Thursday 22 September 2011

The Banksy of Book Publishing: Echo and The Underground Graffiti Sketchbook (The Ilex Press, 2011)

(NB: This post also appears on the blog for The Ilex Press, the Lewes-based illustrated and pop culture publisher of which I'm managing editor. I'm cross-posting it here partly for posterity and partly because I've got nowt else to post today.)

By and large, Ilex's authors are an agreeable, accommodating bunch, always willing to speak to the press or make themselves available for oversubscribed signing sessions. But there is one Ilex author who shuns the spotlight; who exists in a shadowy world of half-truths and obfuscation, his identity shrouded in mystery. That author is "Echo", the man (or possibly woman; who can tell? I've only ever communicated with him/her via email) behind the recently published The Underground Graffiti Sketchbook.

If you're not familiar with this particular tome, it is, in essence, and as its title suggests, a sketchbook, comprising over fifty line-drawings of classic Metropolitan Line and Hammersmith & City Line – or "Big Met" and "Little Met" – train carriages, which fold out to a great big long tube train and on which aspiring graffiti artists can scrawl their tags and designs for masterpieces. There are a few sample pieces to get you started, along with a couple of characters. But there's also an essay detailing the history of British graffiti, from the mid-1980s until the present day, written by a man (or woman...) who was there: the aforementioned Echo.

Little is known about Echo, but many and legion are the tales of his graffiti career. There's the time he was chased down a train line in the dead of night by the transport police, their torches bobbing towards him as he pelted alongside the live rail, eventually tumbling down a bank and scrambling over a barbed wire fence to make his escape. There's the occasion he had to hide in a bush to elude a squad car, and the time he was stopped by a couple of coppers whilst carrying a bag full of spray-paint.

But I think my favourite Echo story dates from early in his career, and concerns a piece he and his crew spray-painted one night on a pristine whitewashed brick wall. The location was scouted out by a member of the crew, who at that time was infatuated with a then-popular pop princess. Unwisely perhaps (they were all very young), Echo and the rest of the crew agreed to do a piece dedicated to this pop waif on the wall their crewmember had found. Come nightfall, the crew gained access over a back fence from an alley backing onto a terrace of suburban homes, so Echo had no idea what the building – a 1960s brutalist Bauhaus affair – was. The piece was completed in a few hours (Echo did the character, his particular speciality), and that was that.

Cut to a few days later, and Echo decides to go and check out the piece in situ. Retracing his steps down the back alley, he's met by the glorious sight of the crew's slightly embarrassing spray-painted shrine to a pop star. But there, in front of the wall, are what looks to be hundreds of uniformed schoolgirls, engaged in lunchtime games of hopscotch and huddled in conspiratorial groups in a tarmacked playground. The wall, it turns out, was propping up the roof of a girls' comprehensive. To this day, Echo isn't sure whether that made the piece even more embarrassing or strangely apposite.

Echo is mulling over a further book detailing further episodes from his graffiti career, but in the meantime, you can read his appreciation of the UK graffiti scene in The Underground Graffiti Sketchbook, and doodle your own pieces on its pristine train-carriage pages.

Which is certainly better than writing on the wall of a girls' school...

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Science Fiction Stories: "The Earthman's Burden", Galaxy, Vol. 21, No. 1 (October 1962)

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

After a slightly-longer-than-anticipated John le Carré-shaped diversion, it's back to the short stories written by Donald E. Westlake for various science fiction magazines in the early 1960s. And whereas the previous Westlake SF short (if you can cast your mind back that far) involved teleportation, this next story centres on... telepathy...

"The Earthman's Burden" was first published in the October 1962 issue of Galaxy Magazine (cover art by the great Virgil Finlay), and unlike the last two stories I blogged about, this one has been reprinted since – in the 1989 collection Tomorrow's Crimes. I've no idea what the editorial criteria was for which stories were included in that volume; while "The Earthman's Burden" is a decent enough effort, it's not, to my mind, any better than "Look Before You Leap". It also faces stiff competition in this particular issue of Galaxy: it's preceded by strong stories by Cordwainer Smith (the classic, exemplary "The Ballad of Lost C'mell") and – a personal favourite author of mine – Ray Bradbury, whose "Come into My Cellar" is typical of his punch-to-the-gut shockers.

Inevitably, then, when stacked up against two giants in the science fiction field, Westlake's story rather suffers by comparison. Although in one respect it's quite prescient: what the tale most reminded me of was the Star Trek episode "This Side of Paradise", which originally aired in 1967, five years after "The Earthman's Burden". Indeed, Westlake's SF stories do seem to have more in common with the more prosaic likes of Star Trek and Lost in Space, or, more appositely I guess, The Twilight Zone, than with the more lofty themes and preoccupations of the likes of Smith and Bradbury. It's even possible to imagine a parallel universe where, after years of toiling in the sleaze paperback market and contributing scattershot short stories to magazines, Westlake went on to embark upon a career in television, rather than becoming a crime fiction author.

Certainly "The Earthman's Burden" would make for a compelling hour's worth of TV. The plot deals with an expeditionary force of warlike humans from the Empire of Earth and the Protectorate, whose mission it is to seek out, er, old life and civilizations – namely those colonized planets which have been "lost" since the collapse of the Old Empire. Chancing upon a primitive colony on a small planet, Commander-in-Chief Helmut Glorring (shades of National Socialism there) sends Captain Strull, scientist Cahann and a lobotomized marine named Elan down to the surface, where they're met by a cheery man called Harry. Turns out the natives are blissfully unaware of the Empire of Earth, due to the fact that their colony was established before the advent of the Empire. And though on first appearance the natives seem benign, it soon becomes clear they possess extraordinary powers...

Much of the fun of "The Earthman's Burden" comes from the background Westlake establishes for Glorring and his subordinates on the spaceship Lawrence. The Empire of Earth is military-dominated, a hierarchical society where battlefield prowess is prized; consequently the denizens of the Lawrence are prone to impromptu bouts of wrestling. Meanwhile the colonists go from forgotten harmless innocents to slightly more sinister agent provocateurs, concocting a strategy which could well result in the destruction of the Empire. It's not entirely clear where Westlake's sympathies lie, either: on the face of it, it's with the colonists that we're meant to empathize, but the means by which they intend to enact their plan smacks of coercion. While the aim may be noble, the method is rather less so.

"The Earthman's Burden" clocks in at close to thirty pages, and one can't but feel that a lower page count and resulting editorial trimming might have benefited the tale; Ray Bradbury's immediately preceding "Come into My Cellar" manages to be more effective in half the space. Then again, Bradbury was the master of the short story, so it's probably a little unfair to make that comparison. But the next – and final (for now) – Westlake SF short I'll be reviewing certainly doesn't outstay its welcome: it really is very short indeed. And, unusually, Westlake enlisted a co-writer for this metaphysical tale...

Ahead of that, though, I'll have a post on a newly published book on graffiti and some revelations about its mysterious author...

Monday 19 September 2011

Film Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

And so we reach the climax of John le Carré/George Smiley Week, a week which has seen an overlong examination of two first editions of le Carré's masterwork, 1974's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; a review of its follow-up – and the second instalment in the "Karla Trilogy" – 1977's The Honourable Schoolboy; another review of the third part of the Quest for Karla, 1979's Smiley's People, and its attendant 1982 BBC TV adaptation; and a look at Smiley's final appearance, in 1991's The Secret Pilgrim, ably assisted by the erudite Roly Allen.

And we finish, slightly later than planned (I had hoped to get this post up over the weekend, but no matter), with some thoughts on Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's brand new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie, which hit British cinemas on Friday and is, lest we forget, the reason for all this le Carré blogging. And I'm delighted to report that the film is magnificent: not quite as magisterial as the original novel, but even better than the 1979 BBC adaptation, whose long shadow it manages to elude.

Where it benefits is, surprisingly, in its relative brevity. Clocking in at just two hours, it's less than half the length of the Alec Guinness-starring television version, but the compacting of events helps to clarify them, going some way towards countering the complex nature of the plot. There's still a lot to take on board: an opening mission to Hungary (Czechoslovakia in the original novel) which results in British intelligence operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) being shot; the consequent ejection from the Circus (the colloquial name for MI6) of Control (John Hurt) – whose off-the-books directive sent Prideaux to Budapest – and Control's number two, George Smiley (Gary Oldman); the ascension of Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) to head of the Circus; and the introduction of fellow Circus big beasts Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Toby Esterhase (David Denick) and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds).

And that's before we even get to Smiley being brought back out of enforced retirement to hunt down a mole at the top of the Circus, assisted by Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberpatch); the introduction of "rogue" agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who has vital information about the mole; the further introduction of bit-part players Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs, the Circus' expert on Russia), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Irina, the object of Tarr's affections) and Simon McBurney (Oliver Lacon, Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office); and the concept of "Witchcraft", the name for the source of the Circus' information on the Soviet Union, and the means by which Percy Alleline is propelled to his elevated position. That the movie Tinker Tailor retains all these characters and plot elements and is still comprehensible (if you pay attention) is no mean feat in itself, but even more remarkable is the way the film also taps into the novel's escalating tension, something which, to my mind, was largely absent from the Beeb version.

There are alterations, mainly to do with locations, although one character becomes a closet homosexual, a trait which, if it is in the novel, I must admit rather passed me by. But for the most part the film is quite faithful. Necessarily that means it's a period piece, but the story's theme of betrayal – both geopolitical and emotional – remains timeless. The early 1970s setting is both effectively recreated and lent an aesthetically pleasing art-house gloom; the Circus is realised as a cavernous warehouse dotted with curious office "pods", the most striking of which is the soundproofed main meeting room, its convex orange walls giving it the appropriate appearance of a hellish lunatic-asylum cell.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Oldman's Smiley has been getting all the attention, but for me John Hurt's irascible Control, Colin Firth's suave, agreeable Bill Haydon and especially Tom Hardy as poor, doomed Ricki Tarr are standouts. As for Oldman, I can't recall ever seeing him this still, this internalised: his Smiley betrays little emotion, aside from one raised-voice moment towards the end. It's a mannered performance, for sure: all slow reactions and creaking turns; but then so, in its own way, was Alec Guinness's (neither Oldman nor Guinness are/were "naturalistic" actors).

Probably Oldman's biggest scene as Smiley comes when he tells Peter Guillam about his encounter with his nemesis, KGB supremo Karla, in India many moons ago; here the film hews closer to the source text than the '79 TV version, which showed the meeting rather than – as happens in the movie – having Smiley recount it. But three other Smiley moments stayed with me, all of them, I believe, new inventions by Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan.

The first of those arrives early in the film, in a scene – not in the novel – showing Control's deposing during a meeting. When asked, "And what about Smiley?" Control replies, "Smiley is coming with me" – a statement which appears to be news to George: Oldman's reaction is of barely suppressed astonishment. The two traipse through the bowels of the Circus and finally stand facing each other on the pavement outside. There is no salutary handshake; wearily, Control simply turns and walks away, leaving a bemused Smiley to do the same, his life effectively over.

The second moment is a direct nod to Alec Guinness, and comes shortly after Smiley's dismissal. Up to this point, while Smiley is bespectacled, his glasses are quite ordinary: thin-rimmed, unremarkable. But his eyesight worsens in retirement, and a visit to the optician's results in a new pair of spectacles: bifocals, similar to those sported by Guinness in 1979.

As for the the third moment, that acts as a triumphal coda at the film's close. I shan't spoil it, except to say that it sets up a sequel in a way that the novel doesn't, and is underlined by a suitably jolly and debonair cover version of Charles Trenet's "La Mer" by Julio Iglesias.

There are other new additions, notably a shocking execution and a recurring scene depicting a Christmas party at the Circus, which features a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by le Carré. Even so, the spirit of the novel remains intact. By any measure Alfredson's (comma-less) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a triumph, better than we had any right to expect and a definite a contender for film of the year. It really is that bloody good.

And that's it for le Carré and Smiley for now, although I will be returning to both down the line, with posts on the earlier George Smiley novels. Next up, though, it's back to the Donald E. Westlake science fiction magazine stories...