Monday, 13 June 2016

The Future of Our Country

Paul Kent, author of 'The Lowdown: The EU - Should We Stay or Should We Go', is fed up with fearmongering!

Well, nine days to go, and I must say as far as I’m concerned, this whole wretched process can’t be over too soon. The past few weeks have been a sobering reminder (if we needed one) of how low the standard of political debate in this country can sink. Nobody seems to credit the Great British Public with the ability to think in anything but binary opposites, which is not just patronizing but simply plain wrong. Yes, at the end of the process we’re going to have to come down on one side or the other, but that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice nuance and complexity while we’re making our decision – whatever it is - simply because our politicians and the media do. One of the reasons we published The Lowdown: The EU - Should We Stay Or Should We Go back in 2013, was that it was pretty apparent given their past behaviour that the closer we got to a referendum, the more misinformation would be passed off as fact by the interested parties. And so it has unfortunately proved. There’s very little genuine unspun data out there; and the lies and distortions have been repeated so many times, they are being taken for the truth, even by those who should know better.

The first thing to say is a reminder that this isn’t just about what we think as individuals: it’s about the future of our entire country. The UK. It’s not like a general election that comes round every five years. The consequences of what we decide on June 23rd will be with us for much longer than that. So we all need to park our short-term agendas and THINK BIG. The last referendum we had was in 1975, so that means we might not get the chance to vote on the issue again for another 41 years ...

There’s so much nonsense being written and spoken, I wouldn’t begin to know where to start correcting it. For example, you Brexiteers, Turkey is NOT, repeat NOT going to be joining the EU any time soon unless the 34 of the 35 essential criteria it currently doesn’t meet for joining are somehow ignored. And, here’s the clincher, Angela Merkel doesn’t want them in. So why pretend there’s going to be millions of Turkish economic migrants battering down our borders?

But are the Bremainers any better? Well, not really – if we are to believe David Cameron and George Osborne, everything, from pensions to food standards will be under threat if we leave the EU. Even house prices will fall, which, for the English, means ARMAGEDDON is coming - we’ll all be living in some Breughelian nightmare if we heed the paranoia being spread by what has come to be known as Project Fear.

So what’s REALLY going to happen if we leave?

We don’t know. Nobody knows. Or indeed can know, no matter how much they pontificate. For the simple reason that no full member has ever left the EU before. And not only that, if you asked these people at what level the FTSE’s going to close tomorrow night, they couldn’t accurately predict that either. What will have to happen is a lot of talking. Disentangling over forty years of trade agreements. Rewriting social policy. Getting a UK Bill of Rights. That’s going to take YEARS. Because on June 24th, nothing will have magically changed – it’s only the start. And if any of the Brexiteers had the slightest inkling of how much hard slog awaited them, they probably wouldn’t have begun this in the first place. Disengagement doesn’t happen “just like that”. It has to be addressed issue by issue, point by point. Massive amounts of new and revised legislation will have to be drafted, discussed and voted on.

I can’t wait, can you?

So what can we, the voters do?

Just don’t believe any of these dissemblers, of whatever persuasion: grab a cold drink, download The Lowdown: The EU - Should We Stay Or Should We Go, set aside a couple of hours to read it, and make up your own mind. Then switch of the TV and/or the iPad, bin the newspapers and go out and vote, secure in the knowledge that you haven’t been taken for a ride on anyone’s hobbyhorse. PLEASE. - Paul Kent

'The Lowdown: The EU - Should We Stay or Should We Go' is available in download eBook and audio formats.

Friday, 13 May 2016

What's All This About a Referendum?

In the first of a series of blogs, Paul Kent - author of "The Lowdown: The EU - Should We Stay Or Should We Go" - continues to consider the upcoming EU referendum.

 When I wrote The EU –Should We Stay or Should We Go back in 2013, I noted that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, had pledged to allow a referendum on the subject should his Conservative Party win the 2015 General Election. Well, they did, and indeed he has – a full year before he originally thought he might.

So why the rush? Well, as I noted three years ago, opposition to the UK’s membership of the EU was growing more vocal both on the right wing of his party, and among voters who were seemingly flocking to a “new” phenomenon in British politics, the United Kingdom Independence Party, better known as UKIP, which, despite being twenty years old, was only then starting to gain political traction. Cameron, as a pro-EU Tory, had previously dismissed this opposition as a bunch of fruitcakes and wackos. Which may or may not be true, but what he couldn’t deny was that they were gaining considerable popular support, to the point where they could no longer be ignored. The boil had to be lanced simply to get them to shut up and go away. And he thought that a referendum was the simplest way to do it.

But Cameron seriously underestimated quite how difficult that routine minor surgery would prove, and now he’s got a real fight on his hands – one which he in in serious danger of losing, if polls are to be believed.

Which of course they’re not – at least without a whole host of questions being asked first.

Cameron made a great play of admitting that there was plenty wrong with the EU, but nothing that a stiff dose of UK-prompted reform wouldn’t fix. So in he went to bat against the other 27 member states, to negotiate what he could sell as a fresh start and a new beginning to the British electorate. And here’s what he managed to get:

FINANCE: the UK will never join the Euro, and British financial institutions will be protected from Eurozone regulations being automatically imposed on them;

MIGRATION: migrants to the UK from other EU nations will not be able to claim tax credits and welfare payments immediately they arrive, and they will no longer be allowed to send so much of what they are paid out of the country;

SOVEREIGNTY: for the first time, there will be a clear commitment that Britain is not part of a move towards "ever closer union" with other EU member states - one of the core principles of the EU. This will be incorporated in an EU treaty change. Mr Cameron also secured a "red card" system for national parliaments. It will be easier for governments to band together to block unwanted legislation. If 55% of national EU parliaments object to a piece of EU legislation it will be rethought.

And that’s it. These are the reforms we need to add to my summary of what the EU is and how it works, as described in my book to get an up-to-date picture of what’s at stake. How the debate is proceeding will be the subject of my next blog – and it won’t be pretty! But in the meantime, in keeping with Should We Stay or Should We Go’s original premise, I’m going to remain impartial throughout. I will not be joining those vested interests promising you either Armageddon or the Promised Land if you vote for them, because my mind’s still open, and I’m damn well going to make the decision for myself no matter how much the two sides try to scare or entice me round
to their point of view. I want what’s best for the UK and its people in the long term – not what’s best for politicians, multinational corporations, the City of London, newspaper proprietors, racial bigots, little Englanders, Boris Johnson, bureaucrats on the gravy train, time
servers or journalists. So watch this space . . . - Paul Kent

"The Lowdown: The EU - Should We Stay or Should We Go" is available in eBook and audio versions from Amazon, iBooks, Audible - and most good digital retailers.

Paul Kent is also the author of "101 Short Essays on Shakespeare".

Friday, 29 April 2016

If it bleeds, it leads!

The audio book version of Bad Press, fifth in Maureen Carter's Bev Morriss series, publishes today.  She  joins us today to talk about what led her from news reporting to crime writing....

Like Matt Snow in Bad Press, I’m an old-school journalist who learned the ‘proper’ way. I cut my cub reporter teeth on a weekly newspaper in my home town, moved south to work on a daily broadsheet then back to the Midlands to join the news team on one of the first commercial radio stations in the UK. (A clue to how long ago that was? The job description was newswoman.) Anyway, I then spent nearly twenty years working in BBC TV newsrooms as reporter, editor, producer and sometime presenter. 

Being a reporter, especially with the Beeb, opened countless doors, helped me gain access to all kinds of people from all walks of life. I’ve interviewed everyone from pop stars to princes, prostitutes to police officers plus lots more non-alliterative professionals and personalities. 

Of course in news – as in fiction – crime sells. The cliché is true: if it bleeds, it leads. And it led me into a new career writing crime fiction.  How so . . .? 

I covered more crime stories than I care to remember but a number were impossible to forget. Especially the people involved: the victims, the grieving parents, police officers fighting back tears at a particularly poignant crime scene. I touched on issues that I found fascinating: how society treats the elderly (Dead Old): teenage sex workers (Working Girls); child abduction (Baby Love).  

As a TV reporter, I had maybe a minute and a half – that’s just two hundred and forty words – to tell these complex and amazing stories. Some I longed to explore further, venture far below the surface. Is it any wonder I decided to become a full time writer? And the news career undoubtedly helped make me the kind of author I am. 

I write spare but visual prose, come up with stories that are topical and fast-paced, create varied and, I hope, credible characters. Oh, and I set a daily word count, never miss a deadline and drink far too much coffee. 
As for my reporter in Bad Press, I’ve worked with many a Matt Snow in my time: dogged, persistent, cocky, massively competitive. He’s a hack who acts like a terrier – he never lets go until he has the story. I hope his story holds you captive, too. 

Personally, I’m never less than spellbound by the wonderful Clare Corbett whose narration brings all my characters to such vivid vocal life.- Maureen Carter

"Bad Press", written by Maureen Carter and narrated by Clare Corbett, is available from Audible US, Audible UK, and other digital retailers.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Shakespeare Beheaded Shocker!

Paul Kent, author of "101 Short Essays on Shakespeare" is our 'head boy' today...

At the northern end of London’s Carnaby Street, there’s a pretty decent pub called “The Shakespeare’s Head” which has been thrust into the limelight in the last couple of weeks thanks to the somewhat grisly discovery that Shakespeare’s own head might have been been nicked from his grave in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon. The identity of the thieves, the date of the theft and the skull’s whereabouts are currently unknown, adding yet more to the sum total of things we don’t know about the world’s greatest ever playwright.

The “story” coincidentally broke with the airing of a new TV documentary, in which proper scientists scanned the gravesite using the latest “Ground-Penetrating Radar” gizmo, thus revealing the cranial absence without disturbing what’s left of the skeleton, which would have invoked The Shakespeare Curse, as carved on the grave itself:

Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,/ To digg the dust encloased heare;/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,/ And curst be he that moves my bones.

Back in 2007, a Renaissance literature scholar revealed the startling fact that anxiety about the mistreatment or exhumation of corpses is found in at least 16 of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, which also makes a great headline (geddit?!), and which would seem to indicate that Shakespeare had a morbid fear losing his own crowning asset. Look what happens to Yorick’s skull in Hamlet, as – in many productions – it is casually tossed around members of the cast without so much as a by-your-leave. What is now played for laughs might well have been profoundly disturbing to audiences who genuinely believed that to arrive headless in heaven would condemn you to an eternity “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.

And, of course, head removal was a common form of execution back in the sixteenth century. In 1598, the year before the Globe Theatre opened on Bankside, no fewer than thirty heads were impaled on spikes and displayed at the Southwark end of the old London Bridge for all to see – a grisly reminder not just of mortality, but what could happen if you stepped too far out of line or got on the wrong side of Queen Elizabeth. As indeed Shakespeare almost did when his acting company somehow managed to get themselves embroiled in the Earl of Essex’s failed rebellion in 1601. Essex lost his head, as did Edward Arden, a distant cousin of Shakespeare’s mother who was also found guilty of treason. So Shakespeare might well have been reminded of his own brushes with mortality as he walked, or was ferried, to work on the South Bank.

The Shakespeare play with the greatest number of severed heads must be Henry VI Part 2, which features no fewer than four: the Duke of Suffolk is beheaded by pirates; Jack Cade and his rebels behead Lord Saye for the imagined crime of promoting literacy; they also behead Saye’s son-in-law, Sir James Crowmer, and both heads are somewhat bizarrely mounted on poles and made to kiss each other; and ultimately, Cade’s own head is severed and taken to the King for inspection.

So losing your head was a serious business. And whether Shakespeare has actually  lost his (the boffins’ scans are not entirely conclusive, apparently), it’s intriguing to speculate as to who might have it, and why they nicked it in the first place. Grave robbers? Souvenir hunters? Phrenologists? Who knows?

But whatever the case, it’s yet another dog and pony show to divert our attention from what really matters about Shakespeare – the plays he dreamed up in his head. - Paul Kent

101 Short Essays on Shakespeare is an accessible and jargon-free guide, whether you're new to Shakespeare, or a seasoned playgoer. Available at Amazon UK, Amazon US, Kobo and other good eBook retailers.

Paul Kent is also the author of 'How Writers Write'.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

How Not To Review Cumberbatch's Hamlet...

In the first of an occasional series on all things Shakespeare*, Paul Kent - author of "101 Short Essays on Shakespeare" - discusses critics and Cumberbatch....

It’s a view I’ve held for years, but the last few weeks have confirmed my prejudice in spades: theatre critics are bad for theatre. And Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre in London has cruelly exposed the vast majority of their many inadequacies, like some large suppurating boil coming to a head on the face of a beautiful friend. Well, time for the needle, boys and girls . . . let’s see if you can take the pain as well as dish it out.

The first thing critics don’t like is that Cumberbatch is a star, and even worse, in media other than the theatre. So it’s about time he was cut down to size. When you read the reviews, there’s an unmistakeable sense that they’re willing him to fail. In many ways, this has proved a difficult ambition to fulfil, since his Hamlet is so good. Amid the slew of celebrity pops at the part over the last few years, his reading is undoubtedly one of the most successful, so not many palpable hits from the critics, but a lot of grumbling about the very idea of someone so popular attempting the role. It’s distracting, they claim. Then why not concentrate a little harder? That way, the excellence of Cumberbatch’s rendition will make you forget who’s playing the role, and you’ll end up watching Hamlet up there on stage, and not The Star Who Is Benedict Cumberbatch Playing Hamlet. This is how theatre actually works when it’s done well. And that’s precisely what Cumberbatch manages to deliver, if you’d been paying attention rather than grinding your axes.

Second fault: it’s a populist production, aimed at “kids brought up on Moulin Rouge” as the London Times’s reviewer sneered. Um – and even if that were true, what’s the problem? Moulin Rouge was an excellent film – funny, glamorous, original and, of course, wildly popular. But why shouldn’t Hamlet appeal to young audiences? Are we not allowed to like Shakespeare until we’ve reached a certain age? Who made that rule up? Oh, I get it. Kids couldn’t possibly understand such a difficult play. And any attempt to help or encourage them effectively trivializes one of the greatest works of drama ever written. No, let them struggle and be put off Shakespeare for life! Actually one of this production’s great triumphs is the clarity of the narrative line, effected by judicious cutting, the re-instatement of several neglected scenes and episodes, and some interesting text shuffling (which the critics have also criticized). So what we end up with is a story well told – something that is often lost amid Hamlet’s ditherings. But don’t forget, kids –critics will always know better than you, and their opinions will always count more than yours. So back in your boxes.

So: we have an excellent central performance, and a comprehensible text. What else is wrong?
The set’s too big. It’s “cinematic”, one complained. Sometimes it feels like many critics simply go to the theatre to channel their inner Puritan. If the production doesn’t involve a bunch of nobodies with two beer crates for a set, it’s somehow “extravagant”. Well, chaps, you’re in a THEATRE. Theatre is THEATRICAL. And no-one understood this better than Shakespeare. You know, the guy who wrote this stuff, the guy who’s been at the top of the theatrical tree for over four centuries. And have you ever seen his Henry VIII? It was the Hollywood blockbuster of its day, complete with a huge cast, pomp, pageantry, masques, mimes and special effects. Makes Moulin Rouge look like Beckett. And what about the opening of Henry V, in which the Chorus repeatedly apologizes because things aren’t spectacular enough?  Listen, chaps: here’s the facts of life. Shakespeare understood what worked in the theatre, and what would put bums on seats. He wrote as much for commercial gain as art – probably more so, since he had a wife and kids, a theatre and a company to support.  So when the curtain goes up at the Barbican and we’re plunged into a lavish banqueting scene, why not allow your inner child to go “ooooh!” rather than your inner Puritan to ponder “I wonder how much that cost?” It’s what Shakespeare would have wanted.

 I could go on, but to be honest, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Theatre critics immerse themselves in the world of theatre, yet time and time again they prove that while they may be in it, they’re most definitely not of it. Being professional theatregoers, they’re focused entirely on their personal relationship with what they’re watching, to the total exclusion of the casual theatregoer and anything he or she might bring to the party. Yes, we exist. So why not try and include us? Why not say, “If you like the glamour and glitz of Moulin Rouge this is the Hamlet for you, rather than “This Hamlet’s full of glamour and glitz, I don’t like it so don’t go”?

And in any case: how come, despite all your posturing, pouting, huffing and faint praise, Cumberbatch is playing to packed houses that regularly reward his efforts with near-capacity standing ovations? Are we all wrong? Are we all sheep, hypnotised by his celebrity, paying homage at the altar of his fame?


We’re too busy enjoying ourselves;. We don’t live to generate clickbait, and we aren’t being paid peanuts to parade our professional ignorance and petty snobberies in public.
Just sayin’.

So that, critics all, is my opinion of your opinions. And like your opinions, I’m entitled to it.
Time for one last one: I think Shakespeare, Hamlet and Mr Cumberbatch may all survive your attentions. Somehow.

*this post first appeared on Creative Content's website