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How seriously should we take ourselves?
One of the keys to happiness is not to take yourself too seriously. You can take life seriously, and your family, and your work. You can, and should, take pride in yourself and your achievements.
But the minute you start thinking that you are a rather amazing person, and better than other people, you are in danger of taking yourself too seriously and should stop it at once.
“Thank you, Jeeves” is an absolute corker
I was reminded of this wisdom by one of this week’s three quotations, which are below. (more…)
Ian Fleming’s James Bond, created in a series of novels and short stories from 1953 to 1966, is unforgettable. But his attitudes often now feel dated (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).
Can one dislike Bond’s views, for example on women, yet still admire, or enjoy, his single-mindedness and style? I think so. If you cannot discount dated attitudes in cultural artefacts, you risk missing out on countless historical treats.
For writers, a character like James Bond is gold dust. Like him or loath him, he is well written: he thinks about his actions, has values and opinions, behaves within a clearly defined framework, yet is full of ambiguity. No wonder movie-makers want to exploit him.
Mention of movie-makers raises a key question: can you, or should you, attempt to update or adapt a character such as Bond? That is what movie makers do, drawing on the original material in Fleming’s novels to create stories set in the present day which seek to update Bond selectively. Results are mixed, although as I say in the piece at the link, many of us keep going back to cinemas in the hope Bond’s next outing will be better than the last.
Debate swirls around a black or female Bond: my view is that this would be perfectly permissible, so long as the character retained key characteristics such as sophistication, humour, gadgets, great grooming, and a merciless streak.
The cover of my Folio Society “Casino Royale” is suitably dated both in style and content – get a whiff of that cigarette smoke
Some adaptation and updating is essential. A modern movie which used Bond’s line about a key – and formerly much-loved – female (more…)
I recently read East West Street by British law professor and international human rights expert Philippe Sands.
If you have any interest in the cataclysm which overtook eastern and central Europe between 1933 and 1945, I recommend East West Street. It explains the development of the concepts of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” against the background of the Second World War and the appalling crimes which took place in the run up to, and during, that conflict.
It also considers the relevance of what happened in 1933-45 today.
My copy of ‘East West Street’. The endorsements ring true
Sands humanises and illustrates his account by focusing on four individuals. Hersch Lauterpacht was a professor of International Law who developed the concept of crimes against humanity. Rafael Lemkin was a prosecutor and lawyer who developed the concept of Genocide. Hans Frank was Hitler’s lawyer and later governor-general of German-occupied Poland from 1940-45. Leon Buchholz was Sands’s grandfather, who died in Paris in 1997 (‘He took Lemberg to the grave, along with a scarf given to him by his mother in January 1939. It was a parting gift from Vienna, my mother told me as we bade him adieu.’) (more…)
So you want to write a brilliant blog or newspaper article? Help is at hand, in three easy stages.
First: decide your message, and make sure people want to read about it. Part 1 of this series, 7 tips for writing the perfect article, explores how to ensure your piece will land well (links in bold italics are to other posts on this web-site).
Next: structure your article. Part 2 of this series, Nut-grafs and Cosmic Kickers, sets out a simple 4-step template to write your piece – including how to get started.
What else? Practice makes perfect. Read pieces critically. Understanding how others use these techniques will help you do the same. Here, in Part 3 of the series, are two more worked examples. I hope you find them helpful. If you do, please feel free to re-post this series, or draw it to the attention of others.
Nut-grafs and cosmic kickers: two worked examples
The following article appeared in the Financial times of 22 October 2004. It includes all the four elements – Lede, Nut-graf, Body and Cosmic Kicker – set out in Part 2 of this series.
Where even experts fear to tread
The Valluga II cable car above St. Anton is one of those boxy, old-fashioned affairs that sways from one mountain peak to another across a gulf of nothingness. At the entrance is a sign showing a pair of skis, crossed out. Next to it, to avoid any confusion, the words: NO SKIS.
“What’s that?” I ask Willi, a fellow skier with whom I am about to enter the six-person cabin.
“It’s OK,” he says. “It means no skis unless you have a guide.”
For skiers who have mastered the basics, the benefits of skiing with a guide are not always clear-cut. Holidays are all about freedom to do what you want, when you want, and to escape the workplace hierarchy. So it seems perverse to yoke yourself to someone who’s going to tell you where to go and what to do when you get there, especially when you have to pay them handsomely for the privilege. But a good guide can raise the quality of a day’s skiing from enjoyable to sublime. That’s why, when I make my next annual pilgrimage to Lech, in the Arlberg region of western Austria, I’ll be joining Class 3A (or maybe 2B) for at least half my stay to be guided around a resort I already know intimately.
Looking up the hill after the passage of a 3A class in Lech, February 2019 (more…)
For all you ardent Wodehouse fans, I have fine news.
Much Obliged, Jeeves is one of the funniest Wodehouse books I have read.
The cover of my Folio Society edition of “Much Obliged, Jeeves”
Why is Much Obliged, Jeeves so hilarious? I put it down to a consistency and richness of comic language from start to finish. In between laughing out loud and wiping the tears from my eyes, I noted so many fine lines that I had to cut the total down radically for this blog.
Here is my selection of quotations from Much Obliged, Jeeves:
- I am always glad… to renew my acquaintance with the unbeatable eatables dished up by her superb French chef Anatole, God’s gift to the gastric juices. I have often regretted that I have but one stomach to put at his disposal.
- [Of Aunt Dahlia’s stentorious voice] ‘I wonder whether she ever sang lullabies to me in my cradle. If so, it must have scared me cross-eyed, giving me the illusion that the boiler had exploded.’
- ‘My fiancée wanted me to,’ he said, and as his lips framed the word ‘fiancée’ his voice took on a sort of tremolo like that of a male turtle dove cooing to a female turtle dove. (more…)
At the roof bar of the top hotel in Istanbul, I don’t notice a thing.
Below us, the Bosphorus sparkles in the setting sun. I slurp my cocktail and feel a powerful sense of well-being.
When we sit down for dinner, however, I see at once.
‘You’re both drinking vodka,’ I say. ‘Why is that?’
My dinner companions, both top cardiac surgeons, glance at one another.
At the “Spectre” premiere in Istanbul
‘This is because pure spirits are the healthiest way to ingest alcohol,’ one says. ‘Of course, not drinking alcohol may also have health benefits, although some studies indicate the opposite if consumed in moderation. But if, like us, you enjoy a drink from time to time, without excess sugar and calories, pure spirits are the best.’
‘Wow.’ I sip my glass of red wine and wonder if I should have a re-think. (more…)
I crave good thrillers. But they are vanishingly rare.
So when I find a book with a compelling plot, rich characters, horrifying jeopardy and seat-edge cliff-hangers, I fall on it like a starving man on a feast.
I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is such a thriller – an epic, breathtaking romp from New York to Afghanistan to Bahrain to Gaza to Bodrum to Bulgaria and back. I really enjoyed it.
Here (no spoilers) are some reasons it works well:
- characterisation: the outstanding feature of the novel. Both the bad guy (“The Saracen”) and the protagonist, the US-trained superspy codenamed “Pilgrim” (both Saracen and Pilgrim can also mean “Nomad”), are richly drawn, with enough back story to fill several novels. This can be irritating: the book is so long that some threads of detail disappear (Pilgrim’s drug habit) or reappear without having been described in the first place (the Saracen’s dead wife). But on the whole the characters, including a host of minor players, gleam like diamonds. This makes you care about them;
- action: the action scenes are thrilling. A firefight in an Afghan village, the ghastly deaths of three hostages, the theft of some medical supplies from a heavily-guarded facility – all will have you on the edge of your seat;
- evil: the consequences with which the world – and specifically the US – will threatened if Pilgrim does not succeed in his mission are both credible and horrific. The potential horror is illustrated early on in the book in microcosm, leaving you praying it will not come about on a bigger scale;
- good: Pilgrim has an unerring moral compass which draws sympathy – a bit like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog). Other characters also have clear moral values. Even “The Saracen” plans his act of evil for reasons which he believes are pure and noble;
- richness: Hayes reaches deep into characters to create insights which enrich and illuminate the book. For example, he creates a Jewish character who has survived the Holocaust and hangs around the Bebelplatz – a memorial to the 1933 book-burning by Nazis in Berlin – to highlight a point: when millions of people, a whole political system, countless numbers of citizens who believed in God, said they were going to kill you – just listen to them. Later, Pilgrim inspires a cynical musician who has lost his mojo to resume his musical career – just in passing. The book is full of warm, fascinating detail;
- I am Pilgrim contains some fine epigrams. I liked Evidence is the name we give to what we have, but what about the things we haven’t found? and If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go;
- The structure of the book is outstanding. Hints from opening chapters flower into relevance hundreds of pages later. For example Pilgrim’s early hatred of the practice of torture by “waterboarding” sets the scene for it to be used later. The early love of an anonymous Geneva banker for his family becomes a key to the resolution;
- The book is rich in cliff-hangers, especially from the mid-way on. You really, really want to know what will happen next.
Another thriller – described by Edmund de Waal as “utterly gripping” (more…)