Saturday, 31 December 2011

Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down for BBC's 'Great Expectations'

Thumbs up

The opening scene, dripping and dank with the sight, sound and imagined smell of the marshes. Magwitch's appearance shocking but compelling. The boy Pip, emboldened through his fear.

Thumbs down

The lack of humour throughout - humour so evident in Dickens even in the most serious of his works. Here its absence was most felt in the portrayal of the Gargerys - no simple sentimentality or touching gaucheness from Joe; Mrs Joe's harshness not reflected in the mirror of absurdity, and therefore not tempered as it is by Dickens. Herbet Pocket, enthusiastically played here by Harry Lloyd, but not the hilariously lovable character of the book - the fight scene between Hebert and Pip, for example, was robbed of all its comic potential, dismissed in one blow.

Thumbs up

Miss Havisham's haunted appearance. The spectre of her beauty in Gillian Anderson's performance, more tortured as the years pass by.

Thumbs down

The grown-up Pip all too poster beautiful; Estella (forgive my saying) not nearly beautiful or alluring enough. And Pip as a pouting, supercilious adult descends so far that we can't recover enough sympathy for him to cheer his redemption, such as it is.

Thumbs up

David Suchet's Jaggers - his intelligence and smouldering scorn for Pip so well expressed in voice and eyes. His cutting precision - we can easily believe his success and reputation as a top London lawyer.

Thumbs down

Miss Havisham's death - while applauding the BBC effects department I can't comprehend or forgive the decision to make this a deliberate act of self-immolation. Dickens means the fire as fate's revenge on Miss Havisham for the two lives she has tried to ruin; it is hellish retribution not willed oblivion.

Overall score: 7/10

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Christmas quiz - books, films and music

For your festive fun and entertainment, try my Christmas quiz. Click on the Show/Hide button at the bottom to find the answers. Please comment to tell me how many you scored (but don't check out the comments until you've tried it yourself - there may be spoilers).

Round 1 Books

1. Which much-loved Christmas classic of 1978 is wordless?

2. Who wrote of a child's Christmas in Wales?

3. Which Shakespeare play has the lines: 'At Christmas I no more desire a rose/Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth;/But like of each thing that in season grows.'?

4. A page from which Christmas book?

5. What are the opening five words of Clement Clarke Moore's poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas?

6. What are the closing five words of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol spoken by Tiny Tim?

7. Apart from A Christmas Carol there are four other works by Dickens generally grouped together as 'the Christmas books'. Can you name one of these?

8. Which Agatha Christie novel has 'Christmas' in its title?

9. Who wrote about 'the journey of the Magi'?

10. In which Victorian classic does Tom Tulliver come home for Christmas?

Round 2 Films

1. Who played Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)?

2.  In which 1994 film does Father Christmas fall to his death from a roof on Christmas Eve?

3. In Love Actually what is the title of the Christmas Number One hit recorded by Billy Mack (Bill Nighy)?

4. In which 1942 film does Bing Crosby sing White Christmas?

5. Name this 2003 film.

6. What name is given to the Pumpkin King in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas?

7. Which 'miracle' was originally seen in 1947 and has since reappeared differently - for example in 1959, 1973 and 1994?

8. What is the first name of the character who was 'home alone' at Christmas in 1990?

9. Name this 1946 Christmas classic.

10. Which 2003 film was publicised with the strap line 'He doesn't care if you're naughty or nice'?

Round 3 Music

1. Who went 'rockin' around the Christmas tree' in 1962?

2. A Facebook campaign helped prevent a fifth consecutive X Factor winner from topping the UK Charts for Christmas 2009 and helped which US performers to Number One instead?

3. In 1973 Elton John invited us to 'hop aboard the turntable' and... what?

4. According to the well-known carol, 'Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.' What date is that, in Western tradition?

5. Who featured with the Pogues in the recently re-released Christmas favourite Fairytale of New York?

6. Which song featured in the film version of 'The Snowman'?

7. Which Christmas artefact did Lady Gaga sing about in 2008?

8. The title has been brushed out of this famous Christmas album cover. What is it?

9. In the song Twelve Days of Christmas how many birds are there in total?

10. Which 1980 song became a Christmas favourite even though it has nothing to do with the festive season except for the line 'Wish I was at home for Christmas'?

Monday, 12 December 2011

Writing is talking to an ear in the dark

Shortly before our music and reading collaboration Born at the right time, the singer Billy Mitchell called me at home. ‘I’ve just finished reading your stories, David,’ he said. ‘You’ve told my life in there.’ I still cherish this as one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been given as a writer.

Billy was talking about the stories in my collection We Never Had It So Good. Like me, he grew up in a North East mining community and at one level must have seen parallels in the locations and characters I used for the book. His comment seems to go deeper though, and certainly much of the writing is interior, based on the perceptions and sensibilities of a young boy such as he and I were in the mid-to-late 1950s.

Was Billy the reader I had in mind when I wrote the stories? Or was I, in a sense, talking to myself, or rather to the young boy I may have been then? The answer lies somewhere between the two. Did you ever as a child camp overnight (if only in the back garden) with a friend, or have what is these days called a sleep-over, perhaps one of you lying in a sleeping bag next to your friend’s bed? If you recognize this situation, or some variant of it, chances are you will remember too, after the jokes and the horseplay and the repeated calls from downstairs - ‘Do you two know what time it is? Go to sleep’ - how you would lie there talking quietly in the dark together, in a kind of intimacy. That’s the best way I can describe how my writer talks with my reader.

Nor is this confined to semi-autobiographical first person narrative. My thriller 11:59 has the central character Marc getting things off his mind in a confessional way. Though I tell the story in first person present tense for immediacy, I always felt while I was writing that I was inhabiting both Marc and his trusted, listening confidant.

Even the soon-to-be-published Mr Stephenson’s Regret, a third person historical, seems to work best where I can hear the central character Robert unburdening himself to me in the role of friend, perhaps a surrogate of his close friend George Parker Bidder who comes to the fore in the novel’s epilogue. And the articles I write for this blog and various publications are often conceived in the unsleeping darkness and shaped for the unknown bosom pal who is my reader (always one in my head, though I hope there are a few more of you out there).

I don’t consciously set out to think and write like this; it’s the way it comes out of me, as if I’m acting as a medium for my characters, my words, in a one-to-one seance of imagination. When the spirit is truly with me, I would not be alarmed to hear someone say in the dark, ‘That’s him, that’s Uncle Albert, I know it is,’ or maybe the voice of Billy Mitchell: ‘You’ve told my life in there.’

Friday, 2 December 2011

Review of 'At Home' by Bill Bryson

It's a while since Bill Bryson has written a travel book, but he certainly wanders far and wide with this one, though he never leaves his own house.

The answer to this paradox is in the structure of the book. Bryson packages his short history of private life into a sort of rambling tour around the rooms of his home, a mid 19th Century former Church of England rectory in a Norfolk village. (This American writer has lived for many years in England.) He uses the function or former function of each room, or sometimes its contents, as his starting-point for a wide-ranging, leisurely and digressive examination of the way our domestic lives have been shaped by innovators of the past. Many of those had enough idiosyncracies and obsessions for our guide to spin humour from, in much the same way he does with characters he meets along the way in his travelogues. Here he is not taking us along the Appalachian Trail or for a walk in the woods, but across time and continents, drifting pleasurably, with occasional swoops and dives, so that we feel sometimes like the boy being taken for a magic ride by the Snowman, where walls are no barrier and there's no particular schedule to worry about.

And that's the feel of the book - an engaging adventure, a fun exploration in the company of an amiable, cherubic narrator - if not the Snowman perhaps a jolly, anecdotal uncle. Don't look for structured history in Bryson's work, still less for philosophy, as some reviewers seem to have expected and been disappointed not to find - these are not Bryson's style. He's a dipper-in, a snapper-up of trifles, a jackdaw for twinkling facts.

Bill Bryson

The only further gem it would be a delight to have seen revealed by the author as he guides us through his home would concern the daily detail of his own living there, and his family's, but he keeps that particular private life out of these pages, and we can't really blame him for that in these prying days.

The tour through the house is anyway nothing more than a convenient device, and Bryson cheerfully drops it in several places when he can't map out a starting-point for what he wants to include precisely from the room we are in.

The whole tour is so discursive that I get the feeling he could have taken us back to the beginning and started again with a whole different set of interesting things to say. I'd happily sign up for that tour too; Bill Bryson is very good company.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Preparing for publication

I have been 'off-post' for a couple of weeks as I have been busy preparing my historical novel Mr Stephenson's Regret for publication by Wild Wolf in the Spring. Final preparations like this are by turns interesting, tedious and worrisome as one labours to ensure the book is ship-shape and ready for the voyage, for there's no turning back after the launch. There are quite a few tasks involved.

Final edit

The book has already been through half a dozen drafts; this is my last chance to get it really tight, coherent and smoothly readable. At this stage I feel as if I'm working with a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers. I'm looking closely to see (even though I've done this in earlier redrafting) if I can spot redundant words and phrases that I could pluck out: especially I'm hunting for 'he saids', 'she saids' that I don't really need; a few 'thats'; subordinate clauses that might be getting in the way of clarity; sentences, made too long by conjunctions, that might read better as separate shorter, simpler sentences; any 'ing' words, adverbs or adjectives that even now I can banish from the text.

This novel is set in the first half of the 19th century. I'm not looking to be 'faux-historical' in the diction, but I've been pretty strict about linguistic anachronism and have made good use of the etymological dictionaries (one of my favourite reference sites deserves a plug here Online Etymology Dictionary). In general, though, I've made the language a little less confined for today's reader compared to early drafts. My final edit gives me a chance to double-check I am being both accurate and plain.

Pulling further out to a wider focus, I'm checking that my characters are appropriately and clearly introduced so there is no confusion (especially tricky when you're dealing, as I am here, with several characters who share the same name that history forbids you to change - so I have to be distinct about my four Georges, three Roberts and two, er, Fannys, and at least four Mrs Stephensons). I'm doing some final checking too over what I might call my signature writing - ie words or phrases I tend to use a lot if I'm not careful; I need to avoid repetition, aim for 'elegant variation' without too much recourse to the thesaurus, which can tempt you into choices that do not fit your overall style.

Wider still, I'm giving my book a final medical once-over - approving its shape, monitoring changes of pace and rhythm, attending to the beat, throb and hum of the whole in motion.

Penultimate proof-reading

I say penultimate because there will be a last-chance proof-reading of what we used to call the galleys - ie the final typeset text immediately before printing. I really don't want to be making changes then, so this is the time for a forensic examination of the text that sits on the page, not for meaning or aesthetics this time (that can distract your attention from technical faults) but for accurate layout on the page.

To help me, I have two magnificent tools. The first is human - my son Joe, who is a superb proof-reader, and one unlikely to be fooled, as the author can be, into thinking what is typed onto the page is actually what one meant to type. Joe normally reads three drafts at various stages; he provides valuable editorial advice earlier in the process. The second tool is Microsoft Word. Used alongside the little tool for showing formatting marks, the Find function in Word is great for detecting those tiny errors (of spacing for example) that can so easily creep into the typed text, and which can be so hard to spot with the naked eye. I use it to check for double spaces that shouldn't be there, and for the odd space that can mysteriously insert itself in front of a punctuation mark or at the start of a paragraph.

Proof-reading is also about checking for consistency. I will already have carefully spell-checked the manuscript several times, but one of the many things an automatic spell-check will not pick up is possible inconsistency in optional spellings of the same word. For example, the use of s or z in certain words, such as realise/realize, organise/organize. It's very easy to find yourself spelling words like that in one way on page 53 and another on page 231. Here again, the Find function comes in very useful; in my final proof-reading, whenever I come across a word with an optional spelling I type it into the Find box and set it to look out for each occurrence of the word in the book so that I can check that choice is consistent throughout. We should be consistent across spelling conventions too - if I use the z option for the world realize, I should use it for organize and so forth.

Consistency of format is also essential. At proof-reading stage I display all formatting marks and look carefully to check I've used the same vertical spacing, indenting etc and, if not, amend them for complete consistency. It's damned tedious, but necessary for a professional finish. And let's be clear, it's the writer's job. We must not just blithely expect the publisher to pick up on errors we have made, however small.

Between the covers and the story

As well as the blank flyleaves you might find at either end of a book, there is the title page and often some printed matter, which the publisher prosaically calls front matter and back matter. In preparing for publication, the author will usually have some part to play in what goes on these printed pages. Some books include a foreword, preface or introduction from the author. In this case I have written a short note reminding the reader that Mr Stephenson's Regret is a novel not a history, and explaining in a paragraph how I've dealt with the question of historical accuracy. I've also included in my short introduction a few acknowledgements, and ended the note with a dedication. As my contribution to the back matter, I have updated my profile as Wild Wolf like to include a little biographical information about the author inside the back cover.

The covers

Peter Fussey is the Wild Wolf artist who was responsible for the outstanding cover of my first novel 11:59 and it's Peter who has been given the task again for Mr Stephenson's Regret. Peter is more accustomed to the thriller and horror genres which are Wild Wolf's stock in trade, but I'm confident he will come up with another excellent cover for my work of historical/literary fiction. My job is to brief him properly. I think our challenge is to get the subject across effectively without making the book look either like a history or a work of romantic historical fiction. I've sent him a few suggestions and one fairly detailed brief for my preferred option which focuses on the young Robert and his new wife Fanny, with the iconic Rocket engine in the background. I'm looking forward to seeing what Peter can come up with.

For the back cover I have written a 'blurb' that I hope will attract the interest of the browsing book-buyer. One of the difficulties of a first edition is that before publication there are normally no reviews to quote from. In this case, however, we have an excellent pre-publication review from the influential Publisher's Weekly. An extract from the review is going on the back cover under the blurb. For your interest, this is what it says:

"This richly detailed and meticulously researched storyline breathes life and a palpable sense of intimacy into these historical figures and immerses readers in an England embroiled in political and social upheaval as it teeters on the cusp of the industrial revolution."


Mr Stephenson's Regret is not due out until nearly the end of February, but already I am collaborating with the publisher on a marketing plan. The lead times for magazines, in particular, require us to make contact early if we are not to miss the boat on some publicity. I've also been talking to my contacts who organise readings, and though I've managed to put quite a few things in place as a result, one or two festivals I'd hoped to be involved with in the first weeks of publication already have their programmes finalised. For the most part, though, things are set fair for the launch. 

Thursday, 3 November 2011

World's shortest stories, and mine

Ernest Hemingway

US author Ernest Hemingway was famously economical in his style. He was once challenged, supposedly for the price of his bar bill, to write a complete story in only six words. Hemingway rose to the challenge brilliantly:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

The science fiction writer Frederic Brown is also credited with writing one of the shortest stories ever, though in truth his 1948 story 'Knock' goes on to develop a plot from the story that is introduced thus:

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door...

A complete story in itself. 'Knock' inspired a response by Ron Smith who gave his story a tongue-in-cheek title that was almost as long as the story itself. He called it 'A Horror Story Shorter by One Letter than the Shortest Story Ever Told' and it goes like this:

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a lock on the door...

Augusto Monterroso was a Guatemalan writer who devoted himself almost exclusively to short stories, many of which were very short indeed, but none as terse his 'El Dinosaurio':

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.

which translates as:

When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.

Margaret Atwood
The Canadian author Margaret Atwood equalled Hemingway for brevity with her forthright six-word story:

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.

This next could be apocryphal, but I read somewhere that a college class was assigned to write a short story in as few words as possible covering the themes of religion, sex and mystery. One story was rated A+:

Good God, I'm pregnant; I wonder who did it.

Some of the world's shortest stories have arisen from a competition called 55 Fiction, started in 1987 by an American editor and publisher Steve Moss. I believe the competition still runs annually in The New Times. The basic premise is that every entry must contain 55 words or less, and must have a setting, one or more characters, some conflict and a resolution. The forerunner, I guess, of the many Flash Fiction competitions you see around today. You might want to check out Steve Moss's original 1995 anthology The World's Shortest Stories.

As a writer, I couldn't help rising to the challenge myself. Unable to match the six-word gems of Hemingway and Atwood, here's my fourteen-word effort which I call 'The Proposal':

He asked her as the lift gave way. She smiled. They fell, in love.

David Williams

I'll be pleased to hear any other examples readers have to offer, whether written by themselves or others.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Great films, terrible reviews

Following on from my posting on worst literary reviews I've been turning my attention to what the critics have said over the years about the best movies to come to the screen. Here's a sample of some where the critics got it wrong:

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Poster for 'Bringing up Baby'

A Howard Hawks comedy starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. It was a box office failure and led to some in the industry labelling Hepburn 'box office poison', but it's now regarded as a comic classic, with both film and star performances appearing regularly on '100 greatest of all time' lists.

"Mechanical, forced and full of overly obvious and off-key jokes."  (Film Weekly)

Casablanca (1942)

Romantic drama directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Did pretty well though not spectacularly at the box office, but won three Oscars at the 16th Academy Awards (best picture, best director, best screenplay) and was nominated in five more. Appears more than any other film on 'best of all time' lists.

"A very mediocre film." (Umberto Eco)

"Pretty tolerable." (The New Yorker)

Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock horror starring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. The public loved it and it is now generally regarded as one of Hitchcock's best. The shower scene is arguably the most famous movie moment ever - most famous murder, anyway.

"Merely one of those schlocky horror television shows padded out to two hours." (Esquire)

"The experienced Hitchcock fan might reasonably expect the unreasonable... What is offered instead is merely gruesome. Little should be said of the plot... Director Hitchcock bears down too heavily on this one, and the delicate illusion of reality... becomes, instead, a spectacle of stomach-churning horror." (Time Magazine)

"There is not an abundance of subtlety... in this obviously low-budget job." (New York Times)

The film critic of The Observer, C A Lejeune, was so offended by 'Psycho' that she not only walked out but permanently resigned her job as film critic for the paper.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Peter O' Toole as T E Lawrence

Epic British film directed by David Lean and starring Peter O' Toole in the title role. Widely considered a masterpiece, it won seven of the ten Oscars it was nominated for, as well as five Golden Globes and four BAFTAs.

"Just a huge, thundering camel-opera that tends to run down rather badly as it rolls on into its third hour." (New York Times)

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966 Italian version; 1967 in English)

Spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood (the Good), Lee Van Cleef (the Bad) and Eli Wallach (the Ugly). Consistently popular since its release, now generally regarded as a classic. Quentin Tarintino has called it "the best-directed film every made".

"Director Leone doesn't seem to care very much, and after 161 minutes of mayhem, audiences aren't likely to either." (Time Magazine)

"Must be the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre."  (New York Times)

"The temptation is hereby proved irresistible to call 'The Good, The Bad and the Ugly'... 'The Bad, The Dull and the Interminable' only because it is."  (Los Angeles Times)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Crime film directed by Arthur Penn, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. A double Oscar winner, it is regarded as a taboo-breaking landmark film and one of the first of the 'New Hollywood' era.

"Squalid shoot-'em-up for the moron trade." (Newsweek) 

New York Times critic Bosley Crowther slated the film and started a campaign against its 'brutality'. He was subsequently fired by the paper for being 'out of touch' with the public.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

American gangster film directed by Francis Ford Coppola from a script co-written with Mario Puzo. Stars include Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won six. It's generally regarded as an artistic masterpiece, with many critics placing it equal with or superior to its acclaimed predecessor 'The Godfather'... but not this one.

"The only remarkable thing about Francis Ford Coppola's 'The Godfather, Part II' is the insistent manner in which it recalls how much better the original was. Even if 'Part II' were a lot more cohesive, revealing and exciting than it is, it probably would have run the risk of appearing to be the self-parody it now seems." (New York Times)

Taxi Driver (1976)

Poster for 'Taxi Driver'
Martin Scorsese drama starring Robert De Niro. A huge financial and critical success, it was chosen by Time as one of its 100 greatest movies of all time, which is ironic given what its film critic said on release.

"Too heavy with easy sociologizing to be truly moving. Yawningly predictable." (Time Magazine)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

American war film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Stars include Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall. It did well at the box office and is now seen as a classic of its type, regarded as the quintessential Vietnam movie.

"While much of the footage is breathtaking, it is emotionally obtuse and intellectually empty. An especially upsetting letdown, which is not so much an epic account of a gruelling war as an incongruous, extravagant monument to artistic self-defeat." (Time Magazine)

The Shining (1980)

Psychological horror film from the Stephen King novel, directed by Stanley Kubric, starring Jack Nicholson. Martin Scorsese regarded it one of the eleven scariest horror films of all time. Despite its status now as a horror masterpiece, it was nominated for no major award at the time but nominated for two 'Razzies' as Worst Director and Worst Actress (Shelley Duvall) in the first year that anti-award was given.

"With everything to work with, they've destroyed all that was so terrifying about the Stephen King bestseller it's based on." (Variety)

"If you go to see this adaptation of Stephen King's novel expecting to see a horror movie, you will be disappointed... The setting is promising enough - an empty, isolated hotel in dead-of-winter Colorado - but Kubrick makes it warm, well-lit and devoid of threat." (Time Out)

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Poster for 'The Empire Strikes Back'
Adventure space drama, directed by Irvin Kershner. Stars include Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. One of the biggest box-office successes of all time, this episode of the 'Star Wars' series is highly regarded as perhaps the best of the franchise.

"Confession: When I went to see 'The Empire Strikes Back' I found myself glancing at my watch. The Force is with us, indeed, and a lot of it is hot air. It's a measure of my mixed feelings about 'The Empire Strikes Back' that I'm not at all sure that I undersand the plot. 'The Empire Strikes Back' is about as personal as a Christmas card from a bank."  (New York Times)

Ghostbusters (1984)

Science fiction comedy directed by Ivan Reitman and written by two of the 'ghostbuster' stars, Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis. The lead ghostbuster was Bill Murray, and the film also starred Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis. Another tremendous box office success, the film has been much acclaimed for its wit, originality and special effects. The American Film Institute placed it at 28th in its '100 Laughs' list of  film comedies. The theme song from the film was a huge worldwide hit.

"Murray's lines fall on dead air."  (New Yorker)

"Its jokes, characters and story line are as wispy as the ghosts themselves, and a good deal less substantial... Mr Murray would be even more welcome if his talents were used in the service of something genuinely witty and coherent, rather than as an end in themselves."  (New York Times)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Prison drama directed by Frank Darabont, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. It was nominated for seven Oscars, but lost out in the year of big winner 'Forrest Gump'. Regulary seen on Top 100 lists, the film was voted by BBC Radio 1 listeners in March 2011 as their favourite film of all time.

"The movie seems to last about half a life sentence... becomes incarcerated in its own labyrinthine sentimentality... And leave it to pandering, first-time director Frank Darabont to ensure no audience member leaves this film unsure of the ending. Heaven forbid a movie should end with a smidgen of mystery."  (Washington Post)

The Matrix (1999)

Poster for 'The Matrix'
Science fiction action film directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, starring Keanu Reeves. This was the first instalment in a series of lucrative movies, video games, comic books and animation.  The film won four Oscars and two BAFTAs for its brilliant effects in both sound and vision, and has been lauded by critics for its excellence within its genre.

"It's astonishing that so much money, talent, technical expertise and visual imagination can be put in the service of something so stupid." (San Francisco Chronicle)

Fight Club (1999)

Drama directed by David Fincher, starring Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter. The film's apparent glorification of violence made it controversial in the way that 'Clockwork Orange' was in its time, but if became a cult classic and is now very favourably regarded. Total Film named it their 'Greatest Film of our Lifetime' in 2007.

"An outrageous mixture of brilliant technique, puerile philosophising, trenchant satire and sensory overload... Pretentious." (Newsweek)

"Conventionally gimmicky" (Time Magazine)

"By the end it has unravelled catastrophically into a strident, shallow, pretentious bore with a 'twist' ending that doesn't work. It never has the balls really to take responsibility for the nihilism, rage and despair it appears to be gesturing towards." (Guardian)

If you have any bad reviews of great films to share, or a comment about these ones, I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Worst literary reviews

Following up from my post on literary insults I have been checking bad reviews of some of our most famous writers throughout history, and offer them here for your enjoyment.

Samuel Pepys on William Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream':

"To the King's Theatre, where we saw 'Midsummer Night's Dream', which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life."

Queen Victoria on William Shakespeare's 'King Lear':

"A strange, horrible business, but I suppose good enough for Shakespeare's day."

Samuel Johnson on John Milton's 'Paradise Lost':

"'Paradise Lost' is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it was."

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson on Laurence Sterne's 'Tristram Shandy':

"Nothing odd will do long. 'Tristram Shandy' did not last.'

(Of a novel that is still read nearly 250 years later, and inspirer of other books, an opera and films.)

Mark Twain on Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice':

"Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone."

J Lorimer on Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights':

"All the faults of 'Jane Eyre' are magnified thousandfold and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read."

Emily Bronte
The Examiner on Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights':

"...wild, confused; disjointed, and improbable."

Graham's Lady Magazine on Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights':

"How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors."

Saturday Review on publication of Charles Dickens' 'Little Dorrit':

"We do not believe in the permanence of his reputation... our children will wonder what their ancestors could have meant by putting Dickens at the head of the novelists of today."

Damon Runyon on Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland':

"Nothing but a pack of lies."

Odessa Courier on Leo Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina':

"Sentimental rubbish... Show me one page that contains an idea."

Katherine Mansfield on E M Forster's 'Howard's End':

"Putting my weakest books to the wall last night I came across a copy of 'Howard's End' and had a look into it. Not good enough. E M Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea. And I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella."

George Bernard Shaw on James Joyce's 'Ulysses':

"It is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but it is a truthful one; and I should like to put a cordon around Dublin; round up every male person in it between the ages of 15 and 30; force them to read it; and ask them whether on reflection they could see anything amusing in all that foul mouthed, foul minded derision and obscenity."

James Joyce

Virginia Woolf on James Joyce's 'Ulysses':

"Never have I read such tosh. As for the first two chapters, we will let them pass, but the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth - merely the scratchings of pimples on the body of the boot boy at Claridges."

New York Herald on F Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby':

"This is a book of the season only."

H L Menken on F Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby':

"a glorified anecdote"

Dorothy Parker on Benito Mussolini's 'The Cardinal's Mistress':

"This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

Mary McCarthy on J D Salinger's 'The Catcher in the Rye':

"I don't like Salinger, not at all. That last thing isn't a novel anyway, whatever it is. I don't like it. Not at all. It suffers from this terrible sort of metropolitan sentimentality and it's so narcissistic. And to me, also, it seemed so false, so calculated. Combining the plain man with an absolutely megalomaniac egotism. I simply can't stand it."

J D Salinger

The New Yorker on James A Michener's 'Chesapeake':

"I have two recommendations. First, don't buy this book. Second, if you buy this book, don't drop it on your foot."

('Chesapeake' is over 2,000 pages long.)

Harold Bloom on J K Rowling's 'Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone':

"How to read 'Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone'? Why, very quickly, to begin with, and perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you can't be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do."

Susan Cohen on Stieg Larsson's 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo':

"This is easily one of the worst books I've ever read."

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Best literary insults

Following my recent blog posting on political insults I'm turning my attention this time to literary slanging matches. No-one seems to be immune from opprobrium; even the top man.

William Shakespeare

You can feel the pure, raging jealousy of dramatist Robert Greene in these lines, one of the few contemporary references to Shakespeare as playwright:

"For there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac totum is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country."

Greene may have been a minnow by comparison, but there are some greats in their own fields who have also taken a swipe at Shakespeare over the years, including...


"This enormous dunghill."

"Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada."

Charles Darwin:

"I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me."

Leo Tolstoy:

"Crude immoral, vulgar and senseless."

and, most colourfully, George Bernard Shaw:

"With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his... it would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him."

Read carefully, though, Shaw's quote might be seen as a bitter acknowledgement that Shakespeare's mind is the greater.

Another classic and immensely popular English writer who seems to have stirred enmity in others is Jane Austen:

Jane Austen

"Miss Austen's novels... seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisioned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer... is marriageableness." (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

"Jane Austen's books too are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it." (Mark Twain)

"I have discovered that our great favourite, Miss Austen, is my countrywoman... with whom mamma before her marriage was acquainted. Mamma says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers." (Mary Russell Mitford)

As we saw with Robert Greene, some of the most spiteful insults come from the contemporaries of the writer. So we have Lord Byron dismissing John Keats as "a tadpole of the lakes"; George Orwell describing W H Auden as "a sort of gutless Kipling" and Evelyn Waugh damning Beverly Nichols as "a mercenary, hypochondriacal flibbertigibbet who doesn't take in one of the six words addressed to him."

Here are some more writer-on-writer barbs:

"Chaucer, notwithstanding the praises bestowed on him, I think obscene and contemptible; he owes his celebrity merely to his antiquity." (Lord Byron on Geoffrey Chaucer)

"This obscure, eccentric and disgusting poem." (Voltaire on Milton's 'Paradise Lost')

"I wish her characters would talk a little less like the heroes and heroines of police reports." (George Eliot on Charlotte Bronte)

Charles Dickens

"Of Dickens' style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical and created by himself in defiance of rules... No young novelist should ever dare to imitate the style of Dickens." (Anthony Trollope on Charles Dickens)

"A flabby lemon and pink giant, who hung his mouth open as though he were an animal at the zoo inviting buns - especially when the ladies were present." (Wyndham Lewis on Ford Madox Ford)

"What a tiresome, affected sod." (Noel Coward on Oscar Wilde)

"Owen's tiny corpus is perhaps the most overrated poetry in the twentieth century." (Craig Raine on Wilfred Owen)

"Stewed-up fragments of quotation in the sauce of a would-be dirty mind." (D H Lawrence on James Joyce)

"The work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples." (Virginia Woolf on James Joyce's 'Ulysses')

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a man to a dictionary." (William Faulkner on Ernest Hemingway)

"That's not writing, it's typing." (Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac)

And finally, my two favourite literary insults. The first is from Christopher Smart about his fellow-poet Thomas Gray:

"He walked as if he had fouled his small clothes, and looks as if he's smelt it."

And the inestimable Groucho Marx, after Sidney J Perelman sent him his new novel 'Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge':

"From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it."

Friday, 7 October 2011

Steve Jobs quotes

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

When I worked as a presenter/trainer I would often quote the line that Apple’s Steve Jobs used to persuade John Sculley to leave Pepsi Cola and join Steve at Apple:

“Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?"

I liked the quote so much that I included it in my book 1,000 GREAT QUOTATIONS for Business, Management &Training.

There were another couple of quotes from Steve in there too, but the truth is I could have used many more, for he was consistently inspirational and memorable in the things he had to say. As a tribute to Steve Jobs, in the week of his death, I have reproduced some of the best ones below.

"I want to put a ding in the universe."

"So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.”

"It's more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.” 

"Out of curiosity comes everything." 

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Think Different.

“I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, poets, artists, zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world." 

“We're gambling on our vision, and we would rather do that than make ‘me too’ products. Let some other companies do that. For us, it's always the next dream.”

“When I hire somebody really senior, competence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, Are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself. They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve, or anybody else.”

"The Mac people want to do something insanely great."

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” 

“When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there.” 

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains." 

"It gave a tremendous sense of self-confidence, that through exploration and learning one could understand seemingly very complex things in one's environment." 

“You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new.” 

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

“Real artists ship.”

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren't used to an environment where excellence is expected.” 

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

“We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them.”

“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.” 

“But innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea."

“My best contribution is not settling for anything but really good stuff, in all the details. That's my job -- to make sure everything is great." 

“The people who are doing the work are the moving force behind the Macintosh. My job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organization and keep it at bay.”

“My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other's kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That's how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person, they're done by a team of people."

“I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.” 

“I am saddened, not by Microsoft’s success — I have no problem with their success. They’ve earned their success, for the most part. I have a problem with the fact that they just make really third-rate products.” 

"I wish developing great products was as easy as writing a check. If that was the case, Microsoft would have great products."

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

“I’m the only person I know that’s lost a quarter of a billion dollars in one year…. It’s very character-building.” 

“I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.” 

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” 

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

“We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it.” 

"No one wants to die, even people who want to go to Heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new.”

“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful … that's what matters to me."

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."  

“Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

One of the most inspiring speeches Steve Jobs ever made was his Commencement Address to the new graduates at Stanford University in 2005. Some of the quotes immediately above are taken from that speech. You can see it now on below, courtesy of the University and You Tube.