films

Bradford, City of Film

Continuing the Bradford theme (I know, such an unusual topic for me), I ran across a story I wrote a few years ago but never found the right place to submit. Reading through it this week I found I still liked the concept and was pleased with how I’d done it but (thankfully) it’s a bit outdated now. Bradford’s picking up again, as I said in a recent post about the literature festival. They’ve even moved the central library. So, have this (magic realism?) story on me, constructive feedback and comments welcome as always.

Bradford, City of Film by JY Saville

Chris drove past the shining new signposts heralding his return to the city of his birth: Bradford, City of Film. He smiled to himself and shook his head. They were grasping at straws, he thought; it was hardly the new Cannes, not even Edinburgh but if it helped, where was the harm. That it had helped was obvious as soon as he dropped down into the city centre. He parked behind the library and stood looking around at the surroundings. Everything looked smart and new, there was even a bayonet in the war memorial statue – Chris had never seen one in place except when Tom Courtenay saluted it in the film Billy Liar. Rumour had it that the council had given up replacing it after it had been stolen so many times, but other rumour had it that it unlocked a secret tunnel under the neighbouring Alhambra theatre. Chris laughed out loud as he strode down the hill, glad to be back, revelling in memories.

Chris Thompson had left university with ambition; once upon a time that ambition could have been fulfilled in Bradford, a bright young lad could have gone far, learned languages, travelled the empire, all in the service of worsted. Chris knew what worsted was but that was as far as it went; his kind of ambition needed a modern city like Leeds to thrive. And since you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb he’d left the county altogether and moved to London. Once there, he’d dusted off his middle name – Pyrah, Bradford to the core – and attached it to his surname. Now Chris Pyrah-Thompson was home.

He kept walking, never getting closer to his fellow citizens than the glimpse of a turned-up raincoat collar or a flat cap rounding a corner. Not many people out so late; maybe those that weren’t at home were at the cinema, helping the city earn its new title. Chris himself would head off soon but it had been a long drive so the brief diversion on foot was welcome; for the moment the glow of the sodium lamp over the familiar streets drew him on. He hadn’t realised it was so late and dark when he’d arrived. And suddenly quiet, too.

The eerie silence solidified round the cathedral where the sound of trains should have been a periodic background thrum. Looking at the cathedral full-on it seemed real enough, but glance up Church Bank and he could see from the corner of his eye how grainy the edge of the churchyard was. He shook his head, looked away, looked back. Tired from the long drive, or had his Aunt Irene’s warnings of the effects of living in the South been justified? He looked down at his feet. The cobbles took over from tarmac a few feet away. He whirled round and a silent horse was ridden past jerkily at the top of the street in that characteristic stop-go of early cinema. City of film indeed.

It was convincing enough to fool a passing visitor, but how many of those were they expecting? As some fellow Bradfordian had once angrily informed him – and to be honest he’d never bothered to check if it was true – there were no signs pointing the way to Bradford, and the single junction of the M62 that hinted at its existence was rumoured to loop round and deposit the unwary motorist back on the carriageway pointing in the other direction. This was generally assumed to be part of the Great Conspiracy to Steal Bradford’s Thunder which, so the story went, the Leeds city fathers had been perpetrating since long before the advent of moving pictures.

For a son of Bradford, these images hinted at past glories and lost youth, presenting Bradford as the returning wanderer remembered it. And maybe that was the point. Though how many returning wanderers were there? How many of the people Chris had seen that night were real? Did anyone still live here?

He ran along cobbles, tarmac, packed dirt, through the early days of silence to the full colour noughties. Shifting, disconcerting visions of the city overlapped around him. Look from one angle and you could see the old market, go round the corner and instead of a rear view you might see the field it had been built on or the shopping centre that replaced it. The beck was underground or above ground, almost dry or overflowing. It was a real test of local knowledge and Chris didn’t feel up to the challenge. His shoes rang out on the solid surface of the streets; he had no doubt that if he fell in the beck he’d get wet. Or poisoned – he’d heard his grandad tell the old tales.

Rounding a corner in colour he saw a man locking up a shop. Chris didn’t pay too much attention to the details, just shouted to see if he could get the man’s attention, and to his relief he turned to face him, hand still on the door handle.

“Thank God,” panted Chris. “I think I might be going mad.”

“Evening,” smiled the shopkeeper.

“How long’s it been like this?” asked Chris, hoping the man didn’t ask what he meant. There was still a faint possibility that Chris was losing his grasp on reality.

“Well,” began the man, considering, “We’ve had a couple of weeks to get used to it, and I think folk are settling into it.”

“A couple of weeks? That might explain why no-one’s noticed yet. I mean, from the outside.”

“Aye,” agreed the shopkeeper, folding his arms, still smiling at Chris.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” asked Chris, aghast.

“I’m quite adaptable.”

Chris was quiet for a moment, wondering how adaptable a person would have to be to take something like this in their stride. He was about to say something when the shopkeeper said:

“It has caused a few problems, mainly with older people.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Chris. “If they weren’t confused before they will be now.”

“Well, they’re trying to convert everything as they go along, and the mental arithmetic’s not always up to it, you know how it is.” He smiled again and the penny – old or new – dropped. Chris remembered seeing this documentary about decimalisation at school; he remembered it because his gran’s neighbour was in the background halfway through, just after the adaptable smiling shopkeeper said his piece.

Chris wandered back through the variously dark, variously old streets, in silence or with accompanying traffic noise, none of it – as far as he could tell – real. Although the silence, when he thought about it, must be real. He hadn’t managed to track down a real live human being in half an hour of running after people and shouting. Though if someone who thought his home town had been replaced by a cinematic echo of its former self came running after Chris asking if he was real, he was fairly confident that he’d ignore them and walk faster. So what had he proved, after all?

Assuming he could leave the city on a real road that went somewhere, Chris wondered what his family would say if he asked them about the city’s transformation. Had they noticed? He wasn’t sure any of them went into the centre of Bradford any more, and that was undoubtedly the problem. As a child, Chris had been taken by his family to pantomimes each year at the Alhambra. One year it had been Peter Pan, and the part that had stayed with him for thirty years was the bit where you had to shout I believe in fairies because whenever someone says they don’t believe, a fairy dies. Was that what had happened? Belief in Bradford had evaporated as the last of the mills shut down, the big shops followed and investment dried up. One by one the streets had winked out of existence, eventually replaced by the captured dreams of days gone by – archive footage, lovingly stitched together by enthusiasts with European money.

“I believe in fairies!” Chris bellowed in the middle of Centenary Square, but not even the pigeons seemed to care.

Advertisements

Films, biscuits and shared ideas

I don’t need much of an excuse to eat jammie dodgers, but if I did I could use the first rejection from my batch of submissions this weekend (actually I usually just shrug and move on – often a story that one person says has no potential, another person is prepared to pay for). That’s good in a way, it means the story’s not tied up for long and I can try it again somewhere else straight away. Except of course we all know I’ll sit here with biscuit crumbs on the keyboard and think about it for a while, file it in the mental To Do list and get round to it in a few weeks.

In the meantime I’ve been scribbling ideas cobbled together from things that Mark and OneMonkey said yesterday: one muses on X and Y happening to Z, the other then says maybe X would happen to A and Y would happen to Z but in a different universe, and I take X happening to Z in the different universe and see where it gets me. I do that a lot with things OneMonkey says, he’ll mention a good idea in passing and I take the core, strip away the bits I’m not so keen on, add a few twists of my own and write something. I can’t decide whether that means I have no imagination of my own, or I’m just good at being sparked by snippets of someone else’s thoughts.

Which made me think of a film I saw recently, on Mark’s recommendation, called Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel. It had its flaws (the big one being why on earth would the other two hang around with Pete, but OneMonkey reckons it’s because they worked at the same place) but it was quite fun and strange. Three friends in the pub encounter a time slip, a time traveller, adulation, fear, the apocalypse (possibly) and out of date crisps. One of them is a struggling writer of speculative fiction who often works on ideas based on conversations the three of them have had, or things the other two have said. It’s British, it’s funny, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and it reminded me of our Thursdays at the pub before French friend A (potential translator of Boys Don’t Cry) went off to do adventurous outdoorsy things for a few months (though in the film they have a drink each whereas we, being tight, had a maximum of two between four of us. And I don’t remember ever stumbling out of my own time). It does feel like a film that could have been written by three friends in a pub, and I mean that as a compliment.

To adapt a mockingbird

Apparently, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee was published 50 years ago this year; the BBC showed a documentary this week connected with it, which I saw part of. The presenter mentioned that he’d never watched the classic film adaptation starring Gregory Peck as he was too fond of the book. Conversely I’ve never read the book (nor have I seen the film) but I saw a spell-binding stage version starring under-rated Bradford-born actor Duncan Preston as Atticus, and I wouldn’t want to read the book now in case it tainted my memories of the play.

As with many things, I’m quite inconsistent when it comes to sampling different versions of literary works. I mentioned recently seeking out novels of TV and radio detectives I’ve enjoyed, and if I’m not doing much else I’ll usually have a listen to a radio version of the Maigret or Poirot stories I read as an adolescent. Whereas with the novels of the TV or radio detectives I’m looking for something new to widen my knowledge of them, when I listen to Maigret, Poirot or Sherlock Holmes I’m looking for something familiar and comfortable, something I can happily miss a few minutes of to go make a cup of tea.

I used to make a point of not watching adaptations of Stephen King stories I’d already read (to this day I think the only exception is The Green Mile which wasn’t one of my favourite Stephen King books anyway; I watched the film about 10 years after I’d read the novel) because those stories were so important to me I didn’t want anything spoiling them. The other way round was somehow fine: I saw Stand By Me and Maximum Overdrive before I read their written roots, and I realised that at least with the short stories the divergence between the visual and the written was great enough to allow me to separate them in my mind.

A few years ago (actually 11, I just checked) there was a high-profile film adaptation of at least part of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. Given that this is one of my absolute favourite books of all time (I say it’s a book, singular, but the edition I’ve got is 3 thick books and my dad’s edition is 12 slimmer volumes) I was curious as to how it was handled, but I knew I could never watch it as the novel itself means too much to me and no-one else’s vision could ever do it justice. Which is where more inconsistency comes in: Lord of the Rings, another of my all-time favourites (sometimes for the sake of my back I wish I carried thinner books around with me), and yet I was eager to see Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, and came away from the first film with the unsettling feeling that he’d somehow seen inside my head. I didn’t feel the same about the remaining two films but I still enjoyed them because of the way the first one made me feel, and I’m looking forward to The Hobbit.

I’m not sure what the conclusion is from all this, if indeed there is one. Maybe it’s just that I’m a contrary soul, or that I’m missing out on interpretations that would make me enjoy my favourite books all the more (the BBC presenter finally watched the Gregory Peck film and thought Peck’s delivery brought to life part of the courtroom scene that he’d always found rather flat in the book). Maybe I should stick to only one format or the other, to maximise my time for discovering new wonders.

Passivity personified

Here’s a tip if you’re a disorganised writer, prone to procrastination: don’t join a well-stocked DVD library. Or if you do, swiftly admit your mistake and disengage as soon as possible. I’ve been having a grand time recently, watching films I hadn’t seen for years, or had meant to watch when they were released, or had never heard of. A fair few were based on books, like Elling, LA Confidential, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Elling was every bit as special and amazing a film on the second watch; it’s based on the third book of a quartet as far as I remember, the only one available in English rather than the original Norwegian but I’m holding out for the first book being translated. I did try learning Norwegian, but being able to describe OneMonkey’s appearance or ask for breakfast is a far cry from picking up a literary nuance. LA Confidential put me in the mood for some hard-boiled detection (more of which shortly), and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil felt wonderfully slow, atmospheric and literary (probably won’t read the book though, without John Cusack and Kevin Spacey I’m not sure how much it would hold for me).

Feeling guilty for watching so many films, but still not stirred to write much, I read a couple of novels you’d definitely file under noir. The first I was wary about but delighted with, the second was disappointing but maybe only in comparison to the first.

Poodle Springs, by Raymond Chandler and Robert B Parker: I don’t know how much of the manuscript Chandler had left but I couldn’t see any joins. I’ve never read any of Parker’s novels (I will now) but my dad, about as keen on Raymond Chandler as I am, had read this hybrid work when it came out (1990) and pronounced it OK. At first I thought Marlowe wasn’t acting the way you’d expect, then I realised that was almost entirely down to the circumstances (we first encounter our hero returning from his honeymoon to a small Californian town), and once I’d accepted that I was drawn in and dragged along to the end at a fast pace, forgetting it wasn’t Chandler through and through.

In the mood for more of the seamy side of California, I picked up Die a Little by Megan Abbott in the local library; it had a recommendation from James Ellroy (whose book was behind the film I’d just watched) on the cover, and another quote that said ‘the kind of book that should make devotees of Cain and Chandler fall down and beg for mercy’, which at the time I thought was intended positively but now I’m not so sure. Set in the 1950s but published in 2005 I wasn’t sure how well Abbott had caught the tone. Lora King is a strait-laced teacher from a small town, moved to LA with her brother Bill who becomes an investigator in the District Attorney’s office. Bill marries a girl with a shady background which might not be as strictly in the past as it seems and Lora, worried about her brother, sets out to investigate.

As a premise it sounded good, but part of what I mean by not catching the tone is that Lora seemed too modern in her grey areas: there was nothing to suggest she wasn’t every bit as innocent as you’d expect from her background, but the way she uncovered some things without apparently batting an eyelid didn’t sit right for me, and in the end she comes across as morally ambiguous with no real explanation. On the technical side, there was no sign of investigation until a good third of the way through, and there were a few loose threads (for instance Lora makes a note of the address when she sees someone she knows going into a house, then later sees an address and because it’s the same street she wonders if it’s the same house – surely she’d know, or be able to look at her note?) and a bit of a ‘look I’ve researched the 1950s’ info-dump (a half-page list of dinner party dishes Bill’s wife learns to make, plus the named kitchen gadgets she buys to assist). I did read the book all the way to the end so it can’t have been that bad, but it left me unsatisfied. Maybe if I hadn’t read it straight after such a good example of the genre my reaction would have been a bit more favourable.

I will mention the last film I watched, before I settle down to write: Bunny and the Bull, a recent British film which has some things in common with Elling I suppose, as far as the set-up goes (shy, neurotic man with a loud, sex-crazed best friend with questionable personal habits). Visually it’s very striking, lots of interesting animation styles and clever representations of a reclusive man’s shaky grasp on reality. Quite sad and touching in places, but also daft, funny and crude. Well worth missing a couple of hours’ writing time for.