The Forum at the Writers' Arms

Go to the forum at the Writers' Arms if you want to start a discussion on any topic that interests you, or if you want to comment on what other people have said.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Howard Jacobson Wins the Man Booker Prize 2010

In a year of many fine novels, and against stiff competition in the short list, Howard Jacobson has won this year's Man Booker prize. Congratulations to him. The Finkler Question is a most worthy winner, a book that describes love, loss and the search for identity among a group of three friends. It also explores the Jewish identity in our time.

It has been called a comic novel, but in truth the book deals serious and sometimes tragic events, but frequently relieved by humour.

While writing the book, three of Jacobson's friends died, events which seem to have influenced his telling of the story. The book is dedicated to them, and the confluence of melancholy and humour is revealed in the dedication: "Who now will set the table on a roar?"

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of The Stars in the Bright Sky, by Alan Warner

The Stars in the Bright Sky, Alan Warner's sixth novel, describes a few days in the lives of six young women friends about to set off on a sort of reunion holiday, a week of sun, sex and stimulants.

Five of the women were together in Warner's novel The Sopranos when, as teenage choristers from a small west coast Scottish town, they were out on the loose and on the razzle. In The Stars in the Bright Sky, the girls are a few years older, in their early twenties. Three of the them are still living and working in the same town. They have cash in their pockets but their lives have hardly expanded, though one now has a baby and the town has a new nightclub. The other two have gone off to university, and one of these has brought along her beautiful, rich, upper-middle class English friend along.

A cultural divide threatens to split those who have left from those who have stayed at home. Manda, a single mother living with her family and now a manageress in her sister's beauty salon, is loud, rude, uneducated, bossy and self-centered, a Guinness-downing chav dreaming of fame and wealth from the lottery and Big Brother. At the other extreme is Ava, the rich English friend who is bright, confident, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. But the old friendships prevent the girls from breaking into two gangs. For all her obnoxiousness, Manda is often the pin that holds the group together, even when it is by uniting the others in their annoyance with her.

Though the story concerns six young women intent on every form of available experience and preferably to excess, this is not chic lit; the author is, after all, a male in his mid-forties. But nor is it fogey lit. There is a certain amount of tut-tutting in the book, but none of it comes from Alan Warner.

The events of the plot are played out in the sterile, commercialised shops, pubs, eateries and hotels of Gatwick Airport, and though for most of the story the characters text, argue, shop, lust and drink, the book says at least as much about how they navigate their way through a culture of class divides, global consumerism, celebrity, of instant gratification and its consequences.

One of the wonders of the book is that Alan Warner manages to allow the reader a degree of affection for the characters - even Manda - no matter how dreadfully they behave, and one of the most touching things about the novel is the charity and compassion that these young women reveal for each other.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of The Long Song, by Andrea Levy

The Long Song is Andrea Levy's fifth published novel, and her first since her award-winning novel of 2004, Small Island, a story of Jamaican migrants to Britain in 1948. In her latest novel, Andrea Levy takes us back to Jamaica in the early 1830s, on the eve of the end of slavery.

The central character and narrator of the story is July, a woman born into slavery on the Amity plantation, the daughter of a female slave raped by Tom Dewar, the plantation's brutish Scottish overseer. While still a child, July is taken by the owner of the plantation on a whim of his fat complacent small-minded sister, Caroline Mortimer, to be her personal slave.

The story is punctuated by frequent instances of casual brutality - the whip, rape, manacles, thuggery - imposed by owners and their agents to enforce property rights and compel obedience, all done (without any sense of irony) to correct what the owners saw as the slaves' savagery, immorality and defiance of God's will. It is not hard to accept Andrea Levy's portrayal of the people who participated and acquiesced in this exploitation as being at best crassly insensitive mediocrities (such as Caroline Mortimer) and at worst vicious thugs (such as Tom Dewar).

Though they might seem themselves as enlightened, civilised gentlefolk, the white inhabitants of Jamaica are portrayed as shallow, exploitative and vicious when their interests are threatened, their lowest instincts barely covered by a layer of civility paid for by the lives and freedom of the people around them. It is a crisis that strips away this delusion of gentility causes the owner, John Howarth, to take his own life.

Andrea Levy's narrative is full of humour that gently masks tragedy and moments of revelation. The violence that Howarth witnessed was perpetrated by a bunch of white thugs dressed up in women's frocks. When Howarth goes to his bedroom and subsequently takes his life, July and her lover are hiding under the bed, she desperate to piddle.

Nor do the slaves of the story escape mockery, especially those who claim some sort of superiority by having association with their white oppressors, either by having a degree of white ancestry or by working in the house rather than the field. This theme is developed in the story of July's son, and subtly turned and brought up to the present day in the last page of the story.

While Andrea Levy has clearly done a great deal of research for The Long Song, I never felt that I was getting the sort of information download that sometimes blights historical fiction. The focus is always on how the main characters, especially July, negotiate their way through the fast moving events.

In a subject as huge as slavery, There can never be one novel that can claim to be the defining interpretation, but The Long Song explores the history of this too long episode and subtly raises issues for our contemporary multi-racial society.

Andrea Levy has an extract from The Long Song on her website.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The National Poetry Competition 2010

The Poetry Society is accepting entries for this year's National Poetry Competition. Click here for details. The closing date for the competition is 31 October 2010. You can enter online or by post. Check the rules for entry on the link above.

The judges this year are George Szirtes, Deryn Rees-Jones and Sinead Morrissey.

The winner of the prize in 2009 was Helen Dunmore with her peom 'The Malarky', which can be read here. Helen Dunmore's novel, The Betrayal, is on the long list year's Man Booker Prize; there is a review of the novel in an earlier post.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The TV Book Club - The Weight of Silence

The last of the summer reads at the TV Book Club features The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf.

The story concerns the disappearance from their homes one morning of two seven-year-old girls, Petra and Calli. Calli is a selective mute, the result of some terrible experience in her young life. The family home is disturbed by her father who travels frequently for work and is also an alcoholic. Her mother tries, but fails, to get Calli to speak, but Petra manages to befriend Calli and starts to interpret for her.

The story takes place over 18 hours or so, during the search for the girls. It is told in the present tense, and in the first person by successive characters (except for Calli who is represented in the third person). Two questions emerge: what has become of the girls, and why doesn't Calli speak?

The contributors in the studio all agreed that The Weight of Silence
is an easy read, a page-turner to read beside the pool. The series is, after all, reviewing summer reads. There were, however, serious doubts about whether the serious issues raised by the book - the horror that Calli has experienced, as well as the realities of alcoholism - are treated seriously enough. One of the TV reviewers said she didn't want to know what had happened; this is after all light ho;iday reading. But, as another reviewer said, if the author wanted to create light summer reading, then she could have chosen a topic better treated lightly.

This episode, the last in the present series, can at the time of writing still be viewed here on the programme's website. The series returns with ten new titles in January.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Edinburgh Book Festival 2010

Today sees the launch of this year's Edinburgh Book Festival.

The range of events is huge. Today's sessions alone include poetry for the under ten, novelists on the Man Booker long list, honour killings in Jordan, elegance in science, and that's not the half of it. Several are already sold out, a testimony to the festival's reputation as the UK's biggest. Click here to find out what is on today.

Friday, 13 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut

In A Strange Room is formed of three sections, each an account of journeys made by the narrator, Damon, and his interactions with other travellers. Which said, it should not be thought that this is travel writing, though it is in part a reflection on the nature of travel, or at least the reasons that provoke Damon to travel.

In the first section, subtitled 'The Follower', the narrator comes upon, Reiner, a German walking along a Greek road. This encounter leads them to visit other sites together, and later they agree to make another journey in Southern Africa. But when this new trip to Lesotho starts, a tension between the two develops, caused so it seems to the narrator by the German's wilful superciliousness.

The second section, 'The Lover', finds Damon travelling through southern and eastern Africa when he encounters three Europeans, a Frenchman and Swiss twins, Jerome and Alice. The friendship that forms through the rigours of the journey sees a sexual attraction, unfulfilled at this stage, develop between Damon and Jerome. They invite Damon to visit them in Europe.

In the third section, 'The Guardian', Damon accompanies a friend, a woman recovering from a serious mental illness, on a trip to India. When the woman suffers a relapse, Damon has to deal with the crisis that develops.

In each case, Damon longs for some sort of contact with his companions that ultimately fails. The journeys involve interaction with uncomprehending local people; they frequently experience the threat of violence and exploitation. Their travels are obscurely motivated; the ruins that they trudge around seem a poor recompense for their efforts. Reiner seems to regard Lesotho as some sort of personal adventure training course. Damon at one point says, "movement has always been a substitute for thought." Later, he says, "A journey is a gesture inscriped in space, it vanishes even as it's made. You go from one place another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there." And yet for all this, Damon's compulsive yearning to travel is an essential fact of his life, and these journeys are profound experiences. The text is his reflection on these experiences.

The book is told largely in the close third person and we witness the events from the perspective of Damon. However, the narrative quite often slips into the first person, recalling these past events. Here is an example from the beginning of the first section, in which Damon sees a man walking towards him:

"When they draw even they stop. The figure is a man about his age, dressed entirely in black. Black pants and shirt, black boots. Even his rucksack is black. What the first man is wearing I don't know, I forget."

A little later in the first section, the narrator says of some ruins that they visit, "I can't even remember what they are now...." The second section begins, "A few years later he is wandering in Zimbabwe."

The essential nature of the text is that it is, despite its sense of immanence, Damon's later reflection on these encounters. At several points in the text, Damon describes the sensation of feeling as though he is watching himself as events unfold, as though he is standing outside himself. For all the drama on the road that the narrator describes, Damon is primarily involved in unsentimental self-examination.

The writing throughout In a Strange Room is sharp, economical and precise. Much of it has the rich intensity of poetry. It is a model of concentrated expression, and for that reason I found reading the book a longer and fuller experience than its 180 pages might suggest. A marvellously good piece of writing.

Poetry surgeries at the Poetry Cafe - 4 October 2010

Writers who would like to have their poems read and discussed by a prominent professional poet might be interested in the poetry surgeries run four times a year at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. The next series of half-hour surgeries is to take place on 4 October. The session with poet and sociologist Carole Satyamurti will take the form of a discussion. You are encouraged to send in a few poems in advance to allow her time to read them.

The poetry of Carole Satyamurti has been published by the Oxford University Press and Bloodaxe, and she has won many awards including the National Poetry Prize. She has taught with many institutions including The Arvon Foundation and the Poetry School. You can read some of her poems here.

The Poetry Cafe, run by The Poetry Society, charges £20 per session for non-members, £15 for members. Check the website for details.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Seabrook College is one of Ireland's premier private schools for boys, and Skippy Dies is the tragi-comic story of several months in the long but fast changing life of the place. The two central characters are the lonely and largely unnoticed Daniel Juster (a.k.a. Skippy, on account of his resemblance to the well known kangeroo of the same name) and his fellow student, the corpulent scientific genius-in-the-making and champion doughnut-eater, Ruprecht Van Doren (a.k.a. Van Blowjob, a.k.a. Van Boner, on account of his being fourteen years old and all his classmates think endlessly and largely fruitlessly of sex). While Skippy stumbles along - way out of his league - in pursuit of haut-bourgeois frisbee-playing man-eater-in-training Lori Wakeham from neighbouring St Brigid's school for girls, Ruprecht refines his machine that will allow him to travel down the tiny strings that link together the 11 dimensions of the universe from Seabrook to some parallel world, and thereby win himself a Nobel prize.

Interwoven with these stories are the lives of other members of this community: disillusioned and directionless Howard, coward and history teacher; psychotic drug-dealing Carl, for whom an early wasteland grave or lifelong encarceration seem equally likely outcomes; Gregory Costigan, Acting Principal, determined to quietly ditch the school's Christian ethos in favour of modern business methods, all the while celebrating the very marketable 140th anniversary.

But while the story evolves the comedy of these characters dreams, it also reveals black tragedy and horror: cancer, sexual abuse, addiction, blackmail, death. It's a great achievement of Paul Murray's that he can make these hopeless and often horrible people so compelling.

Skippy Dies is a tale of huge misunderstanding and a little discovery, of emotional dishonesty and incompetence, of people trying anything - alcohol, the White Goddess, the faeries, drugs, M-theory, sex - to make sense of a life of which they clearly have a slender understanding and less control.

The death of Skippy is the least surprising element of the book because not only is it announced in the title, but also it starts on page 1 and is completed by page 5. Nevertheless, how Skippy meets his tragic end and how others deal with it is the engine that drives the narrative through this 660-page novel. Paul Murray manages to be both moving and laugh-out-loud funny. His portrayal of these sex-obsessed adolescents (and several of the adults), who understand little about themselves or the world around them, is brilliant. Skippy Dies is a long book, the longest on this year's Man Booker long list, but for me the language is always spot on, the narrative stays brilliantly in full sail, and the characters remain vivid and engaging whatever horror Paul Murray calls up for them.

Incidentally, and following on from the last post, Neil Jordan is to make a film adaptation of the book. Who would you cast in the leading roles?

The film of the book

Novels and short stories have of course provided the inspiration for many films. If you take the first ten of the IMDb's Top 250 films as a measure of popularity, half of them are adaptations of a work of fiction:
1 Shawshank Redemption (Steven King's novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption)
2 The Godfather (Marion Puzo's novel of the same name)
4 The Godfather II (as above)
7 Schindler's List (Thomas Keneally's novel of the same name)
9 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey's novel also of the same name).

Add to this list the many well-known and frequently reincarnated characters from Dracula to James Bond, from Romeo and Juliet to Poirot and the debt of inspiration that the movies owe to fiction writers and dramatists is obvious.

But the result isn't always happy. For one thing, turning several hundred pages of fiction into ninety minutes of screen time generally means some things have to be cut. More irritatingly, when a book that you love - and have imagined and visualised and interpreted as you read it - is reinvented by a team of directors, screenwriters and actors, their version can be very different from your own.

Some novelists are clearly very happy to be part of this, often, as was the case with Mario Puzo, working on the film script, thereby earning for themselves a well-deserved extra pile of dosh. But the relationship is not always a happy one.

Graham Greene was one writer who had a very mixed opinion of the efforts of film makers who adapted his books. He was pleased with the films versions of Brighton Rock and The Third Man, both of which he worked on. He also liked the Hollywood version of This Gun For Hire, which he wasn't involved in. However, when directors changed the plot or the characterisation, he became quite irate, as was the case with early adaptations of The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American. And he first viewed George Cukor's film of Travels With My Aunt when it was broadcast on French TV; he turned after ten minutes.

This year, a new version of Brighton Rock has been filmed, and there are reports that Travels With My Aunt and The Fallen Idol may also be remade. I wonder how he would have rated them.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Short creative writing courses at LSBU

The London South Bank University is running three courses in creative writing, starting in September this year. Follow these three links to find out more about the courses:

Introduction to Creative Writing

Romantic Fiction Writing

Writing Prose - Advanced

The TV Book Club - The Devil's Acre

The seventh episode of the present series of the TV Book Club featured Matthew Plampin's second novel, The Devil's Acre, a novel set around the real attempt by US pistol manufacturer, Samuel Colt, to expand his gun-making business into Britain in the mid-1850s.

Britain at this time was moving towards war with Russia and, seeing this business opportunity, Colt moves into premises in Pimlico, Westminster, down by the Thames, where he plans to make his guns. Pimlico at this time was a warren of squalid slums, rank alleyways and courtyards, and fetid drains, and for its conditions and the crime that they generated the area was known as the Devil's Acre, hence the title of the book. Contributors to this episode of the TV Book Club all commented on the strength of the book's description of the London of the time.

But, as Matthew Plampin makes clear in a video interview, the book also looks at the international arms trade, in which Colt can be seen as an early participant. Colt is depicted as an bearlike, aggressive, amoral figure, driven only by the determination to win business, undeflected by the consequences of this commerce in death. Pimlico was close not only to cheap, exploitable labour but also to the seat of government at Westminster.

Into the plot is also mixed a love affair, as well as a planned political assassination by a group of Irish migrants in revenge for the British govenment's response to the potato famine.

The Devil's Acre is, as Joan Blakewell said during the programme, a tale of adventure, intrigue and murder. "It doesn't go down the path of emotional insight. That's taken for granted." Despite a brief and inevitably tedious discussion of whether it was a 'boy's' book rather than a 'girl's', there seemed to be a consensus of approval among participants in the programme, including the Bookaneers reading group from Blackpool, whether for the historical depiction or the adventure, or both.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore's 2001 novel, The Siege, describes the struggle for survival of Russians during the Siege Of Leningrad, an ordeal that lasted 872 days and cost well over six hundred thousand lives through starvation. Principal among the characters of this novel are young sweethearts Andrei and Anna, and her baby brother, Kolya.

The author's latest novel, The Betrayal, finds the characters in the Leningrad of 1952. The couple are now married; Andrei is a hospital paediatrician and Anna an assistant in a children's nursery. Kolya - now that his and Anna's parents are dead - is with Anna and Andrei, a surrogate son for the childless couple. Their circumstances are reasonably comfortable, but their quite life and happiness is threatened by the arrival at the hospital of the dangerously ill ten-year-old son of a high official of the Soviet security apparatus.

Leningrad - and the city is a powerful presence in the book - has recovered from the tragedy of war, but memory of the desperate privations of the siege are still vivid. However, now the greatest danger to ordinary Russians is not a lack of food and fuel, but the arbitrary and often vicious exercise of power by the state bureaucracy. The show trials and other purges murderous are history, but Stalin's paranoid antisemitism finds one final victim. Thus starts the irradication of the baseless, so-called Doctors' Plot.

The Betrayal is an account of ordinary, decent people trying to survive in the particular circumstances of this state which, while laying claim to scientific rigour, is in fact debased, violent and self-serving. Among the many betrayals, large and small, that these circumstances generate, one at least is the betrayal of the efforts and beliefs - however misguided - of those who thought they were working towards a new and better world.

I admit that I have a high regard for those writers, for example Dostoevsky, Orwell, Greene, Coetzee and of course Solzhenitsyn among many others, who illuminate the survival of private individuals in the face of public political forces. Despite the great attention that is paid nowadays by both the news media and fiction to the dangers of crime, political events and the operations of the world's states are I think the greatest inhibition and danger to our happiness and way of life. Helen Dunmore's book tackles this big subject.

Despite the terrible times the novel describes, The Betrayal is ultimately a hopeful book. The efforts, of these individuals at least, to preserve and regenerate outwit the forces of violence and stupidity.

Click here to read an interview in the Scotsman with Helen Dunmore.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A map of the life of Graham Greene

Today's post is a link to a map of the life of Graham Greene. I'd like to start by confessing that this is certainly work in progress, but I hope it will interest people who enjoy the writing of Graham Greene.

He is well known not only for his writing but also for his journeys all over the world. However, unlike many people nowadays who travel as students or during gap years or in their twenties, Graham Greene, who was born in 1904, undertook most of his journeys outside of Europe after the age of fifty. It is true that he went to Liberia and Mexico in the 1930s, travels which are recorded in Journey without Maps and The Lawless Roads. But he made his travels to many of the other places described in his books, including Vietnam, Argentina, Cuba, Haiti, Congo South Africa and Panama, after 1950. Many of the locations that he visited are identified on the map, and more will be added.

Perhaps the stories and locations of many of his novels create the impression that Graham Greene lived the expatriate life of many of his characters. Scobie the passed-over policeman in The Heart of the Matter, Brown the failed hotelier in The Comedians and Fortnum the drunken cuckold in The Honorary Consul spring to mind. Unlike them, however, Graham Greene lived most of his life in England, and only moved to the south of France in late 1965. As you will see, a large number of the tags on the map describe places and events in Britain.

There is a lot still to be done to make the map even approximately representative of Greene's long and active life, and I am sure what is already there could be improved. So I hope that if you come back to the map you'll find something new, and of course if there is anything you would like to add, don't hesitate to post a comment.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Kate Kerrigan at The TV Book Club

The sixth episode of Channel 4's The TV Book Club featured Kate Kerrigan's Ellis Island. Like earlier episodes, this one - which can be viewed at the programme's website - includes a video segment where the author introduces her book.

The novel moves from rural Ireland in the 1900s to New York in the jazz age of the 1920s, and tells the story of Eli Hogan who leaves Ireland to save money in the US so that she can pay for medical treatment for her husband, who has been injured in the war of independence. But in New York, she finds not only cash but also a world of sophistication - lifts, trouser presses, jazz - that is a world away from the simple life back home.

Kate Kerrigan herself describes the book as a love story, but as she says in the video, the book also calls into the question the relationship between money and happiness, money and love.

As several participants in the programme commented, the bones of the story might suggest this is a bit of light romantic fiction. However, all agreed that Ellis Island is more than that. Among the things that appealed to people were the strong sense of place and the description of the time. If anything, several of the programme's readers would have liked more. The overall conclusion of the people in the studio as well as the Guernsey reading group featured this week was that it was a good relaxing read, and more than the simple piece of romantic fiction they had anticipated.

To read more of Kate Kerrigan, visit her website. She has her own blog, kate kerrigan's good room.

If you have read Ellis Island, add your comments below.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Man Booker Prize long list 2010

The long list for this year's Man Booker Prize has been announced, and I have to admit I've been tardy about getting the news out, since the list was announced last Tuesday. The list is given at the bottom of this post.

The short list will be announced on 7 September, and by that time The Writers' Arms will have provided a review of each of the long-listed books. So drop by from time to time to read the view here and add your comments if you have read any of the books yourself.

Andrew Motion, who is chairing the panel of judges, has emphasised that the 13 books on the long list have been chosen "without reference to the past work of their authors." However, if you have read something that one of these writers has published, why not add your comments in order to create a fertile debate here on this year's list.

You may have noticed an interesting dialogue in yesterday's Observer between Patrick Neate and Robert McCrum on the merits of this year's list. It raises the question of what exactly the Man Booker is for. Feel free to add your thoughts below!

The judges joining Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, for the 2010 Man Booker Prize are Rosie Blau (Literary Editor of the Financial Times), Deborah Bull (Creative Director of the Royal Opera House, dancer, writer and broadcaster), Tom Sutcliffe (journalist, broadcaster and author) and Frances Wilson (biographer and critic).

Here is the long list for 2010. Many of these books are only currently available in hardback, which makes them relatively expensive even with the discounts on offer these days. If you follow the links below and hunt around, you may be able to find out when the paperback editions are due out.

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)

Emma Donoghue, Room (Pan MacMillan - Picador)

Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal (Penguin - Fig Tree)

Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic - Atlantic Books)

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)

Andrea Levy, The Long Song (Headline Publishing Group - Headline Review)

Tom McCarthy, C (Random House - Jonathan Cape)

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (Hodder & Stoughton - Sceptre)

Lisa Moore, February (Random House - Chatto & Windus)

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies (Penguin - Hamish Hamilton)

Rose Tremain, Trespass (Random House - Chatto & Windus)

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
(Grove Atlantic - Tuskar Rock)

Alan Warner, The Stars in the Bright Sky
(Random House - Jonathan Cape)

Friday, 30 July 2010

Book Night in Fitzrovia

The North London Reading Group has launched Bookstock, its first literary evening, to be held at 7.30 tomorrow, 31 July, in the upstairs bar at the Blue Posts public house in Newman Street, Fitzrovia.

The group's website says the event, which has been widely announced in the capital's press, is almost sold out already, so if you are in London and fancy a night of books, poetry, comedy and the odd pint then book online now.

Fitzrovia - the area roughly north of Oxford Street and west of Tottenham Court Road - is famous for its association with writers of the thirties, but in fact the area has played host to such diverse writers over the decades as Thomas Paine, Virginia Woolf, Aleister Crowley, George Orwell and Ian McEwan as well as leading literary soaks including Paul Verlaine, Dylan Thomas and Julian MacLaren-Ross.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

UK literary festivals - August

Below are a list of literary festivals taking place in the UK in the coming month. If your festival is not on the list, let us know and we will add you.

Chapel Allerton, Leeds
30 August - 5 September 2010

In 2009, the Chapel Allerton Arts Festival included a mixture of live music, short films, dance and drama as well as stalls and food.

Contact: Pat Hunter
Regent House
15 Hawthorn Road
Tel: +44 (0)113 2371039

4 – 31 August 2010

Though not exclusively a literary festival, drama and poetry are included in more than 1,500 events taking place. Children's shows, comedy and revue, dance and physical theatre, music, musicals and opera, talks and visual art are also represented.

Contact: Owen O'Leary (Press and Marketing Officer)
180 High Street

Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh
14 – 27 August 2010

The Edinburgh International Book Festival describes itself as the largest celebration of books in the world. Without a doubt, there is a great deal to read, listen to, watch and do. Check out the website.

Contact: Amanda Barry (Marketing and PR Manager)
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Scottish Book Centre
137 Dundee Street
EH11 1BG
Tel: +44 (0)131 228 5444
Fax: +44 (0)131 228 4333

31 July - 7 August 2010

The Eisteddfod is the great celebration of Welsh culture in all its forms, a travelling festival taking place alternately in the north and the south of Wales. A great range of musical, literary, theatrical, artistic and sporting events, and more besides, are included.

Contact: Festival Organiser
National Eisteddfod of Wales
33 Bridge Street
NP20 4BH
Tel: +44 (0)845 120 9555/ Ticket Hotline: +44 (0)845 122 1176
Fax: +44 (0)1633 265 104

1001 books you might like to read

You may well have read or at least come across the literary reference book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Without getting too far into what sort of 'must' is being used in the title (presumably must meaning strongly advised rather than required), I'd like to put down a few thoughts about the book, or more specifically, the list in the book. The 'books' in the title, incidentally, refers to works of fiction.

Since the book appeared, there has inevitably been a fair amount of disagreement about what was on the list and what left off. In the healthily disputatious world of reading and writing, where ever serious reader has a shed full of opinions they are eager to share, such disagreement is about as inevitable as night following day.

One of the main criticisms of the list was that there were too many English language writers and some of these authors were over-represented. Perhaps to address this criticism, a new edition of the book has recently been brought out, still with 1001 titles, but with a different mix of novels. Some of the additions were published since the original edition, for example Ali Smith's The Accidental and Ngo Chimamanda's Half of a Yellow Sun. But the greatest number of additions are older books not written in English. Under Satan's Sun, written in French by Georges Bernanos and published in 1926, is now included. From Egypt comes Nawal al Sadaawi's Woman at Point Zero. And from Japan, there is Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki. Carlos Fuentes is now on the list, with his book, The Death of Artemio Cruz.

To accommodate these changes, other writers are now represented by fewer books; Charles Dickens has gone from 10 to 4, Graham Greene from 8 to 5, Ian McEwan from 8 to 3, Margaret Atwood from 6 to 3, and J M Coetzee from 10 to 5. Not that all this will end the arguments. Admirers of Dickens and McEwan will no doubt feel they've been done. And only one book from Carlos Fuentes? Where's the justice in that? And quite right, too. It's all an excellent source of pub discussion for those who don't greatly care whether England plays the 4-4-2 formation or who replaces Maradona, and especially for those who have no idea what 4-4-2 or Maradona are.

But does the inevitable disagreement reduce these lists to irrelevance? I don't think so. I've come across several books on them that I might not have found otherwise and they've prompted me to read people who I already knew about but had not got around to exploring.

Incidentally, the writer of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is a professor at Sussex University. In today's Guardian Gabriel Josipovici, also a professor at Sussex and formerly a professor of comparative literature at Oxford, is reported to have said many of the most prominent contemporary British writers - the likes of Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie - are unworthy of their prominence and virtually indistinguishable. Josipovici seems not be a fan of creative writing masters programmes either. Perhaps he could be persuaded to give us his list of novels not to be missed.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The TV Book Club - Stone's Fall

Episode five of the current series of Channel 4's The TV Book Club focused on Iain Pears' novel Stone's Fall, published by Jonathan Cape in 2009.

Iain Pears, author of a dozen books, has also worked as a journalist and art historian. He is the author of the series of detective novels featuring the adventures of art historian Jonathan Argyll.

Stone's Fall begins as a detective story in the London of 1909, when a journalist, Matthew Braddock, is paid to investigate the bequest to a child by John Stone, whose death from a fall in St James's Square, London opens the narrative. The second part of the novel moves back in time to Paris in 1890, and the third part to Venice in 1867. With successive shifts in time, each with a different narrator, more of the mystery generated by Stone's death is explained.

The book's narrative thrust and the complexity of the plotting found favour with the TV Book Club's commentators, as did the deliniation of the characters. Reviews in the press have also been generally very positive. If you have read Stone's Fall or any other of Iain Pears' books, why not post a comment below?

Just a closing thought. How would you compare the crime fiction of Iain Pears - an art historian - with the detective fiction of Fred Vargas, the French historian and archaeologist?

Episode five of the TV Book Club can, at the time of writing, be watched on Channel 4's website.

Patrick Eden wins the CWA Debut Dagger for 2010

Patrick Eden has won this year's Debut Dagger, awarded by the Crime Writers' Association for his novel, A Place of Dying. The novel is described as an atmospheric noir tale. The Debut Dagger is open only to authors who have yet to have a novel commercially published. However, the prize often attracts the attention of publishers and we can hope to see Patrick Eden's book in bookshops at some time in the future.

Sandra Graham was also highly commended for her novel, Case No. 1.

The judges' decision was announced at this year's Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate on 23 July. See my post on 15 July for more information about the festival.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Tindal Street Press, publishers of Beauty, and their advice on short story writing

The other day, I was looking at the webpage for Beauty, Raphael Selbourne's first novel (and also the winner of Costa's first novel award). This book is yet another example of the fine writing that comes out of the independent publishing houses, in this case Tindal Street Press.

Beauty is the story of a twenty-year-old woman of Bangladeshi ethnic origins who returns to the UK, having fled an abusive arranged marriage. The encounters she makes with life and work outside her own commmunity (in particular with a friendly, Staffordshire Bull Terrier-breeding ex-offender and a middle-class underachiever) bring her to examine her life and her family responsibilities. The quality of the writing and the depiction of contemporary Britain has won the book praise from Maggie Gee and newspaper reviewers.

The book is also interesting in that it appears to go against the recent convention that novelists should not attempt to write about main characters outside of their own culture. That has always seemed a debilitating and silly bit of self-censorship to me. Surely it would depend on what is written in each case, rather than some bossy general principle. And in any case, is the quality of a genuinely multi-cultural society that no one ever says anything about anyone else in case they tread on someone's toes, or is such a society one where people (including writers) genuinely try to understand and interact with the people living around them? Nor, of course, do we place the same restriction on foreign correspondents, film makers or soup opera writers.

While I was on the Tindal Street site, I came across their series, the Short Story Challenge Master Class. The ten essays, originally published in the Birmingham Post, offer the advice of some Tindal Street authors on short stories and how to write them. If you haven't come across them before, why not check them out? The page also has links to the Tindal Street Press's submissions procedures.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The TV Book Club - The Bed I Made

Lucie Whitehouse's The Bed I Made was the subject of this week's episode of The TV Book Club on Channel 4.

From the beginning of the book, it is clear that the main character, Kate, is on the run, though from what we do not at first know. Kate, a lonely woman living in London, has met and been taken in by Richard, a man whose confidence and glamour conceals something very dark. What follows explores the development of an abusive relationship.

The building unease created by the narrative means that this is more than simply a relationship story and involves, as the author herself says, a thriller element. The Isle of Wight, where she had before been happy and to which she now escapes, becomes a prison and where Kate, isolated and vulnerable, has to deal with the situation that she has got herself into.

You can view the episode at the programme's website. Should you wish to participate on air in a future programme, you might be interested to learn that Channel 4 is looking for reading groups who would like to feature in the next series of The TV Book Club. To find out more about how to apply, click here.

The Bed I Made is Lucie Whitehouse's second published novel and is published by Bloomsbury. To read more about what inspired the author to write The Bed I Made, click here.

If you would like to add your views about The Bed I Made, why not post a comment below?

Allan Guthrie's Savage Night, from Polygon

If the economic mess we're in  has one benefit, I suppose it's that there are some great bargains about (if you have the spare cash to pay for them). This certainly extends to bookshops. I hate to think what these cut-price deals are doing to authors' incomes, but at least these incentives are getting people to buy books. I came across an extreme example of this when I went into a branch of British Bookshops a couple of weeks ago.

As I was casting my eye along the shelves, I noticed the Polygon label on the spine of a book. Polygon is one of the independent publishers that I wrote admiringly about a few weeks ago. The independents often bring out interesting books that, I suppose, don't fit the profiles that the big publishers work to. So I pulled the book from the shelf.

It was Allan Guthrie's Savage Night. It is Guthrie's fourth novel, and like the others is a crime novel of the hardboiled variety. There are no gentle lady gardeners in hot pursuit of erring butlers through the cucumber-sandwich-strewn gazibo here. This is a story of revenge between hard core Edinburgh villains, and instead of cucumber sandwiches there is blood and body parts.

The narrative writhes and surprises, tracking back and forth in time and between the various protagonists. The writing is both vivid in its description of the bloodletting and also at times very funny. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I wasn't surprised to find that brilliant writers such as Ian Rankin and Val MacDermid are fans of Guthrie's writing. If you come across Savage Night I would whole-heartedly recommend it to you.

Incidentally, when I came across the book in bookshop, it had been marked down from £8.99 to £7.99, and then further reduced to £3. But when I got to the till, the cashier told me it was now only £1. Which is a bargain, of course, but how can that even pay for the paper and the delivery costs? You can imagine how little money I put in Allan Guthrie's pocket in exchange for his very gripping story. But if someone reads this post and buys a copy, I'll feel that I've done something to repay him!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate

Four days of crime in the charming Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate awaits those with a propensity for that sort of thing. From 22 to 25 July, some of the biggest names in crime fiction - too many in fact to single any out here - will be participating in the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Check out the website for its extensive list of events. Check out the prices, too. The winner will also be announced of the competition for Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, for which the votes of readers are still being sought. Vote here.

For those that practice the gentle art of literary murder, two events stand out. One is Creative Thursday when, from 9.00am to 5.30pm at the Crown Hotel, workshops and a Q & A session allow crime writers to hone their skills. There is also a chance for writers to present their ideas to a panel of literary agents and editors in a two-minute pitch, in a session they call The Dragons' Pen (geddittt!). Finally, the winner of the alibi Search for a New Crime Writer Competition will be announced at a reception that is invitation-only, but for which invitations can be had by booking a Creative Thursday place. Check out the website for details.

The other event of particular interest to writers is The Crime Writers Association Dagger Awards to be held, also at the Crown Hotel, on Friday at 6.00pm. Among their many awards, the Debut Dagger provides another opportunity for an emerging crime writer to gain the attention of publishers and agents. It runs every year. Submissions for this year's prize closed in February and the winner will be announced at Harrogate. But that doesn't mean you can't apply for next year. Don't forget to sign up for their news letter. (I sent in a submission a couple of years back though they haven't got back to me yet. But as we all know, dealing with rejection is just part of the fun of writing.)

Harrogate, of course, has a bit of form itself. After Agatha Christie famously disappeared in December 1926, it was at the Swan Hotel in Harrogate that she was spotted by one of the hotel's banjo players, where she had checked in under the assumed name of Mrs Teresa Neele from Cape Town. And in 2007, treasure hunters found a hoard of loot hidden near the town by the Vikings in the 10th century, product of their notorious and nefarious goings on.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Writing your own movie

A couple of years ago, I did an excellent course in screenplay writing at Birkbeck College, London University. It lasted about six months, was conducted online and resulted in each of us in the group producing our own screenplay for a ten-minute film. It was a marvellous experience and taught me things about writing that go far beyond cinema.

As you might imagine, writing a screenplay and getting your screenplay turned into a movie - even a ten-minute one - are not at all the same thing. But it seems life may be slightly easier for the budding screenwriter than for, say, the budding director. Loads of film school students want to be the next Scorsese or Jackson or Zeffirelli, and a whole load more want to be the next Jolie or diCaprio or Gambon, but hardly anyone - we were told - wants to be the next, well the next instantly recognisable, world famous screen writer. Writing screenplays for movies, it would seem, is like making the sandwiches for your national football team. It lacks the glamour factor. Which makes it an opportunity.

If you're interested in exploring screenplay, you could do a great deal worse than by reading Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which is a very accessible classic of this type of writing. And just to get you started, here are ten tips from The Times.

Competitions and prizes are not what writing is all about, but they can at least help get people noticed. There is a ready supply of short film competitions that call for the skills of the screen writer. Many can be found on the Internet. Here is a small selection of them.
2 Days Later Short Film Competition
The End of the Pier International Film Festival
The Canadian Short Screenplay Competition

If you want to let us know about any others, write a comment below.

The Song of Lunch

The most unexpected bit of information for me to come from last Thursday's poetry reading at Oxfam Marylebone (see my post on 12 July) was that filming is underway of Christopher Reid's narrative poem, The Song of Lunch. Novels, plays, comic books, even operas sometimes provide inspiration for the movie industry, but poetry hardly ever. The dramatisation, being made by the BBC to mark National Poetry Day on 7 October, stars Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson.

The Song of Lunch tells the story of a disgruntled London book editor and failed writer who has arranged to meet up with a former girlfriend, now living a glamorous life in Paris. He has chosen the Soho restaurant which, 15 years before, they used to frequent. Will things develop as he hopes?

Christopher Reid won last year's Costa prizes for best poetry book and also the overall best book for A Scattering, the very moving account of his wife's death.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The TV Book Club - The Legacy

Episode 3 of The TV Book Club on Channel 4 discussed Katherine Webb's debut novel, The Legacy, a story entwining the lives of two women from the same family born too far apart in time ever to have met but still powerfully connected by actions and their consequences. The book moves between Oklahoma in the 1900s to a manor house in present-day Wiltshire and explores how the effects of decisions and actions across the generations. The writer, Katherine Webb, in an interview for the programme says, "If something goes wrong, you need to deal with it, not run away from it. If you run away from it, it will come after you." This episode of The TV Book Club can be viewed on the programme's website.

While still writing her book, Katherine Webb posted the opening chapters on the peer review website,, and it was very positive comments by readers there that caught the publisher's attention. To find out more about the website, go here.

The Legacy is published by Orion. You can watch a video clip of Katherine Webb talking about her book by clicking here.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Poetry evening at Oxfam Marylebone

Oxfam's Marylebone High Street shop last Thursday evening hosted a poetry reading event, one of many events in this year's Oxfam Bookfest, which I mentioned in a post on 26 June.

With scarcely an empty chair in the shop and softened up by a glass or two of wine and the summery evening heat, we heard readings by eight very different English-language poets from around the world. The name given to the event was 'Christopher Reid and Guests' and I suppose the best-known of the poets was Christopher Reid himself, the winner of last year Costa's best poetry book award as well as their overall Best Book of the Year for A Scattering, a collection of poems dealing with his loss of his wife to cancer. But each of the poets brought something different to an evening of considerable variety and energy, with poems that explored miso soup, the French Revolution, Thesalonius Monk and a great deal more besides.

Rather than try to do justice to each writer, I've decided to give you the opportunity to read more about these poets and enjoy a little of their work by clicking on their names in this list:

Christopher Horton
Rachel Lehrman
Declan Ryan
Kelina Gotman
Sam Riviere
John Menaghan
Paul Perry
Christopher Reid 

It was a fine evening, and I hope Oxfam managed to raise some cash from it. Another poetry evening, Days of Roses, is taking place at Oxfam Marylebone tomorrow evening. For news of other events in the Oxfam Bookfest 2010, which runs until 17 July, click here.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The travel writer in you

In a former life, I used to be an English teacher. It was a career that took me to many countries both for jobs and for travel. Among the people who live this sort of life, it is not unusual to find some who have supplemented the often modest income of a teacher with a bit of travel writing. In fact, I know a few who have made the switch from English language teaching into a regular writing career.

For those who regard the writing as a sideline, this might involve producing travel articles for business magazines, furnishing information on hotels and restaurants plus a bit of historical background. For those with the skill and the equipment, it's possible to upload pictures to commercial photo libraries. I think the worst project I ever got involved in was proofreading (which really meant rewriting) a city guide aimed at business travellers to a certain city in the western Mediterranean area. One of those guides that has loads of information about mean average rainfall and height above sea level and a random selection of uninteresting restaurants and none of the useful stuff like how to get from the airport or where you can change money. I doubt it was ever useful to anyone. Still, they paid me.

The travel industry is of course big business, even in these recessive times, and with that comes a demand for travel writing. From travellers' accounts of their journeys to guide books to magazines to novels set around travel, getting away and how to do it seems to be one of the obsessions of our time. This would seem to be an area where there's bound to be an opening for the freelance writer. There are workshops and courses offering guidance in travel writing. There are travel writing websites. And of course there are prizes. (Does anybody know of an area of writing that doesn't yet have a prize?) 

What is your experience of all this? How receptive have you found publishers, magazines and newspapers to be to your ideas? How would you describe the travel writing you have done, or any courses you have attended? Why not post a comment below?

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Arthur E Copping, novelist

A couple of summers ago, I was browsing through the novels at Foyles here in London when I came across a little stand displaying a few books from their secondhand department. There was a small red Nelson Library hardback among them. These little books, published early in the twentieth century, always catch my eye, and I picked it up. It was Gotty and the Guv'nor by Arthur E. Copping.

I bought it and read it almost immediately. It's a lovely little book: funny, cheerful and mildly adventurous, the story of a man of modest private means, a fisherman - Gotty - from the Thames estuary and their ill-advised jaunt along the south coast of England in a small sailing boat. Published in 1907, it's of the same time and chraracter as W.W.Jacobs and perhaps George Birmingham's Spanish Gold. I suppose it is the charm of it that stayed with me, and so I recently tried to find out more about this writer of light comedy.

Arthur Edward Copping was born in Middlesex in 1865, the son of Rosa and Edward Copping, a journalist and author. They were, it seems, well-to-do but not rich. Sadly, Rosa died by the time Arthur was 15. There were five children of the marriage, and they lived - along with two unmarried sisters of Rosa's and a single servant - at 18 Lady Somerset Road, Camden. One of Arthur's brothers, Harold, was to become a book illustrator and he was later to provide pictures for several of Arthur's books, though not for Gotty and The Guv'nor, Arthur's first book. Gotty in Furrin Parts followed in 1908, but is now much harder to come by.

Arthur Copping's next book in 1910, Jolly in Germany, was in a similar vein, a light-hearted tale of an Englishman's holiday in Germany. However, before he began his (short) career as a comic novelist, Copping had already established himself as a journalist writing on social issues and poverty in London for the Daily News. In 1910, he set off for Canada to explore the social conditions there. Three books followed, The Golden Land: the true story and experiences of settlers in Canada (1911), Canada: today and tomorrow (1911) and Smithers: a true story of private imperialism (1913). The last of these described the experience of a Barnado's boy who emigrated to Canada.

Copping's view of the British Empire may seem rather unquestioning now, but his interest - as the last book illustrates - is on the endeavour and suffering of the little man, not the arrogance and exploitation of the great imperialists. In fact, Copping was deeply religious and it was through the practical, non-conformist Christianity of the Salvation Army that he saw the world. In 1911, the Religious Tract Society published his book, A Journalist in the Holy Land: Glimpses of Egypt and Palestine, this time illustrated by his brother, Harold.

"The Salvationist's accustomed daily tasks," wrote Arthur Copping, "lie largely among the fallen, the criminal, the suffering and the wretched, whom he or she succors in a spirit of compassionate love." In his view, the success of the Salvation Army lay in "the simple, thorough-going, uncompromising, seven-days-a-week character of its Christianity."

When the First World War started, Arthur Copping - now 49 years old - put his Salvationist principles into practice. With the support of the Salvation Army's General Booth and the War Office, Copping worked along side ordinary British soldiers. During the war, he was attached to several battalions as a non-combatant Salvation Army officer and witnessed at first hand the suffering and the bloodshed in the front line. He described his experiences in Souls in Khaki: being a personal investigation into the spiritual experiences and sources of heroism (Hodder and Stoughton, 1917).

The year in which this book published was also the year of revolution in Russia. From 1918 to 1920, Arthur Copping (now well into his fifties) was the Russia correspondent for the London Daily Chronicle, the first British journalist to report from the new Soviet Union. Some of these stories, which were syndicated around the world, can still be read in the New York Times archive. His opinions may now seem naive, but there was a resloute optimism to Copping, however you may interpret that cast of mind.

During the twenties and thirties, Copping produced two more books on a Salvationist theme, Stories of Army Trophies (stories of Salvation Army conversions) and Banners in Africa. You can no doubt guess the theme of this last title; a review of the Salvation Army's activities in the continent. But this was not done from the comfort of his armchair. Now in his sixties, Copping toured Africa, visiting what was then called the Gold Coast, Rhodesia, Portuguese East Africa, the Zambesi and the Congo. Needless to say, this was before the comforts of air-conditioning and jet aircraft.

Arthur Copping married Annie Knaggs, born in the same year as him and also from Camden, in 1889 at St Paul's Chapel, Kentish Town. Sadly, she was to die aged 38 in 1903. Arthur's brother Harold died in 1932. Arthur died in Salisbury in the summer of 1941, aged 75.

His religious views may not be very fashionable now, and Gotty describes a very different class-divided society than our own. But it seems to me that middle-class Arthur Copping was gentle-hearted and benevolent rather than - terrible contemporary sin - patronising. Nor was he afraid to experience some of the worst things of his age. If you come across a copy of Gotty and the Guv'nor, I would encourage you to pick it up and take a short holiday on the Thames estuary circa 1907.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Olufemi Terry wins the Caine Prize

Sierra Leonean writer Olufemi Terry has won this year's Caine Prize for his story, 'Stickfighting Days." The story was described by Fiammetta Rocco, one of the judges of the prize, as presenting "a heroic culture that is Homeric in its scale and conception." He has lived in many parts of Africa as well as the UK and the US. He is currently living in South Africa and working on a novel. He has also worked as a journalist.

You can read 'Stickfighting Days' at the Caine Prize website. The other stories on the short list can be read here. The Caine Prize for African Writing was first awarded in 2000 and is regarded as one of Africa's most important literary prizes.

The TV Book Club - The Man Who Disappeared

This week's edition of The TV Book Club on Channel 4 looked at Clare Morrall's novel The Man Who Disappeared, the story of how the wife, Kate, and children of loving family man and successful accountant, Felix Kendall, deal with his disappearance following allegations of money laundering.

One of the panel, Stephen Tompkinson, asked whether, when the people who caused the economic crisis we are all suffering have gone unpunished, it is easy to have much sympathy for a dodgy accountant: an interesting point. It might in any case be tempting to heep blame on Felix's head for running off and undermining the family's way of life. In the interview segment, however, author Clare Morrall discourages the rush to vituperation: "Perhaps one can't be quite as judgemental as one would like to be. Things are never as black and white as they seem."  

The book raises many questions, not least those which in previous decades might have been derided as bourgeois. What would I do if the money dried up? How would I manage without his (or her) salary? What if we lost the house? Clare Morrall is refreshingly positive on these points; people survive, families adjust, life goes on.

More deeply, the book also provokes us to wonder how well we know those closest to us. Felix is not, after all, the man that Kate imagined him to be. In the view of one of the members of the Swanage reading circle featured in the programme, The Man Who Disappeared is a good summer read: not an easy one, but thought provoking. What do you think?

The programme can still be viewed at Channel 4's website.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Skeletons, written and directed by Nick Whitfield

Last Friday, we went to the London premiere of Skeletons at the Renoir, Bloomsbury. This comedy of the paranormal is Nick Whitfield's first full-length film as writer and director, yet still won the Michael Powell Award for the Best New British Feature Film at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Small budget movie that it is, the lovely summer evening was splendidly undisturbed by stretched limos and hired muscle with the bits of wire coming out of their earholes. In fact, as the 6.20 start approached, the people who made the film were if anything less dressed up than the other clumps of people, many of whom after all had come straight from work.

The actors, with the exception of Jason Isaacs (the less-than-loveable Lucius Malfoy of Harry Potter fame and here playing the Colonel), are not as well known as they should be and, with luck and justice on their side, their very funny performances in this movie should bring them to greater prominence. As in Harry Potter, Skeletons takes place in a world similar to but significantly different from most people's experience of modern Britain. Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley are psychic employees of a company that exorcises the skeletons in people's closets, largely - in the part that we see - in the Derbyshire area.

The first part of the film, establishing this world, finds ample opportunity for humour in the worries and bureaucratic routine of the main characters, agents of the paranormal drudging away in the seemy world of private detectives. As the Colonel at one point remarks, "I've got a couple of Saxe-Coburgs next week. Imagine the filth!"

But an out-of-the-ordinary job takes these two and the film into darker, deeper areas of loss. While the humour and the exploration of this paranormal parallel world continue, the story becomes richer and more thoughtful. One of the closing credits may explain why Nick Whitfield was prompted in this direction.

The audience at the Renoir, like the jury in Edinburgh, seemed to thoroughly enjoy the film and I would urge you to see it if you have the chance. It surely deserves a greater exposure than the screening page on the film's website currently advertise. But don't take my word for it; here's what the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph thought of it.   

Friday, 2 July 2010

London Literature Festival 1 - 18 July 2010

For those who can make it to London over the next couple of weeks, there is a lot - really a lot - to do at the London Literature Festival, which opened yesterday and goes on to 18 July. The range of the festival extends from the death throws of capitalism to the perfectibility of the human body, from parallel universes to poetry, from novels to neuroscience, plus Brazillian football, Congolese music and the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone, and that's not the half of it. Some are free and some are not.

Arvon Poetry Prize 2010

A reminder of another prize, this one for poetry, should you wish to enter. Entries are being sought to this year's Arvon International Poetry Competition. The biennial competition was first held in 1980, founded by one future Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, and won in that year by his successor, Andrew Motion, for his poem The Letter. In addition to the competition, the Arvon Foundation runs courses in many areas of writing. 

This year, the judges are Carol Ann Duffy (in the chair), Elaine Feinstein and Sudeep Sen. Entries must be made by 5pm on 16 August, for which the fee is £7 per poem. Check the competition website for details.

Barbara Demick wins the Samuel Johnson Prize 2010

Barbara Demick's book, Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, has been awarded this year's Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. The book reveals what life is like for the people in this grotesque state by exploring the stories of six ordinary North Koreans living in Chongin, the country's third largest city. Everyone by now has heard of the absurdities of the political regime, which would be comical were it not for the horror of the people's everyday lives and the danger of the government's nuclear weapons programme.

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea is published by Granta.

Click here to watch an interview with Barbara Demick on YouTube.

Answers to Quiz Night at the Writers' Arms held last Friday 25 June

The responce to last Friday's quiz could best be described as modest in the extreme. I forget which of Samuel Beckett's plays has the stage direction that a door should be imperceptibly open, which is to say closed. Replies to our quiz were, I'm afraid, similarly imperceptible, and as a result the highly desirable prize - a Penguin paperback of Dark as the Grave wherein my Friend is Laid - will be returning to its normal place, the pile of books between the TV and the lawnmover.

Here, however, for the sake of those interested and the illumination of future generations, are the answers.

1 - A Christmas Carol.
2 - Octavo is the largest.
3 - Eyind Johnson, author and member of the Nobel prize panel, won the prize in 1974. The others were found not to be quite up to scratch.
4 - Winchester Cathedral.
5 - The Midnight Bell, from Patrick Hamilton's novel of the same name.
6 - Finca Vigia. 'Finca' is 'farm' in English and 'vigia' means something along the lines of 'lookout', which name derives from the fact that Hemingway's place is on a hilltop.
7 - On Beauty by Zadie Smith, author of The Autograph Man in the question.
8 - Palmers Green. The poet was Stevie Smith.
9 - Pier Paulo Pasolini: Il Decameron (1971), I Racconti di Canterbury (1972), Il Fiore delle Mille e una Notte (1974).
10 - 'A', Edgar Allen Poe, was born first, on 19 January 1809. Next was 'C', Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was born 14 June 1811. Last to be born was 'B', Emily Bronte, who was born on 30 July 1818.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The TV Book Club returns with The Help

The TV Book Club on Channel 4 launched a new series on Sunday 27 June. Among other things - this episode looked at the electronic alternative to the traditional book - each episode will discuss a particular book. Not only do the panel of contributors say what they've made of the week's book, but also the views of A Celebrity are sought as well as those of book clubs around the country.

The book of the first episode was Kathryn Stockett's The Help the story of three women on either side of the racial divide but with intersecting lives in sixties Jackson, Mississippi at the time of the civil rights movement. As the author reveals in interview, there is an autobiographical element to the book, and some of the contributors were initially somewhat uneasy about the assumption of the author, a well-to-do white woman, that she could present the viewpoint of a black maid. Nevertheless, the other qualities of the book - the characters, the story-telling, the humour, the musicality of the dialogue - convincingly won over Jo Brand and the rest of the panel.

 If you didn't get to see this first programme of the series, it can still be viewed at the time of writing at the Channel 4 website.

If you'd like to share your thoughts on The Help or the programme, put them in the comments box below.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Let's hear it for the independents

There is a further interesting side to the publication of Myrrha Stanford-Smith's The Great Lie. (Not the frequently reported fact that the author is 82. Enough of the ageism, already; Jose Saramago didn't start producing novels much before he was 60 and Penelope Fitzgerald didn't begin until she was 61. Besides, it looks as though we're never going to be allowed to retire here in the UK and we'll all be working into our eighties.)

No, the interesting thing for me is that the book has been brought out by Honno, an independent Welsh publisher. I'm sure everyone now knows Canongate Books for its excellent fiction list (The Life of Pi, The Crimson Petal and the White, Lanark and many many more), but it too was a small publisher until the mid-nineties. There's a lot of good stuff being brought out by the independents. One of my favourite recent discoveries - well, I read about him in an interview with Ali Smith if that counts as a discovery - is John Aberdein, author of  Amande's Bed and Strip the Willow, the first brought out by Thirsty Books and the second by Polygon. A couple of other smaller publishers whose catalogues I like to keep an eye out for are Hesperus Press and Pushkin Press. Do you have any favourites among the independents? Let us know.

You can find links to these publishers websites and catalogues here:
Hesperus Press
Pushkin Press
Thirsty Books

Enter Nick Talbot

This month has seen the publication of Myrrha Stanford-Smith's The Great Lie, the first part of what promises to be a fascinating trilogy describing the adventure-strewn life of aristocratically-born Nick Talbot. Talbot, actor and undercover agent, gets embroiled through his involvement with playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe in the murky world of intrigue in Elizabethan England. His adventures - political, thespian and sexual - take him across Europe and mix him with some of the leading shady figures of the day. Click here to read the prologue to The Great Lie posted on the website of the publisher, Honno, the Welsh Women's Press.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War came to an abrupt end, there was speculation that the spy novel would never recover from the apparent loss of subject matter. John Le Carre was not alone in proving the sceptics wrong and now Myrrha Stanford-Smith has given the genre a whole new twist. Never, has been observed, say never again.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Oxfam Bookfest 2010, 3 - 17 July

If you haven't heard about this year's Oxfam Bookfest, taking place in locations around the UK from 3 to 17 July, then why not click here to find out what is going on near you.

Get to meet the writers, read their books and help Oxfam while you do it.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Quiz Night at The Writers' Arms 25 June 2010

Have a crack why don't you at The Writers' Arms absolutely first ever Quiz Night. Simply send your answers to the following questions - in the right order - to by midnight BST next Thursday, 1 July. The winner of the first set of correct answers that we receive will get a (secondhand) Penguin paperback copy of Malcolm Lowry's Dark as the Grave wherein my Friend is Laid by snailmail from the Landlord's very own library. And we'll even pay the cost of posting and packaging. In all matters of dispute the Landlord's decision is final. Answers will be displayed next Friday, 2 July.

1 - Charles Dicken's novel A Tale of Two Cities begins with the famous words "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." Which of his books ends with the words "God bless us, every one"?

2 - When describing the size of a book, which of these is the largest: duodecimo, octavo or octodecimo?

3 - How many and who of these giants of the world of letters won the Nobel Prize for Literature: Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Eyvind Johnson?

4 - In which of these is Jane Austin buried: Bath Abbey, Northanger Abbey, Winchester Cathedral, York Minster?

5 - In which fictional London boozer does Ella the barmaid love Bob the barman, who in turn loves Jenny the prostitute?

6 - What is the name of the farm outside Havana where for some years Papa Hemingway lived, wrote and displayed his hunting trophies?

7 - The author of one of the novels listed below won the Orange Prize for another of her novels. What was the name of that prize-winning book?
The Accidental
The Autograph Man
The Shipping News
Vacant Possession

8 - In which north London suburb did the writer of the poem, "Not waving but drowning," live for most of her life?

9 - Which film director made film versions of all of the following literary classics: One Thousand and One Nights, The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron?

10 - The Picture Question! Which of these writers was born first?



Good luck!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Patrick Braybrooke

Man of Edwardian Letters

If ever writers might dream that their books will bring them immortality, they might consider the career of Patrick Philip William Braybrooke, whose considerable literary output has fallen into obscurity.

His field was literary criticism, but with a view also to the popular market, so that beside such weighty-sounding titles as Philosophies in Modern Fiction (1931) and Some Victorian and Georgian Catholics (1932) came The Young Folk's Sir Walter Scott (1931) and, an early example of the celebrity biography, The Amazing Mr Noel Coward (1933).

The literati were his subject matter and many of the great names of the day received the Braybrooke treatment: Belloc, Barrie, Gosse, Dickens, Hardy, Wells, Kipling, Shaw (twice), Stevenson (also twice) and Chesterton (four times). The bibliography below reveals his productivity. No doubt with an eye to good sales figures, his book The Life and Work of Lord Alfred Douglas was the first to tackle his subject, as was his book on Noel Coward.

Glance at the list below of his books and you will notice several things. One of these is the strong Catholic theme. Another is the recurring word 'some' - some thoughts, some goddesses, some aspects, some novelists, some Catholics - and also the use of plurals in the titles - oddments, fragments, considerations, celebrities, philosophies, moments. A good number of Braybrooke's books were collections of essays. But what industry. For twelve years from the age of 27 he produced almost three books a year. (However, compare this to his frequent subject and relative, G K Chesterton, who produced some 80 books, 200 short stories and 4000 essays.)

It might be tempting to dismiss Braybrooke as a mere hack, but that would be unfair. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and his books found their way onto the shelves of university libraries, several being reprinted.

However, look at the list again and you will notice that his subjects largely predate the First World War. And that was really his natural world. His style is by turns vaguely aphoristic and unhurriedly discursive, which must have seemed increasingly dated in the tough realities of the Nineteen-thirties. Here is a passage from the chapter on John Ayscough in Some Catholic Novelists.

"Certain novelists seem to divide their novels into two kinds. The one kind includes novels that are interesting and important; the other kind includes those which are interesting but not important. It is a temptation in an essay like this to dwell almost exclusively on the former type of novel. It is a temptation that need not be overcome."

While Britain and the rest of Europe were assaulted by urgent, destructive ideological conflicts and economic crises, the clock for Braybrooke seems to have stood still, and there is indeed still honey for tea; more boater than blackshirt, more post-prandial rumination than proletarian revolution, more Private Godfrey than Corporal Hitler. Lucky him, we might think, except that he must have read the newspapers as did everyone else, as indeed did his readership.

A Social History

There is another, instructive, facet of Patrick Braybrooke's story: the social history of the nineteenth century. It offers a snapshot of a middling sort of family that was geographically mobile, at times quite hard pressed for cash, at times moving within the outer circle of royalty, but always managing to stay within the growing middle class.

The search to trace the men and women that contributed to the procreation of Patrick Braybrooke begins in Italy. Some time in the mid-eighteenth century, a Siennese doctor set off to England. In 1762, he had a son, John Charles Felix Rossi, who was to train as a sculptor and eventually become a Royal Academician, sculptor to the Prince of Wales and later Sculptor in Ordinary to King William IV. His prominence was such that his work still adorns St Paul's and the Royal Opera House. He produced, in addition, sixteen offspring by two wives. One of these, his second daughter, Catherine, was to marry William Braybrooke - Philip's great-grandfather - who rose in the Army to become a Deputy Assistant Commissary General, spending at least part of the Napoleonic War in Barbados.

In 1811, at about the time that William Braybrooke was overseeing the supply of His Majesty's army in the Caribbean, another officer, Captain William Ebhart of the 72nd Regiment of Foot married Elizabeth Knollis, daughter of the Honourable and Reverend Francis Knollis, Vicar of Burford, Gloucestershire. The marriage was conducted by James Knollis, Chaplain to HRH the Duke of Clarence, later to become King William IV. The couple subsequently moved with regiment to the Cape of Good Hope and there on 24 January 1820 they had their second daughter, Rhoda Mary. In 1824, the family moved back to England when Captain, later Major, Ebhart becomes a staff officer. Later, he joins the staff at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, where Rhoda lived until her marriage. He was another of the great-grandfathers of Patrick Braybrooke.
Meanwhile the Braybrooke/Rossi marriage flourished. William and Catherine had a son (also, rather confusingly, called William) who chose to combines the examples of his Siennese grandfather and his own father by qualifying as a doctor and joining the army. In 1853, Assistant Surgeon William Braybrooke was appointed surgeon to the 59th Regiment of Foot. At what point he met Rhoda Ebhart is uncertain, but in early 1854, they married in Chelsea.

The marriage of William and Rhoda Braybrooke was to produce three children: Mary Francis in 1856, William Alfred Rossi in 1857 and Philip Lansdowne Barry in 1862. However, the marriage was cut short by the death of Rhoda's husband in 1863, and from then on, Rhoda and her three children moved to Wokingham. Two of Rhoda's children died young, Philip in 1893 and Mary in 1898, but William survived.
William initially followed his father by studying medicine but by the 1891 census he was a curate in Mansfield. He married Alice Charlotte Chase at St George's Hanover Square in 1889, and they were to have two children, Patrick Philip William in 1894 and Arthur Rossi in 1902. Arthur, in the family tradition, went into the army, being commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the King's Shropshire Light Infantry in 1923. However, as his own father had done, he subsequently abandoned his first career for the Anglican priesthood, being appointed Curate of Stroud and later Rector of Newington Bagpath. He was an RAF chaplain during the Second World War.

The Life of Patrick Philip William Braybrooke

Patrick Braybrooke attended King's College, London. With the outbreak of the First World War he joined up and became a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers. He was gassed and wounded in the early part of the war, and in April 1915 he was invalided out of the army.
In the Author's Note to perhaps his best known and most frequently reprinted book, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Braybrooke states that Chesterton was a kinsman of his and that he had spent a great deal of time in his company. In chapter 11, he says that when they first met, Chesterton was still living in Battersea, from where he moved in 1909. At this time, Braybrooke would have been 15 years old. It is clear that Chesterton had a marked influence on him, and it may have been Chesterton's conversion to Catholicism, also in 1922, that provoked Braybrooke to move away from the Anglicanism of his family towards Rome. The year 1922 also saw the beginning of Braybrooke's career as a published author.

Patrick Braybrooke was to marry three times. His first marriage, in 1921, was to Lettice Bellairs, born in 1888 the daughter of Alban Bellairs, a stock broker, and granddaughter of the Vicar of Nuneaton. Lettice Braybrooke was also to convert to Catholicism. In May 1923 had a son, Neville, who was to become a writer himself. Obituaries of Neville Braybrooke in the Guardian and the Independent describe a devout Catholic and respected man-of-letters who was both otherworldly and greatly loved. However, his parents' marriage did not last. Patrick Braybrooke abandoned his wife and son when the boy was three years old. They divorced in 1927.

He was married again in 1929 to Ida Cooper at St George's Hanover Square, but again the marriage ended in divorce, in 1934.

His third wife, born Rita Ellen Constance Hatherell in 1890, was the daughter of a Warwickshire JP and great-granddaughter of Sir Robert Hamilton of Silverston, Baronet. Rita Braybrooke, like her husband, was much married: firstly in 1909 to a member of an old Recusant family, Edmund Neville Trappes-Lomax, an Oxford graduate and solicitor; secondly in 1915 to Robert Buntine, an army officer who was to die in France of gangrene in March 1918; thirdly later in 1918 to Henry Theodore Rivers Cripps; and finally to Philip Braybrooke in January 1937.

By the time of this final marriage, Braybrooke was living at Rose Hill, Dorking. In the marriage notice, he is described as an author and lecturer, but in fact his career as a published writer was almost over. There was to be only one more book, another account of Chesterton written in the year after his death.
Some years later, so his obituary in the Guardian reveals, Neville, after delivering a lecture and having not seen Patrick since childhood, was handed a note which read, "I am your father. Can we meet?"

Patrick Braybrooke died in 1956.

The books of Patrick Braybrooke

Oddments (1921)
Suggestive Fragments (1922)
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1922)
Some Thoughts on Hilaire Belloc: ten studies (1923)
Lord Morley (1924)
J M Barrie: a study in fairies and mortals (1924)
Considerations on Edmund Gosse (1925)
The Genius of Bernard Shaw (1925)
Kipling and His Soldiers (1926)
Novelists: We Are Seven (1926; reprinted 1977)
Cruelty: being the story of a peculiar young man (1926)
The Short Story: how to write it (1927)
Peeps at the Mighty (1927; reprinted 1966)
Some Goddesses of the Pen: studies of eight women authors (1927)
The Man Who Arrived (1927)
Thomas Hardy and His Philosophy (1928)
Some Aspects of H G Wells (1928)
A Chesterton Catholic Anthology (1929)
A Child's R L Stevenson (1929)
The Wisdom of G K Chesterton (1929)
Great Children in Literature (1929)
The Subtlety of George Bernard Shaw (1930)
A Child's Charles Dickens (1930)
Celebrities in Verse (1930)
Oscar Wilde: a Study (1930)
Some Catholic Novelists (1931; reprinted 1966 and 1969)
Philosophies in Modern Fiction (1931; reprinted 1965)
The Life and Work of Lord Alfred Douglas (1931)
The Young Folk's Sir Walter Scott (1931)
The Robert Louis Stevenson Book (1932)
Some Victorian and Georgian Catholics: their art and outlook (1932; reprinted 1966 and 1969)
The Amazing Mr Noel Coward (1933)
Moments with Burns, Scott and Stevenson: selected quotations (1933)
I Remember G K Chesterton (1938)