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T2: Review. So much better than the original.

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On the day that the infamous ‘Banana Flats’ in Leith were accorded ‘A listed’ architectural heritage status I was in the cinema to see the sequel to the movie that contributed to the Brutalist building’s cultural credibility.

Trainspotting left me cold in 1996. Danny Boyle’s casting of Ewan McGregor as Renton sat extremely uncomfortably with his characterisation in Irvine Welsh’s mind-blowing source novel.  The stage adaptation that featured both Ewen Bremner and Susan Vidler was much more mind-blowing and credible than the movie.

A public schoolboy from Creiff simply did not fit my vision of an, albeit relatively educated compared to his peers, junkie from West Granton.

The low budget special effects were largely corny.

The baby on the ceiling?  Come on.

The filthiest toilet in Scotland?  With crystal clear water?  Come on.

But the music was outstanding and it clearly nailed a cultural moment (I hesitate to say zeitgeist).

So, my expectations of a sequal, especially of a cult youth movie, twenty years on, were hardly sky high.

They should have been, because in my view this is everything that Trainspotting was not.

“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family…. “ Renton’s cynical rant in the original is a sardonic take on the AIDS campaign that fitted so perfectly with the drug addled HIV capital of Europe  moniker that Edinburgh ‘enjoyed’ in the mid 1990’s.  The city’s unique needle-sharing skag culture had contributed to a minor epidemic, and choosing life was  not a decision, merely a potential outcome.

This underclass had zero control.

Zero choice.

Only Renton (who at least had supportive parents) had the wherewithal to escape; not just from the vicious circle, but from the country itself. Set up with £12,000 of his mates’ money, the proceeds of a London drug sale that he had, admittedly, part funded (That gets overlooked and is a slight plot-hole for me.) he escaped to Amsterdam and a new life.

That he chose.

T2 opens on Renton’s return to the Promised Land, an Edinburgh where the airport meeter greeters are Eastern European.  A family without his mother (he didn’t make the funeral).  A Leith that is part-gentrified, although Sick Boy’s Salamader Street flat symbolically overlooks a massive scrap metal yard, the graveyard of dream cars.  A metaphor for life’s finite span.

The movie (very) roughly adapts Welch’s Porno, but with many flashbacks and additional scenes from the Trainspotting novel that could have been in the original (not least the scene in Leith Central Station).

The budget is six times the original and it shows.  In a good way.  The cinematography bristles from start to finish (Anthony Dod Mantle) and the script bristles with comedy and tragedy in almost equal measure.  The scene in the King William Bar (1690) is a classic.

Not all the characters have fared as well as Renton.

SickBoy, although lithe (thanks to the Charlie) owns his Aunty’s boozer (the beautifully named Port Sunshine – Hibees ya bass) it’s a doss house and in need of investment. His Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika is the only new character to join the fray and cleverly plays the tart with, half, a heart.

Spud’s still a, now suicidal, junkie.

Begbie’s still a fucking bampot on the run from the jail.

Spud, Sickboy and Renton join forces to turn the Port Sunshine into a cultural heritage landmark in Leith attracting considerable public investment.  (For cultural heritage read brothel, sorry, sauna.)

It turns into a hilarious revenge thriller with Begbie on the rampage.

In a turnkey scene Renton sits with Veronika in the fancy Harvey Nichols Forth [sic] floor restaurant.  He reminisces on the Choose Life soliloquy but reframes it, every bit as cynically, for 2017.

“Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares … Choose reality TV, slut shaming, revenge porn. Choose a zero-hours contract, a two-hour journey to work. And choose the same for your kids, only worse …”

This is the point of the movie.  I don’t think it’s about nostalgia as so many reviews have said.  What was great about the foursome’s life in 1996?  Fuck all.

No, this is about regret and the search for middle aged redemption.  A new opportunity to escape the cycle of shit that the trio (Begbie couldnae give a fuck) have immersed themselves in.

It’s an echo of the 1996 dream that, for Sickboy and Begbie, was stolen from them in that London hotel room.  But you know, deep down, it’s not going to work out.  Is it?

Danny Boyle and John Hodge have created a monumental movie.  Poignant, funny, beautifully nuanced and reflecting (not nostalgically) their acknowledged masterpiece of 1996.  The weaving together of three generations of the key chartacters’ respective lives is effortless and the music mirrors that extremely subtly.

Ewen Bremner is the real star with his beautifully sad performance as Spud.  Ewan McGregor has grown into Renton’s skin and can finally be forgiven the original miscasting. Robert Carlyle’s Begbie just manages to steer clear of charicature, and delivers moments of high camp scary bastardness.

The whole thing is a fucking blast.

Go see it.

By the way, credit to Harvey Nichols for granting the rights to use, and adapt, their outstanding shoplifting commercial as part of the movie.



Ali Smith: Autumn. Book Review.

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“It was the worst of times.  It was the worst of times.”

So begins the first of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, Autumn.

It’s a riff off Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and she returns to it repeatedly in this extended part prose part, almost, poem.

It’s a study on time and it’s an abstract novel in its form and this can be (at times – no pun) quite tedious as she wordsmiths and wordplays her way through pages and even short chapters at a time, but if you can grimace your way through what I imagine most critics will see as the book’s highlights you find yourself immersed in a rather captivating platonic love story about a dying 100 year old single (gay?) man -a poet and songwriter – and a young, precocious English lecturer who has secretly loved him (her childhood neighbour) since she was 8 years old (and he was 75).

Daniel is dying. Elisabeth (sic) is visiting him in his care home and reflecting on their deeply respectful on-off life together, against a backdrop of a dysfunctional mother and an estranged (or dead) father.

Much has been made of this being the first post-Brexit novel but really it’s really a contextual backdrop give that the timeshiftimg story concludes in Autumn 2016 in the wake of Britain’s extremely divisive and frankly ridiculous decision at the polls.

It’s clear Smith shares my political stance and uses her Scottishness to highlight the differences between our green and pleasant land and the carbuncle that is Englandshire.

A feminist strand that runs through it is Smith’s clear admiration for the World’s only (deceased) female Pop Artist, beauty and actor, Pauline Boty, and, in particular, her painting of Christine Keeler: Scandal 63.  An artist of the time but out of her time.  Ignored but found, forgotten, found, forgotten, found, forgotten in the years after her unheralded heyday.

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Scandal 63 with the artist, Pauline Boty

At times I found this a challenging read but remarkably it’s also a page turner (it really does race along in very short chapters) and, in that respect that makes it quite an achievement.  I will certainly continue to read the quartet as it emerges.

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Does my bum look big in this?  Bum by Pauline Boty.

 

 



Obama on the Gettysburg Address.

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Can you imagine Trump saying this in an interview with the New York Times in four years’ time?

[Obama: to Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic for The New York Times.]

“I’d put the Second Inaugural up against any piece of American writing — as good as anything. One of the great treats of being president is, in the Lincoln Bedroom, there’s a copy of the Gettysburg Address handwritten by him, one of five copies he did for charity. And there have been times in the evening when I’d just walk over, because it’s right next to my office, my home office, and I just read it.”



The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood: Book Review.

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This is a delight.  I stumbled upon it really attracted by the fact that it was compared to Patrick Suskind’s Perfume and the quality reassurances of it being published by Cannongate Books.

First, let’s deal with the Perfume comparisons. They are easily made and reasonably relevant in that the main protagonist is a collector of the tastes of animals, however it does not have the deeply repulsive motives of Perfume’s Grenuille who is essentially a murderer.

Both novels are episodic and short chapterered, and both set during the French mid 18th century Bourgeois Liberal Revolution. Both chronicle a more or less complete lifetime.

In Grimwood’s oddesey our hero (and he is a hero not a villain) Jean-Marie d’Aumont starts life (1723) as a four year old among minor noble stock before falling into care and emerging, in due course, as an aristocrat.  Not the thing to be by the time the novel concludes in 1790.

Grimwood’s style is extremely readable (it’s an absolute page turner) and he’s a great storyteller.  He makes the central character entirely likeable as he rolls his sleeves up, works with the proletariat and treats them with considerably more fairness than the vast majority of his aristocratic peers.  Meanwhile he pursues his penchant for eating everything from Dung Beetles to Flamingos’ tongues.

Unlike his peers he has a generally faithful approach to marriage but this does not stop him having a series of quite erotic dalliances throughout his lifetime.  Like Grenuille, he is intrigued by the essence of women as manifest by their taste and that generally involves exploration of their sexual organs to establish it.

I’m no historian but he creates a strong sense of time and place with a clear unfolding of the build up to the Revolution as the peasantry become more and more unsettled.  In one scene he undergoes a death defying chase from a group of angry charbonnieres.  It’ll make a great scene in what should be the inevitable movie that comes from it.

Oh, and there’s the milky eyed blind Tiger that becomes d’Aumont best friend and most lotyal companion.

All in all a superb novel that appeals on many levels.



Blitzed (Drugs in Nazi Germany) by Norman Ohler: Book Review.

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I confess to a mild obsession with WWII, so this rather novel, but factual, book caught my eye.

It explores Hitler’s and Nazi Germany’s addiction to Cocaine, Metamphetamine and other stimulants during WWII.

Hitler, an outspoken critic of stimulant-taking, was unwittingly turned into a virtual junkie by his personal physician, Dr Theodor Morell, who gradually increased his medication from early vitamin injections ,to ease his constitution, to a dangerous cocktail of Morphine, Pervitin, Eukodal (double the strength of Morphine) and and Eupaverin.

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Meanwhile his troops were being standard issued with Pervitin – a little white pill that delivered massive hits of methamphatamine.  In experiments Nazi prisoners could be force marched 96km around a walking track in concentration camps on high doses of Pervitin before collapsing.  And it was Pervitin that fuelled the early taking of The Ardennes in April 1940 that gave Hitler an early advantage and footing in Western Europe.

You’d think the book is a stitch up and a fantasy but the 61 pages of refernces that close it are extremely convincing.

It’s a fascinating read.

And, far from Heil Hitler, it seems it was High Hitler.



The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

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Unless you are French I suspect you have not read this book. (Most English speaking reviewers will have done their best to dissuade you from doing so)

Not surprising, because it’s a 974 page tome in 9 point type with no real para breaks.  974 pages of wall to wall reading littered with German second world war jargon.  It’s written in French and translated into English. It’s enough to put anyone off. And some describe its content as the pornography of violence.

Whilst an award winning bestseller in France it barely sold 17,000 of its initial English language publishing.

I’ve probably had the busiest six months of my working life which is why it has taken my fully six, maybe eight, months to complete the task of reading it.

But it was worth every second.

Let’s get the flaws out of the way first.  Apart from the dense structure and German jargon, which one eventually overcomes, Littell has a tendency, in parts, to be rather florid in his descriptions and at times elements of the plotting are fanciful and a bit Bourne Conspiracy and his writing can be untidy.  He goes off on one from time to time.  He’s obsessed with bodily functions, particularly of a scatological nature, and he writes without an ounce of sympathy.

But put all that to one side and the rest is complete and utter magic.

Magic if the likes of Hungarian movie, Son of Saul, can be described as ‘magic’.  Anyone who has seen that compelling movie will be lured into this in the same horrifying way.

This book fully deserves the description; masterpiece.

It concerns the ‘memoirs’ of an ageing French lacemaker as he reflects specifically on his role in the War as an upwardly mobile German SS officer.

The title refers to a trio of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus in which “the Kindly Ones” are angels of vengeance who track and torture parent killers.  This reflects a sub-plot in which the lacemaker (Dr Max Aue) is doggedly tracked by a pair of vaguely comical policeman after the death of his mother and stepfather in France.

These particular deaths are but two of many (26.6million to be precise) that this book celebrates.  I use the word celebrates because, for many reviewers the novel (and although it is historically extremely accurate it is a work of fiction) was felt to almost pornographically dissect the Final Solution and the Battle of Stalingrad and the repugnant end of WWII in Berlin.

As an SS Officer Dr Aue, is intimately involved in the extermination of the Jews but he considers himself removed from the action.  Indeed, for much of it, he seems almost to be a sympathiser, desperately seeking ways to extend the lives of concentration camp workers (haftlings) who are being literally starved to death on atrocious rations in inhumane hygiene conditions.  His motivation is purely practical though.  To get more out of the workforce for the Fuhrer.

The book is broken into seven parts (each named after a Bach dance suite) that capture different aspects of the war and proceed in chronological order, slowly and painfully in minute detail.  Perhaps the most compelling is his time on the Front in Stalingrad as the bloody and atrocious battle comes to an end amidst chaos.  His reason for stationing there is that he is suspected (rightly so) of being a homosexual.  Elements of this are graphically detailed in short interludes.  But his real love is his sister and he desperately desires to continue his fumbling childhood sexual liaisons with her.  She does not share his wishes and it creates huge emotional turmoil for him.

Some of the descriptions of ‘Aktions’, Concentration Camp conditions, Battlefront scenes and the fall of Berlin are gruelling and heart rending but described without emotion reflecting Dr Aue’s view that he is only carrying out a job.  He has no remorse (but some regret) for his actions, but stoutly defends the role of the SS.

For many this could deeply offend and that’s why I recommend it with some conditions.

Indeed this is what Michio Katukani had to say in his review in the New York Times. (It’s a view I can understand but do not concur with.)

Whereas the heroes of the play “Good” and the movie “Mephisto” were ordinary enough men who out of ambition or opportunism or weakness turned to the dark side and embraced the Nazi cause, Aue is clearly a deranged creature, and his madness turns his story into a voyeuristic spectacle — like watching a slasher film with lots of close-ups of blood and guts.

No doubt the author intends such remarks to convey the horrors of the Holocaust, but “The Kindly Ones” instead reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies. That such a novel should win two of France’s top literary prizes is not only an example of the occasional perversity of French taste, but also a measure of how drastically literary attitudes toward the Holocaust have changed in the last few decades.

Clearly Katukani takes the view that Littel is unsympathetic to the Jewish situation.  I take precisely the opposite view that he is bringing to life, albeit dispassionately, a period in world history that cannot be forgotten.

Jason Burke, in The Guardian, shares my reasons for finding the book so important

Yet it would be wrong to value The Kindly Ones only for its contribution to history. The novel is also a gripping military adventure story and a study in collective pathology. Above all, it is a sophisticated exploration of issues of morality, evil and luck.

The novel as a whole brilliantly shows how “ordinary men” become killers. Through its first 200 pages, we follow an Einsatzgruppen about its grisly work. Though many of its members are vicious antisemites and sadists, most are distinctly normal. As massacre follows massacre, they are progressively brutalised. At first, some balk at shooting unarmed civilians, but soon such reluctance becomes a thing of the past. The men eat sausages and drink beer in pauses during the “Aktion” at Kiev, which saw more than 30,000 Jews killed in two days. Their commanders have difficulties holding back volunteer shooters. By the time Aue arrives at Auschwitz, this process of collective desensitisation has reached a new extreme. Industrialised death on a vast scale, conceived in part to spare troops direct involvement in mass killing, is seen as a rational, indeed inevitable, solution to “the Jewish Problem”.

It is a sombre (not a jot of humour peppers its pages) exploration of what it might have been like to be embroiled in the horror that was WWII in Germany as part of the ‘machine’ that executed the Final Solution and it’s because of this that I was totally immersed in its horrific inevitability and foolishness.

And we are left dwelling on this fundamental consideration of Aue’s personality.  Is he a Sociopath or is he, as Littel has him say; just a guy, doing a job?

“I am a man like other men, I am a man like you.”

 

 



Viv Albertine: Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys.
February 26, 2016, 11:33 am
Filed under: Arts, books, creativity, life, music, Reviews, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

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I missed this when it came out and I see it has (rightly) picked up a bunch of awards.  Not the Pulitzer admittedly, but it’s not a Pulitzer book.

What it is is a damn good read, a hugely insightful rummage around in the mucky underwear of the punk era and, at times, a heartbreaking tale of one woman’s battle with life.

Viv Albertine was the guitarist in The Slits, but by her own admittance it was a struggle to get there.  She painfully explains the process by which she found her voice as meanwhile,  Ari Up, the child singer of the band confidently found her own precocious style.

It’s kind of a rags to rags story with a lot, and I mean a LOT, of bodily fluids shared along the way.

But it’s hugely engaging, often hilarious and deeply affecting.  Her moral code is set up for all to see, to be challenged but stoutly defended throughout.  It’s fair to say Viv has had a few encounters.

Her style of writing is particularly engaging.  She has no aspirations to be the next Donna Tartt but she can, and does, write a great story flitting about, as it does, in time sharing with us the minutiae of fashion in London in the 70’s. (In a small way like Tartt’s ex lover, Brett Easton Elliss, does in American Psycho)

Her description of John Lydon ‘s performance on stage with the Sex Pistols is a highlight and viscerally recreates that whole scene and, more importantly, the culture behind it.

Short chapters.

Short sentences

It drives along relentlessly.

And of course, you reach the end of the punk era with a sense of disappointment. The rest, about half of the book, remains.  How can it hold our interest ?

But not only does it do that, it actually gets even better as we hear of her terrible failed marriage, her horrendous IVF treatments, cancer and her uncertain return to the big stage.

OK, it’s a music book.  But in reality it’s the tale of a tortured woman who had a lot of fun.

It’s compelling and I urge you to buy it.