Monday, April 30, 2007

"This Is England"

Finally, the new Shane Meadows film "This Is England" has been released, and P and I went to see it last night on the Haymarket.

Hardly comfortable viewing, Meadows consistently makes excellent films and I've been saying for years that I think he is easily the best film director in this country. Hailing from Nottingham, I first became aware of Meadows in 1999 when his second feature, the remarkably excellent "A Room For Romeo Brass" was released. I was living in Nottingham myself at the time, and my then-boyfriend (who worked for Meadows' distribution company) sent me off on a press junket around the council estates of Nottingham with Meadows and some other journos to see where the film had been shot and to generally quiz Meadows. Then in his late-20s, Meadows was a likeable and enthusiastic man, self-taught as a director, who came across as having a genuine reason for wanting to make films. Rather than wanting the glamour of glitzy big-name actors, fancy budgets and poncy London locations, he favours the Midlands and little-known actors (many of the same faces reappear in his films) to make films with messages. Which is how we end up at "This Is England".

In 1983, 12-year-old Shaun (the astonishingly good Thomas Turgoose) is grieving for his father who has been killed in the Falklands. Bullied at school and misunderstood at home, he ends up being adopted as the mascot of a group of skinheads lead by the likeable, good-hearted Woody (Corrie and Emmerdale's Joe Gilgun) who kits Shaun out with a number one cut, a Ben Sherman shirt and some braces. Feeling accepted into Woody's gang, Shaun at last feels happy, despite being significantly younger than everyone else. This harmless idyll is disrupted when the vicious Combo (Stephen Graham) reappears after doing three-and-a-half years inside and attempts to recruit Woody's gang to his own National Front cell. Woody, his girlfriend Lol (Meadows regular Vicky McClure) and token black member Milky (another regular, Andrew Shim) all walk out in disgust, but Shaun decides to stay with Combo, having been convinced that joining the National Front is the only way to avenge his dad's pointless death. Needless to say, it all goes hideously wrong, starting with a shocking meeting in a back-room of a grubby pub led by Meadows stalwart Frank Harper and culminating in a vicious racist attack that becomes a pivotal point for Shaun.

Meadows doesn't deny that the film is partly based on his own formative experiences, and insists this is a good thing to add to the authenticity of "This Is England". And in The Times the Saturday before last, he gave a fascinating interview about the film, where he dismissed the Falklands as an "open act of bullying" - a fact sadly missed by Cosmo Landesman in yesterday's Sunday Times, when he wrote a ridiculous review claiming that "This Is England" was false and unconvincing, and then puts up the weakest, most pathetic argument I've ever read in a national newspaper for his cause.

"This Is England" is by far the best film I've seen all year (closely followed by "Das Leben Der Anderen"), and further proof that Meadows is the best thing happening in British cinema. "Twenty Four Seven", "A Room For Romeo Brass", "Once Upon A Time In The Midlands" and "Dead Man's Shoes" were all leading up to this. And if you watch all the films in order, the trail of Meadows traits are clear to see (revenge motifs, cameo appearances, hapless villains with a vicious streak and a dodgy car...). Really exciting, if harrowing, stuff.

Pen Pusher 5

Just a quick note about the ever-excellent Pen Pusher magazine. Issue five is now out in all good bookshops (see the link on the left to find your nearest) and... not only does it now come with a fancy spine and even more pages, it features a review of Rachel Ferguson's "The Brontes Went To Woolworths" written by yours truly. If that's not a reason to get one, I don't know what is. Impressively, the magazine is still free and, since there's thankfully no advertising, I really don't know how they do it. But check it out for an eclectic range of features, short stories, poems and simply topping book reviews (ahem). A splendid platform for London's literary outpourings.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Site Meter

Every now and then I take a look on my Site Meter to see how and why people come across Velvet Empire. Today's revelations are rather shocking. The majority of people visiting in the past week have come here because they have put in one of the following search combinations: "Joe Mott", "Barry Grant" or "Brookside". Who knew there were still so many avid Bazza and Brookie fans out there (or "Br**ks*de" as it was referred to in G2 this week, when Jim Shelley ranted about the implausibility of Sinbad from Brookie turning up in Corrie - having been inspired by my identical post here a fortnight ago)? And why so many people want to Google JM is beyond me, so presumably it was Mott himself (who, by the way, I bumped into earlier today).

But I really don't want to dwell on the person whose search term was, and I quote, "DEEKS FREE.GRATIS", which led them here for two reasons: my occassional spleen-venting on Barbara Ann Deeks (aka Babs Windsor), and my every-now-and-then comments about the literary Pen Pusher magazine (because I once said it was 'gratis', which it is. Although - to the best of my knowledge - they are still to print an article about Babs' literary output and, God help us, they never will). But quite why this mystery visitor wanted a free Deeks is something I will never know. Maybe they resented the 1p it costs to buy her book second-hand on Amazon. Understandable. I got a signed hardback for free, and I resent the space it takes up on my shelf. Witch.

"The Runaway" - Elizabeth Anna Hart

Victorian poet Elizabeth Anna Hart wrote "The Runaway" in 1872 and, although popular at the time, it became forgotten until wood-engraver Gwen Raverat - who had loved the book as a child - created 60 illustrations for it and campaigned for its republication in 1936. And in 2002, Persephone re-published it for a third time, complete with Gwen's beautiful illustrations, which add great depth to the story and really help it come to life.

Although "The Runaway" is essentially a children's book, it has something for all ages – as proven by the fact that I've just finished reading it for the first time (aged 29) and loved it so much I raced through it, while sitting in St James' Park on a gloriously sunny afternoon. The story is simply that of Victorian teenager Clarice, who lives a luxurious life with her widowed father and typically starchy governess, who one day happens upon a runaway girl hiding in the bushes. Olga, the runaway, brings new excitement to Clarice's life, excitement that Clarice had been longing for with the romantic aspirations of any bored 15-year-old. As the days progress, Clarice struggles to keep Olga hidden around the house, as Olga is intent on causing mischief and creeping up on the servants to make them believe she is a ghost. But also, as the story progresses, Clarice is led to question whether she is doing the right thing in concealing Olga, and whether Olga is telling her the truth about who she is and why she ran away in the first place.

The triumph of childhood over adulthood is clear, and the strong sense of morals is in place, making "The Runaway" a classic "good" book. But it is more than a moralistic tale of right and wrong. "The Runaway" is something that a contemporary children's book could never be: a yearning for a simpler way of life. After all, it was only around 20 years ago that, as a child myself, I was lapping up books like Eve Garnett's "The Family From One End Street" and Ursula Williams' "Gobbolino", as well as books my own mother loved as a child like Elizabeth Stucley's "The Pennyfeather Family" (I have the original 1950 edition in front of me now - complete with the illustrations crayoned in by my mum when she was little - and, Persephone take note, this book has long been out of print, is impossible to get hold of anywhere, and desperately needs to be resurrected); and these were all books, like "The Runaway", that told simple stories in an uncomplicated but engaging way. So I can't help feeling that the "Harry Potter"'s and "Tracey Beaker"'s of the world are a shame, because although they are getting children reading, they are hardly literary triumphs.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Das Leben der Anderen"

Two years ago, P and I visited Berlin in a freezing February and visited the former Stasi Headquarters in Lichtenberg, former East Germany. Initially, I was reluctant to make the long trek outside the comfort of the former west to trawl through what was still a solid mass of faceless, harsh, grey concrete to reach the domineering and over-shadowing Stasi block. But it was fascinating at the same time as horrific.

None of the people of the former Warsaw Pact countries were as highly monitored as the East Germans: there was one Stasi officer for every 180 people, compared with one KGB officer for every 595 people in the Soviet Union. It was around this time, February 2005, that I became aware of a new German film called "Das Leben der Anderen" ("The Lives of Others") being made by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, but it is only now that the film won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in February 2007, that it has seen the light of day in England.

When a stroll down the Kings Road on Tuesday afternoon took me past the Chelsea Cinema, which was displaying a poster saying the film started in one hours time, I bought a ticket straight away. The film is astonishingly good and deserving of its Oscar. It would be difficult to call it enjoyable, as at well over two hours it is an intense slog through the claustrophobic, bleak, corrupt and distrustful Orwellian world of the Stasi, where everyone is an informant on everyone else.

I don't want to say too much for fear of giving the plot away. But "Das Leben der Anderen" centers on writer Georg (Sebastian Koch) who, in 1984, comes under suspicion of Stasi officer Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), who sets about bugging Georg's flat and monitoring every word he says to his friend and lover, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Georg's fury at the lack of freedom he or his friends have is heightened when a director friend of his hangs himself after the Stasi take away his right to direct any more stage plays. This prompts Georg to look into why suicides are glossed over under the Stasi rule and leads him to write a controversial article for a western magazine about what the Stasi is concealing.

But the film is much more complicated than that. There are all the lies, the deception, the fight for survival and the hideous things you had to do for people you loathed just to keep your head above water. And the most repugnant scene of all is right at the start of the film, when Wiesler is interrogating a man accused of helping someone cross the wall.

There is a fantastic article about this film here, on The Guardian website, which I strongly recommend. It is written by Neal Ascherson, who was The Observer's Berlin correspondent at the height of Stasi rule, and is one of the most interesting articles I have read for a very long time. read the article and see the film, because it is shocking how recently all this happened.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Now We Are Three

It's rather scary, but P and I celebrated our third anniversary at the weekend. I know in the big scheme of things that three years is somewhat paltry, but it's a long time in my world and my best effort yet.

To mark the occasion, my very lovely and romantic boyfriend took me for a slap up meal at the Wolseley and then for cocktails at Nobu, and we got dressed up in our finery to make sure we looked the part.

For someone who has been stuck head first in (what has become) a very tedious essay and who has not seen the nightlife of London for weeks, my feeling about the evening was not dissimilar to that which a child feels when seeing her Christmas presents for the first time. Suffice to say, yesterday was spent sitting gingerly under a tree in St James' Park reading "The Runaway" by Elizabeth Anna Hart (published by Persephone obviously, but more on that later).

Yes, three happy years. I can only hope there are three hundred more to follow. At least.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Bryan Ferry

What has Bryan Ferry done?! I loved that man. I really did. I even added him to my allowed list, despite the M&S ads. Bryan Ferry was cool. He was in Roxy Music, he was sexy, he dated Jerry Hall... he was a legend.

But today, a CD called "Dylanesque" has come into my hands and it's so awful it nearly reduced me to tears, as my ears were assaulted by MOR versions of Bob Dylan classics. The worst offender? "All Long The Watchtower". Shortly followed by "The Times They Are A'Changing".

I just don't know what to do. Do I strike Bryan off the list, or what? I'm devastated.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Velvet Empire Is Away

I've taken a break from the monotony of work and given myself two weeks off (15 days if you include the bank holidays, which I do). However, this is supposed to be time for me to consolidate my thoughts and deliver 5,500 insightful and intelligent words about how Amis and Bracewell confirm Thatcher's assertion that there's no such thing as society. So while you were all out getting burnt in the sun and scoffing Mr Whippys, I've been hunched over a desk for seven hours a day trying to think of something clever to say. It's a struggle...

So, to distract myself, I've developed a fresh obsession with the gym. I've booked in six personal training sessions to motivate me. And not content with that, I walked past a new gym (so cool it's not actually a gym, but a "personal training studio") this morning, and have signed up for a free session on Friday morning. This place is amazing. Unlike my current gym, it boasts fresh air, cleanliness, new equipment, enthusiastic staff and, due to the prices charged and the fact it doesn't market itself, a wonderful lack of other people. I have zero tolerance for many things, one of which is people who go the gym simply to eat muesli, drink coffee and read the Daily Mail in the lounge area. I also can't abide the woman who walks so slowly on the treadmill that she is capable of filling in the Telegraph's crossword.

Other distractions from the essay this week include a trip to the dentist tomorrow, and a trip to Guildford on Friday afternoon to see my doctor. So I don't really know when I can fit in any more words about Amis and Bracewell. Certainly not now, because I'm too busy writing this. I have a feeling I'd be more productive if I was back at work.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


Last night, ITV1 started a new 'reality' show called 'Deadline' where Janet Street-Porter rallies a bunch of nobodies, and relations of nobodies, into producing a weekly celebrity rag to be given away free with a proper celebrity rag. She is assisted in this task by Darryn Lyons (the head honcho at Big Pictures - the largest pap agency in the country, not to be confused with Big Pictures - and, by the way, one of the richest men out there. So why, when I ended up at his table in a club last year, was he so mean about who got to drink the decent champagne? Tightwad), and Joe Mott - from The Daily Star (and 'boyfriend' of Sarah Harding).

Now what baffles me (and an old friend), is the staggering rise in success (obviously, success is all relative) of people who were colleagues when we worked here back in 2001. This was where I cut my teeth in the heady world of showbiz journalism and I had a great time, well you would when you're about 23. My colleagues at the time included Joe Mott, Brit Award winner Amy Winehouse, Georgina and Patrick Littlejohn (wonder how they got their jobs, eh?) and we were all, erm, governed by Jonathan Ashby (the Fleet Street hack who broke the story of Boy George's heroin addiction in the 80s). Those were the days. Oh, and not forgetting CK, who still dines out on his infamous George Harrison interview that caused national headlines and made its way into a biography of the now deceased Beatle. Yes, heady days indeed.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Last night, P and I saw Horizon on BBC2 about a guy, Nick, with Tourettes Syndrome, who is a genius piano player - but is thwarted by his fear that he will have an involuntary spasm while performing and feel embarrassed in front of his audience. So he went on a trip to America where he met all sorts of other Tourettes sufferers, who are all also gifted pianists and fascinating and intelligent people, and none of whom were among the 10-15% of Tourettes sufferers whose condition is characterised by involuntary swearing and obscenities.

This made a pleasant change from Five's Hidden Lives programme about Tourettes on Monday night, which focused on how difficult it is to get a job if you're one of the 10-15% who swears and hits out with no self-control. A rather frustrating programme - as it is clearly one of Five's attempts it get a share of the viewers by promoting 'freakery' rather than a grossly misunderstood condition - of which public awareness has only been made worse by people like Pete from Big Brother.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of The Bed, so it is with much joy that I find myself working on a bed feature for a homes magazine today.Aside from being thrilled to include a photo of my own Warren Evans bed - I am also excited by this beauty from La Maison - so much so that I've put it here to show you. Now, this really is a girl's bed. What a beauty. I'm sure P would love it!

In Praise of Barry Grant

A few years ago, I used to be a huge fan of the soaps. But then things changed. In short, I got a life. And I stopped having time to watch all the soaps every day. But I enjoy working at a soap magazine, and I still tune in to the odd episode of EastEnders of Coronation Street. Which was how I found myself watching Tracy Barlow's trial in Corrie last night. But rather than being horrified by the result, I was left dumbstruck at the sight of Sinbad-from-Brookside waddling around with a bacon sarnie in his flabby gob. What's that all about?

In it's heyday, Brookie was up there with EastEnders as one of the finest soaps on telly. Harry Cross, Amanda Redman, the Jordaches, Terry Sullivan and his moustache... even the siege, the rare disease and – my personal favourite – Mike Dixon being locked up in a Bangkok jail for smuggling heroin in little Kylie's teddy bear. But nowhere in that list did you see mention of a little fat man whose only major storylines involved 1) washing windows badly and 2) shagging Mandy Jordache. So why do we need him on Corrie? (Mind you, for a programme that considers Hear'Say drop-out Kym Ryder to be an actress, what else can we expect?)

However, the one character that all the soaps should bring back is Barry Grant, played by the lovely, menacing and whispering Paul Usher. Barry Grant is one of my top two soap villains of all time - along with (original) Dirty Den.

Barry Grant - here's a man who infiltrated a cult, was involved in murder, drug smuggling and gun plots - but it's OK, because he loves his mum. Barry Grant - he was there from the first episode and he became the best recurring character a soap could ever wish for - even appearing in the (awful) final episode. He was a scally, he had a 'tash, he was bezzie mates with Tel (even though he shagged his wife and fathered her child), and he was never far from a warehouse with an industrial-sized freezer, just the right size for a human body. He was a legend.

Sod Sinbad, he's a fat, podgy insult to the legend of Brookie - in the words of Bazza, "just do one, will you?"