Sunday, 23 December 2012

Books of the Year 2012

Yuletide be here again, and with it the inevitable lists. I'm not going to do separate ones this year: here they all are, in time for any last minute Christmas shopping that you may be doing. Of course I've already done mine. Naturally. I won't be wandering the shops on Monday. At all.

Here goes:

Alan Garner: matter of Britain
Fiction of the year 2012

Boneland by Alan Garner is a very strange book, but also a very compelling one. It rounds off the story begun by The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in an intelligent and insightful manner. Highly recommended. Another literary offspring is Andrew Motion's Silver, which takes up the tale of Jim Hawkin's son as he returns to Treasure Island. It's a beautiful, glossy creature, and enthralling. Back in Tudorland we find Hilary Mantel on tingly form in Bring up the Bodies: I may be the only person in the world not to love it as much as I loved Wolf Hall, but it's still head and ruff above the rest. In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs is an elegant novella about imprisonment; and Deborah Levy's Swimming Home is a spookily brilliant middle-class holiday novel with a twist. Finally, Ali Smith's Artful is a dazzlingly engrossing semi-fictional meta-fiction, if there can be such a thing: her quicksilver mind and lightning connections will leave you gasping for more.

Non-fiction of the year

I've read no new non-fiction this year at all. A Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers came out a while ago, but it's worth a mention - a charming, lively and enchanting account of the things that make up our conception of the unicorn. I was intrigued to learn that certain herdsmen induce their animals to grow one horn, and make them the leaders of their herds - this gives them greater power. Our horsey, gentle, mystical creature arises from a fascinating mishmash of real animals and legends. City of the Sharpnosed Fish by Peter Parsons also came out a while ago, but is a very enjoyable study of the papyrus fragments that came out of Oxyrhyncus and which don't, on the whole, contain new poems by Sappho, but do show a rich and detailed picture of ordinary life in a Hellenistic Egyptian city. Oxyrhyncus had such a hold on the imagination that the novelist Ronald Firbank wrote a scene in which Professor Inglepin reads a new Sapphic fragment: "In plain English," the professor said with some reluctance, "It means: Could not [he wagged a finger] Could not, for the fury of her feet."

Antigone at the National
Orpheus: The Song of Life by Anne Wroe is as beautiful to read and magical as its subject, whilst The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deustcher is an account of how language is how it is which will leave your brain fizzing with delight and joy.

Poetry of the year

Antigonick by Anne Carson is my overall book of the year. It's absolutely marvellous: spooky, finely-tuned and compulsive, a version of Sophocles' Antigone which powers on like a lit fuse. Sidereal by Rachel Boast  is an extraordinary debut: considered, careful, rich and multilayered, with many striking images: "Behind the house the dark rooms / in a shape called forest." Almost Invisible by Mark Strand is a series of haunting, witty and wise prose poems.

Classics of the year

Loving, Living and Party Going by Henry Green is a new source of celebration for me. These three novels are so rich, and with a sideways approach to language which compels and grips.  Party going in particular is almost indescribably good: dense yet vivid, it takes place in the confines of a railway station whilst all around the fog whirls. Green should be up there with Evelyn Waugh in the pantheon: but he's also one of those writers that I will now keep as a secret favourite, to be savoured often. The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice is an obscure radio play which is an adaptation of the line "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." A strange, dreamy experience. Another obscurer couple of classics which I have rediscovered are Craven House by Patrick Hamilton, a gas-lit study of hypocrisy in a boarding house, and The Violins of Saint Jacques, Patrick Leigh-Fermor's only novel, which tells the splendid tale of a Caribbean island ripped apart. I was reading Edmund Gosse's Father and Son in a crowded pub when someone said it must be a terribly gloomy book because of the grim photograph on the cover: how wrong could he have been. This is a seminal memoir of a youthful spirit breaking out. A special mention should also go to Robert Aickman's banjaxed ghost stories in The Unsettled Dust.

I've been re-indulging in a lot of drama this year: The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar, which I didn't get to see at the Donmar, so read instead - boisterous fun. There are some lines in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi which still have the power to make me stand and stare; and of course, every time I read William Shakespeare's Macbeth it's like being doused in flame and blood.

Children's Books of the Year

The Changeling by Philippa Gregory is a perfect young adult confection, featuring a devilishly handsome young monk and a beautiful, disinherited aristocrat. Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass is as zany and inventive as any of her books, whilst Eva Ibbotson's The Abominables is a swan song for a fine talent. Black Arts by Prentice and Weil is an intelligent thriller set in an Elizabethan London throbbing with spirits, whilst Philip Reeve's Goblins! is a delightful take on the orc-and-sword fantasy.

Caroline Lawrence's The Poisoned Honey Cake is a joy, instructive and witty about ancient Rome; and no boy worth his salt will be able to put down Atomic! by Guy Bass, a comic book mash up throbbing with kinetic energy. More eerie and strange is Fright Forest by Marcus Sedgwick; Kate Saunders' The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop is a hilarious and clever fantasy featuring a giant talking cat - and talking wallpaper.
My book of the year, though, is threefold - I can't choose between them.  Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher is a blackly brilliant fantasy containing Dr Dee, fairies, time travel and a genie; Maggot Moon by Sall Gardner is a striking and bold young adult novel; and The Diviners by Libba Bray is simply marvellous, featuring quite the best heroine to be found in young adult fiction and beyond, a gin-swilling flapper with psychic powers.

Bummer of the year

The time I spent reading Karl Ove Knausgaard's godawful memoir A Death in the Family is time I would dearly like back. How a book like this can be hailed as a masterpiece across so many countries and yet read like such a draining nightmare is beyond me. It's about as much fun as sticking red hot needles into your eyes whilst somebody drags their nails down a blackboard.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Brothers Grimm and pantomime

Hello, I've written a festive piece for The Telegraph about the Brothers Grimm, pantomime and fairy tales. Check it out here.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Issue 8 of PORT

It's time for issue no 8 of PORT magazine - a bumper one (and I now know that "bumper" comes from the word "bumper", a drunk, the idea being that a bumper can be both a drunk and something that you drink from, in the same way that a reader is both a thing read and one reading.) I've written a short piece about Glenn Gould which is in the mag; also check out the excellent cover piece about Will Ferrell.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Audiobook of The Liberators - a perfect Christmas present

Christmas is almost upon us - and what better present to give to your children than a fine audiobook of The Liberators? It's read beautifully by Tim Bruce, and it's a lovely way to while away seven hours or so in the car. You can also download it, as well as buy the CDs.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

First Story at St Augustine's

Another fun session at St Augustine's this week: we looked at the idea of superfluous immortals, using a poem by Sean O'Brien called, er,  'Protocols of the Superfluous Immortals'. I came up with this:

Fire from heaven

Some days, I like to walk to the
Shops. I buy a pack of cigarettes,
Enjoy the spark of fire.
So easy, it is, now.

What I gave to them.
I watch them, squandering.
I shuffle past some kids,
Kicking a ball about.

I see their smirks.
If only they knew
That once I flew to the
Side of Zeus' throne

And tore the flame of
Knowledge from his
Sleeping fingers.
I fell through space

My limbs so cold
To bring to rough-shod men
The tongues of living thought.

And for that gift
Zeus chained me to a cliff.
An eagle, razor-beaked,
Ripped out my liver, every day.

Agony, it was. Agony
I cannot tell. It filled the
World and the world did not

Now, set free, I pass the
Years by slipping through the
Streets, gazing at you for whom
I died and died again.

I flick my cigarette away.
The boys laugh.
'Move over, grandad!'
I crush the butt. I cough. 

I take my ravaged body
Away, and overhead an eagle
Shrieks a lonely song.
My eyes burn.


The Changeling at the Young Vic: Lunacy and Lust

I’ve had a few Jacobean treats this year already – Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, cloistral and masque-like, at the Old Vic; a febrile Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the Barbican; an almost perfect King Lear at the Almeida, and now The Changeling at the Young Vic.

It’s a harrowing play, its tale of lustful murders and lunacy spilling its guts everywhere. A collaboration between Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, it sees Beatrice-Joanna fall for the seemingly upright Alsemero. The only problem is, she’s betrothed to another; naturally, the only sensible thing to do is to get the man she hates with all her blood, the disfigured and corrupt De Flores, to kill him. As counterpart to this is a subplot involving a young gentleman who inveigles his way into a lunatic asylum – as a patient – so that he can sate his lusts on the beautiful wife of the doctor.

The stage set was like a school gymnasium, with a blue mattress and a net that served as a sort of membrane between our world and the world of the stage, as well as a means of seeing ghosts and spying on others. The setting was a modern European one – perhaps a dictator’s house – all neat uniforms and tottering high heels. The lunatic asylum was like something from a futuristic nightmare: cages, unshapely figures, screaming.

We first encountered Beatrice (played with brash passion by Sinead Matthews) on her knees, praying, and Alsemero (a brisk Harry Hadden-Paton), believing her to be a shining light of virtue - or at least convincing himself that his sexual feelings were noble -  falling for her and offering his hand on the spot.

But, just as the castle hides dark places where murders happen, all of the characters hide darker parts of themselves. And Beatrice is not capable of knowing the meaning of words like honour and virtue, though she bandies them about with vim. She hides a serpent in her bosom – and links her fate, as tightly as the bounds that chained Prometheus to a rock, to De Flores. Everything will fall apart: nothing virtuous can live, nothing pure, nothing bright; Daiphanta the maiden, perhaps the only pure thing in the text, will suffer as surely as the corrupted murderers; the paranoid doctor's wife, who  remains chaste (in the sense that she doesn't succumb to temptation) is still married to the doctor at the end.

The play had an insane, rushing momentum. Characters shifted in and out of the subplot – De Flores rising from a cupboard in the mad scene; Piracquo doubling as the doctor, Alibius; the counterfeit madman Antonius ("Tony") as Piracquo’s brother. At first I thought these were a heavy-handed way of drawing comparisons between the court and the madhouse; but as the play progressed I saw the sense (hah) of it. In this production, everything is mad and leads towards madness. There is no room for folly here.The final scene showed this perfectly, with Alsemero all but gibbering his lines and hopping about like a madman - the relatively trite lines about "change" sucked into the whirl of the ending, and showing that, in fact, there was no change; the Duke weeping on the floor; and Beatrice and her lover, De Flores, those “twins of mischief”, dead and defiled.

The cast were superb, treading the line between tragedy and comedy with a surefootedness; although, occasionally gabbling their lines at the end, it seemed fitting, as if nothing could stop this terrible breaking apart.  The scenes in the mental asylum were brutally uncomfortable; the dance of the madmen was cleverly superimposed on the wedding of Beatrice and Alsemero, shading into a hilarious dumb show.

This is a steam-train of a production, full of weird lights and clever touches; aware of the magnificent horror of this play as well as its ridiculousnesses and excesses. And there is a sex scene in which food is put to usages I’ve never seen before.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Artful by Ali Smith: review

Ali Smith (photo from Telegraph)

I've reviewed Ali Smith's intriguing Artful, for The Telegraph. Read it here.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Dec / Jan Literary Review Children's Round Up

I've done my biannual children's round up for The Literary Review. It features:

The Diviners by Libba Bray
Scramasax by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
The Traitors by Tom Becker
The Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher
The False Prince by Jennifer A Nielsen
The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop by Kate Saunders
Phantom Pirates by Daren King
The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit by Emma Thompson
Grimm Tales for Young and Old by Philip Pulllman

It's in the Dec/Jan issue of Literary Review,which is packed with other fun things - a piece by Edmund de Waal on Michael Cardew; a poem by Alice Oswald; the Bad Sex in Fiction Report, of course; and the usual selection of thought-provoking and witty articles.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

20th Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award

Nancy Huston
To the (reaches for thesaurus to avoid saying "aptly") appropriately named In and Out Club in St James, for the Annual beano that is the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award. It's been much in the press recently, as there are a few people who sneer rather loftily at it, claiming that it is a bullying, prudish event which should be banned. To those Puritans, I say with Cavalier disregard, that why shouldn't there be a little more joy in the world every year? The novelists chosen are all excellent, and know they are so; this is more like the impish little child in the corner of a painting sticking its tongue out than a bullying example of English prudery. If anything, the sexual passages in question are celebrated. There is always room for a bit of satyrical rompery in December; the gaiety of the nation would be less without it.

Anyway, the In and Out Club was, er, sorry, heaving with literary types who applauded as the passages were read out. Craig Raine's in particular drew gasps; the winner was Nancy Huston for her description of the sexual act as performed under an infrared camera.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Beautiful Classics for Christmas

I've done a round up of beautifully produced classics for Christmas for The Telegraph, which you can read here. It was a bit truncated, so I've pasted the full version below.

As ephemeral e-books continue to flourish on the screens of their ugly readers, could we be seeing a return of a need for the haptic? Psychologically it makes sense: one doesn’t feel that one owns an e-book (in fact, legally, you don’t – you only have a licence to it); a beautifully produced book, however, not only belongs to you, but to future generations. Publishers have responded to this deep-seated hunger in time for Christmas with a selection of gorgeously bound classics which are full of grace and charm.

Published earlier this year, in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum, was a series of books with starry designers. Iris Murdoch’s strange and beautiful The Sea, The Sea (Vintage Classics, £9.99, 608pp) is a stand-out, with a bold, swirling, abstract cover by Zandra Rhodes, throbbing with allure and conflicting emotions. There’s also a striking geometric cover for Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (Vintage Classics, £9.99, 288pp) by WilkinsonEyre Architects, which encapsulates the tick-tock precision of the book’s relentless, uncomfortable strength.

Penguin Classics don’t disappoint with their compact cloth-bound editions: they fit in your hand (or man-)bag, and are a serious treat to hold and contemplate. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (Penguin Classics, 1276pp, £18.99) is the dark green of the waters around that fabled isle; on its cover are crimson venetian masks, reminding us of the layers of deception and glamour that inhabit this most wonderful of romances. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (Penguin Classics, 1231pp) is a more serious black, with scarlet birds poised between vertical lines – souls trapped, yet singing.

Small publisher Alma Books has concoted an elegant selection of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, with illustrations of spindly, flapperish characters set against raised gold lettering that capture the books’ jazzy brilliance: The Great Gatsby (Alma Classics, 256pp, £6.99) has that ominous motor car, a memento mori amongst the brightness. A 50th Anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Heinemann, 320pp, £18.99) has a simple cover with elegant endpapers repeating the colours, gentle yet powerful as its contents.

If you want something both affordable and essential, you could do a lot worse than the Complete Jane Austen (Wordsworth, 1440pp, £11.99), which looks fabulous and would delight the eyes of any family, fortune-seeking or not. More Christmassy are two editions of Charles Dickens: a splendid A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books (Everyman, £10.99, 456pp), which has an introduction by Margaret Atwood, and Dickens at Christmas (Vintage Classics, 592pp, £15), both of which exude jollity. You can practically taste the mince pies.

For the fashionable there are some stylish tomes: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (Virago, 448pp, £12.99) and Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare (Virago, 288pp, £12.99) are so sophisticated you can only read them with a cigarette holder and a martini; the latter is introduced by this year’s paramount novelist, Hilary Mantel.

Go into any Waterstone’s and you’ll see a selection of everybody’s favourite novels, bound in leather and shrink-wrapped in plastic so that you can’t look inside and spoil the pages. These are the sorts of books that are both wonderful presents and lasting reminders of the pleasures they bring: Barnes and Noble’s leather-bound classics, which include Sherlock Holmes, C S Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Bram Stoker and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, are so beautiful that you’ll want to buy one just so that you can unwrap them. They only cost £15, which, if ever there were a snip, would certainly be one. You’ll want to keep them for yourself, to be read by the fire with a glass of mulled wine and a paper hat on your head.You might even stay awake until dinner.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Phoebe Dickinson: "My Eye" at Blanchards

Hidden somewhere behind the King's Road is an unexpected wasteland of industrial warehouses; even more unexpected is the appearance of an antiques shop, Blanchards, where the artist Phoebe Dickinson had her show last week. Amongst a junkish landscape of pipes and vast vats glistened a series of works of depth and beauty. I've seen her work before, but seeing them all together was a marvel.

Dickinson is a portrait artist of great talent, with an ability to experiment between styles: all of her paintings have a mature, rich quality to them which belies her years. There were some other, more playful things on show: a beautifully executed seahorse, and a wonderful little mouse in what appears to be a Genghis-Khanesque tunic. There were nudes that were almost impressionistic. A "Cabinet of Curiosities" took centre stage, filled with enchanting objects; the odd landscape sparkled lushly up from the walls. She is a painter who is unafraid to be traditional, and yet at the same time imbues her work with a lively, modern freshness. The show has finished now, alas, but do keep your own eyes on Phoebe Dickinson. Look at her website here. I also particularly enjoyed the wine table (not made by Phoebe) which has two little depressions where you can keep the bottles; presumably for ease of access - and so that you don't knock them over in your cups.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

What to wear for your Oxbridge interview

Nice bag. (Photo from Telegraph piece.)
What ho, I've written a blog for The Telegraph about what to wear for your Oxford interviews. Try a morph suit. Or maybe not.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Goodbye Marion Lloyd

Marion Lloyd: Brilliant
The Hospital Club in Covent Garden was abuzz with almost-weeping authors and publishers last night: the excellent and redoubtable Marion Lloyd is retiring from publishing. I've been a great admirer of her books for years: sometimes doing a round up is very difficult, as hers always warrant more attention. She's picked and nurtured many excellent authors  - Philip Pullman, Frances Hardinge, Sally Nicholls, Eva Ibbotson, Georgia Byng and dozens more - and her books have won every prize going. Her husband and children (who include the actor Harry Lloyd) were also in attendance. It was on her advice that I read Peter Dickinson's fantastically good The Ropemaker.

The head of Scholastic said in a speech that when Marion, as a descendant of Charles Dickens, was introduced to the Queen, the Queen said - "You're Marion Lloyd. The publisher." Which, as accolades go, is up there with the best.

In a warm and funny speech, Marion said that she was very lucky to have got her job at all - she began as a shorthand typist. It is a sad indication of the world today that someone "without qualifications" would not be able to get into the publishing business as she did. In her day, she could buy a book for a thousand pounds and sell 25,000 copies; these days, it's more likely that you buy one for £25,000 and sell a thousand copies. She joked that retirement sounded like slippers and cardigans, and that she didn't want to do anything like that; so let's hope that we still see more of her in the book world in the years to come. A hearty cheer for Marion, for her wonderful imprint, and for all the excellent books that have stimulated and challenged children's imaginations over the last forty years.

The "Next Big Thing" Blog Meme

I'm working on a number of projects at the moment, so I thought I would talk about something that, whilst very dear to my heart, has fallen by the wayside, as projects do; perhaps one day it will pick itself up and find itself a home. It's a book called 'Cave', which is set in a boarding school that is besieged by ecologically motivated terrorists who want to use the power of the monstrous spirit at the centre of the school to aid their world-dominating plans. Yay!
What is the title of your next book?

Where did the idea come from for the book?

There’s something quite numinous about schools, and I always imagined that they would have some kind of inhabiting spirit. I like the idea of a school as an isolated hotspot - sort of like the film If... in which the boys begin to rebel (and start a killing spree, although that doesn't happen in my book.) The school in Cave is based on my old school, Lancing, which sits on top of a hill - I always used to imagine that it would somehow become cut off from the rest of the world. You can definitely feel something different in the air. And I thought - what if there was something underneath the hill, which began trying to contact the boys? What if it wanted something? And what if some other people wanted it? So the book was born...

What genre does your book fall under?

It's a book aimed at twelve year olds and up. I'd call it a philosophical fantastical novel.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I wouldn’t like to go that far...

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

A school lies besieged; a monster awakens.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s lying in my drawer... one day I hope it will be published by an actual publisher.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I don’t really know. About six months, I think, but then you don’t write all the time. I can never answer this question. Writing has to fit in around other things - it's not as if you sit down and write all day every day until it's finished. And then you redraft and edit.

What other books of the same genre would you compare yours with?

It’s not really like anything that I can think of. Catherine Fisher’s excellent recent book, Obsidian Mirror, has a few scenes set in a similar school.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I think the idea of a school as a microcosm of society, under pressure from within and without, seemed to me very attractive. And I wanted to do something that showed that teens under pressure would not necessarily collapse, like they do in Lord of the Flies. I wanted to write something about a boarding school that showed what people at boarding school were actually like, rather than the kind of people you normally get in children’s books who tend to be snobby or uber-rich. 

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s got love scenes, friendships, rabbit-skinning, catapults, guns, a duel, and a ferocious multi-dimensional monster. What more could you want? 

I now tag the following excellent writers:

Monday, 26 November 2012

Telegraph Books of the Year 2012

I've done my books of the year for The Telegraph - take a gander here.  I'll be doing my own list at the end of the year, as usual. (Sighs, and thinks "Doesn't it come round faster every time?")

Where Have You Been? by Joseph O'Connor

Joseph O'Connor: Irish
I've reviewed Joseph O'Connor's short story collection, which spans decades of Ireland, for The New Humanist. Check it out here.

I reviewed his last novel, Ghost Light, for The Telegraph, which you can read here.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

How to be Danish by Patrick Kingsley: Meatballs and jumpers

A famous Dane
"The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge." (Hamlet)

 To Elsinore! I cried to my squire as he saddled up my raging steed. The sledded Polacks were attacking, and it was time to do some smiting... Well, maybe not quite. To the Danish Embassy! I cried, rather grandly, to my cabbie, who said he thought it was somewhere near Harrods, which it was. Of course I am not always popping in and out of embassies - I was there for a reason, which was to celebrate the launch of Patrick Kingsley's book, How to be Danish.

He wrote it having wept after seeing the first episode of The Killing, and was soon drawn into the friendly, social democratic world that is Denmark, where knitted jumpers are fashionable, and judges earn two and a half times what a cleaner does. Everybody gets a chance to chill out in their teens, and they are the happiest people in the world. Or are they? These were the questions delved into as Patrick chatted to journalist Jenni Russell, and fielded by the ambassador, Anne Hedensted Steffensen, who greeted us warmly (though not wearing a jumper) as we entered the ambassadorial residence, which combined quite severe style with some odd little quirks. The Danes, suggested Patrick, became much more community based after their empire collapsed, and they realised that the only people they ruled were themselves. A lesson for Britain?

It's not all good, though; the Danes have their own problems of social cohesion and immigration, but they certainly make good meatballs, and a pretty marvellous soup, at the bottom of which lurks something that looks a bit grisly but turns out to be another sort of meatball. I must confess that I have never seen The Killing, or any Danish drama; but having spent a couple of hours on Danish soil, I shall certainly seek them out, and look to Patrick's book as an excellent guide. Although, as I left, I did hope for a little bit - just a tiny bit - more wassailing.

Tweet tweet

A short post, to announce to you, my loyal followers, that I have, several years too late, got into the whole social media networking adventure, and signed up to that behemoth of sites, Twitter. You can find me @WomackPhilip, if you so wish.

Now, back to work. But must just check my Twitter feed before I do that...

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Liza Campbell and Henry Hudson

Two private views in a week: first there was Liza Campbell, whose Black Boxes have been a feature of my life for a while now; her "Carphology & Cryptograms" were on display at the Julian Hartnoll Gallery in St James'. My favourite was "Neurotics Checklist" (left), which lists - you can guess - all the things that a neurotic might worry about, including Alien Abduction, Putrefaction of the Genitals, Quicksand, a Tsunami and a Piranha Infested Caipirinha. If you are neurotic it's probably worth avoiding it. The works have a great deal of the customary Campbell charm and wit - go and check them out: never have Linnaean taxonomies seemed so much fun.

Then today, at T J Boulting's near Oxford Circus, was Henry Hudson's "Hominidae", a series of vast portraits of his family and friends in swirling, layered plasticenes that brought to mind Lucian Freud. They're textured, striking and haunting, upright figures in all but bare surroundings, sometimes looming out of their frames (quite literally as the material rises up towards you.) To the right is a portrait of the artist Lucy McMillan-Scott (who painted both me and my mother) and her dog Piper. There's also one of the novelist Cressida Connolly and her husband Charles Hudson, both of whom were present; striking a more colourful note was Janet Street-Porter, whose hair was, I think, purple, though it was hard to tell.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

MIchael Gove, James Dyson, and French lesbian poetry

Saphho: A Greek lesbian worthy of study?
Sir James Dyson has said that reading French lesbian poetry is a waste of time; Michael Gove says it isn't. I've written about it for The Telegraph.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Literary Review Grand Poetry Prize and Tatler's Little Black Book Party

It's traditionally a sunny day on the day of the Literary Review Grand Poetry Prize (God must like books), and yesterday was no different, as hordes of ravening literary beasts descended upon Fitzroy Square for the annual luncheon.  (What's the collective word for authors? A ream? A rambling? Suggestions on a postcard please.)

Actress Samantha Bond (yup, Miss Moneypenny) sweetly read out the winning entry as authors looked on and ate the most delicious guinea fowl. I was delighted to meet my critical heroine Katherine Duncan-Jones, the august Shakespeare scholar, and to talk about family histories with Gillian Tindall. Tom Holland, the author of The Shadow of the Sword, a book about how the Koran was constructed, was there, without any bodyguards; Sarah Bradford, the royal biographer, in a red hat; explorer Sara Wheeler and many others. Alexander Waugh tickled the piano (and the guests), and gave a speech in which he remembered the 22 years of the prize. Founded by Auberon Waugh to encourage poems that rhymed, scanned and made sense - "it's had a profound effect across the world, even in China they're writing poems that rhyme and scan", the award was first given away by Alec Guinness but nobody recognised him, so they found someone more famous to do it the next year - Diana, Princess of Wales. He also recalled Peter Cook making a speech about (I think) a platinum bee.

It was a marginally different scene later in the evening at Tatler's Little Black Book party - although biographer Anne Somerset was in attendance, and memoirist Liza Campbell, though not there, is on the list. The photographers, however, were mostly interested in .... Nancy Dell'Olio, although maybe she was there by accident.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Breakfast with C J Daugherty, author of Night School

To the not-so-secret Wolseley (ahem, again this week) for breakfast with the author C J Daugherty, whose young adult fictions, Night School and Night School Legacy (both published by Atom) are gaining a large following on the web. Daugherty was intrigued by the idea of the Bullingdon Club picture that did the rounds a few years ago, and wanted to find out what it would be like to be born into privilege, with such confidence, and hence was generated her first book.

We were treated, whilst consuming the most perfectly scrumptious eggs benedict, to an atmospheric trailer for the books, which concern a high-profile school and a secret society. They certainly look thrilling. Of course, I can't tell you what else happened at breakfast - that's far too secret... (although there was a representative of Books for Keeps there, who wrote a brilliant review of The Liberators, which was an added pleasure.) Daugherty's books are already bestsellers across the world - keep an eye out for them if you love young adult fiction.

Fountain pens, and Philip Hensher's The Missing Ink

A while ago I was asked to write a piece by a newspaper which never made it into print: it was about fountain pens. So when I was recently asked to review Philip Hensher's book about handwriting, The Missing Ink, for The Telegraph, I thought I might dig it out again. Here it is.

I still have my first fountain pen. At my prep school everyone used them: Shaeffers were considered the top of the tree. Mine, given when I was eleven years old, was an elegant grey Parker, with a gold nib and an arrow clip. It marked a move into the exciting adult world. My headmaster at the time carried a beautiful fountain pen which used a striking shade of turquoise ink: it represented sophistication and a little of the eccentric artiness to which I aspired.

Fountain pens are talismanic. They remind you of everything you’ve written with them, taking on deep layers of significance. They are used at moments of international importance – the treaty of Versailles was signed with a gold fountain pen. Though instruments of supreme taste (Waterman fountain pens were a favourite of the Emperor of China) they are also democratic, freely available to everyone the world over.

Writing with a fountain pen when I was child was in itself inspiring. There’s something organic about it. No more the unattractive shapes made by a ballpoint; now my stories were formed with luscious curves.

A fountain pen becomes an extension of your body. It was always impressed on us that you should never lend your fountain pen to someone else, because the nib ‘learns’ your grip, reflecting your idiosyncracies and style. 

This is in stark contrast to writing on a computer. I have the sense of another, distracting presence, that little cursor blinking snarkily. I’d lend my laptop to anyone. A computer never becomes part of you. In my experience they provide more heartache than pleasure. When you’re typing, both sides of your brain are employed. Writing means you’re only using one side, leaving the other to generate those all important ideas. With a blank page and a pen there’s nothing in between you and your story: the words and ideas flow, uninterrupted, the only, natural break coming when the pen runs out of ink. I still draft my novels by pen, typing them up every so often and editing as I go.

Writer Liza Campbell, whose memoir about growing up in Cawdor Castle was recently published, uses a silver italic Lamy. ‘I went to a prep school where fountain pens were compulsory’, leading to ‘an ever-evolving Rorschach Test of splots and the telltale blue tongue from sucking ink into the nib from a recalcitrant cartridge.’ Since she was left-handed, her teachers said there was no hope for her script, but, ‘with the arrival of an italic nib,’ she ‘became determined to conquer calligraphy. It took about a decade, but fountain pens allowed me to do this.’ The fountain pen as symbol of beauty and patience is here writ large; Campbell highlights, too, the necessity of precision and reliability.

We’ve come a long way since we first scratched letters into wax. For centuries, people wrote with quill pens, which required constant dipping, giving rise to a lovely eighteenth century slang term for writers: ‘inkslingers’. Romantic and messy, yes; but not so good on control and precision. Attempts were made at producing fountain pens: as far back as the tenth century, one was apparently constructed for Ma-ad al Mu-izz, the caliph of the Maghreb; however it can’t have been very good, as the technology was soon forgotten. In the nineteenth century, slightly more successful attempts were made, but not very much more so, as Lewis Waterman found out in 1883 in New York, when he tried to sign an important business contract with one and it failed to work; he rushed back to his office to get another contract, but by the time he’d returned, someone else had pipped him to the post.

It was this that inspired him to create what would become Waterman pens. He developed a new feed for the ink that relied on a capillary process, with air entering through the nib to create a consistent pressure on the reservoir. Which means a continuous, satisyfying flow, and cheers from writers all over the world. His company was soon leading the charge, making pens that were objects of art as well as practical. Parker, too, were constructing fabulous pens. Dave Ruderman, who looks after the Parker archive quotes founder George Parker, ‘the good thing about Parker pens is that they write in any language.’

So what’s the future for the noble fountain pen? These instruments are not dying out. Their style and adaptability ensure a following even now. Even Facebook has pages dedicated to fountain pens, with over 5,000 ‘likes’. In this digital age, it's pleasing to note that ink still rules.

May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes, review

A M Homes: Zeitgeisty
A happy Bonfire Night (yes I know it was yesterday) to you all. I've reviewed May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes for The Telegraph, a fine novel about modern life.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Scribble City Central: S is for Satyrs

Head over to the fantabulous Lucy Coats's blog, Scribble City Central, for my piece on satyrs, which is part of her year-long series on mythical creatures. Fascinating creatures, satyrs - you should try and chat to one. 

Hallowe'en Short Story: The Gnu by Philip Womack

 It's almost Hallowe'en. I wrote this short story a year ago, and thought I'd put it up to celebrate everyone's favourite scary festival (bar Christmas.)


Whenever the annual summer term concert came round, it was always one of the boys in the top year who took the lead in singing the Gnu song; and if one of the Forrester boys happened to be in the top year, then it would, by law (or rather, by the deep pockets of Mr and Mrs Forrester), fall to him.

The Forrester boys were all - nearly all - good at singing, and had a tall, lordly bearing that suited the absurdity of the song's lyrics. It was a tradition. When I joined Malton House, there were four of the younger Forresters in the school; three of the older had already performed, as if by ancient ritual. There looked to be no sign of them stopping.

They were all good at singing, that is, apart from Edwin Forrester. He happened to be in my year, and had fallen victim to some unlucky gene – or, as his brothers used to privately tease him, had been adopted. He was, in the eyes of the school, without any use at all. He had to wear a veiled hat in the sun, was constantly attended by tubes of pills, and was once found crying over a dead mouse. He couldn’t even swim. He sat on the back bench in assembly, quite close to me, and belted out the hymns so tonelessly that the music master would shudder.

So, as summer approached, an undercurrent of whispering began: would Edwin be the singer, or would the unbreakable law be broken? Attempts were made to pacify the Forrester matriarch. Edwin was made a prefect; he was given a role in a play (which even allowed him to speak); when photographers came to the school to commemorate some opening of a computer room or art department, it was his gormless, acidic face that would adorn the pages of the local papers. But Mrs Forrester took it all in her stride. It was only the rightful due of a Forrester. She would refer to the coming concert, and Edwin’s role in it, with such forthrightness – her plump hands gripping the headmaster’s – that it was taken as read. ‘Oh but of course, Thorpe Place have got a much nicer tennis court,’ she would say, looking meaningfully at her other offspring, when things looked edgy. Nothing could be done about it, and the school collectively resigned itself to watching Edwin Forrester’s fat face bawling out the Gnu song.

This was all rather annoying for me. I had a beautiful voice, and was leader of the choir; and I was the best looking in my year. A drunken mother had even once made a pass at me. (At least, I think that’s what she was doing.) Clearly, it was I who should be taking the lead in the Gnu song. I knew all the words, all the gestures. I had a top hat and had been practising with my grandfather's cane. I was really good at enunciating the G's when it goes:

"I'm a Gnu
I'm a Gnu
The g-nicest work of g-nature in the zoo
I'm a Gnu
How do you do
You really ought to k-now w-ho's w-ho."

But what could I do against an army of Forresters?

The answer, though I wish I’d known it earlier, was nothing. One foggy day in May we were sent out on a cross country run, which was one of the peculiar tortures our school liked to inflict on us. All around banks of whiteness rolled and swam, for all the world like clouds seen from an airplane. It was also raining: that constant, slight drizzle that is never enough to stop masters from sending boys out to play. We jogged our way down the side of the river. I was never much of a good long distancer: my talent lay in sprinting. So I lagged behind, and ended up not far away from Edwin, who was, as usual, last. I fell back, until I was puffing beside him.

‘Why are you such a loser, Forrester?’ I said.

‘Shut up, Dartmouth,’ he wheezed. He stopped, and bent over, his hands on his knees. His plump stomach was spilling out of his house t-shirt. His podgy legs were blotched with red. He breathed deeply. All around us the fog thickened, the distant shouts of the games master appearing as from miles away.

I can’t remember exactly what happened, or who started pushing; all I know is that soon I was watching Edwin slip down the river bank towards the river with a pained expression on his face. I watched him for a second, thrashing about. Then I remembered: he couldn’t swim. A sudden icy worry grabbed me, and I cast around for a stick, or something to throw him. But on that reedy bank, there was nothing. The fog rolled behind me. I gritted my teeth, and ran on.


The school was closed for a day, naturally. The younger Forresters were sent home on compassionate leave, although I expect they didn’t have too bad a time of it. And when the music master took me aside the day after, and told me that I would be singing the lead now, I looked as worthy as I could, wrinkled my brow, and said, ‘I’ll do it for Edwin.’

The school, Forrester-less, seemed to take on a buoyant hue. The days were longer, brighter, our laughter shriller. It was my last term, before I went off to a large, nearby public school which specialised in the arts. I had little to do: I’d won a scholarship, so I didn’t have to sit Common Entrance with all the other top years. So instead I practised.

One morning, I was in my usual practice room, before breakfast. I’d been learning a new piece, which I thought I was rather good at. I saw the music master doing his rounds, and began to play in order to impress him. But something was wrong with the keys: when I pressed them down, they would not come back up. I pressed harder; they stuck. I had the curious sensation that I was pushing down into mud. The music master opened the door: there was I, banging my hands furiously down on the piano. No sound was coming out; my face was scarlet. He coughed, and I turned to look at him. He was regarding me rather oddly.

The keys are stuck,’ I said, by way of a rather pathetic explanation.

He clicked his teeth, and moved towards the piano. I made room for him; he put his hand down in a chord. It rang out beautifully.


‘All right, Dartmouth, get on with with,’ said the master, resignedly.

After he’d left, the piano played again without any bother. I gave no more thought to it.


            The days passed, each thick with the richness of excitement. My mind seemed to expand with the glorious possibilities of the future. We played cricket every day; and when we didn’t play a match, we would be out in the nets for hours, till just before bedtime. We drank orange juice in the sun, and basked, like lizards. About a week before the concert I’d been bowled out in the nets by someone in the year below, so I was feeling a little annoyed. As we were trooping along, someone said,
            ‘Hey, look at Dartmouth!’
            I began to feel an unpleasant sensation of dampness.
            ‘Look! He’s pissed himself!’
            I looked down at my cricket whites. There, on the back, was a large, damp stain, getting wider and wider.
            To the laughter of the boys I fled, and secreted myself in a lavatory. I tore off my trousers. The back was thick with wet, dark, muddy water. I must have sat down in a damp patch, I thought. That’s all that it is. I washed the worst of it out with water, and then stood with my backside up to the handdryer for about ten minutes; then I returned as quietly as I could to the dorm. Luckily it was silent reading by then so there was nobody to mock me; and in the general hubbub that attended the duty master’s round, the incident seemed to have been forgotten.
            Would that it had been; the next morning my dormmate leant over, prodded the sheets, sniffed, then said,
            ‘Dry as a bone.’
            The dorm exploded into laughter.
            That day, everywhere I went I felt as if I were squelching in some dank, dark marshland. I seemed to hear the ooze of slime as my steps went along. I was castigated by the matron for leaving muddy footprints all over the laundry room floor. She expressed amazement, as there hadn’t been rain for weeks.
            But still I practised. I knew the Gnu song off by heart. I’d been trying out some rather good twirls with my grandfather's cane, throwing it up in the air and catching it. The fact that it seemed to slip out of my hand whenever I held it for long periods didn’t worry me. It was nerves, I thought. Just nerves.
            The day of the concert arrived. Mrs Forrester, tactless as ever, chose to attend, wearing a large black hat. She sat on a bench in the front row. My own parents I saw sitting demurely behind a pillar. The concert went on: first the mewling younger boys, barping out their saxophones and their C clarinets. I wonder how the parents stood it; yet they clapped with wild enjoyment. Then the better boys: a good flautist, and a pianist who could play Chopin. There was hushed silence for a second or two, as if we had been in the Wigmore; and then furious applause.
            My song was last on the program. I waited, calm, in the wings. As I stood about to go on, I felt somebody embrace me: their touch was cold. ‘Good luck’, came a whisper: when I turned, nobody was there.
            Onto the stage I went. I was wearing tails, and a top hat, and held my shiny cane, all ready to twirl. I felt wet. Perspiration, of course. The music struck up. The audience was whispering urgently. I opened my mouth, took in the faces of all those parents, saw the other boys sitting reverently at the front. This was my pinnacle. I smiled, bowed, and opened my mouth.
            They told me what happened, afterwards. As I stood there, a long stream of water issued out of my mouth. The music master stopped playing and looked up, puzzled. Some parents stood up. All I recall is that I seemed suddenly to be floating in the arctic grip of a body of water. The parents had tranformed into waving weeds. I struggled to move my legs, and felt the inevitable pull of the current as it dragged me downwards. And the face, the piggy, malicious face of Edwin Forrester, his mouth open in triumph, as my consciousness departed.
            They say that the stage quickly filled with water; that the boys were hurried out. Nobody dared approach me as I lay collapsed, surrounded by water, my top hat and my cane drifting inexorably away. The matron, and a parent who was a doctor, stayed: the cold water flowed out over the sides of the stage, and continued until it filled half the hall. The matron and the doctor stood on chairs: I floated. It was some time until the mysterious source ebbed away and the water retreated. I sank back to the cold stone of the floor. I saw the matron, who wrapped me in a blanket; a doctor took my pulse. And then a frog hopped by, croaking. I could have sworn it was making the first few bars of the Gnu song.
            The audience returned, splashing damply in the remaining water. I was rescued. My mother held me to her chest, not caring about her dress. They carried me out on a stretcher and put me in an ambulance. I remember seeing Mrs Forrester's black hat bobbing up and down. I spent the rest of the week in a hospital under observation. They talked about faulty pipes; about flash floods. But I knew. I knew what had happened.
 It didn’t help that I talked during my sleep. When I woke there were some concerned faces around me. I’d said I’d pushed Edwin; I knew that I’d done nothing at all. Even now, as I walk through the corridors of this place that they laughably call a hospital, that’s what I tell people: that I did nothing at all.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales, and T C Boyle's San Miguel

Hello there, I've reviewed Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales for Young and Old for the Telegraph, and T C Boyle's San Miguel, also for the Telegraph. Both fine books.

King Lear at the Almeida

Lear: Magnificent
Michael Attenborough's production of King Lear at the Almeida takes place in something part-church, part-castle, but more complex than that: doors open and shut, revealing hidden recesses and secretive figures, suggesting an endless cycle of plotting and scheming.

The figures stride or scuttle about, dressed in robes and combat boots, moving through those endless layers of sight and blindness, truth and lies, towards ultimate chaos. What this version really brought out is the crucial role of Edgar. A lot of people, when reading Lear, are seduced by Edmund; here Edgar's quiet goodness and strength shone out. Richard Goulding first played him as a floppy-haired, good-natured lecher; his transformation into poor Tom was truly startling, his eventual role as avenger, caged in armour like some glistening insect, entirely powerful. The way he ended the play was masterful, too, adding a little pause, as if he was about to say something else, but was too overwhelmed to continue. There is no end to suffering.

The text was tightened up, and clever use was made of music and darkness to heighten dramatic tension. Jonathan Pryce's portrayal of Lear was subtle and intelligent: he twinkled like a kindly grandfather, capered about with his fool, lapsed into  sudden rages, making his descent into roaring madness entirely convincing. When he came, dressed in white, on stage in front of the body of his daughter Cordelia, it was as if the world had stopped.

Edmund (Kieran Bew) was a humorous, sexy villain, laughing at himself and everyone else, playing the two wicked sisters against each other. Cordelia (Phoebe Fox) was initially skittish and adolescent; she played the martial Queen of France well.

Lear is, to my mind, Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, full of madness, darkness and the awareness that everything is falling apart. There is no Fortinbras to take over, nothing to restore order, only Edgar's faint suggestion that the younger generation will not see the like. On that small stage, locked into the confines of that shifting world, we saw the blackness of the universe, and the small candles that light it.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Richard Milward's Kimberly's Capital Punishment: A flickering neon light

I've reviewed Richard Milward's third novel, Kimberly's Capital Punishment, for The Telegraph. You can read it here.

A while ago I did his second for The Observer, available here.

Monday, 1 October 2012

First Story at St Augustine's

I’ve started properly as writer in residence at St Augustine’s, Kilburn. We talked today about abstract and concrete nouns, and how a poem links the two together. We played the surrealist game, which threw up some wonderful definitions:

Revenge is a soft fruit that grows and has skin.
Love makes a big boom.
Humiliation is an L-shaped weapon.
Death is a device to tell the time which ticks loudly.
Guilt is made of sugar.
Jealousy is a large carnivorous dinosaur, or an apex predator.

Here was my attempt at Death:
Death is a device who ticks.
He sits on the mantlepiece,
Kicking his heels. His buttons are
Shiny. ‘I must look smart,’
He snorts, then shoots off up the chimney,
Shifting bones off his sleigh.
Yesterday I saw him on the
Tube. He yanked a man’s hand.
His eyes burned brightly; he looked almost
Holy. You can’t shut the door on him.
He’ll crawl through the cracks.
Root in your drawers,
Steal your toys.
When he’s finished, he’ll shrug, and
Snake off, whistling, to some other
Poor fool, clacking his teeth, and smiling.

Denzell Gardens Literary Festival

To bosky Cheshire, for the second Denzell Gardens Literary Festival, which takes place in the grounds of a Hogwartian country house. It's the sort of event that makes you feel that all is right with the world - face-painting, cupcakes, button-making and Pimms (the last of the year, I fear.) I was on after Adam Perrott, whose antics involving foam, balloons and safety glasses had the children in a rollicking good mood; he is the author of a book for 5-8s called The Odds, which features a family of Meddlers that enjoy causing trouble. I won't spoil the surprise; but let's say that it was explosive.

I read passages from The Other Book and The Liberators, introducing a more sinister element. It feels a little strange reading from The Other Book as it was so long ago (well, four years) - it's amazing how much you change and grow in relation to your own writing. It was very enjoyable, even when a very small child wandered onto the stage and stood just by my chair, gazing up at me. I almost asked him if he wanted to read.

The other events included Tom Williams, who gave a talk about his excellent biography of Raymond Chandler; I didn't know that Chandler was an alcoholic, and seemingly such an unhappy man. Signe Johansen was in conversation about her new book, which tells us all how to bake Scandi-style - and she provided some meltingly delicious cinnamon buns. It's not just herrings and rollmops (I'm not sure what they are) you see.

Adam O'Riordan, the poet, who shares two things with me - one, we were both at Oxford together; the second is that we've both been called "Byronic" in print, (with more appropriateness in his case, perhaps, I feel) – gave a gently powerful reading of some poems from his collection In the Flesh. His first novel is due to come out soon.

In between events, a young singer called Jim Caesar-Goddard performed his own songs. Imbued with a kind of scuzzy melancholy, and with wit and intelligence, he held the room entranced; watch this space, I've no doubt he'll be going far.

There were more talks, more Pimms, more tea; the whole thing was rounded off by the best fish and chips I've had in a long time - although I didn't sample the mushy peas. There was a definite North / South divide when it came to the mushy peas.

An enormous thank you to the organiser, Clare Stuart, for putting on such a good show. I've never seen such excellent bunting. Long may Denzell Gardens live.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Why J K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy isn't surprising

I've written a short piece for The Telegraph about J K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. Check it out here.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

A Homeric simile

At some point in my life I want to do (amongst many other things) an in depth study of Homer's similes. I've been dipping (re-dipping?) into the epic recently; the other day I was mightily struck (as if by a spear) by this example:

But the son of Atreus kept plying his attack along the rest of the Trojan line, with spear and sword and huge stones, as long as the blood still gushed warm from his wound. But when the wound started to dry and the flow ceased, then sharp pains began to overcome his strength of spirit. As when a woman in labour is taken with the sharp stab of piercing pain sent by the Eileithyiai, daughters of Hera, who bring the bitter pangs of childbirth, so sharp pains began to overcome the son of Atreus’ strength.
This is Agamemnon, King of the Achaeans, having been stabbed by Koön in the middle of battle; it’s a superimposition of the domestic onto the warlike, a reminder that the mightiest fighter is woman-born and also that women endure perhaps greater pain than that on the field; Agamemnon is the father of his people, so it seems apt that he is compared to a mother in the bloody throes of birth, as death is all around him and blood feeds the ground for a different reason. Homer is so good at showing us inversions of what's going on; always reminding us of other worlds, other lives, and of the endless cycle of generation and death.

(The translation is Martin Hammond’s fine 1987 version, published in a nifty Penguin paperback which I own that is sadly lacking a few pages from Book VI.) 

Monday, 24 September 2012

Summer Reading Challenge at Cranleigh Library

 A gorgeous September Saturday, and an afternoon at Cranleigh Library handing out medals and certificates to the children who'd completed the summer reading challenge. It was a charming afternoon, and really wonderful to see so many enter and enjoy the challenge.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Three Sisters by Chekhov at The Young Vic

Gala Gordon: winsome
I went to the Young Vic last night to watch Benedict Andrews’ production of Three Sisters, Chekhov’s play about the decline of the privileged classes in Russia. It was an interesting staging, bare and sparse. The style mashed up grunge (with a brilliantly weird version of Nirvana’s Nevermind on piano and accordion) with tracksuits and bottle green dinner jackets. It starred Gala Gordon as a winsome, affecting Irina, drifting around the stage first in immaculate, bridal white, then in more mature yellow, her desire to return to Moscow almost primal as she clambered up a ladder made from tables. There were strong performances from the rest of the cast, including the doctor, whose drunk scene was a tour de force of blustery bile; a sexy, almost Ab Fabish Masha; a prim, sensible but affecting Olga, and a Natasha who shades from awkward, vulgar ingenue into an egomaniacal monster. In the second half, stage hands appeared to take away the stage, bit by bit, as if the very world around the actors was diminishing. The empty space left still seemed to be enclosed, claustrophobic and frustrated as the lives of the characters.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

First Story Workshop with Caroline Bird

Caroline Bird: Excellent
This year I will be writer in residence at St Augustine's school for First Story, the excellent charity set up by Will Fiennes and Katie Waldegrave. We did some workshops in preparation yesterday with the poet Caroline Bird, in which we wrote poems about abstract nouns.  I don’t write poetry (well, not since I was a teenager and thought poetry meant writing down versions of Nirvana lyrics about blood and hate and so on.) I got "Irritation," and this is what happened.


He’s so small he fits into the
Prickle of your eyelids when
You blink. I see him refracted
When I wake. He sits there,
Pleased with himself,
Holding that damned watch
He’s always winding.
Close your eyes, you say.
No good. That gives him
Full permission. Sometimes he does a
Dance, wheeling, prancing piratically.
Sometimes he pulls his baggage along
Rushing for a train he’ll never catch.
You can’t squash him - I tried once,
With a fly-swatter shaped like a
Tennis racquet. He split, calmly, into
Two - then three - pirouetted - and
They built themselves bungalows
In my ear lobes.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Interview with Sadie Jones at the Hampstead Literary Festival


Hello all,

I’m interviewing Sadie Jones, author of The Outcast, Small Wars and The Uninvited Guests, tomorrow at the Hampstead Literary Festival. If anybody has anything they’d like to ask her, let me know.

Best wishes,


Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Boneland by Alan Garner: review

Garner: bardic
I've reviewed Alan Garner's Boneland for The Telegraph - it's a strange book, and I think I may be the only person in the world to have liked it (of the reviews I've read, anyway). It's certainly not a children's book, but it is rather weirdly marvellous.

****UPDATE: Ursula Le Guin, that great fantasy novelist, has written a great piece for The Guardian about Boneland.****
****UPDATE: Another brilliant fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, has also reviewed Boneland, and has found it good. He did it for The Times. I've so far noted that those who write fantasy seem to like it more than those who don't.****