Fireside Chat 1: Something You Haven’t Seen Before

The Arts


A new occasional series which aims to jump-start your ideas by commenting on the arts

Clive Barker (remember him?) once gave a terrific speech about originality. He complained that genre fiction (crime, SF, fantasy, horror) was always accused by critics of being unoriginal but that general fiction never was. Nobody, he said, ever complains that they’ve read about a boy and girl falling in love before.

The difference was that mainstream novels changed according to the voice of the author and genre novels didn’t. Or in other words, genre was not about voice but plot.

Times have moved on. Now we have strong authorial voices in genre fiction. While I was judging the CWA Daggers I had to read a great many books which were unoriginal. Originality decreases popularity. So how do you write something fresh?

In one of two ways; in the first, you adopt a unique viewpoint that either comes from within you, or you assume the guise of an original viewpoint. In the second you simply do the opposite of what’s expected and trust your characters to sort it out.

I believe books must reflect reality, but now I’m going to add a cavil. You can learn from movies. The other day I was watching a 1957 Boulting Brothers film called ‘Brothers In Law’. In it, Ian Carmichael is just starting out as a barrister full of ideals, but he is a bit too keen for his fellow lawyers. It’s a slow, comfortable watch. But one of its ideas struck me as being highly original.

Carmichael is thrown into his first case without any preparation, so much so that he has to ask; ‘Whose side am I on?’, much to the defendant’s consternation. Hollywood would have a specific way of constructing this set piece. It would show the stern judge and the poisonous prosecution lawyer, and have the young barrister beat them by revealing a surprise piece of knowledge. You’ve seen that scene before.

Here’s what happens; Carmichael is clueless and nervous, so the judge helps him out. And when he gets stuck again the prosecution helps him out. And eventually everyone helps him out. And they all get through it together with a communal sigh of relief.

Now that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is something you haven’t seen before. Not only that – it fits with our understanding of human nature, that we are all in this together and it makes everyone feel better if we all pitch in.


In a new article in online magazine The Conversation, it’s argued that William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’, which was first published in 1954, largely in response to the rise of Nazism, speaks directly to the world of 2016, where austerity and the refugee crisis, Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump have emboldened nationalist fervour and stoked societal fragmentation.

You may see where I’m going with this. It’s not enough to write an original novel which reflects the status quo. You also need to show what could be done. The moral of ‘Lord of the Flies’ isn’t just that civilisation can quickly descend into barbarity, but that it can also be prevented through commitment to a shared humanity.

In the (frankly terrible) 1970 film ‘Cromwell’, Alec Guinness has one great line. He points out that the trouble with democracy is that it expects extraordinary thinking from ordinary people. If 2016 has one theme, its that the unheard have, for better or worse, found their voice once more.

If you can reflect that startling change in some way, your writing will be timely and original.

10 comments on “Fireside Chat 1: Something You Haven’t Seen Before”

  1. Brooke says:

    “If 2016 has one theme, its that the unheard have, for better or worse, found their voice once more.” Apologies, strongly disagree. The theme is the “voices” of the unheard are easily manipulated precisely because the unheard do not have a sense of belonging to a larger community with values that include them. Instead, they have voices imposed upon them that reinforce their isolation. The unheard vote rich and live poor.

    Your example highlights this. The young lawyer (Carmichael) asks to be admitted into a system with certain rules and values, and the system obliges. Reading interviews with the “unheard” in the years (it felt like) before Nov. 8, I found the comments gave a profound sense of self-involved isolation, and blaming “them” i.e. everybody else.

    As it’s coming on the holiday season, let’s recall Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The ghost reveals two emaciated children underneath his cloak and says, “The boy is ignorance, the girl is want. Beware, especially of the boy.”

    BTW– isolation versus community is often a theme in your writing. Conscious or unconscious?

  2. John says:

    Brothers in Law was based on a book by Henry Cecil, a former judge himself. That scene is telling about how Cecil wished law should be practiced. All of his books satirize British law and the uptight ways of the court and the barristers who serve them. There were a couple of comedy TV series inspired by his books. And excellent books they are! Hysterically funny. Some of the best verbal humor I’ve ever encountered. Like physical farce but with words, if you know what I mean. You ought to write about him for your “Invisible Ink” series if that’s still going on.

  3. SteveB says:

    Yes I like that film brothers in law. But I do have to admit a soft spot for Cromwell too. “Frankly terrible” – that’s telling me 😉
    William Golding wrote many offbeat novels eg The Spire, which I also loved as a teenager.
    Commitment to shared humanity. In the time of these terrible stories from Aleppo,with Xmas coming, that’s a good thought and I hope we can all show some of that.

  4. SteveB says:

    You’ve got me thinking of another film London belong to me. Lovethat opening shot! Maybe I’m going to search my dvd collection and watch it tonight.
    It’s all about my childhood when names like the Boulting Brothers and Gilliat and Launder were kind of magical.
    Didn’t the Boulting Brothers make that film Twsted Nerve whence Tarantino made the music famous in Kill Bill?

  5. Paul Graham says:

    I too have something of a soft spot for Cromwell. There are many (and inexcusable) inaccuracies, it may be a bit on the long side, but was there ever any better Charles I, than Sir Alec Guinness?

    Frankly, the whole film is saved by Richard Harris’s rant at parliament at the end. Words a relevant today as the seventeenth century.

  6. snowy says:

    I picked up a copy of ‘Cromwell’ some months ago, only a pound, so I won’t feel too robbed when I get round to watching it, even if it is a florid ‘terrible’ mess.

    For those that prefer ‘Roundheads’ over ‘Cavaliers’, [and are prepared to watch any old tosh], might I suggest ‘To Kill a King’, Ollie C played by Tim Roth and Rupert Everett as Chas. I.

    Not the greatest film ever made, it looks odd and there is much ‘scenery chewing’ throughout, [bonus points if you can spot when Cumberbatch B pops up! I completely failed to register his appearence, I suspect he is under a wig somewhere.]

  7. Vivienne says:

    Very enlightening quote from Dickens, Brooke. Scrooge covered the ‘want’ by sending for the goose, but ignorance has not been conquered. We’ve slipped in the educational tables but, at the same time, our children are so stressed they are increasingly self-harming. If politics needs a shake-up, maybe a Dickens Party might fill a much-needed gap.

  8. Brooke says:

    Vivian, great! I just met with a group of business women who are on the same track. See you soon for the first convention.

  9. admin says:

    Isolation VS community, eh, Brooke? I must admit I’ve never noticed that!

  10. John Howard says:

    Apologies Brooke, strongly disagree. The ‘voices’ of the unheard are easily manipulated because they………..

    Sorry was going to start being bitchy about youth and the lovers of reality television dross, amongst others, who no longer have been taught how to listen to what politicians and people in power actually say. To have the salt shaker to hand when listening because ALL of them have an agenda and it is extremely unlikely to find altruism lurking amongst professional politicians and those who are worth billions.

    Then I realised that this is a sensible blog where we talk to each other sensibly because, after all, we are British.

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