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.

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!!!

Striking Gold

In the past 12 months I have taken in a wide range of literature, from modern classics to Booker Prize winners; from Gothic ghost stories to play scripts. It has been a year of discovery for someone who had previously struggled to wriggle free of the grip of non-fiction and its fountain of knowledge.

But the books which have absorbed me most during this period of time are the Cormoran Strike crime novels, all three of which I received as a bumper Christmas gift. Written by the phenomenon that is J.K. Rowling under her now thinly-veiled pseudonym Robert Galbraith, they contain all the  ingredients for a superb crime story.

Opening The Cuckoo’s Calling for the first time back in May, it took just moments for me to be taken in and connect with it. The familiarity of Rowling’s vivid description of the setting, and the scene outside the luxury apartment block from which famous model Lula Landry fell to her death acted as the most fascinating prelude to a highly complex mystery.

And then we have Cormoran Strike himself, the private detective son of a well-known music star and a so-called super-groupie, who had his leg blown off while serving in the army. Just who is he? And can he outdo the police and uncover the truth behind such a meticulous crime?

Early on he employs former psychology student Robin as his temporary secretary, but there’s also much more to her than meets the eye. Her efficiency and enthusiasm for the job eventually leads her to become Strike’s assistant, and as the books progress the relationship between the two becomes more personal despite their attempts to maintain a professional distance, while Robin’s fiancee Matthew lurks in the background with no shortage of suspicion.

Even as we move into the third novel, Career Of Evil, we still don’t feel as if we really know Strike as he embarks on a personal mission to track down a serial killer who bears a vicious grudge against him. This all adds to the intrigue, and makes him stand out among the many detectives the currently exist in modern fiction.

Unsurprisingly, the three novels to date are to be adapted into a major BBC drama series, which will be separated into seven hour-long episodes. And following lengthy speculation, we have finally found out who will portray Strike and Robin, the unlikely yet captivating double act.

Both actors have made their name in period drama. Tom Burke starred in the recent BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and he certainly has the right kind of physique for Strike, who is described in the books as a huge – and hairy – imposing figure. Meanwhile, the role of Robin will go to the talented Holliday Grainger, who has featured in dramatisations of many a classic novel including Great ExpectationsJane Eyre, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

While it may disappoint fanciful fans who yearned for Emma Watson to portray Robin, for me Burke and Grainger are excellent choices as they seem to fit the profile of their characters. The announcement of Grainger rather played second fiddle to talk of Johnny Depp appearing in the Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them series of films, but it really adds to the anticipation ahead of what should be seven weeks of unmissable television.

The novels may contain some unsavoury moments – some of the crimes are horrifyingly gruesome, some of the language is coarse, but where the Cormoran Strike series succeeds is the complexity of the crime. Among avid readers of fiction there will always be an appetite for a thought-provoking mystery, and Rowling had me – and many others I’m sure – on tenterhooks trying to piece together the subtle clues that point to the solution.

Analysis: The Book Thief

In the world of literature and drama, it would appear that there is a never-ending stream of stories relating to the Second World War. It has become a genre in its own right, because it opens up a whole world of opportunity. Even now, over 70 years on, there is a generation of storytellers who believe that they can offer a new take on this most infamous of conflicts.

From novel to documentary; from movie to sitcom, The Book Thief is one of my personal favourites. Written by Markus Zusak in 2006 and adapted into a film in 2013, the story is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and touches on several issues associated with the war as well as exploring themes such as mortality and loyalty.

The novel is narrated by death itself, a personification of the unforgiving nature of warfare and the sudden loss of loved ones for whom you have taken extreme risks and made great endeavour to keep safe. Death appears to be lurking in the shadows, but is shown to be tragically ruthless as the story plays out in the eyes of the innocent Liesel, the orphan who finds solace in literature.

After the death of her brother, Liesel begins to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa. She shows a willingness to learn and is nurtured by Hans, who teaches her literacy, which helps her to develop a sense of adventure. But at the same time, she has to live with the harsh reality of the Nazi regime, attending an event where books that didn’t conform to Nazi ideology were publicly burned.

It is here where Liesel ‘steals’ her first book, and it is through this that her fascination with stories comes about. Along with her friend Rudy, she proves her strength of bravery by secretly reading books from the library of the town mayor, whose wife inspires her to write own novel.

During her stay with her foster parents, Liesel forms a close relationship with Max, a fugitive Jew who the family take in and hide from patrolling officers in their basement. He eventually has to leave, devastating Liesel, and things are made worse by Hans being forced to conscript to the German armed forces.

Hans soon returns, but the area is then devastated by a bombing raid which only Liesel survives, having slept in the basement. Observing the bodies of her foster parents lying peacefully in the snow, she then watches Rudy pass away too during a highly emotional sequence. After being rescued, she embarks on a journey to become a writer.

The reason why I feel such an attachment to this story is that Zusak creates such lovable and endearing characters. Liesel is charismatic and curious; Hans is paternal and understanding; Rosa is firm but fair; Rudy is an innocent boy, yet acts as a fierce, fierce friend.

And the film adaptation handles these characterisations superbly, helped by a clean sweep of quality acting performances. The close bond that forms between Liesel and Rudy, such as their feelings of the injustices of the world they live in, can’t help but bring a tear to the eye.

Liesel arrives as an outsider, but she ends up having a profound effect on everyone around her, in one case telling a story to ease the tension within an air raid shelter. It is a powerful image that Zusak creates, and it’s recreated beautifully on screen. This particular take on the Second World War is so touching, and would have even the most cold-hearted of individuals experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions. The Book Thief is a modern classic.

Fantastic Beasts

For all fans of the Harry Potter series, both fanatical and casual, the announcement from J.K. Rowling that the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie franchise is likely to span the course of five films has had us rejoicing. In a year which has also seen a groundbreaking West End play, the thought of another treasure trove of insight to the Harry Potter universe leaves us feeling rather spoilt.

Starring among others, Academy Award winning actor Eddie Redmayne as the titular book’s magizoologist author Newt Scamander, the first film in the series is to be released on November 17. As is the case for many other people, I am eagerly anticipating seeing it on the big screen; J.K. Rowling’s first foray into screenwriting, but it may turn out slightly differently to what we are expecting.

While it may be set in the Harry Potter universe, this movie is set some 70 years before the events of the books, in New York. So we can brace ourselves for a sampling of the Roaring Twenties at its heart, where Scamander encounters many of the creatures he would later describe in such vivid detail in a textbook that would come in useful to Hogwarts students across several different disciplines, including Care of Magical Creatures; Defence Against the Dark Arts; Herbology, and Potions.

Unless a young Dumbledore makes a surprise appearance, that means there will no familiar faces within this series of films. There’s a whole host of new characters to get used to, identify with and be inspired by. Can Redmayne’s Scamander emerge as a heroic or cult figure like Harry? Or will he be forever in Harry’s looming shadow? If we know Rowling, his personality and indeed loyalties may have us gripped as the franchise proceeds.

Despite the unfamiliar aspects of the plot, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is in the best possible hands. Supervised by Warner Bros. and produced by the enduring David Heyman, it is directed by the man in charge of the final four Harry Potter films, David Yates. Harry, Ron and Hermione may not be around, but this quintet of motion pictures is a massive cause for excitement.



An Audience with David Nicholls

There are few more prominent authors and screenwriters in Britain today than Dr David Nicholls, so I couldn’t miss the opportunity of seeing him discuss his work and inspirations at an event at the University of Bristol, where he graduated in 1988.

In a bright and atmospheric lecture theatre, Dr Nicholls provided an extremely fascinating insight into what it’s like to collaborate with film directors and actors, and how to adapt a novel for television or the big screen. Most recently the screenwriter for the 2014 film adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd, he told of how lead actress Carey Mulligan had a say in Bathsheba’s dialogue and manner of speaking.

Dr Nicholls guided us through his favourite film sequences and his directorial influences, continually emphasising that the art of converting material from script to screen is a complex one where so many different things have to be taken into consideration, including cost, location filming, timing, and whether a particular scene adds value to the motion picture.

Among the directors whose films we were treated to excerpts from were Preston Sturges (who Dr Nicholls felt was unheralded given his impressive body of work), Billy Wilder (we were shown a scene from The Apartment) and Wes Anderson, who was noted for his comedic and unconventional elements during the opening sequence of Rushmore.

Elsewhere, Dr Nicholls gave frequent indications that he was at something of a crossroads in his screenwriting career. He stated his desire not to do another adaptation for the foreseeable future, instead setting his sights on creating an original screenplay, although a new novel appears to be the first item on the horizon.

His existing literary works have been an unqualified success, having become an author fairly late after ending his career as an actor. Starter for Ten told the story of a University of Bristol student’s life changing after appearing on University Challenge, a tale that was made into a film in 2006.

Even more successful was One Day, which was told in the dual points of view of two young adults over a 20-year period, a unique and heartwarming romantic comedy. Nicholls adapted the book into a film which was released in 2010, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess.

There is also The Understudy and Us, the second of which is very much one of favourites of many library goers in the UK. It is soon to be adapted into a television series; further recognition of Nicholls’ current popularity and status.

Dr Nicholls was especially informative when it came to explaining the difference in his approach when writing a novel and creating a screenplay. Freely admitting that dialogue was his strong suit rather than descriptive language, he said that writing and developing a film was more rewarding due to the many different processes involved in bringing his words to the screen, and then seeing the finished product.

Just watching and hearing him speak from a few rows back in the theatre, you could sense that his mind was always working, always ticking. Endlessly creative and observant, he displayed all the mannerisms you would associate with a noted author, and it was a pleasure to hear him speak so insightfuly and relay his knowledge to a group of onlooking admirers.

The Casual Vacancy Analysis Part One

Having read each of the Harry Potter books on numerous occasions to the extent that I developed an eternal adoration for the series, it is something of a surprise that it took me over three years after the publication of The Casual Vacancy to buy J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel.

I began reading it in March, and as I opened the book to glance the first page I was filled with an inevitable sense of anticipation; intrigued to see what this one-of-a-kind storyteller had in store with a story set firmly in the muggle world, about a local election that takes place within what appears to be the peaceful, genteel parish village of Pagford, but turns out to be a place rife with dishonesty and social divisions.

J.K. Rowling’s writing style and syntax is evident from the start, but the language of the novel cannot be coarser than that of Harry Potter. It is language of the worst kind, as she takes on the subjects of marital infidelity, drug use, sex, pornography, child abuse and self-harm, to name just a few. I have to admit that seeing such regular usage of a diverse range of expletives with varying degrees of severity took some acclimatising to.

Some of it left me feeling uncomfortable, and the book does take in a number of tragic incidents as events spiral a little out of control towards the end as heartbreaking stories of deprivation and a volatile political landscape culminate in death and instability. All in all it is an excellent novel from an author whose ability will never go down in my estimation. It is certainly not perfect and not altogether polished, but when the benchmark has been set so high it is easy to pick holes here and there.

Despite its rather edgy plotline, The Casual Vacancy is a comedy in some places. There are certainly some passages that made me laugh out loud. It is also a paradise for anyone who loves similes and metaphors, an area where Rowling seems to have gone into overdrive. Sometimes she gets a little carried away, but a few of her comparisons are breathtakingly masterful, so much so that I paused to examine them.

At the beginning it is all about trying to get used to all of the characters and what their personal circumstances are. There are a huge array of different personalities in Pagford who Rowling covers on an almost rotational basis over the space of a week following the death of local councillor Barry Fairbrother in the opening chapter. In fact, very few of these characters are likeable, but at the same time most of them make very interesting reading.

The themes explored are right at the heart of it, and sometimes overtakes the election in terms of coverage. All of the characters are eventually forced to take desperate measures in a bid to ease their own problems, while the novel’s content also required research on areas such as online hacking and religious practices.

One of the families portrayed are adherents of Sikhism, which had the potential to be divisive. For me there are some questionable elements, but generally it is handled very well and with a sense of maturity. As for online hacking, Rowling does not describe it in great detail and can be vague in places, but it emerges as a key plot point as the revelations exposed by The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother indirectly lead to the events that leave Pagford in virtual social ruin by the end.

There is plenty to analyse within The Casual Vacancy and I hope to do so in real detail. A local election is a great idea for a novel as it lends itself to all kinds of possibilities, but the social issues represent what lies firmly at the heart of the novel. Some work, and others don’t.

Influence, Censorship, and George Orwell

In this day and age, every so often we see a book or a movie; perhaps even a television series that has a profound effect on language and popular culture. It is usually a measure of its level of success and influence, but in years gone by and especially during the 20th century there were many works of fiction that found their way into the vernacular of the general public and gained varying receptions within the uppermost political circles.

I have already written about the German socialist reaction to Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, while in another previous post I covered censorship of a completely different kind with regards to the explicit Allen Ginsberg poem Howl. Meanwhile, movies carried a lot of weight among Europe’s higher echelons, a fact illustrated most aptly by the treatment towards a certain 1939 American film starring the legendary James Stewart, Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

It is a political comedy that hints at potential corruption within the US Senate, but also carries an underlying message that was at odds with the ideologies of a number of the leading European nations of the time, some of which actually went as far as to dub certain parts of the film in order for it to conform with their social beliefs. It was banned in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s USSR, and General Franco’s Spain.

Indeed, Franco seized power in the same year as Mr Smith Goes to Washington was released to the mainstream audience, following the Spanish Civil War. One man caught up in some of the proceedings over that three-year period was one of the 20th century’s most influential and outspoken authors, George Orwell, who documented his experiences in the autobiographical novel Homage to Catalonia.

Renowned for his bitter hatred of communism, Orwell was a forward thinker who never hid his opinions within the pages of his books for experts to decipher with the use of forensic examination. That is made perfectly clear in his short though powerful novel Animal Farm, where he uses domesticated livestock to personify the political landscape of the 1940s, with the evil pig Hamilton representing Stalin.

This work ruffled a few feathers, but his final novel would be the one which would confirm his legacy and leave the name George Orwell indelibly listed among the leading visionary authors of the age. Nineteen Eighty Four was set in a dystopian future where the United Kingdom was now made up of an uneven society that was subject to permanent censorship and surveillance, led by a dictatorship known as Big Brother.

Having read Nineteen Eighty Four, it is clear that Orwell is imagining a world how the world could have ended up in the not-too-distant future should the Western forces lost the war against communism and given in to its policies. While it is clearly an exaggeration that contains whimsical concepts borne out of a desire to warn democratic society of the potential harm that might have lay ahead of it, sometimes I treated it as political satire when elements of the story actually detailed events that Orwell thought plausible.

Big Brother is the first and most obvious term which has found its way into the modern language. The name of a reality television programme broadcast in many different countries, it connotes total surveillance through eyes, cameras and other sensory equipment. The wide eyes of Orwell’s moustachioed Inner Party mascot reinforce that none of the characters in Nineteen Eighty Four have any privacy or freedom of speech whatsoever.

This is where my citation of Mr Smith Goes to Washington becomes relevant. As the central character in Nineteen Eighty Four, Winston Smith, and his lover Julia wage a secret war against Big Brother and the Inner Party, their views are ruthlessly exposed by a sophisticated surveillance mechanism and it leads to them being tortured by the Inner Party hierarchy and forcibly made to change their views towards Big Brother through twisted and manipulative techniques.

The total eradication of an alternative political view is what those four world leaders did to Mr Smith Goes to Washington. A differing ideology was not allowed to exist, meaning that the message from the top was the only message that could either be believed or followed. This is the leading theme in Nineteen Eighty Four, only that presence of any opposing views – whether aired or not – would lead to a visit to the torture chamber, otherwise known as Room 101.

This is another idea from the novel to have given its name to a television programme, which makes light of the concept of there being a room containing all the horrors imaginable. The fate that awaits any of Big Brother’s silent detractors (Thought criminals) is hinted at throughout the novel, as many of Winston’s ‘comrades’ in the Outer Party disappear mysteriously over time.

There are many other words and phrases from Nineteen Eighty Four to have succumbed to common use. For example, Newspeak is now a language in its own right, the same way that Klingon is for fans of Star Trek. It is a fascinating language at that, given that it gradually removes words in order to find a more simplistic alternative, while abbreviations and acronyms are commonplace.

While the awful and unforgiving world that Orwell created did not come to fruition, some of the concepts he portrayed do resonate with many who feel that he hit the right notes in a few areas, particularly with the whole idea of censorship and universal surveillance. In the UK, security services such as GCHQ have alienated some members of the public by monitoring telephone conversations and social media accounts, and this is regularly cited as a manifestation of what Orwell described.

There is so much that can be written about Nineteen Eighty Four that fits within the purpose of this blog, but its level of influence and the way it continues even now to shape opinions is the most remarkable of all its talking points. Orwell used imagination and the political environment of the time to create a version of reality which has since been named after him, a rare accolade shared by only the best of British literary figures such as Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare.