Sofia Coppola on the film that launched her – The Start podcast

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At the 1999 Cannes film festival, attendees watched the work of a little-known 28 year old. That film was The Virgin Suicides, written, directed, and produced by Sofia Coppola. The novel by Jeffrey Eugenides about a doomed family of teenage sisters had resonated so much with the young Sofia she felt compelled to step behind the camera and make her own mark on movies.

In this first episode of The Start, Sofia Coppola reveals how personal tragedy – and her own not-too-distant adolescence – fed into the process of telling a story about youth and loss; and, 20 years on, explains the emotional significance the film holds for her today.

A new year that changed me: a sexual awakening, and a lesson in loss | Alice O’Keeffe

In my family there is a before and an after: one event against which everything else is measured. The new year that changed me took place just “before”, and my memories of it have the tantalising glow of all precious, lost things. It was 1990-91, and I was 11, fresh from my first term at secondary school. My parents had been invited to stay and see the new year in with some friends in their cottage in Pembrokeshire. My sister, Jess, and I were dragged along reluctantly. We didn’t really know Brian and Carla, who were relatively new friends of my parents.

Brian sang in a choir with Dad, and was therefore associated with our enforced attendance at interminable Christmas concerts. To make an unappealing prospect even worse, Brian and Carla had two sons our age, who we just knew would be nerdy and annoying (we had concluded, after years of bitter experience, that almost all the children of our parents’ friends were nerdy and annoying).

Other than a vague outline of a stone wind-lashed house with a steep cobbled drive and an outhouse, I can’t picture the place now. What I do remember is the physical sensation I had when I first saw Will. We had just arrived, and Jess and I were huddling shyly at the kitchen table while Carla made tea for the grownups. I looked up and there was a boy, about my age, standing in the doorway. The feeling was concentrated around my stomach, and it was exactly halfway between excitement and pain.

Prior to this moment, the only similar feelings that I remember had been inspired by my daily viewings of the film Labyrinth, with particular focus on David Bowie’s purple leggings. But Will looked nothing like David Bowie. He had big, dark eyes and a full mouth, and a way of looking out from beneath his fringe. Suddenly I couldn’t remember why the holiday had ever seemed like a bad idea.

Over the next few days, Will and I became close. It was all very sweet and innocent. We played ping-pong for hours, and passed each other secret notes. Whether we were alone or surrounded by our families, I could feel a connection between us, like an invisible thread. We didn’t kiss, or even hold hands, but this was definitely something new. We were still children, but we were peeping over the wall into adulthood, seeing something we wanted to explore. As New Year’s Eve approached, life seemed to glimmer with possibility.

Alice O’Keeffe's father



‘Fuelled by an endless supply of Foster’s lager and Rothmans cigarettes, Dad was a rebel and a raconteur.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Alice O'Keeffe

That night the grownups threw a party. All that remains of it in my memory are two images. The first is not connected to Will at all: it is Dad, sitting in a chair by the fire with a fag and a beer, his customary position. Parties tended to revolve around the chair in which Dad was sitting.

He couldn’t stand up for long, because he was physically disabled, with gnarled, shortened arms and legs. He had to have major operations as a child to enable him to walk. His parents were told to send him to a “special school”, but resisted as they realised he was ferociously intelligent. By the time I was born, he had become an award-winning playwright. Fuelled by an endless supply of Foster’s lager and Rothmans cigarettes, he was a rebel and a raconteur, a truly extraordinary person.

He had graduated from Oxford after growing up in humble circumstances in Liverpool. He had run off to Morocco, lived a bohemian life in London, and worked on a film with Richard Burton. Every evening after dinner, he would sit back down at his desk to study maths and languages, just for fun.

Dad hated to acknowledge his disability. His tactic was to overpower it through sheer force of personality. After five minutes in his company, people forgot all about it, and if anyone referred to it, he did not take it well. In fact, I recall him getting unreasonably cross that night because a small child told him he had “funny arms”.

The second image I have from that New Year’s Eve is Will, at the bottom of a set of stone steps leading up the side of the house. We had stolen a half-empty bottle of champagne from the party and taken it out into the garden.

The world had turned hazy at the edges, and in my memory Will is hiding the empty bottle in a hole in the wall. I can’t be sure whether this actually happened, but I know the sense of intimacy and tipsy delight I associate with it was real.

Will and I weren’t to know, that night, that the next time we would see each other after the holiday would be at Dad’s funeral. He died of a heart attack in April 1991 – dropped down dead in the street one day while I was at school. It’s a loss that I can’t comprehend even now, 27 years later.

I seem to remember Will wrote me a card that I found bland and disappointing (poor kid – he was 11!). The invisible thread had snapped, and my journey to adulthood would take a murkier course.

Alice O’Keeffe is a literary critic and journalist and former deputy editor of the Guardian’s Saturday Review section

Arsenal’s link with young homeless gets results on and off the pitch

It’s apparent, very quickly, that I have made a calamitous footwear error. Standing on the edges of an artificial-turf indoor football pitch at Arsenal’s stadium complex in north London, I vainly attempt to kick a ball at the assembled huddle of Centrepoint residents, all wearing sensible kit and studded boots, while I’ve plumped for knee-high suede boots. The ball veers away wildly and one of the 24 young people jogs to retrieve it.

The group are here, a few days before Christmas, for their final session of a scheme that melds employability and confidence training with sport and exercise. Once a week, for two months, the young women and men come to Arsenal in the kit provided, spending half the session in a small room, discussing interview techniques, tactics for searching for work, application skills, and building confidence. Craig, one of three trainers working with the group, says: “You can look at a benchpress and say I’m going to lift 200kg, but you’ve got to start somewhere.” Confidence is particularly important: many Centrepoint residents have been through traumatic periods, often repeatedly, and treated with disdain and even violence. Even if their personal circumstances weren’t already confidence destroying, the stigma around homelessness is endemic and can become self-defeating.

Mixing jobs talk with football helps with this: as well the health benefits, even the most shy members of the group open up and shout suggestions in the complex team games on the pitch. Without teamwork and talking together their action plans to win can never be realised: being confident enough to talk to strangers is difficult for lots of young homeless people – and a job interview is precisely that, with particularly high stakes.

Talisha became homeless after a breakdown in the relationship with her mother. After six months of sleeping on friends’ sofas, she found Centrepoint, the youth homeless charity and a beneficiary of the 2017 Guardian and Observer charity appeal. After completing the Arsenal training course earlier in the year, she represented England at the Homeless World Cup in Oslo. “Last year I was sheepish, but it brought me out of my shell. Now I talk to anyone,” she says, taking a break from training. “I learn new things off them, they learn new things off me.” All participants point out one of the main things is how much people share about their experiences, and how this bolsters their confidence when speaking to new people. Craig explains that for those who go on to compete in the international competitions, there’s often a lot of press attention, which can be overwhelming – they use the opportunity to do workshops on resilience, to help them consider what they can learn from such situations, and how they can use new skills to overcome problems in later life.

While the course may only be eight weeks, the work between Centrepoint and Arsenal continues. All of those attending are looking for work, and Arsenal’s links with the local economy are huge: if people want to work in retailing, catering, event planning or anything around the stadium, the trainers know where to point them. But they’re realistic: when someone inevitably suggests they’d like to coach a Premier League team, the coaches point out there are very few coaching jobs in the country at all, and those that do exist are both unbelievably competitive, and take years of work to attain. Several want to look for jobs in security, and the football club and Centrepoint have the contacts and resources to ensure they can get the accredited badge for such work.

But, as Craig tells the group, “if you try something and don’t like it, we won’t force you to continue down that route. That’s not going to help you.” One of the women tells me she secured a few paid trial shifts in a shop, then realised she was completely unsuited to retailing. She is now looking into youth work as a possible career path, something she hadn’t considered before coming to Arsenal and observing how the trainers helped people, but also clearly enjoyed their jobs deeply.

Aidan became homeless at 20, fleeing a forced marriage. She came to Centrepoint after sofa-surfing for five months. “All the workshops have a theme: teamwork, responsibility, communication. But meeting new people is a big thing, becoming more confident. I want to go into film now,” she tells me. She is currently at college completing an animation and film-making course.

Savannah says: “My big fear at the beginning was that there were loads of boys. But I just got on with it, and worked to overcome my shyness. I usually avoid big groups, but it’s made me more confident.”

Charlie was reluctant to join the scheme at first: “The first fear for me was that I was told it was mandatory to wear an Arsenal top.” As an ardent Spurs fan, he’s overcome that barrier by wearing the rival team’s socks for the training session. “We work on team-work, communication skills, and I was pretty confident before but it definitely does improve your confidence, and it’s different. I’m talking about coaching and other work with youth groups now. I know the ins and outs of gangs, so I can use that knowledge for good.” Charlie clearly admires the coaches working with Centrepoint and Arsenal and wants to return the favour: throughout the team games, he encourages and chats to a woman who doesn’t seem keen to participate, but is fully involved by the end, with his gentle prodding.

On completion of the course, each member is individually applauded as they collect their certificate, and an A4-size portrait of themselves taken by the official Arsenal team photographer. The photos are transformative, atmospheric and really make the men and women look fantastic. Most people pretend not to be bowled over, but furtively gaze at them in awe when they think eyes are elsewhere.

But there’s one more perk: a tour of the stadium. Through the directors’ box, the changing rooms, the players’ entrance and the stands, they ask questions and take selfies and videos of themselves next to statues and team shirts. The laughter and enthusiasm is infectious: the scheme may have ended now, but they seem far happier, and have enjoyed being welcomed into places that would normally be closed to them.

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