Monday, 28 February 2011

This Coming Thursday...

Click pic to enlarge...

World Book Week: Thomas' Clapham, Reading of The Liberators

It's WORLD BOOK WEEK. Huzzah! A week to celebrate books can only be a Good Thing (although I don't especially agree with the million book give away - but that's another question.)

A drizzly, dour start to the week, but a splendidly warm welcome from the pupils and staff of Thomas' Clapham. I almost didn't make it on time, as I relied on my GPS phone working - which of course it didn't, in the wilds of Clapham (chiz chiz); luckily I'd absent-mindedly looked at a map at breakfast and was able to use my knowledge of the stars to find the school, which is a large Victorian-gothic, gingerbread coloured mansion.

I chatted to the older years briefly, and read them the first chapter of The Liberators. There were some good questions from the floor ('is Rio Ferdinand your favourite footballer?' [to put this in context, he attended {accidentally} my launch party last year]).

All in all it was a fun beginning to what promises to be an extremely dervishing kind of week. I've got two more school talks, and an event with the fantastic Mr Philip Reeve in Richmond on Thursday. Long live The Liberators!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Eight White Nights by André Aciman: review

....And also I've reviewed André Aciman's new novel, Eight White Nights, for Telegraph Online. I loved his first novel, Call Me By Your Name: this one I'm not so sure about, which is a great shame. Click HERE to read it.

Jubilate by Michael Arditti: review

I've reviewed Michael Arditti's new novel, Jubilate, about a pilgrimage to Lourdes, for the Daily Telegraph. Click HERE to read it.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Duff Cooper Prize: Sarah Bakewell, Winner

The Duff Cooper Prize is always an occasion of great joy, which takes place in the pleasing confines of the French Embassy in Kensington. It's recently been redecorated - now, standing in it, one slightly feels as if one is being beamed up to a flying saucer, as one half of the room is bathed in lilac light, with an extraordinary gold and silver chandelier (apparently hand made in Venice), whilst the other half of the room is as it always was, with hunting tapestries and so on; if you stand underneath the square halogen lighting for too long you will find that your skin will start to resemble Dale Winton's.

Even so, the place was humming - if not pullullating - tonight with the literary great and good. I saw Sebastian Faulks, bearded and laughing, in the far distance; Jacqueline Wilson was nodding and smiling somewhere beyond my left elbow; Edmund de Waal (who is remarkably tall - now there's a Clerihew for you) was looming about the room; and the usual gamut of bookish types, great and small (including me, who comes somewhere above a bacterium and somewhere below a protozoan) were quaffing and chattering. Biographer Jeremy Lewis was genially beaming; as was his biographical colleague Jane Ridley, whose amazing red velvet coat I have mentioned before; Nicky Haslam popped in, well-dressed as ever; explorer John Hemming was there with his family in attendance, including son Henry Hemming (whose new book, Together, is out now). Novelist James Buchan had brought his daughter Lizzie, thereby reducing the average age of the room by about twenty years; I was mistaken for somebody's great great grandson (whose, exactly, I have yet to discover, though Violet Trefusis seemed to be involved).

Great thanks are due to the marvellous Artemis Cooper, Duff Cooper's daughter, who organises the event, and to the wonderful hospitality of the Embassy and the liberal amounts of Pol Roger. There was plenty of tough competition for the prize. Keith Richards was up for it - although, sadly, he couldn't make it. He is, I believe, the only rock star ever to have been nominated for the award. (I think he would have been at home in the lilac light.)

The winner of the prize was Sarah Bakewell for her brilliant book about Montaigne - who as Andrew Marr pointed out, we like to coopt as an English author, despite the fact that he is most definitely French. Bakewell spoke about the last time she won an award - as an eleven year old, for preeminence in first aiding. Fortunately, none of the guests were in need of her services; the evening, aided by cartloads of champagne and some perfectly delicious meringues, continued with no casualties. Even I managed not to break anything; and that is a triumph in itself.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, dir. Peter Hall: review

Twelfth Night has always been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays (and not least because, at the risk of sounding like Polonius, I once played Malvolio...). It inhabits a territory that points towards the weird, late romances (which I favour over the comedies): a shipwreck, lost children, revelations. It is as full of wonder as any of the romances. It's also supremely well-knit, spare and tight, each word doing the job of three or four, its verbal dexterity and shot-silk quality embodied in the words of Feste.

The staging of Sir Peter Hall's production at the National Theatre was also spare. Viola (played by a charmingly gawky Rebecca Hall) stood at the beginning, bereft of everything she has known, her back towards the man who will help her. Orsino's (Martin Csokas) luxurious court was hinted at by three or four cushions (Orsino himself looked like a cushion, wearing a brilliantly long dressing gown of the type which I wish they still made. Barry Lyndon wears one in the Kubrick film, too.) The bare stage focused attention on the actors.

On the aristocratic side, Orsino was debauched, world-weary, commanding his group of courtiers with a languid finger. By contrast, Olivia (Amanda Drew), mourning her brother, was controlled and clearly able to run her household. It struck me that perhaps Olivia senses something missing in Viola - another lost brother - which might aid her infatuation. Drew was almost matronly, which belied her passion; my only difficulty was that one of her best lines ('lips - indifferent red') was swallowed. Sebastian (Ben Mansfield) was a fine, swashbuckling type, although with a slight femininity which maybe draws the captain to him, and helps us to understand the confusion between brother and sister.

Downstairs, Sir Toby Belch was played with malevolent sottishness by Simon Callow. This production really highlighted the cruelty of the trick they play on Malvolio (Simon Paisley Day) - played as a smooth-talking, smooth-dressing major-domo. The imprisonment scene had Malvolio in a tiny cage, blindfolded; with Feste (David Ryall) prancing around him and some sinister violin shrieking, the effect was positively hellish. Sir Andrew Aguecheek was absolutely marvellous, I thought. His foppishness and vanity were given an amiable touch, and Charles Edwards' face provoked many of the biggest laughs. When Malvolio stormed in and shouted 'do you make an alehouse of my lady's?' he nodded fervently as if he were a schoolboy who'd been caught by the headmaster.

Twelfth Night
is a play with no pat ending. Malvolio's last line, 'I'll be revenged - on the whole pack of you!' resonated loudly, and pointed towards the ambiguity of the solution to everyone's problems. Only Viola gets her true love; Olivia makes do with a copy, whilst Orsino's decision is based on practicality.

And Feste - when I first saw him I thought they'd made a terrible mistake. He was old, shrivelled. But then as the play went on I realised what a masterstroke it was. To have him singing 'youth's a stuff will not endure' gains extra poignancy. Feste's wildly wisecracking wit turns everything on its head: the fool is no fool, and Ryall's wizened old man showed in bold colours quite how full of wisdom he is. He sang in a slightly-out of tune warble (though trying to get the audience to join in at the end was not a good idea, I thought.)

It was a stately production, perhaps a little lacking in energy, but that added to its sense of elegy. 'Come Away Death', let's not forget, is one of the songs in it; and the Fool's song is repeated in King Lear.

I'll never forget my school production of Twelfth Night. One of the boys in my year, Will Ings, had composed a tune for 'Come Away...' It was haunting, and beautifully effective, and I wish I had a recording. It surfaced in my mind towards the end, and I was nearly brought to tears.

[I still harbour a deep love of the film version with Helena Bonham-Carter.]

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Tales from Underground: Post no. 2, Death to the Kindle

A cold day, an ice in the bones day: whether it was this that brought out the hordes of book readers on the trains I don't know, but yesterday was a particularly busy one for those quaint types who read 'paper'. You can't even scroll down the page! Idiots. The Whitechapel platform, morning, contained at least four people stuck in their novels, including Mohsin Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. One woman was reading a Kathy Reichs bigger than herself (almost.) Stepping into the carriage, I saw a man digging into the middle of a science fiction novel by Olaf Stapledon. He looked happy. Unlike, I must say, the man sitting in the seat that you're supposed to give up to elderly passengers, who was scrolling ferociously through a book on his phone. Its Borrower-sized screen meant he was never doing anything except scrolling. He seemed to be reading a book about Jeremy Thorpe and looked like he was about to have a heart attack. As the train slugged its way towards Hammersmith, a blonde girl got on reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Unfortunate, I know, but at least she was reading. We shared a moment over our raised novels, lifting our eyebrows in horror at the conversation of a fellow passenger. Nearby were another Kathy Reichs (these crime people seem to come in pairs) and a Jane Moore.

Post-lunch, I fittingly saw a woman reading Culinary Pleasures on the platform at Notting Hill. A man on the train was reading a book called 'Bang to ...' something. He was shaven headed and wearing a puffa jacket. I think it might have been called 'Bang to Rights'. But I was too scared to look.

So a good enough day already, but then two things happened which turned it into joy: at Victoria, on a train to Clapham Junction, sat a girl reading J M Le Clezio's Desert. She was beautiful, well-dressed. I almost proposed to her on the spot. If that wasn't enough, as I took the Circle Line back to Notting Hill, I spotted a tall, young, bearded man deep in Seneca's Letters from a Stoic. I decided against shaking his hand. His presence more than made up for the slightly sinister man reading a book sitting opposite me, who although he had his book open, had his eyes fixed mainly on me. Perhaps he was trying to see what I was reading.

Day edged into night. I was hungry, tired, on my way to supper at Moorgate. Surely nobody would be reading this late? Surely all those types heading homewards would be playing Angry Birds on their iPads? Not so. Perhaps it was an aberration. Perhaps not. On my carriage was a pixiesh blonde reading, fittingly, Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier; another, equally pretty blonde holding Joyce Carol Oate's The Gravedigger's Daughter; a stately brunette puzzling over The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson; and then, a turn up for Ish, another reading his recent short story collection, Nocturnes.

You'd think that would be it. And yet. Coming up the escalator at Moorgate, two men, one reading a book called The System of the World; another clutching the heavy MI6 tome that was recently issued. I ate my pizza with barely disguised elation.

As a final coda, my trip back home was enlivened by the sight of a young woman reading a book. Was it Millennium? Was it chick lit? No. It was Jim Crace's Devil's Bone. And what's more, it was a library book. Yes! People still take books out of libraries. Insane, isn't it?

So I make that: Paper 19 - Ereader 1. (Addendum: I myself wasn't reading much today; partly because I was so eager to see what other people were reading; partly because I have been reacquainting myself with the albums of Idlewild. But I did spend some time reading the Ellen Bryson.)

Death to the Kindle! Long live the Book! Keep a weather eye out, my friends. There's life in the old trees yet...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Tales from Underground: the Death of the Book?. Post No 1.

Being the sort of itinerant type who spends most of the day traipsing around London with my belongings in a red and white spotted handkerchief on a stick, I do seem to spend large amounts of time either on the tube or on the bus. There's been a lot of fuss about e-readers, for obvious reasons, so I thought I might see what I see people reading on the tube. It might also reflect people's reading habits (for better or worse...)

Yesterday, at about ten to ten in the morning, on an eastbound Hammersmith and City line (whose elegant, salmony pink I particularly enjoy), an older woman in a red jacket who'd earlier refused my seat sat down next to me and started in on .... The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I thought about wrenching it from her grasp, but thought that might upset the relative calm of a very bookish carriage - there were at least four others reading actual books, although I couldn't see the titles, apart from one chap who was deep in the Millennium trilogy. So far, so bestseller.

Later, as the clock eased its way towards cocktail time, on the brash, yellow Circle line (no longer a Circle, since its recent doglegging. It's like a tart that promises and doesn't deliver) to Sloane Square, again five readers of real books: the inevitable Stieg Larsson, and, hearteningly, a pretty young hipster type reading a paperback copy of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. There was also a middle-aged Asian man in a leather jacket, reading his Koran, his lips moving.

Just before supper, again on the Circle line (to whom I return like a spurned lover, again and again), I saw my first e-reader. The woman was was reading it looked very cross indeed.

So, in my entirely scientific investigation so far, that's

Stiegg Larsson 2
Khaled Hosseini 1
David Mitchell 1
The Koran 1
Ereader 1.

In your face electronic books! Suck on that Mr Kindle!

I may speak prematurely, but hey... watch this space. If you see a strange man peering at your book cover, it's probably me...

(As an addendum, I should note that I was reading The Transformation of Bartholomeo Fortuno by Ellen Bryson, a debut novel about the World's Thinnest Man and his love for a Bearded Lady.)

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus: review

In the spirit of the post-modernism (or post-post-modernism, as one of the characters would have it) of this book, I shall declare my interest - I know Leo Benedictus (pictured right); he was at the same university as me (albeit a few years older), and we have friends in common; I have also met his father, David Benedictus, and reviewed his book (a new version of Winnie the Pooh). This book is probably as far from the comfort of the Hundred Acre Wood as you can get, unless Milne was re-written by J G Ballard (imagine that! The Car Crash at Pooh Corner?). It is a debut, and it is highly accomplished, dark, slick and clever.

The conceit is to follow four different characters - archetypes, as (again) the novel itself discusses - as they attend a party for an ageing (well, ageing in thespian terms - he's 31) actor. Our 'hero', if such a term can be applied, is Mike, who is there by accident as his boss couldn't attend; he is a sub-editor, and he's there for gossip. There is Hugo Marks, the actor, being charming; there is his wife, Mellody, a model who prefers to stick things up her nose; and there is Calvin, the X-Factor sensation. Benedictus' grasp of dialogue is excellent. 'Real' characters crop up - Gordon Ramsay, Tracey Emin, Stephen Fry - who speak in 'real' dialogue culled from interviews. (I remember discussing this with Leo years ago, and it is a real pleasure to see it in print). Ellis, Easton and Brett are the watchwords (Glamorama in particular); the theme fame.

The really satisfying touch is that there are more layers to this book. We see the tale as it is written, sent chapter by chapter to an agent; so we also get the excitement of a first time novelist getting feedback and a possible deal, and their discussions about presentation of the book and its blurb and so on. In another wry twist, the marketing ideas promoted within the book are the ideas used to promote it outside the book - competitions to get a cameo in the paperback and so on. Within the novel, the 'writer' is called William Mendez. As things progress, his agent discovers that there are more sinister things going on. Leo Benedictus himself does (or rather doesn't - you'll have to read it) pop up at one point. It all builds to two involving crises, one within the book within the book, and one without it.

All in all it's a mightily impressive debut, sharp, bleak, and satirical, showing a world empty of morality, in which most people are only out for themselves. Its framing metatextuality prompts feelings and thoughts about the nature of fiction itself: newspaper reports 'cast' people into archetypes (think of the recent Joanna Yates case, where her landlord was immediately presented as an eccentric). Seek it out yourself, and you could well end up in the paperback version...

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Why Children are Drawn to War Torn Tales

I've written a comment piece for the Daily Telegraph about an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. Click HERE to read it.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming: Party

Last night brought hordes and hordes of people to Daunts on Holland Park for the launch of Charles Cumming's new spy thriller, The Trinity Six. I've never seen so many people in the shop: at least one wine glass was broken (not that there are always wine glasses in Daunts, of course: it is a book shop, after all; one of the wine glasses might possibly have been broken by me, but I'm not confessing...) In attendance were Damian Lewis, Belinda Stewart-Wilson (who bought The Liberators! Which has been reprinted and has a weirdly shiny plasticky new cover about which I am weirdly excited!) and Dominic West, lending a thespian gloss to the affair; also sundry writers, including Liza Campbell and Raffaella Barker, with whom I spent a happy twenty minutes chatting, wedged into a corner behind the cookery books (so many cookery books!). Charles spoke charmingly, apparently having forgotten to bring his speech with him. The book looks marvellous - it's about the Cambridge Spies, and has apparently already been reprinted. It was an enormously amusing party, and it carried on round the corner for quite some time, and I managed not to break any more glasses. Click below to buy the book: there'll also be an interview with Mr C in this Saturday's Daily Telegraph, so look out for it.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Killed the King of the Dragon: Google Latin Translate

Ave amici! In one of Life of Brian's funniest scenes, a Roman goes up to Brian as he's graffitiing a wall. 'Romanes eunt domus', he's written. 'What's this then? People called Romanes they go the house?' He then goes on to correct him: Romani ite domum. The joke is, for Latinists, that 'domum' is not a locative, but accusative of motion towards. The locative would be domi. Still, we need people like that centurion around today. Those pointy-heads at Google have set up a translate function - for Latin. Why, you might ask. I certainly do. So I thought I'd check it out. The first thing I put in was this: draco regem necavit. Translated by me, it means 'the dragon killed the king.' Translated by Google, it comes out as 'killed the king of the dragon.' Weirdly poetic, I grant you, but wrong.

Let's try a longer sentence. Maybe it doesn't deign to do short things.

olim puer quidam et eius soror prope magnam cavernam sunt inventi.

Translated by a mere human, this means:

Once upon a time, a certain boy and his sister were found near a great cave.

Translated by a mighty machine, this comes out as:

a boy, who in times past and the sister of her near the large hole of the are to be found.

A little less than poetic, but more than piffle. So let's try some Ovid on it:

non aliter quam cum vitiato fistula plumbo scinditur et tenues stridente foramine longe eiaculatur aquas atque ictibus aera rumpit.

Your humble human brain gives you this:

Not otherwise than when a pipe with faulty lead breaks, and hissing through the hole there is a long thin water-spurt which breaks the air with its force.

Megabrain Google gives you this:

in no other way than the lead when a pipe with a hissing rent, and the thin hole of the far eiaculatur the waters of the blows, and he breaks into the air

A system that can't recognise consonontal 'i' is obviously faulty.

Even a phrase in common usage, 'ad hominem', comes out as 'to the man of'.

So, endless amusement for Latinists, then, but practical usage for people who actually want to read Latin? I'm afraid there's nothing there. And if you want to do your homework on it - I wouldn't bother.

The Memory Cage by Ruth Eastham: Launch Party

Luckily a few publishers seem still to be throwing launch parties - and my first one of the year (and it has been a while - 'you look thin, Philip, have you not been to a launch recently?' said someone as I entered) was Scholastic's shindig in Theobald's (pronounced Tibbaults) Road to celebrate the lift-off of Ruth Eastham's Memory Cage, a debut novel about the friendship between a boy and his grandfather who has Alzheimer's, which has been shortlisted for the Waterstone's Prize. The author, an elegant lady from Preston, gave a charmingly sweet speech, as did the new editorial director of the house; I ate enormous amounts of canapes (including what I think was a sort of apple and walnut pancake, but I'm not entirely sure). There were lots of kebabs, which proved very difficult to dip into the dip provided (the question of the evening was, did you push the meat down the stick with your fingers so that it was more easily dunked, thereby risking inelegancy, or did you leave it as it was); that didn't stop me, however. I look forward to reading the Memory Cage, which looks set to be one of the most interesting debuts of the year, and also to a selection of similarly inventive canapes.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The Liberators by Philip Womack: Review in The South China Morning Post Blog

Hallo there! I've stumbled upon (quite literally, I nearly fell over) a review of The Liberators on a blog called Young Post, which is affiliated with the South China Morning Post. A global reach indeed, my friends. Click HERE for the review, which says some extremely nice things. Let's hope we'll be seeing a Chinese version soon enough... I still haven't got over the excitement of seeing the Brazillian version of The Other Book: O Outro Livro.

Friday, 4 February 2011

A Kind Man by Susan Hill: review in Literary Review

Ahoy me hearties, my review of Susan Hill's excellent A Kind Man, about miracles in the everyday, is in the February issue of Literary Review. It's a lovely book, delicately and beautifully crafted, from one of our finest novelists. My review is not available 'online', as they say, so you must trundle on down to your nearest branch of newsmonger to avail yourself of a copy of Britain's finest literary magazine.

Click A Kind Man
to buy from Amazon.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The King's Speech: review

There are many lovely moments in this film, which portrays (as surely we all know by now) the attempts to cure the future George VI of his debillitating stammer. Worthy doctors stick pebbles in his mouth ("It worked for Demosthenes"); a soldier's horse brays in the silence as the Duke of York (as he then was) attempts to make his first radio broadcast. The three main characters are played with wit and sensitivity: Colin Firth as his Royal H-H-Highness displaying temper and charm within one frame; Helena Bonham-Carter absolutely marvellously enjoying herself as the future Queen Mum ("this is rather fun, isn't it", she says as she sits on her husband in a doctor's surgery), and Geoffrey Rush as the Antipodean therapist whose unorthodox methods are to win through in the end. (The little princesses, too, are patently adorable, especially when Margaret forgets to curtsey to her father once he's become king and has to be gently reminded by her sister Elizabeth.) There is a lot of comedy, arising not just from the therapies, but also from social awkwardnesses such as coming home to find the Queen in your sitting room. (What would you do, I wonder?)

The message is clear: repression and anger are bad; we must get in touch with our inner softnesses, dispel all childhood fears, and shake off those nasty Victorian neuroses in order to become a fit and modern country. Fair dinkums, as the speech therapist himself would say.

It's as beautifully shot as the game bag at Sandringham. London emerges from wispy fog; the crown estates loom and glower; even the therapist's surgery conspires to be as enormous and daunting as the shadowy recesses of Westminster Cathedral. It is a large and terrifying world, on the knife edge of war; and George VI will come to embody Britain.

The film moves ponderously - royally, in fact - apart from a few montages of the therapy sessions at work. It's enjoyable stuff, to see a King as a man, and to see that man overcoming his weaknesses to become more than a man. What little tension there is in the story is made up for by the superb acting; my only gripe being that someone obviously felt that more tension was needed and injected it with a slightly unnecessary scene in which the therapist's credentials were questioned by a grumpy archbishop.

Its veracity, too, doesn't bother me: it is, after all, a film. One doesn't want to turn into the sort of person who, on hearing the clock strike in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, says 'but they didn't have clocks in ancient Rome.'

All in all, then, a fine filly of a film; not a work of genius, but something that British filmmaking is justly proud of.

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: review

I've reviewed Michael Cunningham's (the author of The Hours) new book, By Nightfall, for the Daily Telegraph. It's set in New York, in the art world: the same sort of milieu as Fernanda Eberstadt's early novels, and as Jonathan Dee's marvellous The Privileges, which came out at the beginning of last year. By Nightfall is a beautifully written work about the troubling effects the arrival of a young man has on a marriage: click HERE to see what I think of it.

Also click By Nightfall
to buy it from Amazon.