Monday, 23 December 2013

What I'm reading: the new JAMES BOND

William Boyd: SOLO

William Boyd's contribution to the 007 'canon' ignores Jeffrey Deaver's recent attempt to re-brand our hero in the style of the Daniel Craig movies. Boyd's Bond, like Sebastian Faulks's five years ago, takes Ian Fleming's (you could almost say Sean Connery's) Bond back to the 1960s. M sends him to the West African state of Zanzarim to intervene in a brutal civil war. Surprise, surprise, Bond is soon working with a gorgeous and intelligent black girl who, of course, comes with the requisite air of mystery and removable garments.

The mission reaches a messy climax two-thirds of the way through the book. Ignoring M's orders to stay out of it, Bond flies to Washington D.C. to investigate the organization that was linked to the breakaway faction in Zanzarim under the guise of a humanitarian operation. I doubt if I am the only reader to second-guess what's going on before the 'big reveal', but the plot has a few twists and shocks.

Ian Fleming would, I think, be very pleased with Solo which slots chronologically immediately after Kingsley Amis's Colonel Sun (1968). Like Amis (who used the pen-name Robert Markham for his Bond book), William Boyd gets the style and the tone just right: that mix of mission and travel adventure with a couple of saucy ladies falling into Bond's path. John Gardner got it right some of the time (he wrote fourteen new novels and a couple of 'novelizations' of movie scripts). Raymond Benson's efforts were like novelizations of future movies (none filmed so far); Jeffrey Deaver took too many liberties, like the writers of the Daniel Craig movies. Sebastian Faulks got the tone right, but Devil May Care had somewhat the feel of a parody. One line in Solo read like a piss-take: Bond's Jensen Interceptor starts up with a 'virile baritone roar' - a 'girlish baritone squeal' wouldn't make much sense, would it?

If Solo has a serious flaw it is that Bond's chief adversary, despite facial scars and displays of ruthlessness, is more like a henchman than a full-blown mega-villain. In fact, no other writer since Fleming has come up with an adversary of the calibre of Dr No or Goldfinger or Hugo Drax. The new breed of opponent may be closer to the guys our real-life MI6 agents come up against, but I'm sure I'm not the only reader who feels a painful nostalgia for Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Still, if points are to be awarded, I give William Boyd 008 out of ten for this one. The ending of Solo hints at a sequel. I hope the publishers let him have another crack at it.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Gaddafi unmasked as Libya's Jimmy Savile

At the end of my 1999 novel Shaikh-Down I envisaged Muammar Gaddafi being castrated by his female bodyguards during a wave of revolutions that followed the coup on the (imaginary?) island of Belaj in the Persian Gulf. As we all now know, a different fate awaited Libya's loony leader:a pipe shoved up his behind and then shot by the rebels who found him hiding in a drainage culvert. Rough - and poetic - justice.

A new book by a French journalist  about the women abused by Gaddafi suggests that his female guards might well have chopped his balls off if they'd been given the chance. Hundreds of girls, many in their early teens, were 'selected' by the dictator after visits to schools and public events. Abducted by his henchmen (and/or Mabrouka Sherif, his chief procuress), these girls would be raped - sometimes for a day, sometimes for years - by Gaddafi. Amid a long catalogue of horrific stories the book recounts the fate of Soraya, taken from school at 15. She says that Gaddafi subjected her to repeated frenzied sex attacks, beat her, bit her and even urinated on her. Seven years later she still feels a victim and surely always will.

This is the man, clearly a 'kinsman' to Jimmy Savile', whom Tony Blair welcomed back into the club of nations that Britain 'could do business with' after Gaddafi renounced his links with terrorism in the 1990s. . Not Tony's fault, of course: international diplomacy requires prime ministers to cosy up to the heads of many appalling regimes; the Queen had to welcome Idi Amin to her dinner table. Gaddafi was not the only odious head of state in the Middle East. What nasty stories may yet come out of Syria, Egypt and Tunisia as the tide of 'Arab Springs' ebbs and flows? Opposition groups in Bahrain and exiled Bahraini dissidents have reported hundreds of human rights abuses going back decades: arrests, beatings, rape, torture and murder. The abduction of a boy who worked with me in Bahrain back in the 1970s was what prompted me to write Shaikh-Down.

Arabia, like China, is a region where tyranny has long prevailed and human rights count for almost nothing. But then Guantanamo may not be the only place where the Western flags of democracy are showing some wear and tear. Perhaps, as I predicted in 1999 (sorry to keep plugging Shaikh-Down!), the Middle East is on a fast track to Armageddon.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

What I'm watching: Homophobia for beginners


This two-part documentary, filmed over two years, took Stephen Fry on a global tour of homophobia. Part One began with an interview with Elton John and David Furnish, the Cinderella and Prince Charming of gay couples. And now for something completely different: the public hanging of five convicted gay men in Iran, followed by an interview with an Iranian in London who is waiting to hear whether he can be granted asylum here or sent back to face the odious regime in his homeland. LBGT lives are, as we all know, very different in different parts of the world.

Stephen also bravely went to Uganda and interviewed the government minister who is trying to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality there (it's already illegal). The man was obsessed with anal intercourse and would not listen to Stephen's repeated statement that sodomy is widely practised among heterosexuals. He encountered a similar mindset with the governor of St Petersburg where increasingly strict laws are being introduced during the 'reign' of Comrade Putin.

Disturbing in a different way was his meeting with a 'therapist' in the US who operates a 're-conversion' clinic to turn gay men straight. We met one of this man's victims, a cute young man for whom the therapy confirmed him in his conviction that he was gay: luckily he had a supportive mother - many gays in the Bible Belt are forced into this kind of 'treatment' by parental bigotry. Also disturbing, in Part Two,was the growth of violent homophobia in the cities of Brazil where Gay Pride parades are among the biggest and best on the planet; Stephen met a woman whose teenage son was beaten and strangled by a local gang who went un-prosecuted.

He ended his tour in India where gays and the world's most colourful transsexuals (Hijras) are beginning to enjoy more protection from the law, although tragically most of the Hijras can only survive by working as prostitutes, with a scary rate of HIV infection.

As Stephen kept reminding us, Gay Liberation has brought us greater security in the West: protection from discrimination and, in many countries, the right to marry our partners. But in too many places the bigots are in the ascendant - and they lurk among us in Europe and the Americas. The law giveth and the law taketh away. We need to maintain our vigilance. Before he started culling Europe's Jews, Hitler sent gays to the death camps.

If you missed Out There, catch up with it on BBC iPlayer.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Arab Spring fades into . . . The Arab Fall

Time for a re-launch of SHAIKH-DOWN - comments invited!
* * * * * * * * * * * * 

THE ARAB SPRING is fading  time for "THE ARAB FALL"

  David Gee’s SHAIKH-DOWN offers a timely blueprint for Regime Change on an island in the Persian Gulf. This spicy comedy has a sharp sting in its tail. 
Thirty years ago, Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa al-Khazi, the Emir of Belaj, stole the throne of the tiny oil-rich island from his uncle. Now BARF (the Belaj Armed Revolutionary Front) plans to dethrone Shaikh Khalid and install a republic. Their campaign attracts some unlikely allies: a pneumatic American airhostess and a gay British banker.

“Witty, entertaining, raunchy and very well written.”

Peter O’Donnell, creator of Modesty Blaise


SHAIKH-DOWN is available from Amazon and from bookshops

and as an e-book from

Read extracts on:


Tuesday, 9 April 2013

What I'm reading: an LGBT novel from the great JOHN IRVING


Very much a 'companion piece' to The World According to Garp, John Irving's breakthrough fourth novel (1978), In One Person explores, at considerable depth, the community of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals (Billy Abbott, his narrator hero, is not keen on the 'transgender' word and happily admits to a major passion for 'chicks with dicks'). Transsexuals and bisexuals are the main focus: both groups are treated with sensitivity and Irving's trademark warm humour. Billy's grandpa Harry is the cross-dressing star of amateur theatricals; his appearances, from plays in Billy's teenage years, to Harry's dotage in a care home, provide some the book's funniest scenes.

Born in 1942, Billy grows up in a small town in Vermont where his stepfather teaches at the local boys-only private school. School plays and the town's dramatic society loom large in Billy's teenage years. Chapter Two is called 'Crushes on the Wrong People', which is to be the 'leitmotif' of Billy's early life. He develops a huge crush on Kittredge, the arrogant and unattainable Golden Boy 'jock' in his dorm. He also has a crush on the town librarian, Miss Frost, who introduces him to the classics of literature (all the way up to James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, the first truly outstanding gay novel); Miss Frost will shape the writer that Billy is destined to become and also gives a nudge to his complex sexuality. She is another of Irving's great comic creations, plainly evolved from Garp's Roberta Muldoon (gloriously played by John Lithgow in the movie).

Most readers are sure to second-guess Miss Frost's Big Secret before Billy does. She and Kittredge dominate the first two-thirds of the novel which is perhaps a bit too long: there is some repetition in the chronicle of Billy's confused teens - too much Shakespeare, too much Ibsen. When the timeline moves forward it's a sudden jump to the Eighties, the era of AIDS, in which Billy loses many friends and a few lovers. Irving reminds us in harrowing and unflinching detail of all those initially fatal conditions that afflicted people with a compromised immune system. The narrative only regains its humour when Billy delves into the last of his family's secrets, in Madrid and back in Vermont.

There's a lot of sex in the book, some of it laugh-out-loud hilarious. An operatic soprano girlfriend hits an E-flat during orgasm, but Billy can't hear it because her thighs have enveloped his ears. There's some wrestling - a recurring theme in several of his novels - but the only bears (another of his trademarks) are bearded gays in Toronto bars!

Even more than Garp, this novel reads like autobiography; are we to infer that the author is letting a cat out of the bag? Probably not. One of Billy's lovers (they meet in Vienna - another location revisited here) says: "his fiction sounds as much like a memoir as he can make it sound." Yes, indeedy. Occasionally maddening, always engaging, deeply affecting, In One Person finds John Irving at the very peak of his powers. Other writers, LBGT or straight, live in his shadow.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

What I'm reading: Unrequited gay love in NYC

This is an intense novel about love and friendship, the places where they intersect and the areas where they don't. Jack Holmes and Will Wright meet in the 1960s, two New York journalists working for a literary magazine. Jack is gay and in love with Will, who is straight and marries Jack's girlfriend Alexandra. Jack's lovers come and go relentlessly and there's an eight-year gap in his friendship with Will and Alex, who re-enter his life in the 70s, both of them in need of his support and advice. In the final pages New York is visited by GRID, the mysterious plague that will come to be known as AIDS.

There are echoes of The Great Gatsby when Jack visits Will's well-to-do parents, and the spirit of Scott Fitzgerald continues to resonate through the domestic scenes between Will and Alex and also in the sheer elegance of Edmund White's slightly 'retro' prose style. The first and third parts of this story are written in the third person from Jack's viewpoint. The middle part is narrated by Will as he goes through a crisis, torn between loyalty to his cool WASP wife and a hot new Italian mistress.

It's something of an achievement to write a sympathetic portrait of two men who aren't very sympathetic individuals, indeed not very likeable. Beyond his endless teenage crush on Will, Jack is a total hedonist, incapable of offering anything more than sex and sensation to his many partners. Will is stuffy and conservative (and a Catholic) but he cheats readily and cold-heartedly on the wife he claims to cherish. This is a stylish novel but not a comfortable read. The sex scenes, gay and straight, are graphic and almost clinical.

The theme of this book clearly harks back to Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, which must have been the first novel to deal with a gay man's passion for an off-limits friend. White avoids the melodrama with which Vidal chose to climax his story (in both versions). In fact the last chapters of Jack Holmes and his Friend have a lightness of tone that works brilliantly. Friendship comes to seem more important than sex.

I suppose this has to be tagged Gay Fiction. But more than an exemplar of gay fiction, this is among the finest writing I've seen in recent years.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Another review for THE DROPOUT

I don't know who TROY BEAL is, but he has just given me a 4-star review on Amazon. Reproduced below, though it doesn't exactly sound like a 4-star review!

What an extraordinary amount of sex this book contains- and of many differing types- straight, gay, gangbangs, prostitution, three in a bed.

It just doesn't stop!

An interesting tale- the scenes of factory life are absorbing- though the whole story is somewhat bleak, and with quite an above average ration of sudden, even violent death.

None of the characters seem capable of much honesty or happiness- the gay characters all have to die miserable, marriage never functions even passably. The English seaside town is a desperate and dour place.

An unusual reading experience.