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January reading round-up.

Looking back over my reading notes for January, I seem to have got through a fair few books, and since I confine my twitter length reviews to my good reads page, here is a quick rundown for the interested:

New Selected Poems by Carol Ann Duffy, who likes puns too much.

Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare, who wasn’t always a great writer.

The Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo, who is the Michael Crichton of existential seafaring and Guerno superstitions.

The Penguin Book of Modern Short Stories by Edited by Malcolm Bradbury, who coincidentally has the best story in the collection. Suspicious.

Monkey: Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’En, who writes long, even when heavily abridged.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene, who doesn’t like colonialism, especially when the Americans and French do it.

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn, who is only a bit less racist than most of the Restoration English.

Henry VI Part 2 by William Shakespeare, who was not above doing sequel after sequel if it paid.

A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift, who writes basically incomprehensible nonfiction sentences.

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights by Anon, who has an endless thesaurus of words for genitals.

Henry VI Part 1 by William Shakespeare, who is good at play writing and bad at history.

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, who taught me that war is more fun than you would expect, but is also every bit as not fun as you would also expect.

Lips Too Chilled by Matsuo Basho, who taught me that I don’t really get haikus.

The Qu’ran by God, who is nice to widows and orphans, but less nice to gays and people who don’t respect his prophets.

Managing Oneself by Peter F Drucker, who gives super helpful advice to the self-employed.

White Noise by Don DeLillo, who is really bad at natural dialogue but really good at being a good writer.

Next month’s menu should be follows: Tom Jones from the classics; The Communist Manifesto,  Fire on the Moon, Hiroshima, Falling Man, The Information and Pamuk’s The Black Book for novel research; Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew, Henry VI Part 3 and Richard III from ol’Bill; and The Ancestor’s Tale by Ricky D, because sometimes I miss science.


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On Air

So about that radio play…

A few weeks ago the deadline for submitting dramatic scripts to the BBC Writer’s room was coming up fast and I had a somewhat uneven script called Gorilla ready for submission. There were a number of reasons for the dodginess of the script, the main one being lack of preparation. The general idea came out of listening to Warren Zevon’s Gorilla, You’re a Desperado  over and over because it followed Goodnight Moon alphabetically on my iTunes and I went through a period of listening to that each morning as I walked to work a while back. But I really only had a few scenes very clear in my mind, and a general sense of an atmosphere I wanted to generate.

I had a mental list of characters and what their reactions to the drama would be, in a couple of cases a had a sort of voice for some of them, but beyond that they were a bit functional and not terribly fleshy.

I also had a somewhat more extravagant end in mind (SWAT team, hostages, animal control, possibly even an exploding helicopter) which didn’t really fit with the lower-key way it was turning out as I wrote it. So in the end I had to turn the ship around and head for somewhere rather less Michael Bay, coming up with the new ending on the fly.

So of the classic trifecta of storytelling plot, character and theme I really only had the last stuck firmly in my head: I knew that wanted the play to have a challenge to human exceptionalism threaded through the play. With a pair of door-to-door Mormons providing one side of the debate, and an entirely silent gorilla called Jambo providing the other. Oh, and I wanted it to be funny, or at least amusing.

So I’ve shelved it for a bit, to come back to and do a proper job on. Because I really want it to be right.

I am possibly a little sentimental about the radio. Perhaps even more even than reading, certainly more than film or TV, cassettes and CDs were how my parents kept me and my sisters amused. As a mish-kid in Africa I was indoctrinated into the ecstatic mysteries of the Christ by Focus on the Family’s Adventure’s in Odyssey. Long car rides (my first boarding school was in the region 1,000 km and a two hour border crossing from home) were made tolerable by Dad’s Army, Round the Horne, Hancock’s Half Hour, and Martin Jarvis reading Just William (not strictly ‘drama’, but much more than just an audiobook, few people do the police in more or better voices). I would spend afternoons lazing around and listening to CDs of Bob Newhart monologues. When trying to get to sleep, I still sometimes listen to Judy Dench narrating Winnie the Pooh, with Stephen Fry as the bear of very little brain. And even though I have listened to it maybe twice in the last decade I can still quote at length from Hitchhikers.

Point being, I don’t really want to be hackish about this, in the way I might be about other forms of writing – you know, like blogging.

Which is a pain, cus unlike screenplays and the theatre, there’s not all that much guidance for radio plays. People don’t write books on writing for the radio. Clicking on a few specimen scripts on the BBC website doesn’t even offer you a consistent set of formatting rules. Helpfully I was able to read through a few of Big Finish’s scripts with the audio playing which gives a sense of how the FX lines can be used and a few examples of good and execrable exposition to use as models.

There are certain formal tricks to make life easier: give a character a reason to tell a story to another for you and you can use them as a narrator then you can use them when dramatic dialogue is not enough. Certain sounds act as an obvious shorthand, setting up scenes – like rainfall, doors creaking, announcements over a tannoy system, cars passing. When you’re out of other options and really need someone to describe (in a rather unnatural way) what they are looking at or what is happening you can get away with a lot if you make it funny. But in the end what made the bits that I felt worked work was thinking in terms of a short story, scribbling it down and then adapting it as best I could to the format.

This is what I will be bearing in mind when I come to the re-write: it is, after all, just storytelling.

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Wot I read in August and September

Partly because of the accident of my birth, partly because of the school year, I’ve always taken my New Year’s Day as being the first of August.

I hope to do more detailed writing based reviews of pieces as I go along, in the vein of the I Learnt About Writing From That article I did last month. But I think throwing a few notes down each month should help remind me of what I read and whether it was worth it.

Here’s the rundown for August and September:

August 2015

Troilus and Cressida – William Shakespeare

Set during the siege of Troy, the play has somewhat opened ended and therefore not massively satisfying ending. But on the other hand plays brilliantly with the audience’s expectations of the various characters. Would recommend.

So I Am Glad – A L Kennedy

Lovely bit of strangeness. A woman finds her new housemate is … No, I can’t even give you that much without spoiling it a bit. Sufficed to say its a sweet sort of magical, mixed with sordid and gritty sort of realism. Is in large part about writing and writers without being too navel gazing.

Also sad stuff and sex which is how you know its Alison’s work. Would deffo recommend.

Umbrella – Will Self

Clearly balls-deep in the whole modernist thing. Funny, sweet, but also deliberately difficult.

The lack of paragraphs and scene breaks in the text, actually manage to feel very close to the way cinema works. Just a thought.

Would recommend.

The Possessed – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Feels like three good novels woven somewhat incongruously together. Lots of good ideas. Characters are very strongly drawn. Would recommend, but not before Crime and Punishment.

Octopussy and the Living Daylights – Ian Fleming

Short stories. More literary than most of the books and therefore less fun than the novels. Wouldn’t not-recommend.

Measure for Measure – William Shakespeare

Alright, but a bit shallow. The female characters are insipid, the rest are paper thin and ironed flat. The moralizing about virginity is tiresome. Wouldn’t recommend.

Logicomix – Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos H Papadimitriou

Graphic novel / biography of Bertrand Russell.

Interestingly written. Framed by a meta-fictional discussion between the creators and a logician as to how to tell the story. Then framed again by a biographical lecture by Bertie.

The art isn’t much to look at, write home about, etc… but the story and characters are fascinating if you are remotely interested by clever people being clever, and occasionally mad. Would recommend.

Dhammapada – Anon trans. Juan Mascaro

A not terribly insightful or interestingly written supposed collection of the Buddha’s sayings. Would not recommend.

The Bhagavad Gita – Anon trans. Juan Mascaro

The Gita espouses roughly the same sort of lifestyle as the Dhammapada just within the massive metaphysical context of Hinduism. It concerns a conversation between a massive wuss who wants to stop killing people he knows in the fictional civil war he finds himself in, and his bloodthirsty charioteer who turns out to be a god in disguise.

Some nice poetical images, but not sure I would recommend.

September 2015

Tinderbox – Edited by Jon Mycroft

The Warwick Writing Program’s anthology from a year or two ago. Like all these things massively hit and miss. But worth it for J S Loveard and the editor’s contributions (#nepotism). Also because someone says ‘Hello’ to Jason Isaacs in the acknowledgements = instant endearment to the project.

The Oresteia – Aeschylus trans. Ted Hughes

See elsewhere for fuller review. Would recommend.

From the Ruins of Empire – Pankaj Mishra

Fascinating look at the political ideas of colonized Asian nations in the late 19th – 20th Centuries. Full of: oh-that’s-why-that’s-how-that-is sort of moments regarding the tensions between East and West nowadays. Would highly recommend.

The Symposium – Plato

Like most of Plato: terrible, terrible, terrible philosophy bordering on theology; but lots of interesting anecdotes and imagery and interesting formal set-up. Might recommend.

Antigone – Sophocles trans. Robert Fagles

Good story, dull translation. At 80p I can hardly not recommend.

The Fortunate Traveller – Derek Walcott

Poetry collection from a nobel prize winner. A lot of it reads more as poetic prose. But all of it is good stuff. Would recommend.

Electra – Euripides trans. M J Cropp

Very literal translation. Not as good as the section of the Oresteia which goes with it. Would recommend as a contrast though. Also note Sophocles wrote an Electra too.

Black Holes and Baby Universes – Stephen Hawking

Not a great collection of essays from a not a great essayist. Most amusing for how condescending he is about the idea of letting a film be made about his life.

Would recommend picking up his A Brief History of Time instead.

Lysistrata – Aristophanes trans. Dudley Fitts

Great comic play in which the women of Athens and Sparta bring an end to the Peloponnesian war by going on marital strike. The absolute worst translation. All the Spartans are given hillbilly accents for no real reason. Wouldn’t recommend this version.

Everyday Drinking – Kingsley Amis

Good bathroom reading for the occasional to regular drunk. Wouldn’t recommend to everyone.

What it is Like to Go to War – Karl Marlantes

Part memoir of the Vietnam War, part spiritual guide for soldiers. A really thoughtful and psychologically complex story. My ethical brain is still digesting some of it. I would very highly recommend.

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