Tag Archives: humour

Book review – The Road to Little Dribbling

The first Bill Bryson book I read was Neither Here Nor There. Actually, it was very good and I really enjoyed it.

Neither Here, Nor There: Travels in Europe

Published in 1992, it was his second travel book, after he had dissected his native America in The Lost Continent.

In NHNT, he rediscovers Europe, replicating a journey he had made as a student 20 years earlier. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, cementing The Bryson Template: witty, episodic and opinionated, yet educational and perceptive, skewering a country’s weaknesses but lauding its quirkiness and achievements.

Notes from a Small Island, published in 1996, used The Template to tell the world why he loved Britain so much…before he decamped with his family back to the US for a few years.

Notes from A Small Island

Another 20 years on – safely repatriated and now more English than a chicken tikka masala – Mr Bryson has written The Road to Little Dribbling. Zig-zagging his way – on foot and by public transport, wherever possible – from  Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, it’s a revealing sequel to Neither Here Nor There.

He still has that unerring ability to weave together keen observation, social history and humour as deftly as an artist mixes paint on a palette.

Salcombe is smart and prosperous and jaunty. Everyone was dressed like a Kennedy at Hyannisport. I had to get a jumper out of my bag and tie it around my neck to keep people from staring. They all had a robust, healthy sea-sprayed look about the. These people didn’t walk from place to place, they bounded.

The main street in Salcombe is Fore Street. The Daily Telegraph has deemed it the sixth coolest in Britain. I have no idea how they make such an assessment, though I suspect, this being the Telegraph, that it has little to do with science or much real thought. The shops were unquestionably upmarket. At the Casse-Croute deli, the special of the day was Brie and asparagus tart made with organic cider, which I was pleased and relieved to see. How often have I had to decline a Brie and asparagus tart because the cider wasn’t organic. 

Call me an unreconstructed savage, but the sooner we get back to a national diet of chips with gravy and that sort of thing the better it will suit me. In my day every restaurant meal started with prawn cocktail and finished with Black Forest gateau and we were all a lot happier, believe me.

But Mr Bryson revels in portraying himself as a bit of a grumpy old git in this book, yearning for the England of old. I suppose his National Treasure status has earned him the right, but I did sometimes feel like he was jumping on his soap box a little too often. Rudeness, poor service, litterbugs, TV celebrities, planning regulations, incorrect punctuation and grammar, gastro pubs, boutique hotels. The list of soft targets wounded by his hard words is almost endless.

“…the boy was gone and the crisp packet was on the ground. There was a bin three feet away. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that if Britain is ever to sort itself out, it is going to require a lot of euthanasia.”

“But then, I suppose, that is the thing about the internet. It is just an accumulation of digital information, with no brains and no feelings – just like an IT person, in fact.”

He loves our countryside, our traditions, our history. He spends more time in pubs and coffee shops than I do. He’s an avid walker. And he has a mastery of the English language like few others. All things about him I greatly admire. I just hope he doesn’t lose his mojo, like a football legend staying on for one season too many.

Stella

You know that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you pull on a favourite sweater in the bleak midwinter? Or slip into a dressing gown one size too big after a long, deep, steamy bath?

Well, have you seen Stella? You know…the gentle, warm, cuddly, funny yet poignant TV series set in the fictitious Welsh village of Pontyberry?

The final episode of the 5th series has just aired on Sky One.

Gill and I feel suitably warm and fuzzy, but also bereft that our weekly comfort blanket has been snatched from our clammy grasp. Especially as there will apparently be a hiatus before the next series.

Conceived by Ruth Jones, she plays the central character Stella Morris, a lovable, slightly overweight Welsh Mum who lurches from one doomed love affair to another. But she’s as different from Nessa – of Gavin & Stacey fame – as David Cameron is from Mr Corbyn. Clever, these actors.

The story lines are funny, sad, preposterously far-fetched and yet somehow totally believable, thanks to the quality of the acting and the always evolving panoply of whacky supporting characters. The writing is as razor sharp as the Welsh rugby team’s back line in the 1970s.

If you’ve never been lucky enough to become addicted to Stella, there are too many story threads and characters to describe here. But – and look away now if you don’t want to know the full time result – this brief summary of the final episode of the latest series should give you a good idea why we’ve fallen so deeply in love with Stella.

Michael – the Arabic-speaking lawyer who was working in London but has now set up a temporary office in the allotment shed back in Pontyberry – has agreed to marry Stella. Is this finally true love?

Rob Morgan – the smooth and successful businessman who is the father of Stella’s oldest child Luke, but who moved to Canada for years – is now back in Pontyberry because of heart problems and is still in love with Stella himself.

Beyonce – the scheming young slapper who slept with Michael one drunken night – has changed her mind about who is the father of her young baby. Michael was going to sue for custody, but is now forced to hear the results of a paternity test live on the Welsh equivalent of the Jeremy Kyle show. Sitting opposite the other contestant, the local unemployed thicko.

Emma, Stella’s daughter – I’ve lost track of who her father is  – has recently returned from India, with her happy hippy “husband” Oak, a spiritual sham. Oh, and she really did marry a local Indian lad while still at school and they had a baby girl.

Ben – the youngest of Stella’s children, from when she was married to lovable, gormless Karl – is still at school and is head-over-heels in love with the girlfriend of his best friend, Little Al. Who’s far from little.

Karl’s wife Nadine Bevan – outwardly a rouged, high-heeled air-head – is sensually awoken by newcomer Ivan Schloss, the mysterious tango-dancing, sentence-reordering, lovelorn undertaker.

And that’s barely scratched the surface of plot or characters.

The end is a beautiful mixture of elation and sadness, tugging at our emotions like the final few minutes of a tight Wales v England game at the Millennium Stadium.

Don’t leave it too long, Stella. We miss you already.

 

What’s in a name?

A few years ago, a good friend of my nephew Steve changed his name from plain old Christopher Young to a rather more uplifting Kit Fantastic.

Kit, his wife Beth and children Tilly & Teddy are obviously now The Fantastic Four. But there’s no truth in the rumour that they’ll christen the next child Fantastic Fantastic.

It turns out that Kit was ahead of his time. An article in the Times today reports that in 2015 a record 85,000 people in the UK changed their name by deed poll.

And why wouldn’t you, when you could wake up one day as Simon Smith, but go to bed as Bacon Double Cheeseburger.

Really.

“A name is the least important part of your personality”, Mr Smith told The Sunday People. “It’s given to you by someone else”.

The 33 year-old from Muswell Hill changed his name last year. “Bacon Double Cheeseburger was the first name I came up with”, he said. Presumably with a straight face.

The report doesn’t comment on whether he kept his job – as an investment banker? An Ocado delivery driver? – or what his wife – now Alice Mushroom Stilton Cheeseburger – thought. (I made that last bit up).

The report goes on to say how others have adopted equally bizarre names, such as Sarge Metalfatigue or Simply MyLove Poet.

In a remarkable tribute to Kit & Beth, another couple have renamed themselves Mr & Mrs Amazing.

Louise Bowers, of the UK Deed Poll Service, said: “One man changed his name to Happy Birthday. It gave us a chuckle, but if that’s what they want to do, it’s their choice.”

The process takes 4 working days and costs just £33 for an adult, and £35 for a child.

So I’m going to scribble out a cheque for £66 right now and by the weekend, when we’re off to Courchevel, boring old Andrew & Gillian Morris will have morphed into Monsieur Deep Powder et Madame Corduroy Avalanche Beacon.

It’s Gill’s birthday on Saturday….she’ll love the surprise, right?

And I suppose we’ll just have to find another new name for the summer.

Book review – Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

Dear Mr Coe,

I have read and deeply enjoyed a few of your earlier books, What A Carve Up! (published in 1994), The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004).

Your plots and characters in those garlanded earlier works were an intoxicating mix of black humour, political satire and plain good writing.

I’ve just finished your latest novel, Number 11 (published November 2015). It’s a sharply observed book again but – and this is difficult to say – I’m afraid I didn’t really enjoy it. Well, I suppose I did on some level. But certainly nowhere near as much as those earlier novels.

The plot feels – erm – disjointed? I know it eventually links together several plot strands, disparate characters and has recurring themes, but in the end it feels more like a short story collection than a fully rounded novel.

And you’ve dumped your fears for contemporary Britain on your readers’ shoulders, like a victim forcing others to share his pain.

We get that you lean to the left. A fair old way. But that you were very disappointed with Tony Blair.

You’re not the only person who was sad and confused when weapons inspector David Kelly – of dodgy Iraq dossier fame – died.

Yes, bankers have always earned obscene amounts of money.

You’re right, it can’t be morally ok for wealthy foreigners to buy up swathes of prime central London properties, just to let them lie fallow, as their value increases still further.

The list of your bêtes noires is almost endless, characters and plot twists used shamelessly to smack us over the faithful head with.

I know you’re playing with your readers’ minds with the recurring use of 11 throughout the book, but really, it’s all just a bit artificial in the end, isn’t it? A tad contrived? Especially the superfluous 11th floor of the basement of Sir Gilbert and Madiana’s mega-mansion in a posh London neighbourhood.

“Number Eleven? He (Tony Blake, the building project manager) laughed. That’s the one she told me about this morning. Number Eleven is new. She’s only just asked for it.”

“So – what’s it for?”

“Nothing. She can’t think of anything she wants it for.”

Rachel frowned. “So why are you digging it? Why does she want it?”

“She wants it,” said Mr Blake, “because she can have it. Because she can afford it. And because…I don’t know – because no one else has an eleventh floor in their basement? Or she’s just heard about somebody who has ten and she wants to go one better? Who knows? She’s mad. These people are all barking mad.”

We get it. Some people have everything. More people have nothing. Life isn’t fair. Wealth isn’t evenly distributed. Some people need to go to food banks. Others can dig 11 floors down for their new basement.

Maybe I’m wrong. I know you’re a successful, clever writer and I’m sure your reputation and the publisher will shift a few copies of Number 11 off the shelves. But please – for the sake of a loyal fan – can you just go back to doing what you do best, and what made your deserved reputation.

If I say that 11 times, would it help?

Yours, hopefully.

Andrew

 

Book review – Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

I feel close to Nick Hornby. He was born 3 weeks before me, and his novels have traced a large chunk of my own adult life.

Fever Pitch, his first published book in 1992 , was an autobiographical mini-classic. Except that it was all about a young man’s passion for Arsenal Football Club. Hard to take for a lifelong Tottenham fan, but I could identify with the author’s sentiment, and the writing was fresh, funny and acutely observed.

High Fidelity, published in 1995, was Hornby’s first novel. And damned funny it was too. About a compulsive, list-making, neurotic record collector in north London, it was cleverly transplanted to Chicago for the film adaptation, and beautifully brought to life by John Cusack and an emerging Jack Black.

About A Boy, published in 1998, was very different from Fever Pitch and High Fidelity. This told of the unlikely relationship between a shy young lad, Marcus, and a slightly selfish 30-something man called Will, who didn’t have to work and who was struggling for a focus in life. The movie adaptation is known for finally giving Hugh Grant a role that wasn’t the same one as in all his other films.

Other novels followed: How to be Good (2001); A Long Way Down (2005); Slam (2007); Juliet, Naked (2009); and now Funny Girl (first published in 2014).

Mr. Hornby has chosen to write what feels like a very old fashioned novel, with real echoes of Kingsley Amis. Instead of Lucky JIm, Funny Girl is about Barbara Parker, a young girl crowned Miss Blackpool in 1964 but who rejects the tiara in favour of the bright lights of London. There, she changes her name to Sophie Straw and stumbles into the life-defining role as one half of enduringly popular TV sitcom series Barbara (and Jim). The brackets are important.

The story is funny, poignant and nostalgic. Of course it’s well written, as all Nick Hornby books are, but it relies largely on reported conversations between the show’s actors, writers and producers. And – sorry, Nick – it all just feels a little, erm, fluffy. Nothing wrong with that, but somehow the characters didn’t quite have the extra layers that you usually give them. I needed a bit more to peel away….

Perhaps I’m being overly critical because I’ve enjoyed your earlier work so much. And perhaps I’d like to see you embrace the present as much as you obviously do the past.

But maybe I’m just envious. Look at what you’ve achieved in your 58 years, compared to me.

Still, I’ve got 3 weeks to catch up….

 

Movie review – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Do you like surprises?

I’m not usually a fan, especially after luring Gill to a party at the local pub for her 50th birthday, and being lambasted because she had her walking boots on, was wearing entirely the wrong outfit and hadn’t washed her hair.

But we went to our second Screen Unseen movie surprise last night, at the Odeon in Guildford, and lucked out. Again.

The title – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – sort of sums up this film. Cool. Kooky. Offbeat. Darkly funny.

17 year old Greg has a strategy to get through High School in Anywheresville, USA. Make no friends. Avoid contact. Stay alone. Other than superficial eye contact and head nods with all the disparate school factions.

The one possible exception is Earl, with whom he creates remakes of classic old films. Death in Tennis. Eyes Wide Butt. Senior Citizen Kane. The Turd Man. You get the idea….

But Earl is just a co-worker. Greg’s rules don’t allow him to be called a friend.

His survival strategy is working. Until his Mum forces him to go and visit Rachel, a classmate who has leukemia.

Greg and Rachel form an unlikely friendship, in an awkward kind of way, and it forces Greg to break a few of his rules and – reluctantly – to think a little differently about life.

The dialogue, soundtrack and characters combine to make a really interesting, thought-provoking, emotional indie movie.

Thomas Mann as Greg and Olivia Cooke as Rachel steal the show, but a host of peripheral characters add considerable lustre. Nick Offerman plays Greg’s highly alternative Dad. Connie Britton is Rachel’s sad Mum, and Jon Bernthal is Mr. McCarthy, the coolest teacher you could ever want to teach you.

If you like intelligent, non-conforming independent movie-making, I reckon you’ll love this.

And I hope I haven’t spoilt any surprises.

 

Book review – A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon is probably best known for his book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  It won the Whitbread Best Novel Award in 2003, received a stack of other prestigious literary recognition, and has since become a hugely successful stage play.

I haven’t read Dog. Yet. It’s famously narrated by a 15 year-old boy with Asperger’s. Although Mark says it’s rather a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. The book is not specifically about any specific disorder.

A Spot of Bother, published in 2006, is about George. 57 years old and retired, he just wants to spend time in the studio in his garden. But he has a nasty lesion on his hip, which he is convinced is cancerous. Even though the doctor tells him it’s just eczema. And he’s worried that his daughter Katie is marrying again – the practical Ray – for the wrong reasons. And his son Jamie is gay. And, oh yes, his wife Jean is shagging David, an old colleague of George’s.

George is something of an outsider. He sees the world in a surprising and revealing way. He has a breakdown. He edges towards madness.

Spot is a damned fine read. The plot canters on. Short sentences. Over 100 short chapters. But it’s all driven by the way the author peels away layer after layer of each colourful character’s  human frailties.

Darkly comic, Spot is brilliantly observed. Very funny. And a bit disturbing. Especially if you’re 57 years old and have recently retired. Like me.

But I haven’t got a studio in the garden. And my wife’s name is Gill. Although come to think of it, I did once work with a David…..

Bottom Gear

I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of Jeremy Clarkson, or Top Gear. Or bullying, arrogance or violence. Or cars, for that matter.

But I’ll try really hard – as hard as Jeremy tries not to be controversial, or racist….or blokey – to be objective about his sacking from the BBC.

Yes, I know. Technically he won’t have his rich-as-Croesus freelance contract renewed so he’s not a BBC employee, but he’s still subject to their ethics and HR policies. And that’s the issue.

It’s ironic that after years of sailing oh so close to breaking broadcasting guidelines – and sometimes tacking across them – his demise comes from contravening internal BBC bullying and harassment policies. A bit like Attila The Hun caught shoplifting.

In these morally self-righteous times, you can’t slap your own child. You hesitate to pick up someone else’s if they fall over in the road…even if they’re crying like Gazza after being shown a yellow card. You can’t do your awful impression of Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, shaking your head from side to side while munching a poppadom in your local Bombay Spice restaurant. And you can’t talk about women as if Emily Pankhurst were still chained to the railings.

So Jeremy got away with the abusive slope jibe about an Asian. And other casual on-air insults about Mexicans, Albanians, Germans and Romanians. And public sector workers. And Gordon Brown. And the infamous Argentinian escapade. And the off-air eeny, meeny, miney, mo episode…..

But when he physically assaulted and verbally abused a senior colleague, enough was rightly enough. The BBC had no option other than to terminate their Star With An Unreasonably Large Contract, and walk away from the cash machine.

Jeremy is a brilliant journalist and broadcaster. His star – and bank balance – will continue to rise.

The Beeb will no doubt try to motor on with Top Gear. But without Jeremy will it be like a d’Artagnan-less Three Musketeers? Or Morecambe & Wise without the bald, funny one?

Only time will tell.

But can we please now start talking about something more important?

 

 

Movie review – Birdman

Well, that was a pretty exhausting couple of hours….

Birdman

Claustrophobic camera work, almost entirely in the dark innards of a Broadway theatre. Pounding drums and clanging cymbals a near constant sound-track. Intensely psychological narrative of an ageing movie actor, desperately searching for validation on stage whilst wrestling with his own alter ego.

This is not an easy watch. Last time I saw Michael Keaton was probably in Multiplicity, 18 years ago. A light comedy with a subtly heavier – almost Groundhog Day-like – message, he was cloned to help him cope with his busy life.

Since then, Keaton has starred in two Batman mega-hits, before opting out. Just like Birdman, although that was three.

So what’s real here, and what’s life imitating art?

This is a clever script, darkly acted, brutally directed, brilliantly shot and sound-tracked.

And it’s a lot more challenging than Multiplicity.

 

Movie review – Her

Wow, those actor types are good at, well, acting.

The same guy who was mesmerising as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, and victimised poor old Russell Crowe in Gladiator, is unrecognisable as a quiet writer in Her.

A bespectacled and mustachioed Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a master of words and technology who crafts romantic letters for others, while his own marriage disintegrates.

But he does find real love with his new computer operating system. Yes, he forms a deep relationship with the Artificially Intelligent Samantha, who caters to his every need and understands him in a way no physical woman can. Understandable perhaps when voiced by a throatily sexy Scarlett Johansson.

I won’t spoil the way the story develops, but Her is a perceptive allegory for our technologically driven lives, and wholly believable despite the outwardly far-fetched proposition. Well, almost.

Directed by Spike Jonze, with outstanding urban cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema and a brilliantly evocative soundtrack from Arcade Fire, this is a thought provoking film that will make you look at your computer with new eyes. And want to upgrade your operating system.