The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan


Last year’s Booker Prize winning novel is the second book I have read by Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan.  It compares favourably with the first – Gould’s Book of Fish – and both deal with internment.  This is based on true stories of Australian soldiers captured by the Japanese in WWII in Burma who were made to work, essentially to their death, on what became known as the Burma Death Railway.

The story centres on an army Doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who rises to prominence both in the camp, where he becomes the commanding officer, and after the war in celebratory medical circles as his story becomes known.

It begins before the war when Evans falls deeply in love with the wife of his uncle, takes us through his horrendous experiences in Burma and, after that, his loveless marriage and constant philandering.

Flanagan introduces us to a motley crew of army characters, not all of whom are sympathetic and to the Japanese commanding officer, Nakamura, who strikes up a respectful relationship with Evans despite his daily torturing and starving of Dorrigo’s men.

The main focus of the novel is on the war years which are truly breathtakingly cruel at times and the mental scars it creates on Evans, and Nakamura who becomes a sought after war criminal and battles with his sense of duty to the Emperor (he was only carrying out instructions) and his moral compass that challenges this.

Evans’ post war life, although celebrated, is a mess emotionally and his loss of Amy, who he assumes dead following news of an explosion in her husbands pub, is never really overcome.

Flanagan is a wonderful writer and when on form drives you along at top speed; the scene in a bush fire in Tasmania is spectacular, as is the whole jungle section, but at times the pace drops and his love of dust motes (that appear several times to create atmosphere) can drag a little.

I preferred Gould’s Book of Fish but this is a fine novel and comes recommended, although not unreservedly.


The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson by Julian Temple


Julien Temple has a reputation for musical oddities – he rose to fame with the Sex Pistols’ Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and his Dr Feelgood documentary, Oil City Confidential, was highly regarded – it was presumably during the making of the latter that he developed his relationship with their legendary axe wielder that led to his following Wilko’s pancreatic cancer story that is the basis of ‘The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson’.

The format is possibly unique in that the documentary only really features one individual, the eponymous character, with a few fleeting contributions from The Who’s Roger Daltrey.  But don’t assume for one second that this means the 92 minutes lacks colour.  For a start, Wilko Johnson, who appears on stage to be a bit of a clown and who talks with a wide boy London estuary accent, is actually incredibly well read and educated.  At one point in his unlikely career he was a school teacher (English I assume).  It’s this aspect of his personality that fires Temple’s imagination because, throughout, Temple riffs off Johnson’s fevered imagination and regular quotations from Shakespeare, Milton etc and sets these against outtakes from the likes of Tarkovsky movies.  A central motif is taken from the Seventh Seal where Johnson plays Chess with the Grim Reaper played by…Johnson.

The premise is this.  Temple was recruited to film the last eight months of Johnson’s life after he was diagnosed with terminal Pancreatic Cancer.  Only, he doesn’t die – the documentary begins in early 2013 and Johnson is alive to this day.

But, in the belief that these are his last days on earth Johnson stalks the world in a sort of purgatory as he says his farewell to adoring fans, records a valedictory album with Roger Daltrey and philosophises on the meaning of death, completely free of self pity.

It’s a miraculous achievement and feels incredibly intimate as you are drawn into Johnson’s nadir.  What makes it spectacular is Temple’s clever editing and the recurring death motifs (a shadowy behooded figure stalks the background constantly – perhaps the companion of the Bergmanesque Reaper).

What also makes the film remarkable is his solitude.  Other than the brief Daltrey moments we see no reference to his family other than the revelation that his wife, and childhood sweetheart, passed away a decade ago.  It makes him seem all the more vulnerable.

I strongly recommend that you see this fascinating insight into how a unique man prepares for death.  Enlightening.



The seven day music challenge.

My pal, Peter Flockhart, challenged me to find seven songs that would sum up my musical taste, but I got a little carried away.  Thought you might like to see them all in the one place as we reach day 30.  They are in no particular order and, surprisingly, only one artist appears twice.  Tom Waits.

Day 30

Day 29

Day 28

Day 27

Day 26

Day 25

Day 24

Day 23

Day 22

Day 21

Day 20

Day 19

Day 18

Day 17

Day 16

Day 15

Day 14

Day 13


Day 11

Day 10

Day 9

Day 8

Day 7

Day 6

Day 5

Day 4

Day 3

Day 2

Day 1

Sunset Song : film review.


Sunset Song is a classic Scottish novel, part of a trilogy by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and much loved by many, many people (including my wife).

I confess to having not read it, so had no particular expectations when approaching this movie which happens to have been made possible by two of my friends, Bob Last and Ginnie Atkinson.

It will divide audiences because the pace is slow.


But I loved it.

Much media attention has focussed on the casting of supermodel come actor Agyness Deyn (completely contrived name) as a Mancunian playing a seminal Scottish role but I have to say I liked her performance, and her accent.  The scene in which she learns of her husband’s war news is particularly well acted.

Of course this movie is about Terence Davies.  He makes very few but when he does they tend to be statements about British life and, for me, this is another great entry in his canon of work.

Davies could have made a feminist statement through Deyn’s character, had she been more assertive, but he resists the temptation and instead  reflects the male dominance of relationships in the early 20th century (leading up to and including the first world war).

Two and a bit hours, with zero action, and not much dialogue can’t be most people’s cup of tea (much has been made of the regular return to a certain corn field but, you know what, I didn’t care).

It is a languid and lovely observation of a lifestyle that is long past and male dominated.

Special mentions for the ever brilliant Peter Mullan (a beastly father) and a great performance by Kevin Guthrie as the husband of the central character.