Friday, 29 July 2011

Save King Edward Memorial Park

After a day of hard work, I took a walk around the Eastern areas of London, gently ambling through the few green spaces that are available: Stepney Gardens; the lovely churchyard nearby; and King Edward Memorial Park. Here are keenly-mown lawns side by side with a wilderness; a sense of space and elegance leading down to the river below, a charming bandstand and a beautiful brick pavilion. One can stand and look out at London's main artery, feeling it flow past, full of deep life. It's a place where people can picnic, or play, or just sit.

And, I have discovered, it is in danger of being destroyed by Thames Water, who plan to build an enormous supersewer in its place. A better metaphor for man and nature I can't think of. Of course we need sewers, but must we destroy one of the few green and pleasant places left in East London to make way for it? There is a brownfield alternative: I do not know why the powers that be have this haven in their sights. I urge you, resident of the East or not, to sign the petition below:


and keep one of London's most secret and lovely spots. 

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Philip Womack interview with Ivo Stourton, Port Magazine

Ivo Stourton. Photo by Sean Frank Johnson.
My first contribution to PORT magazine is up and running: an interview with novelist Ivo Stourton. Click on the link HERE to read it.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Rushes: Soho Shorts Festival

To the Mall, and the ICA, for the Short Film Category of the Rushes: Soho Shorts Festival. There were fifteen shorts in all, and they were, mostly, very good indeed; a heartening sign for the British movie industry.

First up was Modern Times by Ben Craig, in which a slouchy astronaut projected a Charlie Chaplin film onto the moon for the amusement of a spaceshipful of people. Whilst the technicalities were excellent, and the theme (of continuity and agelessness) interesting, I felt this was more of a calling card, or a music video, original and clever though it was. Expecting the entire moon to be used for the projection, I was disappointed when it was only a small square of lunar landscape. Hard cheese. Paper Hearts by Rob Brown, about a son's relationship with his divorced father, I'd seen a hundred times before. The dialogue was plot-heavy: "Why didn't you tell me?" "I thought you'd disown me!", and the son seemed to fall down rather too conveniently to help the plot along for my liking. But good acting, though.

Still from Missing by Luke Rodgers
Missing by Luke Rodgers was a sharp slice of contemporary life, starring Tim McInerney and the shouty one from Misfits, playing, well, a shouty girl. Their brief encounter (sunlit, belying the savagery of what was happening) on a bus was convincing and touching, bringing into play the inanities and frustrations of modern life, as well as the possibility of connection, however fleeting, between two entirely disparate people, whose final parting on a bridge (very apt) you feel may not be a parting at all. There was more lunacy - well, lunar activity - with Dust, by Ben Lavington Martin, a film that was clever but incomprehensible; it followed an astronaut's last minutes on the moon, over stock footage of the landings. It had a certain harsh beauty but was ultimately unfullfilling.

Pride of Dover by Joseph F Fawcett was full of eerie shots, off-screen shouting and lingering looks; I couldn't work out what the relationship was between the man and woman and felt that the artiness (which was brilliantly executed) had got in the way of the plot. Colourbleed by Peter Szewyck was baffling too, seemingly about a girl's creativity crushed by the actions of a blackened bureaucrat, with an extremely unsettling scene in which said girl, having had said creativity crushed, pulls out her own nails with pliers. Nice.

Papa by Schuman Hoque had a more successful plot, in which a young girl goes to work at her father's factory, where he is mercilessly teased by a cocky young worker, played with cheeky and aggressive charm; the slight unbelievability of the storyline (which ends with the young girl knocking someone out) spoiled what was otherwise an interesting effort.

A far stranger beast was Hitler and Henry VIII by Jane Gull, which wasn't sure whether it was a comedy or a tragedy. It began well, with an exhausted and exasperated teacher shooting one of his obnoxious pupils. We all laughed. But soon it became clear that we were meant not to laugh. A strange one, as we had been led to be on the teacher's side - and he had an excellent point. It was entirely spoiled, for me, by one of the horrible teens saying "You're just the same as them now." Thanks for pointing that out, I hadn't noticed. (This seems to be a feature in shorts. Let us decide for ourselves!)

Initiation by Alex Hardy
Initiation by Alex Hardy was one of the best. A young gangster is to be initiated by his fellow gang members: he must kill someone he knows. Only the real initiation is something completely different; and the twist at the end left surging ripples in the audience. Filmed jerkily, it bore a cold authenticity that made it stand out.

Capturing Santa was an effort done for Sky by Chris O'Dowd (yes, he of The IT Crowd fame, and, more recently, Bridesmaids), so I won't give it much attention except to say that it was, of course, funny, but too long. Thinking Straight by Ric Forster was about a boy-girl who loves a girl who the boy-girl thinks likes boys but actually likes girls (this isn't a Blur song, don't worry), and it was funny and sensitively acted and directed.

The two films with the most money thrown at them were, inevitably, the most successful in terms of how they looked and felt: The Foundling by Barney Cokeliss, which had Ridley Scott's name attached to it, was set on a freak show in the early twentieth century. A mother abandons her son (who has a horn growing out of his forehead); he becomes a Unicorn Boy for the show. They meet again later: but their meeting, of course, is frustrated. It looked lovely, but it was a bit like having a slightly unsatisfactory bath. I do hope for more from Cokeliss though as there was much to be enjoyed.

The second big-budget short was Love at First Sight, by Michael Davies, which starred John Hurt. It was as Technicolour Cheese as a fluorescent Brie, but it did bring tears to my eyes with its simple tale of true love between two old people. There were some quirky touches (a new attendant at the nursing home mixing up everyone's dentures; a chorus of oldies egging Hurt's character on).

Finally, two short shorts: 0507 by the Blaine Brothers was a bitingly true to life sketch about a couple who are about to get married (the numbers refer to a date: the boyfriend's recognition of its significance had the cinema in positively Austerian quantities of laughter). Bistro by Sean Gray was a farce set in a restaurant in which a man with a pig's nose was fed with tiny pork chops and ended with him confronting the chef, who had a duck's nose. Yes, I didn't really understand it either, but there was a salutary comic turn from the waiter.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Death of a Master: Lucian Freud

After Cézanne, by Lucian Freud. (Detail).
Lucian Freud's paintings were uncompromising and brutal, yet they had a tenderness for the humanity of their subjects. I have a quote by him stuck onto my computer which I frequently fail to live up to: "I work every day and night. I don't do anything else. There is no point otherwise." I am always in awe of such single-minded determination to perfect one's art, of people who make art their life.

You can read about Lucian Freud's life and art HERE

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Free Charlie Gilmour

And meanwhile, please join up with this page, Free Charlie Gilmour, to protest against the extremely unjust sentence imposed on him. Click HERE.

Creative Writing Workshop at Greycoats Hospital

Is she happy or not?
To the pleasant streets of Victoria today, for an intense Creative Writing Workshop at Greycoats Hospital school. The school is a large, ancient and pleasant building very near to Victoria Station. It's a girls' school, and I (having arrived late, and slightly flummoxed) was talking to four groups (one after the other) about the basic structuring of writing a story. It was exhausting, but also exhilarating. I talked about the importance of sources - for me the Titian painting of Ariadne and Bacchus as a major point of inspiration for The Liberators. The girls impressed me with their mythological knowledge of Theseus and the Minotaur, and also of myriad other subjects including Romeo (and Gnomeo) and Juliet. Influences as diverse as Slumdog Millionaire, Cinderella and Pygmalion came up (the latter causing some to burst into a rendition of Eliza Doolittle the pop singer). We also talked about how inspiration can be found in the most mundane things - a dead pigeon, a postbox - and the supreme importance of plot and believable characters, as well as the necessity of figures of speech, and the girls came up with some lovely similes. I hope that they took a lot away from the event - in terms of the need for structure, rigour and hard work in the business of writing - and I would like to extend my thanks to the school for the warm welcome I received, and especially to Melissa Hanbury for inviting me.

Charlie Gilmour's Sentencing

I've written about the heavy-handed sentencing of Charlie Gilmour for The Periscope Post. Read it HERE.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011


My Tumblr page
I have opened a Tumblr account  HERE.

There I'll be sharing pictures and quotes from the daily round which aren't suitable for long posts here. I've started with an excerpt from Rimbaud's Illuminations, since I'm reading the new John Ashbery translation.

Sometimes I wonder whether we will all be slowly overwhelmed by the weight of social media like Leonard Bast was killed by an avalanche of books.

Thank the lord I haven't got a Twitter account.


Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Back of My Head is in Italian Vogue

Yes, it's true, fame at last: I went to a party last week or so for Benjie Fraser (son of Antonia Fraser) and his children. The theme was Arabian Nights, which was liberally interpreted, with some choosing to dress in, well, normal clothes. There are lots of pictures on Italian Vogue - and here is the back of my head, talking to Nicola Shulman, author of Graven with Diamonds. As is clear from the picture I am obviously wearing a costume. Ahem. Well, it was the closest thing to a costume I could find in my house - a blue Nehru coat. The party itself was roisterously amusing, with panjandrums, bishops, and Antonia Fraser in a moustache.  (The moustache was fake, I hasten to add). Harry Mount was there, inexplicably wearing an English hat. There was an abundance of Frasers and family, including writer Flora Fraser, and artist William Roper-Curzon in his dressing gown, which was conveniently suited to Arabian costume.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Reading at Standon Calling, 12th-14th August

Hello hello, and news just in: I'll be doing readings from The Other Book and The Liberators at Standon Calling Festival this coming August. I'm not sure about exactly which date yet, but the festival is 12th-14th. Also reading will be Howard Marks, Stuart Evers and Evie Wyld, amongst others. Oh, and there will be music too: I hear that Spiritualized are headlining.

My review of last year's Standon Calling

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Mervyn Peake Centenary at the British Library

After an infernal tube journey, in which I felt that I might have been working in the kitchens in Gormenghast long enough to become the revolutionary Steerpike, I emerged into the brick, brackish dullness of the British Library. It is a sterile place: but it holds the manuscripts of Mervyn Peake, some of which were on display in a private viewing. They are gorgeous, delicate objects, carefully cross-hatched, writing and drawings all spilling off the page as if Peake could never quite contain the forces within him. Organised chronologically, the exhibition went from Peake's birth in China (an enormous influence on the books) to his death. There were the originals of Gormenghast: Fuschia and Steerpike and Swelter and Flay, looming out of the pages as they had sprung out of the mind of Peake.

Here was a recording of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (which caused particular pleasure to one of Mervyn Peake's grandchildren, the singer Jack Penate); here were the original etchings of the Alice in Wonderland illustrations that so elegantly and weirdly complement Tenniel's. I overheard a very old lady say, 'well of course we never knew he was going in for grotesquerie, it was quite a shock'. I wonder who she was. There was lots of wine but no food.

All the children were there (Sebastian, Fabian and Clare), as well as a lineup of actors and writers who then gave readings and talks afterwards in the school auditorium-like and unromantic Conference Centre; however the romance of Peake was enough to overcome that. Miranda Richardson (currently playing the Countess in Brian Sibley's radio adaptation) read the death of Fuschia (which brought to my mind the death of Ophelia, and I wondered if anyone had explored the Shakespearean resonances in Gormenghast); Zoe Wanamaker read of the Countess, Titus and the Thing, in her smoky, elfin voice (she was Cora [or Clarice] in the TV adaptation); John Sessions read too (although I did not recognise him).

On the writerly side we had the shaven-headed and eloquent China Mieville. I must admit I have only read one of his books, King Rat, and I did not like it; but his speech was immensely interesting and well-argued. Gormenghast succeeds because it is almost familiar; Steerpike is a villain but we love him because he wants to bring change to the ossified rituals of the castle. Brian Sibley spoke too (tottering on stage with a stick) about the pleasures of adapting the books for radio, and we were treated to a section of it that brought shivers to my skin. The evening finished with a clip from the TV adaptation, in which the Ladies Cora and Clarice 'unbend' to Steerpike in the lake. It was very witty, and made me want to watch it all over again; alas I only have them on VHS, and no video player to watch them on. Back to the books for me, then.

Read my interview with the Peake children HERE

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Review of The Liberators by Philip Womack on Just Imagine

I've stumbled across this review of The Liberators on the Just Imagine Story Centre. It's a lovely one:

"Ivo Moncrieff is thirteen and a half years old and he’s never been to London. Even before arriving at his glamorous aunt and uncle’s home for Christmas, he’s thrown into the greatest adventure any boy could ask for. As he enters London’s Underground, and waits for a train, an object is thrust into his hands by a wild stranger with an incoherent message. Moments later the boy witnesses the stranger’s gruesome murder, and Ivo is next in line to die if he doesn’t keep his wits about him. Ivo finds out he’s up against the ancient power of the Liberators who, after centuries in the shadows, are impatient to overthrow London. The murderers want the object, they seem untouchable from the laws of the land, and he’s a vulnerable child in a grown-up’s world. As the city approaches total breakdown, it’s all down to Ivo; his two new friends, a boy and a girl; plus an eccentric slightly over the hill adult hero. “Myth and fantasy intrigued me,” Philip Womack states, “I have always been interested in the human…to impose patterns upon what is chaos, and to find meaning in what we find meaningless.”

" The Liberators is a book full of rumbustious non-stop action from start to finish. It must be the dream of many boys to be caught up in a fantastic escapade completely outside an adult’s experience and imagination. This is its strength and some of its weakness. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It didn’t let up for a single moment, not even when Ivo goes for a cup of tea in a café; I would have adored to have been a customer that day. Tatler (also, informally, The Tatler) has stated that Philip Womack is "The New Philip Pullman".

"An enthralling tale that attempts to explore what it means to be a child surrounded by adults who have power and authority. "

Saturday, 9 July 2011

A Jaunt to Japan: Who is Mr Satoshi? by Jonathan Lee: review

This is Mr Lee
Jonathan Lee's debut novel (I attended the launch party last year but have, slightly shamefully, only got round to reading it now as the paperback comes out, which seems to be happening increasingly these days) is an intriguing and accomplished piece of work, longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize. It concerns loss, love and the desperate human need for companionship, played out against a backdrop of sushi restaurants and electronic lavatories.

Foss (his surname is 'Fossick') is a middle aged photographer who doesn't take photos any more; he suffers from terrible agoraphobia, having collapsed after the death of his pregnant wife. When his mother dies (in front of him, collapsing in the garden) he discovers a mysterious box with a label addressed to a certain Mr Satoshi. The only trouble is, this personage from his mother's past lives in Japan, and is probably already dead as well.

Lee's protagonist is a convincing creation, tender and thoughtful and timid. As details unfold gradually Foss goes to Japan to fossick (excuse the pun) around for the truth. He meets a pink-haired Japanese college student, who lives in a love hotel with a fat gay ex-sumo wrestler who has a fixation with Dolly Parton, and the two of them embark on a sexless but emotionally confusing relationship as they delve further into the mystery. Was Mr Satoshi a murderer? Why does Foss have to put stamps on his penis? And will he ever get to see the winter daffodils? Who is Mr Satoshi? is a striking first novel, imaginative, intelligent and well-structured. A witty 'trailer' for the book is below.

Read about the party here

Caroline Lawrence and Andrew Lane: reviews

And finally, Caroline Lawrence's extremely engaging The Case of the Deadly Desperadoes, and Andrew Lane's Young Sherlock Holmes: Black Ice. Read my review HERE.

Simon Mason, Ally Kennen and Elen Caldecott: Reviews

It's a busy review day. I've also done Simon Mason's excellent Moon Pie, Ally Kennen's frightening Quarry, and Elen Caldecott's Operation Eiffel Tower for The Daily Telegraph, HERE.

Review of Mal Peet, Mary Hoffman and Angela McAllister

David: Ladies' Man
I've reviewed three excellent historical novels for teenagers for The Daily Telegraph: Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram, Mary Hoffman's David, and Angela McAllister's The Double Life of Cora Parry. All excellent books, brimming with historical detail and charm and winning protagonists. Peet's is a superlative fiction, as poignant and moving as anything I've read in the last few years; Mary Hoffman delves behind Michaelangelo's statue of David and uncovers some fascinating detail about its symbolism and provenance; and McAllister provides a Dickensian London complete with monkeys, mud and murderers. Read my review HERE.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, in the Telegraph

I've tidied up my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, for the Daily Telegraph, which is available here.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Exclusive: Review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two: I hate giving stars, but this is definitely a ten out of ten

I was lucky enough to attend David Heyman's screening of the new Harry Potter film in Leicester Square. There was no fuss: after a brief reminder of Voldemort's taking of the Elder Wand (from a superbly modernist grave containing Dumbledore), we were straight into the action. The texture of the film itself is startlingly convincing: gone is the faint cheesiness of the first two films. We are in a world whose strangenesses and darknesses are ever-present.

Snape: not evil after all
What really sets this film apart, making it (I think) possibly the best of the series (excluding The Prisoner of Azkaban, and perhaps The Goblet of Fire), is the attention to detail. Hermione changes into Bellatrix Lestrange at one point (to go to Gringott's Bank), and Helena Bonham-Carter superbly conveyed Hermione's sulkiness and quavery expression, at one point doing such a convincing impression of Emma Watson that it spookily seemed that she might actually really have changed shape. There is wit, too, among the darkness: a bleeding Neville Longbottom, having seen off a ravening horde of Voldemort's supporters, and having almost fallen to his death, pops up cheerily with a 'well that went well.'

I must admit that, being slightly sentimental, I was weeping quietly all the way through. What this film does is enhance Rowling's slightly clunky prose (which made her last two books a disappointment for me), so that the epic touches which she was unable to convey by writing are writ large on the screen. The last battle at Hogwarts always seemed faintly ridiculous to me: here it is genuinely terrifying, with battered schoolchildren fighting desperately against screaming Death Eaters. The deficiencies of Daniel Radcliffe's plankish acting vanish as we meet what is truly the heart of the series: there is darkness in us all, and we must all fight to overcome it.

We learn, too, about the exceptional loyalty and devotion of Snape to Harry Potter's mother, Lily, and of Dumbledore's realpolitik. There is a beautiful scene, when Harry is looking in Snape's memories, which I think was the best in the film: a young Lily makes a flower grow in her hand, but her sister calls her a freak. Hiding in a tree trunk nearby is a young Severus, who blows a leaf to her. It is sun-filled and dappled and touched with a sense of wonder and loss and brimming with the sadnesses of human relationships. It delicately haunts the mind long after, and even now thinking about it I am filled with emotion.

There are some superb set pieces, too: the escape on a damaged, maddened dragon from Gringotts, whose wings and claws drive gouges into London's rooftops; an eerie, white King's Cross; and the film never lets up on energy, drive and spirit. It's an excellent piece of work, and as David Heyman himself said, it's not the end, but the end of a beginning.

Read my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One

Saturday, 2 July 2011

An Interview with Mervyn Peake's Children in the Daily Telegraph

Four Peaklets
A fortnight ago I went to the Battersea flat of Clare Penate (Mervyn Peake's daughter, and incidentally, mother of singer Jack Penate; she also, marvellously, has a son called Titus, after Titus Groan, the hero of her father's books), to meet the three Peake children, Sebastian, Fabian, and Clare and talk about publication of Titus Awakes (written by Maeve Gilmore, Mervyn's wife), and the other events of this centenary year of Peake's birth, as well as growing up with two furiously imaginative and artistic parents. Clare has also written a lovely memoir about her early years, called Under a Canvas Sky. It was a very exciting day. Mervyn Peake had a huge impact on my adolescent imagination; so much so that I called a minor character in my first book, The Other Book, Peake. (The other two were Murdoch and Munro, after Iris Murdoch and Saki, 'H H Munro'.) Peakeiana was everywhere; I even held three first editions of the Gormenghast books. The resulting interview is printed in the Telegraph today; alternatively you can read it HERE.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Philip Womack and Leo Benedictus discuss ebooks and reading in Issue Two of Night and Day

The author and journalist Leo Benedictus (whose novel, The Afterparty, I reviewed on this very weblog, HERE), have come to blows over the future of reading. Our email conversation has been published in this month's Night and Day, a new venture by Random House (well, not so much a new venture as a continuation of an old venture - the first issue was published in 1937). This issue is themed: Catastrophe.

Click HERE to read the piece - it's called 'Ink vs Pixels'. The argument did become quite heated, so do take a look...