Back in mid April (I blogged about it here, go and have a read, it was a fun day), a little group I'm part of - The Crusty Exterior - met up in London, to catch up, have a laugh and trawl the bookshops of London. On that trip, I picked up two books that jumped to the top of my (never actually going to be finished, to be honest) TBR pile. These are those two books.
In 1991, Robert Rodriguez was just another film fanatic who wanted to make his own feature-length movie. Unlike the bulk of people in the same situation, he actually did something about it - volunteering himself for medical trials to raise the funds, being his own crew, sorting out his cast and location and actually making a film. Then his $7,000 movie, intended as a test-run to be sold to Spanish-language direct-to-video, was picked up by Columbia Pictures and Rodriguez became “a Hollywood Player”.
I remember reading about him in Premiere at the time (though it was long after this that I got a chance to see the film - in fact, I think I saw “Desperado” first) and being impressed both with his attitude and his story. When I was in London recently, on the Crusty Exterior get-together, I found the book in Skoobs and picked it up and I’m glad I did. A diary, from 8th March 1991 (the start of the project) to 26th February 1993 (as the film opens wide), this follows the “El Mariachi” saga all the way through - we experience the highs, lows and great fun of shooting, the frenzy from the studios and what happened next.
Rodriguez is a good guide to the whole thing, as amazed as anyone - though full of self-belief - and not quite able to believe his luck (but constantly thinking about how he can help his large family with the funds he suddenly has access too). It helps that he has a great approach and knows his stuff (and what he doesn’t, he’s more than willing to learn) and has clearly put the work in (his previous short films had won various awards at film festivals). The Hollywood experience is dazzling - he’s unsure about his “little” movie being on the big screen (“It’s not that I fear failure. I just fear failure in front of other people.”) - and absurd at times, though the roots of his on-going friendship with Quentin Tarantino are clearly shown, as both film-makers approach each other with mutual respect. The book also includes “The Ten Minute Film School” (a sort-of ‘call to arms’ that could apply to someone working in any of the creatives fields, that’s really quite galvanising) and the full screenplay to “El Mariachi”, with some amusing annotations.
Funny, well told (though a bit of judicious copy editing wouldn’t have gone amiss) and thoroughly enthralling, this is a great read for anyone creative who’s ever had a dream. Highly recommended.
* * * * *
“Chas McGill had the second best collection of war souvenirs in Garmouth and he desperately wanted it to be the best”
Chas is fourteen, living with his Mum and Dad in the Tyneside town of Garmouth. Whilst the war is sometimes a schoolboys dream of fun - getting souvenirs, missing school, periods of excitement - it is also quite terrifying, especially the air raids that mean he and his family have to spend the night in the Anderson shelter. When he discovers a crashed plane, complete with machine gun, he decides to take it as a prize and enlists his friends Cem and Clogger to help him. Later, with Audrey and Nicky and Carrot-Juice now part of the gang, they decide to use the heavy gun to help defend their town, first from a German pilot (Rudi, who they later befriend) and later from a supposed invasion.
This is based on Westall’s memories of the time period and it clearly shows, a well-told story that is immediate and real and often quite brutal. From the body of the gunner, his eye missing, in the downed plane to the realisation that a schoolfriends house has been totally wiped out by a bomb, from the casual way people deal with the realities of war to the camaraderie that it engenders, this doesn’t pull any punches but works all the better for it. Even with his parents, whilst Chas always thiought of his father meaning safety - ‘large, solid, bristly-faced, smelling of tobacco’ - he comes to realise that grown-ups can’t keep kids safe and that his dad is just a ‘weary, helpless, middle-aged man’, a sequence that is both beautiful and heartbreaking (and echoed by Nicky who, having already lost his sea captain Dad to the war, then loses his Mum when their house is blown up). When Rudi is discovered, the mutual animosity between them - created by their perceptions of each other, rather than reality - is well played, as is the thawing as they come to appreciate each other. The air raids are vividly described, the characters all ring true (Westall dedicates the book to his ‘mother and father, who were the mother and father of the book’), with the grown-ups (teachers, ‘our John’ with his cry of “Where you going now?”, policemen, parents) given as much space as the children. Surprisingly dark at times, funny at others and with an abrupt ending that works perfectly, I really enjoyed this and would highly recommend it.
I picked this up at the Southbank Book Market, having vague memories of the BBC serial from the 80s (the cover art - which Westall really didn't like - came from that) but hadn't read it before.
Robert Westall, born on October 7th 1929 was a British author, teacher and journalist best known for children's fiction, though he also wrote non-fiction and for adults. "The Machine Gunners" was his first published book and won the 1975 Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, as the year's "outstanding children's book by a British subject". He died on April 15th 1993 of respiratory failure as a result of pneumonia. A website about him is maintained here and he wrote an interesting afterword on the novel, which can be found here.