Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The Arrow of Apollo at 30 %

Good news: The Arrow of Apollo is now 30 % funded on Unbound. Have a look at the pledge page here.

Lewis Carroll & J M Barrie

This year I've had the pleasure of teaching the Children's Literature Course at Royal Holloway. It's a wide-ranging course, beginning with ideas about what children's literature might be; taking in Rousseau, the Romantic Child and the heroes and heroines of fairy tales, through Lewis Carroll, school stories, J M Barrie, and onwards to the phenomenon of Harry Potter, among many other texts.

One thing that struck me in my research was this: that there was no hint of suspicion about the sexual proclivities of either Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) or J M Barrie. The default position, which I have discovered in many conversations with friends and acquaintances, is that "there must have been something odd" about their interest in children. But was there?

Charles Dodgson was certainly an odd man:  but he was also a Don at Christ Church, and therefore had to be celibate. The children whom he befriended remained on good terms with him throughout their adult lives. Some point to the destroyed pages of Dodgson's diaries, which may well refer to the reason that Alice Liddell's mother gave for refusing his offer of marriage to Alice; but the general opinion seems to be that Mrs Liddell thought that Dodgson wasn't quite good enough for Alice. (She also, it seems, refused Prince Leopold - because she knew Queen Victoria wouldn't approve. Off with her head, indeed.) People point to the photographs he took of girls (there is only one that, at a stretch, can, with modern eyes, seem sexual): yet scholarship has firmly placed these into the artistic context of the time, showing the influence of other photographers on Dodgson, who was widely regarded as one of the most accomplished amateurs of the day. Why is it then that people want to cast this eccentric, intelligent, talented, harmless man as someone with sexual interest in the subjects about which he wrote so lovingly? (That's not even talking about drugs: many of the people I spoke to were convinced he must have been off his head. The only thing that Dodgson was interested in was making sure the wine cellar at Christ Church was full.)

The same is true of J M Barrie. In one conversation, I mentioned that Nico Llewellyn-Davies, the last surviving of the brothers for whom Barrie wrote Peter Pan, was interviewed toward the end of his life. Here is what he said:

“All I can say is that I, who lived with him off and on for more than 20 years: who lived alone with him in his flat for five of these years: never heard one word or saw one glimmer of anything approaching homosexuality or paedophiliacy — had he had either of these leanings in however slight a symptom I would have been aware.”

He also said:  "Of all the men I have ever known, Barrie was the wittiest, and the best company. He was also the least interested in sex. He was a darling man. He was an innocent; which is why he could write Peter Pan."

The response to this was that another brother, Peter, had killed himself. But there were many reasons for Peter's suicide: he was ill; he was an alcoholic; he was worried that he had passed on a hereditary disease to his children. The idea that his suicide was a reaction to historic abuse by Barrie seems, well, a little stretched.

My research into these subjects has not been extensive, I will admit; limited to the texts themselves, and a dozen or so biographical and critical sources. But innocence is the quality that attaches itself to both Dodgson and Barrie. They were complicated men, it is true. Barrie was probably asexual. But should that mean that they are judged by the present, by arbitrary standards?

When reading these texts, let them speak for themselves; let the lives of the authors speak for themselves. Sometimes innocence and childish, or child-like pleasures are simply what they are: and sometimes innocence can also come from an adult mind.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Mother Land by Paul Theroux: review for the Times Literary Supplement

I've reviewed Paul Theroux's latest novel, Mother Land, for the Times Literary Supplement. Read it here.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Pyjama Power: Tatler

I've written a piece about pyjamas for Tatler. You can read it in this month's edition - not online, so have a look at the lovely print edition.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Children's Book Round Up: Literary Review, December 2017

Hello, my Christmas round up of children's books for Literary Review is in the December / January issue, featuring:

Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend
The Land of Neverendings by Kate Saunders
Mike by Andrew Norriss
My Side of the Diamond by Sally Gardner
The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
Witchborn by Nicholas Bowling
Christmas Dinner of Souls by Ross Montgomery.

Read the full piece here.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Interview with Kate Saunders in Books for Keeps, and Children's Books of the Year in BfK

My interview with Kate Saunders, about her new book, The Land of Neverendings, is in this month's Books for Keeps; also in the issue is my books of the year. Have a look at another wonderful, packed issue of the children's specialist title.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet: review

I've reviewed Graeme Macrae Burnet's latest novel, The Accident on the A35, for Literary Review. Subscribers can read it here, or you could avail yourself of the lovely print edition.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Writing for Children vs. Writing for Adults

Here's my piece on writing for children for the TLS.

Monday, 23 October 2017

The Arrow of Apollo by Philip Womack launches on Unbound

Today is a great day: I have launched The Arrow of Apollo on Unbound, the wonderful crowd-funding publisher. I'm very excited about this - partly because they make such beautiful books, but also because it's a chance for this idea to reach an audience directly. There is a synopsis below, but you can read more here on the Unbound website.

The gods are leaving the earth, tempted by other worlds where they can live in peace. Only a few retain an interest in the mortals left behind, including Hermes, the messenger god, and Apollo, Lord of Light. Other, darker, more ancient forces are wakening, and threatening to take over.
In The Arrow of Apollo three teenagers encounter increasingly perilous situations in order to defeat Python, the most terrible enemy of all. It draws freely on Greek and Roman myth, whilst telling stories that have not been told before in a gripping, fast-flowing tale for boys and girls aged eleven plus, combining literary quality with an absorbing plot.
In The Arrow of Apollo, two opposing houses are forced to come together to face a terrible danger. Silvius, son of Aeneas, of the Italian House of the Wolf, is given a task by a dying centaur. The dark god Python is rising and massing an army of unstoppable force. The only thing that can save the world is the Arrow of Apollo - but it was split into two.
Against his father’s wishes, Silvius and his friend Elissa must travel to the land of their enemies, the Achaeans.
Meanwhile, Tisamenos, the son of Orestes, is facing his own dangers in the kinghouse of Mykenai. A plot is afoot against both him and his father, and he is the only one who can stop it.
When Silvius, Elissa and Tisamenos meet, they enter a final, terrifying race to reunite Arrowhead and Shaft, and destroy the army of the Python.
There’s one more problem: a prophecy tells that one of them will die.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Saturday, 23 September 2017

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge: review

Frances Hardinge
I've reviewed Frances Hardinge's new book, A Skinful of Shadows, for The Guardian. Read it here.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Philip Reeve Interview Books for Keeps

Philip Reeve
I've interviewed Philip Reeve, author of Railhead, among many other titles, for Books for Keeps. You can read the interview here.

Friday, 1 September 2017

- Wizards & Werewolves

Hello there, I've done a mini-round up of children's books for Literary Review this month, featuring The Explorer by Katherine Rundell, The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell, Curse of the Werewolf Boy by Chris Priestley, and Behowl the Moon.

- Wizards & Werewolves: ...


By Philip Womack


This novel takes place in the aftermath of the Trojan War, a great conflict that saw the city of Troy burned to the ground by the Achaean coalition. The fall of Troy echoes throughout literature and throughout history, and much has been written about the returns of the heroes: how Aeneas went to Italia to build a new city, which would in time become Rome; how Agamemnon came back to  Mykenai to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and how his son Orestes avenged his death.

Very little has been written about their children. A time when myth begins to shade into history; when the gods are leaving the earth. THE ARROW OF APOLLO is set when the returning heroes have grown old, and their children must face new troubles: both from the ancient past, and from the living present.

House of the Wolf

AENEAS - leader of the defeated Trojans in the city of Lavinium, in Italia. Father of Silvius.
LAVINIA - wife of Aeneas, mother to Silvius. A native Italian.
IULUS - Aeneas’ eldest son, by his Trojan wife, Creusa. Leads the colony town of Alba Longa.
SILVIUS - second son of Aeneas, by Lavinia.
BRUTUS - youngest son of Aeneas, by Lavinia.
ELISSA - orphaned daughter of Anna Perenna, a princess who was sister to Dido, Queen of Carthage.

Kinghouse of the Lion

ORESTES - King of Mykenai, son of Agamemnon.
HERMIONE - first wife of Orestes, now deceased.
ERIGONE - second wife of Orestes. Daughter of Aegisthos.
TISAMENOS - son of Orestes by Hermione.
PENTHILOS - son of Orestes by Erigone.
HERO - half-sister of Orestes. Daughter of the Trojan prophetess Cassandra, and Orestes’ father Agamemnon.
ELECTRA - sister of Orestes.
AGATHA - nurse to Penthilos.

Lavinium, Italia: House of the Wolf

AN eagle cast its shadow over Silvius’ eyes as he gazed at the sun sinking behind the hills. The raptor hung on a thermal for a moment, before swooping down onto its prey, out of sight.
    Silvius turned his attention back to the dusty, stony road spooling out eastwards in front of him, past the marshes and into the wooded, grey-green hills. He adjusted the leather straps of his helmet, which was beginning to weigh down on his black curls, and paced the length of his wall patrol once more. High wooden palisades, taller than he was, rose on either side of a narrow path.
    He’d been on duty since the early afternoon, whilst the citizens of Lavinium went about their business below him, safe within the wooden city walls, bartering, selling,  sharing jokes, starting fights, solving them. The sound of saws cutting through wood was constant, of timber being hauled and stone being hammered. The smell of sawdust carried to him on the breeze.
    There had only been a few traders, coming from the other small settlements scattered near Lavinium, bringing deer skins, bear pelts, wines, olive oils, clay jars and bronze weapons. Silvius’ older brother Iulus had arrived with a party of riders from his nearby colony of Alba Longa, strutting in on a fine dark stallion. Silvius had watched him, unnoticed, from above.
    Silvius longed for something more. Maybe a raiding party, bronze spears glittering like stars. Or better still, if he could see one of the creatures that his father Aeneas talked about with wonder. Aeneas said he’d seen one of the last of the fauns after a boar hunt earlier that year, shy, awkward, and beautiful, disappearing into the woods, human head and torso shading into the shaggy legs of a goat.
    But Silvius hadn’t yet been allowed to fight, even in a skirmish, though it was his thirteenth birthday soon, and he was going to be given his first sword.
    It wasn’t fair. Iulus had been leading the army by the time he was fourteen, when the Trojans had first come to Italian soil, fifteen years ago now, after their long journey over the seas after their city had been burnt to the ground by the Achaeans.
    Silvius lifted his spear, sighting along its length as if about to hurl it at an imaginary opponent; he shouted “Yah!”, and then let it drop to his side.
    Almost twilight, and time for his watch to end. The stars were beginning to glimmer, and Silvius stood for a second watching them. His favourite was Orion, the hunter, and he looked for the three stars that made up his belt, before feeling for the studded leather one that held his own tunic together.
    He was looking forward to going home, where a bowl of warm venison stew would be waiting for him. Then he would go to the small wooden room he shared with his younger brother Brutus, and his hard, straw-covered bed.
    Turning to go, his eye was caught by movement in the distance.
    At first he thought it might be another merchant, rushing late towards the city, eager to get into the walls before the gates were barred. It was no good to be out after dark.
    He looked again. The rider was moving fast, faster than any he’d ever seen before, even at the games they held for funerals. Was he running from something?
    The horse’s hooves were kicking up a huge cloud of dust, pounding the dirt road, and in the dying light it was harder to make anything out. He squinted.
    The rider’s chest was bare, which was odd.
    There was also something strange about the horse’s movement. It was maddened, clearly, but yet the rider seemed a part of it, to flow with it in a way that showed mastery.
    Horse and rider came to the end of the straight section of road that led to the city gates. The rays of the setting sun gleamed off the horse’s chestnut flank.
    A horn sounded nearby. Drusus, the boy on duty on the other side of the gates from Silvius, was making the alarm. A shout went down to the guards below. ‘Close the gates! Bar them! Stranger approaching!’
    Silvius heard the hinges beginning to creak shut.
    ‘Let me in!’ came the rider’s voice, loud, foreign and deep. ‘Let me in!’
    As the sun went down, and the bright moon’s shining beams took over, Silvius realised that coming up the road at full gallop, was a centaur.
How could it be? The centaurs were all meant to be gone, ridden into the stars with the gods. Yet this was a fully grown, male centaur. Fascinated, he watched the centaur’s rippling movements.
    ‘Let me in!’  the centaur called again.
    There was an arrow sticking out of his flesh, in his right side.
    Silvius gripped the top of the wooden palisade.
    He was not meant to desert his post. After a second’s agony of indecision, he went racing down the stairs to the gates.
    The two guards were already drawing them shut.
    ‘What are you doing? Let him in!’ Silvius hung onto the banister.
    ‘Orders of Aeneas!’ barked one of the guards, a skinny, cold-looking man, face smeared with smuts and dust. ‘No strangers after twilight. And that is definitely a stranger.’
     Silvius couldn’t let that happen. He had to see this centaur, talk to him, find out what he wanted. So he leapt down the final two steps to the dusty ground, and pushed his way in front of the guards.
    The other one, thickset and dark, muscles bulging as he heaved the bolt across, turned to swat him away.
    And that gave Silvius enough time to dodge him, set his shoulder to the bolt, push it upwards, and kick the left hand gate open as hard as he could.
    ‘What are you doing?’ shouted the thickset guard, roughly. ‘I’ll have you up before Aeneas! You’re deserting your post!’
    But before the guard could say anything more, the centaur was through the gap and into the city, scattering the dispersing citizens. The guards rushed, too late, to close the gate behind him.
    Silvius caught a glimpse of a long tawny mane of hair, a sweating, ridged, hairy torso, and a steaming chestnut flank, bloodied and foaming.
    The magnificent being swayed, and then, his front forelegs crumpling, he fell to the ground, sending dust flying upwards, his noble head crashing into the dirt. The centaur’s eyelids fluttered, a long lock of his mane obscuring his forehead.
    A circle of onlookers formed around the fallen creature. ‘It’s not possible!’ Blaeso the blacksmith wiped his forehead, still sweating from the forge. ‘A centaur!’
    ‘Kill it!’ shouted the thin guard. ‘Monster!’ He drew his sword.
    ‘Don’t do it!’ Silvius tried to make his voice heard above the throng, pushing his way through until he was near enough to the centaur to smell its sweat. He stood in front of the sword, blocking its path with his body.
    The centaur groaned, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, his whole body shuddered, and he went limp.
    Silvius dropped to his knees, and took the centaur’s head into his hands, brushing the lock of hair away. The crowd was silent for a moment, until someone, whistling, went back to his task, picking up his cart of apples from where he’d left it. ‘He’s dead…’ said another.
    The blacksmith began to wonder what they might do with the body.
    Silvius couldn’t bear it. ‘Please!’ he whispered. ‘Please…’ He wept, and his hot tears fell onto the centaur’s eyes, and he cradled the centaur’s head, heavy in his hands. ‘I thought you’d all gone…’
    He released the head, laying it gently on the ground, and sat back on his heels to look at him. ‘We should bury him. Bury him like a prince.’
    He felt an arm on his shoulder. It was  one of the guards. ‘Time to go, Silvius. You’ve got to answer to Aeneas.’
    At that name, the centaur’s body jerked. His eyelids fluttered, and his chest rose and fell. Suddenly he raised his head, and, opening his eyes, took a great, deep, horsey breath, and clutched at a casket that hung on a golden chain around his neck. With a roar, he bellowed, ‘Danger. Danger in the hills. Take me to Aeneas. Now!’

Chapter Two will arrive next Friday.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Cheltenham Festival: Fantasy event with Philip Reeve, Melinda Salisbury and Alice Broadway

I'm chairing what looks set to be a fantastic fantasy (apols) event at the Cheltenham Festival this year on the 7th October. You can find out more details here: I will be talking to Philip Reeve, Melinda Salisbury and Alice Broadway about their works.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Pea Green Boats: Summer Sale

Hello there! My books are in the Pea Green Boats Summer Sale: check it out here.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Review of The Liberators in Books for Keeps

I was absolutely delighted to see a review of my second novel, The Liberators, in Books for Keeps. This book came out in 2010 - a long time ago now, it seems. It was very well received, both by the reading public and by reviewers; and yet, about a year ago, it disappeared into the huge hinterland of out of print titles. I've long quietly hoped for a re-issue: I hope this review might help bring it back into the world. You can read the review here - and what is even nicer is that it was by a reader, who came across it, presumably, on the shelves of a library: in other words, the serendipitous delight brought by physical browsing.

I've learnt, I hope, a lot about writing, and specifically writing for children, in the last decade; but I do have a special fondness for this, my strange, dark, second novel. The themes of The Liberators - myth, financial crisis, excess, rioting, the role of art, the city as threatening space - are still relevant today, and I hope that it will continue to reach readers, in whatever form - whether it's a well-thumbed second hand copy, the excellent audiobook read by Tim Bruce - or perhaps even a new, shiny edition.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Workshops at Pickled Pepper Bookshop, August

I'll be doing some creative writing workshops in August, from the 7th-10th, at the wonderful Pickled Pepper Bookshop in North London. You can book here.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Summer Reading 2017

1. The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell

Volume 3 in the Dance to the Music of Time quartet, this third volume sees Nick Jenkins consummating his love for Jean, and also attending an Old Boys' dinner which descends into farce (initiated by the appalling Widmerpool.) The figure of Mrs Erdleigh, a tarot card reader, bookends the novel. Powell's long, arch sentences stretch are full of apt observations and wry, ironic moments.

2. House of Names by Colm Toibin

Toibin's spare prose - with nary a descriptive term in sight - is entirely suited to the echoing halls and rocky terrain of ancient Greece. Here he retells the Oresteia, telescoping the time scale, and really pulling out that terrible sense of uncertainty evident in Euripides's version, whilst also managing to hint at some of the grandeur of Aeschylus. Orestes, Clytemnestra, Electra, here become people, as buffeted by chance and questions as any of us.

3. Superpowerless by Chris Priestley
I read this to interview Priestley for Books for Keeps: it's a fine piece of work in which a teenage boy grapples with grief for his dead father by immersing himself in comic books. Priestley has an unerring way of entering the mind of an adolescent male, and there is plenty of drama, sorrow and joy. It is a companion piece to his Kafka-esque Anything That Isn't This, in terms of the way in which it delineates teen male psychology. Priestley's bold illustrations complement the text with energy and style.

4. Caught by Henry Green

This is a novel of the Second World War. It is surprising how little literature has entered into the collective mind regarding this war: we prefer instead to dwell on the First. This details the life of an upper middle class man who enters the Fire Service, and how rumour and sex bubble under the surface, whilst an apocalyptic inferno awaits around the corner. This isn't essential reading, but for Green enthusiasts it's an interesting curiosity.

5. The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald

I'd only read samples of Sebald's writing before, and I was entirely transfixed by this wonderful, erudite, surprising and labyrinthine work, defying genre and convention to make something entirely new. Inspired by Thomas Browne's complex writings, it spans centuries of history whilst Sebald goes on a walk along the Suffolk coast, returning always to the image of the silk worm and its connections with life and death. 

6. Back by Henry Green

Another Second World War novel, this sees the return of an amputee soldier who is placed in a tedious administrative job. There are Hitchcockian hints: his old love has died, and he runs into someone who looks almost identical to her, causing psychological distress and erratic behaviour. The seediness and exhaustion of life in the mid-40s is captured nicely - the suggestive remarks and the random couplings. Again, not essential, but if you're interested in the trauma of war, or how the novel developed during that time
, and particularly in the influence of Green on other writers, then it's worth a look. 


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Amazons: The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World by John Man: review in Literary Review

I've reviewed John Man's book on Amazons, here, for Literary Review: you can read the whole thing in the lovely print edition.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

MISSING FAY by Adam Thorpe: review

Here's a link to my review of Adam Thorpe's latest novel, a mysterious, lucent piece of work, for THE SPECTATOR. Read it here.

Friday, 16 June 2017

THE ADVENTURES OF JOHN BLAKE by Philip Pullman: review, Times Literary Supplement

I've reviewed Philip Pullman's first graphic novel, THE ADVENTURES OF JOHN BLAKE, for The Times Literary Supplement. Check it out here.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Revenge Tragedy Talk at Harrow

Last week I gave a talk on Revenge Tragedy at Harrow. Happening on the school from the road is rather a wonderful experience: as if, turning a corner, you've left London and slipped into another world.

My lecture was, specifically, on Hamlet and The Duchess of Malfi. Revenge tragedy is such a fascinating concept: two people on a stage; one wrongs the other, and then everything spirals out from there. I looked at the origins of the genre, from the House of Atreus' first crimes to their absolution in Orestes; and at the threads that bind Orestes to Hamlet (with a sideglance at Titus Andronicus - and those poor Goths baked in a pie.) I discussed how Hamlet's attitude to revenge is very much linked to memory, and whether he really wants his revenge; and then looked at how The Duchess of Malfi isn't really a revenge play at all. There was plenty more to discuss, and meat (quite literally) for myriad articles.

I note now the aptness of talking about revenge at Harrow: the school of Lord Byron, whose heroes, moody, implacable and aware of their own villainy, can be seen as logical extensions of the revenger. And his links to vampires make it even more fitting: the vampire as revenant, seeking revenge from beyond the grave. Next time...

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Note on Hermes and Robertson Davies' The Cunning Man

The caduceus: two snakes

The rod of Asclepius: one snake
I have in the past couple of years discovered Robertson Davies: author of gripping, humorous, intelligent novels that deal with the human stage. They tend to feature cultured professional men observing increasingly bizarre situations. The Cunning Man sees a doctor trying to reinstate a kind of Paracelsian philosophy into medical practice. He refers often to Hermes and the caduceus as the symbol of medicine, and uses the two serpents symbolically to aid his own practice. He is, of course, wrong.

It's interesting how easily a mistake can become embedded into a culture. Many have noted that the statue of Eros in Piccaddilly is actually Anteros. That kind of mistake is easily forgiven - who on earth has heard of Anteros?

But Hermes has got nothing to do with medicine. His caduceus, or staff, has two snakes entwined around it; somehow it has become associated with the medical profession in America. It does not seem all that appropriate for a god who ushers the dead into the underworld to be the symbol of the profession. It all rests on a simple error of sight: the staff of the god Asclepius, the god of healing, has one serpent entwined around it - an ambiguous symbol, of course; but what a difference a snake makes.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Decline and Fall: a note on the recent BBC adaptation

Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall was one of the first "grown up" novels I read, a recommendation from my prep school headmaster, who was never one not to stretch an imaginative reader. I loved it, of course, though I had no idea what were the dubious sexual indiscretions Captain Grimes had really been "in the soup" for - I just thought he was a cad.

The recent BBC adaptation, starring Jack Whitehall, was beautifully rendered, and successfully captured the meek nature of Paul Pennyfeather set against the grotesques who people his world. It struck me though that the novel's central image of the big wheel at Luna Park was placed in the wrong mouth. The adaptation gave it partly to the criminal butler, Solomon Philbrick (and I can see why it was dramatically necessary to do so), and partly to Peter Beste-Chetwynde; but Waugh gives it to the architect Otto Silenus, in whose mouth it sits much better:

"Now you're a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others. Somehow you got on to the wheel, and you got thrown off again with a hard bump. It's all right for Margot, who can cling on, and for me, at the centre, but you're static. Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic."

This circular imagery is very common to Waugh: people end where they begin, as Paul's career ends where it began, pointlessly.

Finishing the series on Pennyfeather's resurrection and a new Bollinger outrage was a good idea; but it lost the deep poignancy of Waugh's final scene in which Peter, having newly inherited his uncle's title and become the Earl of Pastmaster, comes into Paul's rooms at Scone College: it's apparent that the young man, whose interest in making cocktails at first seemed so charming, is now fast on the way to becoming an alcoholic:

"You drink too much, Peter."
"Oh damn, what else is there to do?"

One of the only truly close relationships in the novel, between the fatherless Pennyfeather and the fatherless Peter, also remains broken: "So Peter went out, and Paul settled down again in his chair," where he reads about the "ascetic Ebionites", and Peter, presumably, dashes off into the drunken night. I think the adaptation suggests that Paul has learned from his time in the centre of the wheel: Waugh  suggests that he doesn't; as if, in fact, he has woken from a dream, or as if his "shadow" has returned to his real body (there is a mysterious passage half way through the book where Waugh talks of a moment when Paul becomes "real", and his "shadow" flits off into the second half.) Round and round and round goes the world; with nobody any the wiser.

A final note: I also must speak in defence of Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington; who in the adaptation is presented as a slippery fellow who'll betray Paul at the first moment. In Waugh he is at least honourable - though he does end up being Margot's lover.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology & Carolyne Larrington's The Norse Myths

I've reviewed Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, and The Norse Myths by Carolyne Larrington for The Times Literary Supplement - read it here (behind a paywall).

In Memoriam: Jeremy Lewis

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Jeremy Lewis, publisher, journalist and biographer. Jeremy was a familiar and welcoming sight on the literary circuit: at launch parties he would hove cheerily into view, canapé in the act of being eaten in one hand, second or third glass of wine in the other, anecdote at the ready.

I knew him from my time at Literary Review, when he would come into the office on occasion as our Editor-at-Large, invariably wearing his blue corduroy jacket; once he appeared rather dazzlingly in a very smart seersucker. If ever the phone rang (which, at Literary Review, was not very often) he would leap up, alarmed, and look round for assistance, to a cry of "Help!" This would extend to computers, which he regarded with mild horror: he would refer to the Microsoft Office icon as "the Henry Moore sculpture."

 He would indicate his approval of a submission with a "rather good, I thought"; his disapproval was shown with a hand to the mouth, in imitation of a yawn, and a waggling of his immense eyebrows. He was an acute observer, picking up the tiniest details of dress or habit, which made his work involving and vivid; he was a brilliant raconteur, and would hold us all mesmerised with his accounts of increasingly absurd adventures in which he, invariably and self-deprecatingly, was the butt.

Even in 2005, when I began at the magazine, he mourned the passing of the old way of publishing life: the long lunches and the bibulous evenings. Though we still managed the odd roustabout, it felt as if we were at the end of a span of time that would never be imitated. No longer would publishers tumble out of darkened restaurants at 4pm, hilarious with wine and good writing: what he called the "Perrier" world had already taken over.

Jeremy was always very kind to younger writers, offering advice and cheery goodwill: his writing was warm, humorous and tinged with a clear-sighted knowledge of human folly. We all loved him in the office, and I will miss his presence hugely.


Latin graffiti in Cambridge: "Locus in domos loci populum"

Romani ite domum: Life of Brian
I've written about Google Translate and Latin before (see here); I never thought the day would come when the hapless machine would be used by protestors in Cambridge to get their message across. As reported by the BBC here, a series of new houses has been spraypainted with the words "Locus in domos loci populum."

Strung together, these words are meaningless. The culprit? Google Translate. If you type "local homes for local people" into the search engine, it churns out "Locus in domos loci populum."

I've been trying to think how to turn the phrase into Latin, but haven't yet been able to come up with much. It's hard to get idioms right: English into Latin translation requires some sure-footed sideways thinking.

What still remains interesting is why these protestors felt that Latin - or rather some approximation of it - might be useful as a tool of protest. Who says Latin is dead? 


Monday, 20 March 2017

Friday, 17 March 2017

Reading at Royal Holloway Boiler House

Photo taken by Eng Soc at RH
Last night I performed a reading from my work at the Boiler House, Royal Holloway University, for their English Society. I very much enjoyed reading from The Double Axe: the first chapter, in which Stephanos kills a white hind and the curse is activated; and also a selection from The Liberators, in which Ivo Moncrieff is confronted by Julius Luther-Ross. There was enough time too to read the moment in The Other Book when Edward lays a dead raven on a tomb; and for the swan chase in The Broken King. It was a real pleasure to be able to read to the students, who asked pertinent and intelligent questions; and also to hear some of them reading out their own work afterwards.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Philip Womack opens new library at Lancing College Prep Worthing

A few weeks ago I took the train down to the South Coast from London - something which I used to do, back and forth, a lot when I was a teenager. It's always a marvel seeing Lancing College rising out of the South Downs, its Gothic spires reaching into the sky. I was very pleased to have been asked to open the new Library at Lancing College Prep, Worthing. There is a news article about it on the school's website, here.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Interview with Christopher Edge for Books for Keeps

Christopher Edge

I chatted to author Christopher Edge for Books for Keeps about his new book, The Jamie Drake Equation. Read it here.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Hame by Annalena McAfee: Review in Literary Review

I've reviewed Annalena McAfee's new novel, Hame, in this month's Literary Review. Go forth and find a lovely print copy of the mag.

Oundle Literary Festival

I'm very much looking forward to visiting Oundle for their Literary Festival on the 6th March. More details here.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Burning Ground by Adam O'Riordan: review

I've reviewed Adam O'Riordan's debut collection of short stories for the Financial Times. Read it here.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Tomi Ungerer

I reviewed the new Phaidon edition of some of Tomi Ungerer's picture books for The Times Literary Supplement. The piece appeared in the Christmas Double issue, out on the 23rd December, and still out this week.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Books of the Year 2016

It's been a bookish year for me, quite literally, as February saw the publication by Alma of The Double Axe, my re-imagining of the Minotaur myth; and May brought the final volume of my Darkening Path trilogy, The King's Revenge, published by Troika. These were my fifth and sixth novels for children, respectively, and I have been working on the next ones too. There has still, somehow, been time for reading, though I have been not doing as much reviewing.

Paul Murray's The Mark and the Void is full of wickedly clever sideswipes at the banking crisis; set in Ireland, it's both exciting and stimulating. I also enjoyed Meg Rosoff's Jonathan Unleashed, which sees a young man seeking love in New York - only his life is quietly influenced by his dogs.  Susan Hill's The Travelling Bag was full of terrifying revenants: the final story being very finely conceived and executed, reminiscent of the weirdness of Robert Aickmann. 

Non Fiction

I haven't read much this year, on account of still being embroiled in Robert Tombs's epic history of the English, and Norman Davies' enchanting accounts of lost kingdoms; not to mention my never-ending engagement with Pepys; but I have been very much enjoying Frances Wilson's lush biography of Thomas de Quincey, Guilty Thing; and Edmund Gordon's life of Angela Carter is visceral and lively. Published recently in paperback was Peter Stothard's Alexandria: The Last Days of Cleopatra, a magnificent memoir cum biography cum travelogue about how things work, how history is made, and how reflections occur through time.


The publication of Seamus Heaney's Aeneid Book VI brought this flawed but beautiful version to light. Somehow both solid and shadowy at the same time, it inspires new life into the Augustan visions of Virgil, and resonates with our inevitable fate. Alice Oswald's Falling Awake plays with form in its attempts to represent time itself: the verse brims with taut, beautiful imagery.


I had a George Eliot year, beginning with Middlemarch, which must rank amongst one of the best novels ever written. Psychologically acute, expansive,  witty and intelligently observed, moving like a symphony with grand moments, intimate ones, gentle ones and tragic. I followed it with The Mill on the Floss, which physically moved me to tears as the great flood sweeps away the mill and its inhabitants. This was somewhat lightened, fortunately, by Silas Marner, the story of an old man given new life by a child. I'm now girding my loins for Romola, which has been eyeing me from the shelf for ages.

I have also been rediscovering Aldous Huxley, reading The Genius and the Goddess, a wondrous novella about memory and narrative; and Time Must Have a Stop, about a young man's coming of age in Italy. Both reissued by Vintage in smart new covers.

And I finally read Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, with its latent power and mystery: a fragmented, urgent masterpiece about love and honour. A disappointment, however, was Wyndham Lewis's The Revenge For Love: a novel about appearances and reality, a savage satire against all its characters, and with a Peake-esque artist's eye for the visual; but the overall sense is one of almost impenetrable

Children's and Young Adult Fiction

It's been an all round excellent year for children's fiction. Ruta Sepetys's Salt to the Sea is a masterpiece of its kind, brutal and tender and poignant, telling the story of a band of refugees racing to reach a ship. Based on a real-life humanitarian disaster in the Second World War, it's harrowing and gripping. 

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel sees a boy given a terrible choice: accept his new brother with congenital defects, or receive an entirely new one, free of faults. It's a knotty, nerve-racking read; similarly, Peadar O'Guillin's debut The Call is a dark fantasy that promises very well for his next work.

For younger readers, I have already mentioned the sweetly brilliant debut of Sylvia Bishop, Erica's Elephant, in which a young girl must rescue a pachyderm from officialdom. Another debut, Lucy Strange's The Secret of Nightingale Wood, stood above the crowd with its assured prose and tender narrative. Piers Torday's There May Be a Castle both thrills and plays with conventional assumptions about children's books. I also admired A F Harrold's haunting A Song From Somewhere Else, in which the other spills into the everday; and I can't not mention the latest installment in the brilliant Lockwood series by Jonathan Stroud: The Creeping Shadow is a huge, highly enjoyable delight.