Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Stones of London by Leo Hollis: review

I've also reviewed Leo Hollis' The Stones of London, for the Daily Telegraph. Click HERE.

The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood: review

Naomi Wood: debut dystopian
Dystopian fiction ahoy, it's Naomi Wood's debut novel The Godless Boys, which I have reviewed for The New Humanist. Click HERE for the piece.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Abseiling, Cocktails, Bentleys and Bond Girls: Yes, it's the Launch of the new Bond Book

To the LONGEST BAR IN THE WORLD (TM) at St Pancras, for the launch of Jeffery Deaver's new Bond novel, Carte Blanche. Champagne, Bond girls and Bentleys were the order of the day as the author roared into the top concourse in a spanking new red car. Meanwhile some soldiers abseiled down from the ceiling. I have videoed it for your delectation. Why I turned the phone round half way through I have no idea; it looks like they are abseiling sideways which is less impressive, but never mind. Why they don't do this for every book launch I have NO IDEA. I'd like some soldiers abseiling at my next launch, please. And some Bond Girls.

There were plenty of Flemings in attendance (sp.); one gave a speech. It would have been Ian Fleming's 103rd birthday on Saturday. The author spoke too, his voice booming around the vaulted arches whilst a lone soldier perched far above him, but I caught no more a glimpse of him than the impression of a bald head and a smiley face. My hero Charlie Higson was also there; I spoke to him about writing children's books, and he gave some excellent advice, which boiled down to: cut all the boring bits out. Too right Mr H. I suggested to as many people as possible that I should be the one to write the next Young Bond books (any Fleming publishing people out there I hope you're listening....) and left buoyed on champagne and foie gras, which is as much as anyone can want from a Wednesday lunchtime. I abseiled back, naturally, and am now wearing a white dinner jacket whilst walking along a beach with Eva Green (also Eva Green if you are listening this could happen...)

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Nicola Shulman in Conversation with Alan Jenkins

Wyatt: used bladders
A double rainbow soared over the greying skies of West London; several literary types huddled for comfort and instruction under the aegis of the marvellous bookshop Lutyens and Rubinstein, for a conversation between Nicola Shulman and poet and editor Alan Jenkins (whose Rimbaud translation, Drunken Boats, is out now) about Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Nicky's new biography of the poet, Graven with Diamonds. Nicky spoke about how lines of Wyatt would come to her at significant moments (in particular 'They flee from me that sometime me did seek'), which led her to want to understand what lay behind these seemingly inert poems. We learned that whenever King Henry VIII was rich 'he doesn't make love, he makes war'. We were treated to a reading of a Wyatt poem (to illustrate its potential usage in a courtly game) with appropriate squeaks from a blue heart - Nicky's thesis being that a lot of the poems don't make any sense unless they are referring to an actual physical object such as a heart made from a bladder. When discussing 'they flee from me,' in answering the question 'who', Jenkins said 'Chicks!' An early modern poet was brought to life for us: I'm very glad that he has been sought, and I certainly won't flee from him next time I see him in an anthology. I may even get the collected poems... We repaired afterwards to the home of modern poet Edward Barker, who was himself brandishing the collected works. Outside the sky was blue and red. One thing I wondered, in support of Nicky's argument about hearts, was why playing cards had hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs, if hearts were not also a recognisable object. If anybody knows anything about the origin of these symbols, do let me know.

Friday, 20 May 2011

By the River (Henry) Hudson

This photograph does not do the pictures justice
To the depths of East London last night, near the new Olympic stadium at Bow, for a showing of Henry Hudson's Hogarthian plasticene paintings, which depict the artist in a number of poses from the Rake's Progress. Despite claims of remoteness, I managed to take a bus there without mishap, although I did get a lift for the rest of the way from a nice man in a hat (thank you nice man in a hat).

A red carpet led in to the enormous warehouse, where huge tables laden with glasses were laid out. Behind hung the paintings: the effect was magnificent. Velvet coated guests thronged; I was upset because I didn't wear my velvet jacket (so I wore a brown one today). A pink haired Janet Street-Porter smiled affably in a corner. Also present (amongst legions of others) were artists Vanessa Garwood and William Roper-Curzon and curator Aretha Campbell. I talked to Georgia Byng, the author of the Molly Moon series, about children's writing.

The Olympian setting was fitting, the contrasts between the scuzzy location and the glamour of the guests, the sporting prowess and the artist's decadence illuminated. The debris floating in the river could have been put there by Tracey Emin herself. We ate roast hog, served by girls in white dresses with blue flowers in their hair, and tried (unsuccessfully) not to reenact any of the Hogarth scenes. There was a curtain marked 'DO NOT GO BEHIND THIS CURTAIN'. I went behind it. Hoping to find another world (maybe Narnia), I was disappointed in the result (which I will keep to myself).

Monday, 16 May 2011

Splice: review

Spliced together
Genetic manipulation is a tricky subject. Ought we to meddle with DNA if there is the possibility that certain conditions can be thereby eradicated? Surely we humans have always been manipulating DNA, breeding cows, dogs, fruits for our own benefit... Splice is a film that deals with this question in a fascinating, frightening, and really very disturbing way.

Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody (the King and Queen of Quirk) play a pair of super-cool biochemists who are developing a new creature for a shady pharmaceutical corporation. When the company threatens to shut down their advances into human / animal splicing, they go off piste and inject a piece of human DNA into a mutant egg. Whose DNA it is will become highly significant as the scientists play out their own turbulent inner lives. Polley's character is the agent; Brody stands by and watches aghast.

From the off the creature is troublesome: it almost stabs Polley to death before it's even born. When it first appears it's a little, lizardy type thing, stumbling around like a weird sort of chicken. It eventually grows into a young woman of alien-like appearance. Polley and Brody must keep it - or rather her (and therein lies the rub) hidden. Thus arises the terrible question: is it just an experiment, or is it a person? They call her 'Dren' (NERD backwards)'; she is intelligent and emotional. They keep her in a basement (in a horrible parallel to Polley's character's own childhood; raised by a mad mother and kept in a bare room). They develop emotional attachments to Dren, which eventually cause enormous problems.

When one of the non-human creatures that the scientists created turns into a male, killing its rival in spectacular fashion in front of a whole room of potential investors, it soon seems that Dren may not be all that she seems, turning from lust object and surrogate child into the monster from Jeepers Creepers. The end of the film is a perfectly judged piece of horror. It also raises troubling questions about our prejudices, and our need to keep disabled and deformed people out of sight. Splice is an intelligent, keenly disturbing piece of science fiction which, I hope, will not see its real questions raised in the real world for a good long time yet...

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Coincidentally 2

Scriabin: Hard to handle
An update in the World of Coincidences. This morning I was practising a difficult piece of Scriabin that I haven't played for a while. Then when I was on the Central Line back East, a young man got on the tube, and took out of his bag... the same copy of Scriabin that I was using. He'd clearly just bought it. Once more, though, I failed to strike up a conversation. I think one ought to in such cases though, don't you? (Click HERE to see what happened last time.) Scriabin is not the most well known of composers; I wonder how many people in the world have heard of him, and, having heard of him, actually play him? But now I shall never know. Next time something like this happens, I'm definitely bringing it up...

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

A Writer's Dream

My study
 I have recently come to the conclusion that really the only solution for a serious writer is to spend one's life on a plane. It's marvellous. You are in a confined space, unable to move away from your notebook or computer. Should you wish, you can stretch your legs every so often, but there is nowhere else to go. There is no internet, so you cannot get distracted by checking your Amazon ranking / looking at your weblog stats (or is that just me) / the DREADED social network sites. You do not have to update your weblog with articles about why you are not writing your novel because you're writing articles about dreaming about places where you can write your novel. You cannot check your phone, and therefore can't play any silly games on it. You are not constantly reminded of things that need to be done (bills to be paid, flats to tidy, files to organise, tax returns to file, letters to write; oh, and why don't I alphabetise my magazine collection whilst I'm at it?). You can put earplugs in your ears and headphones over your earplugs so that people know you don't want to be disturbed (have you noticed that even if you're wearing headphones people will still try to talk to you, like when you're reading and people say, 'what are you reading?'). The only time you are disturbed is when a nice lady or gentleman brings you drinks and food, which is exactly as things ought to be, and you can pretend that you are in a restaurant on the riviera (we are writers, after all. We have imagination).

So my plan, therefore, is to get on connecting flights for the rest of my life. No luggage, no destination, no plan. Just a life in transit, in the air, above the clouds: a perfect life for a writer, soaring endlessly above the globe. There we can see things in perspective; there we can be the omniscient narrator; there we can contemplate the passions and troubles of the world at a safe distance. And best of all: there is no escape.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Olly the Octopus and Tom the Multi-Coloured Sea Monster at Ravenstone School

Olly the Octopus, relaxing
To Gloucester Road, on a delightfully sunny day, to give a reading to a small group of children at Ravenstone School, ranging from 6 to 10. They listened very attentively to some readings from The Other Book (the scene in which Edward is chased by a monster, and also about half of the first chapter in which Tristram de la Zouche watches his father murder his nurse....) and also the very beginning of The Liberators. Ravens play a very important part in The Other Book, and even (although erroneously) make an appearance on the cover of The Liberators, so it was very appropriate to read from TOB at Ravenstone.

One of the teachers made a list of useful verbs after I read (which I was very pleased to see) for the children to think about; later one of the girls asked where I got them from. I answered, 'The verb shop, of course, just near Gloucester Road.'

In the last ten minutes we wrote a Philip's Patented Ten-Minute Story, which went like this:

One day, Olly the Octopus was minding his own business, as octopuses do, on the bottom of the sea bed, when he saw in the distance an enormous multicoloured sea monster rushing towards him. 'Help!' thought Olly, who was very frightened. He was so frightened that he squirted out some red ink at the monster. Squirt squirt squirt!

The sea monster ran away, and Olly was happy. But then he heard a strange noise. What was it? It was the sound of sobbing. Olly went to investigate. Hiding behind a rock was the sea monster. Now Olly was still very frightened but he plucked up enough courage to ask, 'What's the matter?'

'You squirted ink in my face!' said the monster. 'And my name's Tom the multi-coloured sea monster, and I only wanted to be friends.'

So Olly the Octopus apologised. They made friends, and ate invisible ice-cream, and went off to float on the top of the sea, splashing and sploshing like seals.

There  you go. Not bad for ten minutes, if I say so myself...

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Thor Blimey, Guvn'r! THOR dir. Kenneth Branagh (for it is he): review

Just your average scientists
So there you are, minding your own business, which particular business happens to be noticing anomalies in particles, when a bearded man falls out of the sky and you run him over. You (who happen to be Natalie Portman playing a scientist called Jane, since all particle physics scientists are beautiful girls with limpid eyes) are with your geeky assistant (also played by a beautiful girl with limpid eyes, my pin-up, Kat Dennings) and some other chap who looks a bit more like you'd expect a scientist to look like; you take this man to a hospital, where he shouts things like 'Do not touch the mighty son of Odin!' and 'Puny humans!' He is mad, clearly, or he's drunk a bit too much mead. It's Thor!

So what's a girl to think? Well, naturally the obvious assumption is that you would immediately fall in love with this man (who is played by Chris Hemsworth). I mean, when he takes his top off it's like being in a whole locker room full of male Dolce and Gabbana models. He's so muscled you could actually wash clothes on his abdominals. Thwoooar! thinks Jane. (Her assistant, on the other hand, Tasers him, which is probably why she finds it difficult to form relationships.)

'We've only got 24 hours to save the universe!'
Thus begins Thor, which should definitely be Thor! with an exclamation mark. We then cut back to the land of Asgard, with some typical narration in a deep voice ("and thus it was that the land of the Xes was overrun by the Ys; until the day did come when Z destroyed their power and it was hidden until the time of W"). Thor is, naturally, the son of Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins who looks as if he isn't quite sure whether to be a butler or a psychopath. But he's got one eye, so that's all right, because so does Odin). There's been a bit of a hoo-ha in Asgard (which is basically an enormous Emerald City but made in Gold, with some mysterious floating bits and lots of people wearing armour and Idris Elba as the bouncer. They have bags of technology - 'Magic!' - but still use horses. Clearly not so smart) as Thor has, in the arrogance of youth, gone to attack the Frost Giants, thus imperilling a fragile peace; Odin exiles him to earth, where he is to learn the value of humility etc etc. Meanwhile, back on Asgard, Loki (a beautifully tortured Tom Hiddleston) is plotting and counter-plotting to gain the throne whilst learning uncomfortable things about his own nature.

There are some gloriously funny moments, as when Thor smashes a cup on the ground (he likes the drink), then later barges into a pet shop and asks for a horse. 'We only have dogs and cats and birds.' 'Well give me one of those large enough to ride.' There are some gloriously Flash Gordon moments, as when Thor's four ridiculously ill-assorted friends (one a bearded quaffer, one a maiden, one an effete Englishman, and one - of course - a Japanese Samurai. Perhaps he was on holiday) land in an American town. 'We've got Xena ...' says one of the police officers. There are also some moments of power, as when Thor tries to pull out Excalibur I mean the Hammer from the stone and fails and he looks all wounded and sweet and angry in a classic 'NOOOOOOOO!' moment.

Thor eventually seems to learn humility etc etc first by handing around plates, and then handing some people into a car; then by offering himself as a sacrifice, but it was clearly the courtesy that did it. He also seems to find his eternal love in Jane having spent no more than about a day with her. But never mind. He wins the day (of course). My only real complaint is that Loki's twisted nature was traced back to the fact that he was a bastard. No King Lear is this; but then that's Kenneth for you. The plots and counterplots may be silly; but for once it can be forgiven, as this film is aiming to do nothing more than entertain, which it does, in flagons.

Now I ask you all to sing with me: Thor! -o-oor! He saved everyone of us!

Friday, 6 May 2011

Fame At Last!

Just a quick post: I was walking down Holland Park Avenue, and I saw a display in the window of Daunts. Edward St Aubyn's new novel, At Last, was piled up in the window. And printed on a card below it was an excerpt from my Telegraph review.... Anonymously, of course... Still it gave me a real thrill of secret pleasure to see it there. Somehow, it was much more satisfying than being quoted on the paperback of a book.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Readings at Ludgrove

Ludgrovian Books
Appropriately enough, for the week after the Royal Wedding, I headed to Ludgrove this morning, where Princes William and Harry were both pupils, to give a couple of readings and talks to the older boys, of both The Liberators and The Other Book. Ludgrove's half-timbered cosiness contains a room in which the name of every boy who ever attended is recorded, which adds a fine sense of continuity and heritage. (At my prep they only wrote up the Head Boy's name, which I always thought rather unfair).  Stuck up against Prince William's was a picture of the Prince and Kate Middleton before their wedding - the school had been celebrating over the weekend.

The readings took place in the lecture hall. I read a scene from The Other Book in which our young hero Edward Pollock is chased by a spirit made out of the stones and mud of the Manor itself; and the first chapter of The Liberators. The questions were acute and perceptive and I very much enjoyed answering them and signing the books.

On a tour of the school I was struck down almost immediately by memories of my own prep, Dorset House: the particular, shall we say, odour of the boot room; the dormitories with their low beds and single teddy bears; the cricket and the art and the general atmosphere of kindness and industry. So a huge thank you to the librarian, staff and boys of Ludgrove, and I wish them all the best for the end of this academic year.

You can see pictures of the talk on the Ludgrove website HERE.