Category Archives: Innovation

Beautiful Self-Interest: A flaw at the heart of Economics, Mathematics and Conflict Resolution

The Business Dictionary defines self-interest as a “focus on actions or activities that are advantageous to an individual or organization. For a business or individual to survive and grow, a degree of self-interest is necessary. When there is too much focus on self-interest the benefits of the group at large diminishes.”

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Adam Smith

The Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) wrote two books “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759) and “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) (considered “the bible of capitalism”). He proposed a theory that capitalism was essentially fuelled by the self-interest of people: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

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John Forbes Nash Jr.

John Forbes Nash Jr. was an American mathematician whose life story was told in Ron Howard’s 2001 film “A Beautiful Mind” starring Russell Crowe. Nash updated Smith’s theory with some of his own ideas. He reasoned that the individual could get what they wanted yet still benefit the group they belonged to. This film clip of Nash and his classmates in a bar neatly explains Nash’s theory.

Nash won the Nobel Prize in 1994 in Mathematics for his equilibrium theory. John Moriarty of Manchester University describes the theory as “the ability to analyse situations of conflict and co-operation and produce predictions about how people will behave.” He goes on to say that Nash’s equilibrium is “perhaps the most important idea in economic analysis.” So why hasn’t Nash’s equilibrium been adopted more by the mainstream?

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Firstly, you can’t quantify human nature. It is not fixed but fluid and unpredictable. It’s not like Cambridge Mathematician Alan Turing’s “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis” where he could explain the markings and patterns on animals with an equation. That was rooted in genetics and evolution is a mighty slow thing. Human nature is extremely fast, just look how it changes day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute on the internet. It can be contradictory and even illogical at times. Applying logic to potentially illogical behaviour is to construct a house on shifting foundations. The structure will inevitably collapse. That’s the first problematic element of Nash’s theory but I propose and even bigger flaw that’s prevented it from being embraced in a wider context.

The human condition is one variable but a bigger one is the group itself. In the film clip with the blonde, Nash’s theory might work when he’s with a group of friends. They presumably know and trust each other and should therefore support one another for the common good. Again, it should work for a family, they too should presumably know and trust each other and have common goals (but human beings are complex creatures and there is no guarantee that the family isn’t dysfunctional and operating in a counter-productive way.) Assuming that these smaller groups want to progress along the same path together, we can expand the theory outwards to a community of people. Here the theory begins to fall apart. A community of people might not know or trust one another or have common goals. That possibility lessens even further when you expand the theory to a city or a country or a conflict between two countries. So the more you expand Nash’s theory outwards, the less chance it has of succeeding.

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Nash with his wife Alicia at the Oscars

Nash was also schizophrenic: “I was disturbed in this way for a very long period of time, like 25 years.” It affected his marriage and he and his wife Alicia divorced in 1962. His condition improved in the 80s and they remarried in 2001. Sadly the couple were killed in May 2015 when the taxi they were passengers in crashed in New Jersey. A sad loss of a great man. Life is not predictable.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

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Aliens – The Best Sequel Ever Made?

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Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in 1979 and was a big hit. By 1986, it had faded away into the eerie mists of time somewhat when the sequel Aliens was unleashed by Twentieth Century Fox and writer/director James Cameron.

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Hot off The Terminator, Cameron was just the right guy to take on this sequel. He loved the original and had the sci-fi and technical know-how to push the franchise forward into thrilling new territory. Aliens was a huge hit that summer and earned Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (unheard of for a science fiction movie at the time but indicative of the performance Cameron pulled out of her on set.)

Aliens, like all the best sequels, takes the original concept and expands upon it, deepening the meaning of it. We learn that Ripley’s first name is Ellen and that she had a daughter back on earth who died while she was drifting in space for 57 years (with nothing left for her back on earth, the traumatised Ripley is forced to return to the depths of space and confront her old alien enemy like the Minotaur in the labyrinth of legend.) We learn the name of the Alien species – the Xenomorph (interestingly, both Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are using that term to describe the Alien in interviews promoting the new film. James Cameron pulled off a similar trick in Terminator 2, another contender for best sequel of all-time, naming the liquid metal T-!000 a “mimetic poly-alloy.” T2 is making a welcome return in summer 2017 in a new 4k 3D version supervised by Mr Cameron.) The original Alien life cycle was based on an African wasp which lays its eggs under the skin of humans before the hatch out. Cameron expands this concept by making the Alien species a hive organism with a giant queen laying eggs at the apex of the hierarchy. Cameron even names the Alien planet LV-426. (They’re on LV-223 in Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott again paying homage to the superior sequel Aliens.) The weapons and futuristic forklifts the space marines use delighted audiences with their ingenuity.

The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England and the British crew gave Cameron a hard time as they thought they were making an inferior sequel to a British director’s classic original. They even dubbed Cameron “Grizzly Adams” at one stage. Cameron said: “The Pinewood crew were lazy, insolent and arrogant. We despised them and they despised us. The one thing that kept me going was the certain knowledge that I would drive out of the gate of Pinewood and never come back.” If you’re wondering why Cameron painted the Brits in such a bad light in Titanic, now you know.

 

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It was also a difficult shoot for Sigourney Weaver using flame-throwings, shooting weapons and having to carry two heavy guns strapped together and the child Newt on her hip. Weaver injured her back from it and you can tell from the way she struggles to run from the Alien Queen near the end.

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Jim Cameron was responsible for so many shoot-‘em-up moments in the 80s; The Terminator’s single-handed destruction of a police station, John Rambo’s single-handed destruction of the Viet Cong, the Soviets and the team of Nixonian American mercenaries who double-crossed him and left him for dead. He does it again in the finale of Aliens when Ellen Ripley lets rip with flame thrower, machine gun and grenade launcher to decimate the hated Alien Queen and her precious eggs. (Ripley has lost her daughter and denies the Alien Queen the right to be a mother also, a perfect and clever fusing of character arcs by Cameron.) Strange that by Avatar in 2009, Cameron’s heroes are a blue Smurf-like race worshipping a glowing tree like hippies on another planet. (There are FOUR sequels to Avatar coming in the next decade, folks. So prepare to make more love and not war, man!)

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As with the team of mercenaries in Rambo: First Blood Part II (co-written by Cameron), the team of colonial marines in Aliens are a bunch of arrogant jerks that get taught a lesson later in the film. The late, great Bill Paxton, back with Cameron again after a brief Terminator appearance, adds so much humour and energy to the film, even ad-libbing the line “Game over, man, Game OVER!” (his voice cracking with emotion on that last line brings the house down.) Most actors would try to steal scenes by being macho; Paxton does it by being a hysterical (and hysterically funny) coward. It’s a brilliant performance from a fine actor. RIP, Bill.

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Another Cameron regular, Michael Biehn, is a commanding presence and potential love interest for Ripley. He replaced James Remar not long into shooting and is a welcome addition to the film.

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In 1992, a director’s cut of Aliens appeared adding 17 additional minutes to the running time.

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That was the same year we got the shoddy Alien 3 and those extra 17 minutes were a soothing balm to seething fans of the franchise. All the characters we loved from Aliens were callously and stupidly killed off in the opening minutes of the third film. It immediately threw away any chance of being a worthy follow-up right then.

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Concept art for a possible fifth Alien movie

(Neill Blomkamp has proposed a fifth Alien film which ignored the disappointing third and fourth entries and continues where Aliens left off. James Cameron has approved the concept while Ridley Scott has shot it down saying it will probably never happen. Meanwhile, Ridley continues with his perplexing and unnecessary prequels. Not many people want them, they want the sequel that should have been but it seems as if it will never happen now. Fox need to give the audience what they want instead of forcing them to accept the opposite. Scott is doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars essentially; he directed the original but the sequel is better as with The Empire Strikes Back. Now, decades later, he is unwisely returning to direct a series of unwelcome prequels that only serve to remind us how great the first trilogy was and make us long for it again.)

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I’ll go see Alien: Covenant, but I’m not holding out much hope for it or the franchise. The prequels seem to be explaining too much about the Alien, robbing it of its mystique. We don’t need to know the xenomorph’s backstory, it’s a slimy monster that’s going to get you. That’s all we need to know. Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror films, but movie studios are determined to squeeze every drop of cash out of a franchise. Let’s hope they see sense and give us the one we really want – Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

The Weird and Wonderful World of Richard Matheson

The writer Richard Matheson was born to Norwegian immigrant parents in New Jersey on February 20th, 1926. He had his first story published when he was eight years old. After graduating from high school, he joined the army, serving in the US infantry with the 87th Division in France and Germany during World War II. His experiences of warfare formed the basis of his 1960 novel “The Beardless Warriors.”

After the war, he studied journalism at the University of Missouri and moved to California. Summer 1950 saw Matheson make his first real mark as a writer when his short story “Born of Man and Woman” was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and drew attention. It had the kind of frightening science fiction themes that became Matheson’s trademark and was the first of dozens of short stories he would publish over the next two decades.

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“I Am Legend” from 1954 was his first published novel and is probably his masterpiece (it was voted the best vampire novel of the 20th century by the Horror Writers Association in 2012) A daring deconstruction of the vampire legend, it flips the whole narrative on its head by making the last man alive the destructive predator that vampires fear and despise as he systematically wipes them out by day following a futuristic plague.

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It was adapted for film as “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price in 1964, again as “The Omega Man” in 1971 with Charlton Heston and, more recently, in 2007 with Will Smith.

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The book may have been about vampires but its main theme was loneliness and there are few better books about that subject. As the main character Neville is alone most of the time, it’s a difficult story to write but Matheson does a great job of keeping the reader engaged with his solitary hero in his nightmare world. “I Am Legend” also served as the direct inspiration for classic zombie movie “Night of the Living Dead”, giving birth to a whole new genre of film, almost as if the vampire pandemic gave birth to zombies.

He was also a successful television writer, penning episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “Star Trek” as well as numerous western shows.

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His 1956 novel “The Shrinking Man” (filmed in 1957 as “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, which Matheson also wrote the screenplay for) has been ripped off by everything from “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” to last year’s “Ant Man.” It had its New York premiere 60 years ago this week in February 1957. In 2009, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” was placed in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, this accolade is only given to films that are “aesthetically, historically or culturally significant.”

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“The Twilight Zone” seemed made for Matheson and another famous story of his, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, was filmed for the show among others. It concerned a nervous flyer (played by William Shatner in the 1963 TV show and John Lithgow in the Twilight Zone movie twenty years later) who is convinced a demon is smashing up the wing of the passenger plane he is on during a vicious thunderstorm. No one believes him, even when he saves the lives of everyone on board by trying to kill the creature and forcing it to flee.

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The Simpsons did a parody of this story in one of their Halloween specials where Bart Simpson sees a demon dismantling the wheels of the school bus he’s on. Demonstrating how his stories are so ingrained now in popular culture.

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In 1968, he adapted Dennis Wheatley’s novel “The Devil Rides Out” for Britain’s Hammer Horror films. It is one of the best British horror movies ever made and features Christopher Lee in one of his finest roles as a man battling the forces of darkness.

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His nerve-shredding TV movie script for “Duel” became Steven Spielberg’s first film in 1971.

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Other Matheson novels made into films include “Bid Time Return” which became “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour (arguably a big influence on “Back To The Future” and “The Terminator”), “What Dreams May Come” with Robin Williams, “Stir of Echoes”, a supernatural horror film starring Kevin Bacon and “Real Steel”, a sci-fi action movie about fighting robots with Hugh Jackman.

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He once said: “I wrote about real people and real circumstances and real neighbourhoods. There was no crypt or castles or H.P. Lovecraft-type environments. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighbourhood. I could never write about strange kingdoms. I could never do Harry Potter or anything like that.”

Assessing his career, he said: “I think ‘What Dreams May Come’ is the most important (read effective) book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death, the finest tribute any writer could receive. … Somewhere In Time is my favourite novel.”

His daughter and two sons also became writers.

Richard Matheson died in June 2013. He left behind a significant body of work including dozens of novels, short stories, TV show scripts, TV movies and movies both adapted by him from his own work and adapted by others. Writer Ray Bradbury called him “one of the most important writers of the 20th century.” While Stephen King claimed Matheson was the writer who had influenced him the most. Another writer called Harlan Ellison praised his “supernova lifetime of writing mentioned in the same breath with Poe and Borges.” That is about as good as it gets.

I’ll leave the final word to Mr Matheson: “I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another.” You certainly have, sir, you certainly have.

(“The Vorbing”, my vampire novel inspired by Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” is available here)
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Loving The Alien

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Star Wars is the fairy story and I was going to do The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction,” said director Ridley Scott about Alien (1979).

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Director Ridley Scott on the set of Alien with Sigourney Weaver.

There were vague suggestions in the script as to what the creature looked like. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon gave Scott a 1978 book by Swiss conceptual artist H.R. Giger titled Necronomicon. Giger had an incredible and unique surreal style with pages and pages of grey, suffocating, biomechanical erotica. When Scott saw one of the many creatures in Giger’s book, he knew he had found his monster.

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Hans Ruedi Giger at work

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The creature collapses many of our darkest sexual fears into one beast; its phallic head and tail, its erectile teeth and slavering mouth with two sets of jaws that recalled the vagina dentata (the folk myth of toothed female genitalia that goes back as far as Ancient Greece). So the creature was at once alien yet oddly familiar in subtle, subconscious ways.

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The alien has a life cycle straight out of a biology book. The creature begins life as one of the many eggs Kane (John Hurt) finds on the alien planet, the face-hugger leaps out of the egg, wraps itself around his head and implants its seed inside his throat (the first of several oral rapes in the film; Ash the android later malfunctions and tries to shove a rolled-up porn magazine into the mouth of Sigourney Weaver’s heroine Ripley). The writers apparently based this on a species of African wasp which lays its eggs underneath the skin of humans. The alien “foetus” grows inside Kane until it explodes out of him as the chest-burster and hides out in the ventilation shafts of the vast Nostromo spacecraft. The alien rapidly sheds its skin like a snake and grows in size to become the eight-foot tall adult.

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Perhaps because Ridley Scott is British, there’s a class element to the hierarchy on board the Nostromo spacecraft. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee says Scott uses “stepdown imagery” in the living quarters to make it seem blue-collar; mementoes like the shot glass with the toy bird pecking in it and family photographs show us a crew of interstellar truck drivers light years from home, missing loved ones and complaining about pay and conditions.

It has been said that Alien, like the slasher movies that were popular around the same time, stole the plot of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians where a group of characters are confined in one place and get bumped off one by one. Where the slasher movies and Alien inverted that structure was a plot device called The Final Girl – the female survivor who outlives her peer group and kills the monster or appears to. Ripley is the final girl in Alien. The key difference is that slasher films are set on earth with friends, family, neighbours or the police to call on for help. Ripley is totally alone in the depths of space and working for a company who think she’s expendable. There are no humans around for millions of miles and no one to hear her scream, which made it infinitely scarier.

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Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is credited with creating the genre of science fiction with her 1818 novel Frankenstein. The feminist theme of that book is that when men create life, they create monsters and Alien essentially has the same theme as the creature is born of man. So Alien is a very clever reworking and reinvention of basic horror and sci-fi themes for a modern audience.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Star Wars – Empire Under Construction

Narrative theory is the academic idea begun by the Russian scholars Todorov and Propp and continued later by the American Joseph Campbell, that the same archetypes and story motifs and narrative structures appear repeatedly in fairytales and folktales in every culture.

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With Star Wars everywhere in the news this week following the release of Rogue One and the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, let’s take a look at narrative theory through the example of Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope. It was written and directed by George Lucas and released in 1977. It’s a science fiction film even though it takes from every genre; Arthurian legend (the Jedi knights are similar to King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Merlin-like figure who gives Luke a laser sword similar to Excalibur), Japanese Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress (1958) (Lucas said: “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.” Darth Vader’s helmet is also supposed to resemble a Samurai’s.)

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Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) and Harrison Ford in Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars also evokes American Westerns (Han Solo is dressed exactly like Gary Cooper in High Noon minus the cowboy hat.The raucous, violent canteen is like a Western saloon and the destruction of Luke’s home and family is very like The Searchers) and World War II movies (Darth Vader’s helmet also resembles a Nazi helmet, the Empire’s troops are called Stormtroopers just as Hitler’s were and the dogfights in outer space are like Second World War aerial battles. Lucas even edited World War II dogfight footage into an early rough cut of Star Wars as a guide before the special effects were ready.)

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Lucas had tried and failed to secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, yet he retained the opening exposition crawl from the start of the old 1930s Buster Crabbe/Flash Gordon serials for Star Wars.

Here are Propp’s archetypes in Star Wars:

Hero – Luke Skywalker

Donor – Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his lightsaber.

Helper – Han Solo, Chewbacca and the droids

Princess – Leia

Her Father – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

False Hero – There is no obvious false hero in the Star Wars – Episode IV. It appears to be Han Solo, who selfishly refuses to take part in the crucial assault on the Death Star but he redeems himself in a last-minute twist by saving Luke’s life and neutralising the threat of Darth Vader which gives Luke time to destroy the Death Star.

Dispatcher – I believe it’s Leia; she puts the distress hologram inside R2-D2. This sends the droid on his mission which reactivates Obi-Wan who activates Luke as the hero.

For me, the structure is this;

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Act I – Hidden Fortress meets The Searchers

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Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare (1968)
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Han Solo and Luke Skywalker similarly dressed as the enemy in the Death Star

Act II – Where Eagles Dare (Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton disguise themselves as Nazis to infiltrate a German fortress on a mountaintop just as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker disguise themselves as the enemy to get around the Death Star)

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Act III – The Dambusters (Lucas hired British cinematographer Gil Taylor to shoot Star Wars and he had done special effects photography on the 1955 British film The Dam Busters. The assault on the Death Star at the end is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the bombing of the German dams at the finale of The Dam Busters.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Star Wars © Lucasfilm Ltd.

       

2016: George Michael’s Last Christmas

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George Michael died in his sleep on Christmas Day 2016 of suspected heart failure. I always associated him with Christmas because of his classic 1984 hit Last Christmas (written, produced and recorded by him when he was 21 years old, amazing) and to a lesser extent with December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas), one of his last releases in 2009. Now the anniversary of his death will always be December 25th, tying him to the festive season permanently and in a much bigger way.

So many of the 80s generation of stars I grew up listening to are gone now; George, Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston. And so many musicians have died this year including the great David Bowie (the first anniversary of his passing is in a fortnight), Prince, Rick Parfitt of Status Quo earlier this week (who sang on the Band Aid record with George) and now poor old George Michael is added to that tragic list.

The body of work of stars like those become the yardstick by which we measure our lives. Hearing a hit of theirs immediately transports you back to an earlier time in your life. George Michael had a 34-year career, but his legacy was really assured after about two decades. He was controversial, getting into legal battles with his record company, releasing songs like ‘I Want Your Sex’ in the era of the AIDS epidemic, being arrested for lewd conduct in a toilet in California, a string of car crashes, one of which lead to him spending time in jail and a series of health scares including an emergency tracheotomy to save his life when he got pneumonia on tour in Austria.

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Last Christmas is a classic for me as it captures the bittersweet feeling of the festive season. I’ve had Christmases of great joy and extreme sadness in my life. You just approach each one thinking ‘let’s hope it’s a good one’ like John Lennon cautiously wrote and sang in his Christmas song, ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over).’ The song ‘Last Christmas’; and its memorable snowy video, deals with the trials and tribulations of young love and all the heartache and happiness that’s a part of it. It’s not automatically happy clappy, there’s a sadness there that echoes George’s own life.

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I’ve heard ‘Last Christmas’ four times in the past few days before news of George’s death was reported. The pilot of a plane I was a passenger on played it on the plane’s sound system as we landed in London, I heard it again half an hour later in Heathrow airport itself and twice more on a CD in a car I was travelling in, including Christmas Day 2016, just hours before his death. Little did I know its creator was about to leave us. There have been over 395 cover versions of Last Christmas and, no doubt, that will only grow and grow in the wake of George’s death.

George remembered Christmas as a child: ”I do love Christmas. I always have loved it, ever since I was a child. When I was young both my parents used to work so hard and they always seemed quite stressed to me. But at Christmas everyone would calm down and be nice to each other for a few days, and that used to make me feel very safe. It’s Frank Sinatra who reminds me of Christmas. During the school holidays, when I was a kid, I used to work behind the bar of my dad’s restaurant in Edgware [North London], and he’d always play Sinatra records for the customers. So that association is very strong for me. Why doesn’t it snow at the right time anymore, like it did in the ’60s? If it could snow on Christmas Eve or something that would be perfect.”

George nearly died of pneumonia at Christmas 2011 and he recalled how much he appreciated things that year: ”Best Christmas I can remember, surrounded by the people I love. And knowing that Christmas could have been very different this year for everyone at that table. As it was we stuffed and laughed ourselves silly. I’m such a lucky man! I hope you all had a great one.”

Sadly, he didn’t survive Christmas 2016.

I was lucky enough to see George in concert twice in Dublin within six months on his 25 Live tour. The first one in what’s now called the 3Arena was my favourite. He hadn’t toured extensively and his voice was still in great condition. At one stage, all the girls in the audience screamed simultaneously and a soundwave went right through my head, rocking me a bit. It was a little taste of what Beatlemania must have been like with that wall of screams filling the concert venue. The second gig was outdoors at Dublin’s RDS in the showjumping arena where I’d seen Prince fifteen years before (everyone I see in concert seems to die, I might bar myself from future shows to save lives.)

We need our musicians, the way we need all creative people to try and make sense of our lives and the world around us through their work. When they die, part of us dies with them. George Michael really was a genius. He was a huge fan of Queen and sang with them at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, but he achieved what they did alone. There were four songwriters, producers and musicians in Queen. So George is more like Bowie in that respect, but George was producing his own songs by himself from his early 20s, whereas Bowie always had a co-producer helping him, so George’s achievements are even more impressive in light of that.

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Wham! were even starting to enjoy an ironic mini-comeback thanks to the year’s big hit movie Deadpool where the hero keeps mentioning them to comic effect throughout the movie. Sad that he won’t get the chance to take advantage of that as there are some great songs there. Predictably though, there will be an inevitable huge surge in sales of George Michael and Wham! songs in the coming days, weeks and months.

I was going to bed on Christmas night and checked my messages to see if British Airways had traced my missing luggage for my wedding (they haven’t!). That’s when I saw George had died and my heart sank. Then I reminded myself of his self-destructive nature and that we were lucky to have had him as long as we did. In this age of karaoke X-Factor wannabes stealing their 15 minutes of fame by parroting old songs, he was a true original. We really will never see another like him. Rest in peace, George.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved

Behind “The Shining”

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A nightmare inspired Stephen King to write The Shining novel:

“In late September of 1974, [my wife] and I spent a night at a grand old hotel in Estes Park, the Stanley. We were the only guests as it turned out, the following day they were going to close the place down for the winter. Wandering through its corridors, I thought that it seemed the perfect – maybe the archetypal – setting for a ghost story. That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his over shoulder, eyes wide, screaming.”

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Director Stanley Kubrick on the set of “The Shining” with Jack Nicholson

“Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its murderous bidding. He doesn’t have very much further to go for his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable. He is bitter about his failure as a writer. He is married to a woman for whom he has only contempt. He hates his son. In the hotel, at the mercy of its powerful evil, he is quickly ready to fulfil his dark role.” – Stanley Kubrick

The Shining (1980) begins with epic, sweeping helicopter shots of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family driving through the Rocky Mountains. Its director and co-screenwriter, Stanley Kubrick, was scared of flying and sent his second unit to get the shots. The shots become important later when some of the local legends about Native American burial grounds and the cannibals of the Donner Party are brought into play. They also serve to begin the story wide open before venturing into the interiors of the Overlook Hotel and the minds of Jack Torrance and his psychic son Danny. The epic vistas could be made to seem exciting but the ominous, creepy music lets us know we are entering dark territory.

The Shining at heart is a traditional haunted house movie. However, it defies genre conventions by raising uncomfortable social issues like domestic violence, child abuse and racism, issues which were only starting to be publicly discussed in 1980. This further unsettles the audience. Plus, it has the ghosts interacting physically with the human characters, like when a spirit unlocks the pantry where Wendy has locked Jack and sets him free (some people I saw the film with found that hard to believe and that they were unable to suspend disbelief beyond that point).

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Then there is the scene where Jack goes to the forbidden room 237. He sees an attractive, naked young woman emerge from the bathtub and they embrace, only for her to turn into a cackling crone and witch-like figure with a decomposing body. There Kubrick appears to be playing with the psychology of dreams and ageing nightmares.

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“I think The Shining uses a…kind of psychological misdirection to forestall the realization that the supernatural events are actually happening.” – Stanley Kubrick

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There was a recent documentary about The Shining appropriately titled Room 237. In voice-over, people we never see expound on their theories as to what Kubrick’s The Shining is really about. One person thinks it’s a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans by white settlers. Another believes it to be about the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews of Europe. Someone else sees the Apollo 11 jumper Jack’s son Danny is wearing as proof that Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landings for NASA in 1969 in a television studio. There is a fascinating section of the documentary that explains that Kubrick was getting very interested in subliminal imagery at the time and that The Shining is loaded with signifiers of this type. A movie that began as a novelist’s nightmare and that is presented in such a consistently surreal fashion is, like a dream itself, open to many interpretations.

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Peter Sellers in the inspired lunacy of Dr Strangelove

There was always dark humour running through the work of Stanley Kubrick, most notably in Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Kubrick also loved his actors to improvise and these elements came together in the The Shining when Jack Nicholson came up with the line: “Here’s Johnny!” A wicked parody of the line that introduced Johnny Carson on his chat show, it became the most famous line in the movie, was used as the poster image and is one of the most famous lines in film history.

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When Jack Torrance is waiting for his interview in the reception area of the Overlook Hotel at the start of the film, he’s reading an issue of Playgirl magazine that has an article about incest in it. The Shining could be seen as an Oedipal tale with the son killing the father (Danny traps his father in the maze where he gets lost and freezes to death, Danny carefully retraces his footsteps and saves himself) so he can have his mother all to himself in their new life together.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Story: In The Beginning…

Where do you start your story? A key question and one of hundreds if not thousands to be answered when writing and publishing a book. Do you start when your character is born or before? When they are a child? A teenager? An adult? When they get married? When they are old? Do you start at the point of death or after and tell the story in flashback?

If you were telling the story of your life, where would you choose to start and why? Looking at your characters in the same way and treating their lives as real can be hugely beneficial. When you start treating them seriously, they become more realistic to you and hopefully your readers.

When a potential reader opens your book, how do you pique their interest? Your first sentence is crucial. The point you choose to start the story will determine that first sentence. The whole structure is like a line of dominoes (no, not the pizza place); set the first one right and the rest should stand. Get it wrong and they all could topple.

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It took me many years to publish my book The Vorbing and, during that time, I wrote many different versions of it. I went through a city map of blind alleys but it taught me what worked and didn’t work each time and sharpened the story. When the time came to pull all the strands together, I could use all the best bits from all the various drafts to come up with a kind of “greatest hits” version of the story. All those ideas gave the whole thing a fast pace and fresh perspective. I won’t have that luxury on book two, but such is the challenge of writing.

This is where a fresh pair of (preferably experienced) eyes on your work can pinpoint a loss of initial focus. Even if you need to lose earlier material, you can use it later in the story or in a sequel or even just as backstory to help you know your characters better. No piece of writing is ever really wasted. You can cannibalize it later or even combine bits to create a new story (Anne Rice was writing a book set in Atlantis and hit a dead end, so she put her vampire Lestat into the mix and, hey presto, got a new Vampire Chronicles book out of it – Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis.)

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That old cliche “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” is doubly true for writers, especially in the internet age. If someone is viewing a preview of your book using the “Look Inside” option on Amazon, that mouse button is right at their fingertips and they are ready to click off if you fail to hook them. So think carefully about that first sentence. Be original. Be surprising, but be true to your characters, your story and yourself above all.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

 

Remembering Freddie Mercury – The King of Queen

freddie-mercury-1974-2It was on this day, November 24th, a quarter of a century ago that the world lost Freddie Mercury. I remember the day well. I’d read in the newspaper (remember them?) in April 1991 that Freddie had a “mystery wasting illness.” It said he’d viewed some properties for sale in London and the owner was told to “be out” when Freddie arrived. He was seen being helped in and out of the car. As soon as I read that, I knew it was AIDS. Still, I thought he had a few years more to live.

On November 23rd, he put out the press release confirming he had AIDS. On Sunday the 24th, I was flicking through the TV channels before going to bed and Sky News were playing the Barcelona video. The newscaster, Scott Chisolm, said: “That’s how he’d want to be remembered.” I thought it was a bit premature to be talking about him in the past tense despite his AIDS diagnosis. Then he read the headline that Freddie had just died. Despite my suspicions, it was still a hell of a shock. I remember just sitting there stunned the next day, the wind howling outside. Queen guitarist Brian May said Freddie’s death was one of the grimmest memories of his life. It was one of mine too. An awful, frightening time. There was no cure for AIDS then and it appeared the virus was going to go on killing people indefinitely. Who would be next?

I was 20 then and Freddie seemed old to me at 45. I’m 45 now and, I can tell you, it isn’t old at all. He was still a young man with a long way to go, but we never get the best for very long. They come out of nowhere, shake up everything and then they’re gone, leaving us to wonder who they really were and where they came from.

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Most rock stars die suddenly without warning; Elvis, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, etc. Freddie, like his Under Pressure collaborator David Bowie, knew he was dying and had time to prepare for it. There are little hints and clues in the final albums released while he was alive The Miracle and Innuendo.

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His most famous work, Bohemian Rhapsody, was re-released and hit number one again over Christmas 1991 for five weeks (adding to the nine weeks it had spent at number one in the UK over Christmas 1975.) It’s been said that the success of Bohemian Rhapsody gave Freddie the money and fame to embark on the lifestyle that killed him. The song made him, remade him at Live Aid in 1985 and was a fitting epitaph to his career in late 1991.

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How good was Freddie Mercury? He named the band Queen, designed their logo, wrote their first top ten hit and their first number one single. Just look at the originality of Bohemian Rhapsody. There hasn’t been a song like it before or since. That’s why it stands so far apart and above most other contemporary songs. Freddie wasn’t only a genius songwriter, he was a superb pianist, arranger, producer and an unforgettable showman on stage (I was lucky enough to see him on his last tour with Queen at Slane when I was 14). Who else could walk on before a football stadium crowd and command them all effortlessly for two hours? There was that unique voice with the four-octave range. The groundbreaking and hilarious videos Queen made. He even danced with the Royal Ballet company for Christ’s sake. And all this before the age of 45. He crammed a lot of life into his short time on earth. May he rest in peace while conducting the choir eternal.

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I’ll leave the final words to Freddie himself, he said: “I don’t think I’ll make old bones and I don’t care. I’ve lived a full life. I really have done it all and if I’m dead tomorrow I don’t care a damn.”

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

“You Can Quote Me On That” – The wise ramblings of Stewart Stafford (Slideshow)

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