Rage, rage against the re-standardisation of the format

Back in the mid 90s when I worked as a bookseller in Aberdeen we once took delivery of a new volume (the last I guess) of Dirk Bogarde’s autobiography. On the jacket photograph Dirk was captured looking relaxed – serene, you would have to say – in loose linen clothing alone in a vast room that looked as though it might be in a Moorish palace or something. There was some indefinable quality of the photo that had me and a fellow bookseller staring at it for a moment or two. A man, perfectly at ease, in an immense, tranquil, empty space.

“Wow,” said my colleague eventually in a tone of total wonder. “Where’s all his stuff?”

I live in a world of stuff. Books, DVDs, CDs, toys of little men off the telly, gadgets, games. It’s great. I love it. From time to time in the past I have cast off large amounts of it for reasons of space or money or carelessness, and it has always been a mistake and I have always come to regret it.

Stuff is not the way of the world now though.

I mean there has always been a large part of the population that doesn’t need to archive obsessively – normal people, they are called. They finish a book and they are quite happy to pass it on to someone else, rather than carefully shelve it (or more likely put it into a pile on the floor) with other books that are a bit like it. If they put their CDs back in the cases at all they won’t necessarily be the right cases. They watch a movie once, and that’s it. They’ll never consider seeing it again.

Cool. Fine. Six horses for half a dozen courses. Live and let live as Paul McCartney once so nearly sang. Barking up the wrong gum tree. Without a paddle.

But even among the collectors and non-casual consumers of literature, music and movies these days, stuff itself is becoming a bit passé.

The tipping point seems to have been reached where people are now happy to accept that information is just information. They don’t need a shiny disc or a papery cuboid of matter to “own” something. They are happy with a bunch of ones and zeroes on a hard drive. They are downloaders.

This was really hammered home for me when I was down in Leeds last week. I made my usual trip to the palatial HMV down there and, on entering, thought I’d gone into the wrong building.

Where previously there had been miles and miles of racking containing CDs was now a T-shirt boutique with a sideline in key rings, mugs, coasters and video game hardware.

The CDs had been almost entirely eliminated from the store and shifted upstairs and to the back of the shop in a retail move that will be familiar to anyone who gambled their entertainment future on eight track, audiocassette, Betamax, VHS, DAT or MiniDiscs. It’s the last stop before the goods are finally hauled off and broken down for metaphorical dog food.

I’ve known this day was coming. Anyone I know who’s younger than thirty finds the contents of my flat hilarious. Why would you clutter your living space with all that obstacling nonsense when you could just download it or stream it when you want?

And they are right! It’s a point of view I have some considerable identification with. I now “own” albums which I don’t have as physical objects, although with iTunes’ insanely anal digital rights management system philologists might like to quibble about my use of the word “own” there.

I have a Sony eReader and an eBooks app and comic reader on my iPhone.

I’m not against this. I think the technology is marvellous and lovely and totally seductive. I accept that information is information. Download it onto an iPad or print it on sugar paper with bisected potatoes. It’s the same information.

What makes me sad is the sense it evokes in me of my own mortality. There’s a new way of doing things that’s better, but I’m clinging to the old way. Life is like a constantly eroding sandbank where you get nearer and nearer the end just by standing still, and I feel in recent years that a big lump just dropped off the front.

In the post today I got the Complete New Avengers on DVD.

Nobody would argue that that’s the pinnacle of 20th Century artistic achievement, but it made me very happy when it arrived. I might have cuddled the box a bit.

***

Ghost Dog The Way of the Samurai.

What a silly goose I can be. For most of my life I have just assumed that I wouldn’t like Jim Jarmusch movies. This was based on nothing other than a misapprehension that he was a bit arty and up himself. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

I have had Ghost Dog sitting on my pile of unwatched gubbins for some months now. I bought it in a frenzy of snapping up Film 4 DVDs when they went down to five quid each. Having watched it today I feel like an idiot for not having got to it sooner. It’s spiffing.

It is a bit of an auteur experience in that Jarmusch wrote and directed it and clearly had an exact vision of what it was he was doing, but that’s not a bad thing here. Some auteur films are untrammelled idiocy which could have used the mitigating touch of a co-creator, but not Ghost Dog. This is a finely balanced mix of a bunch of indie movie mechanics, but also a narrative through line that most current Hollywood writers would kill for.

So the vision is Jarmusch’s but the film would be nothing without the immense Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog the solitary contemporary samurai. At the film’s outset he is a solid, stoical presence: still, dutiful, silent and looming like a menhir. He provides a motionless axis around which everything else crazily revolves.

As the story progresses and he is spurred into his samurai duty as he sees it – full on apparently, no skulking round in the dark for your samurai – he becomes irresistibly telic, a gallant, code-bound version of an action movie hero.

There are, as befits an arthouse effort, spiralling digressions into friendship, age, communication and mortality, but it’s all done with wit, focus and considerable panache.

I’m embarrassed about my former Jim Jarmusch prejudices but they’re gone now. I’m on team Jarmusch. What’s next?

***

Doctor Who news:

There is some talk that Karen Gillan slowed up the queue in the Post Office here in Inverness by posting what appeared to be a “large parcel”, though this needs more corroboration before I’ll believe it.

Karen Gillan showing some decorum earlier today.

And finally: the great big 36 Hour A Day Tesco at the Inverness retail park has stocked up with Doctor Who figures again. I am reported to be very pleased indeed with my Ice Warrior.

The War with Fruit

Ill-informed, irritable defiance. I’ve got loads. Do you want any? It does me absolutely no good at all.

Come to me with a well thought out plan that might save money, time or my life, and explain that plan to me reasonably and in a calm tone of voice and for some reason I will feel an irresistible urge to disagree and to try and prove you wrong, however vast my ignorance. It’s a disease I tell you.

Take the National Health Service’s Five A Day campaign in which we are encouraged to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables. Who could possibly disagree with that? Well, me for a long time apparently.

My arguments weren’t even arguments. Just an impotent shake of the fist at someone I thought was telling me what to do and a few sarcastic comments about the Fruit Police.

In a massive recent personal climb-down however I have come to accept that the whole of the NHS is right and I am wrong. In fact they deserve a bloody medal for having to wear a cheerful face every day whilst telling the thickies of the world (me) that two litres of Cherry Coke and 500g of Pickled Onion Monster Munch or Frazzles are not as nutritious as a fruit platter, say, or a nice vegetable stir fry.

So I’m on message now. I like vegetables and I like fruit, but bloody hell fruit’s a struggle isn’t it?

The guidelines are that for the magic five-a-day spell to work in warding off cardiovascular disease and “some” cancer then you have to have a mixture of fruit and veg. No getting by on just strawberries for instance.

This is OK, understandable even, but for the single male shopper who has permanently foregone relationships with women on account of their persistently cruel and mendacious ways it presents a bit of a dilemma. I mean I can purchase a big pile of assorted fruit and then watch weeping as my fructose empire dissolves into blue fur over the space of a week before I get a chance to eat half of it. Or I can buy small amounts of fruit which, by definition, aren’t varied.

Plus, if I’m walking to and from the fruit monger (Tesco in my case) the vastness of some fruit makes the transportation unfeasible. Pineapples are lovely, but wrangling them home and then eating them is like herding and then skinning porcupines.

Once upon a time, when I was buying a melon in Tesco the checkout person, who was just trying to be helpful, noticed that they were Buy One Get One Free. “You’d better go and get another,” she said. Waving off my feeble protestations that I didn’t want another she sat as the queue ground to a halt and I, wracked with humiliation, went back to get another melon.

I had gone in a proud man simply looking for some fruit. I came out looking like an ill-advised Katie Price tribute act. I might have been crying.

And I ended up throwing the second melon away after I’d carried it all the way home.

A sexy fruit lady earlier today.

Current compromise: dried mixed fruit and those plastic trays of pre-prepared fresh fruit, but there’s a stack of plastic waste getting generated this way.

***

Three films quickly.

Starcrash is magnificent: a logic-fucking Italian Star Wars rip-off from 1979 that looks like it was scripted on the hoof. The director Luigi Cozzi (or Lewis Coates as he internationalised himself) would later enhance his career with Contamination (1980) a gooey Alien hack job, and the 1983 version of Hercules with Lou Ferrigno and Sybil Danning.

I adore this kind of filmmaking, but only the Italians seem to do it properly.

There is an American crime writer, one of the best working today, called James Ellroy. His idiom is to interpolate fictional characters into real events (the Black Dahlia murder case, Cuba, the JFK assassination) and have his whole oeuvre stand as an alternative dark history of the USA in the second half of the 20th Century. It’s majestic stuff, scrupulously researched but, even though a lot of it has to do with the film industry, the books do not lend themselves to screen adaptation.

Curtis Hanson just about got away with it in L.A. Confidential, though it’s an insipid experience compared to the source novel. Brian De Palma however did not get away with it in The Black Dahlia. In fact I specifically remember thinking as I watched De Palma’s effort unspool over too long a part of my life, “This is the sort of movie you would get if you let a bunch of eight year old kids watch L.A. Confidential and then filmed them the next day acting it out in the playground.”

And that’s what you get with Starcrash. A luridly coloured collection of things the writers and director remembered liking about Star Wars cobbled together with an effects budget of $30,000 (not that much even in 1979) and the narrative sensibility of a kid hepped up on Refreshers and Red Kola.

But this, as I keep stressing, is all to my liking when the Italians do it. We live in an era of commodified entertainment where the question is never “What is your film like?” but is always “What film is your film like?” And in that context anything that flouts story-telling convention, received acting wisdom or even basic cinematographic competence is something I find interesting.

At one point, just as things seem lost for the heroes, the Emperor orders his flagship to “stop the flow of time!” which it does, duly allowing our guys to escape. The only problem, as the Emperor explains, is that he can only stop the flow of time for three minutes.

Ummmmmm…

Caroline Munro is your contextualiser (if she’s in a film it must be 1971-1979) and ruddy marvellous she is too. Two years earlier she had been unchivalrously blown up in a helicopter by Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me. Two years later she would be co-hosting YTV’s unfathomable game show 3-2-1 with Ted Rogers. I think I love her.

There’s an inappropriately fierce-looking comedy robot sidekick, a lush John Barry score (obtained pretty much by deception) and Christopher Plummer and David Hasselhoff playing father and son. What are you waiting for?

Night Of The Comet written and directed by Thom Eberhardt in 1984 is an entirely lovable enterprise. It has a reputation as a lost classic, and on one viewing I’m going to go along with that.

A passing comet wipes out the world’s population leaving two valley girls, a trucker and a bunch of scientists to fight their way through zombied-up Los Angeles. The trucker, incidentally, is played by Robert Beltran who would go on to play the biro-faced Chakotay in Star Trek: Voyager.

The micro-budget is eked out heroically. Some of the early shots of a deserted L.A. are as thoroughly disconcerting as the deserted shots of London in 28 Days Later.

The script is tight and witty, the actors are wonderful and the whole thing is as evocative of the 80s as Beverly Hills Cop, Weird Science, Young Guns and Lost Boys. Why this is not seen as a key 80s text is beyond me. It’s mega!

Buffalo Soldiers (2001) came as a mild disappointment after the high concept adrenalin rushes described above. Perhaps it’s my fault for bringing too much in the way of expectation to the film, but it does seem like a minor work.

American soldiers, based in West Germany at the time the Berlin Wall was coming down, indulge in black-market, pharmacological misadventures. Consciously or subconsciously referencing MASH and Kelly’s Heroes the film staggers all over the place tonally. It isn’t serious enough to care about. It isn’t anarchic enough to enjoy.

And if you’re going to have a moral centre to your film, best not to have it played by the implacable, unsettling Joaquin Phoenix.

Whither the Blinovitch limitation effect?

My most recent spell of post-romanticism has been characterised by my lying on my couch and staring at the ceiling. Now it’s a nice couch, and it’s a nice ceiling but torpor is just torpor and doesn’t make for much fun writing or reading about.

Also I have lost any ability to write that I might once have had. I mean check out that first paragraph, gangsta. Check it out. Two uses of the word “nice” and a preposition hanging off the end of it. That’s blooming crud that is.

I once read a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs – one of his Pellucidar novels, set in a mythical underground realm – which, even though it was quite short, had an apologetic note from the author as a preface. He was sorry to the reader, in essence, for the amount of scenery and weather he had put in the book.

Any scenery and weather in a book set principally under the Earth’s mantle is probably too much, but I didn’t feel the apology was necessary. Burroughs is Burroughs, and narrative chutzpah carries you through even his lesser work. This is why Edgar Rice Burroughs is a better writer than William S. Burroughs I think. You can read his books.

Sorry about all the weather and scenery here.

So, what am I talking about? The condition of heart-brokenness? Nah. Wouldn’t have a clue. It’s a bit embarrassing. It’s a bit painful. But worse things happen at sea, and anyway that’s suddenly a whole lot more PS3/Blu-ray time on my daily planner, surely.

Well it will be as soon as I’m done with the ceiling-staring.

A long time ago I would have gone off on a prodigious spell of drinking, backed up with a sheaf of self-serving justifications of byzantine complexity. But I don’t do that these days. I’m sure alcohol is still a perfectly charming molecule, and those who like it are right to feel free to enjoy it. It just does not, I concluded some time ago, agree with me.

The last time we had anything to do with each other, me and the booze, it was 2006 and I was absolutely clobbered powerless by it. It’s a funny old thing (in the hideously sad and painful sense of the word funny) is alcohol dependency. Alcoholism – let’s call it what it is. It can reduce you to a decaying, friendless, desiccated wreck, but it still seems like a roaringly good idea when you’re in the midst of it.

Hmm, you (or more pertinently, I) might think. I feel physically wretched, like I am actually going to die. That pain is in my liver. My eyes have the yellow look of very old ivory. I think that thing in the toilet bowl might be my stomach lining. You know what I need? A cheeky breakfast vodka.

Who wouldn’t regard that as something of a wake-up call? Sugar Puffs, milk, orange juice, vodka.

Well, me for one. Millions of other people for two. I had to get help from people who had done the same sort of thing in the past but didn’t do it anymore. I had to learn how to talk about myself (yuck, yuck, yuck) and listen to other people talk about themselves (boooooring). I had to set about clearing the wreckage of my past and minimising the rate at which I gathered new wreckage.

Luckily for me there were good people to help me with that. They weren’t difficult to find either. They are, as Craig Ferguson once put it, quite near the beginning of the Phone Book.

Thanks, those guys.

So no booze then. No sudden domestic or geographical lurches. Except I bought a trumpet. Anyway that is perfectly normal behaviour. Trumpet-buying. Turns out that when the mood came upon me there was only one trumpet for sale in all the shops of Inverness despite what my friend Kay might try to tell you about such clearly fictional enterprises as Trumpetland, World Of Trumpets and Brass Zone!

One trumpet for sale, but luckily it matched all of my expectations which is to say that it looked like every trumpet I had ever seen in my life, and it was priced within my trumpet budget for the month.

Hurrah for valve oil! Hurrah for embouchure (which is basically making a rude noise with your mouth)! But especially hurrah for the educational DVD I got! There is a furious urge within me to reach the point where my incontinent parpings are finally better than the pure, sweet notes the kid on the DVD produces.

I hate kids. They ruin everything. The film industry. Days out to interesting places. Trumpet tuition. You name it and I guarantee that a short, stupid kid with no idea about how the world really works has already spoilt it. Idiots.

The on-going trumpet adventure was a sign that I was probably going to be OK, but the sudden accretion in the last week or so of mind-bogglingly inane DVDs and comics has sealed the deal.

I have almost fully morphed back into the un-marriageable half-man half-compost heap that is my default setting.

Two of the movies I have just seen on DVD, Luigi Cozzi’s fabulously mad Starcrash and Thom Eberhardt’s low budget miracle Night Of The Comet, have reminded me how fond I am of the 70s and 80s. I hope to write a bit about them later.

But there is contemporary stuff to cover too. A thing that children have not yet managed to spoil in complete contradiction of my earlier assertion.

Since I last blogged – gulp – a whole season of Doctor Who has come and gone.

Can I talk a bit about Doctor Who now?

***

There, those three asterisks indicate where half my readers got on and the other half got off.

Doctor Who Season 5, or Season 31 as I prefer to call it. Any good then?

Yup. It was good.

Or at greater length:

Matt Smith is a tremendous surprise as the Doctor. Such was David Tenant’s authority that a few of the things he established as character traits looked as though they might become sine qua non attributes of subsequent incarnations of the character. The youth, the vigour, the sexiness, the gob, the insolence, the mania. These are things Tenant imported to the role but he did it so unquestionably that it is easy to forget that they aren’t typical of previous incarnations.

My concern, prior to seeing any of Matt Smith’s episodes, was that we were going to get more of the same. A string-thin young wannabe poncing round the multiverse shouting.

That’s not what we got though and I have to applaud Smith for running with the more spiky, almost autistic aspects of his character. Tenant played the Time Lord as a geek, but a knowing kind of geek. One who is aware of his own brainy allure.

With Smith, certainly after the regeneration trauma but before the series settled down, it was as though we were sharing the Tardis with Maurice Moss from the I.T. Crowd.

He, the actor, is playing down the looks (and he’s a pretty boy underneath it all isn’t he?). He’s happy enough with the improbable hair and the face like an unexpected ocean liner looming out of a fog bank. It’s subtle what Smith is doing. It’s long-game characterisation. He knows that if we stick with him we will learn to love him despite the alien angularity and the awkwardness. It can be a bit like watching Patrick Troughton, or Colin Baker if Colin Baker had been done right.

There has been some tabloid tutting, doubtless welcome by the writers, at how sexy the show is. Is that an issue? I was more surprised at hearing the Doctor use mild swear words like Bloody and Hell. That felt new and slightly transgressive to me. I mean I’m not going to dispute that there’s a sexual element to the programme, but what’s new?

The first time we met the Doctor in 1963 he was living with his grand-daughter. Over time we speculated that maybe that was just a turn of phrase or a kind euphemism to explain Susan’s presence. But no, the tenth Doctor talked briefly of having had a family in the past. So from Day 1 this is a programme which has at least acknowledged its title character’s sex life. The tenth Doctor spread it about quite a bit actually, certainly compared to the ninth’s slightly hesitant fumblings with Rose and Jack.

But in the classic era sex was never far away. Ian and Barbara? Ben and Polly? Jamie and Zoe? Harry and Sarah? Leela and K-9? (Though I might have imagined that one). And that’s just the companions.

Look at some of the Doctor’s relationships. The third Doctor and Jo, for instance. It was always that drip Captain Yates from UNIT who was asking Jo out, but she always ended up with the Doctor in the Tardis. And how upset was the Doctor when she left him to sail down the Amazon with that hippie from Wales? He was crying for God’s sake.

The Fourth Doctor and Romana. The Fifth Doctor and Tegan. The Sixth Doctor and Peri. The Seventh Doctor and Ace. Don’t tell me you never noticed.

The sexual undercurrents are not new then but I am pleased at the way Karen Gillan has asserted herself. For a while I thought she was overdoing the pouting, stropping and sulking. It looked, particularly when River Song was also in the picture, as though the Doctor was getting a bit hen-pecked.

The inclusion of Rory as the dithery, useless fiancé didn’t help at first, but stone me, as the series progressed and the characters settled down a bit it all started to work.

Once Rory had been written out of the Universe, re-incarnated as an Auton Roman soldier, redeemed and then reintroduced to the Universe as a human in the grand re-boot he started to become appealing.

The current Tardis line-up of the barely socially functional Doctor and the married couple one of whom is a voracious, lunatic, nymphomaniacal, redheaded Scotswoman is quite an exciting one.

Russell T. Davies always did a fabulous job celebrating pan-sexuality in his Tardis line-ups. This current one as constructed by Stephen Moffat could not be more heterosexual. It’s practically George and Mildred in Space.

That isn’t a bad thing.

There were a few things about the series that didn’t quite work I think. The whole story arc doesn’t make much sense once you start following it through. Time paradoxes can be great fun if you’re rigorous about causes and effects. Doing stuff because it’s flashy and then covering over the holes by saying something like “Timey-wimey stuff can be a bit difficult to get your head around” is unfair.

You could see it work well in microcosm with the gag about the Doctor accumulating the Tommy Cooper hat and Norman Wisdom mop we knew he had to be holding when he met Rory. It all fell apart on the macroscopic scale though. I’ve watched The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang through three times now and I’m embarrassed to report that I still can’t understand them.

And whilst we’re here, whatever happened to the Blinovitch limitation effect? I’m sure there was a good reason why you couldn’t keep crossing your own time stream and that was it!

A secondary fault was that there was a slightly solipsistic, constrained feeling to some of the episodes. The empty village in the Silurian two-parter for instance, together with the massive drilling operation manned by precisely three people!

Scale was a problem with the Big Bang too. What a tease Stephen Moffat is mentioning the Draconians, the Zygons, the Drahvin and then not showing them. What did we get? Three Daleks, a sack of Sontarans and some Cybermen. And what is it with these Cybermen anyway? Aren’t they from a parallel universe? Our home-grown Mondas/Telos Cybermen were much better.

Perhaps these underwhelming crowds and this absence of convincing background activity were scripting infelicities, but I’d be more inclined to believe that they were budget constraints. If that is the case then I will just quietly accept that the best job possible was done under the circumstances. Particularly in The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood. I’m glad that they spent the cash on tons of lady Silurian soldiers rather than human extras.

The Silurianettes brought about in me that same cross-species dilemma I had when I saw Helena Bonham Carter made up as a chimp in Planet of the Apes. I know it’s not right, but…

Yes, you would.

Cloud 8+1/Shutter Island

Hey remember me?

I used to blog around these parts back in the olden days, but I have been distracted for the last few weeks in the nicest possible way. There has been some sort of ascension process, way away past Cloud 8.

I was hoping to encounter my pal Chaserjay up here, but his path lies elsewhere at the moment. You should read all about it on his amazing blog:

http://chaserjay.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/cloud-types-and-sheep/

“So I met a girl” is a phrase I don’t often use. I have been mostly single for quite a long time now, and was pretty much reconciled to the fact that I hold little these days that is of interest to womankind. Firstly I look a bit funny, not helped by the fact that I am currently growing my hair out and it has been stuck at Village Idiot length for a few months now. I look like a sober Wurzel.

Secondly I am not a very good communicator, tending towards the prolix and being over-fond of a sub-clause. This can be fun in its place but is of limited use if the message that requires passing on is a brief, simple and sincere one. “You are on fire,” for example. Or, “I love you.”

So my technique, if I may so describe it, on the rare occasions that I have realised that I’ve been attracted to a woman has been to close my eyes, jam my fingers in my ears and pretend it isn’t happening. Anything, anything other than embark on my wooing process, which tends to be the sort of disaster that is visible from space.

I always start out in my head as a worldly, urbane cross between Cary Grant and David Niven but become, within one millisecond, a Norman Wisdom tribute act: one bucket on my head, one jammed on my foot, clutching a mop and shouting “Mr. Grimsdale! Mr. Grimsdale!” Let me tell you fellas, the chicks do not dig that.

But then along came Jen who doesn’t seem to mind. Do you know her?

Face like one of the seraphim. Mind like a machete. Hair an insane series of spiral extrusions from her skull which might not, I think, be describable using Euclidean geometry. It’s not often you find a girl to whom the adjectives sinistrorsal and dextrorsal may equally be applied, but Jen’s one. Also she is a ballet-fighting, kung fu dancing, sugar flinging ninja. And she likes Neil Young and Bob Dylan and coffee.

If you went back in time to the late 80s and asked Grant Morrison to design a Doom Patrol character specifically for me he couldn’t do a better job. She’s amazing is Jen, but she wouldn’t want me to tell you that. It’s a secret.

 

***

In other news Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island turns out to be brilliant.

I’ve probably lost any critical perspective where Scorsese is concerned. It strikes me that he’d be unable to turn his phone camera on for a few seconds without inadvertently adhering to and then subverting conventional cinematic grammar whilst establishing a superficial narrative that also works at a complex allegorical level.

Shutter Island is my favourite sort of Scorsese endeavour in that it shamelessly welds art house sensibility to a lowbrow meat and potatoes story without the result looking like a botched job. It’s like making a ballet out of a Mickey Spillane novel or something. Potboiler this may be, but it looks like Akira Kurosawa had a hand in directing it so beautifully is it built.

The previous Scorsese movie it most resembles is his 1992 remake of Cape Fear and that is no bad thing, but whereas Cape Fear had a kind of absolutist morality to it Shutter Island is a bit more ambiguous.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays a U.S. Marshall travelling to an island-bound prison for the criminally insane to investigate the apparent disappearance of an inmate. And there ends any plot description you’re getting from me because, whilst the structure of the story is secondary to the convoluted, mephitic atmosphere, it is nevertheless quite important. My enjoyment of The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects was slightly spoilt not by having someone reveal the twists so much as knowing that there was a twist in the film at all, and the same was the case here.

There isn’t really a revelatory final moment a la Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects but there are some deft reverses, and the less you know about the story going in the better. I haven’t helped at all here, have I?

Leonardo DiCaprio, under Scorsese’s tutelage in Gangs Of New York, The Aviator and The Departed, has become one of his generation’s most subtle, complex and beguiling actors and the support he gets here from Mark Ruffalo and Ben Kingsley is right out of the top drawer.

In the absence of a Bernard Hermann score or the Scorsese juke box of contemporary hits (which wouldn’t really have been appropriate here) the soundtrack duties fall to Robbie Robertson who pulls together a sensational collage of absolutely apt music from modern composers like Ligeti, Cage and Brian Eno.

The peerless Thelma Schoonmaker is on hand to edit it and the result is awe-inspiring. The influences and homages are many, but the most explicit one is Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Scorsese’s knowledge of film is so wide and so deep though that almost everything in Shutter Island is readable as a tribute of some sort to the emotionally over-wrought noirs of the forties and fifties.

At one point in the film a character asks for a glass of water, drinks it dry and places the empty glass back on the table. In the next shot the glass appears to be half full.

Aha, I thought. That is either a subtle signifier of a delusional observer in the film, or it is a tribute to some specific continuity error in a film I haven’t seen.

It didn’t even occur to me that it might just have been a simple continuity error until I was driving home a few hours later. That is how much faith I have in the deliberate nature of everything Scorsese puts up on the screen.

I can’t wait to watch it again.

07/03/10 – 10/03/10

Loudly then, let’s hear it for the consonants. Consonants are ace. They are the last thing to go when words get shortened for txt mssgs. Also they vastly outnumber vowels so they are bound to win the upcoming war between them.

The best thing about consonants is the way you can chain them together. Not like vowels. Yoke vowels together and you get an ugly old diphthong or, very rarely, a triphthong. Consonants however can keep on coming.

My favourite bunch of consonants, seeing as you ask, was on a road sign in Yorkshire for a place called Hampsthwaite. Six consecutive consonants!

If you saw “mpsthw” just written down in isolation (as in fact you just have) you wouldn’t think it was pronounceable. Stick it in the middle of Hampsthwaite and you don’t even notice.

And for these reasons consonants are better than vowels.

I may have had slightly too much coffee today.

***

Strata is one of those words (like media) which is a plural already. Stratum and medium. These are the singular forms. I know that you already know this, but a lot of people don’t. Mostly people in different strata of the media ironically.

Stratas and medias are words I don’t like to hear in news bulletins, but I may just have to get used to it.

My Dad once got called pedantic at university for referring to “pendula” rather than “pendulums”. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree eh?

You’re on your own if you’ve got more than one octopus though. Not even God knows the true plural of that word. I don’t think anyone really thinks it’s octopi. I once heard octopodes, but I suspect most right-thinking people just stick with octopuses.

I have been thinking about strata recently.

When I was growing up I definitely considered myself a science fiction fan. I loved reading SF, and by that I mean proper SF with science in it and that. None of your Orcspell Dragonrune Darklord nounfusion for me. And that was the covenant.

SF readers could look down on fantasy readers who in turn could look down on the sci-fi movie geeks. Movie fans could lord it over the TV fans and God help the poor comics readers in this vast, self-justifying, stratified pyramid of self-hatred.

Anyway, what we could all agree on was that the only reason Battlestar Galactica existed at all was to give the Star Trek fans someone to feel morally and intellectually superior to.

Even by the slipshod standards of episodic 70s American TV the original Battlestar Galactica was a bit of a shocker. An almost offensively blatant rip-off of Star Wars it lacked charm, invention and purpose. The sequel series Galactica 80 set on what was then present-day Earth was such an atrocity that decent-minded people all across the world still refuse to discuss it.

I vaguely remember that the heroes had invisible flying motorcycles, which must have been so much easier for the effects crew than visible flying motorcycles.

There was, however, something very slight at the centre of Battlestar Galactica that was somehow attractive and exciting. The idea of the remnants of twelve separate human civilisations on a rag-tag fleet of surviving ships fleeing an implacable mechanical enemy was a strong and intriguing one.

When it was “re-imagined” in 2003 as a big budget TV series I was quite excited. The creators really seemed to be on to something too. In a frenzy of inspiration they made the Cylons (who had been simple mechanical bad-bots in the seventies) an evolved form of life originally made by the humans.

Also the Cylons were given a monotheistic religious creed versus the polytheism practised by the humans in the series. There were loads of ways of reading this.

A threat of our own making? Well that’s radical Islam surely. Except the Cylons seemed to represent Christianity in their proselytising zeal and desire to obliterate anything other.

I like things which are open to interpretation, but the longer I pursued Battlestar Galactica the more I became convinced that the writers hadn’t really thought this through at all.

There were plenty of other reasons to enjoy the programme, great retro-design, strong characterisation and so on, but it all seemed to peter out a bit. And after a series or so I got tired of people in vests growling at other people in vests.

I totally fell out of love with it and I was immoderate in my criticisms. It’s a funny thing, but I always seem to get venomous about things which have slightly disappointed me. It’s like I can cope with the deplorable, the execrable and the just plain bad, but if something is almost brilliant and then turns out to be mediocre I overreact like a tartrazine-deprived toddler.

In the last few weeks I have finally caught up with the final series of Battlestar Galactica on DVD and I would like to retract all my former opinions and criticisms if that’s OK.

It didn’t really seem possible but in those final fourteen episodes the creators managed an ending that was not only dignified but also dramatically and emotionally satisfying. It’s a master class in how to finish a thing. I am now looking forward to re-watching it all and to catching the prequel/sequel thing Caprica.

***

I enjoyed seeing the success of The Hurt Locker, Precious and Up at the Oscars on Sunday. I was also impressed by James Cameron’s magnanimity in the face of defeat, though he was presumably consoled by the fact that he could fly home in a diamond encrusted helicopter made of platinum whereas his critics (well at least one of them) has to drive round in a Nissan Micra which currently looks like it’s been rally driving through a sanctuary for incontinent wildfowl.

It’s as well that Avatar didn’t win any big awards. It is going to look a bit on the piddly side in a few short years whereas Precious, Up and Hurt Locker will likely remain vital, watchable films that encapsulate an era.

It’s always a little bit of a shame when the Oscar voters plump for something obviously wrong. I was delighted to see Jeff Bridges get his best actor award but I was convinced he’d already won one for his role in Starman in 1984. I was wrong though. He was nominated for that but he lost out to… F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus.

Bloody hell.

Still it must have been nice for the makers of such later masterpieces as Star Trek Insurrection, Th13een Ghosts and Shark Swarm to claim that they had Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham gracing their efforts.

***

And a couple of films in between the work and the BSG episodes.

Bubba Ho-Tep is basically uncriticisable.

Elvis Presley, having traded places with an Elvis impersonator some years previously, is lying impotent and presumably close to death in a nursing home when the appearance of an undead Egyptian mummy rekindles a bit of life in him. With some unlikely sidekicks the King prepares for battle.

You either buy into it or you don’t. I did. Elvis is played magnificently by Bruce Campbell, the big-chinned fellow from the Evil Dead movies whose line in self-deprecation is outdone only by his line in everybody-else-deprecation.  The director Don Coscarelli is a favourite of mine after his sound work on the four Phantasm movies and the towering Beastmaster. The Phantasm films are miracles of long-term low-budget filmmaking. Beastmaster is two minutes of Tanya Roberts cavorting with her top off and a bunch of other stuff that has slipped my mind. I think Don Coscarelli might be a bona fide genius.

I’m not sure Bubba Ho-Tep would make the grade as the focus of a big night out, but it’s a damn fine Sunday afternoon in with some mates and a big plate of curry.

Cheers Lawrence, by the way.

Clearing stuff off my Sky hard disk I came across Dust Devil, Richard Stanley’s not much loved 1993 movie.

Stanley came to prominence with an ace SF movie called Hardware, a brutish but effective post apocalyptic thriller which (and this will determine whether or not you are the sort of person who would like this) featured a cameo appearance by Lemmy. I love Hardware and was delighted by its re-appearance on DVD and Blu-ray last year.

Dust Devil I had never seen before, but it has a reputation for not being awfully good, a reputation it definitely doesn’t deserve. It’s a lovely piece of work about a shape-shifting creature which preys on the despairing.

Filmed entirely on location in Namibia the film has a unique patina to it and often seems to have been conjured rather than directed. Stanley splashes the light around like paint and gives the film a look far beyond what is suggested by the meagreness of his budget.

The script is deliberately oblique and often impossible to penetrate, but it’s absolutely captivating nevertheless.  And it’s got some old school cinematic integrity to it as well. It’s from the days when if you wanted to film a house on fire you didn’t use computers. You used a house and some petrol.

Ravishing.

04/03/10 – 06/03/10

Mad busy with work just now, and my secondary project which is to put all my music on to my new computer from scratch, sorting out my iTunes library information and cover art as I go. It’s all spectacularly rewarding and has yielded the shocking information that Sade’s Greatest Hits is not the worst album I own. It’s not even close. More on that another time I’m sure.

More another day also on my late conversion to the TV remake of Battlestar Galactica which I have been doggedly watching on DVD. I have much to write on the subject, but it will have to wait because on Saturday night, for the first time in weeks, I went out to the cinema to watch a movie.

Precious, the story of an obese, functionally illiterate girl from the projects who has been abused by her father and grandfather, is an amazing film: it’s involving, punishing and extremely well acted. There is not, I think, a single clunker of a performance in the film when a flight to hysterical overacting would have been an easy response for the actors.

In fact the screen acumen and sophistication of a bunch of what I assume are newcomers to film acting is simply astonishing. Two of the actors are people that I have seen before (Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz), and it is to their credit that I didn’t recognise either of them in their dowdied down, real-as-you-like performances.

It’s a triumph of acting and a triumph of directing then. What Lee Daniels has achieved on limited means is a genuine cinematic miracle and I exhort you to see it.

What it isn’t however is a triumph of writing. It’s unclear whether the lumpen, manipulative structure is a fault with the source material (the novel Push by Sapphire) or whether it has been introduced by the adapting screenwriter Geoffrey S. Fletcher. It is there though and it reminded me of the recent regrettable trade in misery memoirs.

During my period of bookselling the phenomenon of Misery Memoirs evolved out of, seemingly, nothing. Frank McCourt’s memoir ‘Tis and Dave Pelzer’s Child Called It trilogy started it, and in the blink of an eye every bookshop had a bay full of similarly themed books with strikingly similar covers.

I am a firm believer in the power of catharsis and I use sharing myself to externalise anything that threatens my inner stability. Jings, the stuff that seems debilitatingly colossal in your head looks puny and often laughable once you’ve shared it with someone.

I am personally glad that the sufferers of trauma have found a way of dealing with their suffering by writing about it. As a bookseller though I had a couple of misgivings about this public, literary testimony.

Firstly, many of the books were quite quickly shown to have, at best, only a slight pretence to objective truth. There was a lot of flatly contradicted point of view stuff out there masquerading as fact. I remember, for instance, that Dave Pelzer’s siblings didn’t remember his upbringing in anything like the same way that he did. It would be cynical to suggest that there were less pure motives than mental well being at work here, but a lot of the books did seem to lard it on rather, and they never sold more poorly because of it.

The second misgiving I had concerned the kind of person we would sell these books to. Many of the punters were the usual bookshop crowd and the recently curious, but there was a recognisable cadre of damp, haunted looking individuals who seemed pretty much to be getting off on the misery. It appeared to be the more hairbrush beatings administered by sadistic nuns the better for these folk . As long as it was all real.

I’m sure it’s none of my business what people buy and how they react to it, but I don’t want to be complicit in anything that is exulting in real peoples’ pain. Perhaps there is an argument to be made that this form of public catharsis is less healthy than it at first appears, and that it encourages a ghoulish kind of spectator. It’s a thin line isn’t it between jettisoning psychological baggage and providing sadistic pornography for the unbalanced.

I find it very difficult to surrender to autobiographical (or worse semiautobiographical) accounts. It is much easier for me to respond to fiction.

With biography I always have the sense that only one side of the story is getting told and that someone out there in the world is probably taking it personally and going, “But it never happened like that.”

With fiction that’s not an issue.

To back this up with illustrations I saw two very affecting movies that elicited deep emotion in me last year. Frozen River was about an impoverished woman in the US resorting to people trafficking across the Canadian border to be able to clothe her kids and put food on the table. Sin Nombre on the other hand was about the staggeringly dangerous process of illegal immigration to the US from Central America.

Both Frozen River and Sin Nombre take their characters pretty far down and both films do not flinch from showing the carnality, savagery and meanness that desperate circumstances can bring out in people. They both have almost heartbreakingly optimistic denouements though.

The weird thing is that these films feel more authentic because they are fiction. I was quite comfortable that they portrayed reality without literally representing it.

As far as I know Precious makes no claims towards biographical or (deep breath) semiautobiographical truth. It’s a made up thing, and I feel as though I should have been able to enjoy its social resonance on the same level as Frozen River or Sin Nombre, but instead I constantly felt that situations were being artificially amped up, or occasionally that punches were being pulled.

I began to suspect its motives, and though I had an emotional response to it I had the slightly weird, cheated feeling that the response had been goaded out of me by someone who wanted nothing other than to see me cry.

I like a good cry, but it’s got to be about something I really feel, not something that has been pointlessly provoked in me. And this film does seem to lack a point. What’s the underlying truth here? What does it tell us about anything other than the grim life of its fictional heroine? If I found any kind of message in it at all it was a pretty lame starry-eyed one about triumphing over adversity.

Shame on me for bringing anything negative to Precious. I think the actors and director were seriously intentioned when they did their work and their work is exceptionally good.

I still feel like I got played though.

03/03/10

Gosh, has a lesson been learned?

Two recent high profile deaths have been covered in the media with respect and a more rigid adherence to the “de mortuis nil nisi bonum” principle than I was expecting.

Michael Foot’s passing was announced today. I had one of those embarrassing split seconds of thinking “Wasn’t he already dead?” before gathering myself. He was ninety-six.

I was enormously fond of Foot and was pleased to see that this wasn’t an opportunity for his craven, opportunistic political enemies to parade their usual canards and misrepresentations. The tone was muted and complimentary all round and everyone interviewed comported themselves very well I thought regardless of their positioning on the political spectrum.

Foot carried a lot of the blame for the Labour Party’s dogmatic disintegration during the eighties. He was the Labour leader in the 1983 general election, which I just missed out on, and he muffed the opportunity, many thought, to oust an unpopular Tory government. It’s strange to think of it now, but Margaret Thatcher had only been in power for four years. It was popularly seen that Foot missed an open goal by campaigning on a hard left political prospectus when he could have been more pragmatic and maybe got into power.

The longest suicide note in history, some dubbed his manifesto. I personally thought there was something rather heroic in the way that he clung to collectivism, unionism and unilateral disarmament. Foot, to me, typified integrity and moral complexity at a time when those virtues were falling spectacularly out of favour to be replaced by glittery emptiness and a celebration of surfaces.

He had a love of language and rhetoric, and he was fearsomely well-read. His advice for getting through adversity was lifted directly from Joseph Conrad’s words in Typhoon: “Always facing it. Always facing it.”

And yesterday the death of Kristian Digby, under what the police called suspicious circumstances, was made public. It turns out I can write much less confidently about Digby’s life than I can about Foot’s, but what became quickly apparent was that a large part of the daytime TV viewing British public held him in fond regard.

There was a small discreet mention of a “sex game tragedy”, though this was quickly curtained off and that was nice to see. In the three word phrase “sex game tragedy” I am apt to think that one of the words is not like the other ones, but maybe that just reflects my staid lifestyle. It is, in the words of Carl Fredericksen in Up, “none of my concern”.

I genuinely think that what consenting adults do to, for, with and near each other is totally none of my business unless I’m one of them. The prurient attitude that can prevail in the press defeats me.

Back in the early nineties there were criminal prosecutions against a group of men who had formed what was admittedly quite an extreme SM group. These guys were doing amazing things to each other including nailing each other’s scrotums to bits of wood.

Now that’s an ouchy.

But it was all private and consensual. It sounded pretty revolting to me, but they weren’t asking me to take part. I couldn’t quite understand what the police were doing in these guys’ bedrooms, or what justice was being served in prosecuting them.

Britain can be very weird about sexual matters.

Digby was openly, joyously, manifestly gay and what I quite liked was that the media made no effort to judge this or rate his supposed “sex death tragedy” on any moral scale.

This is nearly, but not quite, what happened with Stephen Gateley’s death in October 2009.

Gateley, whose music I really despised, struck me nonetheless as a wholly likeable guy. His coming out whilst still the member of a popular boy band was an act of moral fortitude that I don’t think I would have been capable of under the same circumstances. His death at such a young age was cause for sadness surely.

Whilst sane people mourned, grieved and slightly regretted there was one noticeable spiteful exception. Jan Moir in The Daily Mail wrote an extravagantly scathing, fulminatory article in the immediate aftermath of his death in which she railed against his lifestyle. It is one of the most extraordinarily frothing-at-the-mouth pieces of homophobia ever passed off as journalism.  Quite rightly it was deplored globally though never, I think, apologised for by its writer.

I don’t think Moir has commented on Digby’s death and that represents a step forward. Generally this is a tolerant and inclusive society and I love it for that.

Humanity, give yourselves a pat on the back.

***

I rounded Wednesday off with a trip to Eden Court with Toby and Jason for some jazz guitar courtesy of Graeme Stephen.

What a fabulous gig. Stephen himself is a self-deprecating presence onstage, but his music is just beautiful. He briefly introduced each track before leading his six-piece band into extraordinary jazz evocations of specific geographic locations, mostly in Scotland. The rare exception to this was the spectacular Second Step, a mighty piece of Himalayan jazz about the last 50 metres in an ascent of Everest.

I have been piling my CDs onto my computer over the past few days and, coincidentally, have just reached Frank Zappa. Stephen’s ensemble reminded me very much of Zappa’s late touring band in terms of tightness and rapport. Admittedly Zappa’s concerns tended to be cloacal, venereal or broadly politically satirical whereas Stephen’s are more ethereal, but the comparison stands.

I was moved to buy both Graeme Stephen’s CDs after the gig, and am enjoying them as I type this. The first, Water Soluble, is credited to The Graeme Stephen Trio. The second, Vantage Points, is credited to the Graeme Stephen Sextet.

I’m looking forward to the Nonet he’ll get together for his third.

By Feexby Posted in Diary

02/03/10

I pay for a lot of stuff I don’t use. My monthly Sky subscription covers about a hundred gazillion films and football matches that I never watch. There are bits of The Guardian that I chuck away without reading (yes flamboyant, self-regarding media section I am looking at you!). Sometimes I don’t get to the end of a loaf of bread before the unappetising blue fur establishes a bridgehead. I paid money for a Natasha Bedingfield CD I never ever listen to.

Some of this is a result of my own laziness or inability to plan, some is just bad buying decisions. Fair play though. It’s all a choice.

Then there’s stuff that I pay for that I don’t use, but I have no choice in the matter. By law I have to fork over a bundle of cash to fund schools, streetlights and wars that I have no interest in partaking of. That, I figure, is the price of living in a civilised country with a developed idea of what it means to be a person in and of a community.

Also it means that when I have need of a hospital, road or locally placed streetlight, then I can reasonably assume it’ll be there. We all put in, we all take out. It’s taxation and we’ve got representation.

God, this socialism is insidious, eh?

Anyway, of all the money I hand over in one form of tax or another I have always felt that the twelve quid or so per month that funds the BBC is particularly good value for money.

(Parenthetically, I know that by the letter of the law the licence fee is just applicable to television viewers but the revenue it creates funds the radio network and website too. If you listen to the radio, use iPlayer or any of the other BBC content platforms but don’t pay for a licence who do you think picks up your bill?)

There are, in my eyes, slightly too many programmes based around the bewildered, morbidly obese and barely continent section of the population honking out show tunes on ice for the unhealthily curious. But there are also magnificent wildlife documentaries, political debates, sci-fi shows, classical music concerts and jazz request programmes.

There is additionally, but not for much longer, one station that plays new and classic adult-orientated music of the type I like to listen to: BBC 6 Music. It is being closed down it has been announced today, and I’m still not quite sure what the rationale is.

Small audience figures? Maybe. But it is a station that’s only available on the DAB digital platform so it doesn’t get listened to in cars or by plumbers, milkmen or driving instructors on the job. Anyway audience figures in isolation shouldn’t be a consideration in an organization like the Beeb with its mission to educate and inform. Surely its responsibility is exactly to provide the things like this that aren’t available on commercial platforms. And the stuff 6 Music plays doesn’t get airtime on any network I’ve ever heard. I have found tons of new stuff courtesy of its DJs (many of whom are howling imbeciles, but who know their music).

Leave ITV, Sky and the independent radio channels who rely on advertising revenue to cater to the lowest common denominator. If the Beeb does it too then all we have is the cultural equivalent of mob rule.

I don’t think letting the masses have the final decision on anything is a good idea. The masses are idiots. Really, who would you rather was in charge: a million maniacs or one person who knows what they’re talking about? I’d rather matters were in the hands of a few people with knowledge, wisdom and humour, who have an element of public accountability in their jobs.

Which is precisely what we had in the BBC until the tabloids started being able to bully producers into removing presenters they (the tabloids) affected to find offensive, and politicians caved in and started to look on the BBC as a competitor in the market place rather than a large lump of cultural heritage.

This is a fault of capitalism. When times were good and the money was sloshing around nobody worried that the Beeb with its capped income was at a disadvantage and could no longer afford things like football, cricket, expensive movie premieres and so forth. Now that money is tight the people who profited the most in boom times suddenly want the rules changed. As with banks, so with broadcast media apparently.

Pay your tiny bit of money. Enjoy the vast amount of art, sport, culture, music, drama and EXPERIMENTATION that it buys you. You know you aren’t going to be happy when every programme is reality flatus or dramas about troubled alcoholic cops and put-upon forensic examiners or CSI bloody Pittenweem.

I will miss 6 Music when it goes.

By Feexby Posted in Diary

01/03/10

I would like, if I may, to bring some companies into repute. Or further into repute than they are already anyway.

Three cheers, brass bands and large marble statues on plinths then for:

1) AJG Parcels who safely ferried my computer back from its holiday on a family farm in Bellshill. First thing in the morning it was, and they carted the bloody thing all the way up my stairs with not a single audible swear word. Top job, courier guys.

2) The doughty Monica who made its tummy better. (I’m not sure which company she works for as I never saw it written down. It could have been Scotsys, Hotchkiss, or Cockfist. Maybe not that last one. Let’s go with Scotsys but check it thoroughly before the plinth gets engraved.)

3) Apple, whose customer service continues to be flabbergastingly good. For a while this afternoon I thought the thing had broken again but I called their free phone number and they calmly talked me through what I’d done. “Keep the artificial horizon straight and watch your airspeed indicators”. That sort of thing. It’s a bit shaming that I am the source of the only fuckwittery I’ve seen today.

4) Antepenultimately, HMV Inverness. Nothing to do with my computer, but always a pleasantly staffed Aladdin’s cave on a Monday morning when the new stuff comes out. I was so excited by my purchase of Triangle (possibly not the Triangle that you’re thinking of) that I forgot to check for the new Joanna Newsom album which came out today. I downloaded it later – please don’t tell them.

5) Penultimately, Waterstone’s Inverness which is a damn fine stockholding bookshop. Also it is the source of proper quality eavesdropping. Today I heard two staff members enthusing about bootleg Cure albums on vinyl. That’s what I want to hear. None of your soap opera/reality gubbins. Proper stuff that matters.

6) And ultimately The Rendezvous. Yet another prestigious Inverness lunching opportunity with staff who listen to what you say and respond appropriately. I am truly living the dream here.

My computer is fixed and I am chuffed. Did I mention that?

By Feexby Posted in Diary

28/02/10

After Dashiell Hammett my favourite author is John D. MacDonald. That he is largely neglected now in the UK is nothing short of an outrage. He may still be in print in the US. I certainly hope so because the guy could write. His prose, by his own admission, was never of the “hey, Ma, look at me” school of fancy-pantness. It was however always good, and frequently marvellous.

Also he wrote. He paid heed to P.G. Wodehouse’s estimable advice to writers: First apply the material of the trousers to the seat of the chair. Physically he sat down and produced millions of words and never once to my knowledge complained about writer’s block. This is something to be admired I think. I am always sceptical of people who make their living from putting words on to pieces of paper who then claim suddenly that they can’t do it today.

I never had bookseller’s block and I’ve never heard of air traffic controller’s block, lollipop lady’s block or plumber’s block (at least not in that sense).

MacDonald’s output includes The Executioners which has been adapted twice for cinema as Cape Fear, but his enduring legacy is the Travis McGee series of novels. There are twenty-one of them in total written from the early sixties to the mid-eighties and they stand as a wonderful document of how the world, particularly the USA, and particularly particularly Florida changed over that period. It starts with beach bunnies in bikinis. It ends with Cuban drug gangs.

Every one of the stories is a perfect lapidary example of how to construct a thriller, but that’s just an incidental pleasure. The real depth and detail is in the continuum of characters who evolve throughout the series and the artful, epigrammatic first person narration of Travis McGee himself whom MacDonald clearly regarded as an alter-ego.

Each of the novels has a colour in the title from The Deep Blue Goodbye (1964) to The Lonely Silver Rain (1985) and I once wrote a long article for a short-lived magazine called Million about McGee which I entitled Pigments Of The Imagination. Colours, see?

You know that thing people say about how if they lived their lives over again they wouldn’t change a thing? Well I would change lots of things starting with that title. Pigments Of The Imagination, indeed. What can I tell you? It was 1993. I was young and drunk and full of ego. These days I’m a lot older. I don’t drink. And as far as humility goes I’m pretty much the humblest guy in the world. Humblest guy in all possible worlds probably.

Stephen King is an admirer of MacDonald. He called one of his own characters Travis McGee in Firestarter. MacDonald reciprocated by having Travis McGee read a copy of Cujo during the slower moments of one of his later novels. Aaaah. They share similarities, but, as much as I like King, I think MacDonald is a far superior writer. Some of King’s individual sentences should be taken out and shot. I’ve never felt that about John D. MacDonald. What they share though is an amazing grasp of character and a love of plot-driven narrative.

McGee, throughout the series, lives on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale. It’s called the Busted Flush (he won it in a poker game) and his neighbour is a thickset, hirsute economist called Meyer who lives aboard the John Maynard Keynes. Theirs is a kind of inverse Holmes/Watson relationship and the shtick of the series is that McGee works as a “salvage consultant” recovering things which can’t be retrieved by conventional methods for a percentage of their value.

At one point late in the series when McGee is becoming older and more wistful he looks at his boat with all his stuff on it and speculates that if it all sank without a trace he could carry on with his life with little in the way of regrets. This is something I admired in him, and I admire it in real people too.

It’s a thing I don’t share sadly.

One of my friends is often given to say, “The best things in life aren’t things.” I think I know what he’s driving at. The best things are experiences, feelings, other people, mental well-being, all that. Not your goods and chattels. I aspire to live like this, genuinely I do, but being honest about it I have to confess that I really, really like things.

If all my stuff went up in smoke, I would want to be philosophical about it and take comfort from the mere fact of being alive, but truth to tell I’d be missing my signed copy of James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, my copy of Event Horizon in the silly ship’s log packaging and several hundred thousand million billion other things.

That’s just the kind of shallow guy I am.

I think the next couple of generations down from me don’t quite have this gathering and archiving obsession that I have, and this is noticeable to me with the advent of iTunes and, to a much greater extent, Spotify.

With iTunes I like the fact that you can download stuff and straightaway it’s on your hard drive ready to use. But I dislike the fact that you don’t have an actual thing to put on a shelf. I know I sound like a hopelessly outdated relic here. In fact I remind myself of people who bemoaned the fact that CDs didn’t have the same extensive packaging that LPs did.

Things change. You move on. Until you don’t.

So I can live with iTunes and downloads, and I can live with the mockery of young people who can’t believe the amount of “stuff” I have encumbered myself with. Spotify however maybe a step too far for me. I may finally have come across the first innovation I don’t quite get. This could be the end of my ability to change.

The scoop with Spotify, if you don’t already know, is that for a fee (£9.99 per month in the UK) you can stream live any of the millions of pieces of music they have whenever you like.

It is, by any sensible yardstick, an amazing thing. There’s even a free version of it, albeit with adverts, but that seemed to be by invitation only and I didn’t know anyone who could invite me. Having subscribed now I have two invites of my own to dispense. Form an orderly queue.

The downside for me though is that you never own anything, and the physical possession of an artefact seems to be central to my enjoyment of it. What the hell is that about?

Anyway I’m quite enjoying Spotify, but I don’t know if I’m going to get my £9.99 per month worth out of it. After I’d downloaded the software I spent a few minutes in front of it completely unable to think of anything I wanted to listen to which I didn’t already own. When I finally did think of things there was a surprising amount of stuff that wasn’t available.

Three Wheels On My Wagon, one of the foundation stones of Junior Choice with Ed “Stewpot” Stewart when I was growing up. Not there.

Lucky Number by Lene Lovich. Not there.

Shiny Shiny by Haysi Fantayzee. Not there, but John Wayne Is Big Leggy was there, and I enjoyed that. Then I found a bunch of spoken word stuff by Firesign Theatre which I hadn’t heard for 25 years, which was brilliant.

Then I started getting into it a lot.

Turns out that my decision not to have bought anything by The Guillemots yet may have been the right one (though I’m open to persuasion). Turns out also that my spurning of The Duckworth Lewis Method on the grounds that it is a cricket concept album was the wrong one. It is a sustained piece of post-Bonzo Dog Doodah Band jollity and proves that Neil Hannon has lost none of his Divine Comedy gift for catchy tunes and playful lyrics.

I’ll probably buy it on CD now.

And don’t even start me on how much Harry Belafonte I’m listening to.

***

I would like to add my voice, late but with enthusiasm, to the chorus of approval for Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs (2009), an enjoyable CG romp from Sony. I heard it described as being like a David Lynch movie for kids, which I think is taking it too far, but it has a refreshing surreal tang to it right enough, and the joke density is way higher than I expected.

It may have suffered a lack of attention because it came out the same year as Pixar’s peerless Up and whilst it lacks that movie’s moral clarity and precision-engineered narrative Cloudy is nevertheless a treat. This is the sort of thing that pixels should be used for. Something interesting with a bit of character, humour and purpose.

I have been reflecting again on my anger at Avatar’s squandering of resources and the feebly supine response it got in the press. The characters and situations in Up have stayed with me much longer than those in Avatar. Mr. Fredricksen, Russell, Dug the Dog and Kevin the bird versus Shouty Smurf, Angry Smurf, Shooty Smurf and Victim Smurf from Pandora. Well who do you remember more clearly?

Spending money on stuff to make it shiny does not make the stuff any better. Sometimes the surface of something is much less interesting than what the thing actually is and Avatar has almost nothing going on under its nanometre thin skin.

There’s a warm place in my heart for the films of Ray Harryhausen. For all their ramshackle, jerky, plasticiney artifice they were films whose intentions were pure and whose maker was driven.

And what’s that coming over the hill? It’s the big budget remake of Clash Of The Titans…