Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Daily Telegraph: Children's Books of the Year

More wondrous news: The Liberators has been selected as one of the Daily Telegraph's Children's Books of the Year, alongside Chris Riddell, Julia Donaldson, Charlie Higson et al. Huzzah and hurrah! HERE is a link.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Tablet Books of the Year

Here is my Book of the Year for The Tablet: if you can't read the picture (it's not very clear), it is, of course, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Debut: Pop Up Gallery

Last night brought an excursion to the Vauxhall Bridge road, and to 'Debut', a show run by the Pop Up Gallery. Here were works exhibited by Henry John - interestingly, intelligently composed interiors and landscapes, with a way of making the ordinary seeming ethereal, even extraordinary (see picture.) My particular favourite was a small painting of a traffic light: unobtrusive and elegant, it seemed to showcase much of this painter's talent as the red traffic light glowed out of a grey sky. Also on show was Marianne Spurr, whose diptych of a piece of black velvet next to a pale green acryllic made me stop and ponder. Amy Moffat's intriguing, almost cartoonish oils provided a note of amusement, whilst Chloe Ostmo's architectural prints were austere and striking. Will Martyr's pop-arty paintings provided a colourful contrast; and Timothy Betjeman's paintings were thoughtfully and movingly executed. The show runs till January 10th - it's definitely worth taking a gander.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One: Review

Harry Potter Review

This, the seven-and-a-halfth in the leviathan-like franchise that the Harry Potter series has become, begins with a scene of rare poignancy. We’ve come a long way from butterbeer, Nearly Headless Nick and eleven year olds grinning open-mouthed at ‘Diagon Alley.’ Hermione Granger, as played by Emma Watson, is in the salubrious surroundings of her parents’ house. She hears them talking downstairs; goes down, and pulls out her wand. ‘Obliviate’, she says – and every single picture of herself in the house begins to fade away. She will have been as nothing to her mother and father. It works so well because all teenagers grapple with their desire to be away from their family – and yet we all know that it is only they who can ever truly love us. So Hermione departs, about to enter upon a quest that threatens the very existence of that safe, leafy street. ‘Obliviate’ echoes throughout the film: the teenage trio take on (briefly) other identities through polyjuice; they transfer affections; at one point near the beginning practically all the adolescent members of the Order of the Phoenix turn into clones of Harry: what could better express the desire for conformity and the need to forget oneself? The action of the rest of the film, too, is a remarkably good expression, too, of the boredom of teenagerdom: the characters don't do much apart from mope around fields and lie around on sofas. I certainly spent most of my adolescence doing either one or the other.

As a film, it worked remarkably well, given that the book itself is so busy. It was clean, and beautifully shot: the fragile tent of the three adventurers, with one light burning, set against enormous landscapes; the children (although not quite so childlike now) walking along a shoreline underneath a bridge; the swooping drive up to the Malfoys’ house. The characters in fact were often dominated by scenery, suggesting perhaps the titantic efforts they would have to make to achieve anything.

Things could be a little confusing at times, even for someone who’s read the book (like me – I read it the day it came out, but have forgotten most of its details.) Hence I did not know why Bellatrix Lestrange thought that Godric’s sword had been in her vault; nor could I at first distinguish what Jamie Campbell Bower’s character was doing – he was Grindelwald, as it turned out. And things could be a little embarrassing too (I won’t mention the hallucinatory silver-body-suit sex scene between an imaginary Harry and Hermione, as witnessed by a Horcruxed Ron Weasley). Also, the sign for the deathly hallows reminded me of the tube advert for a sperm bank, where a d and b are placed back to back to indicate - well, you can guess. But the tone of the film as a whole was remarkably consistent. A scene in the Ministry of Magic was particularly effective, as pamphlets calling for the elimination and control of Muggles swept magically off desks, and Dolores Umbridge and the new, Fascist Minister for Magic surveyed everything with grim glee. The highlight, though, was the shadow-puppet play which told the story of ‘The Deathly Hallows’. The fable itself comes off as rather dry in the book, without the power or depth of folklore. But on screen it appeared as an eerie, haunting tale about morality and our acceptance of death. Even wizards have no power over death. A Socratesian message, in the end: learn to accept, and greet death like an old friend. Except we know that we won’t be obliviated – we’ll stay in memories, photos, films, for as long as is humanly possible. This was a fine, thoughtful and challenging work, which sets us up fittingly for the epic possibilities of the next and final part.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Liberators by Philip Womack: Times Critic Amanda Craig's Children's Books of the Year

So out of some weird synchronous activity, I bought a copy of The Times just before I went in to see the new Harry Potter (review to follow shortly). I got home, settled in my favourite chair with some music on. I always read the Review section first; I opened it, without looking, where I imagined the first Books page might be. I saw a large picture of a cat. Ah, I thought. Children's books. And then I saw my name - The Liberators has made it into the excellent Amanda Craig's selection of Books of the Year, alongside Eva Ibbotson, Kate Saunders, Patrick Ness and many more. I was so amazed and thrilled I had to read it again to check it was true and I wasn't actually reading about some other book ('The Terminators', for instance, as some of my friends have called it.) Libations were poured all round to the god Dionysus; paeans were raised and a hecatomb offered up. Io io!

A link to the piece is HERE: you have to be a subscriber to the Times to access it.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Daily Telegraph Books of the Year

HERE is a link to my books of the year, as listed in the Daily Telegraph. I'm going to post a longer list next week. I'm somewhere near the bottom...

Friday, 19 November 2010

Vanessa Garwood, and A Brace of Stirlings

Well, it has been an arty week. First off, I attended the private view of Kitty Stirling and her father Angus at a Cork Street Gallery. Though visually different in style, there is a subtle similarity between father and daughter in the way that they use colour. Angus' elegant landscapes were bold and striking; Kitty experimented with space and texture in a way that was fascinating to behold. A series of paintings made with photographs was particularly intriguing. I didn't stay for long, alas; but I did eat a lot of breadsticks.

Next up was Vanessa Garwood at 68 Dean Street for an exhibition curated by Aretha Campbell. The house itself is a marvel: almost practically the same as it has been for years. It also has the best lavatory I've ever seen (well, nearly - at least, at an art gallery.) Vanessa's paintings are mostly concerned with the human figure: beautiful nudes adorned the walls. A bronze sculpture of three girls was the centrepiece of the downstairs room - a charming take on the Three Graces. A mostly green landscape was luscious and inviting; upstairs, portraits of monkeys stole the show, each challenging one's conception of humanity. There were no breadsticks, unfortunately, but there was plenty of prosecco. Huzzah!

Friday, 12 November 2010

I'm Late, I'm Late... Christian Marclay's The Clock at The White Cube

I'm actually never late, at least on purpose. Last night, after a party for Help the Heroes at the Cobden Club (lots of soldiers, and Princess Beatrice), we piled into a taxi and headed to the White Cube Gallery in Mason's Yard. It was all but empty: we got there at 3 am to watch The Clock, an installation by Christian Marclay which is a twenty four hour video. We sat on white sofas and watched the film unfold: it runs in real time, and is made up of excerpts from other films. The effect is hypnotic; even though the time is shown all the, er, time, one doesn't notice it passing because one is so thoroughly drawn into each narrative. And they only last three or four seconds. They flow and segue into each other, blending and fading and echoing each other: sometimes voices from one film will bleed into another scene. At 3am we saw nightmare, insomnia, sex, robbery, desperation, fear and even peace. It was incredibly beautiful and awesomely involving. I am going back, now. If you don't see me for a while, that's where I'll be.... I wonder if anyone has watched it all the way through? It only runs till Saturday, though, so hurry if you want to go...

It also made me think about The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. 'I'm late, I'm late...' he cries... Late for what? Is he permanently catching up, or is he heading towards his death? Who knows. It reminds me rather of 'Werner Herzog reads Curious George.'

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Lord Dunsany and the Treasures of Hungary

The two are not connected, of course. Lord Dunsany was one of my favourite writers as a child, his weird, enigmatic folktales short and sharp and affecting. Yesterday I acquired a letter he'd written to the young Penelope Betjeman (then Chetwode). He was a big influence on my writing at school. Having the letter on my desk is wonderful, it's as if he will walk into the room at any moment, pick it up and post it. Dunsany was somewhat of a hero: not only was he deeply literary, he was also the best shot in Ireland. Why aren't people like that any more?

I then pottered down to the Royal Academy: entering it was like walking into a shrine, with an atmosphere of sacerdotal hush. It was positively packed with beauty: and lots of pictures that, alas, do not seem to be very widely available on the internet - although perhaps that's why they're treasures. In particular I enjoyed two drawings from Giuseppe Cades' series illustrating Orlando Furioso (which has been haunting me recently: I've just finished reading a new novel by Russell Hoban, in which the hippogriff returns to find his lost Angelica). There was also a wonderfully witty Apollo and his Muses with Fame: Apollo sits snoozing under a tree, surrounded by the Muses' cast off clothing - they've got the afternoon off, and you see them cavorting in the nearby vegetation. Above, Fame flies somewhat sternly, looking at her watch (metaphorically speaking, of course.) It was by Lorenzo Lotto. Two more very striking pictures were Corner of a Room by van der Heyden, which showed a luxury of interesting pieces - a Japanese spear, and so on, and looked as if one might actually be able to walk into it; and Landscape with a Village Scene near Tivoli by Karoly Marko the Elder, which was endowed with incredible warm luminescence.

One of my favourite books of last year was about Hungary: it was about Matthias Corvinus, the Raven King, and his library, by Marcus Tanner, a fascinating - even gripping - account. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone, bibliophile or not. To buy it, click this link: The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of His Lost Library

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Inner Room by Robert Aickman

Sometimes you read a story when you're a child, and it sticks at the back of your mind, milling around. In my case, at strange moments a dolls' house would pop into my head. All I could remember was that there was a boy who measured it and found it didn't quite fit into its dimensions; and also a far more creepy image, that of a doll who spent all her time recording what went on. I could never find the story again. I recently had quite a terrifying nightmare about a dolls' house, which was full of strange, tiny inhabitants who flew at me and stuck me with pins: a couple of days later (having written down the dream as it was so striking), I went with a friend to an exhibition and saw the very same dolls' house... There's also a very effective story in A S Byatt's The Children's Book, in which a girl finds some fairies and imprisons them in a dolls' house; alas for the girl, a giant comes along and scoops her up, dolls' house and all.

A friend, purely by chance (well, off the back of my scary books list) sent me a copy of a book: The Inner Room by Robert Aickman. Even before I began to read it, I knew it was that story. The familiar chill spread along my spine; before I knew it I was twelve again, and in the fascinating grip of a story whose implications have resonated with me all my life. In it, a girl buys a dolls' house from a dingy shop (a classic ghost story trope). She brings it to her house, and then abandons it; meanwhile she has terrifying dreams about the inhabitants. Then, much, much later, it comes back to haunt her, in a shockingly real manner. It is splendidly well-written and atmospheric, and has exactly the right sort of ambiguous end that all the best ghost stories have.

Go forth and acquire it: it is published by Tartarus Press. Click Inner Room to buy it from Amazon.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Zadie Smith on The Social Network, New York Review of Books

HERE is a link to an excellent piece by Zadie Smith on The Social Network, in the New York Review of Books. It has certainly made me think twice about my addiction to that nefarious site, Facebook. Whether I will actually change my behaviour or not remains to be seen... (And thank you to Anna Arco of The Catholic Herald for putting the link my way.)

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Talk: Christ Church Cathedral School, Oxford

Walking through the streets of Oxford on a grey day is rather melancholy; I revisited a couple of old haunts (including the marvellous Georgina's café, which I am pleased to see hasn't changed a bit). As I was walking down Cornmarket, I was stopped by an undergraduate who wanted to sign me up a to a jobs website. He was very convincing. 'Do you have a job?' he asked. I stuttered an answer. Queuing in Lloyds Bank as I took my pen out of my pocket the lid snapped: an ill omen, I thought.

So all in all I was mightily pleased by the warm welcome I received at Christ Church Cathedral School, where I gave a short talk and a reading of The Liberators. Their questions were rather good; they also asked if The Liberators is ever made into a film (are you listening Spielberg / the makers of Harry Potter? If you are, have a look at Keren David's post too...) that I should ensure none of the details are lost. And they asked the most important question of all: do I surf or skateboard? To which the answer, unfortunately, is no; but there's still time... Thank you very much indeed to all who were involved, it was a pleasure.

The picture, by the way, is of the house Dorothy Sayers was born in - just round the corner from the school. No wonder she wrote such brilliantly murky books...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Literary Review Grand Poetry Prize

And so today brought with it oddly mild weather, presumably because the gods - or at least the Muses - were feeling beneficial towards Literary Review, which, today, held its 997th (or something like that) Grand Poetry Prize. This award, begun by Auberon Waugh, was intended to promote the writing of verse that 'rhymed, scanned and made sense'. Much harder to do than you would think... Fitzroy Square (I walked past Roger Fry's house as the leaves blew redly around my feet) was the locus for the lunch. Writers descended from all four corners of the earth - or, at least, London and its environs. There was V S Naipaul, grandly seated with his wife Nadira; there was Alexander Waugh playing the piano; there was biographer Jane Ridley in the best red velvet coat I have ever seen. Editor Nancy Sladek gave a toast to Auberon Waugh and the late Beryl Bainbridge (always a favourite guest at the lunch). The room filled with writers and assorted literary types; wine and champagne flowed. Our food arrived: I don't know what it is about potatoes recently (see earlier post about the Oriel Gaudy), but our main course came with some imperially purple ones. The three courses were interspersed with more wine - and light opera, including a song from a musical written by Alexander Waugh called Bon Voyage. The prize (sponsored, with generosity, by the Mail on Sunday) was given by Eileen Atkins, who elegantly read out the winning poem (about cities) by Iain Colley, who accepted it saying: 'I had a whole speech prepared which was studded with witticisms and would comment upon the state of literature'. But he was so blown away by Dame Eileen that he was lost for words.

The lunch continued till four, when I wandered (somewhat erratically) down Piccadilly towards St James'. I popped into the Waterstones', where the excellent children's section (recently remodelled) kindly asked me to sign a couple of copies of The Liberators. Not that most people were interested, though: there was a queue forming for Keith Richards - and he's not arriving till 5pm on Wednesday.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Booktrust Teenage Prize

Once a year, in November, at the top of the Penguin building on the Strand, Booktrust award their Teenage Prize for fiction. It's where Churchill used to go, apparently, to view the damage done to London after a bomb attack; although the only damage that might possibly be done these days is by champagne glasses or cocktail sticks falling down to the street below. I've been going to the prize for several years now: it's one of my favourite events in the literary calendar. Always, it seems, it's a beautiful day. You can see the Embankment down below, lined with flaming trees; inside is champagne, merriment - and, of course, lots of people in children's publishing. There was a very strong shortlist this year, including Charlie Higson (for The Enemy) and Zizou Corder (for Halo); but the winner was Unhooking the Moon by Gregory Hughes. I haven't read it yet, but I shall certainly look out for it.

I chatted to Mr Higson, although this time we did not cross swords about the role of celebrities in writing; I spoke to the charming Mary Hoffman, who has written over ninety children's books and still looks to be going strong; and I met the organiser of the Bath Children's Literary Festival. I left at two, quite happily filled with champagne and canapes, to snooze - I mean, of course, work very hard - in an armchair in the London Library until my duties took me elsewhere - to Kensington, in fact, where I wandered into the Waterstones just before Malorie Blackman arrived to do a book signing. Rather sweetly, they asked me to sign a few books too. So all in all, a brilliantly bookish start to what will be a brilliantly bookish week.