Saturday, 31 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day Five: Fiction

 Hello there, and welcome to the thrilling final installment of my books of the year - it's time for fiction! Hurrah! A good year, all in all, Booker mishaps aside, I'd say. It was also a good year for novels by my contemporaries - there was Ivo Stourton's slick The Book Lover's Tale; Anna Stothard's warm and vivid The Pink Hotel, and Jonathan Lee's inventive and accomplished Who is Mr Satoshi?, not to mention Leo Benedictus' post-modern The Afterparty.

1. At Last by Edward St Aubyn

Beware the teeny martini
The latest (and possibly final) book in St Aubyn's acidic Patrick Melrose series, this elegantly skewers the super-rich, and shows a deeply troubled man moving towards peace. There's a fabulous cast of grotesques: Nancy, who, though richer than Croesus, lies and steals and constantly bemoans her fate; Nicholas, a flamboyant and viperish socialite; and the mad drunk Fleur. Patrick seems almost sane by comparison. There are some brilliantly witty vignettes, too, including one about a Grand Duke who drank 20 martinis every day before lunch, which, I have decided, will be my New Year's Resolution. Cheers!

2. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

King Arthur: Real?
There are layers upon layers at work in this dazzling novel; it centres around a 'lost' Shakespeare play about King Arthur (itself based on Holinshead), which the author's father may or may not have forged whilst in prison. The book takes the form of an introduction to this play (which you must read first, and you will appreciate the beauty of Phillips' - I mean Shakespeare's - efforts), in which Phillips attempts to tell the story of his life and the events surrounding the play. The reader never finds out whether, within the context of the book, the play is real or not - it's totally fascinating.

3 The London Train by Tessa Hadley

What a novel should be - well-observed, beautifully written, surprising, funny and moving, this diptych shows two marriages in disrepair. Hadley's prose is filled with light; her eyes are keen, and her heart is clearly warm and open. 

4. My Former Heart by Cressida Connolly

A Parrot. Possibly psychotic.
Connolly's debut novel, about the loves and lives of three generations of women. Lilting, luminous prose and a deep understanding of human nature combine to make a polished gem. And there's a delightfully insane parrot called Birdle, as well as some lesbians, if you like that sort of thing.

5. Gods without Men by Hari Kunzru

A very involving tale whose themes and plots bounce around like echoes in a cave, involving the consequences of an autistic boy going missing in the desert. His parents are hounded; their lives interconnect with many other tales of strange disappearances, aliens and angels. Kunzru is a superbly strong writer, and this book won't disappoint.

6. The Champion by Tim Binding

This funny and highly acute satire of middle English life was somewhat overlooked this year; I highly recommend its tale of a Kent boy done good who wreaks havoc on his home town, to the detriment of its professional classes, it's full of insight and wit.

7. Ragnarok by A S Byatt

A numinous and powerful retelling of the myths of Asgard and the ends of the gods, it also works as part memoir and part ecological warning. More of a between novels stopgap, it's still worth reading to watch a master of prose at work.

8. By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

A married middle aged man falls in love with a beautiful young man; Cunningham perceptively and feelingly dissects the fallout of despair.

9. A Kind Man by Susan Hill

Taut and tense, this tale of the miraculous seeping into the everyday brings with it wisdom and strength. 

10. Ransom by David Malouf and The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

These both came out last year but they are marvellous: Malouf retells the last book of the Iliad, delving into the concept of ransom - Priam himself was ransomed as a boy, and he gained his name from that - it's a beautiful, eerie, poetical work. Mason's is dreamlike - he relates, in kaleidoscope fashion, different versions of the Odyssey; in which the latter's identity is subsumed; where Ariadne becomes Calypso; where Achilles is a robot. It's great fun.

11. The Hunter by Julia Leigh

Leigh's Disquiet  was a brittle, sharp, poised thing, like an arrow; this is her first novel, based around a man's search for the last Tasmanian tiger. It's just as fluid and elegant as her second, and I can't wait for her next.

So a Happy New Book Year to you all, and I look forward to seeing you in 2012. Now, another martini? 

Friday, 30 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day Four: Non-Fiction

Mornin' all, and wasn't Great Expectations good last night? Well done BBC. Now, on to non-fiction - I haven't been reading much of it this year (which is probably a Good Thing), as I've been slowly wading my way through Pepys, and mostly reviewing fiction, but here's the best of what I did manage, from Henrician poets through lobsters, porn (sort of) and beasts.

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (still alive)

1. Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt by Nicola Shulman

A beautifully written, silver-veined biography of poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, this book shows life at the court of Henry VIII with a sharp eye for detail and a nose for wit.  Wyatt's poems come alive in Shulman's hands, her analysis is both involving and throws revealing light onto her mysterious subject and his codes. Breathe in the wrong place at the Henrician court, and on your head it really would be.  Plus it's worth it for the idea that some poems were read out with the use of a squeaky bladder.

2. A Life of Privilege, Mostly by Gardner Botsford

A dominatrix. Possibly.
This is an older book - it came out in 2006, just about the beginning of my literary career; it may be a little recherché for some, as it concerns the life of a New Yorker editor, but it is a book brimming with liveliness, poignancy, and insights into the world of letters - there is a priceless scene where the young Botsford returns home with a middle-aged couple, only for a tiger-skin clad dominatrix to burst out into the room with a whip. He fled in terror.

3. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

I finally got round to reading this collection of essays by the lamented David Foster Wallace (his unfinished novel, The Pale King, is something I've yet to tackle: sometimes I look at the pile of Books to Read in my flat and have a minor panic attack). Like many, I was hypnotised by Infinite Jest as a student (somewhat, even, to the detriment of my degree). It's impossible to read this book all the way through as it's a bit like being locked in a room with someone very pedantic telling you exactly what goes into making bricks - no wait, come back, I've just got to the interesting bit, DID YOU KNOW THAT.... but take each one as it comes and you'll find his ingenuity and style everywhere - whether he's at a porn festival or a lobster market. The best essay, to my mind, is the one about the English language, which should be read by anyone interested in how to make sentences.

4. Under a Canvas Sky by Clare Peake 

Mervyn Peake: Legend
This is a lovely, warm memoir about growing up as the daughter of writer Mervyn Peake and artist Maeve Gilmore. I had the pleasure of interviewing the Peake children this year (you can read it here), as it was also the year that Titus Awakes, a continuation of the Titus series by Gilmore, came out. Whilst Titus Awakes is interesting as a document about Maeve's own life, Clare's memoir shows a life enhanced by fantasy and overshadowed by the sad illness of Mervyn, which led to his death far too young. The Titus books stand as some of the most interesting post-war fictions to have emerged - they are sui generis - and this glimpse into the world of the writer, from 'under a canvas sky', as it were, is poignant and pleasing.

5. Vast Alchemies by G Peter Winnington

Read as research into the interview, this is a brilliant biography of Mervyn Peake, published by the redoubtable Peter Owen, fluidly written and with a fascinating slant on the creator of Titus. 
6. A Venetian Bestiary by Jan Morris

This is a lilting, kindly monograph on the role of beasts in Venetian art, with some passages of lyricism (as when she describes the Golden Stallions.) Morris is now on Tumblr, and posts deliciously observed vignettes often. 

Pip pip, then, till tomorrow, for fiction of the year...

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day Three: Poetry

What ho! It's time for the poets. I made it my resolution to read more poetry this year, and have (mostly) succeeded; I've been reading a lot of Horace, Ovid and Propertius, finding much to enjoy in Horatian intricacy and Propertian sophistication. I also, having read an Anthony Hecht poem in an anthology, sought out a collection of his, but didn't find it as elegant or mysterious; I do now have his complete poems though, and hope to discover some gems in it. My collections of the year, then (not all of which came out this year), are as follows:

Sarpedon, carried off by Sleep and Death
1. Memorial by Alice Oswald

Truly a masterpiece. There is a poem by Stephen Spender which contains the phrase "let him not see what I see in this room of miniature Iliad"; and Oswald has captured and shrunk the Iliad with vatic brilliance, the similes, repeated, weaving in and out of the deaths of the heroes with grace and beauty, obliquely bringing to life all that the men will miss when they are dead. Here the lowliest of soldiers is given space; here the sons of kings, prophets, shepherdesses and seals are levelled by the sword, even if you are Sarpedon, son of Zeus. Cold, monumental, yet imbued with light, containing a kind of sorcery, it's not only my poetry book of the year, but most probably my book of the year.

2. Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud, trans. by John Ashbery

Rimbaud: Angel/devil
On here rather than the classics list because of its translation by Ashbery. This is an astonishing book, published by the excellent Carcanet press. Rimbaud was a devil, or an angel; there's a fine, novelistic biography of him by Edmund White. What we must always remember is that he was barely out of his teens when he wrote; he died young, as a gun runner in Africa. The French is alive, shocking, full of startling imagery and phrases that tremble and shiver in the mind; read that first, then the opposing, almost literal translation, and you will find a spear-sharp counterpoint, or a mirror of extraordinary clarity. Apocalyptic and bright and terrible: "Ce ne peut être que la fin du monde, en avançant." "It can only be the end of the world, as you move forward." Also a close contender for actual book of the year.

3. Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott

The Costa winner presented us with a collection full of liquid, joyous poems, including a lovely piece about Ovid: "everything he touched turned to song."

4. White Egrets by Derek Walcott

Another superlative collection, at once classical and sensuous, and richly evocative. The white egrets flitter through the verse as a motif of life, freedom and the approach of death.

5. The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson

Robertson's quiet poetry is heightened by sudden violence or interesting word choices. His poems seethe with myth, and include (obviously good for me) two versions of Ovid: Pentheus and Dionysus, which shows, capably, the frenzy of inspiration; the second is the daughters of Minyas telling each other tales - in Robertson's hands they become almost fishwivey. 'That's tedious,' one says, after the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.

6. Night by David Harsent

Smooth, elegant, with some beautiful concordances and sounds: "monstrous and moonstruck," making a fine and sensitive collection.

7. Torchlight by Peter McDonald

There is a quiet power in this collection, also published by Carcanet, focusing around a translation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which McDonald renders stark and vivid. There are also many lilting, numinous works, including 'Cheetah', which celebrates transience.

That's it for today chaps, see you tomorrow for my non-fiction of the year...

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day Two: Children's Books (and one Sci Fi novel)

Tally ho, yoicks, etc, and welcome to the brilliantly exciting Day Two of my Books of the Year. It's been rather a good year for children's and young adult books; I also thought a special mention (though I am not, as they say, "well-up" on the genre) should go to one science fiction novel (although I'm sure that the author would mutter about such a classification, but there you go.) Finch by Jeff Vandermeer, a hard-boiled noir full of betrayals and double crossings, is set on a planet taken over by mushrooms (yes, mushrooms), known as the Grey Caps. It's rich and strange, and whilst I must confess I wasn't always entirely sure who was double crossing whom, it offers an enthralling window into an alternative universe.

Right, now down to children's books.

1. Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet

This is an exceptional young adult novel, warm and poignant and entirely absorbing. As well as being a finely written, emotionally mature piece of work, it's also an intelligent enquiry into cause and consequence, a study of class and its hidebound nature after the war (Clem is a labourer's son whose father goes up in the world to work for the local squire; Clem falls in love, naturally, with the squire's daughter.) The Cuban Missile crisis looms large in Clem's imagination, and it also works as a metaphor, layered through the entire text. A sterling book from a well-established author, this should almost certainly win prizes.

2. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A children's book that might have been crafted straight out of a nightmare and made solid: bursting with terrifying images and rooted in the deepest folktalkes, this warped fable also follows an involving emotional arc, and sits as a nice counterpoint to Ness's trilogy, Chaos Walking.

An Eck. About to eat something.
3. There is no Dog by Meg Rosoff

What if God was a sex-obsessed teenager called Bob? Well that would explain why the world is in such a mess, wouldn't it? It certainly makes sense; and Rosoff's quirky, intelligent and very funny tale explores the idea with verve and imagination. Oh, and it also contains the world's sweetest creature - the Eck. You'll want one, I promise. It eats everything in sight - and it's the last one in the universe.
4. David by Mary Hoffman

A marble-veined, beautifully crafted novel which sees a gorgeous young man enter into Florence to seek his fortune. His looks earn him the attention of both men and women; he also becomes embroiled in dangerous game of espionage - whilst, of course, being the model for Michaelangelo's David. Absorbing, thrilling, and full of historical sumptuousness.
5. Naked by Kevin Brooks

A very powerful, thoroughly-imagined fiction, concerning the privileged life of the daughter of an actress; she forms a band with the best looking guy in school, but he turns out to have his own problems; meanwhile she falls for the new Irish bass player, Billy the Kid - but he's tangled up in some dangerous political machinations of his own. Superlative. 
6. The Devil Walks by Anne Fine

Suspenseful, scary and absorbing, Fine's novel pushes through pastiche of the late Victorian / early Edwardian ghost story and emerges on the other side (much like Chris Priestley's Uncle Montague series.) An imprisoned, vulnerable boy; a hidden house; a Satanic doll; all these elements combine to make an unmissable tale.

7. One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson

A true delight, this was Ibbotson's last book before she died this year. It follows a young boy's quest for friendship, which he finds, in bagfulls. It's sweet and funny and charming, and the Pekinese alone is worth it - descended from dogs who guarded the Imperial Palace, he secretly nurses his fiery soul, waiting for someone to notice it.
8. The Case of the Deadly Desperadoes by Caroline Lawrence

An almost perfect children's book, this lovely tale sees a boy with Asperger's syndrome in nineteenth century America, on the run after his family is slaughtered; he becomes a detective and foils some nasty villains. It's witty and moving.
9. Sky Hawk by Gill Lewis

This debut novel augurs well for the future - Lewis writes with a keen, poetical eye, and her story is alive to the wonders of nature, and manages to be sentimental without being crass. One to watch.

10. The Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones, Flight 714 by Hergé, and The Ropemaker by Peter Dickinson

Three older books I've read (or reread) this year that deserve a mention. Diana Wynne Jones also died this year - her children's books are inimitable. I came to them late - very late, actually, as I was still at university when I read The Dark Lord of Derkholm, and Chrestomanci, a book about a boy wizard written years before Harry Potter. I read The Power of Three this year, which concerns three different tribes who hate and fear each other - one of them, us humans, are known as giants; but when two little "fairy" children have to work with the giants to save their community, they learn that perhaps differences aren't necessarily to be scared of. It's a charming, weird book.

The same kind of weirdness, but magnified, can be found in Peter Dickinson's The Ropemaker; I'd never heard of him, but a chance remark by Marion Lloyd as we discussed writing children's books put me on to it: it should be read immediately by anyone interested in children's books. It inhabits its own world so thoroughly that it's almost impossible to put down; and it has the best grumpy horse in it I've ever come across. And, last but not least, after a wedding conversation I went back to Hergé, and found in Flight 714 all the thrills and humour that kept me enthralled as a child.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day One: Classics

Merry Christmas to you, and God Bless You, One and All! (Flings away crutches, downs eggnog, kisses unsuitable person under mistletoe, passes out with paper crown over one eye.) Well I hope you all enjoyed your Christmas. Mine was distinctly unbookish (apart from dipping into Samuel Pepys); to rectify the matter I am returning to my books of the year round ups, which I hope will become a tradition as Yuleish as weeping over the Doctor Who special. (What? I didn't do that! Not me, guvn'or.) To start with, here are my Classics of the Year.

1. Vathek by William Beckford 

Published by Oxford Classics, this is insane, terrifying and brilliant, concerning the Caliph Vathek, who meets an ugly stranger; said stranger promises him untold power and the knowledge of the pre-Adamite sultans; meanwhile, his Satanic mother Carathis gloats and commits various atrocities with her mute negresses. It veers from extreme farce (when Vathek shoves, one by one, fifty of the most beautiful of his subjects' children off a cliff) to madness (Koran-quoting dwarfs, anyone?). It's, basically, totally cool. Beckford was 20 when he wrote it, and it's my Classic of the Year for its complete and utter disregard for narrative and, well, anything, but yet managing to be scintillating. The bit where the mute negresses run into the marsh looking for poisonous weeds; the bit where Carathis storms around hell; the bit where people are being tortured for eternity with their hearts set on fire - just go and read it, you won't regret it.

2. The Iliad by Homer (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

Some thought this new version (see comment below) too colloquial - would Achilles, asked The Economist drily, really say "I don't give a damn about that man?" I think he probably would. Mitchell retained the grandeur of the original, whilst injecting it with some zest and spice - an excellent version for those who haven't yet been introduced to the wonders of Homer.

3. The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope

"The moving toyshop of the heart..." A fabulous little satirical epyllion, ordered yet chaotic, lovely, shocking, sharp and warm all at the same time, it left me longing for a twenty-first century Pope.

4. Eline Vere by Louis Couperus

Printed by the stalwart Pushkin Press, the cover of this beautiful edition shows a woman draped in a kimono, made inert by ennui, as is Eline Vere herself. The Dutch Couperus was revered in his time; his highly realistic novels drip with detail, as gorgeously and tightly rendered as a painting of his countryman's. The riotous characters and scenes in this book seemed to be so close to us in spirit and temperament, so much more so than the aristocrats of War and Peace, or the WASPs of Edith Wharton; there is a naughtiness, an impishness in his prose which I found very touching. Eline Vere herself is a complicated heroine (if one can call her that), and reading this you sometimes feel as if you've overdone it on the cherry brandy, but it's entirely worth it to become wholly immersed in a world both familiar and strange. There is a Dutch film, but if anyone knows if there's one with English subtitles (my Dutch being, er, non-existent), I'd be grateful.

5. Electra by Sophocles, The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus, Philoctetes by Sophocles 

This was the year I returned to Greek tragedy. There is something in the searing purity of Sophocles that cannot be garnered anywhere else; and the cosmic otherworldliness of Aeschylus feels like looking into a clouded mirror, back into the depths of our civilisation from which spring these extraordinary tales. The Philoctetes in particular I have been enjoying, finding in its tale of isolation, friendship and civilisation something that resonates widely, it being perhaps the most 'modern' of Sophocles' plays (containing, as it does, a meta-textual play directed by Odysseus). But lurking behind its resolution lies the future fall of Troy - and in that is the genius of Sophocles. I also highly recommend the version of Philoctetes by Seamus Heaney: The Cure at Troy, which adds an eeriness.

6. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Every time I read this I find it more savage. The murder of Mr Prendergast by the lunatic! The deaths of onlookers at the wedding of Paul and Margot! Almost every paragraph is laced with venom and wit, and it never gets any less fresh. I also read The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold again this year, but found it hasn't lasted nearly as much - I think because its "trick" seems so outdated. It's something you need to look at in the context of its time, whereas Decline and Fall stretches its black limbs across the centuries, settling in for good.

7. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

This occupies a special place in my mental furniture, much like an old rockinghorse, having responded warmly to it as a child: its tale of young clairvoyants terrified of being found out for fear of death is both thrilling and poignant. And God I wish I was a mind-reader. It would make writing novels so much easier.

8. How Many Miles to Babylon by Jennifer Johnston

A little-known, and overlooked, novella, about the friendship between an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and a labourer on his lands; they come together in the trenches of the First World War, but their friendship does little but tear them apart as others misconstrue it. Written in sometimes quite oblique prose, it nevertheless manages to sear its imagery onto the brain.

9. Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

The first Fitzgerald I've read - and why don't people read her more? This is a slim book but it contains within it more intelligence, wit, vividness and awareness of humanity than most. It concerns the lives of a group of houseboaters and is often quite nightmarish in its piercing lyricism.

10. A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford

Published by Daunt Books, this deserves a mention both because Daunts are doing a great job of bringing out neglected books, and also because you can see what a great writer Bedford would become. This novel is very curate's-eggish; the opening chapter is peerless, but the bits in between can be remarkably stilted. However, it is worth persevering with just to see how a writer forms herself.

Pip pip, then, till tomorrow...

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Launch of Hot Key, and Notting Hill Editions

A brace of bumptious literary parties last night: the first, in Clerkenwell, for a new children's imprint that will publish books for children and young adults. It is helmed by Sarah Odedina (who was my first editor at Bloomsbury), and looks set to publish its first book later next year, which I look forward to very much indeed. Lots of little mince pies and bucketfulls of champagne made a  merry evening in their snazzy, white-painted and wood-floored offices. I spotted The Fool's Girl author Celia Rees, who's got a new, modern-day novel coming out soon, as well as I, Coriander writer Sally Gardner. The place was thrumming with agents and authors as I left, so it all looks set for a rocket-fuelled lift off - very best of luck to Hot Key.

Then onto the Hammersmith and City line (not one of my favourite lines, I must admit, although it was behaving properly last night) to the other end of town, for a party celebrating Notting Hill Editions' new series of essays. It took place in the Idler Academy, which was packed to the brim with literary types and lots of cakes (including a rather delicious ginger biscuit) and, of course, champagne. Latinist Harry Mount (who teaches at the Academy) was there; as was the author of The Kit-Kat Club, Ophelia Field, and erstwhile Cheap Date editor, Kira Jolliffe, as well as bags more. NHE's new selection of handsomely bound essays includes Adam Mars-Jones, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, and Simon Heffer, as well as Osip Mandelstam and Stanley and Munro Price. They combine intellectual curiosity and power with - well, looking nice on your coffee table. And there aren't many things that can do that. The box set makes a lovely present, too.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Cheap Date! And PORT issue 4 - Benjamin Millepied, Book porn, Alain de Botton, DBC Pierre and Noam Chomsky

 Salut mes amis! Yes, it's the fourth issue of PORT magazine, which marks its first year as a quarterly magazine. It's a stonking issue - the cover is graced with ballet dancer Benjamin Millepied (quite an appropriate name, that, don't you think?) and inside you will find a mixture of fashion, style and intelligence that you won't get anywhere else. There is a (very) angry letter by DBC Pierre to marketers; there is an exclusive extract from Noam Chomsky's new book; there is a piece by Alain de Botton about pornography; there is an interview with Michael Fassbender; and there is "PORT's version of porn", as the editor, Dan Crowe, puts it in his letter - a series of photographs of people's bookcases. Basically, your life will be a lot better after you've read it. Go and seek it out!

It comes in the same week as I received a copy - the first copy that I ever did see - of my first ever contribution to the magazine world. A long, long time ago (well, 2000), when I was still at school, I wrote an article for Cheap Date magazine about starting trends. The issue on the right was the New York edition, which came out in 2001. It was very strange reading the article - I winced slightly at my prose, but it gave me immense pleasure to see it. And with Liv Tyler on the cover, too. It was also quite cool seeing my name in the list of contributors along with Tracey Emin, Erin O'Connor, Larry Clark, Sophie Dahl - and someone called Bum. So thanks enormously to Kira Jolliffe (the editor) for sending it to me after all these years.

The magazine is full of fun stuff, including a photo story about the Sock Man - who keeps girls in his cellar in order to steal their socks. My favourite feature, though, is definitely "Horror Scopes". Sample: "Capricorn: You appear to be happy but you're not ... your close friends know that you're living a lie and that you're only disguising your depression with your daily doctor-described medication ..." It's a shame that Cheap Date isn't around any more, but I'll certainly treasure this issue.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Daily Telegraph Children's Books Special: Interview with Jacqueline Wilson, and review round ups

The Daily Telegraph Children's Books Special was published on Saturday; it's now available online. I've done a bunch of things for them: an interview with Jacqueline Wilson, in which she talks about Hetty Feather; and round ups of the best historical, humorous and real life books of the year, including Meg Rosoff, Mal Peet, Kevin Brooks (a new treat for me), David Walliams, Eva Ibbotson and many others.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Literary Review: Children's Round Up

My round up of children's books is in this month's Literary Review, a magazine so packed with jam it's like a bonus-sized jar of Bonne Maman. And don't we all love Bonne Maman. Mmmmm. Hold on a sec. Right, now that I've had my afternoon fix of toast and jam, I'll tell you about the review - I'm doing ten (mostly) creepy books for Christmas.

They are Anne Fine's The Devil Walks, Mary Hooper's Velvet, Chris Priestley's Mr Creecher, Lauren Oliver's Liesel and Po, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean by David Almond, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce, A Greyhound of A Girl by Roddy Doyle, Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp by Philip Pullman, and School of Meanies by Daren King.

In this issue you will also find out what the Hawaiian word for sulphur is - "kukae pele", or Pele's excrement (Pele the goddess, that is), and be introduced to Leet, the gaming language in an article by David Profumo; there's also brilliant stuff from Kwasi Kwarteng, Robert Irwin, Adrian Tinniswood, Claire Harman, John Gray, D J Taylor and bags more.

Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Awards: David Guterson wins

I went to my first Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award in 2004, when Tom Wolfe won the gong  for a bracing scene in I Am Charlotte Simmons; his famous white-suited back was seen leaving as the announcement was made (or so the compere, Alexander Waugh, claimed; he of course wasn't actually there.)

Barbara Windsor, after hearing a passage from Christos Tsiolkias
The awards, which take place at the In and Out Club, in St James', are usually a joyous occasion, full of mirth and merriment; initially intended, when instituted by the late Auberon Waugh, to gently discourage the extraneous insertions of sexual writing into otherwise good books. Whilst there is no general theme, I have noticed a tendency towards sea creatures in writing about sex; this was very much present last night, in Dori Ostermiller's passage: "For a moment, two moments, three, we’re part of the same organism: some outrageous sea creature washed up and tangled on the shore, terrifying beautiful, beyond hope," which is as interesting an exposition of the beast with two backs as any I've heard.

Since my association with the magazine (I started as a lowly, wet-behind-the-ears General Assistant, and am now a slightly loftier Contributing Editor, which means I get to sit in the armchair) I've seen Giles Coren win the gong for describing a penis as leaping around like a showerhead in a bath; and, if my memory serves me correctly, ejaculating in a Z - "like Zorro." Rachel Johnson and Iain Hollingshead both accepted with pleasure - particularly Johnson, who threw off her coat on stage; Hollingshead was wrapped in a Valkyrie-like embrace by Courtney Love, who presented the award. (What I remember most about Love is how sweet she was - she wore spectacles, and reading out her speech she came across more like a librarian addressing a room full of children than a ripped-dress-wearing rock goddess. I still didn't quite manage to pluck up the courage to speak to her though.)

Last night was the 19th ceremony, and to my mind it was one of the best yet. Literary figures were out in force: novelist Edward St Aubyn looking very smart; satirist Ian Hislop looking exceedingly hunky and chipmunky; philosopher A C Grayling's noble leonine magnetic mane was a feature. There were others:  I did see Nancy Dell'Ollio quaffing champagne. The passages were read out by actress and writer Lucy Beresford, paired with writer Arthur House (looking brilliantly spindly as he enunciated some meaty scenes). Both were excellent - drawing out innuendo from pauses and emphases without being overly camp or blatant. Alexander Waugh was on the toppest of top form: a passage from Chris Adrian's The Great Night ("He came and came and came and fell backward, as if through a mile of air or a lifetime, to land on the soft grass with a noise like his name, feeling like he was saying his name properly for the first time") caused him to recite a limerick:

There once was a man from Kildare
Who was screwing his wife on the stair.
When the Bannister broke
He quickened his stroke
And finished her off in mid air.
Waugh's explanation of the Murakami - "about a cult that worships small people that come out of other people's mouths" - caused one of the biggest laughs of the night.

One indicator of a passage's success or failure - at least, in terms of gruesomeness rather than the elusive quality of "badness" -  was the expression on actress Barbara Windsor's face. You could call it the Barbarometer. She sat by the edge of the stage; most provoked mild horror, and Barbarometer readings of between 19.5 (Haruki Murakami) to 80 (David Guterson).  The one from Christos Tsiolkas' made her look as if something worse than usual had just happened in Eastenders. Barbarometer reading: 1000. Tsiolkas was nominated this year as well as last - the only time this has happened. He did, after all, suggest last year that the only pleasure Literary Review staff managed to get was "jerking each other off at Eton." So that was his reward.

Windsor was a fantastic prize-giver, with a charming mixture of pretended (I thought) prudishness and winning charm - unlike Michael Winner, last year, who was rude and boorish (he changed his tune when boos came from the crowd.) And David Guterson's acceptance letter (read out by his publisher, Michael Fishwick) was apt. His book, Ed King, is a retelling of Oedipus Rex. And as Guterson said, it was Oedipus who invented bad sex.

People tend to get themselves into a tizzy about the Bad Sex awards - particularly ones who attribute prurience, or inverse prudery, or titillation to the awards, suggesting that they are on a par with furtive adolescent fumblings. But what they really are is a celebration - of writing, and of writers, and an opportunity to laugh in a world that's increasingly characterised by dullness.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Reading with Meg Rosoff, at Manns of Cranleigh, Surrey

Meg Rosoff: All Round Good Egg
Hello troopers - I hope that you are all well and happy in this pre-Christmas season. I will be reading and chatting with the fantabulous Meg Rosoff, Carnegie Medal winner, author of several brilliant young adult novels, including her latest, There is No Dog (a slickly witty fantasy in which it is revealed that God is in fact a teenage boy - and a rather lusty one at that), and All Round Good Egg. It promises to be an interesting and fun afternoon, and will start at 3pm this Saturday, at Manns of Cranleigh, which is on the High Street, Cranleigh, Surrey. Check out their website,

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Scream 4 and the nature of horror

"How meta can you get?" is something that people in Scream 4 say. A lot. Most critics, when it came out last year, thought that it could have been, er, well, a bit less meta and a bit better. Which was a shame, since Scream (directed by Wes Craven and written by that most savvy of scribblers, Kevin Williamson), stands as a biting comment on horror films - and yet, as a truly biting horror film itself. Scream 2, with its film within a film (Stab, starring Tori Spelling, and retelling the events of Scream) succeeded; Scream 3 was, though it had lost its bite, still enjoyable as practically a screwball comedy. They all followed the practised ruts of a horror film though, in which an external force causes mayhem for a while, but is tamed and neutered. They do, though, like revenge tragedies, bleed into each other; and like revenge tragedies, it's very hard to stop the cycle. The Oresteia did it by chaining the Furies up underneath a statue of Athena - but you can't do that with mask-wearing pyschopaths, can you? There just isn't enough room.

So what of Scream 4? Well I would argue that it has found a way to end the cycle. The meta-ness takes many forms. There has been a Stab franchise (they are now on the sixth - or seventh - outing; nobody can quite agree). Sidney Prescott (an always effective Neve Campbell), the original survivor of all three films (boy she must have some scars, says someone wryly), has emerged from the darkness to write a memoir of her experiences, and returns to her home town to give a reading. Gail Weathers, the fast-talking reporter, is now married to dopey Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette), and unable to write her own novel (having written the book that Stab was based on). Meanwhile the highschool students act out versions of Stab, hang up ghostface masks in reference to the original killers, and even have their own Stabathon, where they watch all the films in one go whilst brandishing fake knives.

The pacing of the first two thirds is uneven; new characters are either goofy (such as Dewey's deputy and Sidney's assistant, one of whom dies [the wrong one, in my opinion]) or unbelievable, like the high school geek who records his entire experience on a webcam nailed to his head. Imagine Peepshow, but with added toilet time. Mercifully we get none of that. The death scenes are not particularly frightening; and there is hardly a batsqueak of suspense. But it's still enjoyable, as a curiosity.

Until the final reel, that is, when a surprise is sprung upon us in true Wes Craven style. The film becomes a mordant, affecting response to the horrors of social networking and the vapid need for fame, with echoes of Nicole Kidman's To Die For. As a film, it's entirely clued up (with references to mobiles, Facebook, Twitter and so on) - but these references are not merely window dressing. They are part of the texture of the whole, and essential to the success of the film.

The last third, when Sidney is running for her life, then becomes almost better than the first three films put together. The tension, entirely lacking, suddenly appears like a noose around the neck.  Everything is called into question: love, family, friendship; the nature of celebrity, the desire for an admired self. Nothing is sacred in Scream 4. Which makes it, perhaps, closer to the bone than any of its predecessors. And in the final scene, after the film has quietly managed to laugh at itself, you're left feeling troubled, not cleansed; and that, surely, is what a horror film is meant to do.

As the final credits roll, the horror is rooted deep inside the viewer, much as it is when you read of true crime. There is nowhere left for the Scream series to go. In its meta-ness it returned to the beginning; but it's also carved out an end.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Immortals: review

There is no canon in Greek myth. They're fluid, and The Immortals has moulded something of its own out of them, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to hardly any of the legends we know. It's crazy, balletic, silly, powerful, beautiful, and totally ridiculous; and it's also amongst the most fun and impressive films that I've seen this year.

Theseus and his army
It takes place in a never-never Greece (about 1,200 BC, apparently, although it looks more like an alien desert landscape); the Olympian gods have suppressed the Titans (who suffer, chained up in something that looks like it came from the brain of the Human Centipede guy, under a mountain) but have decided not to take any active part in human affairs. This does not prevent Zeus, however (played with an impish might by Luke Evans) from disguising himself as an old man - and not just any old man, but John Hurt, who is so wise that practically every other word is an aphorism – in order to influence (but not actively, you see) his son Theseus, who must learn to do things of his own free will (and not having been influenced by Zeus. At All.)

Theseus lives in a stone town which has conveniently been carved out of rocks looking over a cliff edge, which can't be very practical, or comfortable when the wind blows, but that doesn't really matter, because it looks pretty impressive. Theseus is also a humdinger of a man - played by Henry Cavill, who's obviously been working out (since he's about to play Superman) - he's the sort of chap that would make the average Abercrombie and Fitch model not want to take his top off on the beach for shame. He is not the prince of myth, though; he is a humble peasant who would die to protect those he loves. He's also pretty nifty with a spear, as it turns out, which is lucky. Think Brad Pitt in Troy but without the sulkiness. And boy does the camera love him, lingering on his body whenever it can; even when he's close to death, having been enslaved, he looks like a bronzed Lycidas. Even the virginal Oracle  (Frieda Pinto, for whom most would swoon any day) whose second sight is tied to her chastity, thinks twice when she sees Theseus. Cavill does a good job with the fairly dire script, too - when he gave a speech to his soldiers to rouse them up a bit, I found myself getting roused up too, despite the cringeworthiness of the lines.

Zeus and Athena: Daddy's girl
The village's - and all of Greece's - existence is threatened: the vile King Hyperion wishes to find the Epirus bow (a magical weapon of great power) and, well, like all baddies ever, take over the world; he also wants to unleash the Titans, though quite why is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, he invades a monastery where the Oracle lives - who happens to be an extremely beautiful girl who likes sleeping on a silken couch with her three other very beautiful oracle-friends - and tortures and kills people, willy-nilly. When one of Theseus' villagers defects to Hyperion's camp, and sees a silver bull into which victims are thrown and burned, as well as dead bodies hung up everywhere, you can almost hear him think, uh oh, this was a bad idea, wish I'd stayed with those lame villagers... Hyperion is so evil he makes Darth Vader look like Bambi. He likes wearing masks, too, as do all his followers - weird, toothy animal masks. He believes in democracy, you see (apparently).

The plot, though, is sort of beside the point, because every scene is so enthrallingly enjoyable in its sumptuous finery, violence or lunacy that one is compelled throughout. It doesn't seem to matter that the Olympus of the Greek gods resembles a gay nightclub, with all the male gods lounging around half-naked  in diamanté and Heath-Robinson hats (there's only one female god, Athena, played by a too-beautiful Isabel Lucas - she should have been Aphrodite, surely?) Nor does it matter that the oracle and her friends wear jangling tea-cosies on their heads. I think the film itself is aware of its excesses - Theseus laughs at a priest's similar headgear.

The film has its own grace, and if you are prepared to take it on its own terms, then you'll find yourself swept away just as if Poseidon himself had come down and caused a tidal wave. And the final scenes point towards a sequel that looks like it might be even bigger, and even sillier, with an aeronautical battle between gods and Titans. Hats off - the sillier the better - to director Tarsem Singh, for this deeply luxurious nugget.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Vampocalypse: Stake Land, dir. by Jim Mickie: review

I'd seen the poster of Stake Land, as I got off the tube at Piccadilly, maybe a hundred times; although I am a fan of vampire movies, the poster made it out to be some kind of shlock horror, with a field of crucifixes and a grizzled looking vampire hunter. That couldn't be further from the truth. It's a thoughtful, beautifully filmed, apocalyptic movie, having more in common with Cormac McCarthy's The Road and the mythical qualities of Near Dark.
Stake Land: mythical

The premise is simple - and one that was played with in the excellent Zombieland, although of course (as you can probably guess from the title) that had zombies as the agent of apocalypse of choice. (They really ought to think up something else, don't you think? Zombies, vampires, werewolves... what next? Killer banshees? Kelpies? Pixies? Just how many mythological creatures can act as metaphors for our diseased culture? I'm rooting for evil mermaids, myself.)

In Stake Land, as in Zombieland, a young teenager called Martin's (a brilliantly vulnerable Connor Paolo) family is wiped out; he hitches up with a tough-talking killer who takes out as many of the undead as possible. I think that in Zombieland Woody Harrellson (who plays the killer to Jesse Eisenberg's geeky ingenue) says "I hate zombies" - although for comic effect. Nick Damici, the enigmatic vampire killer Mister in Stake Land, grizzles "I hate vampires!" You can't avoid it.

But Stake Land doesn't go for the funnies. It's a very moving quest narrative, in which the pair - who quickly develop a surrogate father / son relationship, with Martin visibly toughening up as Mister trains him in the arts of vamp-execution - head towards a new Eden in the north, supposedly untouched by the plague of vampires (although think about the problems of calling something Eden if it's meant to be a symbol of hope). Along the way they rescue a nun from rape (killing the potential rapists) and pick up a pregnant singer; moments of tenderness, however, are fleeting, since the countryside they move through is controlled by The Brotherhood, a sinister organisation that believes vampires are God's answer to rooting out evil from the world. The Brotherhood wears sacking and actually hurls vamps down onto gatherings from helicopters - vampire bombs, which must be a new thing. It means everything is on a knife edge, though - any gathering might be uprooted at any moment. A little girl's shoe poking out from under a blanket is a particularly poignant reminder of the mindless nature of the killings.

There are consolations: religion, as little statuettes of Mary and Jesus become particularly significant, and a cross that the nun gives Martin becomes a totem. That totemic power can shift though, as it does (in a nice twist that I won't reveal) at the end, with a skull on a necklace. In a striking scene, as the nun flees for her life she sees a body nailed up in a crucifixion pose: though in life it was an execution, it gives her the courage to make a final decision. There is also friendship. As an allegory, the film works on many levels, but one that it particularly insists upon is that: life is fleeting. Live and love whilst we can: you never know when somebody might throw a berserking vampire into your midst. (For vampires, of course, we can read variously bombs, financial crises, contagious diseases - any of the particular modern real bogeymen.)

Unfortunately, the leader of the Brotherhood is the father of one of the would-be-nun-rapists; he wants revenge on Mister. Which he does so, in spectacularly horrific fashion, of course. But don't worry - there is hope, or at least the promise of hope. What all these apocalyptic films - and particularly the two under discussion - seem to offer us is that despite everything collapsing around us, you can always trust in human relationships. (Unless that human is a crazed religico-psychopath-vampire lover, of course.) Stake Land is an excellent addition to the genre, and whilst it obviously plays within the rules, it shows a distinct style and passion which set it out from the rest. I hope to see more from its director, Jim Mickie. Now how about those world-dominating mermaids?

Friday, 11 November 2011

Maggie Stiefvater Celebration

To the Haymarket Hotel, and a room underground which was next to a swimming pool and might just as well have been Blofeld's lair. I think there were sharks in that pool, and they certainly had lasers on their heads. The reason for the dinner was to celebrate the American writer Maggie Stiefvater, who is younger than me and has written many successful books about evil fairies, and werewolves, amongst other things. They've sold a quarter of a million. That's a quarter of a million. Yes indeed. Her new book, The Scorpio Races, is out now. Dinner was excellent - champagne flowed as fast as the waterfall feature in the swimming pool; I had figs of tender puckishness, although my chicken was as dry as the unmoving eyes of a statue. (You can see I am making a bid to be A A Gill. Or Giles Coren. Or Miles Jupp. Maybe the latter would be nice.) Maggie Stiefvater was charming and funny and I think I am a little bit in love with her (but she is married and has children). Hurrah for Scholastic, and hurrah for Maggie!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Tatler, December 2011: Champagne in a Chateau

A staircase is the best place to have a party, I find
So, last night was Tatler's Little Black Book Party, which was a deliciously raucous affair in Annabel's, and was positively thrumming with good looking, talented and fun people - and me. Don't know how I managed to slip through the net, but still... What was a real pleasure was that Kira Jolliffe was there - I'd never actually met her before, but I wrote my first article for her for her magazine, Cheap Date, about guerilla fashion at school. I really enjoyed writing it, and it set me on my path - although I've never written about fashion since (I'd love to though. Come to think of it, I like writing about most things. Post it notes. Space. You know, everything.) There was plenty of flirting, smirting, chatting, and ridiculous dancing.

Also in Tatler this month (the December issue, with the lovely Anna Friel on the cover in a Father Christmas hat) are the results of a shoot I did in the summer, in the Moet and Chandon Chateau in Paris. The theme was Bright Young Things - hem hem (I was a Hot Young Thing in Tatler once; soon I'll be a Lukewarm Young Thing, and from then on  it's a slippery slope...) As you can see from the photograph on the right, we obviously had a lot of fun in the chateau. The shoot lasted from about 6 in the morning till late at night. Somebody knocked over a champagne fountain (thank goodness it wasn't me.) To say that there were liberal amounts of champagne would be akin to saying that on the moon there's quite a lot of rock. I was mostly amazed by how expensive the girls' dresses were. And how difficult to put on (not that I tried, of course.)

Who's who: In the front row, left to right, is model Anouska Beckwith; actress Daisy Lewis; portrait painter Phoebe Dickinson. Behind are fashion designer Charlie Casely-Hayford, actress Amy Beth Hayes, and your humble scribe self; behind are director Luke Rodgers, jewellery designer James Boyd, and photographer Zoe Zimmer; and standing at the very top is songstrell Charlie Simpson.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Memorial by Alice Oswald: review

Paris and Helen in the film Troy
I've been very lucky this year with Classics-oriented books to review. I've written about Alice Oswald's beautiful, heartbreaking poem Memorial for The Daily Telegraph, here. It takes the deaths of the heroes and the similes out of the Iliad and sculpts something entirely fresh and exciting.  Each dead soldier is remembered, given life.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Review of The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay

Francesca Kay: elegant
I've reviewed The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay for The Daily Telegraph, a novel about madness and religion and motherhood. See what I thought of it here.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Guest Blog on The Writers' Workshop

Hello there, and a very happy Saturday to you all. I've written a guest blog for The Writers' Workshop, about how to write children's books. Check it out HERE.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Iliad by Homer, trans. Stephen Mitchell: review

Orlando Bloom as Paris, in Troy
I've reviewed a new translation of The Iliad by Homer - it's by Stephen Mitchell, for The Sunday Telegraph, available online here. It's a barnstormer. You can read about the originals of the film Troy - and see what really happened, with Paris in his leopard skin, and Achilles playing the lyre.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Booker Prize: Barnes-storming

So, it being Booker night, of course the first thing we did was go to the Corinthia Hotel, for the launch of a new, warts- and-all  biography of a certain Boris Johnson. I wasn't really sure what the book was, but Ken Livingstone was there looking ineffably smug and carrying a tank of newts, as was Brian Paddick (looking less so and without newts). There were fish-and-chips canapés, which I would have enjoyed more if I hadn't managed to drop most of them on the floor, and champagne with blue sugar smeared around the edge of the glass, which meant that as we sipped our glasses we all looked either as if we were trying to seduce each other by slowly licking the rims, or as if we were, well, a bit simple.

It was apparently very difficult to get into the Rebel Alliance Party, what with the armed guards and everything (sorry that should be Independent Alliance - Faber, Atlantic, Canongate etc.), so we went first to the Jonathan Cape party, thinking that if august Cape author Julian Barnes won, we'd be in the right place, and if he didn't, then we were in striking distance of the other two. They always have their party in the same place, which is in an alleyway somewhere in the eighteenth century (you have to ask a taxi driver, they'll not be happy but they'll take you).

Julian Barnes: Solid stallion
Lots of young novelists were present and correct - Chloe Aridjis; Adam Foulds and James Scudamore (both wearing backpacks and looking as if they were about to climb Kilimanjiro); Leo Benedictus, with whom I chatted amiably about the Booker list; the literati were also out in force: Suzi Feay was there in a marvellous fur coat, as was Michael Prodger, although he didn't have a fur coat, as far as I know anyway.

I missed the actual announcement of the winner, but heard the yells of glee (from where I was standing outside) as it was announced that eternal Booker bridesmaid Julian Barnes had snatched the gong from the clammy hands of the other five. I must say, to give a prize to an established author for what isn't his best book when the list that you're intending to make is meant to be full of new and exciting "voices" which "reach out" to the general public is a little bit odd, but I am very pleased nonetheless.

Barnesy himself made an appearance, black-tied up (having of course been to the fancy Booker dinner). "Bingo!" he said as he came in. He is absolutely charming - I say this because when I found myself rammed up against him and said something ineffably inane ("I think you're like a really good novelist? And I really like admire you? Did I mention that I'm like a novelist too?") he didn't mind at all.

So well done Mr Barnes, it's well-deserved; my only reservation being that the competition wasn't much up to it. Thank the lord A D Miller didn't get a look in.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Booker Prize Contenders

I've done a rundown of the Booker Prize Contenders for The Daily Telegraph - check out my thoughts on the matter here.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

First Story: Holland Park and Woodside

A chipmunk: source of inspiration
A brace of First Story sessions this week. First off, in the autumnal heat I headed to Holland Park, where I had a crowded classroom. We worked on the theme of restriction, the idea being that if you impose limitations on your writing, you often come up with interesting things, so we did a few exercises that brought up a lively poem about a curry house and a supermarket scene from the point of view of a chipmunk on a sweet wrapper.

Later on in the week, and still in the skin-warming sunshine, it was back to North London, to Woodside, where we looked at how memory can be used and transformed to make a story. This again resulted in some vivid pieces – the fear of a first swimming lesson, or going on a rollercoaster ride for the first time. Writing comes as much from the self as it does from external factors: that is one of the ways you become a better writer.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Seven Stages of Angry Birds

I've written a short piece about Angry Birds, the fiendish game, for The Periscope Post, available here.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Literary Review redesigned; review of Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie

The redesigned cover
    Jubilation and joy all round, as Literary Review (where I am a Contributing Editor) launches its redesign with the October issue. It's a simple, elegant style that is both striking and subdued. The reviews look inviting and uncluttered, practically leaping off the page in their eagerness to be read. It is a joy to behold. Of course the quality of the contributors remains excellent - in this issue we have Anne Somerset on Francis Walsingham; John Sutherland on Charles Dickens; Sam Leith on J G Ballard; Katherine Duncan-Jones on Shakespeare; John Gray on humanity, and many more, including a fabulous essay on puppets by Steven Connor, and reviews of Michel Houellebecq, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Barry Unsworth, Jeffrey Eugenides, Esi Edugyan, and my own review of Carol Birch's Booker-shortlisted Jamrach's Menagerie, which I believe a strong favourite to win the gong (although whether this is a list that one should be proud of being on is another matter). I think it's really now between Barnes and Birch - at least, it ought to be. You can't read the review online, so you must go out NOW and get your hands on the extremely smart new issue of the magazine. You'll enjoy it, I promise.

Friday, 7 October 2011

First Story: Woodside session, No. 1

To North London, and a visit to Woodside School for a First Story workshop. First Story, in case you didn't know, is the organisation set up by William Fiennes which promotes literacy and a love of writing in schools. The aim is to have a writer go in and do weekly workshops, with the result being a published anthology. It's a great idea, and it's come up with some marvellous things, and I'm very proud to be working for them.

The session I worked on was intended to show that the ordinary can be made extraordinary: I asked each student what animal they would be, and then asked them to imagine finding that animal in their house; then they had to write from the animal's point of view. It was an exercise that drew forth both some rather moving images - hunted lions, hungry hawks, lost monkeys – and some amusing situations as well, with a vengeful snake and a haughty hawk being the most memorable. It was a great session, with a lot of energy, and I look forward to the next ones. The students were motivated and showed real talent and commitment. Now I must go as I think a llama has just wondered into my sitting room... Hey! That's my manuscript! You can't eat that! Sorry, excuse me. I'll be back soon...

Blowing own trumpet alert: Tatler, November 2011

 November's Tatler is out now, with a picture of Isabel Lucas looking, well, rather attractive on the cover. A rather less attractive personage is the author of this very weblog, who makes a few appearances in the issue. There's a teaser for the Tatler party Guide 2012 - to the right. You can just about make me out (I'm on the far right). Also in the picture are Charlie Casely Hayford, Anouska Beckwith, Luke Rodgers and James Boyd (left to right).
 To the left is a little piece by Violet Hudson about fancy dress - my 21st birthday party, and a flamboyant radio 4 appearance....

And to the right there's a piece by Violet Henderson about school pranks. Check out the issue, it's a great one (and I say this without the slightest bit of interest in self-promotion...)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Door: dir. by Andrew Steggall

The Soho Hotel is massively trendy, possibly more trendy than any hotel I've ever been into, ever; it also has its own private cinema, which was the scene for the first showing of Andrew Steggall's short film, The Door. Guests flocked to the two screenings. The film was produced by actress Daisy Lewis; in attendance were actress Olivia Grant, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from Misfits, writer Ivo Stourton, director Luke Rodgers and his girlfriend painter Phoebe Dickinson, as well as hordes of others.

The film itself was beautifully shot, acted and paced. Based on a short story by H G Wells ("The Door in the Wall"), it concerned a man's obsession with a childhood event that changed his life. Charles Dance played the hero, who tells of his memories: As a  boy (played with great sensitivity by an angelic Thomas Hardiman), he saw a green door in a wall (which looked very much like Thistle Grove to me); through it he finds a strange world inhabited by angels, mad clockwork kings, and mysterious, mobled women. Is it a place of imagination, or a real other world? A sterling cast, and an atmospheric soundtrack provided enchantment and strangeness, making us question what we were seeing as they wandered through a world that might be ours, or might not.

In Steggall's reading, the other world seemed like a preparation for death, with the young boy seeing himself held in the arms of a winged man (an angel? a swan?). Everything was tinged with elegant light, with a sense of mystery and foreboding; an excellent score and sumptuous costumes added to the elegiac feel. It was a charmed experience, a window indeed into another world. And next time I go down Thistle Grove, I shall certainly look to see if the door is still there.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Bertie Wooster revisited: Poetry Recital Prize at Thomas' Battersea

Carol Ann Duffy: First past the (last) post
A stonkingly early start today, as I reprised my Bertie Woosterish role (you may remember last time). I was honoured to be giving away the prize at Thomas' Battersea for their Poetry Recital Competition. I was astonished by the quality of the poems chosen and by the way they were delivered. It really gave me heart to think that children at that age can enjoy, understand and delight in reciting such complex and interesting poems. It brought back memories of my own poetry recital competition - I think I slightly optimistically did Byron's The Isles of Greece (I can still remember the first few lines...)

We had brilliantly sinister renderings of Crow’s Fall by Ted Hughes and Mushrooms by Sylvia Plath; an intelligent declamation of Hughes' The Thought Fox too. There was a galloping recital of an old favourite, Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, and a joyous rendering of Daffodils by William Wordsworth. Humour was brought with The Naming of Cats by T S Eliot; poignancy with A Little By Lost by William Blake, and humour and poignancy together with William Shakespeare's All the World's a Stage. The winner, though, was current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy's Last Post, which was delivered with excellent enunciation and a real sense of the tragedy of war.

Many congratulations to all who took part - it was a sterling collection of candidates.