Friday, 29 March 2013

Donald Antrim review for The New Humanist

Happy Easter one and all, and for your weekend reading, I give to you: my review of two Donald Antrim novels, The Hundred Brothers and Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World. Read them here.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Lady Vanishes: Mystery on the Orient Express

Middleton and Hughes: She's over there!
Smoke, elegance, cigarettes; mysterious plots and evil doctors; imperturbable baronesses and suspiciously burly nuns. Nope, it's not some new Soho nightclub: I finally caught up with the BBC's fine remake of The Lady Vanishes.

The shuttling train provides the perfect acoustic drumming backdrop to a mystery. It's almost as if trains were built for such things: like that other hamaxostichian (ok, I’ve run out of words for train and have fallen back on the classics) mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, this made great play of the claustrophobia and disruption that railway journeys can cause.

Tuppence Middleton was Iris, the not-so-sweet ingenue who suspects something has gone awry; Tom Hughes the dashing young man who comes to believe her. The suggestions of sleazy opulence were nicely done: the beginning, with  Iris's friends (a charming Emerald Fennell, and a brilliantly boozy Daisy Lewis) providing a raucous backdrop to a seemingly idyllic Balkan holiday.

That idyll, though, is a locus amoenus where trouble will happen. When Iris decides to travel home alone, things start to seem a little loopy: at the train station, she has a fall - but was she pushed, or did she faint? Middleton did a good job of Iris' breathless confusion, moving into semi-hysterical conviction. Reflections, smoke, and, most importantly, other people's prejudices and selfishnesses, all conspired to throw her off the scent. Rather than finding herself on this exotic journey, Iris comes very close indeed to losing herself.

It's a gripping, smooth production - and very pleasing to see Julian Rhind-Tutt playing a cad for once.
And one thing the film certainly made me wish for enormously is the return of a dining car - complete with in-car-pianist. It would make a welcome change from the usual mobile phone conversations...

Friday, 15 March 2013

Home Fires by Elizabeth Day: Party

Miss Elizabeth Day
To Lincoln's Inn Fields, for the launch of Elizabeth Day's novel, Home Fires - her second, and a lovely, moving read it is too. The party took place in an officer's mess - perhaps in homage to the military theme, Elizabeth Day was in a striking red dress - and was attended by various literary types (I got told off for having a copy of Wuthering Heights in my pocket, and the London Review of Books in the other), including biographer Andrew Lycett, and novelist Sadie Jones; also present was Molly Oldfield, whose book, The Secret Museum, is hotting up displays all over London.

Home Fires looks at grief and loss: it starts with the burial of the Unknown Soldier, seen from a little girl's perspective. It's written with great clarity and intelligence, and I suggest that you go out and buy it - although as Elizabeth herself said, "it's not a beach read." Go! Buy!

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Robin Robertson's Hill of Doors

Bacchus is, naturally, my favourite divine being (see The Liberators): so I was well pleased to see him play such an important part in Robin Robertson's excellent Hill of Doors, which I have reviewed for The Telegraph, here.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Sebastian Faulks to write P G Wodehouse novel: Woe is me

Neither Bertie nor Jeves are happy about this
As I marmited my toast this morning, the unwelcome news came that Mr Sebastian Faulks is to write a new P G Wodehouse novel. This naturally produced the sorts of qualms in my heart that the voice of one of my mastodonic aunts does. Here is my reaction, on that jolly old p., The Telegraph.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Tripping up at the St Petersburg Ball

PW at home
It is not often that you find yourself galloping through a ballroom with a large transsexual in a pink dress whilst a dancing master in a frock coat calls out the steps. But that is what I found myself doing on a recent Saturday night in Marylebone’s Landmark Hotel.
It was the St Petersburg Ball, an annual event, now in its 19th year, in aid of the Children’s Burns Trust. The patron is Prince Michael of Kent  - who has strong Tsarist blood, being a cousin, twice removed, of Nicholas II.  There was also a young Tolstoy present. The idea is that it’s 1812, and we’re all at the ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. Ideally facing less bloodshed.

I had managed to find a perfect green frock coat with a red and gold collar, which was only a little bit frayed, and a gold and silver waistcoat. “Are you going as Adam Ant?” asked an unkind friend.

When I was at school, if anyone mentioned ballroom dancing it was tantamount to standing on your head and talking in tongues: everyone ran a mile. But it’s one of those things – ballroom dancing, that is, not standing on your head - that in later life you wish they’d made compulsory, like those lessons when they taught you how to wire a plug. Although, to be fair, I haven't the least idea how to wire a plug these days.
As it turns out, the dances are relatively uncomplicated. You only have to pass the lady to your right, do a pas de bas, find another lady, pull her backwards whilst rotating two and half times to your left, all the while reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. That sort of thing. And all of this whilst several terribly grand ladies glare at you because you’ve accidentally trod on their chihuaha. Note to grand ladies: leave the chihuaha at home.

Luckily, at the first (and only) practice I went to before the ball, we had the services of the excellent Stuart, a dancing master who was probably born, spiritually speaking, in the Nineteenth century. His mission was to transform a bunch of malcoordinated twenty-first century types into elegant exemplars of the balletic arts. Harder than it sounds. Stuart glides; I trip. Stuart effortlessly turns as if he’s as light as a souffle; I stumble and clod-hop. Stuart, meanwhile, offers advice to the ladies: “There’s a simple way of getting rid of an unwanted suitor,” he says, and demonstrates driving a stiletto heel through someone’s foot.
The night arrived. So did I, terrified of the stilettoes, and was announced to the waiting crowds as “Mr Philip Wannock.” There were gorgeous embroideries, dainty jewelled shoes, finely stitched cloaks; and the women looked wonderful too, including the two lofty transsexuals, who swept along in trailing gowns, adding some fearsome glamour.

After dinner, we got down to the business of dancing, which, lubricated by generous top-ups of vodka, seemed to flow as if we’d all been doing it since we could walk. There is nothing quite so beautiful as a line of glittering men and women, bowing and curtseying and whirling in time to music (played by the brilliant British Imperial Orchestra), like a flock of well-dressed birds, all orange and pink and gold. My waltzing skills being not quite up to scratch, I was happy to be mostly led by my partner: suffice it to say that I think they made those dances so energetic on purpose. After a few twirls, I was so dizzy I’d have gone along with anything.

Those guests who popped outside for a cigarette would have been treated to the sight of me and a girl polka-ing crazily up and down the street in front of the hotel; back inside, not a few barked shins meant that the waltzes  were characterised by yelps and squeals amongst the elegance. When I came off the floor, grinning madly with my lady in tow, Stuart tapped me on the shoulder, eyebrows raised. “It’s wise,” he said, “not to leave your partner looking like she’s just raced the nationals.”

It was a fine, thrilling night, in aid of an excellent charity: and I’ll certainly be polishing up my pas de bas. Who knows when I might next need them?

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard: review

Homer reading: This is what classics is like
Salve! I've reviewed Mary Beard's collection of, um, reviews, for The Daily Telegraph. Read it here.