Air, Land and Sea

This poem is inspired by the movie Dunkirk, which tells the story of the 1940 rescue mission from the seemingly condemned beaches of France. Told from three different perspectives, the end result is a piece of masterful film making, which is produced on an overwhelming scale.

Merciless waves career on to battered sand
As conflict rages across air, sea and land
Young men fighting for the country and ideals they cherish
Where nature decides which of them will perish

Planes hurtle across the beaten skies
One false move and everyone dies
While enemy forces arrive to drop their latest round
Explosives shower those on the ground

Cornered by a ruthlessly superior force
They’ll never be shown any remorse
But spirit lives untarnished and help is at hand
As an inspired rescue mission now takes command

Now comes the time for each unit to combine
As their schedules suddenly intertwine
Stranded boys scramble on boats
And a final air strike keeps them afloat

So they return home, miraculously alive
Wounded by trauma, but grateful to survive
An honourable victory to lift national morale
And quite a remarkable story to tell

She’s a Lady

Midway through Sunday afternoon many of us in the UK were tuning into BBC One to witness the majestic Roger Federer breeze to a record eighth Wimbledon tennis crown, with a merciless dismantling of the injury-stricken Marin Cilic. It was a moment of history that would be exceeded just minutes later during the very same broadcast, though for reasons totally unrelated to what they call the ‘Sport of Kings’.

We were suddenly transported to a wooded area containing more shrubbery than the exterior of Centre Court. A hooded figure stepped carefully between the trees, holding out a hand to reveal a glowing Yale key. Then came the big reveal, as the hood was withdrawn to uncover long fair hair and the unmistakable face of Jodie Whittaker. It was official – the first female Doctor Who had arrived.

The response was as immediate and wide-ranging as it was predictable, and the issue quickly dominated the murky world of social media. Some were aghast at the casting, stubborn in their belief that the Doctor has always, and should always be played by a male actor. Meanwhile, others felt that those in charge of the show had bowed to pressure from prominent equality campaigners, dubbed the ‘PC brigade’.

These views accounted for about half of the general reaction, for the rest rejoiced in the knowledge that Doctor Who was standing up for equality and diversity, and was willing to embrace the notion of a female Doctor. It was indeed a groundbreaking moment for British television, let alone the programme itself, as a giant stride was made towards the long overdue bid for women to receive equal status alongside men in the world of television drama (even in the week when BBC salaries were disclosed, revealing a significant gender pay gap).

So, is the role of the Doctor one that can only be played by a man? The character is so unique and so shrouded in complexity, so definitely not; and for those that are still doubtful, only time will tell. You see, it is extremely easy to judge Jodie Whittaker by virtue of her gender than her ability as an actress, and even more importantly the material she is given by new show-runner Chris Chibnall and his band of writers.

Indeed, every Doctor to date from William Hartnell in 1963 to Peter Capaldi in 2017 has had *his* own unique persona. They have behaved in different ways, spoken in contrasting manners, and faced antagonists with their own unique approach – while at the same time never allowing us to forget that it’s still the same character that is being portrayed.

Jodie Whittaker’s incarnation will be no different. She will still carry that air of power and mystique; she will exhibit the sharpest of minds and the unique thrill of travelling through time and space. The dynamic of the show will change accordingly to accommodate the nuances of a female doctor, and the likely prospect of a lone male companion.

But ultimately it will still be the same show. In recent times we have seen what a massive success Missy (Michelle Gomez) has been, as the first known female incarnation of the Doctor’s fellow Time Lord, the Master. It was initially a shock to see the Master resurface as a woman, but Missy was such an intriguing and excitable character that we all seemed to herald her as a worthy successor to previous actors Roger Delgado, Anthony Ainley, Eric Roberts and John Simm.

This – along with Ken Bones’ Time Lord General regenerating into T’Nia Miller in the series nine finale Hell Bent – was solid proof that gender is not a fixed status among the natives of Gallifrey, and it showed another way in which Doctor Who has broadened its horizons to reflect modern society and stand up for what is right.

And there is a valid argument to suggest that it has done so right throughout its history, both on-screen and behind the scenes, acting as a kind of trailblazer with regards to certain issues.

Rewind back to 1963, and the thought of a woman producing a new prime time drama serial was one to be scoffed at, but Verity Lambert defiantly made her colleagues take back their snide comments of scepticism. The first episodes were also overseen by an Asian director, Waris Hussein, something perhaps even more unheard of at the time.

Over the years, companions were chosen to appeal to a particular audience or more adequately reflect contemporary society. Sarah Jane Smith was a gutsy feminist; Peri Brown was a sporty American, and Ace was the tomboy who spoke out against the issue of racism.

More recently, we’ve had Captain Jack Harkness, the man who would flirt with just about anyone or anything. We’ve had the first BAME companion in the shape of Martha Jones in 2007, and the most recent series featured Bill Potts, the companion who was not only from an ethnic minority background; she was also openly gay.

That such a big deal continues to be made of the inclusion of such a character in an influential television drama shows that we are a long way off from achieving universal acceptance. Maybe such a thing is impossible, but the unwillingness of some to accept the rightful existence of diversity undeniably combines with historical attitudes in creating such a media furore.

Returning to Jodie Whittaker, she is now in possession of the role that will define her career as an actress, and certainly has the ability to thrive upon that and shrug off the inevitable scrutiny that will come her way. It should be an engrossing watch – just a shame that some will miss it due to the belief that the Doctor is role that should played exclusively by men.

Redemption

It was the evening of Saturday, 28 August, 2010, and those who call themselves The Barmy Army were raising their glasses and basking in the glory of witnessing a record eighth wicket partnership for the England cricket team.

A remarkable stand of 332 between the obdurate Jonathan Trott and the airy Stuart Broad had effectively secured a Test series victory over Pakistan at Lord’s, but that achievement would be shamefully overshadowed by harmful revelations that brought severe damage to the integrity of the match – and indeed the sport.

For the top news item across all the networks as that sunny day drew to a close depicted a sting by the now defunct News of the World newspaper. Secretly recorded footage showed undercover reporters from the tabloid – which would fold less than a year later due to the phone hacking scandal – being informed that deliberate no-balls would be bowled by the Pakistan team at specific points during England’s innings.

Receiving money for his troubles, bookmaker Mazher Majeed stated that Mohammad Amir would bowl a no-ball on the first ball of the third over, and that his colleague Mohammad Asif would do likewise for the sixth ball of the 10th over. And hey presto! Both illegal deliveries took place.

When the story broke and the footage from the News of the World and the two no-balls in question was released, the initial reaction among the cricketing community was shock and disbelief mingled with fury. Everybody, from the England team to the casual observer, felt cheated and deceived by greed, and an underhand spot-fixing operation.

There was a palpable sense of mistrust between the two sets of players when the on-field action resumed the following morning, as the match became secondary to the overriding issue. For their part, Pakistan fell apart as if the whole affair and its subsequent exposure had made them obliged to bow to submission, but England seldom celebrated an innings victory and 3-1 series success.

As more information of the sting became public knowledge, three of the Pakistan players were implicated. Amir and Asif were clearly at fault having bowled the two offending deliveries, while team captain Salman Butt seemed to carry the greatest degree of responsibility.

Of the three, Amir was the one who received the sharpest focus from the media microscope, largely due to his tender years. Aged just 18, the left-arm seamer had quickly developed a reputation as one of the most gifted young bowlers in world cricket, taking numerous wickets over the series through his precocious level of accuracy.

Many felt he had been roped into the operation by his more senior teammates, yet sympathy was scarce as his actions had helped bring his sport into serious disrepute. So instead of helping his country fight for major honours on the international stage, Amir joined Asif and Butt in receiving a prison sentence, and a lengthy ban from cricket.

He was released within a matter of months, but he was horribly tainted and given how notable the case had become, the whole affair never seemed to go away. But everyone knew there would come a time when Amir would be eligible to play professional cricket again; the question was whether he would be welcomed back into the fold.

That time finally came in September 2015. His ability was never in doubt; he was still only 23 years old, meaning that he still potentially had over a decade to forge a highly successful career. The wickets soon arrived, triggering calls for him to be reintegrated into the Pakistan national setup.

Once that inevitable call arrived in January 2016, he immediately found himself in desperate need of proving his integrity to the rest of the squad amid a backdrop of mistrust and suspicion. Senior figures such as Azhar Ali and Mohammad Hafeez initially refused to train alongside Amir, threatening to render him an outcast.

The doubts were rife, but Amir’s reformed attitude shone through, as the youthful innocence that some felt had been taken away by Majeed’s scheme returned to mark a new beginning. He still had to prove himself on the world stage, taking part in the ICC World Twenty20 event and producing some standout performances for the Karachi Kings in the Pakistan Super League.

Fittingly, his return to Test cricket brought him back to the scene of those indiscretions some six years previously as Pakistan toured England for the first time since that fateful occasion.

Predictably cast as the pantomime villain, loud ironic cheers were audible from the stands whenever he bowled a no-ball. However, he handled his comeback in an impressively understated manner. His performances were decent if unspectacular, yet he approached the occasion with maturity and thus began his route back to the top of the game.

That was the springboard which has helped him go on to hit the headlines for all the right reasons, collecting a career-best 6-44 against the West Indies earlier this year, and extending that prowess to all three formats, playing a starring role as Pakistan upset the odds to win the ICC Champions Trophy just last Sunday.

Having lost hopelessly to India in their first match, Pakistan were widely written off as no-hopers, but quickly went about confounding such views as they won three matches in a row – including against hosts England – in order to reach the final, with Amir instrumental.

But it was in the final itself where he really showed his true class. It was a rematch with India, and after a terrific batting display from Fakhar Zaman helped his team set their arch rivals 339 runs to win, Amir ran through the Indian top order with a spell of unerring and deadly accuracy.

The first three Indian batsman – Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli – had been in imperious form throughout the tournament, but Amir removed them all in devastating style, and from then on a Pakistan victory was never in doubt.

As the scenes of jubilation began, the victory marked redemption for Amir. He cannot turn back time; the seriousness of his actions back in 2010 can never be refuted, but such naivety has been consigned somewhat to history as he grabs his second chance with both hands.

The Witch’s Familiar

It is difficult to think of too many words in the English language with such differing perceptions than ‘witch’. Although they may be creations of mere fantasy, witches are commonly portrayed and depicted as evil villains with quirky, though sinister powers, while in some literary cases they are treated with a greater degree of warmth and reverence.

Let’s begin first by comparing the words ‘witch’ and ‘wizard’. On first inspection, these would be nothing more than male and female equivalents, but wizards have traditionally been viewed as wise, sage-like individuals with maybe a hint of a mischievous streak. They predominantly use their power for good, and their portrayal in literature and in the media throughout the centuries has made them appear like amiable men who just happen to possess magical powers.

With witches come plenty more baggage. They have regularly been stereotyped to be middle-aged women who own cats, take broomsticks out for a joy ride, and contain powers of unearthly proportions. They are treated with the utmost suspicion and wariness, perhaps inspired by their supposed persecution in medieval times.

‘Witch’ is a word commonly used to describe an unreasonable or disagreeable woman, whereas calling somebody a ‘wizard’ suggests that they are gifted at a particular subject or activity; or possess some kind of unique quality.

Such usage is further extended in artistic works as notable as The Wizard Of Oz. The eponymous wizard is described as a wonderful ‘wiz of a wiz’, who lives in the glitzy emerald city. Meanwhile, the story also contains the Wicked Witch of the West and the Wicked Witch of the East, the primary antagonists who have evil character traits and so don’t compare well.

The use of witches for the purposes of fictional villainy continue in another classic 20th century work; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The arch-nemesis on this occasion is the White Witch, who, while rarely displaying an array of special powers, creates a miserable, despotic landscape and is intent on permanent rule.

This all stems from old-fashioned beliefs and practices, but doesn’t explain why wizards have not been subjected to the same unflattering treatment of their female counterparts. Here is a background of how attitudes towards sorcery have developed and manifested themselves during bygone eras:

Fear of so-called witches was rife during a period of history where figures in authority were innately suspicious of any signs of abnormality. The very notion of magical powers was feared greatly, leading to those accused of being witches facing capital punishment, often through drowning, or being burned at the stake.

The desperation of historical communities to eliminate ‘witches’ was such that hundreds of innocent women were put to death. This reached its peak in the 17th century during the bizarre reign of Matthew Hopkins, where a range of peculiar tests were carried out to theoretically uncover the true nature of unfortunate victims.

Hopkins christened himself as England’s very own Witch-finder General, an unofficial title to pronounce his supposed aptitude for tracking down ‘witches’ and bringing them to justice. A man of fairly humble origin, Hopkins gained nationwide recognition during the English Civil War, making a career through his hypothesis that any woman that floats on water *must* be a witch.

This entire campaign embodies the attitudes surrounding witchcraft during that era, but perhaps recent literature might also have been a factor. A little over 30 years previously, William Shakespeare had produced his darkest and most thought-provoking of plays, where witches feature prominently.

The three witches portrayed in Macbeth are both mysterious and powerful in equal measure. They have the capability to see into the future, and ultimately ensure that a violent series of events driven by temptation and a fierce yearning for power, plays out with typically tragic consequences.

They appear in the opening scene, visualising their next meeting, where Macbeth is also present. After the witches pronounce that he will shortly take the title of Thane of Cawdor and eventually become king of Scotland, Macbeth becomes intrigued by their powers, and they act as a driving force behind his gory actions during the rest of the play.

The portrayal of the witches throughout Macbeth is open to interpretation, but they are shown to be creatures that spread death and danger through their ability to prey upon fundamental human flaws. It is mixed with terrifying imagery such as the cauldron scene, where a clear distinction is made between the witches and the human characters.

It is a triumph for Shakespeare’s vivid imagination, but as the centuries have passed and witches have become recognised as as solely supernatural beings, their presence in formal adult literature has disappeared and they now reign supreme in children’s books, and other media.

Many of most renowned children’s authors of recent years have involved witches in their stories, and in most instances they are considerably more benign, yet some familiar traits remain. They still ride broomsticks; they still have creepy abilities to conjure harmful apparitions, and they are still treated with more suspicion than wizards.

Yet they are primarily characters of fun, as Jacqueline Wilson and Julia Donaldson proved with The Worst Witch and Room on the Broom respectively. However, one giant of children’s literature treated us to his own, entirely different interpretation.

The characterisation and features of The Witches in Roald Dahl’s award-winning book of the same name differs enormously from all that had gone before it. Dahl doesn’t hide from the fact that all witches are women, while he also creates a level of suspense which is rarely so prevalent in novels aimed towards an audience of children aged 13 and under.

Maybe that’s why the characterisation is so distinctive. Dahl’s witches share a hatred of children, and plot to neutralise them by any means possible. They use elaborate accessories to disguise their bald heads; clawed fingers, and square feet, and answer to the Grand High Witch.

The Grand High Witch personifies all the negative connotations surrounding witches. She is deceptive and ruthless, and possibly Dahl’s darkest creation. When she removes her mask to reveal a disembodied face, it represents another departure from the stereotypes.

However, at no point does Dahl discriminate between witch and wizard, and shows that the portrayal of such beings is open to interpretation. Now that it’s generally accepted that witches were not at large during the English Civil War and the preceding years, they have no clear definition. That many fictional witches have similar traits is simply a reinforcement of traditional inspirations.

We even see that in the world of video-gaming, where the primary antagonist in the Banjo-Kazooie series is a green-skinned witch called Gruntilda. At the opposite end of the spectrum alongside the likes of Dahl, we have dramatic portrayals in films like The Witches of Eastwick, who are three apparently normal women who discover underlying powers.

Sitting almost slap bang in the middle is the most notorious series of novels in recent times, the Harry Potter books. Author J.K. Rowling has created her own world, with its own unique and clearly defined identity, which has permanently altered the thinking behind how witches and wizards can be depicted in literature.

Aside from The Wizard of Oz, this is the only example within this article that offers the chance of direct comparison between the male and female characters. And on the whole, witches and wizards in Harry Potter are treated predominantly as equals.

Both witches and wizards practice in the Dark Arts; they both have equal rights to an education, and are shown to be just as gifted as each other. Even Quidditch is a level playing field, as teams are made up by both men and women.

The only slight disparity is the lack of women in the top jobs, such as at the Ministry of Magic, but on the whole, the fact that Hogwarts itself is shown to be founded by an equal number of witches and wizards (two each) states the parity that exists. Indeed, discrimination in Harry Potter is largely limited to bloodline, and prejudice towards magical creatures.

One line that sums up the amelioration of the word ‘witch’ appears in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. While escaping the campsite at the Quidditch World Cup, Harry and his friends run into Draco Malfoy, who informs them slyly that Hermione Granger may be at risk from the Death Eaters, who are in the act of persecuting Muggles.

‘Hermione’s a witch’, snarls Harry in response.

This may seem like a very unremarkable, average piece of dialogue; after all it is only three words long and may seem as though Harry is just stating a fact. However, the implication of this line shows that the state of being a witch is a good thing, something to be proud of.

To illustrate the point, to refer to somebody as a witch in most forms of literature and other media suggests that that character is evil and/or untrustworthy. As Harry and Hermione are clearly protagonists in this particular series, we know immediately that Harry’s remark is far from disparaging; indeed it is meant as a compliment.

And that sums up the journey that fictional witches have embarked on over time, as historic and medieval beliefs towards their supposed existence have become gradually more obsolete. The stereotypes still remain, and they are used for the purpose of entertainment and extravagance, but the wider range of depictions now in evidence provides a belief that they can obtain something close to equal footing with fictional wizards.

Book Review – Under Your Skin

Floating between the aisles of UK bookstores is a very regular pastime, and it is the crime/psychological thrillers that currently receive the top billing. A great number of these novels catch my eye, but to read them I need to be thoroughly compelled by the suspenseful synopsis and review quotes that adorn the cover. It plays out as a measured yet unsophisticated selective process.

One of the more recent additions to the promoted list is Lie with me by Sabine Durrant. On the surface, this seemed both the ideal book and the ideal author for me to continue my sample of works that engage the many complex workings of the mind. However, I felt a duty to start at the beginning and read Durrant’s debut novel, Under Your Skin.

Durrant had dabbled in young adult fiction previously, but this was her first attempt at appeasing a more mature audience. The transition is not entirely seamless, but she immediately shows a clear aptitude for capturing the extent of human emotion and thought processes, as well as a very descriptive and dynamic way with words.

One feature of psychological thrillers has become increasingly ubiquitous, and that is the first person narrative, which is already beginning to lack originality. The protagonist on this occasion is Gaby Mortimer, a daytime television presenter for a well-known magazine show, and thus a minor celebrity.

Despite displaying a persona of calmness and reassurance in front the camera to act as her public face, in reality Gaby is socially insecure and self-conscious. She is married to financier Phillip and has a daughter called Millie, who is often looked after by her Polish nanny, Marta.

She also isn’t entirely likeable, but Durrant attempts for the reader to sympathise  with Gaby after she discovers the dead body of a young woman while out running, but then in an unexpected about turn, becomes the main suspect in the subsequent police investigation.

This has far-reaching consequences, as she is then forced to spend a night in the cells, she is stood down from her presenting job, and then has to cope with a group of reporters taking residence outside her home.

The police investigation is led by DI Perivale, who it appears has a peculiar obsession with Gaby, seemingly at the expense of following up alternative lines of enquiry. It all adds to the intrigue, but ultimately the police procedure is flawed, and Durrant is guilty of opting for an unreasonable amount of artistic license.

A vast amount of the novel sees Gaby battling her increasingly frenzied thoughts as her life begins to unravel, while at the same time enlisting the help of a crafty journalist to investigate the murder of Ania Dudek in an attempt to clear her name. The pair have a neat camaraderie, but a tinge of suspicion exists on both sides as interesting facts about the case come to light.

Throughout Gaby’s ordeal, husband Phillip – admittedly well on the road to estrangement – is on a work-related trip to Singapore, but returns by the end for the mystery to be solved in flimsy fashion. The ending (I’m giving nothing away!) may divide opinion, but for me it was a massive disappointment.

After considering all of the evidence provided in the novel and questioning how Gaby and Ania had become inextricably linked, the solution was far less original than I would have expected. An unsatisfactory conclusion to a story that never had me completely gripped.

The entire narrative is played out in Gaby’s confused, indeed slightly traumatised thoughts. She is clearly a complex and vulnerable individual, but at times the prose is a little too long-winded and the supporting characters are merely spare parts who vanish into thin air by the end.

On the whole, reading Under Your Skin has made me think twice about trying out Lie with me’. While my no means a bad novel, it is one that for me could have been so much more, had Durrant cut out the waffle and the poor dialogue, and cooked up a more effective resolution.

Book Review – I See You

It is often said that after a very successful debut novel, it is extremely difficult to provide something just as warmly received the second time around. Indeed, it is the same in all branches of the arts, with musicians under pressure to ensure that their second album is every bit as good as the first, while many film sequels aren’t met with the same level of endearment as the original.

Author Clare Mackintosh provided an instant hit with I Let You Go, a chilling psychological tale of tragedy and isolation. The plot twists left us completely stunned and filled with awe, having been led to believe one thing only to realise the truth was something completely different. In short, it was an absorbing, compelling read.

After the awards that came her way as a result of producing a standout entry among the plethora of psychological thrillers that currently inhabit the literary sphere, Mackintosh set to work on I See You, another novel that intertwines the nitty-gritty of a police investigation with narration from the main protagonist.

We are immediately introduced to Zoe Walker, a 40-year-old mother of two who works for a London estate agent. She left her first husband Matt some years previously, and now new partner Simon – a journalist at the Daily Telegraph – has recently moved in, much to the resentment of her son Justin.

Justin works at a café owned by next door neighbour Melissa, who is Zoe’s closest friend and confidant, always seeking a new business opportunity. Daughter Katie is a budding actress who suddenly finds an opportunity to showcase her talents in a theatre production of Twelfth Night, falling for her streetwise producer in the process.

Zoe is, generally speaking, a very unremarkable human being. She complains about her job and the daily slog of commuting to and from work; she is overprotective of her children, and she is besotted by Simon, with whom she has a touchy-feely, but not entirely open relationship.

However, her life changes when she notices her photo placed randomly in the London Gazette, and further investigation shows that a new female face is placed in the newspaper each day. It soon emerges that several of these women have been a victim of crime, leading Zoe to move into a state of red alert and to fear everyone around her.

She informs Kelly Swift of the British Transport Police, who has recently been demoted having undergone disciplinary proceedings for assaulting an offender. She uses her vital input in Zoe’s case to earn a three-month placement at the Metropolitan Police’s Murder Investigation Team and a partnership with the well-respected DI Nick Rampello.

As the case progresses and more leads are found by police, it becomes clear that a website has been created that allows people to download the daily commutes of countless individuals – including Zoe – through the London underground network, revealing a tremendously sophisticated criminal operation.

Kelly continues to impress with her detective work, while Zoe becomes increasingly suspicious of those around her, becoming completely enveloped by the case, and the fear that anybody she encounters on her daily commute could subject her to a brutal attack.

It is here where Mackintosh excels the most, capturing the true depth of human emotions such as fear and vulnerability. She also keeps you guessing as to who the offender really is, and while on this occasion the truth isn’t so well hidden, the rather violent denouement is a real page turner, purely due to the tension that builds during a gripping final encounter.

The themes of the novel are very clever and thought provoking, but I See You is not quite at the level of I Let You Go. Many of the characters are incidental and lacking any real substance, while the twists don’t quite have the same effect. It is still a good read which raises questions until the very last page. And after reading said page, the prospect of a sequel seems not altogether fanciful.

How I became a confident writer

When I first began as a writer I had no confidence whatsoever, regardless of the faith that was being shown in me by others. At least part of the reason for this was the fact that my breakthrough coincided with the beginning of the most challenging period of my life to date; a time when the once sturdy walls of opportunity began to tumble down around me.

I was only 17 when I sent off two of my less senseless ramblings over to the editors of an established but relatively obscure website called A Different League, which I had discovered through browsing on a more obscure jobs website run by the same people.

I fully expected to be knocked back, and two weeks without a response seemed to confirm that view, but eventually they got back and to my surprise, I was accepted as the latest member of their writing team.

Full of motivation and determined to make an immediately positive impression, my early articles were promising and substantial, but contained more than a hint of using me using all the writing techniques I knew. I was on the brink of achieving my English Language A-Level, yet there was still plenty more I needed to learn.

I soon moved on to writing news articles, which followed a very basic structure, albeit a very rigid one. The subject matter dictated that there was a lot of repetition involved – particularly regarding football transfers – but I was plagued by doubt; constantly worrying about possibly being told that my writing was not good enough, and receiving negative feedback from the online audience.

But the new inroads just kept on coming. Three months down the line and I was asked to write analysis pieces because my writing was deemed to be of a reasonable standard. Another two months and I was given my own project: Feature articles, where I would consult with the website’s editors themselves, and then write a whole new section of content.

The final ‘promotion’ came soon after, where I was very kindly asked to write for the Soccer 360 magazine, only one of the most popular publications of its kind in North America. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, but one which filled me with terror.

I was so inexperienced and the demands were so high. I had to write a 1,750-word article along with two sidebars within a strict timeframe. I also had to conform to strict formatting rules, suggest images and captions, and meet the unfamiliar requirements of writing for a magazine which wasn’t due to be published for two months.

The pressure I felt was unbelievable, removing all sense of happiness and fulfillment at being asked to write an article of such relative prestige. As I wrote my piece I was inwardly cursing myself frequently over my perceived inability to write anything of reasonable quality. I feared the prospect of someone else reading my work and dismissing it as a pile of uninformed garbage.

When I sent my finished article to the magazine, the feedback I received was positive, but minimal. My article was fine, although there were a couple of areas where I needed to make sure the text was ‘timeless’ – in other words relevant at the time when the issue is published rather than only applicable at the time of writing.

Did the fact that I was now a published magazine writer help boost my confidence? Sadly not. I continued writing almost robotically for A Different League before the chance arose for the next Soccer 360 article, which I regrettably turned down due to my nerves.

But I was back soon enough, and this time I had no choice. The Soccer 360 articles were now assigned to its writers without prior consultation, so I was given one of the main feature articles, which I completed to a high standard, according to those who read it.

Over the course of the following year I began to turn my hand to blogs, writing about different subject matters and finding that moving out of my comfort zone resulted in rather disjointed prose. So I realised I needed a clear focus; an objective for every piece of writing I produced in the future.

Having long developed an individual style of writing, I decided to create a more personal, conversational relationship with the reader, and test the boundaries of the style guides to which I was forced to adhere.

The more informal tone of Soccer 360 allowed me to do that, but with A Different League it was a matter of fortune. With the site having been passed over to new administrators in May 2015, I was given total creative freedom on the articles I produced.

By this time my personal circumstances had dramatically improved as a result of taking up my role as a university administrator, and that certainly helped me develop a more positive approach to my writing. But the creative freedom acted as a new lease of life, providing the opportunity to manufacture higher quality content. Although I stuck to the style guide, I could now implement many more of my own personal touches.

With around 3,000 online articles as well as a handful of magazine articles under my belt, I had naturally made great strides and was now an accomplished writer, but for the first time I began to acknowledge it. I had reached a level where only the most important articles provoked a sense of nervous tension.

Nowadays, when I look back on the vast majority of my articles, I read them with pride rather than the urge to cringe with perceived notions of ineptitude. Some of my early writing was not of the greatest standard, but I now realise that it was acceptable enough, and merely just part of the journey to being the writer I am today.

Book Review: I Let You Go

While browsing in a Swindon bookstore back in August, I came across the name Clare Mackintosh. Having been consumed by a desire to read one of the numerous psychological thrillers that seem to be appearing everywhere these days, I was soon overcome by intrigue following a quick glance at the cover.

The blurb screamed out at me. This author’s card had been marked.

Fast forward two months later and I eventually decide that it’s time to bite the bullet and buy her debut novel I Let You Go, and on the whole that proved to be a very good decision. While I’m not normally the kind of person to judge a book by its cover, there was just something in the description which told me that I just had to choose this as my latest reading foray.

Almost immediately I am hit with a dose of familiarity, as much of the story (including the tragic accident around which it is based) takes place in Bristol, my glorious hometown. The prologue sets everything up, as a excitable five-year-old boy escapes from his mother’s grasp and is struck dead by a passing car, which fails to stop.

The journey from then on takes us to a rural Welsh community, where protagonist Jenna Gray finds refuge and attempts to rebuild her life after what happened. Meanwhile, the police investigation continues back in Bristol and sub-plots are introduced such as the overly amicable relationship between Detective Inspector Ray Stevens and his junior officer Kate Evans.

Although some of the first part can be reasonably described as prosaic and at times predictable, it always remains captivating, and it ends with an incredible twist which will have the reader questioning every event in the novel that has previously taken place. All I will say is that there is more to Jenna’s story than bereavement.

The full police investigation takes place over a timeframe of two years, during which time DI Stevens and Kate go deeper into the case and ultimately discover truth. Meanwhile, Jenna’s past is detailed at length, as we discover the sequence of events which ultimately led to the accident.

These passages are written using both the first and second person narrative, a fine insight into the innermost feelings of the characters concerned. It is interspersed with occasional acts of violence which do not make for comfortable reading, but in the context of the story they are massively effective and reflect a painful hidden reality.

Another amazing twist takes place very late on in the novel; one which forced me to stop reading and engage in a brief period of contemplation. It leads on to a dramatic finale, while the closing epilogue is ominously ambiguous, just to compound the suspense.

Over the past year, I Let You Go has been the recipient of some literary awards, and it’s easy to see why. It is a very strong, powerful novel, as well as serving as a bold debut from Mackintosh, whose former experience as a police officer really shines through.

This is the age of the psychological thriller, as exemplified by the success of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, adapted into a film in double quick time. I Let You Go acts as a very worthwhile contemporary, and should be enjoyed by anyone partial to crime fiction too.

My final word of advice regarding I Let You Go: Never assume anything!!!

Doctor Who Review: Aliens of London/World War Three

The first two-part story of the new era of Doctor Who is bold, ambitious, and almost totally lacking in subtlety. It all begins when Rose is brought back home to the Powell Estate a year later than intended, confronting a stunned and traumatised Jackie as a police investigation into her disappearance ends abruptly, though not before difficult questions are asked regarding her relationship with the Doctor.

The sight of the Doctor being challenged in this way, and being slapped by a companion’s mother, is unnatural and unfamiliar territory, but in creating this scene, writer Russell T Davies is providing a wider perspective of the influence that travelling with the Doctor can have on the lives of others.

Before such goings on can be dwelt upon for too long, a rooftop conversation between the Doctor and Rose is rudely interrupted by the whirring of a beautifully realised spaceship that flies erratically across London before crash-landing in the River Thames, but not before running right through Big Ben. Hats off to the special effects team for pulling this one off.

It turns out that an augmented pig was piloting the spacecraft, but the real villains cleverly use this as a distraction as they – in an uncharacteristically sophisticated manner – to infiltrate and take control of Downing Street with embarrassing ease. The Doctor and Rose watch the television news coverage, but with the help of a panicked Jackie, are eventually escorted to the centre of the action.

Aliens of London does a great job of building the tension, and again we see Eccleston as his juggling best. On the one hand, we see him unable to contain his excitement at the sight of the crash-landing spacecraft, yet in another scene we witness a brilliant depiction of compassion and disgust at the shooting of the squealing pig at Albion Hospital.

When the Slitheen are revealed – albeit still in human form – they are quite unlike any alien race seen in the history of the programme. They converse and laugh like over-excited children, they are lavatorial, rejoicing at each expulsion of wind, and the thought of removing their gruesome skin suits.

But they are also shrewd operators who are refreshingly not here to invade, but to ruthlessly extend their illegal interstellar business operation. They soon realise that General Asquith (Rupert Vansittart in his element) is a threat, so they take the opportunity to kill and impersonate him, too.

Vansittart completes the excitable main trio that also comprises of a terrifically sinister Annette Badland and a larger-than-life David Verrey, whose performance is not one you’re likely to forget in a hurry. All the same, they’re a serious threat, as curious MP Harriett Jones observes to her terror.

Penelope Wilton is perfect for this particular role. A highly accomplished actress, she personifies spirit and patriotism, proving a good foil for the scheming Doctor and becoming a handy ‘sub-companion’ in the process.

Aliens of London does a very good job of building the tension, which is admittedly lightened by some hilarious exchanges of dialogue such as this beauty:

The Doctor: Do you mind not farting while I’m saving the world
Joseph Green: Would you rather silent but deadly?!

The cliffhanger at the end of the episode would have been highly effective, only for the ‘Next Time’ section to come up almost immediately before the closing credits. So we knew that World War Three may see the end of a ‘brave new world’. We also know that Slitheen would sprint surprisingly quickly through Downing Street.

What does materialise is an interesting second part, which focuses as much on Rose’s future with the Doctor as it does on defeating the Slitheen, who continue to plod around a little too excitedly in order to be taken 100% seriously.

We see Jackie and Mickey burst a Slitheen masquerading as a police officer with a jug of condiments, we see the Doctor reciting the history of Downing Street, while there is also the understated sub-plot of whether the United States would agree to release the nuclear codes, culminating in Joseph Green (Jocrassa Fel Fotch Pasameer Day Slitheen) delivering an unforgettable speech to the assembled media.

The rhetoric contains more than a hint of satire from a crafty Davies, who also gives then BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr a memorable cameo. But ultimately, it is down to the Doctor making the decision to conduct a missile strike, with the encouragement of Rose and Harriett.

The sequence is tense, but again the special effects department earns its money with a highly convincing denouement. As Harriett moves on to the campaign trail, we see another neat emotional scene between Rose and Jackie (great acting performances), again emphasising the thrill of travelling with the Doctor.

It turned out that we hadn’t seen the last of the Slitheen, and nobody can deny that they left their mark. The two-parter as a whole makes compelling viewing, although it could have done with being a little more polished in some areas for it to have been a classic.

Into the Grass

The idea for this poem came after a student showed me a very pretty photo that she had taken on her mobile phone, depicting a large empty field of long grass under a sunlit backdrop.

I wrote this in order to prove to myself that I was capable of turning something innocuous into a half-decent literary creation, something that requires a precious commodity which I can sometimes lack – imagination. Here goes:

We stroll gently through the long grass
Clambering over reeds and thorns,

A single flower
Glistening like a star in the moonlight
Oblivious to the surrounding din, 
A cacophony of sound
Crickets click from the depths of nearby shrubs
We hear the delicate rustling of leaves
As snakes move menacingly beneath our feet
Birds are twittering in the trees
And parasitic insects deliver bites to our knees

So thus we battle through nature’s garden
Scampering stealthily in a bid for freedom
Desperate to make our escape
As we become more vulnerable to the fading light
Mice scurrying ahead of us
And we follow
The grass fighting back like never before
Trapping our ankles to the leaden ground
There’s no-one around to help us get away,
Leaving predators free to ravage their prey

Doctor Who Review – The Unquiet Dead

After a trip to the distant future, it was now time for the revived series of Doctor Who to sample the past, in the first of many episodes to be written by Mark Gatiss, a noted and confessed aficionado of the show.

As Rose becomes more accustomed to life on board the TARDIS and changes into period gear to suit the setting, which is meant to be Naples in 1860. It is at this moment where we see further signs of the blooming relationship between herself and the Doctor, with the two of them developing a closeness rarely seen in the original series.

After a brief foray outside into the crunching snow, the Doctor’s errant time circuits are exposed and they are revealed to be in Cardiff in 1869, where ghostly apparitions are possessing the dead, as shown in a tremendous opening sequence where an elderly woman wails frighteningly into the stationary camera of superb director Euros Lyn.

She soon makes her way to the nearby theatre, where a career-questioning Charles Dickens gives a reading of A Christmas Carol. Meanwhile, undertaker Gabriel Sneed (Alan David) and his mysteriously psychic maid Gwyneth (Eve Myles) seek to restore the animated corpse to the mortuary, but Rose gets caught up in the commotion and is captured by Sneed.

The ensuing scenes between the Doctor and Dickens (played magnificently by Simon Callow) are a real highlight of the episode; never has a chase between two carthorses been so entertaining.

That is one of the lighter scenes, yet the stakes are still extremely high as Rose soon finds herself locked in a room with two possessed bodies. Dickens is impressively forceful here, but soon refuses to believe the supernatural events he has witnessed, much to the chagrin of the Doctor. The resulting rebuke begins a change of outlook for the weary author, who ends the episode with renewed spirit and vigour.

That dialogue sequence is gripping and neatly builds the tension, as does the one between Rose and Gwyneth. The maid comes across as an innocent girl, but her ability to enter the the minds of others adds an extra dose of spookiness, but the scene itself expertly illustrates the difference between the two characters, their culture, and the eras in which they grew up.

As the story develops we learn of the presence of the Gelth, a psychedelic people who were allegedly decimated by the Time War. They convince the Doctor that they arrive with good intentions and successfully persuade him to open the Rift in time and space that exists over Cardiff, but in doing so reveal their true colours.

Sneed finds himself possessed and the Doctor and Rose imprisoned as the Gelth aim to invade, while Dickens reawakens his brain to come up with a solution to pacify the ghostly villains. It seems unusual for the Doctor to come across this gullible, but then again, in the aftermath of the Time War he is as vulnerable as he’s ever been.

In the end, Gwyneth is moved to sacrifice herself in order to close the rift before cheerful farewells are exchanged with Mr. Dickens. All in all, this was an episode with excellent depth, production values, and innovative ideas. Just a shame many of Gatiss’ future episodes haven’t quite hit the same mark.

Doctor Who Reviews: The End of the World

This episode begins precisely where the previous one ended, after Rose sprints into the TARDIS like an adrenaline junkie. The Doctor relishes the chance to show off and demonstrate what he and his machine are capable of, eventually deciding to disembark in the year 5 billion to witness the death of planet Earth.

The first thing that hits the viewer is the scale of the setting. Platform One is marvellously realised in both internal and external shots, while there a spellbinding visual effects to be found throughout, thanks to the sun’s expansion; the exoglass, and the many aliens that have come to enjoy the show in the utmost comfort.

And speaking of the aliens, one has to admire the ambition of writer and executive producer Russell T Davies with regards to the sheer variety of lifeforms that can be found on Platform One. First of all we see the blue-skinned steward and his uniformed assistant, but his appearance is benign when compared to many of the others.

We have the Forest of Cheem, where flirtatious Jabe makes an impression with her sharp wit and ultimate sacrifice. On that point, Yasmin Bannerman delivers a strong and charismatic performance under heavy prosthetics, as her character assists the Doctor is undercovering the ongoing siege.

Then we have the rather distinctive Moxx of Balhoon, who meets a rather sticky end. The Adherents of the Repeated Meme are creepy and eventually their purpose is revealed, while its a shame that the Doctor didn’t spend more screen time with the Face of Boe, as it would have provided greater weight and context to its future appearances.

Even those who lurk in the background are superbly realised, particularly the Ambassadors from the City State of Binding Light, and the Brothers Hop Pyleen. Along with Mr and Mrs Puckoo and Cal ‘Spark Plug’ McNannovich, these are just incidental characters and indeed mere bystanders, but their presence adds something to the overall spectacle.

Last, but not least, we have villain of the week Cassandra O’Brien Dot Delta Seventeen and her adorable – though sinister – robot spiders. Describing herself as the last human, Cassandra is not your average antagonist – she is essentially a piece of skin, moisturised frequently by two handy surgeons. Her luggage for the event includes an old gramophone, and what she claims is the last ever ostrich egg.

Menacingly voiced by Zoe Wanamaker, Cassandra entertains her fellow guests with blasts of ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell and ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears, as her shrewd sabotage gathers momentum, aided by her sinister hoard of spiders.

Meanwhile, interspersed with all this drama lies some wonderful dialogue scenes between the Doctor and Rose, with the latter determined to find out more about the mysterious man she has just decided to travel with. She ends up almost following the Steward in getting killed by a descending sun filter, while back on Earth at the end of the episode her human traits are seen again in the form of a craving for chips.

Before that, Cassandra meets a rather messy end at the hands of an ominously uncaring Doctor, who has just – with Jabe’s sacrificial help – negotiated a succession of spinning turbines to initiate the shields of Platform One and prevent most of the traumatised guests from burning like the Moxx of Balhoon.

Cassandra remains calculated, but doesn’t reckon on being outsmarted by the Doctor, and everything builds to a satisfying conclusion. The End of the World is a very bold entry so early in the revived series, but it pays off very nicely, with thumbs up for direction, characterisation, dialogue, music and special effects. Clearly there were promising signs in terms of what was to come.

 

Doctor Who Reviews: Rose

It was a monumental occasion when Doctor Who returned to British television on 26 March 2005, some 16 years after its original run ended under something of a cloud. Back then, BBC bosses saw the show as a burden, as tired concepts eventually made for rather trivial viewing.

Yet its status as a national treasure was undeniable, and the loyal fanbase remained hopeful over the intervening period that the long-running programme may make a comeback. Audio serials and novelisations kept the flame ignited, but it was only when Russell T Davies made his successful pitch to the BBC in 2003 that those apparently fanciful hopes became reality.

It was an incredible feat for Davies to convince the BBC to resurrect a show that was both loved and maligned in equal measure, and had such a chequered history, but his presence ensured that it was now in very safe hands. His prowess as a writer, and the budget laid down at his disposal, helped bring together a terrific and richly talented crew, and a fine cast would soon follow.

Securing Christopher Eccleston for the role of the Ninth Doctor was a masterstroke. He perfectly suited the profile of a character ridden by guilt and grief in the aftermath of the Time War; a tormented soul with the most brilliant of minds that had to carry on in the knowledge that all of his fellows had perished.

Throughout the opening episode and the series as a whole, Eccleston conveys these feelings perfectly, but also embodies the mystical spirit of the character by showcasing a softer side, helped along by companion Rose, whose gutsy nature and very human levels of empathy guide him on a journey to redemption.

Rose is portrayed magnificently by Billie Piper, who at the time had very little acting experience following her career as a teenage pop star. She takes the character of Rose and uses the material she’s been given to create someone who the audience can immediately identify with, and we’re all too happy to enjoy the ride with her.

As for the episode itself, it relaunches the programme in a highly satisfactory way. The first and most obvious change from the original series is that it’s the 21st century, and the way people live their lives has changed, and also that it’s the responsibility of television dramas to provide a fulfilling visual experience to the viewer.

The opening shot shows the Earth from space, and the camera quickly zooms in to Rose’s home, a humble flat within a friendly, if fairly run-down estate. We get a general picture of her life; we see her single mother fussing over her; we see her laughing with her boyfriend, Mickey; we see her on the bus travelling to work. It is obvious already that there will now be greater emphasis on the companion than ever before.

It doesn’t take long for danger to arise, as Autons begin to rouse in the creepy basement of the shop in which Rose works. Then comes the Doctor’s entrance, containing just one word: ‘Run!’ Their ensuing escape gives way to a massive explosion, the first of many impressive effects that The Mill would produce during the series.

The Doctor is treated as a mysterious figure, possibly even dangerous, and Eccleston wonderfully delivers on that, shifting deftly between moments of priceless comic timing to feelings of loss and hopeless vengeance.

What is particularly impressive here is that as Rose gradually comes to trust the Doctor after initial reservations – unperturbed by the eerily apocalyptic warnings of obsessive shed-dweller Clive – the audience does so too, even after he shows relish in the act of beheading Auton Mickey.

The Autons act as frightening, threatening villains, while the showdown beneath the London Eye reveals the Nestene Consciousness as a menacing presence. In its ability to animate plastic such as a wheelie bin, and create a copy of Mickey which a momentarily dim Rose cannot see to be a forgery, its power is unmistakable.

But in the final reckoning, Rose saves the day with a marvellous – and pretty daring – piece of athleticism. It begins an occasionally irritating trend of someone other than the Doctor proving to be the enemy’s downfall, but in this instance it’s handled well, as it allows the Doctor’s faith in humanity to be somewhat restored – having taken to referring to us as ‘apes’.

And then Rose decides to ditch her life and her rather useless – for now – boyfriend, in order to travel with the Doctor. The TARDIS set is dark and unearthly, yet at the same time strangely welcoming. However, what adds to the intrigue ahead of the stories to come are that we still don’t know who this particular Doctor really is, as he continues to suffer from some form of PTSD.

On the whole, Rose was a very solid first episode for a unique series that was making a comeback after so many years away. Davies’ script wound everything together nicely, providing a significant enemy threat while introducing the characters and adapting the show for the 21st century. It was the premise upon which the last 12 years of Doctor Who have become a major success.

The Young One

The Young One has all the power
Fresh-faced and oozing authority
He rules with an iron fist
Leading some to question his sanity

His troops march in unison
Striding forth like hardy chessmen
Making ripples and attracting wary glances
From outsiders who accuse him of seeking attention

Enclosed in an autonomous sphere
Shrouded in secret and mindful silence
He keeps his cards tight to his chest
Though we think we know what lies underneath

Dreams of domination and conquests galore
Achieved through gunfire and nuclear war
Coolly and tactfully he bides his time
Leaving the enemy to wonder just what lies in store

The Young One carries all the weight;
His thirst for supremacy will never abate
Nobody has the right to challenge his rule
For he is the untouchable head of state