David Mitchell at Hay Festival Digital

Novelist David Mitchell talked about his new book, Utopia Avenue (out on July 14th, 2020) at Hay Festival Digital, in conversation with John Mitchinson, head of research for BBC’s QI series.


Set in the world of rock music in 1967-8, featuring real people such as Francis Bacon in walk-on parts and iconic venues such as the Marquee Club in Soho, the title of the book is the name of a (fictitious) band. It must have been “immense fun researching and writing it,” said Mitchinson, observing that Utopia Avenue “is a David Mitchell book, but also something of a departure.”

“I had enormous fun,” said the author. “I want to make my books different from each other. This was an era we’re familiar with, or overfamiliar with. I thought I was … legends get in the way – our collective cultural memory obscures grottier truths that the legends have grown out of.”


The core of the book is how the band comes together – four “waifs and strays,” found by a manager figure. Mitchell didn’t want too much “Spinal Tap or testosterone,” so he has created female vocalist Elf Holloway, blues bassist Dean Moss, guitar virtuoso Jasper de Zoet and jazz drummer Griff Griffin.

Each of the chapters is named after a song and has the point of view of the band member who wrote it, and for each one Mitchell listened to that particular style of music while writing. Mitchinson was surprised to learn that the novelist had never been in a band. “No, I’m not a musician. Took some guitar and piano lessons and still continue with the piano.” But most of the ‘authenticity’ in the book comes from speaking to people who had been in bands a lot – he “harvested IWATHs (‘I Was There’s’)” from them. He also watched “some great documentaries and interviews, read some music memoirs.”

Mitchell talked about the term “scenius”, coined by Brian Eno, the idea of genius being embedded in a scene, rather than a person. This could be applied to the late ‘60s, when “art and business, media, socioeconomics combined in one geographical location. Soho was a “bizarre, sordid, provocative psycho-geographical square mile of London … not on any administrative map, it is a place and isn’t … an idea and concept, as much as a place you walk through. Utopia Avenue was his attempt to “build a time machine” and travel back to this era of “great music.”

John Mitchinson marvelled at the 18 months between The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and White Album. To him it was “inconceivable that anything so seismic could happen again.” What must it have been like to live in that time and hear Sergeant Pepper for the first time? Or hang out in the Colony Room with Francis Bacon? “Luckily it’s within living memory,” said Mitchell, who was able to call on his ‘IWATH’s.


Utopia Avenue has been described as ‘the great rock and roll novel’ (Tony Parsons). What were the other contenders? Mitchell mentioned Kill Your Friends by John Niven and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet. But there weren’t many – why? Mitchell quoted “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (attributed variously to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello and actor Martin Mull). “Music is an art form beyond language,” said Mitchell. “How to capture it? It’s an oxymoron … ooh, it’s hard. It takes a Houdini-esque feat of escapology to produce a description of a live band … a poor, meagre imitation of the real thing.” Most novelists don’t even try, because “they have more sense than me.”

Viewer questions:

Were any supernatural elements retained in the new book?

Mitchell: “if you’ve read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or The Bone Clocks, yes (Jasper de Zoet shares a name with Jacob), but if you haven’t read anything the answer’s ‘no’.”

What comes first, characters story or physical place?

“When and where – the physical world. I start with the world, plot and characters work in tandem. I require the one to catch up the other. It’s a kind of walking race between plot and characters.” This question was “a pint of beer and half-an-hour question.”

Mitchinson: “David Bowie makes a couple of important appearances in the novel. He has important truths to impart to Jasper …”

Mitchell: “He needs to do something, not just be eye-candy. But he can’t have a pivotal role either … all these people are no longer with us, but they have families …

If you could choose a supergroup which musicians would be in it?

Lisa Hannigan as singer; David Gilmour on guitar; Neil Peart or Ginger Baker on drums. Or Charlie Watts or Mick Fleetwood; Geddy Lee from Rush on bass.

Mitchinson: Music obviously matters to you, it’s a genuine passion …

Mitchell: “Tunes can allow you to overlook less inspired lyrics. Songs are mysterious things: life-enhancing, mood-shifting, politically-rallying. The book of love has music in it … some of it is transcendental; some of it is really dumb.”

Who would be your dream music writer to talk to you about this book?

“I almost wouldn’t want an eminent music writer … would prefer to talk to Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon or McCartney and ask them how they do what they do, this mysterious thing.”


Roddy Doyle at Hay Festival Digital

In conversation with Hay Festival director Peter Florence, Booker-Prize winning novelist Roddy Doyle talked Normal People, life under lockdown, Dublin pubs and his new book, Love (out on 23rd June in North America, October in the UK).


How was he doing? “Not too bad … I’m close to the sea. I can walk or cycle.” The pandemic had made him put aside a novel-in-progress which had been set in the present; instead he was trying to capture moments by writing short stories. Social distancing had a silver lining for professional eavesdroppers:  nobody was whispering anymore, so he could hear “every conversation in Dublin” while out exercising.

Had the weekly pub evening been curtailed? Doyle still ‘met’ up with his friends via Zoom, but it wasn’t the same. “It took a long time for gaps in the conversation to feel normal. Utter silence … is this the best we can do? But we’re not in the pub … the thing I miss is the ability to mingle with people when you want to.”

What was it about dialogue that keeps him focussed? “I’m a Dublin writer … we talk a lot.” It was one of the best ways of getting a novel moving: “you’re gonna have to have people talking. There’s a pleasure in it.” Doyle realised he was “quite good at it” and that you could convey an inner life through dialogue. In his new novel “it takes these two men a very long time to get to the point.”


He talked about watching the TV drama series Normal People recently, which he found “very moving, very touching.” Doyle was particularly struck by author Sally Rooney’s treatment of sex, how aware, confident and considerate the young man’s character was. “Men of my generation were never prepared in that way. There was no sex education at the (Jesuit) Brothers schools.”

Florence: “The new book is about coming to terms with the past … an event that happened a long time ago. I’m fascinated by how you, as a teacher, now looks at your own generation … what is your subject going to be?”

“Old men coming to their peak,” replied Doyle. “I’m quite content with writing about people – men, mostly – who are getting old.” Re-reading books when you were older, it was interesting how different the experience was: “I’ve realised that people own their own memories;” two people’s versions of something they both witnessed at the same time could be very different.


Joe and Davy, the two characters in Love, “met at school in the 1980s. One went to college, the other one didn’t. In a short furious blast of living they share life for a year. They want to be part of Dublin pub life.” One emigrates to England but they keep in touch. Over the years they stop going out ‘on the tear’, but in the book they “drink themselves sober” discussing a woman they both met in their thirties. What’s she like now? What was she like then?


The novel is about their inability to share a memory. “These two men are clinging desperately to what they had. They love each other as friends and it’s very, very difficult for them to discuss this.”

“It’s the gaps you leave,” said Florence.

“Yes, that’s what I’ve done from the beginning,” said Doyle, “let the readers fill them in … I’ve never thought that reading was a passive activity.”

Florence: “the author’s voice … you know when a piece of writing is by Roddy Doyle. You somehow offer up the text to us …”

Doyle: “I’m more interested in the characters than myself … The Woman Who Walked into a Door is probably the best book I’ve written ‘cause I’m not in it.”

Questions from viewers:

Have you ever lost control of your characters?

Doyle said that his dialogue didn’t get out of control, but “I do try to replicate talk that goes off on tangents – football is a great one for men my age. Someone might mention abortion, then someone else talks about football.”

Do you orally work those lines?

Unlike fellow Irish writer Kevin Barry, Doyle didn’t “feel the need to recite lines out loud. The Commitments was written in a one-room bedsit … the walls were quite thin, so no … I really enjoy editing, hacking away with the red biro. In the absence of students I correct my own work … 6 out of 10.”

Are pubs connected with men’s mental health in Ireland?

“For better or worse, oh yes! They have been good for my own mental health – it’s very important if you lose someone to talk about it … but you also see drunks, people with the shakes … I’m not advocating it as a solution. But there’s a place for the Dublin pub. I’m 62. I don’t want to walk into a pub full of other 62 year olds, but I want to feel at home. It’s a retreat … a great place for chatting. If I get some good news or bad news I’ll put a book in my pocket and go off to the pub. Have one drink last one and a half hours … There’s nothing quite like it – and it’ll be a long, long time before we get it back.”

The post-lockdown idea of having to go online to book a 20 minutes slot in a pub was “devastating,” he said. “Luckily it’s funny.”

Doyle finished by reading an extract from his new novel, which sounded like a continuation of what he’d just been saying. It ended:

… Inside the pub was where life was. We entered it. We thought we’d stay there.


Adam Rutherford at Hay Festival Digital

Geneticist, author and broadcaster Adam Rutherford appeared at Hay Festival Digital to talk about his new book, How to Argue With a Racist. Although disappointed not to be there in person, he was happy that the viewer numbers were so high – 10,500, according to the ‘people-counter’ on the web page – far more than could be fitted into the usual tent. Rutherford was also recovering from COVID-19 himself, so he probably preferred the audience looking at his series of stimulating slides rather than at him.


How to Argue With a Racist is a continuation of a chapter on the subject of genetics and race from Rutherford’s previous book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived. In the last few years the conversations around race had changed due to scientific advances, politics, pseudo-scientific myths and the popularity of commercial genetic tools, such as In response, he wanted to provide a toolkit of facts and figures to empower readers and oppose racism.

Rutherford shared his own personal results from, an American company that carries out DNA genetic testing and analysis. Half of his DNA is from northern Europe, half from India and some from Guyana. These results are open to misinterpretation as the reality is “immeasurably complicated,” a blur of matted connections rather than a neat family tree. “We are incredibly inbred as a species,” said Rutherford, “I come from Suffolk (Ipswich), so I can say that with impunity!” The idea of ancestral purity is “a complete fiction: everyone is descended from everyone else.”


Rutherford’s work means that he occasionally haunts white supremacist websites such as (“don’t go there,” he advises), where racists discuss their ‘purity’. New commercial tests often lead to disappointment when users find out they are not pure. Possible responses include: ‘try another company for a different result’; ‘23andme is run by Jews,’; ‘look in the mirror. If you don’t see a Jew, you’re ok’; ‘kill yourself.’

White supremacists such as Richard Spencer have got hold of the idea of ‘lactose persistence’ and use it to bolster their perceived racial purity and superiority (‘white people can continue to drink milk after weaning; black people can’t’). Spencer even uses a logo of a glass of milk between his first name and surname. Rutherford debunked this myth, calling it “ridiculous, misunderstood science.” In reality, whenever people became dairy farmers, the same thing happened all over the world.

Although racism had entered public discourse, with Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Dominic Cummings all being accused of it in some form, Rutherford said there was evidence that we are less racist than we were 50 years ago. He showed us a Conservative Party poster from 1964, which begins: If you desire a COLOURED for your neighbour, vote Labour … This had apparently been changed from the original ‘nigger’.


Rutherford went on to discuss race and sport, which is often associated with racial stereotypes, for example 100 metre runners mostly being black; or long-distance runners being mostly eastern Africans. One of his favourite photos has Jesse Owens standing on the medal podium at the 1936 Munich Olympics, though he remarks that Roosevelt did not invite Owens to the White House with the white American medal winners.


It was important to acknowledge that race exists as a social construct, like money or time. It was a remarkably modern idea, said Rutherford, which only began in the 19th century with colonialism, when the colour of skin was first used as an excuse to subjugate races, and a taxonomy of races by pigmentation first appeared.

A cornerstone of history study dictates that we don’t judge people from the past by modern standards. Rutherford cited authors such as Voltaire as being “profoundly racist”. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) was a human taxonomist with a “ludicrous” way of pigeon-holing races: Africans were “crafty, lazy, lustful, governed by caprice …” Europeans came top of his chart.

In the 1850s/60s Thomas Huxley added a few more racial categories: Mongoloids; Australoids; Negro; Bushman etc. He asked why northern Africans had lighter skin that southern Africans. ‘Hamites’ put forward the fictitious idea that lighter skinned Africans were descended from Noah’s son, Ham.

A specific, serious example of this pseudo-science being applied was in Rwanda, where the Tutsi tribes had slightly paler skins that other tribes, such as the Hutu. They used this fact to demand better treatment and the occupying Belgians formalised this into law. When Belgium left Rwanda the native people continued to buy into this idea, which eventually led to civil war and genocide in the 1990s. The root of this conflict, “this deeply horrific story,” said Rutherford, was the racialisation of two groups of people who had peacefully existed in the 19th century. It was “a hideous example of a racist past echoing into the present.”

“We are an African species,” said Rutherford, “we are 70,000 years out of Africa,” where there is more genetic diversity and variation in skin pigmentation than the rest of the world put together.


He finished with the assertion that “racism is a bad idea because it is an affront to human dignity,” and quoted political activist, Angela Davis: “in a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, you have to be anti-racist.”

There was time for a couple of questions from viewers: “are we making progress?” Rutherford said “we are in a less racist society than at any time in history.” White supremacists were “a distraction,” and “you can’t argue people out of a position that they didn’t argue themselves into.”

Why were BAME people more likely to die from COVID-19? “The truth is, we don’t know,” said Rutherford, “that’s the best thing a scientist can say.”


Rutger Bregman at Hay Festival Digital

Dutch historian and author Rutger Bregman, ‘one of Europe’s most prominent young thinkers’ (TED Talks), has been much in the news recently. The thesis of his new book Humankind: a Hopeful History is that most people are fundamentally decent, a view that seemed to chime with the acts of kindness and co-operation inspired by the global coronavirus pandemic.

Bregman’s most startling example was his discovery of a real-life version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies story, in which a group of schoolboys from Tonga were shipwrecked on a deserted island in 1965. Instead of running feral and turning on each the boys acted sensibly, immediately creating a set of rules to govern their conduct and to ensure co-operation.


For the online Hay Festival Bregman was interviewed by Lily Cole, environmental activist, model, actress and author of Who Cares Wins: Reasons for Optimism in Our Changing World (out in July 2020).

Bregman lives in a small town south of Utrecht, a place he called “the bicycle capital of the world”. He said he was enjoying his virtual book tour because it meant he didn’t have to feel nauseous in planes and taxi cabs.

Asked whether there was an appetite for a more optimistic narrative in the present crisis, Bregman said “to me, the message of the book feels timely.” The first chapter deals with how people respond to crises. Evidence from 700 sociology case studies pointed to “an explosion of altruism.” Apart from hoarding toilet paper and other selfish behaviour the “vast majority of people have been co-operative.”

Was universal basic income now more possible? There was an opportunity for change, said Bregman. In the last decade ideas such as taxing the rich had become more acceptable: “cynicism is out and hope is in.”


Cole said there was a paradox between his message at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos (Bregman criticised the event for ignoring tax evasion) and his “slight critique of the state” at the start of Humankind. Surely if you raise taxes you have a bigger state? The author said his view of human nature was a bit like the anarchists, who believed that “most people were pretty decent … but power corrupts.”

It would take time to change the world, said Bregman. People in their early 30s (such as himself) were no longer traumatised by the Cold War. Cole picked up on his use of the phrase ‘everyday communism’ in his book – was this a bid to reclaim the c-word? “I’m teasing a bit,” he said, though communism was “basic sharing …we have this daily communism … without which the market and state couldn’t exist.”

“At the end of the book you encourage people not to read the news”, said Cole, going on to mention that the rights to the real Lord of the Flies story have now been bought and it will be made into a film.

Bregman: “we are the stories we tell each other … and we have been telling each other very cynical stories … that there is a thin veneer to civilisation and deep down we’re all monsters … we have become the stories we tell ourselves – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Cole asked why salacious and dark news stories sell. Bregman replied that “we have a negativity bias that evil is stronger than good.” He confessed that if he read 100 positive comments about himself on Twitter he would disregard them; it was the 1 nasty comment that kept him awake at night. A negative world view was in the interests of those in power –  it sustained a hierarchy that wouldn’t be needed if people were basically decent.


The two went on to discuss the origins of inequality. Cole cited a study of a tribe which found that the desire for bigger huts gave birth to patriarchy. Bregman agreed that as hunter-gatherers in the Stone Age we were peaceful ‘proto-feminists’; there was a better work-life balance and little evidence of war. He used to believe in the march of progress but now thinks that “civilisation was a disaster.”

Something like the Commons was needed, a society where we could share democratically. Every innovation has come from the state, said Bregman – the iPhone was the result of public-funded research. It was important to understand where we are coming from so that we can design our institutions in a better way.

They talked about the nature of work in our present system, which Bregman said “produces dependency and depressed people.” There was evidence from Psychology studies that if you have high expectations of people they perform better and achieve more. If we wanted happy workers more “intrinsic motivation” was needed in a job; we needed to be doing something because we cared about it.


“It’s a fair criticism of my work that I focus too much on ideas,” said Bregman, but “ideas can change the world.” There were examples from history of unrealistic ideas becoming true: feminism started with a few ‘difficult’ women and has now reached the mainstream.

Bregman acknowledged that he had not written enough about domestic violence. He talked about how the classic household was similar to boarding schools (“total institutions”), where bullying was rife. There were the strong inequalities in both hierarchical structures and there was no way out. Non-boarding schools which have mixed age groups and academical levels “have almost no bullying.”

Lily Cole talked about the pressures of being forced to stay at home. She cited a study by Patricia Draper of two different communities in Africa, which looked at how setting impacts gender relationships. It found that as soon as private accommodation was introduced domestic violence increased; those communities with communal spaces fared better.


Cole finished by talking about the importance of play, how all creativity comes from it. Bregman linked this back to the importance of ‘intrinsic motivation’, how there is a “crisis of meaning” when people are stuck in a rut and they lose sight of what they should care about.

No time for a Q&A at the end, but there was a cascade of positive Comments from viewers. Maria Goulding wrote: “Ideas can change the world. Yes!” Paul Pender: “Excellent dialogue. More than just an interview”. Christine Weston: “A brilliant reminder of why the Hay Festival is so wonderful and necessary. The exchange and exposure to ideas feeds not only the mind but also the soul.”

The Wounded Woe Of Withnail And I

Great piece on Withnail & I

Ben Hopkins

Endorphins. The simple reason why Bruce Robinson’s Withnail And I is so beloved is because of the euphoric rush prompted by laughter, which itself is born from its eminently quotable dialogue. If you’ve heard them once, you’ve heard them a thousand times: “Perfumed ponce!”; “We want the finest wines available to humanity!”; “We’re not from London!” The meaning is often crass, but the poetic phrasing and cutting delivery is the stuff of genius.

This is why Withnail And I has remained an enduring favourite since its original release in 1987, adored by everyone from students to cinephiles to your acquaintance who only ever seems to be a double whisky away from deviating from enthusiastic social drinker to full-blown alcoholic.

This is the primary perception of Richard E Grant’s Withnail. Yet for such merriment, it’s a profoundly downbeat tale. It’s a collection of endings: the fading embers of the 1960s ideal…

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It’s not often you hear a song by a new band that really hits you in the sonic sweet-spot. One that you want to play over and over again until you can figure out what makes it so good. A song that you also want to ration, so that it keeps a bit of its freshness and mystery.


Sweating Gold by HONEYMOAN was on my Spotify Release Radar list back in June 2019.  A fragile indie guitar riff, fuzz bass, then blissed-out vocals. Smart dynamics, modern production FX and gloss. Beguiling variety, danceable, builds to an exciting climax …

Sweating Gold was great, but it turned out HONEYMOAN had another song that was even better.

Listening to ‘We’ is like popping different sweets in your mouth, one after the other, until the mixture creates flavours you didn’t know existed, and the sugar rush makes you grin like an idiot and dance round the room. A slouching Tame Impala bassline and crisp retro drum groove is soon joined by a languid Smiths-y guitar riff. When the vocals arrive ‘We’ sounds like a different song, something by Dua Lipa or some modern R’n’B singer. Then a keyboard line sprinkles a little more space dust onto this gorgeous confection – echos of Why? by Carly Simon.  After 2 minutes this mini symphony goes on a psychedelic trip, with swooping McCartney-esque bass runs, shrill fuzz guitar, washes of synth and a foray into the unexpected …

Other people obviously loved this song too because back then ‘We’ already had nearly 1 million listens on Spotify.

This from a band that no publicity, zero internet presence, no photos or blurb on Spotify. HONEYMOAN became more alluring and mysterious for the lack of social media presence. Was this part of their masterplan?


It turns out HONEYMOAN came from Cape Town, South Africa and had only just got going. They started in 2017 as a “just for fun” jam session with various members of local alternative / indie / psych rock bands. ‘We’ contains a sample of “Inu Mbi Awon Ota Lasan” by Nigerian musician Alhadji Ayinla Omowura & His Apala Group from the album Owo Tuntun (1977). Other influences range from psychedelia, indie, dream pop and shoegaze; their music has been compared to Tame Impala, Khruangbin and St. Vincent.

HONEYMOAN now consists of Alison Rachel (vocals), Skye MacInnes (guitar), Josh Berry (bass) and Kenan Tatt (drums). To date, they have released 3 EPs and last year toured Europe and sold out a short tour of small venues in the UK, where they have signed to the Communion Records label.


HONEYMOAN’s vision is “to write modern, original alternative pop that is fun, fresh, and exciting; exploring common trials of youth / early adulthood, love, lust and pursuing one’s creative passions at all cost, despite the realities of living under Capitalism … We enjoy being genre nonconforming, it helps us reach a wider audience as well allowing us to explore more sounds.”

All cover artwork by singer Alison Rachel  (“it saves us some money”)

HONEYMOAN’s best of the rest:

Sweating Gold

Still Here

Too Much – great fuzz bass solo

Follow Me

(All that I need is connectivity / Got a date with my screen / Really living the dream)


True History of the Kelly Gang

If, like me, you knew nothing much about Aussie folk hero Ned Kelly before watching this film – apart from the fact that Mick Jagger portrayed him in a 1970s biopic with a dodgy Irish accent – True History of the Kelly Gang will leave you confused and unenlightened.


What was it about this criminal outlaw that captured the Australian public’s imagination? Was he a kind of Robin Hood figure, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor? If so, Justin Kurtzel’s adaptation of Peter Carey’s eponymous Booker Prize-winning novel doesn’t show us any heroic wealth distribution. Instead we see a brutalised boy grow up to be a crazy criminal who is fond of wearing homemade armour and women’s dresses.


‘Nothing you’re about to see is true,’ warns the film’s narrator from the outset. If Carey’s version was ‘loosely based’ on Ned Kelly’s life, then Kurtzel’s film, which takes its own imaginative detours from the book (most colourfully, the suggestion that Kelly was, perhaps, a gay transvestite) means we are at least two removes from historical accuracy.

Does this matter? Only if the result is a confusing mess. True History of the Kelly Gang strives for artistic coherence but is only partially successful. The film is gritty, powerful, sometimes gruelling and mostly entertaining. It features a cathartic and committed performance from George MacKay (Pride, 1917) and concludes with a memorable shoot-out that recalls the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. But it doesn’t quite hang together as a biopic or a character study.

In 1867 mullet-haired 12 year old Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) lives ‘amongst dirt and disappointment’ in a corrugated shack in the Australian outback. The blasted landscape of burnt-matchstick trees looks like the No Man’s Land in MacKay’s previous film, 1917. We first see him peering through a window as his prostitute mother (Essie Davis) has sex with a customer.


Ned likes the quiet of nature but he is also capable of killing a neighbour’s cow and cutting its leg off for his family’s supper. A sensitive butcher, he is responsible for his father getting jailed, then killed. Any act of goodness, such as rescuing a boy from drowning, goes unrewarded – his mother refuses to let him play with the boy because he comes from a rich family.

After bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe) calls round and entertains Ned’s family with a rude singalong to ‘Constable Kuntz,’ Ned is given the opportunity to escape his ‘mongrel life’. It later transpires that his mother Ellen has, in fact, sold him to Power for £15. The life of a bushranger seems to mostly involve murdering people, especially Constables. Ned is traumatised and wants to go home, but Power insists that he will make him into a hero. ‘Don’t be a coward like your father,’ he warns Ned.


Ellen is ashamed that her husband liked wearing one of her red dresses, and this unmanly tendency seems to have been inherited by both Ned and his brother Dan. Despite getting married, Ned’s most intimate relationship is shown to be that with his best friend, Gang member Joe (Sean Keenan).  Was Ned Kelly gay? Shaun Grant’s screenplay suggests he might have been, but Ned’s behaviour is seen as part of the freedom and self-realisation enjoyed by the outlaws – what could be more fun that riding around with your mates at night, wearing dresses and raising hell?


At least Ned and his gang weren’t wearing white gowns and pointy hats with eye-holes.

The Woman in Black, Cambridge Arts Theatre

February 29th, 2020

It’s amazing how much spookiness can be generated by darkness, torchlight and very loud screams. I was expecting hi-tech wizardry from Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story, The Woman in Black. But, as it turned out, no CGI gimmicks or expensive props were necessary. When it comes to ghost stories atmosphere is what matters and this imaginative ‘back to basics’ production cast its own spell.


Elderly solicitor Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale) is haunted by the past. Seeking the help of a professional actor (Daniel Easton, a dead ringer for a young Alexander Armstrong), he hopes that by telling the story of his youthful experiences at Eel Marsh House and Nine Lives Causeway he will finally exorcise the ghost of the Woman in Black.

When the play opens it is as though we have strayed into an amdram performance of a Samuel Beckett drama: a drab stage with a flimsy grey curtain backdrop, bare except for a wicker basket and a couple of metal buckets. Kipps starts reading from his notebook in a mumbling monotone. He falters, stops, then starts again, with the same result. It is a curious beginning, one that wrong-foots the audience, who are expecting more polished diction and projection. Enter the Actor, striding confidently down the theatre aisle and proclaiming that ‘we will make an Olivier of you yet’.

The two men argue, then agree to act out the story in Kipps’s notebook with the Actor playing the part of a youthful Kipps. The solicitor will try his hand at all the other roles.


As the ghost story plays out on stage the older Kipps is gradually transformed into a skilled mimic of the people from his past. Playwright Mallatratt cleverly takes his audience on a similar journey: from unpromising raw materials to theatrical magic. With the help of fine acting, sound effects, lighting and old-fashioned stagecraft we make our own imaginative leaps: the wicker basket becomes a train carriage, a bed or a pony cart; dry ice and silhouette conjure up sea mist and Eel Marsh House.


Many of Susan Hill’s original descriptions of this eerie landscape are recited by the Actor, adding colour and helping to create a mood of dread. The weather becomes an unstable character, changing from awe-inspiring to broody to malevolent: ‘it was a mist like a damp, clinging cobwebby thing, fine yet impenetrable … as though it were made of millions of live fingers that crept over me.’

By the end of the play the audience are on tenterhooks, primed for what M.R. James called ‘a pleasing terror’. Susan Hill, a big fan of the master of ghost story writing, knows that the thing half-glimpsed out of the corner of the eye is more scary than in-your-face horror. The unknown unsettles us.

In one of the most effective scenes young Kipps lies in bed in Eel Marsh House, his face dimly lit but everything else in shadow. Suddenly there is a noise – a strange rhythmic knocking. He gets up to investigate as we struggle to figure out what is causing it. The noise is coming from a room which was previously locked. And we know that beyond the door will be something unspeakable …



What’s so good about Parasite? Everything, really. It’s hard to find fault with the pitch-perfect ensemble acting of this Korean black comedy, the mischievous storyline and dialogue, the splendid visuals, set-pieces and score. Any disappointment will stem from the sky-high expectation that goes with a film that has swept all before it, the winner of 185 awards including Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for Bong Joon-ho. If you haven’t seen it yet, try to avoid the noise and fanfare. And stop reading this review now.


The film can be enjoyed on many levels, from penthouse to pavement (and below) – as a class-war satire/thriller, a supernatural horror, a ‘life-swap’ comedy or an expertly choreographed farce, with designer house as stage-set.

Parasite starts with the camera at ‘semi-basement’ level, looking up onto the street past what looks like a lampshade of pegged socks, hanging from the ceiling to dry. This is the cramped home of the Kim family, piled high with towers of empty pizza boxes, in which the toilet is squeezed onto a ledge next to the kitchen sink. Their home is a favoured spot for by passing drunks, who piss against the window. More welcome are the fumes of pest fumigators which reduce their cockroach infestation.


“We’re screwed,” says teenaged son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), bemoaning the loss of their ‘bounteous’ free wi-fi. His dad (Song Kan-ho) advises him to hold the phone high up and “stick it into every corner”.  This is a plan that could also roughly describe how the Kims later insinuate themselves into the lives of an unsuspecting rich family: they aim high, front it out and engineer a sort of parasitical takeover.

When a friend offers Ki-woo the opportunity to replace him as tutor to a rich girl, he enlists the help of his cunning sister (Park So-dam) to create the necessary fake CV and qualifications.  One thing leads to another and soon the Kims are all enjoying the Park family’s architect-designed home of as if it were their own.


At this point writer-director Bong shifts the tone from comedy to horror, as the Parks’ former housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) rings on the doorbell to announce that she has left something in the cellar …

Amidst the film’s broad satire – the swipes at the rich, the sly digs at American consumerism and child-centred parenting – some of the best scenes are those that mix things up, the mash-ups of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. There is an erotic, funny and cringeworthy sex scene. And the stylish slo-mo dowsing of a pissing drunk with a bucket of water, accompanied by choral singing – like a soft-porn shampoo advert directed by Sam Peckinpah.


What is it that separates the upper-class Parks from the lowly Kims? Certainly not intelligence, as the Kims run rings around their hosts. Finally, it comes down to smell. The Kims can fake it to make it, but they cannot wash the smells of the ‘semi-basement’ and subway out of their clothes. It is this smell that “crosses the line”, for Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), who twitches his nose in disgust and ultimately pays the price for his snootiness.


The Lighthouse

This claustrophobic black and white psychological drama is a wild and salty cinematic treat. Set on a God-forsaken rock off the coast of 1890s Maine, it shines a light on the stormy relationship between two newly-stationed ‘wickies’ (or lighthouse keepers), as they try to survive being cooped up together for five weeks. Writer-director Robert Eggers, whose eerie debut The Witch (2015) was so atmospheric, uses these limitations to his advantage, ramping up tension through sound and shadow. By the end, with mental and physical storms raging, the camera is also climbing the walls.


From the start The Lighthouse is unusual. Apart from the lack of colour, we notice that the screen size is more like the old TV ratio, boxed in like its warring characters. Out of a blank sepia sea there gradually appears the shape of an approaching ship. To the sound of shrieking gulls and foghorn blasts two men row ashore, then they stand next to each other, staring into the camera for what seems like a long time, as if they were posing for a Victorian photograph.


They are grizzled old sea-dog Thomas Wake (Willem Defoe) and the younger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), already owner of an exhausted thousand-yard stare and, we later learn, a murky past. As the two men unpack in their cramped attic bedroom they remain silent except for the exchange of a couple of farts and whistles, a gentle prelude to the buffeting winds ahead.

The dynamic between them is quickly established over one of many gas-lit meals. Wake dominates, rambling on like Captain Ahab in a kind of Old Testament West Country burr, his words a briny broth of maritime myths and allusions. ‘You do as I say,’ he tells the reserved Winslow, making him do the menial jobs like shovelling the coal and emptying the pisspots.


The main bone of contention between them becomes the ‘lantern’, which Wake mysteriously refuses to let the other man tend. ‘The light is mine,’ he says, locking the trapdoor so that other man cannot climb up to the top to even look at it. When Winslow does climb the spiral staircase to spy on Wake, he sees him stripped to the waist as if he is sunbathing. We hear him talking to someone. Slime slithers through the grill of the metal floor and we glimpse a monstrous tentacle or tail.

As both men start to lose their grip on sanity Eggers expertly orchestrates the action and dialogue, so there is no danger of theatricality. We get squalls of black comedy that could have been written by Beckett or Pinter after reading Moby Dick, but these are mixed with the surreal – disturbing visions of Neptune, mermaids and sea-creatures.


One of the script’s blackly-comic highlights (co-written by Eggers’ brother, Mac) is a drunken argument about Wake’s cooking, in which he turns into Neptune to deliver an epic fire-and-brimstone curse on the younger man. After a pause, Winslow says, ‘alright, have it your way. I like your cooking.’ Elsewhere, they repeatedly say ‘what?’ to each other, in what should be ridiculous pre-fight banter, but ends up funny and natural. The two actors push each other into memorably unhinged, elemental performances which seem more like an organic response to the challenging conditions they found themselves working in.


With the rock’s hostile seagull, there is an echo of Hitchcock’s The Birds here. Something about the surreal atmosphere of this monochrome fiIm also made me think of Bunuel’s 1929 classic Un Chien Andalou (close-up of a wooden carving found in Winslow’s pillow) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).