Vague ramblings

The Lost Princess

Posted in Fiction, Musing, Personal stuff by Ian Cundell on 27 January, 2015

I wrote this a while back. I’m not quite sure why I feel it appropriate to post it today, save a line a few paragraphs in. But it feels right, so here it is.

 

The Lost Princess

by

Ian Cundell

She was burned into my mind when I was eleven years old.

Almost alone among the countless images that must have passed before me back then, hers would return often and unexpected in the following years. The waif-like girl standing outside a lighthouse, framed by a gloomy sky and infused with an overpowering sense of loss,

I could never quite grasp why this image kept flashing back to me, could see no pattern. It reached the stage where I doubted that it was real, assuming my memory was playing tricks. As I learned that not everybody will remember things in the same way as me, I began to think that the waif-like girl and the lighthouse may have been constructed out of bits of other memories.

Also, of course, other images before and since have stuck around: the opening credits of World At War still chill my blood. They can flash me back directly to a living room and Dad telling me and my brother to stop talking and hope that it never happens again as an episode starts titled, simply enough, ‘Genocide’.

In its own way, so way does the poppy-soaked final frame of Blackadder Goes Forth. Nigel Lawson had resigned, we realised the news would over-run, so left early from the pub because the video timer would be out. How will they get out of that? Come on how? How will they…

Oh.

There are moments that will always stop the heart when you see them again: During Band Aid the Cars song Drive is played over a montage of African poverty, bizarre and a little inappropriate until “who’s gonna plug their ears when you scream?”. The baby screams and the room full of garrulous students falls silent.

And drunken revellers, finally home and watching the late election results come in, marking the end of a generation and a look on Michael Portillo’s face that remains a study in the pain of defeat.

These are images that keep their power when you see them again.

But the waif-like girl by the lighthouse was never seen again. I didn’t know that. It never occurred to me that the flash of memory felt unreal because it was getting more distant and that this was because it had been locked away.

Then came the Internet Movie Database and a lazy, rainy afternoon poking around, following random links. A half a dozen or so posters asking about the waif-like girl, about the lighthouse, why she can’t be seen. But more. Where is the bearded hunchback, where are the soldiers, where is the story that left us dumbstruck and then haunted?

But it can’t be found: the author, it is said, will not permit its release or perhaps the rights holders and the broadcasters can’t or won’t sort out the details. Nobody is quite certain. If you make a special appointment at the British Film Institute they might let you watch it, but the lost gem will remain, essentially, lost. Concealed.

And then there is a link. A download, most definitely not official, passed around like a secret message. The quality is awful, a digital conversion of a conversion of another conversion from one tape to another. One scene is missing, probably cut by a foreign broadcaster.

But not that scene. Not the scene.

It was burned into my mind when I was eleven years old and had popped up unbidden many times since.

I know now that it stuck with me because it was the best piece of story-telling I had ever seen, that it had become, in its quiet persistence, the standard against which all other stories are measured. If it can’t stay with me for a lifetime, it is an also-ran.

When the shaky and washed-out video plays, it is like a restored Great Master; details lost to time are revealed. The waif-like girl walking from the lighthouse, tears flowing, clutching a portrait of herself, as The Snow Goose circles over head before flying away.

It carries with it the soul of the lost hero, the lost love, the lost artist.

 

(c) Ian Cundell, 2014. All rights reserved

Cloud Atlas: book, film and the art of zooming

Posted in Ace Writers, Fiction by Ian Cundell on 23 January, 2014

In 1977 Charles and Ray Eames created a short film called The Power of Ten, surely the most viewed short film in history. We start with a couple picnicking in a park, zoom out to the very edges of the universe and then back to the building blocks of matter. It was shown at schools all over the world and as a staple BBC test transmission in the days before all-day TV. Watch it – it is all kinds of wonderful.

I would be moderately surprised if, somewhere in the back of his mind, David Mitchell was not influenced by this icon of the short film art when crafting Cloud Atlas(1). Here be spoilers. (more…)

The Parapet

Posted in Fiction by Ian Cundell on 11 November, 2012

Poppies

The Parapet

by

Ian Cundell

I didn’t see it coming. Didn’t have a chance to avoid it.

I popped my head above the makeshift parapet, and searing, shocking pain exploded in my right eye. I rolled back underneath the blackboard and someone shouted “Tom! Are you OK?” I was lucky I didn’t lose the eye, I suppose. Who would have thought a catapult made of a rubber band and some folded paper could be so painful? God, it hurt like hell.

I didn’t cry of course. The boys would have done me in if I had. And my black eye didn’t get me out of the caning we all got for making the common room into a battlefield. I didn’t cry then, either.

Old Nurse Kitchen wasn’t sympathetic. “You needn’t think you’re getting out of PT, Atkins” she said. “Perhaps you’ll be more careful in future.”

How could I be more careful? I didn’t see it coming.

Still, I bragged on it for days, and got plenty of attention for my ‘war wound’, although I was pretty cross that whoever did it never owned up. But now… well, I reckon maybe he didn’t know what he’d done, was just firing blindly.

Heh. I’m used to that now.

So here I am. The Pals are back together again, the three-oh-threes are ready, bayonets fixed. Tin hats on. The boys are lined up, all pursed lips and silent prayers.

B-Company! One Step Forward!”

Time to stick my head over the parapet again. There’s nothing makeshift about this one.

Good luck, lads. And don’t look so nervous.

You won’t see it coming.

 

 

(c) Ian Cundell, 2012. All rights reserved.

 

 

Knowing why we cry

Posted in Fiction by Ian Cundell on 3 July, 2010

I have been thinking about last week’s finale of Dr Who (or rather the last two weeks, it was a two parter). I know what you’re thinking: a) you sad git and b) what’s that got to do with crying?

Trust me. I am not a doctor.

The show has probably gone from iPlayer now, so if you still have not seen it then treat yourselves to the DVDs when they come out, because the last two episodes in particular are a story telling masterclass. “What?” I hear you cry, “SciFi giving a masterclass inanything. Don’t be an ass.” Let me explain. Hear be spoilers.

The crux of the story is that, for reasons too involved to get into here, The Doctor has been erased from history. His survival depends on feisty assistant Amy Pond being able to remember him at her wedding (The Doctor had already floated the notion that nothing istruly forgotten and that if you can remember someone you can bring them back). Let’s focus in three nifty elements of storytelling.

1. Near the end of each of the pair of episodes, Amy cries without comprehension, the first time because she is happy (her lost love is back, but she hasn’t quite worked it out yet) and the second because she is sad (someone is missing from her wedding). Framing and call-back.

2. As she cries, found-love Rory refers to “that old wedding saying”. Earlier, as the Doctor confronts his impending erasure, he tells the sleeping child Amy that when she wakes she will have parents (they too had been erased) and will remember him only as a story (“That’s OK, we’re all stories in the end.”). He says she will dream of the silly man who stole the magic box (“well, borrowed it really”), the box that is both big and small (a nice diversion, something every Who fan knows about the Tardis), that it is both ancient and modern and the most amazing blue.

At the wedding, as Amy’s memory begins to needle her she remembers, stands and yells  that The Doctor is late for her wedding (a nice callback to a running joke from the first episode of the season). The Tardis begins to materialise and Rory asks “What’s that?”. Cue the old wedding saying (with belting delivery from Karen Gillan), and the Doctor is back (if you haven’t worked it out, I can’t help you).

Think about the sheer craft that went into setting up that one line. And there was nothing in the last 15 minutes of the series that had not been properly set up in Stephen Moffat’s storytelling (in sharp contrast to Russell T Davies’s somewhat ‘woo something out of the air’ approach to problem solving). Set-up and craft.

3. The trouble with SciFi fans is that they have a terrible habit of focussing on the Sci at the expense of the Fi, in practical terms meaning an over-obsession with plotting and puzzle solving at the expense of character and theme. The thing is that this episode (and indeed the whole season) wasn’t really about the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, although that was a hoot. It was about people and what we mean to each other,  the ties that bind, what it is to miss somebody dreadfully, what it feels to have them back and how bloody marvellous it is when we absolutely refuse to give up on those we care about.

And then it ended with a wedding.

A storytelling masterclass.

But if you want further evidence that a vaguely daft kid-oriented SciFi show can explore deep things, then seek out Vincent and the Doctor (written by Richard Curtis) from earlier in the season. I challenge you to find a more sensitive, candid and exposition-free look at the absolute bastard that is depression in any genre, anywhere (with a a truly marvellous cameo by Bill Nighy). That it was also wholly appropriate for a young audience, once again shows the sheer craft of the story-telling.

I know writers who say they don’t like science fiction  – and so don’t read it (or don’t like poetry, or Shakespeare…or whatever – not just SciFi). To me this is beyond comprehension. If you are serious about writing, want to understand it and get better at it, if you wish to understand why we cry, then you simply cannot afford to make casual assumptions about where you might not find inspiration.

Sad git out.

Memo to fans: let the storyteller tell it

Posted in Fiction by Ian Cundell on 25 May, 2010

The past week has seen the conclusion of two popular (probably influential, arguably seminal) TV series, the BBC’s Life on Mars/ Ashes to Ashes and ABC’s Lost.

Both series dealt with strikingly similar themes (I’ll put them under the broad heading of “letting go”) and both have, in their respective runs, exhibited many of the strengths and weakness of the TV cultures in which they were created. For me, the end of Ashes to Asheswas, mostly, a model of taut economy in the handling of emotion, while Lost slightly slapped the emotion on with a trowel, but both were satisfying conclusions to their shows – well, for all but a certain type of fan.

A trundle around fans sites shows this type of fan: the type who think they own the show. Beware, sweeping generalisations to follow: This group is made up largely of those who want the mysteries solved, who want to know, for example, where Lost Island’s light came from, exactly who Nelson is at The Railway Inn and so on. People who declared that the writers “failed” in not explaining everything. In short, the people who know slightly less than jack shit about the nature and purpose of storytelling.

In even shorter: the wailing fanboys.

Sorry, is that a bit blunt? If you are going to be so damned obsessed with puzzle solving that you miss, say, the skill with which the full emotional implications of Kate’s “I’ve missed you so much” was delayed until the final reveal, then bluntness is what you deserve. Pay attention in future. And if you are going to ignore minutes on end of screen time because it doesn’t fit your “failure” narrative, it is no-one’s fault but your own if you get mocked (OK, I admit it – browsing fan forums is a guilty pleasure).

It’s not that there aren’t top quality ‘formula’ shows – US television excels at them, from police procedurals, to teen angsts dramas, to sitcoms. But such shows rarely indicate a sense of direction, driven more by the need to come up with something “new” rather than work to a conclusion. Stories like Lost and Ashes to Ashes are not that type of story (it is telling that Lost only really gained narrative focus and shook off the vague “shaggy dog story” feel after it was given a clear end date  – funny that).

So don’t presume that you own the story: If it is bad writing that is one thing, but if it doesn’t fit the formula, that is because it is not a formula story and if you thought it was then you weren’t paying attention. If the story turns out not to be the one you thought it was, then don’t tell the writers they let you down and are idiots. Not until you have given it a crack yourself, and found out if anybody gives a damn how the MacGuffin Machine works.

Because it is bad enough that writers of real talent have to struggle in an expensive and risky medium, in the face of cautious outlets; it is much worse when they have to do it to a wailing chorus making noise in gross disproportion to its insight.

Twitter writes some new rules – for writers

Posted in Business, Fiction, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 10 October, 2009

Whichever way you measure it, this has been a good week for Twitter, the social networking site for the clinically concise.

First,  libel law firm Carter Ruck tried to suppress reporting of Parliamentary discussion about its client, Trafigura, which had been caught dumping toxic waste in Ivory Coast. Twitter created a furore that made Trafigura more famous that it dared hope, a PR catastrophe for it and Carter Ruck; a coach an horses through the attempted injunction.

Then, in the Daily Mail, Jan Moir wrote a particularly snide and innuendo-laden piece of homophobia, using the death of Stephen Gateley as its hook. It was thoroughly unpleasant and disreputable, even by the Mail‘s standards of bigotry.

Twitter went ballistic and, when magician Derren Brown suggested complaining to the Press Complaints Council, Moir’s bile became the most complained about article ever. Moir was forced to respond and grumbled about a “heavily orchestrated” campaign, betraying a total lack of grasp of what was happening – there were cheerleaders (Brown, Stephen Fry among others) but you simply can’t ‘orchestrate’ something on this scale, this fast. People hated what they saw and acted.

Then for me it got really interesting. Suzanne Moore wrote – in the Mail on Sunday, of all places – a fierce rebuttal of Moir, but without pointing the finger squarely at her. One Twitter post suggested that the article should be linked widely, but I expressed my disappointment at the lack of finger-pointing. Some time later, Moore popped up on Twitter and we discussed it. She was gracious and witty (and tragically resigned to being associated with the expression “fuck me shoes”, but that is a different matter), explaining that she “went a bit diva” to get what was published in the Mail on Sunday and that finger pointing would never have been permitted.

She’s right of course (I hate it, but she is) and that she got that odious rag to bend just a little is eternally to her credit.

But the thing with both stories is that they took off because Twitter is absolutely popping with journalists and writers. If you have heard of or seen the output of a writer there is a good chance that he or she is lurking on Twitter (except Jan Moir, it seems, but there are a couple of fakes). It is highly debatable if anything fundamental has changed – The Mail is still the hateful backer-of-the-blackshirts it always was, and was scarcely hurt by the rumpus,  and Carter Ruck is still a pernicious exploiter of the flaws in English law. But suddenly a new and very fast reacting tool is in the hands of those who might have a mind to do something about it.

I honestly do not know why any writer or hack is not on Twitter. Seriously, there is no excuse.

 

The Empire Writers Strike Back

Posted in Ace Writers, Fiction, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 8 November, 2007

Joss Whedon in thoughful mood about the Writers Guild of America strike.

The nub of the strike is that writers want a fairer share of online sales than they currently get. Ex-Disney chief Michael Eisner made a particularly dimwitted comment of along the lines of “but we haven’t made any money out it it yet!” forgetting the all important “yet”. Screw the writers when there is no cash and make damned sure they get bugger all downstream is, as ever, the industry approach.

(Eisner also made some breathtakingly stupid comments blaming Apple for the lack of money, conventiently forgetting that it was Apple who proved this new income stream was viable in the first place. It is almost as if he is angry at Steve Jobs for getting him ejected from Disney……oh.).

Last word to Whedon, in writers:

“We’re talking about story-telling, the most basic human need. Food? That’s an animal need. Shelter? That’s a luxury item that leads to social grouping, which leads directly to fancy scarves. But human awareness is all about story-telling. The selective narrative of your memory. The story of why the Sky Bully throws lightning at you. From the first, stories, even unspoken, separated us from the other, cooler beasts. And now we’re talking about the stories that define our nation’s popular culture – a huge part of its identity. These are the people that think those up. Working writers.”

Indeed.

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