Grab a Pugh

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Film 4

 

When I hear the term ‘feel-good British comedy movie’, I usually want to hide inside a coal bin.  This is especially so when the film credits contain the words ‘Richard’ and ‘Curtis’.  Curtis’s cinematic oeuvre doesn’t leave me feeling good, but leaves me feeling sick: for example, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1998), the first two Bridget Jones films (2001 and 2004) and the absolutely vomit-inducing Love Actually (2003).

 

I have no intention of ever watching the new Curtis-scripted, Beatles-themed movie Yesterday (2019), even though it’s directed by Danny Boyle.  I suspect exposure to it would cause me to develop spewing, frothing, screaming, running-around symptoms similar to those of the people infected by the virus in Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002).

 

That said, I did enjoy the recent British comedy-drama Fighting with my Family, which tells the story of Norwich-born World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) female wrestler Saraya ‘Paige’ Bevis, played by the currently ubiquitous Florence Pugh.  Curtis has no connection with the film but it’s written and directed by another long-term member of Britain’s comedy establishment, Stephen Merchant, the former writing partner of Ricky Gervais.

 

Now Fighting with my Family is no masterpiece and its rags-to-riches tale is a very familiar one.  At the start, when Paige isn’t hurtling, bouncing and thudding around the ring in her family’s wrestling gym / independent wrestling-circuit venue, she’s mooching about the streets of Norwich in black eyeliner, facial piercings and unsunny goth-metal gear.  Then she gets a once-in-a-lifetime break at a WWE try-out at the O2 Arena, is selected and flown to the USA by wrestling promoter / coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughan), is trained in the flashy and razzmatazz-y ways of the WWE and finally wins the WWE Divas Championship.  During the process she encounters hardships: like having to withstand the tough-love training of Morgan, who forces his charges to upend monster-truck tyres all the way along a beach; and the bitchiness of her fellow lady wrestler-trainees, who are ex-models, ex-dancers and ex-cheerleaders, are glammed up to 11 even at moments when they should be shedding sweat like garden sprinklers, and regard poor Paige as a refugee from a Halloween party.

 

The positive, life-affirming ending is never in doubt, though.  It couldn’t be – for Paige is a real wrestler, her remarkable story is well known and it’s already been chronicled in a 2012 Channel 4 documentary.

 

From www.j4jacket.com

 

But Fighting with My Family has some good things going for it, especially when you compare it with the lame British movies I ranted about in the opening paragraph.  For a start, it isn’t populated by poshos who, though they’re disgustingly wealthy – Hugh Grant’s character in Four Weddings hangs out with ‘the eighth richest man in England’ while Bridget Jones owns a massive studio flat in London while flitting off at weekends to her parents’ mansion in the Home Counties – we’re expected to feel sorry for because they can’t get laid and can’t get hitched.  Paige’s wrestling-fixated family – rumbustious multi-tattooed dad Patrick / Rowdy Richard (Nick Frost), rumbustious crimson-haired mum Julia / Sweet Saraya (Lena Headey), and more reflective brother Zac / Zodiac (Jack Lowther) – are a million miles removed from that.  They’re hardly what you’d call ordinary, but they’re definitely non-privileged.  They also interact and behave as a believable family unit.  Compare them with the characters in Four Weddings, who seem to have been thrown together purely for comic effect.  I’m sure that in real life the Hugh Grant character would have run a hundred miles rather than associate with a grizzled old ham like the one played by Simon Callow.

 

It’s nice too to have the British part of the film set outside London and the Home Counties, and set in a provincial centre like Norwich – where, incidentally, I lived in 2008 and 2009.  There’s some scenic shots of the town from Mousehold Heath and Norwich Market is shown in all its variegated glory.  Indeed, while I was watching the film with my better half and during a scene set in the market, I pointed excitedly at a particular market stall and exclaimed: “Look!  That’s where I bought my George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead T-shirt!”

 

And I like the fact that even by the end of the film, when Paige enjoys her moment of triumph, she doesn’t renounce her outsider status – she still embraces it.  Admittedly, there was a part earlier on where, in response to the jibes of her more glamorous American wrestling compadres, she dyes her hair blonde and tries to lighten her wardrobe.  I was worried that she was going to be like Ally Sheedy at the end of The Breakfast Club (1985), but thankfully this makeover is only temporary.  Paige’s cultural inclinations also mean that we get some decent music on the film’s soundtrack, including Motorhead’s Born to Raise Hell and Iron Maiden’s Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter.  (If there’s anything I hate more than a Richard Curtis movie, it’s a Richard Curtis movie musical soundtrack, which consists of artists whom the filmmakers calculatingly consider ‘cool’ and ‘cutting edge’ at the time, like, er, Wet Wet Wet, Robbie Williams and Geri Halliwell, doing cover versions of famous songs by the Troggs, Frank Sinatra and the Weather Girls.  And even though Yesterday is about the Beatles, they’ve somehow managed to shoehorn Ed Sheerin into it.)

 

For all its feel-good fuzziness, there’s also some genuine emotional heft in Fighting with the Family’s storyline.  Paige’s brother Zac wrestles at the O2 Arena try-out too but, unlike her, fails to make the grade, returns to Norwich with his dreams of WWE stardom in flitters and faces an unplanned-for life of fatherhood, domesticity and drudgery.  This will strike a cord with anyone who has a talent and longs to make it big with that talent – but through not having enough talent, or just being unlucky, has to eventually resign themselves to a life of ordinariness.  What makes Zac’s dejection worse is the fact (obvious to everyone but himself) that he’s achieving as much, if not more than Paige, just by being his day-to-day self.  He runs his parents’ gym and gives wrestling lessons to a bunch of local kids who’d otherwise be getting mixed up with drugs and getting into trouble with the law.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Film 4

 

One thing that stopped me being too cynical whilst watching Fighting with the Family is my inability to resist – try as I might – the crazed showmanship of the professional wrestling world.  When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the old British pro-wrestlers like Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki.  Later, when I worked as a teacher in Japan, I discovered that all the Japanese kids were obsessed with Japanese pro-wrestlers – and it didn’t surprise me in the noughties that my nephews, when they were wee lads, were totally into the WWE.  Even today, when I’m in a pub and someone puts the WWE channel on the big TV screen, I try to ignore it but after a few minutes find myself watching it avidly.  It might seem a bombastic, over-the-top joke, but you can understand how Paige and her family are so infatuated by it and why her participation in the WWE is such a big deal for them.

 

Inevitably, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson (who also co-produced the movie) gets a walk-on part playing himself.  I have no objection to pro-wrestlers like the Rock turning up in films and acting, though I have to say that when it comes to wrestler-actors he (and indeed, Dave Bautista, Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura and the rest) isn’t fit to kiss the laced-up boots of the mighty Pat Roach or, indeed, Blood and Porridge-favourite Brian Glover.

 

One other thing – as far as I can determine, this is the second British comedy-sports movie that has featured Vince Vaughan as a hardnosed American promoter who comes to Britain and shakes up a cosy little sporting cottage industry.  He’s already played this type in the forgotten Mel Smith-directed Blackball (2003), also starring Paul Kaye, James Cromwell, Johnny Vegas and Bernard Cribbins, in which he tries to turn the sleepy British sport of lawn bowls into one of WWE-style loudness and brashness whilst repackaging Kaye’s character as ‘the bad boy of bowls’.

 

What next?  Will Vaughan make one more film in this vein and complete the trilogy?  I’d like to see him in a film where he travels to Scotland and tries to turn curling into a brutal and combative sport along the lines of rollerball.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Film 4

 

In search of East Anglia

 

 

A feature on the BBC news website last week made me smile.  It was about East Anglia, a region of England I’ve studied in twice, worked in once and lived in for a total of nearly two years.  The feature posed this question: where exactly is the place?

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-36130219

 

The location of East Anglia became a national news item in 2002 while, coincidentally, I was working in what I assumed was East Anglia’s southern half, County Suffolk.  This was during the broadcast of the third season of the TV reality show Big Brother.  Notoriously, that season’s most famous Big Brother housemate, the brash but not cerebrally over-endowed Jade Goody, claimed that East Anglia was somewhere ‘abroad’ – possibly next to Tunisia.  (East Anglians weren’t the only victims of her cluelessness.  Not a great advertisement for Britain’s geography teachers, Jade also thought the United States was a non-English-speaking country, Portugal was a part of Spain and Rio de Janeiro was a bloke.)

 

However, if we know East Anglia is a region of England, why is there any mystery about where it is?  Maybe the mystery is really about what it is.  Personally, I’d always assumed East Anglia consisted of Counties Norfolk and Suffolk in the rump-shaped part of England east of the Wash.  However, in terms of landscape, I suppose you could stretch the definition to include the Fenland district of north-east Cambridgeshire.  Here, you get the same flat, damp and spookily featureless Fens that appear in eastern Norfolk, that are commonly associated with East Anglia and that have inspired countless cruel jokes about yokels, inbreeding, webbed hands and duelling banjos.  The Fens extend westwards across Cambridgeshire as far as the town of Peterborough.

 

 

Actually, that accords with something said in the BBC feature by Vic Morgan, who works at the University of East Anglia’s Centre of East Anglian Studies.  He points out that the Kingdom of the East Angles in the 7th century “covered what we now call Norfolk, Suffolk and a bit of Cambridgeshire.”

 

But as the feature also observes, the concept of East Anglia can be more elastic than that depending on whom you speak to.  The Visit East Anglia website covers Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire – and County Essex to the south.  The East Anglian Orienteering Association has members not only in Norfolk and Suffolk, but also in Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, most of Essex, northern Buckinghamshire and southern Northamptonshire.  And the East Anglia Air Ambulance Service covers Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire during the day while at night it caters for Essex and Hertfordshire too.

 

 

I’m sensitive about the subject of East Anglia’s boundaries because of something that happened seven years ago, while I was studying for a Master’s degree at the University of East Anglia in Norfolk’s county town, Norwich.  As well as studying there, I regularly wrote articles for the UEA’s student newspaper, Concrete.  One day I wrote a piece for Concrete’s travel section about the Suffolk coast.  I made a throwaway remark about Felixstowe being the southernmost coastal town not only in Suffolk but in East Anglia as a whole.  Immediately after this was published, Concrete received a letter from a foaming-at-the-mouth reader who came from Essex.  He condemned me for my ignorance.  Did I not know, he raged, that East Anglia includes Essex, which means the region has coastal towns south of Felixstowe, like Harwich, Clacton-on-Sea and Southend?

 

Concrete’s editor asked me for a reply to the letter, so I did some research into the topic.  I asked a mate who until recently had worked as a farmer in the Norfolk countryside.  Yes, he said, the East Anglia branch of the National Farmers Union represented Essex as well as Norfolk and Suffolk.  And when I popped into the Anglia Television building in Norwich, the receptionist told me that the station broadcast as far as Southend in southern Essex.

 

 

However, most definitions I heard or read said East Anglia was ‘chiefly’ or ‘generally’ Norfolk and Suffolk, while Essex’s status as part of it seemed second-class at best.  Wikipedia, for example, said that “sometimes Essex is also considered part of the region”; while a British Council webpage mused that “some even argue that Essex is now part of the region” (my italics).

 

When I inquired at the Norfolk Heritage Centre, I was told bluntly that East Anglia consisted of Norfolk and Suffolk only.  Essex didn’t qualify because “it borders on London, so it’s considered one of the Home Counties.”  The point was also made that historically East Anglia and Essex had been two separate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which was another reason to make a distinction.

 

But what clinched it for me was the fact that back in 1992 I’d actually spent six months working in Essex.  During my time there I never saw anything or heard anyone say anything to suggest that I was in East Anglia, or that the people around me considered themselves East Anglians.

 

East Anglia is one my favourite places in Britain.  I love its landscapes: the Broads to the east, the Fens to the west, the salt marshes along the northern coast, the ‘Constable country’ at the very south.  And its historical monuments: Norwich and St Edmundsbury Cathedrals, Orford Castle, Castle Acre Priory, the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo, the many out-of-the-way little churches.  And its historical and supernatural legends: the lost city of Dunwich, Matthew Hopkins, Margaret Catchpole, Black Shuck, the Wild Man of Orford.  And its literary connections: M.R. James, Agatha Christie, George Orwell, P.D. James, Graham Swift and Philip Pullman, Oh, and it’s produced a couple of great heavy metal bands too, like Extreme Noise Terror and Cradle of Filth.

 

What adds to the place’s mystique is the fact that it feels distant and apart from the rest of England.  And it would lose that mystique if it extended right to the edge of London.  So sorry, Essex men and Essex women; but when I think of East Anglia, I don’t think of you.

 

 

Norwich becomes an international City of Literature… Back of the net!

 

A few days ago, UNESCO announced that Norwich – regional capital of East Anglia in southern England – would be made an international City of Literature.  This is the first time this accolade has been given to an English city and only the sixth time it’s been given to a city anywhere – the previous five recipients being Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, Iowa City and Reykjavik.

 

I was going to begin by saying that UNESCO’s decision will be welcomed by everyone who’s fed up with the common image that Norwich has in Britain, which is of being a dull, parochial backwater located in the middle of a region that’s remote, flat and populated by yokels.  Indeed, the negativity of Norwich’s image is summed up by the fact that among British people the city is best known for being the home of comedian Steve Coogan’s fictional alter-ego, the self-obsessed, pig-ignorant, Daily Mail-reading sociopath-cum-radio DJ Alan Partridge.  Mind you, I have rather spiked my own guns by using one of Partridge’s catchphrases – “Back of the net!” – in this entry’s title.

 

I’m pleased to hear this news as I’ve lived in Norwich in the past – I did an MA in the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia there in 2008/09.  (Don’t panic, British taxpayers – I funded this MA entirely with my own money.)  Actually, Norwich is the third UNESCO City of Literature I’ve lived or worked in.  I also lived in Edinburgh at the end of the 1980s and again at the end of the 1990s and I briefly worked in Dublin in late 2004.  Will any other place I’ve been based in become a UNESCO literary city in the future?  Tunis?  Sapporo?  Newcastle?  Pyongyang?  Peebles?

 

Among those campaigning for Norwich to join the literary-city club was novelist Ian McEwan, an early graduate of the famous creative writing course run by the UEA.  McEwan recently praised Norwich by calling it a ‘dreamy city’.  Well, if McEwan had spent a year like I did living at the bottom end of the Prince of Wales Road, which contains pretty-much all the city’s nightclubs, late-licensed bars and kebab shops, he might’ve used a different adjective.  While I made my way home down the Prince of Wales Road late on a Friday or Saturday night, threading between innumerable brawls, scuffles, arguments, unconscious drunkards, puddles of sick, broken glass, cordoned-off crime scenes and paramedic teams, the word that sprang to mind regarding this particular bit of Norwich wasn’t so much ‘dreamy’ as ‘nightmarish’.

 

But other parts of the city are lovely and I can see how a nascent writer would find his or her muse there.  The banks of the River Wensum, the precincts of Norwich Cathedral, the cobbled Elm Hill area and the Lanes off the side of the Market Square are especially scenic and I was lucky that the cycling route I followed from my flat to the UEA campus every day took me through all of these areas.

 

 

 

And, considering Norwich’s size, I was surprised at how much there was going on culturally.  While the Theatre Royal served up populist stage and musical fare, more offbeat entertainment was to be found at Norwich Playhouse, Norwich Arts Centre, Maddermarket Theatre, the Puppet Theatre and the Platform Theatre.  The concert hall at the UEA wasn’t the best one I’d been in acoustics-wise, but I was impressed by the names it managed to attract during the year I studied there – among them, the Doves, Primal Scream, Motorhead, Florence and the Machine, Glasvegas and Pete Docherty.

 

Impressive too was the handsome city library housed (along with an exhibition area and the regional BBC TV headquarters) in the big new Forum building overlooking the Market Square.  And while there were the usual multiplex cinemas showing the usual blockbusters, I caught up with a lot of cool non-mainstream movies at the charming Cinema City on St Andrews Street.

 

I should also say that Norwich – once you get beyond the Prince of Wales Road – is blessed with some wonderful bars.  The Fat Cat, the Alexandria Tavern, the Golden Star, the King’s Head and the Coach and Horses would all, I think, make the Top 50 in Ian Smith’s World Guide to Great Pubs.

 

 

Obviously, the city’s biggest connection with literature is through the creative writing course at the UEA.  Apart from McEwan, its graduates include Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain, Toby Litt and current wunderkind of Irish literature, Paul Murray.  And amongst those who’ve taught writing at the UEA is perhaps my biggest-ever literary heroine, the late Angela Carter.  How delighted I was when, in the university bookshop one day, an elderly assistant told me that she still remembered Carter making her way around the campus “in a big billowy dress…”

 

Giles Fodden, author of the amusing but depressing novel about Uganda during the Idi Amin years, The Last King of Scotland, teaches there just now.  His department was next door to the one I studied in.  In fact, while I was doing a secondary course in Media and Development, I suggested to the lecturer – who’d been banging on about how much she disliked the negative coverage that Africa received in the media – that she go and collar Fodden, drag him into our lecture-room and demand that he explain himself.  But alas, she didn’t.

 

Among the other links that the city and its hinterland have with writers…  Philip Pullman, author of the Dark Materials trilogy, is Norwich-born, while in the surrounding countryside Bill Bryson, who is best known for his travel books (but who also wrote an informative and entertaining history of American English called Made in America) currently resides in the old rectory in Wramplingham.  Victorian adventure-writer H. Rider Haggard, of King Solomon’s Mines and She fame, was born in Bradenham.  And Anna Sewell, authoress of the Black Beauty books that were made into a popular children’s TV show in the 1970s and into a movie in 1994, came from Norwich’s local seaside resort, Great Yarmouth.

 

Mention should be made too of venerable science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who’s a native of East Dereham 15 miles west of Norwich.  Aldiss’s odd little novel Brothers of the Head – the story of a pair of Siamese twins born in a remote East Anglian bog who end up fronting a rock band – was made into a movie in 2005.  Several locations in the north of the region were used for filming, including Barningham Hall, Cley Marshes and Blakeney Point.

 

So congratulations, Norwich – and well done, UNESCO, for making a surprising but wise decision.  And as I remarked earlier, I hope this will do a little to solve Norwich’s image problem in the United Kingdom.

 

Though having said that, I’m afraid I have to finish by providing a link to the only clip pertaining to Norwich and to books that I can find on Youtube.  Which is footage of Alan Partridge reading from his autobiography, I, Partridge: We Need to Talk about Alan, when it was launched at Waterstone’s bookshop in Norwich last year.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbB5YVpHUnw