Wednesday 30 May 2012

Video Trailer for 'True Brit Grit'

Here is the trailer to the True Brit Grit short story anthology, of which my story 'Meat is Murder' is number 22.

Friday 25 May 2012

Bosnia, 20 Years After the Wars: Movies, Memoir and Memory

Bosnia, 20 Years After the Wars: Movies, Memoir and Memory

Anyone who has ever watched any films based on the wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s will come away battered intellectually and emotionally, I would bet. Because few of them pull any punches. Okay, 2001’s ‘Behind Enemy Lines’, with Owen Wilson in the starring role, overdoes the pyrotechnics somewhat and its lack of adherence to the facts of a recent reality do irk, but others are genuinely brilliant. Take ‘Nicija zemlja’ (No Man’s Land) also released in 2001 or ‘Niciji sin’ (No One’s Son), which came out in 2008, for instance. Both will shake you to the bones but they were made by local film makers, so the fraught realism is to be expected.

Others, foreign-produced, equally assail the emotions, however. ‘Harrison’s Flowers’, for instance, released, once more, in 2001, takes us from a genteel New York world of back-slapping journalists to the death and destruction of Croatia in the early 1990s, when taking a left turn after a serene road trip through the mountains could lead to a tank mounting your car. Then there is ‘Savior’ (1998) about an American mercenary on the Bosnian Serb side, who hates and slaughters Muslims for deeply personal reasons, then rails against the barbarity that he both causes and confronts. This is unflinchingly depicted throughout the film’s 103 minutes.

Second World War films, on the other hand, only began to become uncompromising in the 1970s, when some distance had been measured between the end of the conflict and a new era. ‘A Bridge Too Far’, made in 1977, might have had an all-star cast but the brutality of war was not eluded, even if one particularly murderous assault did include the perfectly-groomed Robert Redford.

But as far as World War II is concerned, the major contrast to be noted is that between 1962’s ‘The Longest Day’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ made by Stephen Spielberg in 1998. Both are exceptional but the key difference is in the boat landings made by the US troops on the beaches of Normandy. In the 60s’ version there is banter, in the 90s’ there is vomiting.

So why have the films showing the Yugoslavian wars been so unremittingly brutal, despite being made only a handful of years after they ended? 

Television is the reason. 

Film makers addressing the madness of the Yugoslavian Wars had to go all out to show the mayhem, because the TV cameras had been there first. During World War II, there may have been a few rifle shots on Pathe News but not the scenes of carnage after mortar attacks on markets in Sarajevo in the 1990s, for instance. The hideous drama was already out there. Film makers had to catch up.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the war in Bosnia, which saw the Bosnian Serb army lay siege to the capital Sarajevo, with mortar attacks and sniper fire tormenting the city’s population on a daily basis.

Into this mayhem stepped Martin Bell and his crew, along with a number of other intrepid and, arguably, barely sane reporters, to cover a war which Bell called the “most consequential” of our time.

To coincide with the international remembrance of the start of the conflict in Bosnia, Icon Books has this year published a revised and updated edition of Bell’s memoir ‘In Harm’s Way’, which charts the terror and destruction that had the tiny nation in flames between 1992 and 1995.

Originally printed by Penguin in 1995, then 1996, Bell’s book addresses the predicament of being a journalist in what was an unprecedented war since 1945, with families torn apart and children seen as legitimate targets, along with anyone else crossing the street.

Martin Bell became a household name because of the Bosnian war, to such an extent that one UN General’s wife told him to stop looking “so miserable” when on air, as if a big cheesy grin would have been more appropriate.

The white suit, his somber voice narrating the latest atrocities committed by the troops up on the hills, the fact that he risked life and limb doing so, and was indeed wounded for his troubles, were all factors that seared the Bosnian conflict into the world’s consciousness.

Things didn’t always run smoothly, needless to say, in that quagmire. Bell’s reminiscences are fraught with the frustration of being a TV reporter, having to lug equipment around when print reporters were able to hop on buses with just their notebooks in tow.

There are countless other difficulties documented, such as the unwillingness of the armies to grant Bell and his colleagues access, something he wasn’t used to, the warring parties’ bloody-mindedness being exactly that, bloody. That and the fact that he and other journalists had to just stand there and record slaughter, helplessly and often, in their own minds, culpably.

I myself am a journalist though not one who has ever worked in a war zone, so I can only imagine the travails that Bell and his counterparts had to endure during the 1990s war, let alone the general population. But the irritations of the job recounted by Bell, I know well. The effort unrewarded, thinking you have a great story when something else crops up meaning yours is ditched at the last moment; the sheer chaos of it, that maddening source of despair and at the same time adrenalin, which gets you doing the job in the first place. That’s all familiar to me, but without any bullets flying in my direction.

I have also been to Bosnia, post-war, twice in fact. Both occasions were very educational. The first visit was to Sarajevo by coach from the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the vehicle bursting into flames in the dead of night just as we were approaching the mountains. We rushed off in fear that it was about to explode. It didn’t and a replacement bus turned up eventually after us standing around in the pitch black dark for a couple of hours. Then came the climb up the mountains and the temperature dropping to freezing.

We arrived in the Serb-run bus station at dawn, in the East of the city, with it shrouded in fog. I was with two Americans, one a work colleague, the other a traveller we’d met outside the bus after it had gone up in smoke.

The taxi journey into the centre was stunning, in the worst sense, the grim weather augmenting a general sense of gloom. Almost every apartment block we passed was riddled with bullet holes, though other armoury may have also been responsible for the damage. Conversation stopped while we gawped.

The visit was also clouded by a sense of foreboding, though the danger had long passed. The sight of the burned out museum caused by the Bosnian Serb bombardment was harrowing, although the history of its assault was given on posters in the Serbian Cyrillic, as well as Russian, English and other languages. Serbs were being called ‘bandits’ in Serbian.

There were the calls to prayer from the minarets, while the mainly Muslim population ate their cevapi and drank beer and wine and also danced like mad in the bars. I’d seen far stricter Islamists in Birmingham. Yet religion had supposedly underpinned the fighting from the off.

The trip back taught me a lesson about the fragility of life, appropriately enough. From Podgorica to Sarajevo we had veered towards our destination in complete darkness and thick fog. The return journey was done in clear daylight. Gingerly, the coach negotiated mountain ledges that threatened a drop to our deaths should the driver’s hand slip for a second. The curves in the road were an invitation to tragedy, a word that had engulfed Bosnia of late. But it came in stark contrast to the stunning mountainous view. Majesty versus death: Bosnia defined, you could say.

Over a year later I was in Banja Luka, capital of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb enclave created by the Dayton Accords of 1995. Then the temperatures were around 30-35 degrees Celsius and I traipsed about town doing guide book work while melting in the heat. I was made feel very welcome despite the fact that NATO had bombed the Bosnian Serb army to prevent it causing the citizens of Sarajevo any more suffering. Part of the job I was doing was to visit and write about the nightclubs in the city and because of the weather I went to one in shorts and trainers. I was told by the bouncers that my clothing was inappropriate but when I said I didn’t understand they let me in, as I was British. Balkan hospitality once again transcended politics.

But the politics was still out there. You only needed to look at the souvenir stands to see that, draped as they were in t-shirts and other paraphernalia celebrating the likes of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, then at large and out of range of the security services hunting them down. No one seemed to entertain the fact that there was a contradiction between hailing suspected war criminals and being utterly courteous to a British guest. 

There was another surreal moment when I passed a drinking hole called the ‘Peckham Pub’. I almost had to rub my eyes to confirm what I was seeing. I walked in and discovered a shrine to ‘Only Fools and Horses’, massively popular in the former Yugoslavia. There I was in a part of the world much of the UK considered beyond the pale and staring back at me from the walls were Del Boy, Rodney and Uncle Albert.
It was a world away from savagery, yet I was right there, in Banja Luka, at one of its many sources. Watching films about the wars in the former Yugoslavia was more harrowing than actually being there, at that time, post-war.

Life does move on, extraordinarily, even in places oozing with death and it does so more brightly, arguably, than elsewhere. The glistening Vbras River flowing through Banja Luka under a beating sun, with its swimmers and rowers fleeing from the daily grind, the partying Sarajevans, celebrating a Muslim holiday in a flood of wine and beer: that was the Bosnia I saw, without the TV screen getting in the way.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Archive article – Big-Brain Polish Band Goes Spontaneous

Originally published by the now-defunct WiK English Edition, part of Poland’s reputed Wprost publishing house, in April 2007

Lao Che -Big-Brain Polish Band Goes Spontaneous

Lao Che, the band that brought rock and roll to the library with its first two albums, has lightened up. With Gusła (‘Witchcraft’) in 2002, and Powstanie Warszawskie (‘Warsaw Uprising’) in 2005 the group broke the mould with their painstaking research into crucial periods of Polish history. With the debut record a study of life in medieval times and the second a raucous tribute to the young fighters who lost their lives battling against the Nazis on Warsaw’s streets during the Second World War, Lao Che proved that the cerebral and visceral could be entwined in a powerful, ground-breaking manner in the studio.

But now, after the huge success of the second album – hailed by many critics as a seminal work in Polish music history – the band have decided to re-invent themselves. The dusty tomes have been cast aside and instead they have reached immediately for their instruments to see what comes out. When they play at Warsaw’s Proxima club on April 15th, they will be showcasing around four new songs, each of which will represent a significant departure from the old Lao Che sound, which while fascinating, was at times held down by the weight of its own intellect.

“We feel that to produce a third album based on historical events would be boring and a bit of a cliché,” said Mariusz Denst, the group’s drummer. “This time no topic was figured out before we created the music. We have done things completely at ease, by just sitting around and discussing our ideas and choosing the ones we feel are the most appealing.”

The only catch could be that this next record is so radically distinct from the previous two that some fans might struggle to recognize who is playing the songs. With Gusła, the tone was one that evoked images of agrarian filth, violence and the bleakest debauchery. With Powstanie Warszawskie, we received a right old earful of the rage that the Varsovian insurgents unleashed against their Nazi oppressors. Neither album contained much that erred on the brighter side of life and, in truth, they were better for it. But now, it seems, Lao Che have gone all chirpy on us.

“Probably it will be quite difficult for people to realize that it is Lao Che who are playing when they first hear the songs,” said Denst. “The first two albums were quite mood-oriented and a bit somber. So we have turned everything upside down and done something very happy and full of positive feelings. There is a lot of humour in the songs. The melodies and arrangements sound like something from the circus and there are also a number of jazz influences.”

How comfortably these new tracks will play alongside the older songs will be intriguing to find out and the only way to so will be to catch the band live, as none of the songs will be downloadable any day soon.

But whatever they sound like, to depart from the successful and extremely daring recipe of the ‘Powstanie Warszawskie’ album just goes to show what a brave group Lao Che are. In the eight years they have been together they have only released two records, such is the rigour they have applied to reading up on their subject matter. It is difficult to imagine a band in the West having any such nerve, and just as mind-boggling that a record company has been prepared to take them on.

So that we don’t grow complacent, however, the group say that the abundant cheer on the next album should not be misread as a sign of intention over the longer-term.

“This third album has been dictated by the reception of the Warsaw Uprising album. However, this does not mean we will be sticking to the same course from here on in,” said Denst.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Archive Article – Irvine Welsh on Dorota Maslowska

Originally published by the now-defunct New Warsaw Express on May 12th 2006

Sounding Off in Translation

Polish literature was turned on its head in 2002 when 20-year-old Dorota Maslowska published her novel ‘White and Red’, (or ‘Wojna Polsko Ruska Pod Flaga Bialo- Czerwona, as it was then known) to universal acclaim.

Translated into English only last year, the book brings us into the unhinged world of the Gdansk-based wanderer Andrzej ‘Nails’ Robakowski who, constantly high on amphetamines, lurches through incidents with a series of other characters in a fit of misanthropic despair.

What gripped Polish readers when they picked up ‘White and Red’ was that it was the first novel in the language to employ the street vernacular of the post-communist period. Gone were the long strokes of literary introspection beloved by classic writers such as Witold Gombrowicz. 

Here was something raw and immediate, analogous to the bewildering pace of change in the real world of 21st Century Poland.

“I think it has been worth living 40 years to finally read something so interesting,” wrote critic Marcin Swietlicki, after reading the book when it first came out.

The English version - translated ably enough by Benjamin Paloff – captures much of the frantic impatience of the original but one constantly feels a nagging sense of distance from the essence of the book.  One oft-quoted parallel for Maslowska’s work has been the impact of Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’, written in the harsh working-class vernacular of his native Edinburgh.

In Warsaw in March, Welsh summed up some of his reservations about ‘White and Red’.

“I have a problem when I read any European novel translated into English,” he told NWE. “They either sound as if the characters come from some small American town or somewhere in inner London. Translation often has the impact of taking something that you can tell is fairly specific – and has its own vitality and culture – and homogenising it. I think that translators could sometimes be much more creative.”

Yet he said he appreciated ‘White and Red’ despite all that.

“I enjoyed the book but kind of felt I was missing out by not reading it in Polish. I could feel there was much more to it than I was getting,’ he went on. “It was like seeing the top of an iceberg.”

Since ‘White and Red’ was published in English, reviewers have been queuing up to compare Maslowska to Welsh. Even with the limitations inherent in the translated version, readers are still treated to much the same urgency and high-octane bile in ‘White and Red’ as they experienced in ‘Trainspotting’. It is in that feature of the novel that lies both its strength and weakness.

Nails’ rant begins after being ditched by his girlfriend Magda. The tirade continues as he careers around town, slipping the odd nugget of texture – that the city is up in arms against the ‘Russkies’ – the traders from Russia who are supposedly violating Polish soil -  and that Nails has himself had it with Poland’s brand new model of capitalism.

His response is to get off his head on speed and try it on with various women, at turns a goth, who pukes up stones into his bath, a psychotic amphetamine freak who tears around his flat looking for a fix and a truly scary arch-Catholic, who lectures him on the evils of tobacco and alcohol. Nail’s angst intensifies when he fails to have sex with any of them and as a reader you experience it as if he is shouting in your ear.

Welsh’s prose is often the same. The characters reel off a litany of tales and complaints without taking a breath. In neither Maslowska nor Welsh does there seem time to take a pause for thought. This is because of their preoccupation with how a novel ‘sounds’, as Welsh himself said.

But we do not read with our ears. Sometimes we need to switch off from the din and feel prose seep into our minds without any noise, taking us from the daily grind and leading to the gradual throb of enlightenment. Maslowska and Welsh, products of our high-volume times, could do with turning it down just a touch.

Thursday 17 May 2012

Fashion, Music and Theatre Fused - Crossing Boundaries – Battling Mediocrity

Taken by Darron Palmer
Crossing Boundaries – Battling Mediocrity

Let’s be in no doubt about it, we live in philistine times. With the television show Britain’s Got Talent - already a shrine to mediocrity - awarding its first prize to a dog we can safely say that the UK has got issues with intellect and aesthetic taste.

Yet glimmers of inspiration do appear every now and then, even on this often silly, sceptred isle.

On May 13th at the Adrian Boult Hall in the Birmingham Conservatoire, an attempt was made to wake Britain up to its real talent, with not a canine in sight.

A play, concert and fashion show, all-in-one, with the proceeds going to charity, the ambition of the ‘Crossing Boundaries’ show attracted skepticism, particularly from the local media whose support was notable for its absence. You wonder what they were thinking when you take a look at their often unreadable pages and unwatchable local TV programmes. Dross is their watchword, the lowest common denominator their apparent guiding principle, which is probably why they failed to turn up at the conservatoire on Sunday.

The brainchild of local fashion designer, musician and composer, Jojo Remeny, the ‘Crossing Boundaries’ extravaganza began with a play addressing the prejudices of the 1960s, taking as its cue the experiences of George Saunders, an immigrant and master tailor from St. Kitts who struggled to find work in his trade because of the colour of his skin. He ended up a factory worker when he should have been measuring up the rich and famous. Consummately acted and brimming with humour, the play – written by Stephen Moran – made an acerbic dig at the dying conservatism of the decade that wrought so much change. 

The concert began after a ten-minute break and made one’s heart soar like a hawk. Fusing Indian music, classical and jazz music, Jojo Remeny’s exquisite symphony took you on a journey through the continents and the emotions too. Tabla, violin, guitar and horns conjoined here and there in subdued harmony, rising temper and threatening crescendo, without the latter yet coming to pass.

I had my doubts about fashion and serious music being intertwined, if I am being honest. Clothing, however sophisticated, bespeaks brand names and the high street; orchestras an escape from all that. Others had reservations while watching the show, with some saying the models should have made their presence felt earlier. I, for one, thought their entrance perfectly timed.

The dancers in their monochrome skirts and dresses entered the scene and glided down the stairway at a moment when the audience was entranced by the music. At just the right time, that is. Their femininity with its swaying hips and limbs flowed in tandem with the soft notes of the musicians until the moment came to up the ante. Strictly choreographed, the dancers/models responded in kind.

The show started with a play and ended with pure epic theatre, proving that individual talent can meld brilliantly in abundant directions.

Eclecticism is commonly frowned upon in our culture, thinking it “too clever by half”. The ambition displayed by the ‘Crossing Boundaries’ show won’t work, the cynics insist. There seem to be plenty of those taking up office space at Birmingham’s media outlets right now.

Despite its apparent multi-culturalism, the UK has developed an attitude of late that you have to be one thing or another when it comes to artistic expression. Pigeon-holing is a national pastime and it is unremittingly dull. Look out of the window, walk the streets. There is a world of variety out there. Embrace it, and more importantly, get it into your skull.

Saturday 12 May 2012

Guest Blogger - Paul D. Brazill - Charlie Higson - The Godfather of Brit Grit?

Charlie Higson - The Godfather of Brit Grit? by Paul D. Brazill

At some point in the ‘90s, I was on the guest list for a press screening of Robert Benton’s crime drama, Twilight. The screening was in Mr Young’s Preview Theatre in the heart of London’s Soho.

It was a dangerous thing to invite me to; there was free food and drink. But there you go! 

Various press types were there, including an American with a grating voice and the great Kim Newman - who was being as witty and funny and clever as you’d want.

Just before the film was due to start, a figure in a shabby raincoat and carrying a rattling, clinking plastic bag turned up.

It was Charlie Higson, who at the time was film critic for Red Magazine. Higson sat behind me during the film and, it seemed to my booze sensitive ears, worked his way through a fair number of the bottles of beer that were in the carrier bag.

Higson, at that time, was best known as one of the stars and writers of The Fast Show – a brilliantly funny and bitter-sweet comedy sketch show that has been much imitated and never bettered. Now, he is probably best known as the author of the hugely successful Young James Bond YA books.

But he is also the writer of a bunch of dark and funny urban crime/ horror novels that led him to be described as “The missing link between Dick Emery and Bret Easton Ellis”.
King Of The Ants, his 1992 début novel, is the story of Sean, a pretty useless builder’s labourer, who covets the rich peoples’ homes that he works on and is offered a dodgy surveillance job which then turns into a contract kill. And worse.

King Of the Ants was praised by the great Patricia Highsmith, no less, and the praise is deserved. It is a classic piece of Brit Grit noir, full of bitterness, resentment and underachievement. And humour.

This was followed by more cracking books, including The Full Whack, the cruel and hilarious story of a former football hooligan who is trying to sort his life out when he encounters a couple of blasts from the past that are positively seismic.

Charlie Higson will probably be up for an OBE or something soon but don’t worry ‘bout the rocks that he’s got - Charlie Higson has TRUE BRIT GRIT.

Paul D. Brazill was born in England and now lives in Poland. He left school at sixteen, played bass guitar in a couple of early '80s post-punk bands and once saw Bert Kwouk very, very drunk. 

He started writing flash fiction & short stories at the end of 2008 and has had them published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Book Of Best British Crime 8. 

He has since had two collections published -13 Shots Of Noir (Untreed Reads) & Snapshots (Pulp Metal Fiction). Pulp Press will be publishing his novella Guns Of Brixton soon and he has put together two anthologies, True Brit Grit, published by Guilty Conscience, and Drunk On The Moon, published by Dark Valentine Press. His blog is You Would Say That Wouldn’t You?