Thursday, 19 November 2015

Wot I'm reading: how to start a gay revolution: quietly!

AMIABLE WARRIORS


I must begin by admitting an interest. Amiable Warriors is published by Paradise Press, who also published my Bexhill Missile Crisis; Peter Scott-Presland and I meet at Paradise events and at London's Gay Authors Workshops.

This big fat book (500 pages, plus 100 pages of notes and index) is only the first third of a history of CHE, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, a grassroots organisation that started in 1964 and grew to have over 5,000 members and 150 local groups. Unlike the more flamboyant Gay Liberation Front, who organised demonstrations and sit-ins and some provocative spectaculars, CHE concentrated their efforts at the 'parish' level: meetings in towns where few if any gay men and women had come out; writing letters to local and regional papers as well as to the national media and MPs.

We all know about Oscar Wilde. Some of us remember the Lord Montagu case (1953) and indecency charges over the years against John Gielgud and Rupert Croft-Cooke, among many others. Amiable Warriors also is full of 'smaller' scandals and arrests, many of which ended in imprisonment, even suicide. Peter Wildeblood, charged (and jailed) at the same time as Lord Montagu, wrote a landmark book, Against the Law: "I would be the first homosexual to tell what it felt like to be an exile in one's own country."

Attempts to implement the Wolfenden Committee's recommendation (in 1957) that homosexual acts be decriminalised were met by vehement opposition from the majority of MPs and churchmen: "a Buggers' Charter", they called it. The activists from CHE and other groups who faced down this prejudice were bold and brave, coming out at a time when coming out could unleash hate-mail and even excrement through your letterbox. A handful of MPs and a few peers (mostly heterosexuals in both cases) took up the cause, and finally, in 1967, the law was changed. Gay sex was now legal - for men over 21 and only in private homes: not in hotel rooms, public conveniences, houses in multiple occupation or the armed services (or where more than two people were involved).

But a change in the law did not guarantee the end of hostilities. The battle went on. At the national level, to lower the age of consent and blur the edges of the other restrictions. At the local level, there were battles against homophobic local councils and churches to licence venues where gay men could socialize, support each other and (shock, horror) even dance! Especially in the North CHE activists fought long and hard to foster toleration of the gay community. Their opponents, newspaper proprietors as well as politicians and churchmen, continued to see gay lib as opening the door to degeneracy and corruption, but in reality "what homosexuals wanted and needed was lifetime partnerships, and the purpose of law reform was to make these more possible." This, after almost fifty years, we finally now have.

Exhaustively researched, Amiable Warriors offers an encyclopaedic overview of CHE, its roots and its branches. Many branches got bogged down in arguments about rules and procedures - the bane of trade unions and even the Women's Institute! Potted biographies of key players in the history of CHE give Scott-Presland's book an almost Dickensian flavour. Paul O'Grady (who also writes an introduction) and Brian Sewell are part of this history; Mr Sewell was as acerbic a branch chairman as he was an art critic!

Watching celebrity gays like Graham Norton and Alan Carr and a few bold sportsmen in the public arena today, it's easy to forget what a long hard road it has been for homosexuals from being prosecuted and pilloried to acceptance and even admiration. At the age of 19 I left my Sussex hometown (population then over 5,000), still thinking I was "the only gay in the village", clearly a statistical improbability. Now, at the over-ripe age of 73, I am able to look forward to lurching down the aisle next year with the beloved companion of my last five years (after his divorce comes through).

But we must not forget that even in this country there are still men - and especially schoolchildren - who are too insecure to come out and be confronted by ostracism and bullying. And there are many countries where homosexuals face persecution up to and including public execution.

Glad to be gay? Yes and no.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Wot I'm reading: more tales from the Raj

Umi Sinha: BELONGING


Umi Sinha lives not far from me on the South coast, although we have never met. Her debut novel is a 320-page saga of three generations of English colonials from the 1850s to the 1920s. I was frequently reminded of The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions, those two mighty epics of Empire. 

The story begins with an act of awful violence and then diverges into three interlocking segments, two before and one after the tragedy, showing how it came about and what are the consequences. The author offers (echoes of Bram Stoker!) a mixture of confession, letters and journals, with three narrators: Henry, the lovelorn civil servant at the centre of the tragedy; Cecily, his mother who came to India 60 years earlier to make her own unhappy marriage; and Lila, Henry's daughter, who is sent to England to live with her great-aunt and falls in love with an expatriate Pathan.

The book gets off to a slow start as Cecily and Henry describe their journeys to new lives in India and Lila settles sullenly into Sussex life with her grandmother's ill-tempered sister. This gives the reader time to get to know - and form an affection for - these three diverse characters. The pace quickens when Cecily and her family are caught up in the Mutiny of 1857 and the First World War casts a shadow over Lila and the boy she loves; Henry's life takes a dramatic turn with his first appointment as a magistrate and his fateful courtship of the beautiful but tormented Rebecca (a name that inevitably brings echoes of another woman with mental and marital 'issues').

Umi Sinha is a gifted writer. She evokes vividly India's wild beauty, its savage climate, the many injustices of colonial life, and she's equally sharp at describing the gentleness (and the suffocating genteelness) of Edwardian Sussex. Belonging is a notable addition to the chronicles of the Raj, that era which is simultaneously the zenith and the nadir of Britain's imperial history.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Wot I'm reading: James Bond - from Pussy to Jeopardy!

Anthony Horowitz: TRIGGER MORTIS


As the creator of teenage Bond clone Alex Rider, Anthony Horowitz was an obvious author from whom to commission a 007 adventure. He has delivered the goods! This is a mission Ian Fleming would surely have put his seal of approval on.

In the early chapters Horowitz uses some original material found in Fleming's papers, a story in which Bond - improbably, it must be said - is coached up to Grand Prix standard in just a few days to challenge a Russian driver who's attempting an assassination for Bond's old adversaries SMERSH.

Yes, we're back in the Cold War. Trigger Mortis (daft title) follows directly on from Goldfinger, with Bond falling out of love with Pussy Galore (hard not to picture Honor Blackman, isn't it?). Surprisingly it's only after the racetrack scenes in Germany that the story gathers momentum, as Bond encounters a new squeeze-in-waiting, Jeopardy (very daft name), and a new adversary, a Korean billionaire called Jason Sin (fairly daft!) who's planning a SPECTRE-sized outrage on behalf of SMERSH, an outrage not too different from the one masterminded by Hugo Drax in Moonraker (the book, not the ultra-daft movie).

The new adversary, it must be said, bears signs of recycling: a mixture of Fleming's Dr No and Kingsley Amis's Colonel Sun. But he's a villain of suitably mega-nastiness with a creepy pack of playing cards that determines the fate of anyone who crosses him (echoes of Mr Big?): Bond draws a particularly grisly card and has his closest brush with death since Diamonds Are Forever (cinema version). The climax, which is seriously thrilling, borrows elements from the movie Speed and also features an Oddjob moment (from the film of Goldfinger).

So, yes, rather like the last few Bond pictures, this book is a mish-mash of ingredients we have seen before cooked to a new(ish) recipe. But, in its favour, the pace is cracking and this James Bond feels like the real thing. Horowitz comes closer than any of his predecessors to capturing the style of Fleming. Some authors have written a parody; Horowitz's is definitely a 'hommage'. 

Welcome home, James.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Wot I'm reading: Syria's looted billions

Daniel Silva: THE HEIST


My third Daniel Silva this year - can't get enough of him! Gabriel Allon is the best action hero since Modesty Blaise.

Called in to investigate the savage murder of a rogue art dealer in Switzerland, the Israeli super-spy thinks he could be on the trail of a Caravaggio masterpiece that disappeared (it really did) from a Sicilian church in 1969. But his enquiries soon uncover something bigger than the fate of one painting: the acquisition of a stash of stolen treasures by minions of a murderous Syrian dictator who has looted billions from his war-weary people. The Syrian dictator is not named in the text, but he has a back story that most readers will be familiar with.

The adventure starts as almost a "caper" like Topkapi or one of Peter O'Donnell's literary comic-book Modesty tales, but quickly morphs into a high-octane conspiracy thriller. The surprise ending - alas, without the dictator brought to his knees (we can only watch and hope) - is subtle and richly ironic. 

Audacity is Daniel Silva's middle name, and The Heist finds him, once again, at the very top of his game.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Wot I'm reading: Life (and Death) in Venice

MISS GARNET'S ANGEL


Middle-aged schoolmistress Julia Garnet, grieving after the death of her long-term friend and flatmate (but not, we infer, her lover), moves to Venice with a six-month rental on a small apartment off the Grand Canal. Miss Garnet is a spinster, a Communist and an atheist. She very quickly falls in love - not once but twice.

Her first love, an art historian, proves to be an unwise choice. Her second love, depicted in painting and sculpture in various churches and galleries, is the Archangel Raphael who famously accompanied the apocryphal prophet Tobias across the land of Assyria to meet the demonically possessed woman he was destined to love.

Salley Vickers alternates the story of Miss Garnet and the people she meets in Venice with a re-telling in vernacular English of Tobias's ancient odyssey. And as the city with its canals casts a spell over Julia's heart, this biblical romance frees her spirit - her soul - from a dormancy that has lasted her entire life.

The writing of this beguiling novel is elegant but unfussy, the kind of writing, you feel, that Jane Austen might be producing if she were alive today. 'If you spend most of your life alone often you do not know that you are lonely.' Julia likes the fact that the Lord is 'Signore' to the Italians: 'how nice that God should be a humble mister!'

In contrast to Tobias's cinematically exotic adventures, events in contemporary Venice move at an unhurried pace, but Miss Garnet's 'awakening' makes her an endearing heroine, more likeable than lovable. Defying categorization, this is a spiritual quest that spans almost three millennia.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Selling books. It's better for booksellers than for authors.

Paradise Press has received an order for a single copy of The Bexhill Missile Crisis from a leading London bookshop. The store demands a 35 percent discount on the retail price (£2.80 off £7.99). They expect us (me) to pay the postage (another £1.68 first class). The cost of the book from the printer works out at £3.61 per copy. Totting that up, you will see that I make a loss of 10 pence on this sale (that's 15 cents for US readers) - not including the cost of a jiffy bag and wear-and-tear on my shoes getting to the post office. If I mail it second class I can actually make a profit of 7 pence (11 cents) - about the price of the jiffy bag!. Bulk orders allow me a slightly better margin, as does a sale direct from the Paradise Press website.

I am paying people to read my book! Funny old world, isn't it? I could, of course, raise the book price, but £7.99 seems a fair (and competitive) price for a 215-page novel.

Do all authors have this problem?

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Wot I'm reading: Cane and Abel get a Southern Gothic makeover

John Hart is a new name to me. This is his fourth thriller, and the critics have heaped praise on him. Well-deserved praise.

Michael and Julian are brothers, whose lives have taken different directions since they left the Iron House orphanage in North Carolina following the savage killing of a bully. Julian was adopted by a senator and has become the successful author of dark children's books. Michael ended up under the protection of a New York crime lord, for whom he has carried out many ruthless murders. The crime lord is now dead and Michael wants to start a new life with Elena, his new-found love. But the gangster's son wants to kill Michael and anyone close to him, including his schizophrenic brother.

They say that all the best themes can be found in the Bible.Iron House, like the famous Blood Brothers, is a variation on the story of Cane and Abel. A violent variation, but a highly original one. The senator's wife has terrible secrets of her own. There's a wild child in the woods who should belong in a fairy story but somehow suits this one. The plot goes off in unexpected directions with two distinct climaxes, separated by a hundred pages in which this crime-and-revenge thriller morphs into Southern Gothic melodrama.

John Hart writes the kind of lean, vivid prose that is only seen in the very best thriller writers. The combination of Gothic and Greek tragedy brought to mind Thomas Harris's Hannibal, the most 'literary' book of the Lecter series. Here are two fine sentences from Iron House"The tenement house that almost killed the man was a river's breadth away, and a lifetime apart." "Jimmy took a deep breath, and smelled all the places he could bury a man." A calibre of writing you are unlikely to read in the self-published books that increasingly dominate the thriller market today. John Hart is a writer I plan to follow. This is far and away the best novel I've read this year.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Wot I'm reading: See Naples - and live

ELENA FERRANTE: Troubling Love


Elena Ferrante was written up in two articles I saw as a 'must read' author, so I ordered this. My own novel Lillian and the Italians (set in Venice, Amalfi and Provence) has been going the rounds of agents and editors - you can guess the response I'm getting (or not getting). Troubling Love is at the summit of the mountain I'm trying to climb.

Delia returns to her native Naples following her seamstress mother's sudden death from drowning in an apparent suicide. Investigating a mysterious figure from her mother's past, she also trawls her memory for clues to what might have driven her mother to such a step. The figure of her estranged, brutal father looms over both mother and daughter.

This may sound like a thriller - and I suppose it is a "psychological thriller" - but Elena Ferrante is not writing a piece of crime fiction, she's writing a highly literary novel where style is as important as substance. Delia's 'journey' is full of visions in which past and present merge discomfortingly. Her cast of weird characters is vividly sketched, and the city of Naples, teeming and yet lonely, is as powerful a presence as any of the characters.

Her translator has made a recurring error. People's apartments in high rises are referred to as "my house", "her house" etc. In Italian "casa mia" can mean 'my flat' as well as 'my house' (like "chez moi" in French, but a house on the fifth floor sounds very bizarre in English!

I haven't read any literary Italian since Moravia decades ago. I think his novels were less challenging than this. Ferrante's prose reminds me of Anita Brookner - lucid and dense at the same time - but there's an attention to detail that also evokes E.M. Forser and Virginia Woolf. Not a book for someone looking for a Montalbano-style caper, but a very worthwhile read for anyone looking for a new pure vision of the Mediterranean mindset.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Wot I'm reading: dishing the dirt on Hollywood royalty (and ex-kings)

In Chapter One of this bonk-and-tell autobiography the author gets a blowjob from Walter Pidgeon. I, naturally, fainted at this point but made a quick recovery and read on with mounting enthusiasm!

A farmboy from Illinois, Scotty Bowers headed for Los Angeles after his demob from the Marines at the end of World War Two (having seen some grim action in Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima). Working the evening shift at a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, he was soon running a lucrative sideline as a "call-boy" (he calls it "tricking") with well-heeled Angelinos, most of them in the movie business - both men and women (he claims to prefer straight sex). As well as turning tricks himself, he also set up many another hard-up young man (or woman) with movie people great and small. Then as now on Sunset Strip, straight guys willingly turned gay tricks for a few dollars of beer money.

Randolph Scott and Cary Grant,
 a Hollywood 'Golden Couple'?
It's all yesteryear tittle-tattle, mostly set during the Fifties and Sixties. Everybody mentioned is safely dead and unable to start libel proceedings. But there is some juicy stuff here: pool-party orgies at Cole Porter's house, threesomes with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, bondage parties with John Carradine. Somehow we've always sensed that our stage and screen idols have feet of clay; Scotty Bowers wants us to know that a proportion of their off-screen time is spent wallowing in mud. Charles Laughton and Tyrone Power had particularly extreme tastes.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor,
better in bed than on the throne!
Many names here are familiar to the gay gossips: Noel Coward, Montgomery Clift, James Dean. I was only occasionally surprised by his revelations: moving on from deceased Hollywood 'royalty' to deposed royals, he says he bedded both the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and fixed Edward up with call-boys and Wallis with girls; 'Eddy' was "a damn good lover" (not according to Thelma Lady Furness, one of Eddy's earlier ladyfriends); and Wally "really knew what she was doing," said one of the call-girls. Wow. At a time when pornography was illegal in the US (hard to imagine, isn't it?) he arranged a private showing of ex-King Farouk's extensive personal collection for Dr Alfred Kinsey and his fellow researchers.

Rita Hayworth, a famous beauty
and famously stingy
Not all the scandal is sexual: Rita Hayworth was too stingy to buy her out-of-work brother new tyres for his beat-up truck. And Scotty reminds us just how terrible was William Holden's decline (one of the non-gay clients) into the farther reaches of alcoholism.

Like the Collected Works of Kitty Kelley, Full Service is written (ghost-written in this case) in a gushing Louella Parsons prose style straight out of the "fanzines"; gushing enough to read at times like Barbara Cartland (who would churn in her urn at the comparison, I'm sure). I feel slightly ashamed to have wasted a few hours reading this tawdry drivel, but - oh dear - it's an undeniably compelling read. That said, I did find myself wondering how much of it is the sleazy truth and how much is money-minting fantasy.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015


Gay Authors Workshop had a garden party in Newhaven (Sussex, not Connecticut!) on Saturday. The weather was kind to us.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Wot I'm reading: Going, going, gone

Okay, I know I'm reading this two or three years after everybody else, but two months ago I was here reviewing a novel published in 1953 - so bear with me, people!

Luckily I'd forgotten some of the Big Twist from the movie of Gone Girl, so I still enjoyed the book's surprise reveal. It's narrated in alternate chapters by Nick Dunne, whose wife has gone missing, and by Amy, the missing wife. Nick is writing in the here and now, as he becomes the chief suspect in his wife's presumed abduction and murder. Amy's diary entries (with overtones of Carrie Bradshaw and even Bridget Jones) are a history of their marriage, from love and trust to cheating and mistrust, from falling in love to falling very heavily out of love.

Nick admits that he's lied to the police, from which we're obviously meant to assume that he might be keeping things from us. "I wasn't romantic," he admits; "I wasn't even nice." Amy comes across as the spoilt needy daughter of rich self-absorbed parents. It's hard to warm to a book when you take an instant dislike to its two main characters. In order to keep the reader guessing, plot and structure are elaborately contrived; and for me there was a bit too much contrivance, although the ending does give the story an edge which many potboilers lack.

This is, of course, a "woman's book", but here's one male reader who only gives Gone Girl four out of ten for literary quality, plus an ungrudging eight for the shock/surprise element. As in the movie, I came away with the feeling that this unlikeable pair deserved each other and the fate Gillian Flynn served up for them. 

Monday, 6 July 2015

God of Love, God of Hate?

Emily Watson as Julie Nicholson in BBCtv's A SONG FOR JENNY


A SONG FOR JENNY (BBCtv)


Television doesn't get much more harrowing than this. Life doesn't get more harrowing than this. A mother grieving for a daughter killed by terrorists in the name of their vile, vengeful faith. In the story of Jenny Nicholson, one of the 52 victims of the London bombers on July 7, 2005, irony is added to the maelstrom of emotions: her mum Julie was a Church of England vicar. Her inability to absorb the Christian virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation (is it possible they are also Muslim virtues?) eventually caused Julie to leave the priesthood.

Emily Watson gave an almost unbearably visceral performance as Julie Nicholson, fearful that her daughter might be caught up in the bombings on her way to work, then having to wait days for dental and DNA analysis to identify the bodies of those closest to the bomber. We were spared a reconstruction of the explosion although there was a flashback to Jenny on the rush-hour train leaving Edgware Road Tube station, standing close to a seated man with a backpack on his lap. That man was Mohammed Sidique Khan, a British Asian from Leeds, at 30 the oldest of the four 7/7 bombers who between them destroyed the lives and families of 52 travellers that day.

The film chose not to investigate the motives for Khan and his fellow jihadists, whose horrific acts they - and we - are told came with the promise of a prime spot in the Muslim version of Heaven, which sounds like some ludicrous version of a Playboy Club, with 72 virgins dancing attendance on each of the holy suicide bombers.

Nicola Wren as Jenny, killed in the rush hour on 7/7/2005
There was a terrible scene in which Julie Nicholson anointed her daughter's shattered body with holy oil: holiness comes with different definitions in the world of faith and fanaticism. Did the white supremacist Dylann Roof imagine that he was somehow carrying out God's work last month when he shot nine black people during a church service in Charleston? There can be no doubting that Seifeddene Rezgui on the beach in Sousse believed, like Mohammed Sidique Khan, that he was serving the Will of Allah.

We are repeatedly told in the media - including by so-called 'moderate' mullahs - that the jihadi 'martyrs' do not reflect the true message of Islam, although those who brainwash them quote many verses from the Koran to justify acts that seem obscene and Satanic to outsiders. Medieval Christians found verses in the Bible that validated the savagery of the Inquisition, and popes promised pride of place in Heaven to those 'martyred' whilst slaughtering Jews and Muslims during the Crusades. In recent decades Christian militias have committed atrocities in Yugoslavia, in Lebanon, in Africa (to this very day in the Central African Republic).

Mohammed Sidique Khan (not an actor)
The notion, not difficult to take on board, that the God of Jesus is a God of Love whereas the God of Islam is a God of Hate, is both the truth and not the truth. Since the beginning of time evil people have used their gods to justify acts of terror and of horror. Nothing changes. Muslim fanatics bomb and murder in the name of Allah. In Asia there are Buddhist and Hindu fanatics who burn temples and kill 'unbelievers'. In the US Bible Belt bigotry and racism and homophobia are rampant. Not only in America.

It's also easy to take the view of those who call down a Curse on all Religions. And then you remember the millions eliminated in the name of godless Communism by Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot.

The third century Persian mystic Mani gave the world Manichaeism - later adopted by the Chinese, some of the Romans and medieval Christians in France - a philosophy which has the physical, material world ruled by a God of Darkness, with the God of Light only prevailing in the spiritual world. It almost makes sense.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Wot I'm reading: Sex, snobbery and sadism

'Sex, snobbery and sadism' were the key ingredients in a James Bond novel, according to a review of Dr. No in the New Statesman in 1958. Yes, he was probably right, but the reviewer seems to have missed out the outlandish thrills that Ian Fleming always delivered (well, almost always: The Spy Who Loved Me was unforgivably awful, as perhaps was the mercifully short story Quantum of Solace, which is more like something Fleming's friend and neighbour Noel Coward might have written). Plus, he gave us some of the most colourful villains in the history of pulp fiction: Mr Big, Rosa Klebb, Dr. No, Goldfinger and, that toothsome twosome, Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt!

Matthew Parker's lively new contribution to the 007 'canon' is a history of Fleming's long love-affair with pre- and post-Independence Jamaica, where he spent two months of every year from 1946 until his death in 1964 and where he wrote all the Bond books. Before Barbara Broccoli recycled it as a movie title, Goldeneye was the name of the boxy little bungalow Fleming built overlooking a beautiful and almost private lagoon on the north coast of the Caribbean island. Here he entertained the great and the good (including Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Eden and - of course - Sean Connery) together with a far from modest selection of married ladyfriends, one of whom, Viscount Rothermere's wife Ann, divorced her husband to marry Fleming. Ann had to put up with a "three-people marriage" when Fleming took another Jamaican expat as his long-term mistress. Tit for tat, Ann Fleming became Hugh Gaitskell's lover for the last years of his life.

Goldeneye today, available for you to rent!
Fascinating as this book is, it's filled with dislikeable characters. Fleming himself is a curmudgeon, sometimes genial, more often sulky. Ann is a snobbish pill-popping neurotic who dismisses her husband's novels (largely without reading them) as 'pornography'. Even Noel Coward comes across as little more than another of the old colonial bores. Fleming largely detested the idle rich and retired who made up most of his wife's social circle both on the island and in London, and yet, as the New Statesman observed, James Bond was very much a product of the supercilious 'imperialist' mindset.

Parker confirms what we have heard before, that there was a lot of Fleming in 007: the naval background, a love of fishing and snorkelling as well as lethal levels of smoking and drinking. Fleming hated Germans (Hugo Drax and Goldfinger were both Germans), despised Americans (Felix Leiter was practically the only American friend Bond had and his relationship with Tiffany Case - erroneously called Chase in Parker's book - was one of his least passionate) and had a patronizing attitude towards blacks (think of Quarrel in Live and Let Die and Dr No).

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress, filming Dr No in Jamaica, 1961
From this account Fleming does not seem to have been a very happy man, but his books, however sniffy some of the critics, have brought pleasure to millions. I've read all of them (some several times) - and most of the 'sequels' in the hands of a very mixed bunch of copycat authors. From Russia With Love and Dr No are clearly the greatest of the 'founder's' output; of his heirs I would rate the first one, Kingsley Amis (Colonel Sun, 1968), the closest to the calibre of the originals.

Fleming was toying with killing off 007 at the end of From Russia With Love when (unlike in the movie) Rosa Klebb strikes home with the poisoned blade in her toecap. Luckily for us, this was Fleming's break-through book and he contrived a way to 'resurrect' Bond at the beginning of Dr No. Today, in real time, Bond would either be long since despatched to the rest home for old spies or, more likely given his alcohol and tobacco intake, would have made the trip to the crematorium which he narrowly escaped in the movie of Diamonds Are Forever. Despite the up-and-down quality of both the book and the movie franchise, long may he go on living!

Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and those shoes in From Russia With Love

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Wot I'm reading: Drac's back (it's a re-vamp!)

Yes, it's been done before: Dracula spelt backward. The fourth volume of Kim Newman's zany sequels to Bram Stoker's chronicle finds our undead hero finally (excuse the pun) out for the count. A perennially teenage Romanian upstart, Ion Popescu, 'turned' by Dracula in 1944, is brought to New York in the 1970s by vampire journalist Kate Reed and sets about becoming the kind of celebrity bloodsucker we know from the novels of Anne Rice. Moving to Hollywood, he becomes a film producer and adopts the name Alucard in honour of his Master.

This is the best of Newman's sequels to his original Anno Dracula (1992) in which Vlad Tepes became Queen Victoria's second consort in a London where vampires were the highest in high society. Similarly outlandish, Johnny Alucard is full of delicious historical and cinematic anomalies. Vampire Marlon Brando plays the count in Francis Ford Coppola's movie, relocated to the 1970s. In the 1980s Orson Welles is trying to get a version off the ground: Newman's mock screenplay is full of gags at the expense of Citizen Kane. A cult called Immortology pops up from time to time: no prizes for guessing who's being spoofed here.

Characters from Bram Stoker's novel are real people in this adaptation: Harker, Mina, Van Helsing. Fact and fiction are wittily interwoven. John Lennon was murdered (with a silver bullet) by Misery's Annie Wilkes. Newman's women are his best creations. As well as Kate Reed (undead since the Victorian era), 565-year-old 'elder' Genevieve Dieudonne returns from previous episodes. She now lives in a chrome Airstream trailer, whose eclectic furnishings include "a tacky Mexican crucifix with light-up eyes that she kept on show just to prove that she wasn't one of those vampires". Vampires have careers like other girls: Genevieve is a private detective in LA, and later a CSI in Baltimore.

Vlad III of Wallachia, 'the Impaler',
inspiration for the original Dracula
There are misses as well as hits in Newman's scattergun satire on the world of celebrities and movie-makers. A section in the New York of Andy Warhohl and Studio 54 falls slightly flat. The Hollywood scenes are the most inventive and witty: Alucard ventures into porn production with Debbie Does Dracula, featuring Dirk Diggler and other cast members from Boogie Nights (there's even talk of a sequel: Taste the Cum of Dracula!). Later our hero organises a global benefit for Transylvania - not so much Live Aid as Undead Aid - with everyone who was anyone in the pop world and a few whom we might have forgotten if becoming vampires had not kept them alive.

Densely plotted with a Cecil B. De Mille-sized cast of extras, this richly inventive comedy makes the Vampire Lestat look like Thomas the Tank Engine. A fun read, well-written enough to be a good serious read.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Wot I'm reading: Justice seen to be undone

Thriller-writer Robert Harris sets out to remind us of the infamous travesty of justice that was the Dreyfus Case in 1890s France. His central character is not Dreyfus but (real-life) army officer Georges Picquart who helped to make the flimsy case against Alfred Dreyfus on charges of espionage and witnessed the Jewish captain's trial and then his degradation in front of a baying crowd. Picquart reads the heavily censored letters exchanged between Dreyfus, imprisoned in solitary confinement on Devil's Island, and his wife. Dreyfus continues to protest his total innocence. Now working in military intelligence and on the trail of another spy in the army, Picquart comes to realise that Dreyfus was indeed innocent, but his superiors are not keen to see the case re-opened or even to see a further conviction. After an initial rush to misjudgement by one inept general, the army went to outrageous lengths to fabricate a stronger case against the poor captain. After a few years Picquart himself becomes a victim of injustice.

Dreyfus imprisoned on Devil's Island
Real-life espionage is not conducted at the pace of a James Bond or Jason Bourne adventure, but at a snail's pace - something we already know from following the career of MI5 spymaster George Smiley. An Officer and a Spy is short on thrills and long on detail: it requires serious concentration from the reader. The tension begins to build two-thirds of the way through, when the first of the re-trials takes place. There's some anachronistic language: 'lowlife' doesn't sound right for 1890. That apart, Harris generally writes with an elegance that rivals Le Carre, although he has chosen to write this book in the present tense, a device that has put me off reading Hilary Mantel's Cromwell novels and which I found somewhat off-putting here. Still, I must concede that Robert Harris has brilliantly reconstructed a fascinating piece of history. And, as we see in the news every day, justice continues to be applied with a very uneven hand by regimes that we would like to call civilised as well as by those that we know to be barbarous.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Wot I'm reading: gay un-lib

MARY RENAULT: 

The Charioteer


My dog-eared 1959 paperback of this gay 'classic' has a startling front cover blurb: "Three men plunged into a struggle with their unnatural love." Probably not the pitch they're using in the current re-issue.

It's 1940. Laurie Odell has been repatriated with other wounded servicemen from Dunkirk. In a military hospital in the West Country he develops a crush on Andrew, a naive young conscientious objector consigned to ward orderly duties as an alternative to prison. At a louche party (men dancing with each other: quick, bring smelling salts!) Laurie is reunited with injured sailor Ralph, on whom he  had a crush at boarding school; Ralph was expelled from their school for misbehaviour that is only hinted at.

Rather a lot is only hinted at as, in the midst of war, a gay 'love-triangle' develops.There's a lot of talk and no 'action'. A single chaste kiss; a couple of sex-scenes that take place off the page (like those in Gone With the Wind and most novels of the '40s and '50s). The book's best chapter is the wedding when Laurie's mother's remarries, full of precision-honed awkwardness. Of the three men, Laurie is still firmly closeted; Ralph is 'out', at least to his friends; Andrew doesn't know enough to think of it as a closet.

Words like 'rent' and 'queen' and 'cottage' were already in use in the 1940s, although 'gay' is not used in the sense we have for it now. When Renault describes the room in which the party is taking place, the furnishings include 'various poufs', which clearly would be edited out if it was being written today.

Andre Gide is, of course, the Patron Saint of gay fiction, up there in the 'Pantheon' with Oscar and Aubrey. E.M Forster's Maurice, begun in 1913, would qualify to be the first gay novel of the modern era had Forster not lacked the cojones to publish it (it appeared in 1971, a year after his death). Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories (1945) are generally hailed as breaking new ground, although the homosexual element in the two novels is less explicit than it was in the movie of Cabaret (having been left out in the stage play). Gore Vidal pioneered modern gay fiction with The City and the Pillar (1948), a more provocative book than Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (also 1948) which is exquisite but kind of precious.

The Charioteer, which first came out, so to speak, in 1953, is painfully slow, very dated and more than a little 'twee', similar in many respects to Forster's Edwardian-era  Maurice. Nevertheless (again like Maurice) it is an important and deeply felt novel about homosexual love. It was daring in its day and clearly sent out a plea for understanding and tolerance. The men in the story are living with the ever-present threat of what happened to Alan Turing: exposure, shame, arrest and the choice between imprisonment and chemical castration. And let's not forget, there are many countries today where gays and lesbians live with the threat of violence and execution.

You can read up on Mary Renault (1905-83) on Wikipedia, as I just have. An English lesbian who relocated to South Africa with her lover, she is most remembered for a series of romanticized novels about the gay/bi warriors of ancient Greece. She declined to associate herself with the Gay Liberation movement, and yet her books made her one of the true 'champions' of our community in Britain and the US, We must continue to honour her memory.