seduced etc etc – eye candy if you prefer). It is NOT intended to refer to any actual woman or girl living in what passes for the real world.

*** The original Friday the 13th may not have been quite this bad, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t seen it and I have no plans to. Jason X with its science fiction backdrop and mocking references to its own franchise tropes, including a holographic version of Camp Crystal Lake complete with bikini clad PYTs, is actually quite amusing and should probably have marked the end of this rather dismal franchise. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

Lying Time

23 Nov

Up until a little over five years ago I had a reasonably sensible, secure job. Then, for reasons too tedious to go into, the place where I worked closed down and I was made redundant. Since then I’ve been in and out of work, taking whatever jobs were available, usually low paid and insecure, and frankly most of them have been pretty much of a slog.

I’m well aware that none of this is unique, or even particularly unusual, it’s the reality behind the much-vaunted ‘flexible labour market’ that our political leaders are so proud of. And anyway, it’s not my purpose to whinge about any of this. All I’m doing is providing a little background as an explanation of how I managed to get into a particular situation.

To continue, one of the conditions if entitlement for Jobseekers Allowance is that you have to be ‘actively seeking work’. This is not unreasonable; the clue is, after all, in the name of the benefit.

Needless to say, there is some flexibility in how you might determine whether or not someone is actively seeking work, and the exact requirement specified by the Department of Work and Pensions has varied from time to time. At the time I’m writing about the criterion was to engage in at least 20 work related activities per week. A work related activity, for those who don’t already know, could mean visiting a web site, submitting an application, engaging in some form of training or doing voluntary work if it’s likely to lead to some form of gainful employment.

So it was quite possible to meet the requirement if you were willing to put in a bit of time and effort, which, quite frankly, you should be if you’re unemployed and able to work. (The position is obviously quite different for those who are not able to work, but that’s another issue for another day).

On the other hand, whatever kind of work you’re looking for, the availability of suitable vacancies varies from time to time and sometimes you have to be a bit flexible in the kind of work you’re willing to do. And sometimes you may have to be a little, shall we say speculative in your applications. (I don’t mean by this that you should apply for jobs that you clearly and obviously aren’t qualified for, but if there are grey areas then you might as well exploit them. I think that employers who can’t or won’t be clear about the skills and experience they’re looking for have no right to complain if they’re swamped by unsuitable applications).

During one of the periods where I was struggling to find suitable jobs to apply for, I submitted an application for the post of ‘Mystery Shopper’. (I’m going to be a little vague about some of the details because I have a vague recollection of signing some kind of confidentiality agreement). The post required some knowledge of motorcycles, a basic degree of computer literacy and a confident telephone manner.

It wasn’t the kind of work I’d done before, but I’ve worked in call centres, ridden motorbikes and used computers. The post was low paid and temporary, with no prospect of advancement, but there wasn’t much else going that week so I submitted my application and moved on to the next thing.

Somewhat to my surprise I got the job.

I had assumed when I submitted my application that the job was to do with customer service and that I would be expected to declare my identity and purpose at the end of the call, since that was my previous, rather limited, experience of mystery shopping.

As it turned out, I was wrong on both counts. The purpose of the call was to find out which products were offered by the retailer, at what prices and which, if any, promotions were mentioned.

And, of course, I was not under any circumstances, to reveal that I was anything but a genuine customer enquiring about the products on sale.

There are a couple of problems inherent in all this.

The first is that the job veered a little too close to fraud for my liking. I was, after all, obtaining a service through deception. (Which is not a bad definition of fraud when you think about it). But I assumed, since I needed the job,

that my employers had looked into the matter and assured themselves that what we were being asked to do was quite legal.

The second problem is less a matter of law or ethics and considerably more practical.

Most bikers know far more about the workings of their bikes and are far more actively involved in servicing and maintaining their bikes than drivers tend to be about their cars. A car driver, for example, could quite plausibly claim to have no idea what tyres you have on your car, but it would be a very strange biker who did not know exactly what tyres he, or she, was riding on.

The inevitable result of this is that you can’t really phone a retailer and just ask what’s available. The expectation would be that you would know what products you’re using on your bike and that you will want the same again unless you’re not happy with the product you’re using. And since we were discouraged (to put it mildly) from claiming to be unhappy with any specific product, in case the distributor ever heard the call. And since we were also required to claim to be the owner of the bike, as opposed to someone calling on behalf of the bike owner; the options for getting the retailer to offer products were limited. (Non-existent in fact).

The job was further complicated by the fact that our calls had to be based on a scenario specified in the computer generated form we were supposed to use and, quite frankly, some of those scenarios were totally implausible. (For example we would be given a product to enquire about that would be totally unsuitable, sometimes dangerous or even physically impossible to fit, for the bike specified in the scenario).

After a while, and one or two really uncomfortable phone calls, you would learn to spot these scenarios and, with a bit of research, you could adjust the details to produce something more workable.

Another problem with the job was that, after a while people start to recognise your voice. This is less of a problem with big retailers, or outlets in big cities, but when you’re calling a small shop in a small community you’re very quickly going to find yourself being asked why you called the week before asking about components for a completely different bike.

And, of course, people don’t like being deceived and having their time wasted.

Of course some of the big retail chains have staff who are employed to do nothing except answer the phone and give quotes. It doesn’t matter much to them who they’re talking to or whether or not the call results in a purchase. But there’s a real problem when you call a smaller outlet where time spent answering phone calls is time they can’t spend on doing something else and where they don’t always have a quick and simple way of providing quotes for products and sometimes have to phone their own suppliers.

So it was not, all things considered, my all time favourite job. The fact that we were also put under intense pressure to meet targets that were, in my opinion, quite unrealistic, just made the whole thing worse.

In fact, I think the only positive feature of the job (and a somewhat dubious positive) was that I learned how to be quite an efficient liar. This was not a skill I had any particular ambition to develop. As a general rule I prefer to be reasonably honest most of the time, but the circumstances didn’t seem to allow me much choice. (Bear in mind here, that if I had simply resigned from the job, I could have been considered ‘voluntarily unemployed’ and therefore not eligible for benefits. And since I’m not independently wealthy, I have to either work or claim benefits. I don’t have a third option).

So I stuck with the job until the end of my contract and I learned to lie.

The essence of being a convincing liar, I discovered is in having access to sufficient detail. This does not mean volunteering huge amounts of detail. That can be just as much of a give-away as being too vague. It’s about having the details worked out in advance so that they’re right there, in your mind, ready to be used if the need arises.

To give an example. If I had to call up about a particular set of tyres for a particular bike, I would have some idea of what kind of bike I was talking about, what it would be used for and therefore what kind of tyres would be appropriate to fit on the bike. (Hard wearing tyres for a tourer or commuter bike, softer tyres for a racing bike etc).

I would also have some sort of idea of who I was pretending to be.

Sometimes I was using the bike for day to day travel and I would have a pragmatic approach, other times the bike was pretty much of a toy and I was willing to be quite extravagant. Quite often I would have just bought the bike second hand and be looking for advice about whether or not the tyres fitted by the previous owner were suitable.

Sometimes I would be an experienced biker who was confident in servicing the bike, more often I would claim to have a friend who would help me out with these things since it allowed me to plat dumb if I had to.

There were also times, if I was challenged on something and I didn’t have the information I needed to give a sensible answer, when I would claim to be phoning for a friend who had tinnitus and couldn’t use the phone very easily. (This was frowned on by my employer, who always wanted us to claim to be the bike owner, but it was a workable scenario).

Of course quite a lot of retailers wanted to call me back with the information I had asked for. This was generally because they didn’t have the information to hand when I called them, but I think it was also, sometimes because they knew perfectly well that some of the calls they received were bogus and they were trying to see if I was a genuine caller. (A mystery shopper typically won’t want to give their phone number; most legitimate callers will be quite willing). In this situation, I would claim to be working in a call centre and therefore unable to take personal calls. I would then suggest calling back ‘on my break’. This had the additional benefit of giving me a lot of flexibility about when I called back. Call centre workers work all kinds of shifts and therefore they can have breaks at any and all times of the day.

The call centre scenario had the additional benefit that I could claim, quite plausibly, that I wasn’t allowed to have a mobile phone while I was working. Many call centres are very strict about where and when employees can have their mobile phones switched on, particularly if they have access to customer’s bank or credit card details.

So, in a nutshell, the secret to efficient lying is to have a scenario worked out in advance. To start by giving just enough information to get by but be able to provide more detail if and when challenged. Oh, and be confident. You can tell most people almost any load of old tosh provided a) it doesn’t contradict anything they already know and b) you can create the impression that you know what you’re talking about.

And don’t worry too much about the people who claim to know when someone’s lying to. The people who can actually do this are few and far between, your chances of meeting one are slim. As for the rest, they’re generally the easiest people to deceive since they’re starting off from a position where they’re already deceiving themselves.

After six months my contract came to an end. And I would have to say that I was quite happy about that.

Like a Detective Story – But With a Lot More Helicopters

9 Nov

Saigon… shit.

The first line spoken in Apocalypse Now.

Of course the film starts with the sound of the fan set into ceiling of Captain Willard’s hotel room (or is it a helicopter) then the images of yellow smoke, palm trees and a napalm strike all played out over ‘The End’, by The Doors.

(It has been said so many times before, but while the Vietnam War was such an incredible disaster, not only for the US, but even more for most of South East Asia, the sound track really was outstanding).

Captain Willard goes on to muse that ‘everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over I never wanted another.’

When I mentioned to someone, some years ago, that I had always felt that Apocalypse Now was a lot like a detective story I was laughed at and never really got the chance to explain or develop my idea.

(This seems to happen to me quite a lot. It’s frustrating. It’s one reason for starting a blog, however, because now I get to develop my ideas without being interrupted).

So anyway, I still think of Apocalypse Now as a kind of detective story, and more specifically I think it’s a lot like the kind of ‘hardboiled’ detective story that was often adapted into film noire in the 1940s and 50s. (Even if it does have a lot more helicopters than say The Big Sleep).

On the face of it this might seem like an odd idea given that classic film noire were shot in black and white, very often in highly claustrophobic settings and usually lit with the intention of creating deep and unsettling shadows around the main characters.

Clearly none of this applies to Apocalypse Now.

The look of the film as about as far removed from classic film noire as you can get. To illustrate this point, Willard says of one of the other character (Mr Clean of the South Bronx shithole) that ‘the light and the space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head’. And between them Francis Ford Coppola and Vittorio Storaro (his cinematographer) capture that light and space beautifully. It really is a remarkably beautiful film to look at.

Having said that, many of the later scenes are dominated by shadow and darkness, and it seems to me that the firefight at the Do Lung bridge acts as a transitional scene, both in the look of the film and in Willard (and the viewer’s) perception of the war.

I wouldn’t be the first person to point out that this scene portrays a confrontation between light and darkness. (Which could have been nothing more than a clichéd metaphor for the conflict between good and evil, but in this case, the conflict seems much more elemental and amoral than that). But I think it goes beyond just the look of the film.

Up until the scenes at Do Lung the war has seemed to be efficient on a tactical level but lacking in strategic purpose. (Kilgore’s assault on the Vietnamese village is supremely effective, but his purpose seems to be as much about securing a beach to surf on as following the orders he apparently never received to help Willard on his mission). At Do Lung the war lacks even the tactical coherence Kilgore can offer.

This point is brought home to Willard when he asks one man who’s in charge only to be asked ‘ain’t you?’. The point is reinforced by Roach, (a disturbing, almost shamanic, figure who effortlessly drops a 20mm grenade on a VC soldier apparently by pure intuition) who, when asked if he knows who’s in charge, just says, ‘yeah’, and then goes about his (possibly drug fuelled) business.

From this point on it becomes clear that this war isn’t just misguided and brutal, (most wars are) it’s downright insane.

From this point on we move through dense fog towards Willard’s confrontation with Colonel Kurtz.

These scenes are pretty much dominated by shadow. (To a degree this was forced on Coppola because Marlon Brando he put on an enormous amount of weight and was apparently so self conscious about it that he insisted on being shot entirely in shadow – call it a happy accident, or maybe just making a virtue of a necessity).

So you could say that Martin Sheen’s scenes with Marlon Brando are the only ones that are truly reminiscent of the visual style of film noire, but I think there’s more to it than the use of shadow as a visual metaphor.

I suppose it starts for me with the voice over. Not an obligatory feature of detective stories, or even film noire. You don’t find it at all in such classic film noire such as The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. But it was common enough in film noire nonetheless and it also refers back to the first person narrative that was such a common feature of the pulp fiction that was so often the source material for film noire.

There is also an element of enquiry in Willard’s mission. His orders are to ‘terminate’ Col. Kurtz’ command and the instruction to pick up information along the way is almost an aside, but that isn’t quite the way the mission actually plays out.

In essence Willard, and the audience through his eyes, is learning about the war and about Kurtz. He’s gathering evidence, almost inadvertently, but the physical journey towards Kurtz in the patrol boat is matched by Willard’s progress towards understanding the man he’s been sent to kill.

What’s unusual for a detective story, and it’s definitely not what the Army wants, is that, however reluctantly, Willard is gathering evidence that turns out to be for Kurtz’ defence, not his prosecution.

And as in any decent detective story, there’s even a crime. Kurtz is accused of murder, the reason given for his execution, although it’s a charge that, as Willard notes, makes about as much sense as handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

This brings me to another feature of Apocalypse Now that I find reminiscent of film noire, and more generally the ‘hardboiled’ school of detective fiction, which is the fact that Willard the (sort of) detective can’t trust his (sort of) client, the army. (By this I mean, not the ordinary soldiers, but the ‘four star clowns’ as Willard calls them, who’ve sent him on his mission.

These people give Willard some information, but not enough for him to fully understand what he’s doing and what information they do give him seems to undermine the case they’ve made for wanting Kurtz dead.

This leaves Willard is in the dark, metaphorically if not literally, the imagery actually gets darker as Willard learns more. This tells you something about the nature of what Willard is learning, but is also indicates that as Willard gains in understanding he loses whatever certainty he started out with.

And in Willard himself we even have just the kind of flawed central character that we’d expect to find in film noire. Most detectives of the ‘hardboiled’ school were distinctly compromised as champions of truth and justice. (Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe is a bit of an exception here, he was a knight in a slightly threadbare suit, rather than shining armour, but a chivalrous figure nonetheless).

When we first see Willard he is alone, drunk and naked in his hotel room and one of the first things he tells us about himself is that, on his return to the United States after his first tour of duty he hardly said a word to his wife until he said ‘yes’ to a divorce.

He’s not exactly the clean cut, all-American hero type, then. For most of the film he’s a passive figure, observing as he’s ferried up the river, passing judgement, but seldom acting. When he does take the initiative, however, it is shocking. He seems to instinctively understand Kurtz’ views on ‘clarity’.

“…what is often called ruthless – what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it, directly, quickly, awake, looking at it.”

Or as Willard puts it, “It’s a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut ‘em in half with a machine gun and give ‘em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw them, the more I hated lies.”

This is the opposite of the dreamlike state that so many of the characters in Apocalypse Now seem to inhabit, from Kilgore and his beach party to the USO sending Playboy models into a war zone, to the ‘timid lying morality’ that Kurtz claims to be beyond. The same ‘morality’ that is behind Willard’s orders to kill Kurtz.

So Apocalypse Now is a bit like a detective story. And it does have a lot of helicopters. More than you find in most detective stories anyway. And like the best of the ‘hardboiled’ detective stories, the ones that adapted so easily into film noire, it is about truth and evil, but not good and evil, because there’s precious little ‘good’ to be found in these stories.

So Apocalypse Now is a bit like a detective story. And it does have a lot of helicopters, more than you find in most detective stories anyway.

And like the best of the ‘hardboiled’ detective stories, the ones that adapted so easily into film noire, it is about truth and evil, but not good and evil, because there’s precious little ‘good’ to be found in these stories.

One Big Question

2 Nov

Sometimes you can anticipate the big questions that future historians will ponder over. Questions like why did the Scottish electorate vote against independence in the 2014 referendum? Why did VHS win out over Betamax? (You’re showing your age if you even understand that one). Or why did so many people buy into the whole Twilight ‘twinkly vampire’ thing?

 

There are other questions that will doubtless occur to academics in the future that we can’t possibly anticipate. To take an example, just think of the way that contemporary historians would dearly love to understand the experience of ordinary people from past ages. This is something that the people who were actually recording events at the time totally failed to anticipate, hence the frustration of contemporary historians and their absolute delight at coming across treasures such as the Vindolanda tablets. (Hundreds of wooden leaf-tablets dating from the 1st/2nd Centuries AD, written with carbon based ink. They were found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda – hence the name. Some record official military matters, others are private messages, including invitations to a birthday party and letters written by Roman squaddies to their mums).

 

Having said that, one question that I can be reasonably sure will never trouble any academic of any discipline in any future period is the vexed conundrum of why the hell I bother to self publish on Amazon Kindle Direct.

 

The reason I can be so sure about this is because one of two things will happen.

 

Either a) I will become a hugely successful author in which case it will be obvious to everyone that my efforts to self-publish were all part of a cunning plan that worked out beautifully in the end or b) no one will ever bother to read any of my work, which means that no one will ever hear of me and future academics will be spared the trouble of wondering why I ever did anything at all. (I must admit that the second possibility seems rather more plausible at present).

 

Of course there is the possibility that future historians will ponder the question of why people in general ever published anything on KDP and its equivalents, but that’s a different and rather more general question.

 

In the spirit of generosity towards future academics, however, and just on the off-chance that I’m wrong and someone does take an interest in this question, I’m willing to offer an explanation.

 

The reason why I publish on Amazon KDP is because I’ve never managed to persuade anyone remotely connected with the publishing business to take any interest in publishing anything for me.

 

There are probably sound reasons for this.

 

Undoubtedly, one of these reasons is that some of the stuff I’ve sent off to magazines, publishers and agents was, quite frankly, crap. Or at least it was immature and not particularly well thought out or well written. (More to the point, they weren’t particularly well rewritten. The essence of good writing is rewriting – as many of us come to learn).

 

I had confidence in what I had written at the time, obviously. I wouldn’t have sent it off otherwise. But having reread the material some time later, I could certainly see flaws that weren’t apparent to me when I sent it off.

 

I suppose that’s inevitable. We all develop over time and the only way to learn to write is to keep writing and keep reading. (In particular that means rereading your own stuff in spite of the fact that it makes you cringe. Or rather, precisely because it makes you cringe. That’s how you learn to avoid writing stuff that makes you cringe).

 

So clearly some of my submissions have been somewhat (shall we say) optimistic, and with hindsight I can’t really blame anyone for rejecting them.

 

More recently I think my work has improved and I can go back to it months, and even years later and still not cringe. But I still can’t persuade anyone to take it on.

 

Maybe that just means that I’m still writing crap and I’ve just become more cunning in deceiving myself. On the other hand, I have had a few positive comments from people who really didn’t need to make any comment at all if they didn’t want to. (As opposed to friends and family who often find it really hard to tell you that you really ought to take up knitting or stamp collecting instead of writing because you’re really not very good at it. I know about this. I was once asked to give ‘an honest opinion’ about some truly appalling poetry and I too found it very hard to be really honest about it).

 

 

Of course on one level it really doesn’t make much difference whether or not I’m any good at writing. I don’t write because I think I’m good at it, I write because it’s just something I’m compulsive about doing.

 

(Someone once said that an artist isn’t someone who’s good at art, he/she is simply someone who would go completely crazy if they tried to stop making art. I have no delusions about being an ‘artist’, but I think the same basic principal applies).

 

So I’ll carry on writing whether or not I’m writing crap and, like most people who write, I’d be rather pleased if someone actually chose to read something I’ve written. (As opposed to being semi-obliged because I’ve asked them to). As a result I publish stuff on Amazon KDP because I really don’t have a better alternative right now.

 

Of course the big problem with this form of self-publishing is exactly the same as the big advantage with it. That is, anyone can do it. And of course, because anyone can, lots of people do.

 

Of course this is the point where some people will be inclined to comment on the quality of the material being published in this way and those comment will inevitably be pretty negative.

 

I don’t propose to make that kind of comment (mostly because I’m probably in a bit of a glass house here and I shouldn’t start chucking stones about, but also because I’m acutely aware of the fact that my personal opinions aren’t necessarily a reliable guide to literary merit. I could give you quite a long and impressive list of great works of literature that I’ve found unreadable).

 

Having said that, one point I would make is that the sheer volume of what’s available does make it very difficult to stand out from the ground and make any kind of connection with anyone who might be interested in my writing. (And there is also the fact that my shortcomings as a writer, however great they may be, are as nothing compared to my shortcomings as a self-publicist).

 

There’s kind of an irony here, by the way. People like me really need an agent to promote our work, because we’re just not very good at promoting it ourselves. But the key to getting an agent is actually self-promotion – you have to ‘sell’ yourself and your work to the agent before they’ll even consider trying to sell it for you.

 

Of course, however exasperated aspiring authors may be with agents and publishers, the plain fact is that agents and publishers seem to be every bit as exasperated with aspiring authors. And they will, of course, deny that they’re the villains of the piece.

 

They’ll tell you, instead, that they’re not in it for the money, but because they really love promoting the work they believe in. Then they’ll typically complain about their ‘slush pile’ and probably chuck in a few disparaging remarks about how, contrary to popular belief, there really isn’t some huge pool of unpublished talent out there and the reason why most unpublished authors are unpublished is because they’re unpublishable. You may even get some comment about the prevalence of ‘hypergraphia’ amongst contributors to the slush pile.

 

(Hypergraphia – a behavioural condition characterised by a compulsive need to write, which may be associated with temporal lobe changes in epilepsy. In this context there’s always the implication that the material being written is incoherent, or at least totally devoid of any literary merit).

 

There may be some truth in this, I wouldn’t know, I have no way of assessing the quality (or lack thereof) in the unsolicited submissions received by agents and publishers. What I would say, however, is that I really wish some of the people who make these complaints would try working a shift in a call centre or maybe try stacking shelves for a few hours.

 

Aside from anything else I really believe that, as a result of this experience, they would start to view their slush piles with some genuine affection. (And maybe even show a little bit of respect for the effort other people put into their work – although this may be just a little too much to ask).

 

I suppose this brings me to a fantasy that, I think, is very common amongst aspiring writers.

 

It goes like this.

 

An aspiring author (insert yourself here if you’ve ever written anything and hoped to get it published) writes something wonderful. He/she sends it off to multiple agents and publishers and is refused at every turn.

 

Finally through sheer persistence (or possibly some lucky chance – depending on your temperament, I suppose) this wonderful piece of writing gets published and becomes a massive worldwide success. At this point all the mean, nasty agents and publishers who rejected it are all summarily dismissed from their posts. (Or at the very least severely embarrassed at their lack of insight).

 

I can see the attractions of this fantasy, but it is, of course, nonsense.

 

Anyone who pays attention to such things can cite numerous cases of incredibly successful work that was rejected time and time again. And one thing I think I can be pretty sure of is that none of the people who rejected those works was ever disciplined, or fired, or even criticised for rejecting them.

 

In publishing, as in so many ‘creative’ fields, the tendency is always to be risk averse and the risk is always in accepting things, never in rejecting them. You may well hear, or read, about agents etc yearning for something original that will break the mould and break new ground and so on and so forth, but if you actually give them anything like that they will immediately start to panic about how it will break the bank if they try to work with it.

 

The art of making money in any ‘creative’ industry is to avoid being too creative. Essentially you need to follow the herd but try to follow from just a little (a very little) bit in front.

 

As a consequence, you’re much more likely to suffer as a result of accepting something that fails than for rejecting something that turns out to be a huge success in someone else’s hands.

 

So, it seems, the only way to be sure of getting something published is to a) be personally acquainted with someone in the publishing business, b) to have already had something published or c) to already be famous for something else. In other words to be a known quantity and to, therefore, seem like a safe bet. (Not that there is such a thing as a truly safe bet – Pippa Middleton’s book on entertaining quite famously failed to sell in any great numbers).

 

Since I fall into none of the above categories, and I don’t expect I ever will, I have no high hopes of finding an agent, far less a publisher in any big hurry.

 

As a result I self publish on Amazon KDP, along with so many other people of varying degrees of skill and talent. And I have about the same degree of success as everyone else. And it’s just as well I have a day job.

 

(Actually I’m working on a night shift at the moment, but the same basic principal applies).

 

Singular First Person

26 Oct

Many years ago, as a student of English Literature I was told to go and write an essay about Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

I tend to feel quite smug about that essay, because I got a pretty good mark for it and (just for a change) my tutor seemed to think I was being quite perceptive. (Her normal feeling seemed to be that I was quite good at identifying interesting issues and then veering away from them without managing to say anything very interesting about them).

One of the insights I had to offer was in my essay was the suggestion that Conrad’s decision to write Heart of Darkness as a first person narrative was crucial to the success of the novel as a whole.

(It should be noted that there really isn’t any such thing as a typical Joseph Conrad novel. He often wrote stories about the sea, but having said that he ranged freely across different styles, techniques and themes and if you’ve read one of his books and you didn’t like it, then it’s probably worth having a look at some of his other stuff, because you never know your luck).

In particular, I suggested that Conrad’s use of a first person narrative not only allowed him to be suitably vague about the exact setting of the story, but also allowed him to leave out a lot of the boring scene setting stuff and concentrate on what he really wanted to write about.

These points might not seem very important, but I think they are.

Heart of Darkness is a very short, economical story and one of the key elements of the novel is a sense of disorientation. A key scene in the novel occurs when the river boat is travelling through a heavy fog and Marlowe describes his feeling of losing any sense not only of place, but also of time. Earlier in the story, Marlowe also talks of being feverish at times and there’s something of the hallucination about the whole story.

Had Conrad settled for the third person narrative, which he used to great effect elsewhere, it’s difficult to believe that he could have achieved either the brevity or the dreamlike quality so essential to this novel.

So first person narrative is a useful device for creating atmosphere and also for limiting the amount of information available to the reader. By definition that reader can only be told what the narrator knows and what the narrator chooses to tell. (By contrast a third person narrator is effectively omniscient and attempts by authors to create uncertainty about ‘perhaps this’ or ‘maybe that’ always seems pretty artificial to me).

This makes first person narrative particularly effective for thrillers that depend on a careful balance between what is concealed and what is revealed to the reader in order to build towards a (hopefully) unexpected denouement. So it’s no big surprise that Raymond Chandler used first person narrative in all his novels and most of his short stories or that Dashiell Hammett used it in his ‘Continental Op’ stories (although, surprisingly not in some of his best novels eg The Maltese Falcon).

Even Agatha Christie (who generally used 3rd person narrative) used it from time to time and most memorably in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in order to produce a really nice little plot twist that I must admit I didn’t see coming. (No spoilers here – if you want to know what happens, read the book).

Another useful effect of a first person narrative is to make a character who might seem bland to most observers much more interesting by revealing his, or her, inner life in a particularly vivid manner.

Adam Hall does this especially well in his ‘Quiller’ novels, which are based on a highly professional ‘spy’ (he refers to himself as an ‘executive’) who cultivates anonymity as a key tool of his trade. (He works for ‘The Bureau’ – which has no official existence and unlike James Bond he’s not specially handsome, doesn’t cultivate a particularly glamorous lifestyle, doesn’t drink, smoke, gamble or get on first name terms with bartenders and head waiters).

What makes Quiller distinctive is his perverse, quirky, often bloody minded and possibly borderline psychotic personality. What is also innovative about the Quiller novels in contrast with the James Bond books is that Quiller has little trust and no affection for his employers. They give him what he needs, the kid of work he lives for, but he tends to refer to The Bureau as ‘The Sacred Bull’ (from which so much sacred bullshit flows). The clear implication of this term being that The Bureau is some kind of dark and oppressive deity that demands its regular tribute of

blood sacrifice.

Much like the classic PI in a hard boiled detective story, Quiller goes into his missions with just enough information to function – and often having been misled or manipulated into taking a job that he would never have taken on if he’d known what was involved. He often describes himself as a ferret who’s been sent down a rabbit hole, but usually with the implication that he might well run into something a lot more dangerous than a rabbit. All in all this setting creates an edgy, contrast between the concrete reality of what Quiller does and how he does it and the uncertainty of the background to what he’s doing. (This always includes the possibility that Quiller will be betrayed by his own people).

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this kind of effect using a 3rd person narrative, but where Adam Hall is particularly innovative in his use of first person narrative is in his action sequences. He has written some of the best fight scenes in popular fiction in my opinion, so much so the Eric von Lustbader was clearly inspired ( if that’s the word) to use a very similar style in thrillers like The Ninja).

What Adam Hall does in his action scenes is to use a fragmented, kaleidoscopic style that allows a very concise, immediate style and also reflects the vivid confusion that most people experience in a violent situation. (Most of us haven’t been involved in terminal confrontation with a professional killer, but if you think of any time you might have played a contact sport, or been involved in a car crash, you’ll probably get the idea).

It has to be said that Charlotte Brontë (whatever her other virtues as an author) is not generally noted for her vivid and innovative action sequences, but in Villette she did use first person narrative to achieve some of the same effects I’ve been describing in Adam Hall’s work.

Villette is a novel told from the point of view of Lucy Snowe. (Who, on the face of it has very little in common with Quiller, but she is also an individual who is somewhat at odds with her environment and the people around her. In addition, she tends to have a very low profile, although in her case this is not always a matter of choice, and she has little trust or affection for her employer. She is also stubborn, perverse and has a distinctly rebellious streak at times).

So what we have in Lucy Snowe is a not desperately pretty heroine who is really quite peripheral to the lives of those around her. She may depend on them to some extent, but for the most part they could get along quite nicely without her.

What, perhaps, makes her most like Quiller is the disconnect between her public persona and her private personality. The people who think they know her would be shocked rigid if they only knew what she was thinking and feeling. (Some, in fact, might be surprised to discover that she thinks and feels at all).

Where Lucy Snowe shows her character most clearly is where she hides and distorts information. For example, there is an idyllic, extended description of her passage across the English Channel that comes to an abrupt halt with the instruction to ‘cancel’ all that. Snowe then goes on to describe the truly miserable crossing that she actually experienced. She is also not above concealing significant information for a chapter or two for no obvious reason than her own perversity.

Of all the women in Victorian fiction, I think Lucy Snowe is my favourite.

Of course the last, and possibly best, reason for using first person narrative is simply that sometimes your characters speak in more interesting voices than you can.

This was certainly James M Cain’s reason. (For those who don’t recognise the name, James M. Cain vies with Ross MacDonald – author of The Moving Target, which was filmed with Paul Newman as Harper – for the title of The Other Great Writer of Hardboiled Crime Stories – alongside Raymond Chandler and Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Or to be a little more factual, he was the author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice).

Allow me to quote from the Author’s Preface to Double Indemnity.

…for ten years (I) resigned myself to the conviction that I couldn’t write a novel… I didn’t seem to have the least idea where I was going with it, or even which paragraph should follow which. But my short stories, which were put in the mouth of some character, marched right along, for if I in the third person faltered and stumbled, my characters in the first person knew perfectly well what they wanted to say.

So there you are; James M. Cain found that his characters were better storytellers than he was and he stepped aside to let them do the talking.

Of course there are problems with using a first person narrative. You can’t really jump from one character’s perspective to the another without using some kind of device. (eg Wilkie Collin’s use of written testimony from a series of characters in The Moonstonea device that I think he pulled off quite well but which I felt Bram Stoker struggled with in Dracula).

There is also the fact that if you’re writing from a first person perspective you have a certain theoretical lack of tension in as much as the reader ‘knows’ that the narrator can’t really get killed until he/she has fished telling the story. (Although you can get round that if you really try – see Sunset Boulevard). Of course this lack of tension is strictly theoretical. What a reader knows intellectually has little to do with how they respond to fiction, otherwise they wouldn’t respond to fiction at all.

Another problem is that in writing a first person narrative, you can feel quite exposed. Essentially you can maintain far more detachment from your central character as a 3rd person narrator.

On the other hand, to paraphrase someone I used to know; the more personal your writing is the more universal it becomes. And of course, you can’t make your writing personal unless you’re willing to take a few risks.