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Sunday 27 April 2014

Gone are the Leaves

Gone are the Leaves

All the leaves were gone and they stood, reaching out their branches, like empty arms – Anne Donovan, Gone are the Leaves

I agreed to review this book having had a quick scan of Anne Donovan’s first novel Buddha Da, the story of a working-class Glaswegian man who discovers Buddhism, that was short-listed for the Orange Prize and nominated for the Whitbread First Novel Award; always keen to support a fellow Scot. I didn’t actually know what Gone are the Leaves was about and so when I started reading about Lairds and Ladies and castles narrated in an ancient Scottish dialect that I couldn’t quite put my finger on—Glaswegian it was not—I have to say I groaned inside: this was going to be—and I apologise for my thoughts in advance but they often have a mind of their own—a woman’s book. Set in Medieval times with a sassy wee seamstress as its heroine, what was I going to get out of this? When I look at my shelves books by men vastly outnumber books by women although very few of them could be described as men’s books—tales of adventure, spies, wars, sports, fast cars, loose women simply do not appeal—but then virtually none of the books I own by female authors could be described as women’s fiction either; they’re mainly literary novelists but the same goes for the books I own written by men. The only historical fiction I own are books I’ve been sent to review. Just so we know where we stand.

Of course the expression ‘women’s book’ isn’t a particularly helpful one. So, before we start perhaps we need to ask the question: What exactly is women’s fiction and is it the same as a romance novel?

RWA-WF defines women's fiction as, a commercial novel about a woman on the brink of life change and personal growth. Her journey details emotional reflection and action that transforms her and her relationships with others, and includes a hopeful/upbeat ending with regard to her romantic relationship. – Women’s Fiction Chapter of the Romance Writers of America

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

A Central Love Story: The main plot centres around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love. – Romance Writers of America

Deidre is a young Scottish lass—she’s thirteen at the start of the book and isn’t an awful lot older by its end—who works as a seamstress alongside her mother for a woman we only ever get to know as ‘My Lady’, the wife of the local Laird who also remains unnamed. We never find out exactly where in Scotland his castle is—although it’s within reasonable travelling distance of Stirling—nor when precisely these events unfold but it seems reasonable to assume it’s within the Medieval period (so that could be any time between the 5th and the 15th century) but when you have a closer look at some of the words used (see below) we can pin it down to Leonardosometime between 1488 and 1603; since the Scots use ‘ken’ rather than ‘know’ and a Scottish king is still on the throne my guess is that they’re maybe located in the south-east corner (maybe Lothian?) in the early 1500’s not that it matters. The same goes for the events on the continent when the action moves there. We know they pass through France but not exactly where they end up other than it’s near France. My guess would be Italy because of the references to a remarkable inventor who sounds suspiciously like Leonardo da Vinci which is where I got the 1488 because that’s roughly when he was drawing flying machines; yes, there’s a flying machine in the book. So there’s a general—and clearly intentional—fuzziness to the novel which is fine because the specifics don’t really matter and authors have a tendency to do stuff like that to give the book a more universal feel reducing everything to archetypes. And that’s pretty much what we have here: girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl and boy find each other again, not that they were looking.

So it is a love story but a surprisingly passionless one. Romeo and Juliet they’re not. Only they are. For starters Deidre is the same age as Juliet. When we were told at school we were going to be studying Romeo and Juliet we all moaned: Not a love story! God, no. And yet that’s not really what I took away from the play. It was all about politics and intrigue, bickering families and far more bloodshed than I ever expected. I remember the balcony scene—but only because it’s been lampooned so often on TV—but that’s about it.

Deidre’s beau is Feilamort and Deidre is the first person he has any contact with when he arrives at the castle although it’s not exactly love at first sight:

Froths of hair trail frae the cowl; grey-brown silk glisks in the weak November sun. The fabric of his cloak was raugh and coorse: edges frayed, the warp and weft were like tracks in a ploughed field. Bitter needles of cauld must have penetrated his soft skin on the journey; his airms pricked wi gooseflesh when I helped him doon frae the pony. ‘Merci,’ he whispered. I mind his een that day, feartness drownt in the brown, grummlin their beauty.

He’s one amongst five boys relocated from France, the Lady’s homeland. Deidre says she’s “three-four year aulder” than them. They’re here to serve as pages but although at first Feilamort comes across as the runt of the litter—the first thing Deidre tells us about him is that he’s “the colour of a dead leaf”—he stands out in one respect:

Last nicht he sang and the sound of angels rang through the great hall, like flocht of siller birds swooping and diving. Lintie and throstle, feltie and laverock, cheetle and chirm and chirpie. He seemed transparent, as though you could see through his skin: he and the voice as one. Silence was the only fit response.

It becomes immediately clear that he’s patently unsuited to the life of a page and the Lady takes him under her wing. A music teacher is hired, one Signor Carlo, who sees great things in Feilamort and a ticket to the good life for himself through Feilamort. He’s not a selfish man or manipulative but he is a pragmatist and life’s few opportunities need to be grabbed by the neck and straddled as they try to scurry past.

As a part of the boy’s daily routine he’s permitted some fresh air and exercise. Deirdre—conveniently (why would a seamstress be assigned this task?)—winds up being the one to accompany him on his walks and this is how their friendship develops. And it is a friendship rather than a romance. What pushes things on faster than nature might have preferred left to its own devices is the intervention of the unnatural. Feilamort’s body is changing and we all know what happens to boys with angelic voices when they hit puberty. Unless something radical is done about it. Surprisingly he’s given a say in his future: let nature takes its course or submit to a certain procedure which would enable him to have a long—and hopefully rewarding for all concerned—career as a boy-soprano. The term used in the book was a new one on me: evirato (which literally means ‘emasculated’) rather than castrato; the operation they describe only involves the crushing as opposed to the physical removal of the testes. Either way he’ll never be able to father children afterwards. handfasting(The first male soprano employed in the pontifical chapel was actually not until 1644 but the practices of castration and emasculation—there is a difference—date back centuries and the various methods employed make uncomfortable reading.) Perhaps not unsurprisingly, before he allows himself to be mutilated, he has a request and Deidre requires very little persuasion. Her only precondition is that they handfast: maybe not a marriage in the eyes of God but good enough to salve the young girl’s conscience. Of course it wouldn’t be much of a story if she didn’t fall pregnant. Problem is by this time Feilamort’s off on his travels in the Continent and Deidre’s been packed off to a nunnery. She acquiesces for much the same reason as Feilamort makes his choice. As her mother says to her, “It would be a good life for you. You would be safe there.” Thus ends the first act: boy meets girl, boy loses girl… and other things.

In the book’s second section we’re introduced to a new character, Father Anthony. He’s not in Scotland, he knows nothing about the existence of this young couple but he does learn of a somewhat similar situation:

There was a beautiful, virtuous and learned young woman who travelled far across the water to be betrothed to a young man. Though many were charged with protecting the young woman, the young man seduced her. On her journey back through France, she discovered that she was with child. She stopped at the convent, where word came to her that the father of the child had died and the shock caused her to go into labour. The child was not of full term but perfectly formed and lusty nevertheless; the young woman died a few days afterwards of a fever brought on by childbirth.

The child, we soon realise, will grow up to be Feilamort and Father Anthony sets out to find out what’s become of him. It turns out the boy’s grandfather is still alive. He’s wealthy but also eccentric. And, of course, just to complicate matters, is related to the wife of the Scottish Laird. By the time Father Anthony reaches Scotland the boy’s long gone. But Deidre is not. Father Anthony learns of their relationship, makes the connection and aims to reunite all parties. He becomes Deirdre’s protector but tells her nothing of what he knows of the boy’s lineage. Weeks later, after little or no explanation, she’s carted off to somewhere near France—at least that’s where she’s told she is—and finds herself in a castle having delivered her baby and still none the wiser as to why all of this has happened to her. Feilamort in the meantime has been entertaining the rich friends and relatives of his Lady. He does as he’s told, seems resigned to his fate and doesn’t spend an awful lot of time pining for Deidre.

Now you would think that the grandfather would be overjoyed to learn he had both a living grandson and a great-grandson but, as I’ve said, he’s eccentric and so a simple reunion is not what takes place and the rest of the book is devoted to tying up a considerable number of loose ends because it doesn’t suit everyone for there to be anyone else in the picture when it comes to inheriting the Master’s fortune. You can see where this is going. It’s turning into a novel of intrigue and there’s really not an awful lot of romancing going on. To pay for her bed and board Deidre gets tasked with some embroidery when she’s not looking after baby and Feilamort sings for his supper most nights when he’s not tucked up in bed in case he catches a cold.

All of which makes me wonder what kind of book this is turning out to be. Is there a central love story? Well, technically, yes. But our two lovers seem perfectly content to let fate—and comfort—dictate their futures. It’s not until a third party gets involved that they have even the slightest chance of getting back together. They do, of course, meet again. How could they not meet again? They are after all the pawns that may very well be promoted any day soon. The imagery is a deliberate choice because neither of the ‘lovers’ feels like a player. The grownups are very much in charge:

I was pushed out of the back and awa doon the stair, Sister Agnes shoving me frae behind, half hauding me up. Outside there was a cart waiting for us and she hid me under some blankets in the back, the bairn safely cooried in beside me.

I was sobbing and girning and wailing, but she grabbed my airm and pinched me and said, ‘Lass, haud your wheest. Ye maun compose yersel if we are tae get awa. God is merciful, God is looking after us all. Ye must do His will. And for the next wee while ye maun do mine or there will be trouble for us all.’


‘Are we really going hame?’

‘The less ye ken the better,’ she said.

‘I am sick of being kept in the dark.’

‘I am protecting you. If you ken nothing ye can say nothing.’

So what about the emotionally satisfying ending? Well, I’m not going to give the ending away but Romeo and Juliet risked all and struggled to be with each other and look how Fate rewarded them. The thing about risk, to my mind, for it to be worth anything then the person must appreciate its value: there must be something to be gained, yes, but—and perhaps more importantly—something to be lost. The romeo and julietrisks here are mainly taken by the adults. They’re the ones who would suffer the most if this all goes pear-shaped. What the kids have to do is trust them. Trust, of course, involves certain risks but it’s not on the same par with what the adults are risking. So I think those who enjoy historical romances might feel a bit let down by this one. Not enough passion.

Was I right at the start? Is this ‘women’s fiction’? Woman on the brink of life change and personal growth. Check. Nothing more life-changing than motherhood. Her journey details emotional reflection and action that transforms her and her relationships. Yes, I think this fits. She’s a first person narrator so we get to see inside her head in a way we don’t with the others especially Feilamort. She does grow as a character but not much to be honest. She has a child and her maternal instincts kick in to protect that child but she’s still in thrall to the power figures around her and rather than taking action she permits action to be taken on her behalf allowing “God’s will” to take place. If anything the adults go out of their way so that the couple doesn’t change, isn’t sullied by contact with unscrupulous and selfish individuals. Every effort goes into ensuring a happy ending. So, yes, check the hopeful/upbeat ending with regard to her romantic relationship box. Not that a happy ending is guaranteed. Not all loose ends are tied up by the book’s ending and things could unravel quite easily. But that’s true to life.

A word or two needs to be written about the use of dialect in this book. There’ll be no reader who isn’t conversant with Medieval Scots who will be able to sit down and read this book without stumbling over at least a few words. Most you’ll be able to guess from the context—“Elinor was stirring a big pot of parritch (porridge). She paused at each cair (stir) of the spartle (porridge stick) tae tell me the next part of the story”—but not always. Here’s one that stumped me:

Mortfundyit, -fundeit, -fundit, ppl. a.  [Mort adv. b; Fundyit ppl. a. But cf. also late ME. and e.m.E. (c 1410–18th c.) morefounde, -fonde, v., to take a chill, be benumbed with cold, F. morfondre to affect (a horse) with catarrh, to chill (one) through, f. F. morve mucus, catarrh, and fondre to melt.] Deadly cold. —  And scharp hailstanys, mortfundeit [Sm. -it, R. -yit] of kynd; Doug. vii. Prol. 136. – Dictonary of the Scots Language

When Deidre uses the word it’s to describe a woman who’s distant, emotionally cold. It’s a great word but I’m not sure about its correct usage and I really can’t afford to spend half an hour researching every word I come across. I say that because the first couple of sites I used to check ‘spartle’ only listed it as a verb and not a noun. You have to be careful. The ARC I received did not have a glossary or any footnotes. If Anne was simply writing in Glaswegian I wouldn’t have too much of a problem. But this different. This is like slipping in an aside in Greek and not bothering with a translation for the rest of us. What, for example, does this mean?

Then he gied a cry and danced off again, pavie and snell.

Here’s a link to the Dictionary of the Scots Language. You can look them up.

As a story goes it’s not an especially complex one. Perhaps, like Romeo and Juliet, more than being a romance it’s actually a cautionary story about what happens when parents fail their children. The key player in all of this is the mysterious grandfather, the appropriately-named Master, and he has a plan. My main problem was trying to relate to him; his priorities would certainly not be mine. It’s why I’m not a big fan of history. I’m not saying we can’t learn from it but sometimes the only lesson we need take away is: Thank Christ we don’t live in world like that nowadays. We get to see things from Deidre’s point of view mainly but there are also sections devoted to Father Anthony (the only one written in the third person), Sister Agnes and Signor Carlo but oddly not Feilamort which keeps him at arm’s length; we only see him through the eyes of others. The bad guys too are kept at a distance. One of the pleasures of a series like The White Queen was witnessing the baddies scheming but there’s none of that here so the book feels a little one-sided. Something was missing. I’d read her again but only something contemporary.


Anne DonovanAnne Donovan is the author of the prize-winning novel Buddha Da, the short-story collection Hieroglyphics and Being Emily. Buddha Da was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Scottish Book of the Year Award, and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It received a Scottish Arts Council Award and won the Le Prince Maurice Award in Mauritius in 2004. She has also written for radio and the stage and has been working on the screenplay for the film of Buddha Da. She lives in Glasgow.

Sunday 20 April 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West

A Million WaysSo, all I gotta do is get Foy to let me shoot seventy-one times before he shoots, and I win. – Seth MacFarlane, A Million Ways to Die in the West

A Million Ways to Die in the West reads like a novelisation of a Bob Hope film which is odd because it’s actually a novelisation of a Seth MacFarlane film. Seriously though if this film had been made in the 1950’s there would’ve been only one actor up for consideration for the lead: Bob Hope. No comedian has ever got as much mileage out of playing the coward. His signature heroic coward starred in film after film like The Princess and the Pirate, Casanova's Big Night and The Paleface wisecracking his way out of every tight situation until he’s eventually backed into a corner and forced to draw off the bravery that’s been buried within him all the time, at which point he gets the girl and the film’s pretty much over. It’s predictable. But there can be fun in predictability. It’s like on TV when the guest star walks on stage with a cream pie in his hand. You know it’s going to go in someone’s face. You just don’t know how exactly it’s going to play out. But you would be disappointed if someone didn’t get a pie in the face.

This is how A Million Ways to Die in the West opens:

Albert Stark was a coward. Not a quivering, jittery, weak-kneed sort of a coward, but the kind who viewed his cowardice as an act of sensibility: a coward in the name of pragmatism. To Albert, his cowardice functioned as a shield that existed to service the very sensible goal of self-preservation. In the West, brave men got killed. Cowards stayed alive.

It’s not true that only the brave die out West. Lots of people die in this book. It’s the running gag the book’s built on because no matter what situation someone finds themself in there’s always a chance it’ll prove fatal. You don’t have to get shot. As Albert puts it:

Everything that’s not you wants you dead. Outlaws, Indians, angry gamblers, disgruntled prostitutes, wild animals, the weather, disease—hell, even a trip to the dentist means taking your fucking life in your hands.

He forgot to mention giant blocks of ice. Watch out for the big block of ice. Oh, and flash photography. And wet socks. That’s what had it in for the blacksmith apparently.

AMillion6So when the book begins with our unlikely hero standing in the middle of the street about to engage in a gunfight you know he’s going to wangle his way out of it—which he does—and I pretty much knew at that point that the book would reach its climax with Albert having to man-up on exactly the same street only this time with the meanest son of a bitch out there. I didn’t realise he’d be called Clinch Leatherwood—now who could MacFarlane possibly be sending up there?—but since he doesn’t appear until halfway through the book how could I?

I’m a big fan of Seth MacFarlane. His humour’s always been a bit hit and miss—I still watch Family Guy faithfully and American Dad! but The Cleveland Show never really held my interest and I’ve given up on it—although I have to say I was very curious to see how he’d come across without the visuals to lean on. At least there’d be no vomiting to watch; even cartoon vomiting turns my stomach I’m afraid. I didn’t actually realise when the book was offered to me that there was a film coming. To be honest I was a bit disappointed by that; I’d expected it to be a standalone work. I have read novelisations before—Alan Dean Foster’s three Alien novels are actually pretty decent affairs—but never before seeing the film. So this was a first. I have read novels before seeing the film adaptations but they’re usually completely different beasts—look at the recent adaptation of Under the Skin, for example. Anyway I was good. I didn’t look up the film online. I didn’t watch the trailer. And do you know what? The book was actually all right. Dostoyevsky it is not—not too many laughs in Dostoyevsky—but it kept my attention and it kept me amused.

The humour is exactly what I’ve come to expect from MacFarlane. This is not a criticism. When I watch a Woody Allen film—another guy who specialises in timorous heroes—I know the kind of things to expect when the ‘Woody’ character is onscreen in the same way as I know what to expect from Stewie or Peter Griffin. The cultural references which are common in his other work are still here in the novel but MacFarlane wisely keeps these to either film references—the sheriff’s called Arness, for example (no doubt after the American actor, best known for portraying Marshal Matt Dillon in the television series Gunsmoke)—or mainly contemporary cultural commentary—e.g. how insane would it be if someone smiled in a photograph?

Anna turned to him. “Y’know, supposedly there’s some guy in Texas who smiled one time while he was getting his picture taken.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Albert blurted with excitement. “I was just talking about that the other day.”

“I think. I mean, I heard it somewhere. I dunno if it’s true.”

Colourful innuendo was often incorporated into Bob Hope’s act but there’s little left to the imagination in a Seth MacFarlane script and if book’s had certificates this would definitely be an 18. I have to say all the swearing felt a bit forced and unnatural. Perhaps because MacFarlane’s so obviously lampooning Hollywood westerns and about the only cusswords you ever hear in films of that ilk that are old-cootisms like ‘shoot’, ‘dang’, ‘tarnation’ or ‘dagnabbit’ which was probably unrealistic too.

AMillion3The novel’s second running gag concerns Albert’s best friend Edward Phelps and his girlfriend, Ruth. Edward repairs shoes; Ruth services men for a living. When we first meet them Albert’s sitting downstairs in the Old Stump Saloon waiting on the love of his life finishing work:

In his hand he held a lovely late-spring bouquet of daisies, lilacs, and daffodils. From upstairs the raucous sounds of sexual intercourse could be heard as Edward’s girlfriend, Ruth, was fucked wildly by a dirty cowboy.

“Oh, yes. YES!!” she screamed, her voice reverberating throughout the saloon.

“Yeah, you like me fuckin’ you, don’t you?” bellowed the cowboy.

“Yes! Yes, it’s really terrific!” she shouted back between moans of ecstasy.

“I got dirt on my dick from workin’ outside all day!”

“I know! I love the scratchy feeling inside me!”

“Yeah, you like the dirt on my dick, don’t you?!”

“I do! I really do! It’s such a treat.”

Ruth’s sex talk had always been a bit clumsy, but her heart was in the right place, and as a prostitute she was exemplary: always on time for her shift, freshly bathed after every fifth customer, and willing to accommodate all types of fetishes. Edward admired her worth ethic. The seriousness with which a person took professional obligations said a lot about their character. He was lucky to be with such a woman.

“Stick your finger in my asshole!” shouted the dirty cowboy.

“I’m excited to!” Ruth answered.

Of course, because she’s a Christian, she won’t sleep with Edward until they’re married. It’s preposterous, but that’s the joke. She keeps talking about the crude things she’s been asked to do—I had no idea that such a thing as a blumpkin existed and I don’t mind admitting it—and Edward tries to empathise saying that his job sucks too. That’s about as close to innuendo as MacFarlane gets. But that’s fine.

If you’ve never heard of MacFarlane, never watched an episode of Family Guy but have read every Louis L'Amour out there and are looking for something else then you will be embarrassed, shocked and probably offended by this book which reminds me of the time my first wife and I went to watch Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. and happened to notice two old biddies who’d decided to give it a go because they saw Julie Andrews was in it. They didn’t know where to look when she ripped her top off.

AMillion2My main reservation is pretty much the same one I have about all novelisations: why? Having at this point of the review now watched the trailer (which was pretty much what I expected apart from the bull—do not recall a bull in the book—and the fact that Liam Neeson plays the bad guy—too handsome to be the same bad guy as described in the book)—I cannot see that the book adds anything to the experience; why not wait a few months and pick up the DVD for a fiver? If anything hearing visual gags described takes away from them and the moustache song is reduced to bad poetry. Had MacFarlane spent more time talking about what the characters were thinking—there is some but not an awful lot—I might feel better about the book but it feels like I’m reading a film script that’s been tidied up and turned into a novel and not a thing in itself. There were only a couple of other reviews available online when I was writing this but Chris Swanson on Amazon puts it well when he writes:

I'm docking a star because while MacFarlane is a great TV writer, he still needs to learn a bit about writing novels. It really seems like a screenplay where he basically cut and paste the lines into his word processor and the added "he said" when needed. Which I think is basically the case.

I agree. Alan Dean Foster’s three Alien novels have stayed with me. Even some twenty years after reading them I can remember especially the openings to each book where he talks about sleepers. That stuff was not in the films. The same goes for Thomas M. Disch’s novel The Prisoner (based on the sixties TV series). It was very much its own thing.

Probably the weakest section of the book is the ten pages devoted to a drug trip Albert goes on. While fleeing for his life he finds himself in the company of Cochise and a band of Apaches who encourage him to go on a vision quest:

Albert reluctantly submitted to the peer pressure. “Okay, fine!” He downed the rest of the liquid.

Almost instantly the Apaches’ taunting expressions shifted to shock and alarm. “He drank the whole bowl!”

Albert froze in panic. “What?”

“You drank the whole bowl!”

“Oh, shit! Oh, shit, is that bad?”

“That was for the entire tribe!” said Cochise. “You’re totally gonna freak out and probably die. Good luck.”

Albert’s jaw hung open in terror as the world around him dissolved into a distorted hellscape….

I’m pretty sure the film will do a much better job of what follows. There are things that books do well and things that films do well and hellscapes is one of them.

The bottom line then is that I’m not sure who this book is aimed at. I’ll watch the film when it comes out but then I was always going to watch the film. If anything, having read the book beforehand has spoiled the film for me because now I know how Albert manages to survive that final showdown. It’s a clever solution which I did not see coming. He doesn’t exactly talk his way out of it but he does use that particular talent to manipulate the situation to his advantage. Nuff said.

The film opens on 30th May in the States and 6th June in the UK. I’ll leave you with the trailer:

Sunday 13 April 2014

Get real


If you think people in your life are normal, then you undoubtedly have not spent any time getting to know the abnormal side of them. ― Shannon L. Alder

Stigma—or, more specifically, social stigma was defined by Erving Goffman, one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century, as “The phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute is deeply discredited by his/her society is rejected as a result of the attribute. Stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity.”[1] It’s not the only definition but I think it’s a good one. (In another context, by the way, the plural of stigma is stigmata and clearly not all stigmata are viewed as bad at least not among certain Christians.) When I started researching this article I was immediately drawn to Goffman’s 1963 text because of the title: Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. The book’s still in print and required reading—the last edition I could find was 2009 and it’s even available for the Kindle—so he clearly got a lot right. It was the ‘spoiled identity’ that jumped out at me because the verb ‘to spoil’ is one that has specific associations for me. It was years before I realise that ‘spoil’ was something that could happen to food but I’ve never quite got my head around how spoils can be treasures. In my head ‘spoil’ is something one person does that affects others detrimentally: they talk over something the other person’s trying to listen to or they won’t play a game by the agreed upon rules or they tell you how the book you’re reading ends. I can still hear my mum: “Jimmy! Don’t spoil it for him,” ‘him’ being my brother. Spoiling something for someone is “plain selfishness” (another of my mother’s expressions) and I was, to be fair, a pretty selfish wee boy. I was most definitely the centre of my own universe.

Stigma is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a type of marking or tattoo that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. These individuals were to be avoided or shunned, particularly in public places. – Wikipedia

The mark of Cain is the earliest example I can think of of someone being stigmatised. Whether he received a physical mark or not is open to debate—the Hebrew word translated ‘mark’ is 'owth and refers to a mark, sign, or token and is most frequently translated as ‘sign’—but the fact is he was ostracized because of antisocial behaviour, the murder of his brother. This was long before “Thou shalt not kill” was set in stone but it was pretty obvious to everyone back then, I’m sure, that murdering someone was not ‘normal’ behaviour. And that’s what stigmas are all about. They separate the normal from the abnormal, the stereotypical from the atypical. Goffman’s book opens with a sad letter which I’ll quote in full since its short:

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts

I am sixteen years old now and I dont know what to do and would appreciate it if you could tell me what to do. When I was a little girl it was not so bad because I got used to the kids on the block makeing fun of me, but now I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out on Saturday nites, but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose—although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes.

I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in the middle of my face that scares people even myself so I cant blame the boys for not wanting to take me out. My mother loves me, but she crys terrible when she looks at me.

What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Even if I did do some bad things I didn't do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesn't know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I dont believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide?

West_lonelyheartsIt’s not a real letter although, of course, there will be girls out there who could easily have written it. It’s an excerpt from the novel Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West which was first published in 1962. Imagine though having no nose! That’s not normal. And at sixteen especially there’s nothing worse than not being normal.

Normal’s an odd word. Normal isn’t identical. Ideally it would mean that, if we were all clones. But we’re not. And although the thesaurus would have you believe that ‘average’ is an appropriate synonym for ‘normal’ I’m not so sure that most teenagers would agree with that. No one wants to be average. Average is not normal. Normal is accepted. Normal is often a fashion statement.

What prompted me to write this post was a comment made on Facebook by author George Straatman. In part he relates:

It is likely that in every novel ever written, one of the primary characters experiences that moment of epiphany…or crystalline, pristine insight in which everything resolves into an instant of perfect understanding. Real life seldom has the occasion to deliver such moments, but this past week I had mine. A person, whom I had just met for the first time, upon learning that I had written six novels, asked me if A REAL WRITER had ever read one of my novels. After re-hinging my lower mandible, I asked how they defined a real writer.

The response was…someone with the proper education and publishing pedigree.


This intransigent prejudice is very probably insurmountable and this is the sad reality confronting independent artists of every stripe…but none more so than independent writers.

To add nuance to this episode…the individual who opened my eyes…is a high school drop-out.

He’s saying nothing I’ve not read a dozen times or more. If you hang around with self-published authors it inevitably crops up: the stigma of self-publishing.

Is a ghostwriter a REAL WRITER then? They get looked down on too. Or what about session musicians? Or the bloke who sets up his easel alongside the Seine and paints portraits all summer long? Is he not a REAL ARTIST?

What is ‘real’ anyway? Reality is a matter of perception. We act like it’s something more solid, something fixed but it’s not. What’s real to you will probably not be as real—or it may be more real—to me. The person George met had formed a concept in his mind of what a ‘real writer’ should be. What he perceived in George didn’t match that ergo George was not a real writer. Of course George disagreed. As would I. As would thousands of others. But just because we say something’s so doesn’t necessarily make it so. Only when it comes to norms it actually does. When I was about fifteen it became the norm at my school not to wear a shirt. Jumpers were fine but no shirt underneath. One day it was cool to wear shirts and the next it wasn’t. Just like that. One day recording an album in your kitchen with your mum on backing vocals was roughing it, the next thing ‘indie’ music was a thing and a few years later is became an acceptable thing.

kathrynwilliams442902In 1999 a then-unknown singer called Kathryn Williams recorded her debut album Dog Leap Stairs for the now-legendary sum of £80 and released it on her own record label Caw Records. Her follow-up, Little Black Numbers, went on to receive a Mercury Prize nomination. She sold 40,000 records from her bedroom and landed a three album deal with Warner Brothers label East West. Is that when she became a REAL MUSICIAN?

I could waffle on and on about the humble beginnings of various creative types who are now household names—Van Gogh probably tops the list there—but it likely wouldn’t change George’s friend’s opinion. Society’s opinions do change. It takes time but it happens. Sometimes it’s impossible to gauge when things that were verboten when we were kids stop being frowned upon and switch to becoming not only the accepted but expected mode of behaviour. Other times, as we see with the recent very public protests over the rights of homosexuals, it’s easier to identify history’s bullet points. In the fifties dads were always screaming at the kids to get off the phone. A change in technology and landlines the world over are suddenly free and kids, who once only communicated verbally, spend more time texting each other. What’s normal? We never even had a phone until after my dad’s first heart attack in 1971—my mum had to knock a neighbour up to call the ambulance—and that was the only reason we got one and even then it was a shared line.

Is blogging normal? Tell someone you were a blogger in 2003 and most people wouldn’t’ve known what you were on about. Not so nowadays. Now some of those blogs have been running for ten years and have developed reputations and not all of them bad. The Huffington Post, for example, is at its core still a blog and no different to the blog you’re reading right now:

The history of political blogging might usefully be divided into the periods pre- and post-Huffington. Before the millionaire socialite Arianna Huffington decided to get in on the act, bloggers operated in a spirit of underdog solidarity. They hated the mainstream media - and the feeling was mutual.

Bloggers saw themselves as gadflies, pricking the arrogance of established elites from their home computers, in their pyjamas, late into the night. So when, in 2005, Huffington decided to mobilise her fortune and media connections to create, from scratch, a flagship liberal blog she was roundly derided. Who, spluttered the original bloggerati, did she think she was?[2]

Respect has to be earned. I’m not suggesting for one moment that that’s not the case. And trust takes time to establish. I bought my first self-published book in 2000. It was called Dancing with Patience by Jonathan Dyer. I’d been thinking about using iUniverse back then and bought the first thing that half-appealed to me to see what the standard was. I wasn’t terribly impressed. The book was actually okay—a poor man’s Catcher in the Rye—and it was the first book I’d read from cover to cover in ages; I still have it. What let the book down was a crappy cover, poor editing and not-great printing. It looks like something a POD machine sneezed out, not a REAL BOOK. That’s not the case nowadays. The printer I use is the one Alma Books uses. There’s no difference between their books and mine apart from the content.

When you look in a mirror what do you see? I see a writer. Nah, who am I kidding? I’d like to see a writer but I’m not actually sure what ‘a writer’ looks like. I don’t look like Stephen King or Virginia Woolf or, well, pretty much any REAL WRITER I can think of. I’ve written novels, stories, plays, poems and I’ve even been paid on occasion (albeit not a living wage) but none of that helps. This bit in the Goffman’s book struck me:

When I got up at last . . . and had learned to walk again, one day I took a hand glass and went to a long mirror to look at myself, and I went alone. I didn't want anyone . . . to know how I felt when I saw myself for the first time. But there was no noise, no outcry; I didn't scream with rage when I saw myself. I just felt numb. That person in the mirror couldn't be me. I felt inside like a healthy, ordinary, lucky person - oh, not like the one in the mirror! Yet when I turned my face to the mirror there were my own eyes looking back, hot with shame . . . when I did not cry or make any sound, it became impossible that I should speak of it to anyone, and the confusion and the panic of my discovery were locked inside me then and there, to be faced alone, for a very long time to come.

Over and over I forgot what I had seen in the mirror. It could not penetrate into the interior of my mind and become an integral part of me. I felt as if it had nothing-to do with me; it was only a disguise. But it was not the kind of disguise which is put on voluntarily by the person who wears it, and which is intended to confuse other people as to one's identity. My disguise had been put on me without my consent or knowledge like the ones in fairy tales, and it was I myself who was confused by it, as to my own identity. I looked in the mirror, and was horror-struck because I did not recognize myself. In the place where I was standing, with that persistent romantic elation in me, as if I were a favoured fortunate person, to whom everything was possible, I saw a stranger, a little, pitiable, hideous figure, and a face that became, as I stared at it, painful and blushing with shame. It was only a disguise, but it was on me, for life. It was there, it was there, it was real. Every one of those encounters was like a blow on the head.[3]

Writers have notoriously fragile egos, so many of us that you’d almost think it a requirement for the job. And REAL WRITERS safeguard that ego with all the books they’ve published. I doubt there’s much Stephen King could even hear as he cowers behind his pile of books. They are his defence. They are his proof. They are his shield. And yet when you read in between the lines of On Writing what do you see? I saw a wee boy going, “I am a real writer. I am. I am. I am.” I don’t think it ever goes away. It’s not a matter of being self-published or traditionally published. It’s simply being a writer. Normal people aren’t writers. I never met another writer until I was a grown man. When you’re the only one of anything it’s easy to feel different because you are different. Normal people don’t write books. They like to pretend they’ve all got a book inside them but most of them haven’t. They do normal stuff instead, stuff everyone else is doing.

MaltesersPeople don’t like different. Actually that’s not true. They’re intrigued by different. As long as it’s not too different. Chocolate-coated coffee beans are a possibility. Chocolate-covered crickets maybe not so much: too big a leap from Maltesers and Revels. It’s all about comfort zones. Books are paper things with words on. They have a certain feel and smell and, after a few years, that can be not such a pleasant smell. They’re not pixels on a screen. That’s not a book, at least not a REAL BOOK. Even if a REAL WRITER wrote it it’s still not a REAL BOOK. It’s pretending to be a book. We’re creatures of habit. We don’t like to come home and find our wife’s rearranged the living room. We like our chair to be where we left it.

So when someone comes along and tells you they’re a self-published writer of course they’re not a REAL WRITER. A real writer never feels the need to say when asked what he does for a living, “Oh, I’m a real writer.” He’s just a writer, end of story. I rarely mention how my books get out into the real world. In absolute strictness I’m not self-published. I write the books and my wife does pretty much everything else. But I still don’t feel like a REAL WRITER.

Of course it’s not just individuals that get stigmatised. Entire nations can be—perfect example, the Jews—or whole races—i.e. the Blacks—and yet within those groups there will be some who insist on stigmatising others: Orthodox Jews consider themselves true Jews but then so do the Hasidic Jews and the Masorti Jews and the Reform Jews and the Humanistic Jews and the Jewish Scientists. You’d think being a part of a stigmatised group people would bond together. Yeah, right. In a comment on the Mystery Writing is Murder blog author Perry Wilson writes:

I work on multiple books each year, aiming to publish 4 - 7. I find one of the hardest things to deal with is overlapping tasks. I am usually outlining one book in a series, drafting a book in another series and revising/polishing a book in my third series.[4]

I wonder if she thinks of herself as a REAL WRITER. She probably thinks I’m bone-idle because it’s taken me twenty years to write five and a half novels. I know of a lot of writers who regularly aim to churn out a book every three or four months. I don’t think they’re REAL WRITERS; REAL WRITERS need to suffer for their art and the only thing you’ll have time to suffer from if you’re churning out books like that is repetitive strain injury and probably back problems. They don’t think I’m a REAL WRITER because I don’t put the hours in. George’s friend wouldn’t think any of us were REAL WRITERS.

A multiple sclerotic noted:

Both healthy minds and healthy bodies may be crippled. The fact that `normal' people can get around, can see, can hear, doesn't mean that they are seeing or hearing. They can be very blind to the things that spoil their happiness, very deaf to the pleas of others for kindness; when I think of them I do not feel any more crippled or disabled than they.[5]

I think this is George’s friend’s problem. His vision, his perception and conception of what one needs to be in order to be thought of as a REAL WRITER is skew-whiff. He doesn’t recognise a REAL WRITER when he sees one. And that’s life. The world wouldn’t be the world it is without a few narrow-minded bigots thrown into the mix to keep things interesting.

Atwood ZombieStigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity. If you’ve been reading me for a while you’ll have heard my definition of a writer: A person whose natural response to life is to write about it. Writing is natural for me. It didn’t make me a good writer but it gave me a leg up. It made writing pleasurable. It made me want to write. And once I saw what I could do with my writing it made me want to write better. I identify with fellow writers. I don’t always get why they insist on writing zombie novels but if that’s what excites their writing … buds I suppose is as good a word as any … then get on with it. Just don’t hang around waiting on me writing one. I don’t think it’s wrong to write zombie novels. I just don’t get why anyone would want to. The same goes for being gay. I don’t get it. I don’t see why they don’t see what I see in women and I certainly don’t see what they see in men but I do understand the need for human intimacy. I just choose not to be intimate with another bloke or dressed up in rubber or in the changing rooms in GAP. How many gay men have been made to feel that what they were doing was wrong, shameful but were unable to stop doing what, to them, came naturally? People have spoiled being them for them. If there’s nothing else in the world worth living for at least a person should be able to enjoy simply being themselves without being made to feel bad about it. The problem is when something spoiled it’s spoiled. You can’t rescue milk when it’s gone off. And the crap thing, the really crap thing, is that you can’t rescue people either.

Individuals get shunned but what about groups? They get segregated:

Stigma heightens our senses to the notion of difference and creates a tension within the self in relation to the context in which the stigmatised person is perceived. In healthcare settings these perceptions of difference may become professionalised, and thus to some degree legitimated, as they occur within a medical framework. That is, in this context treating someone differently becomes accepted because they are deemed to be in some way ‘dis-ordered’. However, outside of the illness context the stigmata are often viewed as blemishes, and for some this legitimates ridicule, avoidance, fear or disgust. For example, while the professional may accept the noise uttered by an autistic child in a residential home, some members of society are generally reluctant to accept such disturbance in the supermarket.[6] (bold mine)

Be Jewish if you have to but if you could do it in that nice ghetto over there we’d be very grateful. There’s a danger that this is what will happen with self-published authors. We’re already excluded from submitting our work to many magazines and competitions: Fine, self-publish if you have to but go and play over there with all the others like you. Of course there’s good reason why those who’ve decided to go it alone have been ridiculed in the past. Just have a wee read at this article (actually it’s more of a rant): Why Indie Authors Still Suck. And here’s the comment I left on the Facebook thread where a number of indie authors were venting on the subject:

The answer to this guy is very simple: prove him wrong. He has a case. It’s our fault. When I was a kid in the seventies we used to tell jokes about Skodas: What do you call a Skoda with a sun roof? A skip. Skoda’s answer? It made better cars. In 2010 it was voted best manufacturer in the 2010 What Car? Readers Awards, with Porsche second and Daihatsu third.[7] That didn’t happen overnight nor can we expect self-publishing to stop being a joke overnight. It will take time. A bad reputation doesn’t go away overnight but people’s memories are short. They do forget unless we keep reminding them.

It’s not normal to self-publish—at least up until recently it hasn’t been. What’s ‘normal’—and by ‘normal’ I mean socially acceptable—changes. Gays have long been stigmatised. Now they have rights. They’re not fully-integrated into society—just look at the recent fuss over the 2014 Winter Olympics—and it’s still a little odd to see two guys holding hands walking down Sauchiehall Street—actually I’ve never seen two guys holding hands walking down Sauchiehall Street—but they’re getting there. They still have a way to go and so do the self-published. Homosexuals have been tolerated for centuries but as long as they were content to stick to their clubs and cottages people turned a blind eye. Indie authors write indie books which are read by other indie authors: all very incestuous. I remember after the public found out that the writer Alan Bennett was gay—which they’d suspected for years—they subsequently learned he’d also been having an affair with a woman and you could sense they were a bit put out because he wasn’t a REAL GAY. There’s no pleasing some people.

I don’t much care for hip hop but its origins are noteworthy:

The origin of the culture stems from the block parties of the Ghetto Brothers when they would plug the amps for their instruments and speakers into the lampposts on 163rd Street and Prospect Avenue and DJ Kool Herc at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where Herc Herc would mix samples of existing records with his own shouts to the crowd and dancers..– Wikipedia

It began in some bloke’s house and then it spread to the local area, then the borough and then the city, the country and finally the whole world. Love it or loathe it everyone knows what hip hop is. And, as with everything else, there is good hip hop and bad. And there always will be.

There will always be crappy self-published books out there for all the reasons stated in the article I linked to. It takes time for anything to find its feet, be it an artistic movement, a culture or a lifestyle. At first it feels unnatural and that unnaturalness can hang around for a long while. I drank coffee with two sugars and milk up until a couple of years ago. Now I drink it black sans sugar sans milk sans caffeine and it’s beginning to feel natural. Beginning. Give me another twenty years and we’ll see.

Ask me about self-publishing in another twenty years. And we’ll see.


[1] Labspace (and others) says that this quote is from Goffman’s book but I couldn’t find it, at least not word for word. It is, however, a perfect summary of what he does say.

[2] ‘The world's 50 most powerful blogs’, The Observer, 9 March 2008

[3] K. B. Hathaway, The Little Locksmith, p. 157 quoted in Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, pp.8,9

[4] Elizabeth S. Craig, ‘What Happens After Writing 3 or 4 Books a Year’, Mystery Writing is Murder, 25 May 2012

[5] Erving Goffman ‘Stigma and Social Identity’ in Lee Rainwater (ed.), Deviance and Liberty: Social Problems and Public Policy, p.28

[6] Elizabeth Whitehead, Tom Mason, Caroline Carlisle and Caroline Watkinsp, ‘The changing dynamic of

Stigma’ in Stigma and Social Exclusion in Healthcare, p.29

[7] ‘Skoda named best motor company by What Car?, The Telegraph, 18 November 2010

Sunday 6 April 2014

Five Came Back

Five Came Back

Yes. This really happened. – The Battle of Midway

One thing I can say about Mark Harris with regard to his book Five Came Back—which is basically a study of how the American film industry was changed forever by World War II—is that he’s done his homework and I have little doubt that when he handed it in he got a gold star. This is a thoroughly-researched book that contains over sixty pages of end matter. It is easily readable and surprisingly entertaining. The man clearly did a lot of reading in researching his topic. And he’s managed to do what the five men highlighted in this book—John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, George Stevens, and Frank Capra—all managed to do, take a huge amount of material from multiple sources and whittle it down to its essence. At 444 pages it’s still not a quick read (and I’m not including the end matter here) but, to be fair, he does cover a lot of ground.

The book begins in March 1938 and takes us through to February 1947, so we get a rounded picture of where Hollywood started out and where it ended up. In 1938 these five directors, four of whom were too old to be drafted and chose to enlist, were working on projects like Stagecoach (Ford), Gunga Din (Stevens) and You Can’t Take It With You (Capra). People were aware there was a war on but it was the European War. Nothing to do with them. They didn’t avoid mentioning the war in their films but they did so with care:

The stern eye of the Production Code as well as the studios’ collective fear of giving offense meant that controversial material was systematically weeded out of scripts before the cameras ever rolled. It also meant that even the most highly praised and successful studio directors were treated as star employees rather than artists entitled to shape their own creative visions.


The idea of pursuing a more socially or politically committed cinema, was … futile; no film with a strong political perspective would be able to surmount the studios’ fear of being labelled interventionists, or the antipathy of the censors…

What you have to remember is that most of the studios were owned by Jews and they were scared that people would accuse them of having an agenda but as things began to escalate in Germany some decided they simply couldn’t sit on the side-lines any longer and in 1939 Warner Bros produced the then controversial Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Its title alone was shocking and they fully expected the filmed to “be banned in many European countries (which it was) and might also face serious opposition from state and municipal censorship boards (which it did). But the studio stood by its conviction that the country was ready for the movie.” The problem was that “most studios maintained a strong financial interest in the German market and continued to do business with Hitler and his deputies.” Privately they may have held strong opinions but they were determined that “they would not allow their feelings, or anyone else’s, about what was happening in Germany to play out onscreen.” Stevens had it right when years later he said, talking to Leni Riefenstahl, “I think all film is propaganda.” Saying nothing is as bad as saying the wrong thing.

Everything changed in 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. “Any trepidation the studios felt about making war movies vanished within weeks.” What also vanished was some of their best talent. The armed forces didn’t exactly open its arms to embrace Hollywood’s finest—“some … were astounded, and affronted that directors who had until recently been guiding Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers across a dance floor or teaching John Wayne to look heroic on a horse would now be entrusted with educating servicemen”—but the simple, undeniable fact was that even if these “[f]ilm-makers could not win the war … [they] had already shown that they could win the people.”

Naïve and inexperienced as they were—some couldn’t even salute properly—it was going to be a steep learning curve and take them away from their careers and families for far longer than any of them imagined. It would also change them permanently none more so that Stevens who was one of the first cameramen to film inside Nordhausen, a sub-camp of the concentration camp Dora-Mittelbau, which did little to prepare his for what he witnessed at Dachau. His work resulted in two films, The Nazi Plan and Nazi Concentration and Prison Camps which were only intended for the eyes of those involved in the Nuremberg Trials.

The Nazi Plan

All the other film-makers were producing work to educate the soldiers but their eyes, even in wartime (much to my surprise), were on awards; some, admittedly, more than others.

The book has a long way to go before we get to this point and it lists chronologically the major documentary films produced throughout and just after the war and what was involved in their creation. Between them these five men were on the scene for almost every major moment of America’s war and in every branch of the service—army, navy and air force; Atlantic and Pacific; from Midway to North Africa, from Normandy to the fall of Paris and the liberation of the death camps. A lot of it involved bravery, some stupidity, way too much bureaucracy and more reconstruction and out-and-out fakery than I ever expected to read about. For example “[a]lthough [John Huston’s] San Pietro was presented to the movie going public as a wartime documentary, all the film’s combat scenes were staged.” The reasons for at least some staging becomes obvious especially once you’ve viewed one of the earliest films produced, John Ford’s The Battle of Midway, but this took things to a whole new level.

The Battle of Midway

Ford's footage of the Battle of Midway has an amateurish feel to it but Wikipedia’s wrong when it says the filming was impromptu; they knew they were going to be attacked and the director had stationed himself on the roof of the main island’s power station in readiness. “They were equipped with Eyemo and Bell & Howell 16-millimetre cameras and hundreds of feet of Kodachrome colour film.” At the end of the battle they’d amassed “four hours of silent film—about five hard-won minutes of which showed explicit combat”—but when Ford returned to Los Angeles he had a problem (and this is a problem that faced all the directors in this book): observe Navy (in his case) protocol or follow his instincts as a director. He chose to do the latter knowing full well that if he handed over his reels “the best shots would be indiscriminately parcelled out to newsreel companies by a War Department that was more eager to share visual evidence of an American triumph as quickly as possible than to wait for the movie that he believed could have exponentially greater impact.” On the surface that sounds commendable and in this instance everything worked out fine and he ended up winning an Oscar for the thing to boot but not every director’s films were as well received when handed in and cuts were commonplace. Ford hated the word ‘propaganda’ but semantics aside what he produced was the first propaganda film of the war and not his last. But the film was not without its issues:

Ford’s decision to keep the Japanese faceless and undefined in The Battle of Midway was less a matter of caution or sensitivity on his part than a reflection of the propaganda policy that by the summer of 1942 was hopelessly muddled and conflicted about what America’s enemy should look like on movie screens.

Who was the bad guy here? Hirohito? Since the general consensus was that he would remain in power after the end of hostilities some thought it would be “wiser to use General Tojo as the face of Japan’s lust for conquest.” Others wanted to point the finger at Japanese ideology. The danger, however, in castigating the common people was that it would cause problems for the thousands of Japanese Americans in the future who many already viewed as “a vast army of volunteer spies.” Internees were already being scattered across the country “to prevent them from clustering and conspiring.”

One of the projects that Frank Capra was asked to work on was series of films entitled Why We Fight. One of this series was entitled Know Your Enemy: Japan but it took years to get the film finished because of general ignorance about Japan and its motives, an unwillingness on the part of the U.S. government to determine what exactly the foreign policy towards Japan should be and disagreements between writers (he went through four sets) and director. Even as late as January 1945 the film had to undergo a series of final revisions to remedy an issue pointed out by the Pentagon: the film had “too much sympathy for the Jap people.” The film was released in its final form August 9th 1945, the day Nagasaki was bombed.

Know Your Enemy: Japan

This was a problem for everyone, not just Capra. The world of ad hoc documentary film-making was a far cry from what they were used to. Probably one of the biggest problems the directors faced was, perversely, a lack of direction. With the studios, like it or lump it, they knew what they were expected to produce and what they could reasonably get away with but the military didn’t really seem to know what to do with these guys. And so, feeling they had more scope than they’d been allowed before, they began imposing more of their personal visions on their work.

William Wyler’s probably best known in this context for his documentary Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress but the better film is one he produced after the war: The Best Years of Our Lives was the story of the homecoming of three veterans from World War II that dramatized the problems of returning veterans in their adjustment back to civilian life. It’s not a documentary but it drew heavily on Wyler's own experience returning home to his family after three years on the front. It ended up winning seven Oscars including best director. The film is especially noteworthy because of the casting of a non-actor, Harold Russell, to play the part of Homer Parrish who loses both hands; obviously finding a professional actor was going to be a problem.

Aircraft Graveyard scene from The Best Years of Our Lives

Many of the films produced over this period were ground-breaking both in technique and approach. A good example of the latter is another in Capra’s Why We Fight series, this one entitled The Negro Soldier. Up until this time coloured people in films were poorly represented, caricatures really and so when the film was first shown to the public no doubt they expected more of the same.

Richard Wright, whose novel Native Son had been published a few years earlier, attended the Harlem screening and told a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle that before the picture started, he had written down thirteen offensive stereotypes on the back of his program—Excessive Singing, Indolence and Crap Shooting among them— and intended to make a mark next to each one as it appeared onscreen. He didn’t check off a single box and told the reporter that he found the movie “a pleasant surprise.” Langston Hughes called the picture “distinctly and thrillingly worthwhile,” and New York’s black paper the Amsterdam News marvelled, “Who could have thought such a thing could be done so accurately … without sugar-coating and … jackass clowning?”

The Negro Soldier

Not all the films produced during this time were serious. There was also a place for humour as in the Private SNAFU cartoons created by Frank Capra, by far the most popular training films made for servicemen during the war.

[SNAFU – an acronym for ‘Situation Normal: All Fucked Up’ was] a grumbling, naïve, incompetent GI who would be featured in an ongoing run of short black-and-white cartoons in which—usually by catastrophically negative example that more than once ended with him being blown to bits—he would inform young enlistees about issues like the importance of keeping secrets and the need for mail censorship, as well as the hazards or malaria, venereal disease, laziness, gossip, booby traps, and poison gas.

Voiced by Mel Blanc and with early scripts by Theodor Geisel—‘Dr Seuss’ to you and I—it’s easy to see why they were popular.

Private SNAFU – ‘Spies’

As a historical document Harris’s book ticks all the boxes. His facts have obviously been checked and rechecked. But what’s especially good about his book is that it draws on the personal correspondence of the directors and reminiscences of those who knew them to flesh them out. Some wrote diaries, others letters. It’s a warts and all portrayal of the subject and his subjects; the egos, the drinking, the womanising, the award- and medal-chasing, the revisionism (Ford was especially guilty of misremembering the past), the stresses, the strains, the losses. These were very human men. And they made very human films. The films aren’t perfect either but they did make a difference. I enjoyed the honesty of this book. It opened my eyes.


Mark HarrisMark Harris graduated from Yale University in 1985 with a degree in English. In 1989, he joined the staff of Entertainment Weekly, a magazine published by Time Inc. covering movies, television, music, video and books. Mark worked on the staff of the magazine, first as a writer and eventually as the editor overseeing all movie coverage, from its launch in early 1990 until 2006. He now writes a column for the magazine called The Final Cut. In 2008, Harris published Scenes at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, an examination of how the American film industry changed with the 1960s. Harris is married to the playwright Tony Kushner.

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