A Monster Calls

Illustrator Andreu Zaragoza’s Monster


Waking up from a nightmare doesn’t always bring relief. For 12-year-old Conor O’Malley, the protagonist of A Monster Calls, it leads only to disheartening reality: his mother is bedridden with cancer, his grandmother doesn’t understand him, and his once-in-a-bluemoon father is flakier than dandruff. School is no solace either. Bullies lurk in the yard to taunt and torment him, the withered cherry atop this cake of British-based doldrum.

Conor’s helplessness reverberates in his dreams. Night after night, he is subjected to snatched images of a graveyard collapsing into a sinkhole. As the tombstone-tipped earth recedes into the black expanse, Connor holds onto somebody’s hand – you don’t have to be Freud to guess whose – but is unable to pull the person to safety. And then he wakes up.

How long Conor has been stuck in this cycle of dreary days and disturbing nights is unclear. Too long. But in this adaption of Patrick Ness’ YA novel of the same name, the screenplay also written by Ness, the appearance of the titular monster brings the promise of change.

Monsters aren’t renowned for their punctuality, yet this one only appears when the clock strikes seven minutes past twelve. Borne from the burgeoning Yew tree that lies in the graveyard, (the one from Conor’s dreams, the one visible from Conor’s bedroom) this branch laden creature emerges. Leaving devastation in its wake, the monster tears off the bedroom wall in order to confront Conor.

What of the monster’s motivations? Does it wish to whittle the boy’s bones into an ossified loaf? Not quite. Voiced by Liam Neeson, the monster demands that Conor listen very carefully to three stories. Again, not the usual remit of monsters, though that entirely depends on the kind of parties you frequent.

With bark worse than its bite, (to say nothing of Neeson’s wooden acting…), the talking tree never really frightens. As a result, director J. A. Bayona squanders a potential source of tension. Even Conor doesn’t seem particularly scared of the monster’s skyscraper presence. Yes, the film has been made for a young audience (12+), but for all its bluster, the monster is tame when compared to, say, the ‘Faun’ of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Although Pan’s Labrynith is more graphic than A Monster Calls, and is aimed at an older audience (15+), the Faun’s fear inducing aura does not stem from the film’s violence. Instead, the faun’s subtle mystery derives from Del Toro’s meticulously constructed fairytale landscape – something that’s not quite there when watching A Monster Calls.

Is this arboreal life or is it just fantasy? It’s not made clear if the Yew tree creature comes forth when bidden by Conor, if it is an uninvited figment of imagination, or if the creature actually exists but is invisible to all but one. The artistically inclined Conor has problems distinguishing between real life and his imagination, but so does the audience. Though this makes for a cinematic sleight of hand on a number of occasions, the inconsistent grounding of the monster prevents the viewer from investing in the monster’s relationship with Conor. The ambiguity feels like a trick that makes the monster seems functional.

That said, the monster’s three tales provide a solid backbone to the film. As the monster narrates, Conor listens, and the screen turns canvas for wonderful illustration. Fairytale archetypes of handsome princes and wicked stepmothers are laid out in lush, swirling colors, only to reconfigure according to the back and forth of Conor’s questions and the monster’s revisions. A Monster Calls displays genuine reverence for storytelling, and holds up art as an exercise in both avoiding the hardships of life and facing them through displacement.

For, away from the fairytales, Conor must confront his mother’s deterioration and imagine his future without her. His journey through the expected emotional states – denial, fear, anger – is impressively portrayed by MacDougall, and his changes are reflected in his attitude toward the monster; at first he hides from it whereas later he seeks it. Though the monster’s origins are confusing, Conor’s reactions evolve authentically.

In the monster’s three tales, people are complex: the handsome princes commit unpunished crimes and the wicked stepmothers aren’t so wicked after all. It’s a shame then that the characters populating Conor’s real life are rather reductive. His bullies are just horrible people. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) remains a fusty, stiff upperlipped adult. Fortunately, Conor’s relationship with his mother (Felicity Jones) is rich and intricate. For all the commentary on storytelling, their fate is what makes you care.

As the monster declares at the beginning of the film, this story concerns a boy, “too old to be a kid but too young to be a man.” The appropriate audience for this film is found within similarly specific parameters. Too grave for those yet to reach their teenage years but too childish for those above the age of fifteen. But, unbeknownst to some Hollywood producers, stories come in many shapes and sizes, and audience members, too. Some people will try this film out for size and find it just right.

Coming up swinging: The rise of Mersey Swing and why you should be a part of it

Look at you. We’re not even half way through January and you’ve already abandoned your New Year’s resolutions. Well, here’s one and I bet you won’t want to break it: Go to Mersey Swing and take some classes. Here’s why you should:

Light and music spill out onto Great George Street. Punters on their way to Concert Square take a detour to look inside. Up the winding stone stairs of the Black-E, through the open double doors, the 3rd annual Mersey Swing Winter Ball unfurls. Once in the hall, the energy of the live band and a dance floor in motion rushes around you. It lifts your feet an inch from the ground and sets your spine a little bit straighter. Now you know why the doors are open. It’s hard to contain this kind of energy.

But it’s Saturday 9th January 2016. Isn’t swing dancing the musical equivalent of medieval warfare reconstruction? Worthy of preservation but tedious and, frankly, a bit irrelevant? Looking out on the dance floor, I can safely say I’ve never seen something so alive. It’s controlled chaos. Couples manoeuvre about the hall, triple stepping and tuck turning into any gap that presents itself. In a room this packed, leads chart ever-changing courses for their follows, aware that one overambitious swing-out can lead to a clattering. Follows listen to the signals transmitted by their leads, a slight raise of the hand or the omission of a step. That’s the skill of dancing in a place like this: applying energetic moves within the parameters of a bustling dance floor, listening to the music and listening to your partner.

Take a closer look and it’s clear that this panorama is made up of many different stories. There’s a range of skill on display; professionals share the floor with newcomers and there’s no segregation between the two. In fact, experienced dancers usually jump at the chance to guide a newbie through recently acquired moves. You can divide the crowd in other ways too. Some people are dressed in meticulous vintage outfits while others don’t bother. A fair number here tonight were born in an era when said vintage outfits were simply considered ‘clothes.’ Age, gender, race, sexual orientation, where you live, who ya dad was.  Honestly, nobody cares. They just want to dance with you.

Depending on your disposition, this kind of event might sound like an anxiety inducing nightmare. Asking strangers to dance? Risking the embarrassment of messing up in front of everybody? No thanks, article imploring me to change my life.  And I hear you. The first time I went to a night like this, I was shaking more than Little Richard if he downed five cups of coffee and then sat on an EpiPen. But the atmosphere at the Mersey Swing Winter Ball is incredibly inclusive. Before you have time to run away, somebody’s already asked you to give it a whirl and you’ve just said, ‘Yeah!’ And of course, scary as it is, you’re just putting into practice what you’ve been learning in class.

Every Wednesday, starting from seven, Mersey Swing puts on classes for an hour and a half. There’s a class solely for beginners where you learn the basic steps of Lindy Hop and the Charleston, the main tipples of Mersey Swing, until you’re confident enough to join up with the main class. From there, thanks to clear teaching and a welcoming atmosphere, improvement comes quickly. After class, there’s an hour of social dancing. It’s here you get the chance to put into practice what you’ve learnt in class and often with the scene’s more experienced dancers- the surest way to get better quick.

After a series of fits and flailing starts, Mersey Swing was formed in earnest February 2012. Liverpool’s own Cat Foley, who competes regularly at international Lindy competitions, says that her main motivation in founding Mersey Swing was, ‘wanting more mates to dance with.’ The importance placed on friendship and fun is what keeps Mersey Swing from becoming a dance academy. It’s apt too as in the early days Mersey Swing depended on the community support offered by venues such as Heebie Jeebies, the Jacoranda, Maguire’s and the recently closed, Kazimier. Now based primarily in the Merseyside Dance and Drama Centre on Camden Road, this sense of community still runs strong. That’s why you don’t need to come with a partner; everybody rotates around the room, everybody dances with everybody.

Lindy Hop is one of the most progressive dance forms ever. Bursting out of the stiff mores of ballroom, Lindy Hop encapsulated the pioneering spirit of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance, where white and black New Yorkers would head to the Savoy to swing it with whoever, regardless of creed, colour and background. Different times have different barriers. Speaking to those at the Winter Ball, it’s clear that as well as loving dance, a lot of people are here for the social interaction that comes with the swing scene, something decidedly lacking in the internet era.

There’s no better reason for going to a swing class than having the desire to connect with people. Connection is the heart of swing dancing- connection with the music and connection between partners. Without it, any dance will fall apart, regardless of individual ability. The altruistic nature of Mersey Swing isn’t just nice, it’s necessary. Each time you step out onto the floor those connections must be made anew and with so many variables at play: you, your partner, the song, the band. You quickly realise that no dance can ever be repeated, it’s ephemeral. That’s the joy of it actually, searching for the best experience that you and your partner can craft together in that moment. For the space of a song, a dance can flare and then it’s over and gone.

Where is the good news going to come from? 2016 has, so far, offered little in the way of hopeful tidings. We’re now living in a Bowie-less universe. With dark mornings and early nights, January can be a cold and lonely place. So, be proactive in finding your own joy. Go to gigs. Make music.  Do whatever it takes to bring back good times. And if you’re stuck for ideas on how to do it, let’s dance and we’ll talk about it later.

He came and he met us…

How many times can you be ahead of the times? Learning about David Bowie all at once is certainly different to what it must have been like growing up with him. A 70s child had the thrill of wondering what shape his next incarnation might take. I haven’t had that experience. Yet even without the shock of that ‘ta-da’ unveiling, the completeness of Bowie‘s metamorphoses is still incredible and inspiring.

David Bowie was authentic in his artifice. He constructed his characters and carved our worlds for them to live in. His costume changes weren’t the result of some record company brainstorm or shitfaced agent hungry for a headline. They were gateways for his expression. Maybe it was because of this changeability, but I didn’t realise to what extent he’d got under my skin until Monday. Like many, I mourned for the man who carved the masks he wore and I’m sorry that he’s gone. With Blackstar, I got my ‘ta-da.’

My first contact with David Bowie‘s work was through comedy. Bowie was the comedian’s musician. His zaniness and eclectic career inspired the likes of Ricky Gervais, Adam and Joe and Flight of the Conchords. And he was in on the joke, playing along and approving from afar. But for these comedians he wasn’t just material, he paved the way for their alternative creativity. David Bowie made it okay for you to get your weirds out. To just slop your weirds out on the table and say “Look at me, I’m weird and I like it!” His music often plays just like a great joke does: you expect it to go one way and then it goes another way you never saw coming.

He also wrote one of the greatest “wish I was still with you, please come back to me” ballads ever in Letter to Hermione.Adele could do a whole album bemoaning the fact that no one’s ever going to write her a rueful tune as good as that. Now there’s a source of regret she can plunder till the release of 67. At which point people might ask her to go back to the “wish I was still with you, please come back to me” thing. And then they’ll remember Letter to Hermione and they’ll think, “Actually, you know what, don’t bother. Please stop it.”

Dave McCabe: “I wanted to challenge myself, I couldn’t be arsed just making a safe record.”


Back in business with his new band the Ramifications, Getintothis’ Jamie Carragher caught up with Dave McCabe ahead of the release of his new album, Church of Miami.

There haven’t been many records released with Dave McCabe‘s name on them for the last six years or so. Following The Zutons (relatively quiet) split, he’s kept writing songs for the likes of Mark Ronson, which is no surprise given the uber hit that Ronson and Amy Winehouse had with the Zutons hit Valerie.

Finally, he is ready with his new project, Dave McCabe & The Ramifications and their debut album Church of Miami. Those paying attention around Merseyside may have stumbled across one of the band’s live performances, and will therefore be aware of McCabe‘s new approach.

We caught up with him ahead of the album’s release…

Getintothis: Your new album’s coming out September 4. Excited?

McCabe: Yeah, I’m excited. It’s very stop-start at the moment. It hasn’t really kicked in yet that there’s an album coming out.

Getintothis: It’s been a long time in the making.

McCabe: Yeah ’cause it had to be right, there was no pressure on it. It’s not like the world was waiting for a Dave McCabe album so you may as well make it as good as you can make it rather than rushing something out.

Getintothis: The album’s a new direction for you. It’s very electronic.

McCabe: Yeah, it isn’t to me like. I mean, I know it is. But I’ve heard it so many fucking times now, it just sounds like thenext natural step for me. I know everything that’s on it, I know the guitars, I wrote the songs in the house on a guitar. To me it’s just a canvas and you just let them [producers, Viktor Voltage and Mr. Chop] manipulate the sound. But I like that about it. I played a few things on it, but the majority of the synthesising and the programming, I didn’t really do. I found with this record, you’re giving your babies up basically and you’re letting someone else have a go. I think you’ve got to do that, and if you don’t let people do that you’re never going to move on. You’ll probably go back to a four piece band with a fucking saxophone break in the middle of it, but that’s not what I wanted because I’ve done that already. Nothing against The Zutons, like.

Getintothis: So it’s a new way of working for you.

McCabe: I wrote about 40-45 songs. Every time I took stuff in, Mr. Chop and Joe Fearon and Viktor Voltage were saying,  ‘Like that one, like that one, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.’ That was a wake-up call for me:  someone saying straightway, ‘Nah, that’s shit.’ And I was like ‘Don’t you like this bit?’ and they were like,  ‘Yeahhh…I like that bit. Let’s see if we can use that bit.’

That’s why I think it took a while to do. We had about 6 songs we actually liked. I went away and wrote more and found more. I’ve got loads of songs on my laptop that have just mounted up. To go through them, obviously, most of them aren’t great. I’m not gonna lie. There’s only so many times you can go ‘Fucking hell…’ And then one will just jump out at ya.

Getintothis: You’re very much known as a man with a guitar in his hand but this new album might change all that.

McCabe: When I was younger, I’d have Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode and Human League and all that on in the background, when I was a kid in the 80s. And then even growing up in the early 90s. And that’s kind of why I went withNirvana and Guns N’ Roses and all that, because I’d been blitzed when I  was a kid. Now as I’ve got older, I’ve started going back towards that. And I’ve always liked Beck or Beastie Boys, that thing of mixing everything together, all the best bits from all the decades of good music.

Towards the end it just started sounding really electronic so we went with it because it had continuity for the record.  

It’s been about 4 albums this. It’s been a slog… When I say slog, that’s probably not a good word. It’s been a journey…

Getintothis: You haven’t just put out the first thing that came into your head.

McCabe: No. I wanted to challenge myself really. I couldn’t be arsed just making a safe record. It’s not safe if you just do the same thing. I think it’s probably dead boring, you’re not really opening anything up, you’re not exciting yourself so nobody else is going to give a shit about it.

I actually like this album a lot more than the album I made before it, which was probably 7 years ago. I actually enjoyed making this record and I’ve enjoyed playing it and I’m shitting myself when playing certain gigs, ’cause I don’t know what to do on the stage so I’ve got to find out what it is I am.

Getintothis: Without the guitar…

McCabe: Without the guitar. Without the constant vibration of loads of amps on stage.

Getintothis: It gives you a lot more freedom on stage and it’s like, what do you do with that freedom?

McCabe: Fucking right, yeah- shit yourself! We’ve only done 7 gigs. They’ve all been festivals. No club runs.

Getintothis: You haven’t had a bedding in period.

McCabe: Not at all. I’m loving it though.

Getintothis: How was Sound City?

McCabe: That gig for me was a fucking nightmare. They always are Liverpool gigs. You see your Nan in the crowd, you see your uncles.

Getintothis: You need to get out your living room.

McCabe: Yeah, it makes you get dead self-conscious. Your Mum and Dad in the crowd, nothing to do with Liverpool. In your living room, in a gig.

Getintothis: But you’ve got your club run in October?

McCabe: I’m looking forward to it, loads. The more gigs we play, the better we become as a band. The more natural it feels.

Getintothis: Speaking of the band, who are the Ramifications?

McCabe: The Ramifications are: Chris Taylor, guitar, dancing. I say dancing because that’s what he does. Ray Durie, keyboards, bass. Scott Jones, keyboards, singing. Carl Povey on the drums.

Getintothis: You played the Kazimier the other week, which is shutting down next year. Thoughts on the closure?

McCabe: It’s shit like. What are they gonna do? Find another place and make that into apartments? They’re just knocking it down so they can claim council tax. I’m not happy that it’s being shut down. I’m happy that we got to play it but we should be able to play it again and again. It’s got loads of character, the Kazimier. It feels different, smells different.

The Kazimier represents everything’s that wrong with the world at the moment. Trying to milk the most out of it. Years ago before the Capital of Culture, that wouldn’t have happened. There’s a lot of people with big money moving to Liverpool to make money.

Getintothis: The Kaz’s downfall fits into the themes of the album. How modern life and progress isn’t necessarily a better situation or improving things.

McCabe: Yeah it does: everyone’s dying! To be honest, when you’re making the album, it’s hard to know what the fuck it’s about half the time, because you’re in it.

Getintothis: And the single, Church of Miami, is about how superficial modern life can be-

McCabe: It’s about cosmetic surgery and religion. Miami represents everything from cocaine to false buildings getting built, wiping out everything that’s real.

It was a piss-take to be honest. It’s all a piss-take. But it’s turned out bang-on. I don’t know where it’s came from. It wasn’t just me. I wrote it with Joe Fearon and Mr. Chop. To me though, when I hear it, I think GTA and Scarface.

Getintothis: It’s a concept album too. There’s a storyline going through it.

McCabe: Yeah, it’s about a fella who’s lonely, who robs a robot from work. He soon realises that he is lonely -he doesn’t know it at the start- and he realises that he needs real mates. It’s about technology getting ahead of spirituality and humanity, and you can’t replace that, no matter how  good a screen is or how fast your computer is. We’re all guilty of it. I’ve got a phone in my pocket, I was on it before you came.

If you were to write something after this album it would be about trans-humanism, where technology and people become one thing. That’s where the world’s going.

Getintothis: With your Google-glasses .

McCabe: Yeah, the glass-holes. Have you got some?

Getintothis: No. [Shh, not now, Siri] But you can imagine in ten-years everyone having them.

McCabe: It’s like mobile phones in school. One lad had a mobile and it was like ‘Wall-Street’ and we all took the piss out of him. Now we’ve all got one.

Getintothis: We all know we shouldn’t be on them all the time but still…You’d have to go to a country-retreat and go cold-turkey-

McCabe: And be really bored and wank loads. Without your mobile phone you’d actually be wanking more than you would be with your mobile phone. There’s a quote for you.

Getintothis: Let’s finish on an important question. Where did you get this costume from? 

McCabe: I just came up with it with my mate. It’s off a washing machine.

Getintothis: Knew it!

McCabe: One of my mates thought I’d made it with a slinky.

Getintothis: It looks dead techno and then you realise, hang on, it’s a washing machine.

McCabe:  I was going for Space Age Blackadder. You’ve got to play to your strengths.

David Sedaris on organs, rubbish & the House of Commons


David Sedaris, American humourist and bestselling author, talks to Getintothis’ Jamie Carragher ahead of his show at the Liverpool Echo Auditorium this Saturday.

After three sell-out runs in London, two sell-out Edinburgh Fringe Festival stints and a sell-out UK 2014 tour, American author David Sedaris is today appearing at the Liverpool Echo Auditorium. We caught up with him ahead of his book signing.

Getintothis: David, you’ve been on tour for much of this year. Have you accumulated much material out on the road?

Sedaris: I do get a lot of material out of it… I was so lucky on my last tour of the United States, I just came away with so many weird little encounters and things that I was able to write about and talk about on stage. I get to talk to people and they tell me things sometimes that are just – I don’t know – surprising or funny or shocking.

Getintothis: You’re the non-medical Oliver Sachs. People come to you with their weird stories.

Sedaris: Sometimes people come to me with a story that they want to tell me because they think I’m gonna find it shocking or interesting but usually those are not the stories that I find shocking or interesting.

Have a little conversation with somebody and they can wind up saying something …I was talking to this young man in the United States, he was 16, and I said “Oh, are you gonna have a job this summer?”, and I was signing his book, and he said “No I can’t because I have to spend most of the summer in the hospital because one of my kidneys is dead inside of me and they have to remove it.” And that to me is completely fascinating. That you can have a dead kidney.

Getintothis: Vital organs should always come in pairs.

Sedaris: I met a Mexican kid who donated a kidney to a complete stranger.

Getintothis: Wow!

Sedaris: I think he wanted to become a citizen. I couldn’t believe they didn’t make him one. I couldn’t believe they didn’t move him to the front of the list. Because he came to America, he was in America for two years, and then he gave a kidney to an American. He didn’t send it home to Mexico, he gave it to a complete stranger.

Getintothis: Weren’t you plugging an organ donor charity on your last tour?

Sedaris: Yes: I showed up to a theatre one night, and they were there in the lobby. It’s a group called Love Hope Strength. What they do is they get people to register to donate bone marrow. The reason that I did things with them is because they will let me tell the most outrageous lies about them and they don’t care.

I started telling people that if you donate bone marrow, you get to have sex with the most attractive person in the cancer victim’s family. And that they cannot refuse you. Then I was trying to get more women to donate so I said, “You might not realise this but bone marrow is very dense. A pint of bone marrow weighs 30 pounds.”

Getintothis: If you want to be beach body ready you’ve got to get rid of that bone marrow.

Sedaris: I was getting tonnes of people to sign up, it was great. And then I also said “If you sign up to donate bone marrow you can come to the front of the book signing line.” And that was the real clincher. Because in the United States anyway the book signings can really go on for a long time. And if you have the opportunity to donate a leg and to go to the front of the line then you would do it.

Getintothis: How do you compare doing a book tour to doing a lecture tour?

Sedaris: You sign more books in a book store than you do in a theatre. I don’t care how big the theatre is. The biggest theatre I’ve ever played is in Chicago and it’s 4000 seats and I think the book signing, last time I was there, maybe lasted 4 hours. Whereas I was in a book store in Chicago and signed books for 10 and a half hours.

Getintothis: That’s amazing.

Sedaris: In a book store though, people leave and they go out for dinner and then they come back, or, they leave and they go out to dinner and a movie, or, they leave and they start a family and then they come back. They think ‘Oh, he’ll be there when I come back’ and I always am. 

Getintothis: David let’s talk about your littering bugbear. You live in Sussex and you’re well-known in your local community for picking up litter every day for hours at a time. You’ve even had a bin lorry named in your honour. You were invited to speak in the House of Commons about the problem of litter…

Sedaris: My god. That was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life.

Getintothis: Really?

Sedaris: I was trying to explain the litter: I don’t see people throw rubbish out their window so I was trying to put together a portrait of – who are these people? – I look at the things I find and I’m trying to figure out who this person is – and so some MP tweeted that I said poor people are responsible for rubbish and I never said that.

The point I was trying to make – and I’m sorry I know this is boring – there’s a Waitrose and there’s a Tesco equal distance from me. And I hardly ever find Waitrose bags and I find a lot of Tesco bags. I’m just telling people what I find. I find more Red Bull cans than any other kind of can. I find more Lucozade bottles than any other kind of bottles. I’m just telling you what it is that I’m finding out there.

Anyway so then it turned into this thing and I just wasn’t prepared for that. And I said from the very beginning, “You’re talking to the wrong person, you should be talking to people who throw shit out their window and try to figure out why they do it, otherwise you’re just wasting your time.”

Getintothis: Politicians eh?

Sedaris: What I wish that I’d done, because that politician, he said “So, Mr. Sedaris I see you live in Horsham, very wealthy part of the country, so tell me is somebody throwing a can out their window the biggest problem you’ve got down there?” and for the rest of my life I will regret not saying, ‘Oh God, no – the biggest problem is your mother’s whoring.’

Getintothis: *Big laugh* 

Sedaris: What would they have done if I had said that? Thrown me out??

Getintothis: We think it probably doesn’t comply with Commons’ etiquette… We’re not sure it appears in any of Winston Churchill’s most witty comments in the Commons.  As a guest, maybe you can say what you like.

Sedaris: After that I’ve never got more interview requests in my life – ‘Oh come here and talk’. After the third interview I said “Okay that’s it, there’s nothing I can do to fix this” and to all the people who said “Can you come and talk?”, I said “You know, I’m done talking about it, I’m just going to be at the side of the road picking up rubbish.” That’s the best place for me.

Getintothis: Speaking of politics, did your American tour purposely coincide with the election back in May?

Sedaris: One thing I do like about the United States is when it’s election time, you know who everyone’s voting for. People have bumper stickers on their car, they wear badges on their coats, they have signs in their front yard. My poor sister, Lisa, I went to visit her…and these neighbours who she loved all of a sudden put signs in their yard and it was like finding out your next door neighbour is a Nazi.

Everyone here is much more quiet and you don’t really know who your neighbours are for. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable going to any of my neighbours in Sussex and saying ‘Who you voting for?’ There’s a guy who is with the council who I go out and pick up rubbish with. He’s an elected official and I didn’t know for years even what party he was with.

Getintothis: At this year’s Hay Festival there was a big preoccupation with age and how that affects writing. What’s your take?

Sedaris: I think that as I get older, I think that my writing is better but that could just be me. If I were to look at a paragraph that I wrote last week, I would think that it’s much better than a paragraph than I wrote 20 years ago. But a lot of people don’t notice writing, they just notice the story. A lot of people will say ‘Oh you’re a storyteller’ and it’s like no actually I wrote that 18 times and I was very careful about which word went where. Writers are going to notice that. You can’t expect every reader to notice that and I’m not complaining about that but I think that my writing is better now, but people might enjoy what I wrote 20 years ago more than they enjoy what I write now but I don’t know, I don’t ask them…

Getintothis: You could spend all day wracking your brain about stuff like that.

Sedaris: It’s not a problem for me because I go on tour. The things that one writes about changes, right? Or the circumstances of one’s life changes, because I spend so much time on tour now, it’s kind of my job is to be on tour. And I know the magazine I write for, The New Yorker, doesn’t like me to talk about being on tour but it’s like if I was a doctor I could talk about doctoring. It’s kind of what I do at this point in my life.

Getintothis: Do you think the New Yorker, being so traditional, is scared of writers following the music model, having to make their money from live performance?

Sedaris: Well, I think -and I understand this – it’s like they don’t like you to write about writing. And I don’t like to write about writing, because it draws attention to the writing and then someone’s gonna say ‘Oh my god, you call that writing?’

I generally don’t like doing that either, but there’s a story I’ve been reading on this tour, and I can’t really see how it would work if I left the touring part of it. Because it makes no sense that I’m just telling this story and I’m in this city and then I’m in this city and then four days later I’m in this city. It wouldn’t even make sense if I made it sound like a vacation because if I went on vacation I couldn’t talk to people the way that I talk to people on tour…because I can ask people anything I want.

Getintothis: It’s an odd relationship. You’ve got the power to ask, haven’t you?

Sedaris: Yeah, I asked someone the other night, I was in Belfast, and I said “Are you going away this summer?” and they said “No we just bought a house” and I said “How much did your house cost?” and they told me. Whereas I couldn’t necessarily ask people in a restaurant. You know, if I went to Starbucks to get a cup of coffee and I said to the person behind the counter ‘How much is your rent?’ They don’t know me and they’re just going to think it’s weird and they’re not gonna answer.

Getintothis: Well, we wouldn’t open with it. Quick one: have you written any plays recently?

Sedaris: No I haven’t, it’s been a while. The difference is I used to write the plays but I was never in them. And, then I started going on tour and then I saw what it was like to be the one on stage, and to be the one getting the attention; I loved it and I haven’t written another play since then.


Amy Winehouse’s voice is so rich that you can’t really believe she’s gone. Like that of Nina Simone, it sounds so pertinent, urgent, that it seems impossible that she’s not around anymore. Appropriately, it’s her vivacious vocals that take centre stage in the new documentary about her life, Amy. Living as she sounds, she is dead and that’s the time-bomb ticking away, always, beneath the highs and lows of this engrossing documentary. Knowledge of her untimely death transfuses tension into every scene. You know it’s coming, wish as you might that it never arrives.


Director Asif Kapadia (Senna), has, in many ways crafted this documentary in the form of a classical tragedy, as the ending allows. This is no random montage, though that it could be mistaken for one is ultimately the source of its power. By looking and feeling like a home video, charting her life from teenager to superstar, the narrative of Amy gives the illusion of unravelling like life; random moments strung together and ordered by little more than the passage of time. Key turning points of her life and career are peppered within more innocuous periods. Boredom, fun, loneliness. Day-to-day living, playing pool. Unlike the well-worn model of the White-Male-Genius biopic, this film has stakes because not everything is about moving the story along. Time and space is given to appreciating the music and personality of Amy Winehouse, confident that she is nothing if not compelling.

Amy Winehouse is very funny. In her best moments, when she is cogent and sober, she’s wickedly smart and charming. Her impersonation of a Latino cleaner is joyful to behold and her eye-rolling dismissal of the singer, Dido, hilarious. You root for Amy and that’s what’s so dangerous. You remember how watchable she once was, what with her towering hair, big eyes and sloping jaw, features so distinctive that caricaturists around the world, from Leicester Square to Central Park, refuse to let her go.

Amy is above all a great work of synthesis. Kapadia utilises songs, photos, home videos, reality TV footage and more. He pulls together his narrative by splicing audio from interviews, whether pre-existing or conducted by his team, over the top of this collage. In doing so Kapadia has fashioned a comprehensive morality tale, an Icarus for modern times. We are shown her undeniable talent and potential. We are presented with the moment when disaster could have been averted. If she had only gone to rehab then, at that particular time, it might have turned out differently. Potential saviours are identified- her first manager, her childhood friends- all of whom fail in their efforts to save her. That’s the paradoxical heart of tragedy: an inevitable fate that could have all been avoided.

As the years go by, increasing prominence is given to the villains of the Amy Winehouse story. It’s well known that Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father, is disgruntled by his portrayal in the film. Undeniably, he doesn’t come out well and, to a degree, his dismay is understandable. He inspired Amy to become a musician in the first place and there’s little-to-no room given to such paternal positives. Nevertheless, Mitch did tell her not go to rehab. He did press her to do shows she was not fit to play. He did try and scrape out a personal celebrity on the back of her talent and achievement. Mistakes were made and to see them laid bare on screen must be harrowing (though they are enshrined within her lyrics also). Mitch’s resentment derives from how the particular selection of material emphasises his faults. No doubt the sources could be re-jigged and refashioned to portray him in a more positive light, but if there’s one thing that stands out regarding Mitch Winehouse, it’s that he’s oblivious to how he is perceived by others, including, most devastatingly, by his own doting daughter.

Then there is Blake Fielder-Civil, the singer’s ex-husband, a man so dislikeable as to seem a pantomime villain. From the get-go it’s clear that he’s bad news and his interview excerpts make for repulsive listening. Throughout the documentary, he’s Amy’s personal Satan, mocking her futile attempts to break free from her addictions, enabling each damaging relapse. No amount of spin can save his image.

There are less visible evils that pervade the story, such as the record companies and promoters who constantly exert pressure on the Winehouse moneymaking machine. Those faceless corporates who refused to place her health and wellbeing above everything else, their interest forever fraught with contractual obligations and desire to make cash. Worst of all is the malicious treatment of Winehouse at the hands of the gutter press. Their daily bombardment is shocking to witness. The way in which she is stalked by the paparazzi makes the fans from A Hard Day’s Night look positively casual. Reporters clamber over each other to shove a question in her face, photographers know no boundaries. Yet this is where a great deal of the footage for the documentary comes from, at least towards the latter part of her life. The audience is thus complicit. The existence of such footage is a symptom of the perverse British obsession with rumour and celebrity. Our culture is sick with this ailment, DMO (Daily Mail Online), and this insatiable need for gossip most definitely contributed to the decline of Amy Winehouse.

Even in the midst of watching the film, one longs for the young Amy, the Amy of old. Back when she laughed the loudest, and was prone to spots, and had teeth that looked like a graveyard following an earthquake. But this is something of a storytelling trick. Amy Winehouse was always a troubled individual, suffering from bulimia and depression at a startlingly young age. By revealing these problems gradually, or downplaying their hold upon her adolescence, the arc of her rise and fall is duly fashioned by Kapadia. Of course, her life-sapping drug and alcohol addictions were the ultimate causes of her demise back in 2011, but this nostalgia for simpler, happy days feels like an emotional glitch. Really, her oscillation could happen within the blink of an eye.

Occasionally, the documentary is guilty of highlighting one portent too many, for lingering on a sad still of Amy for a few seconds too long. There’s only so much foreshadowing we as an audience can take. Hindsight can add poignancy to nearly anything and the director overstretches in his bid to find warning signs. However, one sin that Kapadia never commits is the glorification of Amy’s internal demons, the kind of romanticising that has been all too common with the post-death treatment of Kurt Cobain. Instead, these problems are simply portrayed as the ever-present detriments from which her love of music offered some release.

The film’s tagline, ‘The Girl Behind The Name’, is misleading – there never was a girl behind the name. Amy Winehouse was Amy Winehouse. She could not get away from herself and what’s more she never wanted to. She placed authenticity above all else. In the early days of her career, when her stardom was less self-consuming, Amy Winehouse was heralded for this very quality. What you see is what you get. No airs. Common.  In one interview, she recalls a producer who used “fake” strings and horns on one of her early singles. She quickly declares her hatred for him and his artifice. Her voice quivers with hurt before she snaps out of it, apologising to a Dutch interviewer who is frankly baffled by her candid admission. This need to be the undiluted real-deal affected other parts of her life too. She could not stand the anti-depressants that dulled her personality. When the film stops and the silence descends, you leave the cinema wishing that she had been able to play a role, to separate herself from her name, if only to have some respite from being Amy Winehouse.

The Final Say: School of Rock


“Give up. Just quit. Because in this life, you can’t win. Yeah, you can try but in the end you’re just gonna lose BIG TIME because the world is run by The Man…

There used to be a way to stick it to the Man, it was called rock and roll. But guess what? Oh no, the Man had to ruin that too with a little thing called MTV!”

Ned Shneeebly (Dewey Finn) — School of Rock

This December, School of Rock The Musical opens on Broadway. Music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, book by Lord Julian Fellowes. Hmmm. Sounds a lot like THE MAN is stealing School of Rock. I’d cry “Look out, Broadway!” but it’s far too late for any of that. Like the camel from Buckaroo- despondent, broken and weary of life- Broadway will slink another commercially contrived piece of rubbish over its furry, bruised hump.

Whether or not it’s any good is irrelevant (though, here’s hoping it’s a decanter of defecation). No, the outcome doesn’t matter. The appropriation of School of Rock by Lloyd Webber and Fellowes is a disaster regardless of the result. This classic film about washed-up rocker Dewey Finn becoming a substitute teacher and forming a band with school kids is being hijacked. Hijacked!!

Sadly, I have a feeling that it’ll run for years and years.  The 2003 film is so beloved that to fuck it up would be an extraordinary feat of failure. Of course, that’s why Lloyd Webber bought the rights: to squeeze a hit from a hit, to wring success from a success. His award winning conveyor belt has fallen into disrepair and this is the remedy.

If his motivation, as he claims, is to do justice to the film, then he should plough his money into a Mike White/Jack Black collaboration. At the very least he should have Mike White, the creator of the film, writing the book and not his old pal Fellowes. But it’s a vanity project and he’s doing it because he can.

I can’t begrudge Lloyd Webber and Fellowes liking the movie. I’m all for Thatcherites feeling emotions, smiling, shedding tears etc. It’s good for them; they can be saved. But clearly they weren’t watching closely. The moral compass of School of Rock points firmly away from their worldview. It’s not about winning, it’s about creativity. It’s not about a Darwinian model of culture, it’s about a supportive community. Lloyd Webber has been a major force in creating a West End culture where his name is everything, creation is stifled and challenging art is discouraged. What would Dewey Finn think of that?

But hope never dies. What if it was all a brilliant rouse conjured up by Richard Linklater, the film’s director, most recently lauded for his pioneering work, Boyhood? What if Jack Black, resurrected as Dewey Finn, got word of the musical and was so appalled by the commercialism and trite cynicism behind the project that he enslaved another band of wandering kids. Using this new cohort, he’d burst into the stuffy Broadway theatre and challenge the fake School of Rock to a one-off Battle of the Bands. No doubt the Broadway bunch, made up of kids hothoused since conception, would be technically superior but the moral victory could only ever go one way.

The quest for authenticity has never been harder. Back in the unspecified day, you could spot an artistic fake a mile off. It was like telling the difference between an Inter Milan top and that black and blue knock-off your Mum bought you from a beach vendor. Easy. Now, instead of producing lame replicas, The Man appropriates the things we love in order to wear down our bullshit detectors. The Man convinces Paul McCartney to do X-Factor, The Man puts the Sex-Pistols on credit cards. Indeed, I’d have lost all hope for anything genuine in this world if it wasn’t for my latest Rolex Yacht-Master Watch™. Efficient, reliable, and stylish, it’s every columnist sell-out’s dream.