Tuesday, 29 March 2011

We all Live in a Welsh 'Submarine': review, dir. Richard Ayoade

Joe Dunthorne's debut novel, Submarine, is a playful display of linguistic pyrotechnics in which the reader gasps at (and yet is curiously involved in) the increasingly weird behaviour of its narrator, Oliver Tate. Tate is an uber-literate adolescent who views his life as if it were a play or a film; his attempts to win the lovely Jordana, whilst saving his parents' marriage, fill the reader with a kind of shameful prurience as he makes inspections of the parental bedroom, leaves menacing post-it notes, and plots to kill pets. He is a twentieth-century Holden Caulfield, calling everyone else a phony without realising his own phoniness. But you still kind of like him.

Richard Ayoade (whom some of you will recognise as Moss from The IT Crowd) makes his directorial debut with this film adaptation. It stars Craig Roberts, the adolescent du jour who was recently seen in an episode of Being Human in which he played, well, a geeky and confused teenage vampire; and Yasmin Paige as the red-coated Jordana.

What the book captured so well was the weirdness of adolescence: you don't know who you are, you don't recognise the people around you; you are affected by things like books and films in ways that you don't really understand; but hopefully you grow out of it in the end. Thus one was prepared to forgive Oliver his lack of basic human empathy because his brain, like all teenagers', was fizzing and expanding. In the film, Oliver presented a blank, pale, vampiric face (which Roberts does a sterling job of) to the world, moping around in a duffel coat, making decisions to bully people in order to be cool. The loopy fun of the book was compressed. The plot too, it turns out, is actually very slight: so slight that Ayoade felt compelled to signpost the beginning, middle and end with (albeit stylish) cards: 'Epilogue', we were told at the end, and thank goodness we were because there was no other way we could have guessed, so lacking in compulsion was it.

The film was shot beautifully, but only in the way that most 'coming-of-age' films are shot. There was lots of running around on the beach, and sitting in derelict factories - adolescents are drawn to the liminal - but there was really quite a lot too much of that sort of thing, more like a music video really. One curious thing too, which shouldn't bother me, but does (mostly because of the book) is the time period. Dunthorne is a little younger than I am, therefore he would have been fifteen in the late nineties: I had a mobile phone when I was sixteen. But the world of the film seems to be more like the late eighties (which might just about be explained by Ayoade's age - he was a 1977 baby). (One very very minor point is that the Oxford World's Classic edition that Oliver gives Jordana has a cover that could only have been published in the last few years. I cannot believe that I noticed that, but I did. Never mind. I'll go now...) This shouldn't matter, but it does, for the niggling reason that we are supposed to be watching someone real. As such it seemed too stylised - perhaps as it was unsure of its subject matter.

There were some well-observed character touches, in particular Oliver's mother who played a repressed housewife perfectly; a mystic who thought he could see auras was funny but unbelievable.

A well-crafted film then, well aware of its directorial heritage (with nods to Don't Look Now) but one that felt more like a series of polaroids documenting an embarrassing teenage camping trip. In the end, with Oliver and Jordana standing at arms length in the sea gazing at the sun, I felt that the film didn't even begin to explore the promising depths that a submarine offers. (And I wonder whether that reflects upon the book itself.)

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy by Nicola Shulman: review

Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy
(Short Books, £20)

Thomas Wyatt’s poems are, for Nicola Shulman, like circuit boards: make the right connections and they light up; get it wrong and they lie inert. The Henrician court was a place where poems were actual physical objects which were passed around, just as lovers would give each other hearts. (The court comes alive in Shulman’s account; a place full of blusterers and sycophants, of brilliant wits and gallants and of fulsome fools).

She argues convincingly in this erudite yet elegant study that Wyatt’s poems are codes – supremely artistic ways of expressing ‘grievance, reproach, disappointment and unrequited desire.’ The people who received the physical object of the poem would know the keys to unlocking the texts; that is why to later generations (she says) the poems seem flat. Her analysis is graceful and intelligent, in particular a reading of ‘Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind’, which traces a hidden message about Anne Boleyn, and one where she shows how Wyatt’s ‘latinesque compression’ reveals another layer of meaning.

Shulman has a gift for detail and for vivid phraseology; Henry Howard was chiefly known for ‘being fabulous’, for instance, while Henry VII is imagined ‘hosing down the fires’ with his account book under his arm. Her usage of punctuation is particularly to be commended: here she is on Francis Weston, the youngest of the men arrested on suspicion of adultery with Anne Boleyn – “‘but young, skant out of the shell’, and his life is well described in the debts he died owing: to his fletcher, his embroiderer, his tailor, his barber, his groom, his sadler, his shoemaker; to the woman who provided the tennis balls; to the top court goldsmith, for losses at cards and dice to such as Francis Bryan, Thomas Wiltshire, the King.’ The list in itself conjures up such a moving and poignant image of this wet-behind-the-ears boy, living, loving and party-going, gaming and hunting; one can see him stroking his horse’s head as its new saddle is fitted, or considering designs for a necklace to be given to a sweetheart, or laying his cards down and nodding politely as the King wins at cards again (which, for me at any rate, immediately conjures still further a picture of Queen Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter, in Blackadder, playing ball with Lord Percy: ‘Who’s Queen, Percy?’) Back to the punctuation: it’s those elegant semi-colons, adding weight to ‘the woman who provided the tennis balls’, gently emphasising this unknown personage whose life added to the gaiety of Weston’s, and who would no doubt be deeply affected by his death. The image of Weston stays with me particularly, across the centuries. He was collateral in a near-psychotic game of politics, his new arrows left unsharpened, his saddle gathering dust.

The complexities of Henrician intrigue are laid out by Shulman in easily comprehensible fashion so that even a novice such as I can grasp them; and through it all stalks Wyatt, a man of ‘deepe wit’ whose poems express such turbulence, though so carefully composed. This finely considered, silver-veined biography is a decorous and wise monument: now,as Shulman provides the right circuitry, his poems will spark up for us all.

There is also an excellent index with entries for 'cats, evidence of altruism', and 'pomegranates as political statement.' What more could one want?

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Liberators by Philip Womack, read by Tim Bruce: review

legousi d'hos tis eiseleluthe zenos
goes epodos Ludias apo chtonos
zanthoisi bostruxoisin euosmon komen

An outsider has come, they say,
Howling out enchantments: a sorceror, from Lydia.
His hair smells sweet, his golden curls like lightning.
(The Bacchae, Euripides, lines 233-235, translation by PW.)

Unlocking the inspiration for any book is an impossible task: there are usually several strands, some of which the author may not be aware of until even years after he or she has finished a book. But one cornerstone of The Liberators was always The Bacchae. In it, Pentheus refuses to believe in the avatar of Bacchus (pictured, looking as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, by Simeon Solomon), and meets a bloody death, torn apart by his own mother. Thus was born the idea of a positive force misused for evil.

The dramatic origins of The Liberators were brought to the fore of my mind as I listened to Tim Bruce reading it (six CDs, six days). The recording opens with my translation of the lines from the play which describe the arrival of Bacchus - a stranger with golden hair who promises enchantment. (I was very glad that they chose to do this; not least because one of the reasons I wrote The Liberators was to bring Ancient Greek to children in a digestible form).

One listens to an audiobook as if one were a child: entirely. Thus the scenes that I wrote appeared in my mind in glorious detail. In fact, I think I am going to hire somebody to read out my manuscripts to me as it makes one alive to nuance in a way that is impossible when you are reading it on the page, or even (as I sometimes do) reading it out loud.

Tim Bruce's voice is rich and mellow, capable of ranging from a very haughty Olivia Rocksavage, through the looser tones of the teenagers, to Strawbones' fake cockney, and Julius' harsh, barbaric accent. Strawbones shifts nicely from charismatic to monstrous. One thing that was very effective was the way that Bruce made the ecstatic cry of the Liberators sound. In his hands (as it were) it was a lilting, quasi-religious song, with two long, descending tones. I'd always imagined it as a fiercer, more brutal sound, but it was chillingly good.

Bruce also conveyed brilliantly changes of pace; Ivo's meeting with Julius in his flat was terrifying. It is also rather wonderful to hear the faint crackle of the recording, as if the static makes it authoritative and real.

Hearing the book has also made me notice things I hadn't before; for instance, Ivo's breaking of Strawbones' painting after he's destroyed the Liberators is a manifestation of rage that he should have controlled. There are still lessons to be learned; it's not all finished yet. But, as Ivo thinks as he approaches the end, 'there is a pattern in the world, there is a way into the future.' Listening to the book has been immensely rewarding and enriching; the syllables flowed over me warm and exhilarating. I hope that all who hear it will enjoy it too.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Together, in a Horse Hospital, with Henry Hemming

Bloomsbury is a place redounding with literary associations - so I won't mention them. Henry Hemming held a rousing knees-up there last night, in the Horse Hospital, which is, actually, a horse hospital - or at least it used to be, there weren't any ill equines there, that I could see at any rate, but there were some sausages (hopefully not made from horses), wine and sliced vegetables, which is all one really wants from a launch party (especially the sliced vegetables).

Henry (pictured here with another Henry, artist Henry Hudson, at my launch party for The Liberators, last year at Willa's) was launching his new book, Together, which rather neatly fits into David Cameron's Big Society. Far from becoming fractured and separate, he argues, we are actually joining more societies than ever - cake-making societies, badge-making societies (there were lots of badges there), badger-loving societies, societies for people called James, clubs for people who like rainy Mondays, and so on (I may have made some of these up, but no doubt they exist somewhere.) Henry's books have so far included Misadventure in the Middle East, a lovely, warm account of his journey around Iraq, Iran, Syria and many other countries with a few artist friends in a truck called Yasmine, and a book about English eccentrics which featured Pete Docherty, King Arthur and the Marquis of Bath, amongst others. It will be intriguing to see where his next journey takes him, and I wish him the best of luck with his new book.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Cancel all your plans... The Liberators Has Become An Audiobook

It's been a quiet few days, of reading, watching the third series of Being Human and (at last) writing. Not much excitement of the literary variety, until this morning when I went out into the streaming sunshine and found that a parcel had been left for me. Parcels are, usually, not very exciting, after you've opened them at least, but this one contained a shining, fresh, new-born copy of the Audiobook of The Liberators (pictured in its glorious tangibility, and published by the excellent Oakhill Publishing). I rushed straight to put it on - it's playing now. The entire reading time is 7 hrs and 30 minutes, which is about the length of Being Human. Tim Bruce, who reads it, has been in all sorts of things, including one of my most favourite recent films (Bright Young Things), and has a marvellous voice, precise and well-modulated. Once I've listened to it all I'll write a longer piece, but for now the excitement has to be passed on... I've just heard him read Blackwood instructing Ivo and it has actually made me shiver, on this bright day.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome by Kathryn Tempest: Party

Yes, and in a small club off the Charing Cross road there were indeed scenes of Verrine proportions this evening, as classicists convened for the launch of up-and-coming academic Kathryn Tempest's debut book, Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome. The Phoenix Club is the haunt of the louche and the lush: Cicero would perhaps not have felt very comfortable in such surroundings, and would probably have made a disapproving speech about it the next day in the forum (well, unless Marcus Caelius Rufus was there, of course, in which case it would be classified as Youthful Fun and to be encouraged.) He would have enjoyed the symbolism of the Phoenix, though, as he himself was constantly reinventing himself to fit the circumstances of political life. One can forgive him his epic poem celebrating his own achievements (thankfully lost to posterity): one thing that comes through all his speeches, and from all the stories about him, is that he was an unfailingly good man; and that is indeed a rare thing.

(Verres, if you remember, was a very naughty praetor who liked to be carried around by slaves in a litter with rose-petal stuffed cushions; I don't know whether the cushions in the club were actually stuffed with petals, but they were certainly very comfortable.)

The book itself looks like it's a readable and erudite account, for the general reader, of Cicero's life and times. I look forward to reading it, and (with any luck) will post a review of it anon. Until then, I pour a libation to Cicero's shade in Elysium, where I have no doubt that he rests, probably telling anyone who'll listen about the time he saved Rome from the evil Catiline...

And yes, it is true, that classicists always throw the best parties...

The Leatherhead Advertiser

Sunday, 13 March 2011

A Life of Privilege, Mostly by Gardner Botsford: Review, And The Problem of Book Lag

In my house, there are mountains of books. Everything is organised, of course. There are my bookcases, upstairs, which contain my favourites (alphabetised, naturally); in the foothills are, unorganised, books which, owing to space, have either been expelled from the bookcase or are awaiting a new life upon those shelves. Downstairs, there are my classics books (organised as best as they can be); my first editions; then there are the piles. The pile of review copies I have read (kept in case I am questioned or I need to refer to them); the pile of books to be reviewed (ever changing); the pile of books to be looked at (sent by publishers and sundry well-wishers); and then the worst (and best) pile of them all. This is the pile of books that I have put aside, for one reason or another, to read in my own time, for my own pleasure. At a current estimate given by a Sherpa who knows the territory well (but was never seen again once he tentatively entered into it) it stands at over 100 books. This number changes, of course; some people claim it to be nearer 200. One thing is certain: nothing is ever thrown away or reconsidered. At present it consists of tomes ranging from The Shorter Pepys, Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day and David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, to biographies - endless biographies - of Saki, Donne, Malory, Naipaul - and books by friends (apologies to any of you who are reading this: I won't name you.) There is a political treatise by Loyseau; there is a children's book from the 1920s; there is Clausewitz, Bronte, Castiglione, Eliot, Angela Carter, Nemirovsky, Edith Wharton, all gazing at me, alternately imploring and castigating.

Sometimes I look at the pile as I walk past it every morning and think, I'll never get through all that. Sometimes I think I will go mad. Other times I fantasise about never reading anything ever again; other times I think that is a ridiculous notion. But sometimes, just sometimes, I will pick a book out of it, in between reviewing and writing, and always, nearly always, it will turn out to be a gem. The Book Lag is worth it for such moments.

The Book Lag is the time between the moment I notice a book and the time I read it. In some cases it's a day (as with Leo Benedictus' novel, or Julia Leigh's first novel, The Hunter.) In the Case of Gardner Botsford (pictured) it was five years. Five years of sitting on my pile, chucked about from London borough to London borough, keeping company with such low lives as Kerouac and William Trevor, until yesterday morning I actually started it.

It is a joy. A Life of Privilege, Mostly is an almost perfect memoir, up there with Diana Athill's Stet. Botsford was an editor at The New Yorker for decades; this memoir is in three parts. The first is an extremely well-written account of his life in the army, which manages to be both witty and terrifying. He is unsparing in his account of himself, cheerfully admitting that he'd rather have been in a cosy office job than on the front line (where he was sent by a clerical error). His time in London is chronicled hilariously: at one party he was invited back by a mild-mannered couple to their flat. Here he found a group of people not unlike those one would find at a university press party. All went as normal, until the host opened a door, and out came a woman dressed in nothing but a tiny piece of leopard skin, who then proceeded to advance upon the guests cracking a whip. The other guests all leapt over each other to take off their clothes; Gardner fled, along with a kilted Scottish officer.

The second third tells of his (extremely) privileged life as an upper-class American: they had five cars, more servants, several houses; although he is keen to point out that he got his job at the New Yorker in spite of the fact that he was related to the publisher. I don't doubt it: his style, charm and intelligence leap out of the page.

The book is invaluable for anybody considering a career in the torrid world of magazine journalism - although in my experience (so far) it hasn't involved women wearing leopardskin. Mr Botsford's work will now make its way upstairs, where it will lie reverently across Boccaccio until I get some bigger shelves... At least he can swap some stories with the old Italian. And Diana Athill's just nearby, too...

Saturday, 12 March 2011

O Outro Livro par Philip Womack

There is nothing quite so exciting for an author as seeing your book in translation. When I got the first editions of Farol's translation of The Other Book, I remember being in transports of happiness. It had a different cover and everything... The idea of being read in Brazil, across the other side of the world, of my rainy magic English world being sampled by Brazilians in their own language, was marvellous. Now I've stumbled across a picture of a reissue - which I think must be very exciting. They're using the English cover: it feels as if I've accidentally slipped into a different universe... I can't wait to get hold of a copy.

Now let's just wait for the Latin version. ALTER LIBER. Sounds quite good, doesn't it?

(I THINK this is a link to the Farol website: CLICK HERE)

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

McSweeney's Get It Right Again

I've thought something along these lines for a very long time... Whenever somebody talks to me about e-readers, the conversation usually ends with someone going, 'and you can turn the page!' and me going, 'what, you mean just like a book?' and then throwing their stupid machine into the bath. Hah! That'll teach them.

Click HERE for an investigation into the relative merits of e-readers, including the Newspaper.

Monday, 7 March 2011

My First Birthday

Quick! Whilst he's (you know who I'm talking about - The Boss) looking the other way I'll try and get a word in edgeways. Hello and welcome! I'm Philip Womack's Blog - Hah! He won't like that - he hates the word blog, flits around calling it 'Web-log', as if anyone does that. He's been using / misusing / desecrating me for one whole exact year now. He's a good enough master, on the whole; still, he hasn't done anything to celebrate my first birthday... He might at least have got me a re-design. Is that too much to ask? Sometimes I dream about becoming more than a mere, simple, clod-hopping blog. Perhaps one day I could, like chrysalis to butterfly (doesn't that just sound like something HE'D write), become a website - or, dare I even think it, a multi-platform user-friendly interface... Excuse me for a second, I am sorry. I'd better be quick. I can hear him rummaging around in the drawer looking for a pen. Imagine - he still uses pens!

You might think that I'm quite articulate for a one-year-old, but we blogs grow up fast. I now have 27 'followers' - twenty-seven! - only one of whom is related to The Boss, and only twenty-six of whom were physically bullied into following. I have had over 1,500 visits a month. My visitors are unpredictable in their likings; though most of them (don't tell The Boss this) tend to be searching for Philip Womack, quite a lot of them stumble across me by accident (I won't mention exactly what words you were searching for. I'm not that kind of blog).

In the past year The Boss has written on anything from A A Milne to Zurich; I've allowed him to indulge his penchant for classical literature and to show off about everything he's been writing. He's written a book called The Liberators, which was published just before I was born, and which he has been systematically and endlessly promoting; he's continued to write for The Daily Telegraph, The Literary Review and The Financial Times and sundry other papers, and has just started being involved with Port. He's visited several schools; his book's been reviewed in papers from the School Librarian to the South China Post. It's been an exciting year - for him, at any rate; I just look on from the sidelines and think about being a server.

These, then, are the top five things you've been looking at. There appears to be no rhyme or reason in them:

1. The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming: Party

2. The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus: review

3. I'm Late, I'm Late... Christian Marclay's The Clock

4. Books of the Year: Final Day: Children's Books

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One: Review

You've also displayed a fondness for Adam O'Riordan, Zadie Smith, Ned Beauman, and Robert Saxton (the poet).

He's found a pen - he's coming back - look, I'd better go - but hey, I for one am glad that I've had so many visitors, and maybe I can persuade some of you to follow me without The Boss sending round the heavies. See you all soon...

Love from

Philip's Blog

(PS The picture is of a Black Box by Liza Campbell. It's called Fatty Had a Party and Nobody Came. Let's hope that some of you come to mine...)

Friday, 4 March 2011

World Book Week: Final Day: Pilgrims' School, Winchester

Into the cloistral charms of Winchester for my final talk at Pilgrims' Winchester, a beautiful school set right near to the Cathedral. One of its halls has an ancient timbered ceiling - you can well believe that Chaucerian monks, friars, merchants and other salty characters quaffed, prayed and quarrelled beneath those heavy, cobwebbed beams.

The entrance hall to the school has many sporting mementos - footballs and bats signed by sporting heroes; outside boys played in the cool sunlight.

The boys listened to two readings from The Liberators - my stalwart choice is the opening chapter, with its cliffhanger, deathly chase scenes and severed limbs; I also read to them the riot scene in Oxford Circus, when Strawbones Luther-Ross causes mayhem in the middle of the road. The questions were acute and perceptive - even the ones about squirrels. One boy asked me if I'd ever dreamed myself into one of my books - that really caught my imagination. I'm going to try tonight... it would be wonderful, would it not?

I left Pilgrims feeling extraordinarily happy - and also with wistful memories of my old school, Dorset House, which was the inspiration for my first novel, The Other Book.

Farewell to World Book Week then... until next year.

PORT Magazine: Lift Off

Last night was the launch party for a new venture by Dan Crowe - PORT Magazine, an intelligent style guide for men, of which I'm a Contributing Editor. The first issue has been printed and it commands attention: the name of the magazine is in raised gold letters, and the names of the contributors and interviewees are printed below: Daniel Day-Lewis doing a piece about Palestine, an interview with actor Tahar Rahim; a letter by Samantha Morton; pieces from Jon Snow, Frank Skinner and Will Self. It's a great idea, harking back to a time when magazines published intelligent and in depth pieces.

The party took place in Dunhill's shop in Mayfair: champagne, salmon, ham; a humidor; there was a croquet set but I didn't quite pluck up the courage to set it up. Brett Anderson from Suede loomed; Jon Snow was there (apparently biking, as he was wearing a yellow reflective jacket.)

Here's to Port's continuing success.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

(Sort of) World Book Day: A Brace of Philips: Philip Reeve and Philip Womack in Conversation

This morning a pair of Philips descended upon the Rose Theatre in Kingston: both, incidentally, wearing tweed overcoats. One was the excellent Philip Reeve, whose 'Mortal Engines', 'Larklight' and other books have given me (and many tens of thousands of others) enormous pleasure over the past decade or so; the other was me. Philip seems to be a good name for a children's writer - there's some other chap called, what was it, Pullman or something, isn't there?

We talked (after I'd eaten an enormous croissant) in front of about 600 children, about the World Book Day Flipbook written specially by Mr Reeve and children's writer Chris Priestley. Philip Reeve's is called Traction City, and is set in the same world as his Mortal Engines series; Chris Priestley's is called Teacher's Tales of Terror. We read from each of the books (including mine), and then discussed the nature of children's writing, of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and the mechanics of being a writer. We discovered that severed hands seemed to be key - they feature heavily in Mr Reeve's 'Traction City', and rather prominently in the first chapter of The Liberators. The children were delightful - they listened spellbound to Mr Reeve, and were extremely tickled (ghoulishly) by the Priestley.

Organised by Kingston Libraries, it was a thoroughly enjoyable event, and very inspiring to see so many children talking and thinking about books and writing. Three huzzahs for World Book Day (Sort of)! Now, I say sort of because in typically English fashion, 'World' Book day isn't actually today, it's some time next month; it's just that last year it fell on Easter so the powers that be - in the UK - decided to move it. So it's Sort of World Book Day, but even so. Hurrah again!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

World Book Week: St Teresa's, Reading

The last time I was due to give a reading at St Teresas, the world got in the way - most of the county was snowed in, and I stayed in London. As I said to the girls, I lacked a shovel, so I could hardly burrow my way in... So I was mightily pleased to make it down there today, when it couldn't have been more different: in the most brilliant rays of sunshine, for a belated talk and reading.

St Teresas sits on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere - it's a little bit like going back in time. The staff and pupils gave me an excellent welcome, and we had a very good discussion about The Liberators. I was pleased to see so many girls wanting to be writers or journalists - keep at it, is my advice. Thanks so much to all involved.

True Grit: review

I love the Coen Brothers - well, mostly. I loved The Hudsucker Proxy, even though it was flawed; I loved Fargo; I loved The Big Lebowski. Surprisingly, I loved rather less O Brother Where Art Thou?, which seemed (despite, or more probably because of, its Odysseanic origins) aimless to me (though of course The Soggy Bottomed Boys provided amusement.)

True Grit is similarly helmed by the Coen Brothers. It has, on the surface, many of the qualities present in their other films: a certain quirkiness of style; a quest / journey narrative; a deeply imbued Americanness. The film starts with a sentimental voiceover which put me on the alert at once. 'It's all right,' said one of my companions, 'it's the start of the novel.' Phew, I thought. However the rest of the film did little to bear out my worries.

The heroine is Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen year old girl with vengeance on her mind: her father has been killed by a vagrant (Josh Brolin) (who I was convinced was called Dick Cheney - alas it was Tom Chaney). We first see her negotiating with someone over three ponies. We were meant to find her mature and ballsy as she knocked down her opponent; I felt the scene went on a little too long. She hires Jeff Bridges - a marshal with 'true grit' - to help her bring in the nasty murderer; Texas Ranger Matt Damon comes along too (displaying an alarming preference for spanking adolescent girls with twigs.) The scenery was present and correct: I ticked off the wide-screen prairie shot, the last minute gallop. Excitement was pointlessly provided by Matt Damon's pointless character (LeBouef - pronounced 'LeBeef', although this joke is not made in the film), riding off and then riding back again. Jeff Bridges spoke as if his mouth was truly full of grit, rendering most of his speeches as incomprehensible as if they had been pronounced in a lesser-known dialect of Tugalog. Every character prefaced most of his or her remarks with 'I do not know.' A lot of the action felt as if it had been tacked on as an afterthought, as when Mattie falls into a snakepit; although there was one genuinely gripping scene, when Mattie comes upon her Nemesis watering the horses (which, unfortunately, swiftly degenerates). Even the race for Mattie's life seemed mawkish; and a final scene, twenty-five years later, was peremptory.

That first scene was the mark of the film, for me. Everything was a little off kilter. Was it a comedy? Was it a thriller? Was it a coming of age story? Folks, I do not know. My only consolation was that nobody ever said, 'Mattie, it's you that's got True Grit.'

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Saatchi Gallery: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Well I never - I, the King of the Killers of Time, the Man Who Stares at Walls - was dawdling down the Kings Road today in search of an impecunious way of passing the time, when I saw the Saatchi Gallery. In several years it's never occurred to me to go in there. It must cost the earth, I reasoned, as I settled in to yet another five minutes thumbing through identical shirts in Reiss which I had no intention of buying (despite the weirdly bearded sales assistant's insistence).

Little did I know - it's free! Yes, absolutely free. Walking in there is like walking into some mad person's house - the exhibits stand alone, all but unguarded, waiting for you to come upon them serendipitously. The first things I saw were Jonathan Wateridge's enormous paintings - groups of astronauts, sandinistas, and one that particularly struck me - 'Jungle Scene with Plane Wreck' - which, for some reason, reminded me of Werner Herzog's diaries, and of the romance of the world in ruins.

But then I turned to my left and saw what I at first thought was a glass case full of flies. My initial reaction was - and so? I remembered Damien Hirst's new exhibit, thought it might have something to do with that, and was about to pass on when I looked closer. I saw a whole world. Little tiny skeletal warriors perching on insects and bees, in bellicose poses: one in the act of carrying a butterfly's wing for some nefarious purpose; another skateboarded on the back of something. They hung from almost invisible wires, locked into some strange and extraordinary battle, petrified in time and space: as if in reaction to this, everybody I saw who looked at it immediately reached for their cameras to petrify the petrification.

What was most interesting was that the narrative of the piece was so open to interpretation. What was the purpose of the five little figures, sitting in wait on a dragonfly? Were they reinforcements? Spectators? Generals? Was there any purpose in the swarm at all, or was it, as the name implied, merely chaos? In literary terms, it was a Kelly Link story come alive. The piece was Tessa Farmer's Swarm. Go and see it, now, and be frightened and charmed.

Other things that caught my eye were a large steel balloon; Steven Bishop's stuffed mountain goat; and a large sculpture made out of fans and bins that throbbed menacingly in a corner, called 'All My Exes Live in Tescos'. Most intriguing, too, was Anna Barriball's Door and Black Wardrobe - portals into other worlds if ever I saw ones.

So next time you've got time to kill on the King's Road, step into the Saatchi Gallery - you may find Narnia. Or, at the very least, something that isn't Reiss.

North Lanarkshire Catalyst Book Award Longlist

I've just found out the longlist for the North Lanarkshire Catalyst Award - and I'm thrilled to be on the same list as such brilliant children's writers. This is the full list:

* Day of the Assassins by Johnny O’Brien
* Dead boy Talking by Linda Strachan
* Drawing with Light by Julia Green
* Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper
* Firebrand by Gillian Philip
* Grass by Cathy MacPhail
* Halo by Zizou Corder
* Inside My Head by Jim Carrington
* Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace
* Poison Diaries by Maryrose Wood
* Return to the Lost World by Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore
* Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick
* The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff
* The Liberators by Philip Womack
* The Returners by Gemma Malley
* The Thin Executioner by Darren Shan
* The Witching Hour by Elizabeth Laird
* Time Riders by Alex Scarrow
* Unhooking the Moon by Gregory Hughes
* When I was Joe by Keren David
* Where I Belong by Gillian Cross
* Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide by William Hussey

The excellent Meg Rosoff; the marvellous Marcus Sedgwick; the brilliant Mary Hooper; Gillian Cross - who wrote one of my (and I'm sure everybody's) favourite books as a child, The Demon Headmaster... the list is a fantastic one, and I am so excited even to be mentioned amongst such company that I think I'm going to crack on with my next book so that I've got a chance of getting on it next year as well...