Sunday, 30 October 2011

Memorial by Alice Oswald: review

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

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Review of The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay

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

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Guest Blog on The Writers' Workshop

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

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Iliad by Homer, trans. Stephen Mitchell: review

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

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Booker Prize: Barnes-storming

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Booker Prize Contenders

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

Sunday, 16 October 2011

First Story: Holland Park and Woodside

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

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

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Seven Stages of Angry Birds

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

Saturday, 8 October 2011

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

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

Friday, 7 October 2011

First Story: Woodside session, No. 1

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

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

Blowing own trumpet alert: Tatler, November 2011

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

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

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Door: dir. by Andrew Steggall

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

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

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

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Bertie Wooster revisited: Poetry Recital Prize at Thomas' Battersea

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

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

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

Monday, 3 October 2011

Squirrels and salmon: Reading at Cranmore Preparatory School

A squirrel: Not a character in my book (yet)
Into the wilds of Surrey (well, as wild as Surrey gets I suppose) to visit Cranmore Preparatory, a relatively new (founded in the 1960s) school near Effingham. The sun was particularly bright today, setting the scene for a bright day. It was a pleasure to meet the staff and pupils, who received me very warmly. I read two passages in their beautiful auditorium - one from The Other Book, in which Edward is chased underground by Mrs Phipps and Lady Anne, and is almost choked to death; and one from the beginning of The Liberators, in which Blackwood is, er, chased underground by a Liberator and a group of Acolytes. Do you sense a theme?

The boys asked some very pertinent questions (particularly about my fascination with squirrels), and I was treated to an excellent lunch of salmon before pottering off home to London. I'm sure school food wasn't like that in my day, back in the nineteenth century, when of course we were all fed on brimstone and treacle. I'd like to say an enormous thank you to the school for having me, and if they would like to offer me a pet squirrel, I wouldn't say no.

They've put me on their website here.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston: review

Johnston: lyrical
The first world war provides much meat for the novelist; and Jennifer Johnston's 1974 effort, How Many Miles to Babylon, has just been reissued by Penguin. I've reviewed it for The Observer, here. It tells a story of an unlikely friendship that is thwarted at every turn by class and mores, only to be ended in a manner both shocking and powerful. What with all the current fuss about Downton Abbey, it should strike a chord with the reading public.