Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Thomas', Kensington: Talk about The Liberators

Last week, in the driving rain, I headed to the wilds of Kensington, to a charming school called Thomas'. I was greeted warmly and had the pleasure of seeing a class studying The Liberators. I then gave a short talk to about seventy children (of about nine and ten years old) about being a writer, and read from the middle of The Liberators. The questions afterwards were peerless. One asked me what the general themes of the book were. It is extremely rewarding to engage with readers on a level like that. So thank you Thomas' for a marvellous morning - and for a delicious lunch, too.

Rat by Fernanda Eberstadt: review

Fernanda Eberstadt (pictured, right) has produced four novels which manage to combine a meaty, sensual richness of language with engrossing plots and characters: her territory has, so far, been mainly New York. Her most enduring hero (or anti-hero) was Isaac, who appeared in a brace of novels (Isaac and his Devils, and When the Sons of Heaven meet the Daughters of the Earth), a bumbling, goofy misfit who enters the art world. Now we have a spirited, resourceful fifteen year old heroine in Rat, Eberstadt's latest novel. The terrain is the South of France, and the plot concerns the flight of fifteen year old Rat and her search for her absent English father. Rat is a fascinating character, vividly and boldly drawn, generous, fearless and intelligent, battling to understand herself and the strange circumstances of her life. She manages to get herself (and her young foster brother) across France and into Britain without a passport. Eberstadt delineates beautifully the various milieux: whether it be a market in the South of France, or a grey West London house with its windows barred. The scenes between Rat and her father (an artist, seemingly incapable of true emotional connection) are beautifully realised. The book ends with a powerful affirmation of the importance of family. It is a fine addition to the author's oeuvre, and sits very well alongside her work of non-fiction, Little Money Street, which concerned the plight of gypsies in Southern France.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Today Program: Philip Womack and Charlie Higson talk about Barack Obama, and Celebrity Writing in General

Saturday morning saw me entering the BBC studios dressed in a morning-coat. Alas, I wasn't an extra for a television drama; I was attending a wedding later in the day. But, first things first: I was chatting with Charlie Higson, author of the marvellously cool Young Bond books, about children's books. Click HERE for the link. We're on at 0820.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Barack Obama's Children's Book

Here is a LINK to a comment piece I've written for the Telegraph today, about Barack Obama's new children's book.

Lust and Murder in Lilliput: The Return of Liza Campbell's Dark Boxes: review

Last night I wended my way through the slate-grey streets, past the megalithic tower blocks of Royal Oak, down a road that seemed never to end. I felt like a knight on a quest (specifically, like Childe Roland): and then I came to the Dark Tower; although it wasn't actually the Dark Tower - it was Westbourne Park Studios. Brooding under the arch of the Westway, it is a strangely tranquil place of glass and space - and the perfect setting for the return of Liza Campbell's Dark Boxes. No Lilliput Lane is this: Naughty Lego, as the poster said. Here you will see tiny people in the throes of existential crises; possessed twins, unreformed bestialists, suicidal actors and gun-toting tortoises. The landscape is the mind: anything can happen in the square, dark confines of the black box. Incredibly wry, funny, and often deeply cutting, they are both salve and stimulus for the troubled. The centrepiece was a large doll's house, which on the surface appeared normal. Peer into the windows, however, and you see a devil walking out of the bathroom; a man who's hanged himself, a woman who's put her head in the oven; an orgy going on blithely upstairs, and a party of sinister nuns approaching a cradle.

The real party, of course, went swimmingly, with the guests managing to suppress their neuroses even with the application of several glasses of wine. Chief amongst the admirers was the actor Bill Nighy, who loomed in his greatcoat; perhaps he found some inspiration for his next sardonic film role.

By the end of the party, I'd never seen so many red dots. May the dark boxes invade every house.

Friday, 10 September 2010

The Literature of Dystopia: Gary Shteyngart in Literary Review

Gary Shteyngart has written a new novel, Super Sad True Love Story. I've reviewed it in the September issue of Literary Review – unavailable online, so go and buy the print version. The novel is about the state of the world. Read the issue to find out whether it is a valuable contribution to dystopic literature: or does Aldous Huxley still rule supreme. Bruce Chatwin's letters is the cover piece of the issue. It's also nice to see my old friend Patrick Hennessey, whose excellent book about being a soldier, The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars, I have been seeing being read on almost every tube train in London, on the same contents page as me - he's reviewing Matterhorn. Visit Literary Review HERE

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris: Review

Yesterday was a day of rain sliding out of the sky in sheets, of cloudy hot skies, of cocktails and mussels and balconies. I went to see Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. As I queued to buy a packet of Cheese and Chive crisps, a rather small but very polite young man walked past me and apologised for getting in my way. What a nice young man! I thought. They do still teach manners! The nice young man turned out, of course, to be Daniel Radcliffe, presumably on a night off from wizardry and Harry Potter.

We (not me and Daniel, of course) had seats right up in the rafters, which made it feel as if we were watching a puppet show. The first half took place in a stereotypical American household. The wife, in a New Look dress and pinafore, demonstrating intelligence but totally desperate, watched her husband loaf around in his pyjamas, mourning the death of his son. Things progress: it appears that a black family is moving into their house, and the neighbours are not happy. I felt that this act had too much in it: racism, the suggestion of hidden tragedy; it felt bitty, whilst the characters did not live and (even the wife) seemed to be merely mouthpieces - puppets, even. One touch of originality was the racist resident's association leader's deaf wife; but even she seemed played for laughs rather than any deeper meaning. Everything was contrived: a trunk was buried (no doubt for future significance), a colander served as an awkward sign of condescension. (Incidentally, I laid a bet with my companion: every 'issue' had been touched upon - gender, disability, racism - so there was a good chance the second half would have a gay character in it.)

But the second half was like a magnesium flare in the darkness. The curtains opened on the same set: but the house was now decayed. Now the neighbourhood was almost totally black, and a middle class white couple was moving in. The same actors appeared in new guises: the once silent maid now reincarnated as a sassy black woman; the suburban mother as a loudspoken lawyer. Martin Freeman (most famous perhaps, at the moment, for putting a stapler in a jelly, but here showing his real skill) went from playing the slimy, pedantic, wordy residents' association leader, to an articulate, bewildered husband. Norris played cleverly with our notions of offence: as a white middle class person, I go through life wondering why most people are so offended by things all the time; a joke the black woman says (after much goading by the others) caused me (and the rest of the audience) to have a sharp intake of breath - and then to think how absurd it was to be offended at all.

The play neatly showed the links between this new society and the one that had gone before. It ended with everybody storming off: and then had a quiet, poignant coda, which showed how fragile we all are anyway. (Oh, and I won the bet by the way - the male lawyer turned out to be gay.)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Obits: Elizabeth Jenkins and Michael Burn

There were two marvellous obituaries in the Daily Telegraph today, of the novelist and biographer Elizabeth Jenkins, and the writer Michael Burn. Both led lives of incredible interest and excitement which leave my humdrum metropolitan existence in the shade. Obits can often be the most interesting part of a newspaper: I find myself cutting them out and keeping them aside. I suppose my favourite recently was of the film producer Hercules Bellville (pictured), a man remembered for his dedication to his profession and his gift for friendship. Who would not want to be remembered for such things? What comes out of these lives is the intensity and uprightness with which they lived. Whatever one does, we can only hope to do the same.