Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Dude is Ten

How on earth did this happen, where did all that time go?
Ten years ago today, Alison went into hospital for a planned C-section (they were worried about pre-eclampsia, she's diabetic and Dude was huge) and I was terrified.  We went into theatre together, her attended by the nursing staff, me wearing scrubs and a hat and trying not to get in the way and I stood by her head, holding her hand as the doctors worked their magic.

Dude appeared at 3.15pm, all 10lbs 5.5ozs of him and our lives changed in that instant.  He had a very low blood sugar reading so was transfered to the Special Care Unit, whilst Alison was sent back up to the maternity ward to recuperate.  I got to give him his first feed and stayed with him for most of the afternoon and early evening, taking plenty of digital pictures and reporting his progress back to Mummy, who was laid up in bed.

He stayed in the SCU for a few days - his room-mate was a three-month old called Angel, who fitted into the palm of my hand, whilst Dude was a little sumo who filled his incubator - before we were allowed to take him home.

I was ready to be a Dad (ha, as ready as anyone ever can be), I was looking forward to that new role and it has been a never-ending learning experience since then, that has made me laugh and cry but never been less than wonderful.  Throughout Alison's pregnancy we called him nugget (because that's what I thought he looked like on the scan pictures) but that name didn't stick once he was in the world.  I can't remember when I started to call him Dude but it stuck and now, when I call him Matthew, he complains (unless he's in trouble, when we both understand why I use his given name...)

He's grown up to be a wonderful kid, who's kind and attentive and exasperating, occasionally stroppy, always funny and quite opinionated, who makes me laugh and makes me think and asks me questions because I'm Dad and know everything, who loves 80s music and going on adventures and snuggling in the chair with me to watch TV.

Ten years.  Quite possibly the best ten years of my life.

Happy birthday Dude, love you oodles...
Rude Dude - 2011
Photo-bombing Alison - 2013
May, 2015

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.

Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking.

To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming toward the massive beige box at the far end.  And so opens “Horrorstör”, setting the scene and tone for the rest of this clever little novel.  Focussing on the events of one particular store - the Cuyahoga, Cleveland branch - of the “IKEA rip-off” Orsk chain (complete with its own philosophy, mission statements and banal phrasings), over the course of a day and night, this centres around Amy, a college drop-out who is fed up with the downward spiral her life has taken and desperate for something else.  With all of the problems the store is having, a consultancy team is due from Head Office the next day so Amy’s manager (and bête noire) Basil recruits her, the always-nice-but-has-no-family-or-friends Ruth Anne and himself to spend the night on the premises and make sure nothing happens between closing and opening.  When Amy’s colleagues Trinity and Matt break in, to shoot a showreel of their show “Ghost Bomb” they want to sell to Bravo (“would everyone stop talking about A&E?”) and a strange homeless man called Carl wanders in, things take a turn for the worse.  It appears, as Trinity is eager to tell them, that the store was built over the remains of a prison from the nineteenth century whose warden, Josiah Worth, had odd ideas on how to get his inmates to repent.

Having said all that, this isn’t a grim novel and the first half is a smart satire on both the culture of a big corporation that believes its own hype (I wonder if IKEA had words, at some point) and also the way that we, the consumer, are pushed and prodded and psychologically conditioned on what to buy.  This strand of humour runs through the whole book and there were a couple of pieces that made me laugh out loud.

The characterisation is brisk and efficient, telling us just enough about each person to make us understand their actions and we quickly come to care about them, from the desperately lonely Ruth Anne, the beaten-down Amy and the strictly efficient Basil .  Almost a character in itself is the building, a proper haunted house that is part bland superstore, part psycho-fairground-funhouse and part grim Panopticon (the beehive of the graffiti Amy finds at the start of the story).  I’d never really thought about it but Hendrix does a great job of making the huge warehouse frightening, its claustrophobia coming from its size in the dark - how do you find your way? - plus the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere (the police despatcher Amy calls when they discover Carl can’t find it).  In fact, Hendrix works with the tropes of the ghost story well, creating some moments that are genuinely creepy as he ramps up the tension.  The horror, too, comes thick and fast, dealt with in a brutally blunt way so that you read a quick line - a character loses a nail - and it’s not until you’re two or three lines on that the full revulsion hits you.

Helping everything along is the design (by Andie Reid) and illustrations (by Michael Rogalski), which is very good indeed - the book looks just like a catalogue from a Swedish home furnishing giant, complete with a store map, product details and a home delivery order form.  Each chapter is headed by a particular products design and description (some ruder sounding than others, my favourite was the Arsle chair) and these get grimmer as the story progresses, as if David Cronenberg was thinking of opening up his own furniture shop.

This is a well written, runs at a cracking pace and is witty, self-assured and clever without being obnoxious.  It made me laugh, it creeped me out and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Very highly recommended. 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Two Books (a Rebel and some Machine Gunners)...

Back in mid April (I blogged about it here, go and have a read, it was a fun day), a little group I'm part of - The Crusty Exterior - met up in London, to catch up, have a laugh and trawl the bookshops of London.  On that trip, I picked up two books that jumped to the top of my (never actually going to be finished, to be honest) TBR pile.  These are those two books.

 Rebel Without A Crew, by Robert Rodriguez

In 1991, Robert Rodriguez was just another film fanatic who wanted to make his own feature-length movie.  Unlike the bulk of people in the same situation, he actually did something about it - volunteering himself for medical trials to raise the funds, being his own crew, sorting out his cast and location and actually making a film.  Then his $7,000 movie, intended as a test-run to be sold to Spanish-language direct-to-video, was picked up by Columbia Pictures and Rodriguez became “a Hollywood Player”.

I remember reading about him in Premiere at the time (though it was long after this that I got a chance to see the film - in fact, I think I saw “Desperado” first) and being impressed both with his attitude and his story.  When I was in London recently, on the Crusty Exterior get-together, I found the book in Skoobs and picked it up and I’m glad I did.  A diary, from 8th March 1991 (the start of the project) to 26th February 1993 (as the film opens wide), this follows the “El Mariachi” saga all the way through - we experience the highs, lows and great fun of shooting, the frenzy from the studios and what happened next.

Rodriguez is a good guide to the whole thing, as amazed as anyone - though full of self-belief - and not quite able to believe his luck (but constantly thinking about how he can help his large family with the funds he suddenly has access too).  It helps that he has a great approach and knows his stuff (and what he doesn’t, he’s more than willing to learn) and has clearly put the work in (his previous short films had won various awards at film festivals).  The Hollywood experience is dazzling - he’s unsure about his “little” movie being on the big screen (“It’s not that I fear failure.  I just fear failure in front of other people.”) - and absurd at times, though the roots of his on-going friendship with Quentin Tarantino are clearly shown, as both film-makers approach each other with mutual respect.  The book also includes “The Ten Minute Film School” (a sort-of ‘call to arms’ that could apply to someone working in any of the creatives fields, that’s really quite galvanising) and the full screenplay to “El Mariachi”, with some amusing annotations.

Funny, well told (though a bit of judicious copy editing wouldn’t have gone amiss) and thoroughly enthralling, this is a great read for anyone creative who’s ever had a dream.  Highly recommended.

* * * * *

The Machine Gunners, by Robert Westall

“Chas McGill had the second best collection of war souvenirs in Garmouth and he desperately wanted it to be the best”

Chas is fourteen, living with his Mum and Dad in the Tyneside town of Garmouth.  Whilst the war is sometimes a schoolboys dream of fun - getting souvenirs, missing school, periods of excitement - it is also quite terrifying, especially the air raids that mean he and his family have to spend the night in the Anderson shelter.  When he discovers a crashed plane, complete with machine gun, he decides to take it as a prize and enlists his friends Cem and Clogger to help him.  Later, with Audrey and Nicky and Carrot-Juice now part of the gang, they decide to use the heavy gun to help defend their town, first from a German pilot (Rudi, who they later befriend) and later from a supposed invasion.

This is based on Westall’s memories of the time period and it clearly shows, a well-told story that is immediate and real and often quite brutal.  From the body of the gunner, his eye missing, in the downed plane to the realisation that a schoolfriends house has been totally wiped out by a bomb, from the casual way people deal with the realities of war to the camaraderie that it engenders, this doesn’t pull any punches but works all the better for it.  Even with his parents, whilst  Chas always thiought of his father meaning safety - ‘large, solid, bristly-faced, smelling of tobacco’ - he comes to realise that grown-ups can’t keep kids safe and that his dad is just a ‘weary, helpless, middle-aged man’, a sequence that is both beautiful and heartbreaking (and echoed by Nicky who, having already lost his sea captain Dad to the war, then loses his Mum when their house is blown up).  When Rudi is discovered, the mutual animosity between them - created by their perceptions of each other, rather than reality - is well played, as is the thawing as they come to appreciate each other.  The air raids are vividly described, the characters all ring true (Westall dedicates the book to his ‘mother and father, who were the mother and father of the book’), with the grown-ups (teachers, ‘our John’ with his cry of “Where you going now?”, policemen, parents) given  as much space as the children.  Surprisingly dark at times, funny at others and with an abrupt ending that works perfectly, I really enjoyed this and would highly recommend it.

I picked this up at the Southbank Book Market, having vague memories of the BBC serial from the 80s (the cover art - which Westall really didn't like - came from that) but hadn't read it before.

Robert Westall, born on October 7th 1929 was a British author, teacher and journalist best known for children's fiction, though he also wrote non-fiction and for adults.  "The Machine Gunners" was his first published book and won the 1975 Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, as the year's "outstanding children's book by a British subject".  He died on April 15th 1993 of respiratory failure as a result of pneumonia.  A website about him is maintained here and he wrote an interesting afterword on the novel, which can be found here.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Close Encounters under the stars

Growing up through the 70s and into the 80s, I absorbed a lot of American culture through TV, books and films.  Some of it left me cold (what the hell is a Twinkie and why would you eat something like that?), some of it made me gape (American teenagers had phones in their rooms?) and some of it made me wish we had the same thing in England (local TV stations, horror hosts and drive-ins).
Me & David, waiting for the sun to go down...
The drive-in.  Just the phrase sounded impossibly cool to me - you drive to the cinema, stay in your car and watch the movie! - and the whole thing got better when I realised they often showed the kind of trash film I certainly didn’t get to see at my local flicks.

But here in Britain (I imagine the weather played a huge part in the decision), drive-in’s just didn’t exist.  There were occasional outdoor shows (at Somerset House in London, for instance) but none that I ever got to and then, last year, I discovered a company called Luna Flix.  They were putting on a few outdoor films at Stanwick Lakes, one of which was to be “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (a film I love) and had it not been for my heart attack at the time, I’d have gone.

Well, Luna Flix are running another programme this summer, up until early September and when my friend David & I went through the list, we realised we’d like to go and see most of the films - especially the first, “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” which, we both realised, we hadn’t seen for at least ten years and couldn’t remember big chunks of it.
David sets up camp
I hadn't eaten Space Raiders in years.  They were very nice...
Launch night was Friday 1st May.  David got to the park first and set up camp at the ‘outdoor theatre’, a terraced area of grass next to the lake across from the visitors centre.  As I walked around, I could hear a steady stream of space-related music, showed my ticket and in I went.  It was great - a big inflatable screen (that didn’t wobble), great sound-system, a hot drink tent and plenty of friendly fellow film-lovers.  Although we had to wait until it was dark, the time went quickly and a charming alien (we suspected the lady from the ticket office dressed up…) came amongst us, giving out packets of Space Raiders.  After a brief introduction, the film show (digitally projected Blu-Ray) opened with Daffy Duck in the classic “Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century” and then we moved onto the main feature.

With the night fully dark and the geese flying on the lake, the film began and we were all immediately wrapped up in it.  For me, it held up really well (though some of the effects shots suffered in HD), I loved the atmosphere and I loved looking up from Doug Trumbull’s starfield on the screen to the stars above us.  All in all, it was a fantastic experience.

By the time the film ended (around 11.15pm) it was cold (losing weight and taking blood thinning tablets isn’t a good combination for keeping warm) but we headed back to the car, chatting away and both of us agreed it was a great evening.  There are plenty of upcoming films in the programme we want to see - some just the two of us, some with our families - and if this is what the outdoor cinema experience is like, I want more of it!

And I am really, really looking forward to watching “An American Werewolf In London” at the end of July.  Can you imagine it…?

If you’re local, check out the schedule here and pop along, it’s great fun.