James Hilton, Winston Churchill and the Lockdown

When I get stuck looking for a new idea for a blog post I sometimes look back at my old ones just to see if anything there might inspire me. Sometimes I’ll think of something I could have said about a particular subject which I didn’t say at the time so I’ll start writing about that and then I’m off. Sometimes a writer just needs something to start him off. In fact over on Twitter I sometimes use a meme that goes like this

Some old posts can also be re-purposed. That is to say an old post can be given a new lease of life by a re-write, a few new paragraphs, some new pictures and maybe a link to a relevant video. One old post I looked at tapped right into a long running daydream of mine. Imagine me, a writer from the north of England getting the chance to go and work in Hollywood, writing scripts. I can just imagine the trip over on a Jumbo Jet or whatever passes for a jumbo jet these days. Arriving in Hollywood and looking at all the sights I have read about and imagined over the years, The Brown Derby restaurant, Romanoffs, Schwabs drugstore and maybe even catching a glimpse of Pickfair, the old Fairbanks/Pickford mansion on Summit Drive, the home according to David Niven’s book Bring on The Empty Horses of many of the great stars of the golden age of Hollywood.

Alas, every single one of those places has gone eclipsed by the passage of time. Even the new owners of Pickfair, actress Pia Zadora and her millionaire husband, decided that after aquiring such an historic place, the best thing to do would be to knock it down. Termites had ruined the property, or so they claimed.

One other thing that is real enough is the bit about the writer from the north of England making his way over to Hollywood. No, it wasn’t me, it was James Hilton, the author of one of my favourite books of all time.

James Hilton is one of my personal writing heroes and yet his name may be unfamiliar to many of you reading this blog. He was a journalist and an author and made the trip from his home in Leigh, Lancashire, (now Greater Manchester) in the UK to the Hollywood hills in the United States to become a screen writer. He is probably more well known for his book ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ which was made into a film with Robert Donat (actually another northerner from Didsbury in Manchester) but my favourite of his books and quite possibly my all-time favourite book is ‘Lost Horizon’.

Lost Horizon is a book I found in a second-hand shop many years ago. A battered 1940s paperback I paid twenty-five pence for and yet that small investment has paid me back many times over for sheer reading pleasure as Lost Horizon is a book I re read every year or so and I often pull it down from my bookshelf when a current read fails to entertain me.

Lost Horizon is a completely original idea and is about British consul Robert Conway in the dark days before World War II. Conway is helping his fellow British citizens escape from civil war in China and he and his small party escape in the last plane only to be kidnapped and taken to a distant Tibetan monastery. Conway meets the High lama and after a time it is revealed that the Tibetans  want to preserve the best of world culture and art and make it safe from the coming war.

Hilton is one of those few people who have invented a word or coined a phrase that has become part of the English language. In this case it was the name of the Tibetan monastery, Shangri-la which has since become a byword for a peaceful paradise, a distant haven. Camp David, the US President’s retreat was originally called Shangi-la until renamed by Eisenhower for his son, David.

Hilton’s journey from Leigh to Hollywood must have been a magical one and one I envy, especially as his time in Hollywood was a golden age for movie making. Lost Horizon was made into a movie by Hollywood director Frank Capra and starred Ronald Colman as the urbane British diplomat of the novel. It’s a movie that was restored some time ago and is a great DVD if you happen to see it. Colman also starred in another movie authored by Hilton; ‘Random Harvest ‘.

Hilton settled in Hollywood and wrote a number of screenplays for classic Hollywood movies such as ‘Mrs Miniver ‘. Sadly he died from cancer in 1954.

How would Hilton have coped with the Lockdown? Pretty well I should imagine. Professional writers are not like us amateurs, they are not governed by how they feel, if they are in the mood or not, if they are feeling creative or not. They just get on with it.

A few weeks back I decided that a good project for me would be to make one of my blogs into a video. I chose one from a short while ago A Letter to my Younger Self. I opened up my laptop, clicked on my Animoto page and began. I’m still working on it. It wasn’t as easy as I had thought. I could quite easily have read the post to camera but I wanted something a little more exciting and the good thing about Animoto is that they have a great library of stock footage and photos so combined with some of my own images the result should be good.

Here’s the problem though, and this is the big issue with technology that I come across time after time. Once the designers have put together a great peice of software or an electronic device, they just cannot leave it alone. Windows Sound Recorder: they replaced it with Windows Voice Recorder and all the things I used to do on there, I can no longer do. Windows Movie Maker: my favourite video editing platform: discontinued in favour of HD Movie Maker. The old version was so much better especially when editing sound. The new version is quite different. In the past I could position and reposition sound clips with the mouse now in HD Movie Maker the user can only trim sound or use the delay option. Oh well at least Animoto, the online editing platform I use frequently is untouched, or so I thought.

Wrong! This week Animoto unleashed a new version of its editing software on its users. Does it have improved features? Yes. Is it easier to use? No. Well to be fair it’s not bad but every so often the web page seems to crash and I have to reload the page and start editing again from the point my work was saved. Perhaps that’s the fault of my laptop although it never lost the page with the old version. There are some other litle teaks I don’t like too so I might just put that project on hold for now.

This week Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to ease the current lockdown. Now we can return to work and also travel around if we want to visit somewhere. Most businesses are still closed of course but it might mean places like Blackpool and other seaside resorts will be expecting daytrippers soon. Personally I think his advice is ill advised and we should be keeping the lockdown on for a while longer. The thing is, the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales seem to agree with me so if you are planning a trip to either of those places soon, forget it because the lockdown is still in place there.

The other night I stayed up late watching the film Darkest Hour which is about Winston Churchill and the beginning of his Prime Ministership in World War II. It paints a rather bleak picture of Winston’s premiership with the Conservative party apparently holding back from supporting him and a growing clique actually wanting to replace him with Lord Halifax. When France fell to the Nazis Halifax wanted to explore peace talks with Hitler which Churchill was violently opposed to. I’m not sure how true to life the film was and although I can imagine not everyone was 100% behind Churchill, I found some of this film a little hard to believe. There was a vote of no confidence in the commons in 1942 although Churchill won this by a resounding 475 votes to 25. In the film, conservatives still will not support Churchill in the commons until outgoing premier Neville Chamberlain signalled them to do so by placing a white hankerchief on his knee. By then Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement were totally discredited so would he really have had such sway over his fellow MPs? I doubt it.

What Churchill would think of today’s devolved government I shudder to think.

In these difficult times I take comfort from, as usual, Marcus Aurelius. I receive a regular email from The Daily Stoic and it is surprising how words of wisdom from the past can be relevant to today. One email I picked up this week went like this : All of us who are alive today are the last in an unbroken line of our ancestors who survived two world wars, the plague and much more. They kept calm, they carried on. They learned, as Marcus did, that things can only ruin your life if they ruin your character. We might not control world events, but we can control how we respond. We control whether we hold our heads high. We control whether we help our neighbors. We control whether we contribute to the panic or not.

Not only that, the important thing to remember about the Corona Virus is that . . .


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TV, Books and the Lockdown Blues

You might think that the lockdown is heaven sent for a writer. Stay at home and write stuff, perfect! After a few weeks though I have found not only have I not written much at all. Actually, I’ve been feeling a little bit bored, just like a great deal of the population I suppose.

Television

One thing I have done is watch a great deal of TV although a lot of it has been disappointing. Back in the late 1960s one of my favourite TV shows was The Time Tunnel. It was an American sci-fi show produced by Irwin Allen who made The Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure among other things and a few weeks back I was delighted to find that it was being re-shown on the Horror channel.

In The Time Tunnel two American scientists are ‘lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on America’s greatest and most secret project, the Time Tunnel. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips now tumble helplessly toward a new fantastic adventure, somewhere along the infinite corridors of time’ as the opening blurb used to go.

The Time Tunnel starts off with a Congressman coming to investigate the growing budget of the Time Tunnel Complex and threatens to close things down unless he sees results. Scientist Tony Newman decides he must therefore travel back in time to prove that the tunnel really works and save the project. Tony ends up on the ill-fated liner Titanic. His colleague Doug follows him back to 1912 and the control room struggle to shift the two in time before the ship sinks.

One episode that I particularly remember was when the pair land in Pearl Harbour, just before the Japanese attack in 1941. Tony meets himself as a young boy and finally solves the mystery of the disappearance of his father in the attack. That was one of the better ones.

Unable to return the duo to the present, the technicians back at Time Tunnel HQ struggle every week to shift the duo to somewhere new just in the nick of time. They never seem to manage to get the pair home as there is never enough power for this process despite a huge powerhouse courtesy of the special effects department which we see a glimpse of almost every week. The other thing is that if they did get back home, there’d be no show next week.

I did love this show as a 12 year old sci-fi fan but here in 2020 I seemed to be fast forwarding through all the boring bits, of which there were plenty. Some things don’t seem to stand the test of time and the big problem with the Time Tunnel is that the stories mostly weren’t good enough and many episodes seem to revolve around what appears to be stock footage that was filmed for some other project. I’m really cheesed off that I missed the Pearl Harbour episode though.

Coronation Street, like all the TV soaps is suffering because the lockdown has prevented further filming of the series. Instead of going out six times per week, we are now only getting three episodes to satisfy us and even those are looking like they are missing something. It looks to me like the current main storyline involving controlling husband Geoff and wife Yasmin has been the focus of the last filming sessions while some other content involving the minor storylines is missing. Last Wednesday’s episode seemed to have a slightly odd narrative flow, returning to the same scene when perhaps we should have cut to something else, the cafe or the Rover’s Return pub. Still, the editors can only work with the footage they have and sooner or later there will be nothing and our favourite soaps will be on hold until staff can return safely to work. I noticed also that TV quizzes like Tipping Point and Countdown are now just re runs of older episodes.

Spotify

One other thing has made my life slightly more interesting during these slightly surreal times and that is Spotify. You might not have even heard of it but it’s a music app I’ve downloaded to my iPad. I thought originally that it was a way of downloading music. I’m not a great downloader but the previous place where I used to download music was the HMV digital site, 7Digital. It had, I first thought, gone to the heavenly resting place of defunct web sites but when I finally got connected once again after many years I found it not very interesting and so in my search for internet music I came across Spotify. Now with Spotify, you cannot actually download music, well actually you probably can if you pay for Spotify premium but as the cheapskate that you know I am, I’m happy just to listen to music. On Spotify you can set up favourites and playlists and here’s the really extraordinary thing, after a few days use Spotify starts to suggest things you might like, new music that is similar to music you have already played. Now, after only using it for a couple of weeks, I have built up some pretty substantial music playlists.

Books

After finishing my last book, Michael Palin’s diaries, I looked around for something new to read and picked up three books. Bruce Forsyth’s autobiography, Khrushchev’s memoirs and a book of three Noel Coward plays. I’ve read the Noel Coward book before but the writer’s wit and humour never cease to amuse me. Blythe Spirit is one of Coward’s best known plays and was also made into an excellent film starring Rex Harrison. Having read that book before I tend to just flip through it and re read some of the best bits although in the end, I went through the entire book.

When Khrushchev’s memoirs become a little too serious and I fancy a change, something a little bit lighter, I turn to either Noel Coward or Bruce Forsyth. I picked up Bruce’s book at a church sale and although I didn’t expect much, it has been pretty interesting. Bruce was probably one of the last old time entertainers. He talks about the days of variety in the 1950’s and 60’s and about being in various shows and playing in theatres like the London Palladium and how he managed to break in to TV with Sunday Night at the Palladium which he compered for many years.

At one time he was travelling the country living in a caravan and performing in numerous shows. The latter part of the book is just an excuse to mention all his show biz chums and drop a lot of names but all in all, it was a good read. Bruce doesn’t tell us much about himself though, except in a chapter about his relationship with the UK press, where he proceeds to give the press a good telling off. Still, Bruce was a proper celebrity unlike some celebs these days who seem to make a career from being on TV reality shows.

The Khrushchev book is interesting but suffers like many books written in a foreign language by not reading quite as well as it should when translated into English. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was another foreign language book I read a while ago but that was a new translation and actually read pretty well.

One brilliant foreign language book that comes to mind is Papillon by Henri Charrière. This, unlike the two books mentioned above is an amazing read, an absolutely wonderful book and one of my all time favourites. It was made into a film with Steve McQueen which comes out pretty poor when compared to the book. Still, the book is a pretty thick volume and there is probably enough material in there for a TV series, never mind a film.

One part of the book which is pretty relevant to the lockdown is when Papillon is sent to solitary confinement. In case you don’t know anything about Papillon at all, he was a Frenchman convicted of murder and sent to a penal colony in French Guiana and after numerous escape attempts and many adventures, he finds freedom in Venezuela.

When Charrière is sent to solitary confinement he wonders how he will fill a chapter about a time when nothing at all happens to him, locked away for 24 hours a day with a rule of silence. Every day he is made to stick his head out of a small door in his cell so the warders can check to see if he is still alive. If he is, he is given food which has little nutrient. Luckily, Papillon’s friends have bribed the warders to give him some extra food including some fruit, or I think it might have been a coconut, which helped to sustain him. After many months someone new takes over the solitary block and he lets the prisoners out every day to socialise. This easing of the strict regime helps Papillon and his fellow inmates no end. I can imagine feeling similar when the lockdown is eased.

Blogs

Just looking back at some of my old blogs for inspiration, I came across The Big 300, my 300th blog post and was surprised to find that this very post you are currently reading is my big 405! Still, I did start blogging way back in 2016 just as a way of promoting Floating in Space, my novel set in Manchester, 1977. You might possibly be thinking that this has been an excellent time to pen a sequel. If so, how wrong you are!


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