Urban and the sudden colossal time suck, or: Twock* me, Richard Armitage

chop541923_749046805113615_1545717752_nRichard Armitage as Chop, behind the scenes photo from production of Urban and the Shed Crew, posted March 21, 2014. Source: Urban and the Shed Crew on FB.

***

My used copy of the book arrived from the UK yesterday.

I thought this was going to be what I call a “car book” — one of the titles that lie on the passenger seat of my car. I use them in waiting rooms, in restaurants, and so on, essentially for killing time in public places. Car books are things I want to read, that have engrossing narratives that make me want to pick up the thread the next I have an opportunity, but are usually not things I feel I just have to read immediately — and thus not worth carrying in my bookbag.

I also didn’t want to “spoil myself” for the movie and thought I’d read just the beginning to get a feel for it.

Cough. Nothing doing.

As I said, I got the book yesterday. After work, I went to the Vietnamese place (my digestion is still wonky, and pho is still the most soothing option) and they finally had to toss me out — I’d read 70 pp with dinner and couldn’t make myself stop. I went to my café, and chatted with some friends, and then decided to get a beer (probably not great for digestion, but it is carbonated). Took the book into the bar with me. Just like my digestion, my alcohol tolerance is way lame — one Orkney Skull Splitter made up my entire consumption — and they had to toss me out at close after another 50 pp. Got up this morning, checked my work email (nothing), and sat down to prepare my lectures for tomorrow when I realized that Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew had evaded its passenger seat assignment and was in my bag on top of my notes.

Mistake.

Oh, well, 185 pp later, at least I have finished the book, which was — although I don’t want to misuse the word, given that I now know a lot more about heroin use than I did twenty-four hours ago — absolutely addictive.

The book jacket, quoting the Observer, calls it “another City of God, this time for Britain rather than Brazil.” That’s not far wrong, although the violence isn’t depicted in such graphic terms and the drug usage is even more constant and revolting; it’s the story of a tiny civilization coming to terms with its position within the punishing constraints of modernity. The narrator, Chop, is an in-between figure, an exceptionally clear-eyed one who is honest and vulnerable with regard to his allegiances to his working-class past, the culture he comes from, his own weaknesses, and his capacity to come to terms with the problems he sees all around him and change things. What’s interesting to me is that although the style of the work is hardly literary, I found that images, exchanges, and plot elements lingered in my mind well after reading. And I end the reading with an uneasy feeling about Chop, liking him as much as I am left unable to identify with a protagonist in the way I’d most like to.

I don’t want to say a lot about the plot for those who haven’t read it, but I can completely see why Richard Armitage would want to be involved in this project. Inter alia, et me count the ways:

  • character who is neither a hero nor a villain, but rather in-between and inherently complex — it is hard to sympathize with Chop but also hard not to sympathize with him
  • northern England (people who “say it like it is”); gritty background and very different from anything Armitage has done so far
  • no handsomeness required (in fact, I’m guessing they have to make him uglier to play this role)
  • tons of moral ambiguities in the decisions the character has to make (especially in light of his internal conflict about his own position as role model)
  • fascinating and openly political aspects and implications of the work
  • Chop’s relationship to culture / role as mediator of culture to the kids he mentors (Chop’s role as appropriator of high culture seems parallel to me to certain aspects of Armitage’s own — i.e., the utilitarian aspects of it and the enjoyment without analysis)
  • the “lost boys” / Peter Pan aspect of it — Chop’s conflictedly nostalgic identification with boys who will never grow up
  • indeed, I’m guessing a few overlaps between what I can deduce about Armitage’s own personality and Chop’s straight-on view of the world, especially the improvisational aspects of it, and the predominance of his perceptive mode of processing as opposed to the evaluative side. Chop is a truly open, and thus ambiguous, observer of the world around him
  • outcome of the book: creativity as a consequence of life experience balanced against Chop’s utter failure to change much of anything
  • narration of drug use is straight on (neither the comedic aspects of Trainspotting nor the stylishness moments of Sid and Nancy)
  • professionally speaking, a role like this was central to / decisive for the career of Armitage’s much-admired Gary Oldman (Sid and Nancy — I’m indebted to Obscura for reminding me of this) — this piece seems unlikely to get the same exposure as that did (or as Ewan MacGregor got from Trainspotting), but it will involve similar challenges of characterization

I don’t know what the scriptwriters will make out of it — but right now, I can hardly wait. The book does, however, start with a water scene involving a sewer. Honestly, Mr. Armitage.

OK. Gotta get back to revising lectures.

***

Other thoughts I’ve read about this: Guylty and Herba (German).

ETA: if you wrote a review of the book, would you leave your link in the comments? I’d read at least one other one that I’ve lost track of.

*twock = steal a car for joyriding and then possibly set it on fire afterwards

~ by Servetus on April 2, 2014.

52 Responses to “Urban and the sudden colossal time suck, or: Twock* me, Richard Armitage”

  1. Glad to hear your take on the story — I haven’t read it, but your review is more encouraging than what I’ve heard from others who have read it. Thanks!

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    • obviously a film is really dependent on the script, but there’s TONS of great material here.

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      • Well, I’d heard comments that Chop was basically an irresponsible loser who had the advantages of an education and a decent upbringing, but was too weak and self-deluding to do the right thing. This other reader I heard from felt he should have been helping these directionless kids instead of doing drugs with them.
        So I’m glad that you’ve presented a more sympathetic picture of the character. As you’ve described him, he doesn’t seem that bad — just flawed. Maybe they’ll find a way for Chop to be redeemed, without making the whole story too fairy-tale-ish.

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        • LOL. You have to remember that I work in education, which possibly colors my views on these things.

          Chop did have a solid education, but his mother died of alcoholism and his father plays the horses. In terms of self-delusion, about half way through the book he states in a rather evocative soliloquy that he had been kidding himself about his own behavior. So I don’t think he can be charged with self-delusion, really. Weakness is another matter; but that’s part of the complexity of the character. He wants to do well, but his own personality only lets him go so far. At the same time, it’s clear, one reason he can influence these kids at all is because he is clearly of their own milieu. So it is an advantage in that it gets him taken seriously but a fatal flaw in that he has all the same problems the kids have.

          re: he should have been helping the kids — possibly — although it’s the kind of statement about literary works that annoys me. Characters are human and work within the parameters of all of human foibles. Saying “he should have” is essentially saying the character should have been different. I guess you can say that. I personally don’t think that Bernard Hare and Chop are necessarily 100% contiguous. If we want to talk about Bernard Hare, that’s another matter — but then again, he wasn’t a social worker. He was just an adult who lived in the same neighborhood, came from the same milieu and had the same problems.

          I think the vast majority of people who will read this book (and this includes me, to some extent) really don’t have a clue about what this kind of life is like. In the first 70 pp of the book you have kids spending their whole day sniffing nail polish (shoplifting 50 bottles a day) and inhaling pure butane directly for the high. They’re doing this because an entire world has failed them — an economic system, a political system, and in the end, their own families. To say that one person can step into that and make a significant difference is wishful thinking. Hare estimates that about 30% of the kids manage to change, by which he means only they end up mostly free of drugs other than booze and marijuana and aren’t dead. First the kids have to want to change, which means both that there have to be shortterm incentives and also that they have to develop a strength within themselves that they are missing. (Chop works on with them by getting them to write poetry and stories and telling them the stories of classic tales of victory and triumph against the odds.) But there also have to be support mechanisms in place for them, and there clearly aren’t in this book. Chop is an ambiguous character — but in fact he does actually seem to be doing something where others have failed.

          Something that I think seems to be being missed in a lot of the commentary I’ve been reading so far is that the book is supposed to disgust and outrage the middle class reader. It’s supposed to make you think something is terribly wrong and move you to action. But it explicitly eschews (most of the time — there are a few pages of railing against Thatcherism, but not much) the preachy route. That’s something that I appreciate a great deal.

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          • Thanks, Servetus, that’s a very illuminating commentary.
            So I gather that Chop is just one guy, with his own very messed-up life, and he’s shoveling against the tide when it comes to these kids who basically have been tossed aside by society. He can try to help them, but he’s not going to get too far.
            I’m glad to hear it’s not preachy — but it’s always a good thing for comfortable people to be made to think uncomfortable thoughts (she said, before scurrying back to her comfort zone 🙂 )

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            • Yes, I think that’s accurate. He also doesn’t see himself as a hero, and no one in the book really sees him that way, either (although people develop respect for him). He’s a guy who makes a lot of mistakes, who wishes things were better and tries to do what he can but who knows that given his own flaws, what he can do is not much. I imagine it took a fair amount of courage for Hare to present himself in this guise, because he’s not all that admirable and he leaves the reader with a sense of unease. One guesses that might be attractive as a constellation of factors for Armitage in choosing a role like this one.

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            • In other words — I think we’re not supposed to “like” Chop or even find him particularly comprehensible. (I also think that this is going to be hard for a lot of the fandom to deal with — the reaction to this might be peanuts in comparison to how people reacted to John Bateman.)

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              • Yes, I’m thinking that the lack of likeability is the sticking point among some people. However, the situation with Chop is kind of like the way it was with Thorin — fans are dismayed and apprehensive at the beginning, but gradually come around to accepting RA’s choice and appreciating what he’s trying to accomplish with the character.
                The problem with John Bateman (well, ONE of the problems) was that this character revelation was sprung on people unawares, and fans had no time to get used to who he “really” was.
                So far, when RA has played characters who are unlikeable on the surface, by some weird alchemy the bad guy gets turned into someone who is understandable and strangely compelling. cough Guy of Gisborne cough

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                • I work in social services and I’ve dealt with family members who have substance abuse issues so have been exposed to this type of under world, but can imagine it would be a culture shock to some of the fans.
                  Everything I’ve read so far (which isn’t that much) indicates Chop is some sort of savior, i.e. he’s a friend of Urban’s mother who decides to straighten up his own life in order to help the boy. But whether he’s a hero or not, I think it’s exciting to see Richard doing this type of movie. Chop seems like a good fit for RA since he plays the ambivalent character so well. Can’t wait to read the book and see the movie.
                  It’s always a miracle anytime somebody recovers from drug addiction and there are no easy solutions, i.e. a knight in shining armor riding in to save the day.

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                  • “a savior … who decides to straighten up his own life in order to help the boy” is what I’d read up to the book — and I would say this is a highly positive spin on what’s in the book. He’s Urban’s mother’s sometime lover, a drug user himself, who uses drugs with some of the kids he’s helping. He has a very casual relationship with work which dissolves during the course of the novel. So “straighten up” would probably be an exaggeration. Which I found refreshing.

                    totally agree re: substance abuse.

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                • it’s tiring, I find, this need to remake the characters he plays into people we can love.

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                  • Seems Hollywood usually rewrites the story to make it more acceptable to the masses. Since this is an independent movie, maybe producers won’t feel the need to re-image the character. Is remaking the character into people we can love something he does, or is it something the fan does. Maybe he’s just trying to make the character more multi-dimensional and we’re the ones who need to love the character. Or maybe it’s an innate part of RA.

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                    • he tries to make characters more complex; he has said that. (I don’t think he’ll have to work hard with this one.) But fans also definitely rewrite these characters in our minds. Gisborne is a good example.

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                  • Well, if you don’t at least like the character, you might not want to sit still long enough to watch a whole movie about them.

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                    • I suppose. But there are plenty of main characters we’re not supposed to like and we watch films or entire series with them. It may be likeability, but it’s not an essential (there have been a lot of characters like this lately — serial killers, meth heads, etc., but I can’t imagine most people like Richard III, Raskolnikov, Iago — etc.). The question is why we’d require an Armitage character specifically to be likeable.

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                    • Well, I require main characters to be likeable or sympathetic, whether they are played by Armitage or not.
                      I was going to change that verb to “prefer,” but honestly I don’t bother with tales of serial killers, meth heads, or the like, so it is actually a requirement. At least Richard III was an eloquent bastard.
                      🙂

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  2. Some of the other reviews I’ve read had the same ambivalent feelings about Chop. I think most of them said they didn’t trust his motivation or something like that. Sounds like the perfect movie for RA to do right now. He’s always full of surprises. I’m just glad he’s doing a movie that I want to see. I would’ve never been interested in most of the TV/movies he’s done in the past if it weren’t for the fact that he’s in it.

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    • the problem is he talks out of both sides of his mouth at once — wanting to “reform” but also sliding further into the culture of dissolution himself. There are at least three scenes that end with him behaving in really unexpected ways that demonstrate that he’s quite messed up.

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  3. I wonder why this isn’t available in the US. I hope the publishers are on this. I’d like to read this real-life story.

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    • No idea — one assumes a rights situation, but I can see a publisher saying this isn’t the kind of thing a US audience would be interested in — it’s a very local story.

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  4. I’m expecting my copy to arrive this week. Looking even more forward to it now. Also can’t wait for this movie–I think this role is such a welcome change of pace for him, and I’m probably as excited to see him in it as I was discovering him in N&S.

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    • I can’t help but feel this is the career “the Hobbit” built — ability to do this kind of thing rather than doing stuff primarily because it pays or will increase his exposure. I just hope the script lives up to the book.

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  5. I enjoyed this book too – although I had been slightly reserved in the beginning. Could this be the charming little book he mentioned last year? I would guess so! And I am really looking forward to the film, hoping it won’t just be a case for UK watchers … 😉

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    • It’s very plausible although it’s hard for me to think of this book as charming.

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      • Certainly not charming in the common sense … But …

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      • LOL! Maybe not charming, but sounds like something right up my alley. Back when I had the time, I read a lot of fiction dealing with dysfunctional lifestyles — Bastard Out of Carolina, The Prince of Tides — most anything written by a southern writer 🙂

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  6. I am so glad that you enjoyed the book. I know you were concerned that the character might be smarmy.

    I have high hopes for the script. As you know Candida Brady is the lead writer for the script and given her background in and documentaries I think she will want to produce something that feels very real.

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    • I was. But honestly, when Chop goes to an estate in order to see someone from the Crew who’s totally given in to heroin, is unbelievably disgusted by how they live, and then sits down to do some with them? It’s hard to make that smarmy. Of course they could totally rewrite him as a redemptive savior type in the script, but I’m trusting that won’t happen.

      Not that I’m invested in destruction or anything.

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      • I thought they were already pitching it that way…he’s the savior of urban grimshaw.

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        • That was my fear (and I’ve seen one or two blog posts in that direction, but I think at least one of them was written by someone who hadn’t read the book but only seen the “where are they now” vid that Bernard Hare made). If they stick to the story itself, it’s not very redemptive. Chop comes to the conclusion that he’s been a success because (in comparison to other kids in the hood) “his” kids are all still alive — but they are drug addicts, violent, illiterate, unemployable, teen parents, etc. So it’s redemptive in a very limited way — Urban is still alive at the end of the story and people in the neighborhood respect Chop — and the narrator concedes this is not very much progress and that he himself is still drinking, drugging, and not working very much. Urban has learned to read, and is a fairly philosophical personality (something that Chop admires in him — it’s clear that Chop’s investment in Urban has a lot to do with the fact that he admires his intelligence, spirit and tenacity). As to how redemptive this all turns out — it will depend a lot on how the scriptwriters treat the end of the story. The book is not redemptive in tone.

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  7. I don’t think they will. Did you hear Richard’s few short comments during the Empire Interviews? They give us a few insights into the script’s take on the story arch.

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    • Yes, I listened to all the interviews.

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    • The thing is that what he says about things in the stories of stuff he’s in, is, IMO, not that reliable. Most of what he said about Spooks 8 in the publicity blitz is, to put it mildly, wishful thinking — I think because when he talks about the stories, he hasn’t necessarily seen the final product, or he’s talking about things that are in his own biographies / diaries but don’t make it onto the screen. At any rate it has to be subject to source critique.

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  8. Yes, that’s true. He has in the past made some rubbish sound good.

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    • I think he’s talking from his own excitement. You see a difference between that kind of discussion and his “pure pitchman” stuff. But I’ve learned over the years … or maybe I’m just the inherently skeptical type.

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      • Yes, I’ve heard a lot of actors say that it is really hard to tell what a movie will be like until it is actually all up on the screen. So taking what he says with a pinch of salt I was interested to hear him say that Urban and Chop go on a journey together. Now, is this his take or is this what the director is saying? Who knows.

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        • or is it a reference to what happens in the first third of the novel.

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          • Do you mean the trip to Aberdeen? That might make sense if the movie started with that trip.

            On Sunday, April 6, 2014, Me + Richard Armitage wrote:

            > Servetus commented: “or is it a reference to what happens in the first > third of the novel.”

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  9. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX Interesting that this is going back to Northern England after doing North and South. Different era of course but in a way this role puts him into a culture that generally is the poor. I just thought from the bits I’d heard and Servetus’s great post that there was a kind of connection there. As Thornton he had to reach down and learn about his workers who were poor and hard worked with little pay. In this book the time period is completely different but here we have poorer people struggling economically and the result of that struggle is where the drugs and other things come brom. As Servetus says Chop is not a hero or a villain. I think that this book wasn’t published here as they felt Americans wouldn’t relate to the locale and people but there have been American movies done about American towns and such that reflect some of the same issues. Heroin is quickly becoming the drug of choice now here though here it crosses all the lines from the rich to the poor.

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  10. Loved your review! I’m still searching for a copy, hopefully, I should find it soon. The Gary Oldman connection is pretty cool 🙂

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  11. I’m very late to the party having only discovered your brilliant blog quite recently.

    My main response to RA taking on this role is the sense I get that he is nailing his political colours firmly to the mast and I applaud that. Margaret Thatcher and her legacy is something that he (and I for that matter) grew up with and it is almost impossible to overstate how divisive that period in our recent history was – particularly for anyone living in an area with a connection to mining or power production. The East Midlands has (had) a tradition of both.

    I don’t want to be presumptuous or to put words in his mouth, but really he doesn’t have to say anything…his worldview I think is right here.

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    • Thanks for the kind words and welcome. I’d kind of been avoiding this given how upset people got the last time his politics came up, but I agree with you on both counts (he’d also said in a very early interview that he had ancestors who were “miners and weavers.”)

      In a way I’m glad it’s still divisive for you — insofar as people are making moves to whitewash all the troubled qualities of the Reagan era, as if it were this colossal happy time in our history. It wasn’t.

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  12. The atmosphere surrounding Margaret Thatcher’s death last year demonstrated that feelings still run high two decades after she left office. There’s a fascinating and revealing discussion to be had around RA’s decision to take this role, but I respect the fact that you don’t wish to go there.

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    • oh, I’m willing to have the discussion, I just didn’t want to post about it. Let’s discuss away. Early on Armitage described his parents as “very conservative” without saying more about that specifically. Everything he’s ever said about them and his family suggests a cultural conservatism (thrift, hard work, modesty, etc.) rather than a political conservatism per se. We also know that at least his father’s family came from rather humble origins (and we don’t think his father has a university degree). And I remember how the late 70s / early 80s were here, and insofar as one could watch what was happening in the UK on the evening news, things from there like Thatcher, nationalization, the miners strikes, the Falklands War, etc. So there’s always been a question in my mind about what his politics were, insofar as you have a kid who then grows up, moves away from home to live in London and works in a profession where the majority of people are political liberal (and where the whole question of government subsidy for arts is a big issue). Then, when he does say something about politics in November 2013, it’s very much a UK center-left position articulated against a reporter who’s asking questions from the American standpoint (universal health ins is important, the US should get rid of guns and ammo, the paralysis of the US government is troubling, negotiation works better in the UK).

      So then, he does a project like this which is a sort of paradoxical paean to the aftermath of the destruction of the northern miners. I was afraid before I got the book that this was going to be some kind of miracle story, and very relieved that it was not. Hare does not pull any punches in terms of social critique, but neither does he praise himself — he has all the same problems as the kids he was writing about, he was just lucky enough to be born a little earlier. I also find the contrast between Chop’s father’s position (sling thy hook, when Chop wants to borrow money) and Chop’s anarchy / refusenik moments interesting as a sort of sign of what it was like to have grown up as the former situation was ending and then being forced to cope with the new situation. Chop seems like someone who’s not a revolutionary in the sense of “let’s storm the barricades and create a new world” as much as “what can we do for ourselves among the ruins we live in, drawing on all these things that are supposed to be part of our heritage but which you lot have never learned about.”

      So I agree, a totally interesting choice of role in terms of politics. I’m sure you’ve got stuff to add to this diagnosis, as I’m not from the UK.

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    • I mean — I guess I feel like Hare’s book is an indictment not only of Thatcherism (which it certainly is) but also on some level of the 1990s welfare state that can’t get its act in order. All the stuff about how he can’t get Urban set up with health care, about how the institutions set up to deal with troubled children overlook or can’t cope with the extent of their problems — and the sort of ongoing subtle critique that what the welfare state wants from people (upward mobility) is not what they want for themselves.

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    • OK, and one last thought, I don’t mean to inundate you —

      there’s a difference between an essentially liberal critique of the liberal state (in the form of — well, if you just made it possible for these kids’ folks to find work, they wouldn’t have succumbed to all these ills of modern society, they wouldn’t be drug addicted and so these kids wouldn’t be running wild) and an essentially non-liberal critique of the liberal state (these kids come from a social group for whom the rewards of liberalism are either unattainable or unattractive — so they need another option which you are not giving them). At times it seems to me to be the case that Hare is making the first point; at other times, the second. I am not sure whether they are consistent or not. Or whether Armitage would see this difference.

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  13. […] I doubt it (and maybe that’s what s/he’s angling for, who knows). But, you know, I read this book, and I bet you have too. In fact, you will remember that it’s not one solid stream of unrelenting, heartwarming […]

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  14. […] trying to trash the project. I’m not — I really badly want to see this film and have been excited since I read the book. And we’re all adults, able to bear the consequences of our […]

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  15. […] in mind that I really liked this book, the book’s attractions as the basis for a film adaptation were obvious to me, and for […]

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  16. […] fans rushed to buy the book by Bernard Hare, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew,  but it wasn’t that easy. Not available on Kindle – Amazon UK the only source -limited […]

    Like

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