Thursday, 30 January 2014

First Story: Iphigenia at Aulis

In my First Story session at St Augustine's yesterday we talked about the story of Iphigenia, which has always haunted me (and indeed it features a little in The Liberators.) There were some very interesting responses to the story, including a moving look at it from Clytemnestra's viewpoint, and a lusty Achilles. I came up with a short poem:

Iphigenia at Aulis

This morning
I dreamt flame.
The house on fire
My dress a halo.

I told my nurse.
“It’s love,” she said.
“For Prince Achilles.”

And when we left,
I saw an eagle pounce upon
A running hare.
I closed my eyes.


The fleet! The men, beery and bored,
Shouting. I caught a sailor’s
Eye. Black teeth, stunted limbs.

My father’s tent. Silken, gold,
Shimmering, a thing not meant for
War. And there he was.

Killer prince. Godborn spearstrong
Violent Achilles. My about–to–be
Husband. He took my wrist.

In his eyes, a fierceness, cold and
Bright. The men all roared.
The sea was calm. My heart.

The altar! Smoking, laden with
Fruits. My father, weeping. I wonder:
Where’s my mother?

I turn to where Achilles stands. His
Mouth is open. He points
Behind me. And then I know. 

I know the terrible 
inevitable chain has
Tightened, pulled, strained.

My father holds no wedding wreath.
In his grip a knife. My heart.
One moment. A shout, and hands

Not his, my dress ripped open,
Shadows on the stone
Everything shuts down.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Costa Book Awards: Party! Winner! Coffee! Champagne!

Last night the streets of St James' filled with carousings and calloocallays, for it was the night of the Costa Book Awards. The prize has been going for over forty years, and continues to shine lights on good books.

I was a judge on the Costa Children's Book Award this year, and took great pleasure in deciding the shortlist: Sarah Naughton's creepily excellent The Hanged Man Rises; Ross Montgomery's hilarious romp Alex, The Dog and the Unopenable Door; Chris Riddell's clever, charming Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse; and Elizabeth Wein's moving Second World War saga, Rose Under Fire.

Champagne fizzed, canapés flowed (well, there were lots of canapés) and we were treated to mini-videos of all the authors who'd won their categories and were now up for The Big One, as it's known in the biz. There were lots of scenes of authors coming in and out of doors, and sitting down, and holding pens and looking moody, which, as an author, I can say is certainly what I spend a lot of time doing, particularly the latter two. (In fact I am absolutely sure that I'm sitting down, right at this very moment.)

Lucy Hughes-Hallett was interesting about her repellant subject, Gabriele D'Annunzio, the womanising poet-prince who "told the Nazis how to be Nazis." We also got a glimpse of Chris Riddell's writing shed,  amongst other things. Poet Michael Simmons Roberts, who'd won the poetry category with his collection Drysalter, talked about his method: writing 15 lines - an almost sonnet - was enough for him. No rhyming couplets for Mr Simmons Roberts. Kate Atkinson said that whilst the premise of her novel, Life After Life, in which a woman, er, keeps living and dying all over again, each time subtly different, "annoyed" some readers; but her pleasure in it was enough to confound them.

Guests included the tv presenter Anneka Rice, whose programme, Challenge Anneka, I have fond memories of; novelists Amanda Craig & Raffaella Barker; writer Polly Samson and her husband, Pink Floyd member David Gilmour. I also spotted the actress Natascha McElhone looking all cheekbony and svelte. McCheekbone?

I will confess that I thought Lucy Hughes-Hallett was going to win it, hands bang down, but Nathan Filer got the gong (wearing a bright yellow tie) for his first novel, The Shock of the Fall, which draws on his experiences as a mental-health worker. It's a big trumpet for a debut, and I hope he goes on to great things.

Now, back to the coffee martinis.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Wasp Attack

This year I've been continuing my workshops with St Augustine's C of E in Kilburn, and this week I got them to imagine being really small and to write about an ordinary experience. There were some lovely results, including a kitchen adventure and an uninterested Barbie in a toy shop. I got a bit carried away by it, and wrote this little piece, which I thought I'd put up here. The picture on the left is by Slinkachu, who makes wonderful pictures of little people in the city: website is here.

by Philip Womack

It had been a long Wednesmonth, and we were nearing the middle of it. I’d managed to persuade father and mother that we had almost enough food for the long dark month that was coming up – and so Mindy and I were allowed out of the complex for a bit of fun. We’d scrambled through the tunnels, and nodded to Paul the old porter.
“Coast is clear,” he said, and grumpily opened up the gate for us. We stepped outside, I holding my spear, and Mindy with her little catapult that she was just learning how to use. It was a time of the month when the Nameless Ones seemed to be going about their business in their weird buildings, and so it was relatively safe to venture into the black plain. 
I needed to get out of the complex, anyway: all that darkness, all that walking through tunnels.
            Mindy ran off immediately to the old lake, and started splashing about joyfully. I scanned the vast black desert. There was nothing to be seen. I put down my spear, and relaxed, breathing in the cold wind. It filled me with excitement.
            I could see all the way up to the stone wall, above which the Nameless Ones sometimes trampled. There were the strange tall trees that didn’t put out leaves, stretching up and up to the outer sky.
            As Mindy shrieked and yelped and splashed, I caught the scent of something – that odd, sweet-salty tang that meant some store of food was about. They were so careless, the Nameless Ones, always discarding things that could feed us for months.
            I looked about, and there it was. As big as the entrance hall to the King’s chambers. A thick container resting against the stone wall, and it was half full of the hard loaf that, despite its tastiness, the Nameless Ones must hate, since they threw so much of it away.
            Did I have time to get it? I wondered. It was a fair few minutes’ hike. I saw Mindy’s tiny figure wading about in the edges of the old lake and thought – she’s old enough to take care of herself for a bit. That prize is good enough. It’ll last the tribe for ages if I can drag one of those loaves back.
            So I picked up my metal spear, and set out across the black plain, past the yellow road that ran in double lines, that led to the centre of the Nameless Ones’ city, a place so terrifying we never went there. I scrambled over boulders, keeping the smell of the loaves in my nostrils. I was salivating. I began to feel adventurous. I imagined the scene: sweating, dirtied and bloodied, I would heave the loaf into the complex, and be met with the praise due to a returning warrior, and the King’s daughter would smile at me and maybe later we would dance.
            The smell was almost overpowering now. I was nearly there. I caught Mindy’s happy squealing on the wind. High above me towered layer upon layer of the thick, crunchy loaf. I considered the prospect. I’d be able, if I tried, to pull one out from near the middle. I grabbed hold of its thick edge – my hands smarting from the sharp white rocks of salt that covered it – and began to pull.
           Then I heard it. Mindy. She wasn’t yelling with joy. That was fear – worse, horror. I whipped round and saw Mindy splashing as fast as she could out of the old lake.
            Whirring angrily above her, its heavy wings clashing, its vicious weapons glinting, and its eyes, its hideous eyes, was that terror of the plains, in all its black and gold striped glory.
            I ran. What else was there to do? I left behind the prize, my tribe’s sustenance. I sprinted over the black desert, waving my spear angrily. The monster was making long, lazy circles around Mindy. She looked so small and frightened, she might have been a doll.

“Help!” she screamed. “Garmond, help!” She took shelter behind a boulder. The monster spun its cruel circle, and I took aim. Mindy yelled. I hurled the spear with all my might, hoping it would reach its target.
            “Run!” I cried. It didn't seem to take any time at all, and yet it felt like forever. I watched as my spear hit the thing sideways, not piercing its armour. It wobbled, knocked a little off course. Mindy was running back to the gate. The noise had caused the porter to open it, and he was peering out anxiously. Mindy neared the entrance.
            Weaponless, I ran, the monster’s fearsome buzz filling the skies. My sister’s face, white, staring at me. The porter’s mouth, open. His arms outstretched. The shadow of the monster on the plain. I tripped, and fell, and rolled over onto my back, and saw the creature, its sharp sting extended, making straight for me.
            Death. I closed my eyes. What would it mean? We all lived out through the months, from the Moon’s to the Sun’s, seven months a year. Some of us lived to 120 or so. I’d reached 24. I had so much left to live.
            I braced myself. The noise was too much. I heard the monster’s wings, and I heard it preparing to strike.
            And then a thump. A thud. 
The whirring stopped, and a low buzzing, fitfull and quiet, replaced it. 
I opened my eyes.
            The monster was on its side, a gash leaking out some horrible liquid. It was twitching, angrily. But it was dying. My sister was waving me in. She’d shot the beast with her catapult, and the porter had followed it with a spear. I cried out my thanks.
            They carried me inside. That night, at the feast, I caught the eye of the princess, and she smiled at me: the boy who’d faced a monster, and lived.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Books of the Year for 2013

Parade's End: still enthralling
As 2013 gets put away into the cupboard, and 2014 sits quietly in its box waiting to be opened, it's time for my annual list of my books of the year. I haven't done as much reviewing this year as usual, what with judging the Costa Children's Book Award, amongst other things, but a few new books did strike me as being worth a look.

Otherwise, I've been continuing to read Peter Dickinson, discovering his Changes trilogy , in which Merlin returns to England, casting a spell over the whole island. Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End series has held me in thrall; I've the final book in the sequence to finish this coming year. I've also been catching up on Hilary Mantel, Don DeLillo, and the two Fitzgeralds, Penelope and F Scott. Those early Mantel novels are darkly, acidly wonderful; Don DeLillo's prose is a thing of chiselled, crazy beauty; Penelope Fitzgerald I could rave over for days; but I must admit to being a little disappointed with F Scott's first novel. It had moments of mercurial brilliance, though, and is still worth looking at.

I can heartily recommend reading Shakespeare on your iPhone - for some reason, the plays seem to fit the screen very nicely.

My two favourite novels of the year were both clever and playful takes on fiction and writing. First Novel by Nicholas Royle saw an extremely unreliable narrator's past come to light in gripping fashion.

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux was a highly enjoyable sci-fi-ish romp containing enough golems, Dr Johnson references and layers of narrative to keep anyone happy. 

I also enjoyed the return of Nigel Williams, with Unfaithfully Yours, a witty and dark epistolary novel; and John Harwood's The Asylum was a welcome addition from the Gothic master. Neil Gaiman's selection of fantastical stories, Unnatural Creatures, introduced me to many writers I hadn't come across before - in particular, Peter S Beagle, whose story about a bored aristocrat inviting Death to her ball was both moving and beautiful.

Anna Stothard's third novel, The Art of Leaving, is a well-textured, finely-organised thing: evocative of damp, dirty Soho, it tells the story of a girl who can't stay with men. Her fantasies and her growing suspicions are played out amongst a wonderfully-realised London. And, although it didn't come out this year, I was pleased to discover Benjamin Wood's The Bellwether Revivals - a mightily accomplished first novel, set in Cambridge, which manages to avoid all the usual Oxbridge novel clichés and is both well-constructed and involving.

Also recommended is a little experiment: Paul Griffiths' Let Me Tell You (2008), which takes the words of Ophelia in Hamlet and makes something original and strange out of them. (I came across a mention of it in a review by Adam Mars-Jones in the London Review of Books this August.)

Non fiction

The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne is a lively reappraisal of the novelist, putting her into the wider context of her time; C S Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath was a little dry, but very good on explaining the importance of Christianity in Lewis' works. Horace and Me by Harry Eyres was a memoir-cum-homage to the poet with its own elegance and wit.


The only (new) volume of poetry I've read this year is Robin Robertson's Hill of Doors; it is a thing of light and wonder.
Children's Books

I've done several children's book round ups this year, not to mention judging the Costa Children's Book award, so I will only mention one that I thought should get more attention: Ann Kelly's Runners, published by Luath Press: a carefully-wrought account of a post-apocalyptic Britain.

Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King: review

Hello, and Happy New Year! I've reviewed Tonke Dragt's children's classic, The Letter for the King, for The Guardian. Read it here.