The joy of story-telling

In adulthood, I appear to have subscribed to my parents’ ethos of retreating to ye olde worlde past times when on holiday. No TV and limited internet access means that books, cards and the company of good friends is all the entertainment you need.

One of our number was given a gift by our Texan chef of Peter Ackroyd’s London Under – a book that’s been on my wishlist in anticipation of its imminent paperback release. There are just two things you need to know about it:
(i) It’s by one of modernity’s best biographers and story-tellers. [See his biographies of, amongst others, Dickens, T.S. Eliot & Blake and his many volumes relating in some way to London.]
(ii) It’s about what has taken place beneath the streets of London – which obviously includes the tube…

So many of us were intrigued by the book that we ended up listening to it being read aloud – beginning an evening of sharing it and Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman (more – much more – on this in another post). Over the next few days, in rainstorms and quiet pre-dinner lulls, more was shared. Unsurprisingly, I was entranced. Even the chapter about the foul Fleet River (in which people drowned in their own excrement) was fascinating – partly thanks to my realisation that it ran along the street on which I live. There’s also something captivating about listening to descriptions of familiar places that you can visualise, while sat in the French countryside hundreds of miles away from the dirt of London. But most intriguing of all were the stories of The Underground and its construction. It cheered the soul of this TfL geek immensely.

I highly recommend it – well, both the book and story-telling generally. The book’s a corker and a must for all London fans and TfL geeks, the lost art of reading aloud to others deserves to be rekindled. It’s a lovely way to pass the time, and enables everyone to be on the same page simultaneously. I’d brought the aforementioned How to be a Woman with me, as had another friend – but we were always on different chapters. It lent itself to sharing aloud, mostly because when read to oneself, spontaneous giggling alerted others to its amusing content – it became a form of light relief after some of the darker elements of Ackroyd’s work.

To whet your appetite for the book, here’s a taster from one of those pre-dinner lulls. I know the audience looks bored rigid, but trust me, that’s actually entrancement on their faces – it’s just masked by sheer exhaustion from the end of a long day on site. They really are captivated by the dulcet tones of a reformed Brummie. Honest.

The wonderful thing about revolting children

How better to mark World Book Day than with a review of a musical based upon a book, featuring one of literature’s greatest bibliophiles? In fact, how better to celebrate a friend’s 30th than with a trip to what is unquestionably one of the best British musicals ever…

Matilda, stage

The last time the RSC produced a musical about a telekinetic child, it became the quickest, most expensive flop in Broadway’s history – Carrie the Musical is a classic, but for all the wrong reasons. [Though, in its defence, and having listened to the soundtrack multiple times, there are some gems there…] In fact, I was geekily pleased that The Stage referenced it in its review of Matilda:

“A quarter of a century ago, the RSC co-produced Les Misérables, which has turned into the West End’s longest-ever running musical and a worldwide hit. Now, via an unfortunate detour with Carrie, one of the most notorious Broadway flops when they transferred it from Stratford to New York, they’ve finally hit the musical jackpot again.”

 Musical jackpot it indeed is. It does a rare job of attracting and entertaining adults and children alike. Last night’s audience seemed to consist of vast swathes of children, and hordes of adults around my age. It’s quite possibly a happy coincidence that many of Tim Minchin’s (writer of the musical) fans are a generation that were the right age to read Matilda when the book came out in 1988.Discovering that we were sat in the middle of a massive school group filled me with terror, but it’s testament to the genius of the production that they stayed (pretty) quiet for the duration. Sure, Jo had to explain why we don’t kick seats or predict lines loudly, but most of the time you barely knew they were there. In fact, early on I was worried that the pace of dialogue and clever literary references might have been beyond a crowd of 8 year olds, but as was pointed out to me, there was also an entire scene focused upon ‘the biggest, most chocolatey burp in the world’, which you probably have to be 8 (or male) to truly appreciate. Looking behind me as the theatre was filled with laser beams, I saw a sea of enraptured faces – beautiful.

For those of us who grew up with Dahl, the texts are almost sacred. I doubt you’d find a British child of the 80s/90s who approves of the Matilda film – it’s not even set in England, for goodness sake! The Witches was a good effort, but they changed the ending; and I can’t ever complain about Jonny Depp so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is ok, but it says something that Dahl himself didn’t like any of the adaptations he lived to see made. The musical is more faithful to the book than the film – the characters look like they’ve stepped out of Quentin Blake’s illustrations (especially Mr Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull) and the key plot elements are there. Yes, there’s the addition of a glorious story about an escapologist and acrobat used a device to tell the audience about Miss Honey’s parents, but it’s so beautifully done that I couldn’t possibly hold it against them. (Matilda tells the story to the librarian and at one point it’s depicted with shadow puppets, which is simply stunning.)

The script and songs also faithfully adheres to Dahl’s distinctive language. The reason why kids love Dahl is because he speaks like they do – or how they’d like to, if they were allowed. The language is often beautifully disgusting, or taps into the ‘nice naughtiness’ you wish all children had. I’d forgotten just how much of a childhood crime it was to call someone stupid, until Mr Wormwood used the word in reference to an adult member of the audience – the children near me gasped at it!

Before I left for the theatre, a friend commented on my Facebook status and said that she predicted I’d be a Bertie Carvel fan before the night was out – she was right. Bertie is the man – yes, man – who plays Miss Trunchbull, and he’s phenomenal. Pam Ferris was a very masculine Trunchbull in the movie, but the musical goes for a man playing a woman as an effeminate gay man angle, which works spectacularly well. Can you picture the Trunchbull doing rhythmic gymnastics with a ribbon? No? Trust me, it works perfectly! [There’s a glimpse of it in the trailer below.] Listen to her song about throwing the hammer, and you’ll start to understand…

The most important element in a musical has to be the songs, and they are marvellous. If you’re a Tim Minchin fan, you’ll know the range of his style, if you’re not then you’re in for a treat. There’s a real mix of raucous lively numbers and beautifully moving ones. Two of my favourites are helpfully ones that are available on YouTube – the winner of ‘best use of swings in a musical’, When I Grow Up which is almost tear-jerkingly lovely; and the guaranteed to have you clapping and cheering Revolting Children.

That boy who kicks off the song is Bruce Bogtrotter – of chocolate cake fame. There’s an entire song dedicated to that scene – called, aptly, Bruce – one could say that only an Australian could write such an awesome song about a Bruce…

I know I’m a massive musical theatre geek, but this is no niche musical. I’d go as far as to say that it’s one of the most accessible pieces of theatre I’ve seen (although One Man Two Guvnors would come a very recent second), and isn’t something parents should begrudge seeing. In fact, I suspect they might enjoy it more than their children do. The major challenge is acquiring decently priced tickets. Last night was clearly a sell-out – unusual for a mid-week evening in term-time – and ‘cheap’ tickets must be nigh-on impossible to come by. But persevere, you won’t regret it.

Becoming a stranger to fiction

In honour of World Book Day on Thursday, and as part of a seemingly annual tradition, I’m going to post some book related posts this week. I’d say ‘reviews’, only I’ve read a shockingly low quantity of fiction since starting Vicar School, and I suspect you won’t be interested in a review of current read The Art of Biblical Narrative. [Though interestingly, the thrust of this essay is whether the Old Testament benefits from being read as story and applying literary criticism techniques.]

This post is a review, and one I think I wrote nearly 6 months ago, but never got around to sharing! The book in question is Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which was a gift via Kate and a giveaway on her (excellent) book review blog. (In fact, it’s one of two books I acquired that way last summer – the other’s languishing on my TBR pile.)

I’ve read most of Waters’ earlier work – including the notorious Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith – but had never been a massive fan, until I read The Night Watch. This, unlike the others, was set during WW2 and in and about some very familiar parts of London. Plus, it has a non-linear story line and involves the criss-crossing paths of several different people – two story-telling devices which I really enjoy.

Because The Little Stranger was set in a similar era (the immediate post-war years) I had high hopes for it, but I have to say that I was a little disappointed. This was probably owing to two factors:
  1. It had a male narrator. I think I’d assumed that the narrator would be female because in all the other Waters books I’ve read, it has been. I’m not sure why this disappointed me – perhaps because I found the female protagonist fascinating and wanted to know more about her, but if she had told the story things would have been quite different.
  2. It’s essentially a ghost story and I’m not spectacularly keen on ghost stories. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a scary read, it’s just in the best tradition of Victorian gothic writing (a little like Joanne Harris’ early book The Evil Seed which is basically about vampires).
However, I did enjoy reading it. The context is fascinating and I think one that many English people could identify with or at least have some empathy towards. The narrator is a local GP (on the eve of the creation of the NHS) who grew up in the local community, but very much in the working class. Throughout the novel, he is wrecked with class anxiety regarding how his colleagues, the locals and the aristocracy perceive him, yet the plot revolves around his growing relationship with a well-to-do family who inhabit a mansion that has seen better days. It captures the transition of the times well – the doctor fears the new NHS, believing patients would prefer doctors from ‘good’ backgrounds; the family has lost most of its money because of inheritance tax and the war; its son has returned from battle mentally and physically scarred; and the daughter is ‘on the shelf’ at 28.

The ‘little stranger’ of the title is a mysterious presence within the house, who makes itself known in a variety of ways – strange marks, noises, fires and the supposed insanity of its occupants. The problem is that I have little imagination for this kind of supernatural being. In a very rational way, I spent much of the book wondering the house’s occupants didn’t just leave. 

As I read the book within a couple of days, I can safely say that I enjoyed it – I guess I was just expecting something different. The problem is possibly more that I enjoyed The Night Watch so much, and it really was the realistic kind of novel that I enjoy, that this was something of an anti-climax. If you can deal with ghosts though, it’s quite refreshing to read about them in a more modern context. 

Things I’ve learned from Rev

Last year, a new sitcom rocked my world. Last time I wrote about it (2 episodes into the first series), I was undecided as to whether it was a good thing or a bad, mainly thanks to its depiction of ‘my kind’ of church. By the end of the series it was a firm favourite, and major excitement resulted from spotting Revd and Mrs Smallbone at Greenbelt just a couple of months later.

It’s still a little controversial. Some church friends hate it and only watch it because it’s classic Water Cooler chat at their Vicar School; others think it presents a very one-sided view of the church; others think it perfectly captures the strains, stresses and hilariousness of vicar life. My family have weekly discussions around every episode, with my sister saying just the other day “I thought I’d had a normal childhood yet it seems to make an excellent BBC sitcom…” – I couldn’t agree more.

When series two finally showed up last month, a lot of things had changed in my world. As I said on Twitter as episode 1 began, “Last time I watched Rev I was a normal individual & it was fun; now I’m a trainee vicar…it’s terrifying”. Tonight, the last episode of the series (and Christmas special) aired, and I’ve finished my first term of training. In some ways, Rev has taught me more* than a term of Vicar School has…

Episode 1:

  • Never have a meeting with your Archdeacon in a sauna.
  • The Church of England would be a much more exciting place if all bishops were in fact Ralph Fiennes.
  • Anything worthy in the church (like going on a day trip) involves a lot of paperwork.

Episode 2:

  • I now aspire to be a hot, intellectual and intimidating curate. According to my father, all I need to do to achieve this (aside from making it to ordination) is improving my piano playing skills.
  • There needs to be further debate in the church over the public versus private baptism debate. Colin should have been baptised in front of the rest of the congregation (as Canon Law dictates).

Episode 3:

  • All dioceses do actually have diocesan exorcists. (But it is ok to do the odd house blessing yourself, should the need arise.)
  • I am finally thankful for my traumatic viewing of The Exorcist some years ago, as it meant that I got all the jokes and references in the episode – other wannabe vicars should go and do likewise.
  • Cassocks aren’t useful clothing during heat waves.

Episode 4:

  • Football is not a good forum for conducting inter-faith relations.
  • The Dragonfly story is apparently the only acceptable way to explain heaven to primary school children. [Just before Adam began to tell it, I had a sudden flashback to being told a weird story about dragonflies when someone died at school – hadn’t thought about it in 2 decades – so was rather surprised that the BBC used the exact same story!]
  • Cycling vicars (clad in all the appropriate safety gear) do nowt for the reputation of the clergy.

Episode 5:

  • Don’t steal from prospective parishioners – even if they’re stoned, loaded, or Richard E. Grant.
  • Archdeacon inspections are, in fact, a bigger deal than I realised. [Within days of this episode our parish’s forthcoming inspection became a big deal.]
  • “Pray quietly Vicar!” is something to bear in mind at all times.

Episode 6:

  • Not everyone finds the BAP (Bishop’s Advisory Panel) acronym as amusing as my friends and I do. I couldn’t believe the BBC didn’t make any reference to it…
  • Those who don’t get through the aforementioned BAP should be kept away from church roofs.
  • There are parishioners who like nothing more than to cook delicious meals for their clergy.

Christmas Special:

  • It’s unwise to postpone visits to elderly parishioners, just in case…
  • Midnight communion in Shoreditch looks like rather more fun than my Tewkesbury Abbey/Gloucester Cathedral experiences.
  • Sharing a nervous breakdown with a congregation via The 12 Days of Christmas is possibly the best use of that particular Christmas ditty, and something to put on the bucket list.
  • Never cancel a planned waifs & strays Christmas dinner. [Incidentally, love that the BBC used exactly the same name that me and a colleague used to refer to it today. We love a good waifs & strays Christmas.] It will ultimately unite your entire parish and solve all family traumas.

The series will stay on iPlayer for another week, so catch it while you can (handy hint: if you download it, you’ll have a month in which to watch it, if the next 7 days are somewhat hectic for you). Here’s hoping there’ll be a series three, and in the mean time, I think I’ll need to stock up on the boxsets for future formational guidance.

*When I say ‘more’, I obviously mean ‘different’. Obviously, I have learned tons of things that 3 and a half hours of a BBC sitcom couldn’t possibly teach me. [Disclaimer endeth.]

24 Frames per second, or 5 films in 24 hours

As briefly mentioned yesterday, I spent the weekend (well, Friday night and all day Saturday to be precise) at a film festival. My very first film festival in fact. L’Abri is a retreat centre that holds a special place in the hearts of several of my friends and their annual film festival provided an ideal opportunity for a group of us to experience its wonder. A weekend of good friends and good films – what’s not to like?

I did wonder if I’d take well to the format of watching a film and discussing it immediately afterwards. It usually takes me a while to process things I’ve watched – often I’ll sit in a post-film discussion (as in over drinks, not a formally facilitated one) quietly pondering and only coming up with my own arguments 24 hours later. Highly frustrating. However, the first two discussions were led by someone who understood the ways of the introverts (I suspect because he himself is a performing I) and encouraged discussion in pairs or quiet thought before the floor was opened to general debate.

Watching a film with a large group of people who are thinking carefully about they’re watching was something of a novelty too – there was no need for Wittertainment’s Code of Conduct in Greatham Village Hall (although I did take my boots off at one point…) – people didn’t talk and generally sat enraptured by the screen. [Except for the dear old lady sat in front of me during the first film who exclaimed “For goodness sake!” at some violence done to the hero – I liked her tone and her engrossed-ness.]

Anyway, it would be pointless to talk about the festival without making some comment on the films themselves. Writing about them on the train yesterday proved that it was difficult to be succinct, but I’m going to try. The bottom line is that I think all of them are worth watching if you haven’t seen them already…

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
A prison film starring Paul Newman, highlighting the life of the roadside chain-gang and the misery of a life behind bars. One the first things several people asked me when I mentioned that I was going to a film festival at a Christian retreat centre was how they managed to find enough Christian films to show. Because of course, we all know that Christians only watch Christian films and there can’t possibly be any point in discussing any other kind of film… Though I might jest about resurrection theology in Harry Potter, I’m actually not a fan of the trying hard to find Christian imagery school of theological film watching; thus, I got a little wary when, part way through the first film of the festival, a clear nod to the crucifixion appeared.

The discussion revolved around whether Luke was a Messainic figure – certainly there were lots of Biblical references and faith in God was a key component of the plot, but suggesting Luke was Jesus would be pushing it. Ultimately, there was no redemption through Luke – although his story is propagated as one of hope to a new generation of prisoners at the end of the film, he doesn’t actually achieve what they’re claiming he has. How can this be similar to a belief in a resurrected Christ? [Although, as my deeply cynical friend pointed out on the drive back to the Eco Barn, I believe a story that is seen as being just as untenable to many people.]

The film’s currently a West End play and I’m not sure how well it translates to the stage, so watch the original if you can. (By the way, turns out that Paul Newman in 1967 = hot. Who knew?!)

Of Gods and Men (2010)
Easily the film which clinched my attendance at the festival – the opportunity to have an extended discussion of it was something not to be missed. I’d wanted to see it for ages, but as is usually the case with foreign language films, a bigger screen and a large audience was going to help my motivation. I’d heard nothing but praise for it and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a beautifully moving film telling the real-life story of a monastery in Algeria threatened by Islamic terrorists in the mid-1990s, shot with a speed that seemed to reflect the steady pattern of the monastic lifestyle, and illustrated the stark contrast between beauty of the location and the ugliness of the violence taking place within it.

The main theme of the film is the relationship between the monks and the Islamic community they lived within. It is clear that they had a huge respect for the religion and it’s this understanding and sensitivity that helped save them from death in their first encounter with the terrorists on Christmas Eve. The tension and fear builds and builds as the monks debated whether to stay or go – I couldn’t help but reflect that at a time when the Catholic church and those living in a monastic tradition are judged with much suspicion by society, the film really captures the sense of sacrifice and vocation that the monks believed themselves to have and their passion for the people they were called to live alongside.

The discussion was perhaps a little too facilitated and I took exception to our facilitator’s opinion of the Last Supper scene (he hated it; I adored it) – never have I been so moved by Swan Lake (though it did bring back some unfortunate Black Swan memories). But it did lead me to wondering whether it’s right to try and read so much into films based on true events? Why should we analyse the playing of Tchaikovsky if we know that that’s what the monks chose to play? It’s fact…

Restrepo (2010)
I would never have paid to see this film and I don’t think would even have considered watching it had it not been part of the festival, but on one level I’m kind of glad I did. This is a documentary filmed over a US army’s 15 month deployment to the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan – one of the conflict’s most dangerous areas. I’m a pacifist and I’m not convinced at the validity of the conflict, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s happening and that it’s good to understand as much as we can about it.

Ultimately, this film shows just what a chaotic and pointless war it is. Soon after the film was made, the troops were withdrawn from the region – so all the ‘progress’ made during it was essentially wasted. The style of filming, with handheld and helmet cameras, lends the film a disorientating and upsetting visual – but reflects well what the soldiers were experiencing. I wonder if I would have felt differently about the film had the troops been British, not American. I wonder if the British troops approach their dealings with the local population in a different way? (Would they give out Capri Suns to local elders during their weekly, utterly spurious, meetings?)

War films are a major genre and I’m not averse to them – Band of Brothers and Jarhead rank highly in excellent films depicting real events in which the acting is very moving. However, this was real and the emotions you see are being experienced by real people. In a scene where soldiers discover their sergeant’s been killed, you see the overwhelming grief that encompasses one soldier in particular – there is howling and screaming and it’s painful to watch. I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch an acted war film in quite the same way again.

The Social Network (2010)
I confess, I drank port instead of watching this on Saturday night – but in my defence I had already seen it twice. There’s not much more that needs to be said about the Facebook film, but what intrigued me was the revelation during the discussion that the film’s impact upon the viewer’s opinion of Mark Zuckerberg was divided. When I first watched it, I was surprised at the level of sympathy I felt for Facebook’s co-founder – and I knew that several friends had felt the same way. However, when asked, it turned out that although half the l’Abri audience felt the same as me; the other half felt less enamoured towards Zuckerberg.

Catfish (2010)
If ever you find yourself at the l’Abri festival, make sure you watch at least one of the late night films. Shown at the Manor House and accompanied by hot chocolate and popcorn, the smell as you enter the kitchen is practically orgasmic – in fact I’m seeking to recreate the sweet chocolate and salty popcorn ambience in the flat very soon. Yes, it takes dedication to watch a film that begins at 11pm having spent the previous 24 hours watching films, but it’s worth it…

Undoubtedly, this was the film I enjoyed the most – Of Gods and Men was beautiful and moving, but this was light-hearted (albeit dealing with a truly bizarre and rather weird subject). Although billed as a documentary, there is controversy over whether it really is. My extensive online research has drawn no final conclusions, but I don’t think it really matters.

If you’ve ever wondered if online communication could ever be genuine, this film will give you plenty of ammunition. The subject develops a relationship with someone he thinks is a 19 year old girl, but discovers a whole web of lies and deceptions that he’s unwittingly been drawn into. Honestly, I sat open mouthed as the fiction was uncovered, it was massively weird and hugely concerning. I don’t want to spoil it, so won’t say much more, but seriously – be careful what you get hooked into online!


Apologies, this is very, very long (but it was either this or a week of posts in which I’d have rambled unnecessarily about each of the films in turn). Ultimately, not only was it a good weekend, but it’s inspired the possibility of a regular London gathering in which we can continue the discipline of watching and discussing, which can only be a good thing (especially as I’ve now worked out how to process films in a speedier fashion).