Friday, September 28, 2007

The Paddington Bear Plagiarism Affair

It was with some nostalgia that I stumbled across the new Marmite advert in which our hero Paddington forgoes his marmalade sarnies in favour of the "dark stuff", and though I hate Marmite as I hate Bovril, it made me giggle, and reminisce.

The year was 1986. I was a six year-old boy, just learning to read and write - in fact my writing had got to a fairly good standard - that of reducing my font size by at least a half, which meant O could write on the same A4 of my workbook for twice as long.


The task of the day - and my first foray into fiction and creative writing - was to take the character of Paddington Bear, whom I believe we'd either watched an episode of in class or had our teacher read one of the stories to us, and write a short story about him.

It should have been fun, and these days as I struggle to perfect my writing ability I wonder why I was no good, why I showed absolutely no spark of genius. In fact, I can remember having absolutely no idea of what to write at all. No one had ever opened my mind to formulating a story!

What a crazy notion.

And I don't know which came first: whether it was this simple stumpage of writers block, or whether I'd accidentally spied my best friend, Paul, scribbling his story away, but suddenly I found spurred into action. The idea was there, the plot, the moment around which the whole story would revolve...

So, Paddington has gone to the theatre, and whilst he watches the opera over the balcony of the family's private box, he grows hungry. Our intrepid little bear breaks open his favoured suitcase and produces the Marmite sandwiches, pops them on the top of the balcony whilst he just- whoops!

The sandwiches slip from the balcony and freefall onto the bald head of a man below.

I can't remember any more of this inspired tale because my best bud, Paul, spotted what I was writing - not only was he a faster reader, but also a faster writer. He was probably already finished as I was entering the home stretch. Anyhoo, he looked over and thanks to my still awfully large font size, was able to spot some similarities in my story to his.


So, he called the teacher over and dobbed me in for plagiarism - obviously aged 6 and 7 we weren't too clued up on this thing beyond "Miss, he's copying me," but I very quickly learned that plagiarism doesn't pay.

Funny! I hadn't give it one thought, least of all that when our teacher came to mark them, she'd have found two stories far too alike. But then, all I can remember feeling was the horror of the deadline and my mind a blank.

In true Dickensian manner, the hero of the piece was congratulated on his work and the villain whisked off to the gallows.

After that I wouldn't write again for another two years...

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Ian McEwan's Atonement, released in 2002 (just goes to show how long it takes for a book to be turned into a film when it's optioned) was recently released in the cinemas (and is soon to be removed - so get down there quick).

As imdb's plot summary states:
A British romance that spans several decades. Fledgling writer Briony Tallis, as a 13-year-old, irrevocably changes the course of several lives when she accuses her older sister's lover of a crime he did not commit.
Funny that that is a succinct description that avoids entirely the crux of the story. Imdb has a second summary that better catches the hook:

In the summer of 1935, 13-year-old Briony Tallis observes a flirtation between a servant's son, Robbie, and her older sister, Cecilia, that she childishly misconstrues. Briony's misunderstanding leads to a terrible crime whose consequences follow them through World War II.
The important thing is in the way Briony misconstrues the events she part witnesses on one Summer's day in 1935.

Which, without giving away any of the significant plot points, brings me to the interesting manner in which these moments of misconstrue-ination occur. We open with Briony, she is a 13 year old writer with a big old imagination and a crush on Robbie. He in turn loves Cecilia and on three separate occasions Briony mistakenly walks in at the wrong moment of the development scenes in Robbie and Cecilia's relationship. And each time she adds a bit more of her own ideas about what is really going on.

I'm not sure how this comes across in the book (will have to go hunting - watch this space), but in the film each moment is developed first from Briony's point of view, running with her through a scene until she stumbles upon the end of a situation between Robbie and Cecilia, or regarding the two. And sure enough they seem quite odd/erotic/troubling.

We, the viewer, are then drawn back in time to witness the story from Robbie and Cecilia's point of view, showing us the real and, at first, innocent incidents.

At the end of every scene we are again put back into Briony's position - this is important! Though we begin to get momentary repeats of information, and having witnessed the end to these scenes already with Briony, when they are shown in full from Robbie and Cecilia's point of view, they lose their suspense (we know the outcome and that Briony will witness it).

However, the film makers and, I'm sure, McEwan have taken the decision to make Briony the protagonist (if not the main character - I'm still not sure if she's both, or if Robbie is in fact the protagonist... hmmm), and as such we need to be put back into Briony's frame of reference.

Why? Because we need to understand why she suspects Robbie of... the final deed... despite what she really sees, and what we, the viewer, really know. And why she chooses to lie to the police. Without the constant start and return to Briony's point of view the viewer would lose any and all empathy/sympathy with Briony's character and she might come off as vengeful and childish than she does.

For me the sour note in all this is that it removes possible moments of future surprise - like Columbo we know who the real culprit is from the off (and don't be fooled into thinking that in a Dickensian way all badguys will pay for their crimes, this isn't that kind of story). But I can understand it is mere fallout from the purpose of the plot - the atonement itself.

It makes for a great film, though the drawn out scenes when the main characters are torn apart do begin to drag, but then you come to appreciate this at the end, with the final reveal regarding what you've been watching - interesting also, and partly reminded me of The French Lieutenant's Woman (but not implicitly).

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Outcast - Wolf Brother Book 4

I am in a perpetual loop of awe when I read Michelle Paver - and admittedly, as a 28 year old man (I feel so old) I shouldn't be going to Waterstones and purchasing myself a copy of a children's book aimed at 9 to 12 year olds (it's for Mum really, I just read them first), but I do.

Let me argue that in my defence, I read all of Rowling's Potters, and in actual fact Paver is the far better writer. Her work might not deal with the big issues of Pullman's His Dark Materials, and it might not bas a literary and grand, but her writing is dead on, perfect, an easy read, a fast read, a great story.

So much so in fact that when I realised her latest book was out, I dumped the heavy going and rather waterlogged depiction of life on the Shiants in Adam Nicholson's Sea Room (for uni) - it's a well written read that falters because its all about the history and has no story (yawn) - and picked up Outcast for an immediate burst of life.

And it moves so fast that, at such a gripping pace that I'm at page 144 in only a short number of hours.

Considering the brief mentions Agent Peter occasionally makes about meetings with Ms Paver, I got to thinking how much time and effort he now needs to put in on assisting or advising her in her work - since he is extremely adept and what he does and MG has spoken previously of the need for rewrites having passed her work under his eye. Maybe you could shed light on that MG with your next work?

Anyhoo, in the meantime, let's sneakily open Outcast and read page one:

The viper glided down the riverbank and placed its sleek head on the water, and Torak stopped a few paces away to let it drink.

His arms ached from carrying the red deer antlers, so he set them aside and crouched in the bracken to watch. Snakes are wise, and know many secrets. Maybe this one would help him deal with his.

The viper drank with unhurried sips. Raising its head, it regarded Torak, flicking out its tongue to taste his scent. Then it coiled neatly back on itself and vanished into the ferns.

It had given him no sign.

But you don't need a sign, he told himself wearily. You know what to do. Just tell them. Soon as you get back to camp. Just say, 'Renn. Fin-Kedinn. Two moons ago something happened. They held me down, they put a mark on my chest. And now...'

I needn't go any further - that is a perfect opening (and one I'm certain Agent Peter must have had a hand in). His advice on such matters are as succinct as that passage.

Brevity, Brevity, Brevity as Solvejg and MJ used to say (a hell of a lot). The use of the viper to open with goes hand in hand with the cover, with what has come before (see the previous book) and as a portent of things to come.

We get an immediate sense of where we are with descriptions that tie in with movement (it not mattering what riverbank, river or the setting of the bracken looks like beyond their existence) and the introduction of Torak with his deer antlers is simply delivered.

But why is this important? Because Ms Paver doesn't make a big deal out of things. A lesser writer (ahem... myself) might make a big deal out of the antlers and/or the viper because of what they represent and what they will lead to, but Paver leaves that until the right moment. Until such time she sprinkles these references and allusions to greater things with a scarcity that puts them in the reader's mind without drawing too much significance too early.

In that strain she leaves off providing too many hooks for the reader - note the only hook we get is at the end of the passage in the reference to the mark. This is the hook that ties the reader in with trying to remember what the mark was from the first book, the title Outcast - what does that mean? How does that tie in with the mark?

And the descriptions of the actions of either Torak or viper are not wasted. We're not flooded with he watched this, did this, thought this, moved there, ate that, drank that. I seriously need to rethink my own approach in this respect.

Congratulations to Peter again for this, another great addition to the Wolf Brother series.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Lake District

From the stillness of Ullswater to the craggy peaks of ScaFell Pike, the Lakes are a wonder to behold. You can keep your Swiss Alps, your New Zealand ranges, and your K2 expeditions. The Lakes has it all... or at least enough of it.

Admittedly, it was a knackering break (as in a week away, I didn't actually break anything), but well worth it for the photos. Even if climbing to the highest peak in England pitched us into chill winds you only get at 978 metres above sea level.

My calves were like the twisted remains of a fan belt, the rubber all knotted and hot, but at least there were great big Fell Walker dinners to be eaten.

And it was at our local pub where we felt the most welcome. Of our three visits to the Lakes, this trip included the best meal at the Horse and Farrier - the second year, it having been closed - and whilst we'd read bad press from previous visitors to the holiday cottage, we decided to ignore suggestions of "rudeness" and check it out for ourselves.

The new owners are a down to earth couple that you might suggest are eccentric, rather than rude - no airs and graces, only blunt reality.

Unfortunately there wasn't any soup - what are the chances of 26 bowls of soup being slurped and gulped down in one day in a village whose local inhabitants probably extend to 10?

We got a real sense that this pair were running everything from front of bar to kitchen, since, there was the occasional moment when I caught a flapping motion in the corner of my eye, and there at the far end of the restaurant area (it being closed for refurbishment), the barman/chef was waving a towel.

"He's, er, waving again," I advised his wife.

"Won't he ever stop,' she replied, sidling past to find out what he was after.

"What you need is a pair of CB radios."

"Ooh, we did for a while, but the ghost likes to use them too!"

Later, after my sister-in-law had failed to complete a yard of cumberland sausage the barlady recounted a tale of side-splitting gluttony.

"Fit to burst," replied Lucy.

"Funny you should say that," said the barlady, collecting the plates like stepping-stones along her arm. "When we first opened up and set the sausage challenge we had a lady come in with a friend. They'd been Fell walking most of the day and wanted something hearty to finish them off."

"Did they manage the whole yard?" I asked.

"Yes, they managed a yard each. And the friend wanted desert. But while I was clearing away their plates, the lady asked me for an ambulance. She said it wasn't really anything to worry about but that she'd had her stomach removed a couple of weeks ago and she could feel that she'd burst her replacement bag."

"How do you forget something like that!" I said. "That's something to advertise: Can you beat the Stomach-rip challenge!"

"I've decided to wait until we burst another," replied the barman.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


So, Police Gig... it's all over now *SIGH*

I'm suffering a depression at the thought of twenty years culmination ending last night. It was an absolutely brilliant concert, though I admit you'd probably have to be a fan and have to have been there to enjoy it.

A basic set up - just the three of them, one rhythm guitar, one bass and a whole load of drums and percussion - a kind of back to basics set.

And they just stormed, with Copeland flinging drumsticks left right and center - he had a quiver by each drum set and midway through he'd grow bored or be primed to move between his drums and he'd fling them high.

Sting wailed as only Sting can and Andy tripped up and down his fretboard as if suffering parkinsons.
Sting's son's band, Fictionplane, opened the concert with gusto and though half of what they played kind of felt repetitious and too samey to what is already out there (I'd have expected more) there was a couple of great sounding tunes.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Police

As a kid I was brought up on a mix of Dire Straits, Cliff Richard, Neil Diamond, Eddy Grant and Harry Chapin, not really having a musical choice of my own until those Sunday mornings when The Roxy would play on the TV, or the family would all gather in the lounge after an episode of the original Robin Hood television series ended and we switched on the radio to listen to the Radio 1 chart show. 1987 was the year Michael Jackson released Bad, my very first cassette tape - I had to wait until Christmas to get my copy and I was seriously miffed because my best friend, Paul, got his copy for his birthday in October.

At that point in my buck-teethed, bowl-cut hair life I had no idea who The Police were. Their last album had come out in 83 and they'd split up soon after. At that time I was 4 or 5 and more interested in moving from playgroup to the infants and primary school, and whilst their Singles album had come out in 86, it hadn't touched my radar.

It wasn't until another year later, in 1988, that I first came across them and my musical appreciation changed forever. I was 8, approaching 9.

On and off over the years I'd spend time with my nextdoor neighbour, Chris, often playing on their Atari - that old classic Out Run, or Ranarama - discussing or swapping Fighting Fantasy gamebooks or playing with his parent's spanking new hi-fi equipment, reading funny stories to each other with a golden-headed microphone and making funny noises with the effects for our own amusement. We'd met proper at primary school. At the time Chris had a best friend called... Chris, and my first foray into their world was a crazy playground sing off, with them assailing my ears with Michael Jackson's Beat It (as a way of trying to clear me off their patch of grass) and me returning their 'diss' with the strains of Bros's I Owe You Nothing (oh for the love of God, how embarrassing)!

Fortunately we became friends because I desperately needed someone to show me right music from wrong music.

And so it was in 1988 that one day I knocked on Chris's door and he invited me in with such enthusiasm that I thought we'd (as in his dad) had bought a new game for the Atari (Leisure Suit Larry was on the horizon), but no. Chris wanted to show me firstly his parents' new CD player (the first I ever saw), and notably one of his Dad's first albums: The Police's The Singles. He wanted me to listen to his favourite song - Every Little Thing She Does is Magic - and whilst I struggled with the notion of choosing the track you wanted to listen to instead of having to fast forward and rewind, finding first which side of the tape you were trying to listen to before choosing direction (I wouldn't get my own CD Player until late in 93) he played one of what I thought was a truly phenomenal song - that building open of keyboard and guitar, the dash of hi-hat, the drop out followed by a carribean chorus sound, was like nothing I'd heard before, and Crikey! I'd been on this planet for some 8 years.

We sat on his parents's lounge carpet for most of the day skipping back and forth through that album, him always returning us to Every Little Thing, and me pushing for Message In A Bottle.

I think that what struck me most was the drumming. I'd had no previous experience in the music I'd listened to previously of a drummer playing an active role. In the majority of songs I'd listened to the drums seemed to follow a simple set pattern that was repeated adinfinitum, but in Copeland's drumming there seemed little uniformity and it was as if Sting and Andy Summers were rushing to the chorus so that Stewart could unleash himself.

The songs all sounded so different (I'd no idea they spanned 5 years and 5 albums or that these had each been a hit) and yet they went together like a strange story I'd no real concept of - I wouldn't properly understand Roxanne until my parents explained prostitution, that Invisible Sun concerned Northern Ireland, what the hell The Scylla and Charybdis were, referred to in Wrapped Around Your Finger or the irony of Don't Stand So Close To Me (my brother would end up in a similar situation some 15 years later).

The whole album was alive, every instrument playing as if to assert itself over all the others, and Sting's voice, and his lyrics drawing it all together, making it all real.

Somehow I managed to buy a tape copy, whether from my own pocket money or begged off my parents, and that tape sat solidly in the tapedeck for years to come, accompanying us on holiday in the car tape player, or when my family grew bored and wanted to listen to my brother's Billy Joel album, I'd pop it in my walkman. Either that or Dad' would turn it off because he found the gorgeous King of Pain too depressing.

I pored over the lyrics until I had them down and I sang and sang. Dad would later ruin Roxanne for me by squealing the title as Sting did just to annoy me (at the time I was going out with a South African girl, funnily enough called Roxanne - yes, we were quite young), and long after we split up and I was in emotional turmoil over my loss, Dad would remind me: "rrrrrrrrROCKS-ANNNNNN". I wonder what ever happened to her? She moved to the States the year I went to secondary school. *SIGH*

Message in a Bottle I'd ruin myself, only this year in fact - with the release of Guitar Hero 2. Those damn chords are just too quick to play without breaking my middle digit.

Anyhoo, they're back! And tonight, the first of the UK concerts, starts in Birmingham, and - YAY - I'm gonna be there, 14 rows from the front on the floor in front of the stage.

14 rows! They can sweat on me!

So, this is a big thanks to Chris for giving me musical sense and helping me fall in love with the greatest rock band in the world... in my opinion ;)

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Village By The Sea

Anita Desai's children's novel The Village By The Sea was the first of the four contemporary fiction novels I've got to read for my next uni module - Reading into Fiction - and though it was only 260 pages... what a slog.

Had I realised it was a children's novel I might have given it an easier time. This has highlighted rather than my awareness of poor writing, the difference between adult and child fiction (this was an award winner for crying out loud)... *SIGH*

Take this extract for example. I feel it is poorly written, a tell that is a sweeping statement to save the author coming up with a better way of showing what she means:

'Poor Pinto,' he murmured , and fell silent again. Although he said no more, everyone realised he was saying he was sorry for the role he had played in Pinto's death, for being responsible for it in a way.

I mean... seriously? Surely that's a leap to make?!

Another extract shows up something that many writers seem to do (from what I've seen), describing something through a show and then telling it as well - doubling everything up unnecessarily (though of course, this being aimed at children, might be necessary):

'There are enough bad character in this city - thugs, murderers, thieves, gamblers, drunkards - why not go after them instead? Why not start with those drunkards playing cards in that corner over there? They make life unsafe for us who live in this locality, we are all afraid to come to this park because of them - not because of this poor bou who has no home and nowhere to sleep,' he said.

The policeman stood chewing his moustache uncertainly. 'Hr-umph,' he grunted, not knowing quite what to do. The bent old man had made him feel ashamed of bullying a child when there was adult work to be done: tackling the real criminals of the city.

It's truly awful.

To be fair though, it's not that bad. The ending draws nice synchronicity with the beginning, returning us full circle, and even though I personally found the Dickensian style ending too happy-go-la-la considering everything the family's been through, it's far more engaging than the opening.

And for every unnecessary line or repetition (as in:

He thought of the sails one saw along the horizon and the lights of the boats by night which were visible from the beach. He thought of the catch coming in in the evenings, the voices of the women quarrelling over the baskets of shining fish on the sand. He thought... He thought... He thought... He thought... He thought...

which I found really grating) there are well established moments of tension, where Desai maintains suspense across two separate story threads.

In Crace's The Pesthouse our two heroes are split up by bandits and though until this point the story has originated and stayed with Franklin, because it is Franklin who is kidnapped and Franklin who is in peril, it is Franklin's thread which goes cold. We then follow Sarah's story (I believe she's called Sarah) until we meet up with Franklin again. Then, at that point we travel back in time to revisit what has happened to Franklin in this time - Crace choosing not to hold off giving the reader this info for as long as possible.

Desai uses a form of this in two incidents in her book. Firstly, as we come up to the end of Act One, we have spent the day with Hari, which was a functional account really and rather boring. But as he returns home at the end of the day, his story merges with whatever has been occuring to his family:

He went into the hut, Pinto bounding ahead of him. They looked up at him. Their sad, frightened faces made him cry out, 'What has happened?'

And we move into the next chapter, recounting the day's tribulations and horrors.

Towards the end of the book we are with Hari again, following his life in Bombay. We hear of the loss of boats over the news from his village - from a great distance so that we cannot know the ins and outs, but only Hari's concerns and worries. Again, it isn't until we go back with him that we meet up with his family's story thread.

Desai is also good at the judicious use of description to evoke time and place... not as per my usual fashion of throwing all and sundry at the reader in the hope they will understand where they are:

'Let's go home and eat,' cried Bella, suddenly very hungry.

'Run - I'll race you,' shouted Hari and they set off, shouting.

The horizon was brightly lit by the sun that seemed to be melting into the sea like a globe of molten glass. The sky had paled to lemon-yellow and in the east it was already mauve. A star appeared, the brilliant evening star that was always the first to shine.

But it's a poop book, so don't read it. I'm sure her other ones are much better.