Friday, 21 October 2016

Wot I'm reading: 60-year old gay novel still shocks

Fritz Peters: FINISTERE

Another episode in my trawl through the gay ‘classics’.  Finistère was first published in 1951, three years after Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. In many ways it’s a more daring novel. Matthew, our young hero, moves to France – the year is 1927 – with his mother following her divorce.  At boarding school he begins a relationship, more sexual than romantic (though nothing too explicit), with a fellow pupil. Then, aged fifteen, he falls in love with Michel, a thirty-something PE teacher. Their intense affair is explored from both viewpoints – and also from the viewpoint of the mother and stepfather. When Matthew’s stepmother enters the story, she and the stepfather begin the process of ‘outing’ Matthew and precipitate a terrible climax. Happy endings seem to have been ruled out in these early gay novels, although in all fiction a tragic finale tends to have more resonance.

The implicit element of pederasty – a slightly lesser ‘sin’ (or crime) than paedophilia – is largely overlooked by the author. He presents the relationship between the teenager and his teacher as if it’s entirely natural (which it is, obviously) and even normal, which it very clearly is not. This must have been a ‘shocking’ story in the 1950s. It’s fairly shocking today.

The writing is sometimes a bit precious, a bit ‘twee’. Perhaps because of the French setting there’s a Proustian attention to details of setting and moments of introspection. Rapid switches of viewpoint, much frowned on by writing schools, are always disconcerting for the reader. And of course it’s a bit dated, but the struggles of a teenager with his sexual identity are as relevant now as they were sixty years ago, and Matthew’s difficulties in coming to terms with divorce and step-parents are powerfully conveyed. Overall this is an elegant read and a story that engages the reader’s emotions.

Even in these liberal times of ours there are many places (not all of them in Muslim countries) where homosexuals face intolerance and often persecution. In the ultra-liberal West we face a growing threat from the forces of ultra-conservatism. We need to keep our guard up.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Wot I'm reading: Artistic tantrums

Brian Sewell: OUTSIDER

In the first chapter of this memoir (2011) Brian Sewell reveals that, seeing Aladdin as a teenager gave him 'an undying ambition, never fulfilled, to play the Widow Twanky.' With his highly affected speech Brian’s Twanky would surely have sounded like Edith Evans’s Lady Bracknell. When you read Alan Bennett’s diaries it’s easy to hear his Yorkshire vowels in your head. Mr Sewell similarly writes as he speaks: a plummy, precious, over-elaborate prose. In the early chapters of his memoir he describes his early life – mother, father, stepfather, schoolfriends – with the same clinical brutality with which he will later appraise artists and their work.

One of his tutors as a student of art history at the Courtauld Institute was Anthony Blunt, the ‘Fourth Man’ in the Cambridge Spy Ring. You feel his passion, inspired by Blunt, for Poussin above all other painters. Paint, rather than blood, runs in Sewell’s veins: he recalls in vivid detail the paintings he saw on a Grand Tour of Italy with five fellow students in an old Vauxhall in the 1950s. The detail of his studies – in these long Victorian paragraphs – and his subsequent career as a cataloguer and appraiser with Christie’s becomes wearisome after a time.

Arguments over attribution are only a little bit exciting, although Alan Bennett gave them an extra ‘frisson’ in his play about Blunt, set mostly in the Queen’s art gallery. Outsider offers a few moments of high drama in the auction rooms. In the 50s and 60s many great paintings and drawings sold for a fraction of what they are worth today. His rarefied view of art – and of his own importance – seem designed to make the rest of us (‘outsiders’!) feel like philistines; I certainly did.

Having been both Catholic and Anglican, Sewell is content to call himself an ‘an agnostic Christian,’ a label I relished and am tempted to borrow. After years in the bosom of Christianity – he flirted with the attractions of the priesthood – Brian surrendered to the temptations of the flesh. A period of gay promiscuity and occasional love affairs ensued, but he describes his lovers with less intensity than he gives to a Burne-Jones painting needing emergency repairs before its sale at Christie’s. At the end he offers a bizarre apology for having used ‘bugger’ rather than the F-word throughout his book. I would have preferred an apology for his Dickensian syntax.

Sir Anthony Blunt: tutor and traitor
He is generous with praise for the people in the art world he liked and equally generous with disdain for those he didn’t: a lot of old scores are settled in this cavalcade of tantrums, which often reminded me of Kenneth Williams’s acid-queen diaries. This is a mean-spirited autobiography, only enlivened by the occasional titbit of gossip and revelation. When Anthony Blunt is unmasked as a spy, a traitor, Sewell refers to this in passing with no suggestion that he shared the Establishment’s sense of betrayal. Presumably he goes into the scandal in more detail in the second volume of his memoirs, which I will steel myself to read sometime in the not-too-near future.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Wot I'm reading: The second murder of Princess Diana


The latest instalment in the Gabriel Allon super-spy series begins with the blowing up of a yacht in the Mediterranean where the principal guest is the ex-wife of the heir to the British throne. It’s very cavalier of Daniel Silva to rescue Princess Diana (she is only ever called the ‘former princess’) from the horror of Paris only to have her murdered somewhere else.

Improbably, veteran Israeli intelligence operative Gabriel is brought in to investigate the killing, and he recruits Christopher Keller (whom we have met before), a British commando turned hitman. The prime suspect is ex-IRA bomb-maker Eamon Quinn, whose path has also crossed Gabriel’s more than once. Quinn is linked to the decades-old atrocity that destroyed Gabriel’s first wife and young son, a tragedy that Daniel Silva revisits in every novel, with powerful resonance. Keller and Gabriel criss-cross Europe in pursuit of the assassin and his sponsors. The climax, in the old ‘killing fields’ of Ireland, is thrilling and chilling.

The head of MI5 quotes Eric Ambler: “It’s not important who fires the shot. It’s who pays for the bullet.” And there are several old foes who may behind this new conspiracy - Russians, Iranians, Arabs – or perhaps a lethal combination of dark forces. The sheer scale of the conspiracy here, with all its twists and turns, reminded me (which Silva often does) of Robert Ludlum, whose great gift (the Jason Bourne stories are a good example: I wonder why they haven’t filmed the Allon novels?) was to make a preposterous conspiracy seem entirely plausible. The English Spy is one of this author’s more outlandish tales - and I think the murder of the princess shows bad taste: he fictionalizes the UK prime minister and could easily have fictionalized a minor Royal. Nevertheless, he always convinces you that a drama like this could well be played out on the streets of Europe’s cities – and, as we have seen too often recently, frightening dramas are playing out on the streets where we live.

Mr Silva never fails to deliver the goods. In an Afterword at the end of the book he delivers an alarm-bell-ringing assessment of how much he thinks President Putin threatens world security.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Wot I'm reading: The ghost of Herman Melville

This literary adventure story was published in 2001 but only came to my attention this year, recommended by a friend with reliable good taste. 

Two narratives are interwoven in Henderson’s Spear, told in different styles, both vividly fresh and exciting. The modern one has Olivia, a rootless young woman imprisoned in Tahiti on a murder charge, writing her life story in the form of a letter to the daughter she gave up for adoption. The ‘period’ story, 100 years earlier, is the journal of a relative of Olivia’s, Frank Henderson, who sailed the South Seas with a crew that included Princes George and Edward, Queen Victoria’s grandsons, one destined to die young, the other to marry his brother’s fiancée and be crowned in Westminster Abbey.

The Victorian/Edwardian history is very much in the style of Herman Melville who also explored – and wrote about – Polynesia. There are storms at sea and other maritime perils and wonderfully weird encounters with the newly Christianized rulers of Fiji and Tahiti. Prince Eddy’s homosexuality is not over-emphasized, although this tale has a ‘shock’ ending. Olivia’s life is a catalogue of doomed affairs: ‘I’ve never been very good at love,’ she writes to her daughter, ‘though I am working on it.’ Her ill-fated trip to Tahiti, also driven by letters, is a quest to find out what happened to her father, a pilot who failed to return from the Korean War. Abandonment is a core theme in this novel, explored with depth and poignancy.

Henderson’s Spear is in the same league as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Kite Runner – novels that are impossible to categorize and a joy to read.

Friday, 27 May 2016

RIP: Helen Lambert Gee - a fine artiste, a true friend


Helen Lambert, who has just died at the age of 80, was one of my oldest and dearest friends. If you think you recognise her in the photo, it might be from BBCtv’s The League of Gentlemen where Helen ran a (poison!) pie stall during one and a half series in Royston Vasey. Or you might have seen her in one of her many TV commercials, most famously for Flash cleaning products.

I met Helen in the Nell Gwynne club in the crypt of St Martin’s in the Field when I was a 20-year student in 1962 and she was an out-of-work chorus girl. The following year she joined the touring cast of Joan Littlewood’s Cockney musical Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be; her dressing-room in the Devonshire Park Theatre when the show came to Eastbourne was the first dressing-room I’d ever been with – unless you count the vestry at Hailsham Methodist Church where I used to write/act/direct shows in my teens!

In Scotland in 1963, still with Fings, Helen had a fall onstage but carried on performing despite agonising back pain which was eventually diagnosed as a fractured spinal disc. Hospitalised for more than a year and told she might never walk again, Helen – typically and literally – did not take this lying down. After months of therapy she was back on her feet and by 1968 was dancing on stage with Harry Secombe in a musical version of The Four Musketeers; Helen understudied Elizabeth Larner in the lead and took over for many performances.

Helen had a fine coloratura soprano voice and could belt out a song as ‘powerfully’ as Ethel Merman; her comedic skill was at least as good as several other contemporary actresses and comediennes  (as we used to call ladies of the theatre in those days). But she never got that big break and had to rely on working as a guide for the British Council to supplement her sporadic earnings on stage and screen. As well as commercials and appearances with Dick Emery, the Two Ronnies and two series of ‘Uncle Jack’, she was in the chorus of the movie version of Oliver! and had a featured role in the 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes.

She was very active in Equity, the actors’ union, and served on the executive committee for many years. After retiring from The British Council, she became a magistrate in Camden. Her spinal injury was a recurring problem and required further surgery, but despite this and other health issues Helen carried on working, mostly in commercials, at home and abroad, into her seventies. After an unhappy first marriage (I gave her away at her first wedding) Helen found happiness and lasting companionship with Ray Gee (no relation to David Gee!), who this year has also suffered declining health.

Loyalty was Helen’s most notable characteristic. She was a pro-active friend to many people, in ‘the business’ and outside. She was a tireless supporter of my slow-burning writing career: I dedicated The Bexhill Missile Crisis to her in 2014, though she thought it was a bit too rude! Those of us who were privileged to know and love her at a personal level, will miss her hugely. She was a woman of substance with a substantial talent that did not get the recognition it deserved. 

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Wot I'm reading: dirty deeds in Venice


I'm a bit late coming to Donna Leon and Commisario Guido Brunetti. Writing a book set in Venice myself (see Lillian and the Italians on, I've avoided anything that might colour my own view of the city. Easy to see why Signora Leon has such a big following: she is a very fine writer.

Here, Brunetti investigates the suspicious deaths of a building inspector in a fall and a decomposing overdosed drug addict. There seems to be a link to the activities of a pair of elderly moneylenders who make Shylock seem like Mother Theresa. The means Brunetti employs to flush out the killer are unorthodox, probably unprofessional but effective.

Leon's writing is entirely modern, although the unhurried pace and the quiet doggedness of Brunetti evokes the era of Poirot and Miss Marple. The author's elegant prose took me further back to dear old Dorothy L. Sayers (don't be shocked, reader: in my youth I was proud to be a friend of Dorothy L. Sayers!). Her picture of Guido's Venice is evocative without ever seeming overdone. She has a clear vision of the country and its people: "Italy was a country where everyone knew everything while no one was willing to say anything." 

A mortuary scene with the dead junkie's parents is perfectly poignant, and the ending is a notable demonstration of what Graham Greene called "the splinter of ice" a writer needs to stand out from the crowd. Mrs Leon stands out. 

Friday, 22 April 2016

Wot I'm reading: Gore Vidal - America's gay pioneer


Continuing my intermittent trawl through through the 'classics' of modern gay literature, I've just re-read this novel from 1948, which I think is the very first 'home-grown' gay novel in the US. The literary establishment - and the critics - were vicious in their condemnation of Vidal. He rewrote the book in 1965 with major changes and this version, still reprinting today, has sold millions. The revised ending is less melodramatic than the original (murder) but the hero's "hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-wronged-faggot" action seems equally out-of-character.

Vidal's writing, especially in the later volumes of his American History series, became verbose and flatulent, almost a parody of Henry James. The City and the Pillar, like many early novels from writers in the 40s and 50s (and still all too often today), shows clearly the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald: lean, finely-honed prose with a kind of muscular elegance, which works supremely well for this chronicle of the coming-of-age and the coming-out of a gay high-school senior during WW2 and its aftermath. Jim Willard's briefly reciprocated love for a fellow student casts a shadow over the next decade of his life as he becomes a sailor, then a tennis-coach (and kept boy) in Hollywood and New York.

Scenes in NY and LA offer early glimpses of the archness that were to characterise the author's public persona in later life and reach an apotheosis in Myra Breckinridge and Myron, the two-volume high-octane farce which for many readers is at once his best and his worst writing. Ronald Shaw, the closeted actor who keeps Jim for a while, an on-screen macho-man who is privately needy and insecure, calls Rock Hudson to mind although the time of the story means he's more likely to be based on Randolph Scott or perhaps another version of the author. Paul Sullivan, the writer Jim comes close to loving, doesn't suggest Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams, the 'obvious' candidates for a gay author, but again he may just be a twist on Gore, as Jim obviously is. In fact there are many moments that seem to demonstrate how a writer chops his own life into pieces to provide the basis for different characters, although in his autobiography Vidal insists his protagonists are not based on real people except for Bob Ford, Jim's lost love, and a woman 'inspired' by Anais Nin, whom Gore claims to have romanced. Many scenes - and many of the characters - could as well belong to New York or Los Angeles of today as to the 1940s. Except for some clunky conversations exploring the 'Nature Of Homosexuality' which must have seemed insightful as well as daring in 1948, this is a lot less dated than other gay novels of the era.

The sex scenes are almost as discreet as Mr Forster's - there's nothing as lurid or as dazzling as Gore would later concoct for Myra/Myron. But overall The City and the Pillar is not only an outstanding piece of gay fiction (better than many that were to come after Vidal opened the floodgates) but also one of the best novels of its era, different from but as exquisitely readable - still - as the early works of Capote and Carson McCullers.

In later life Gore overdid the bitchiness and bitterness, perhaps disappointed by his failure to make it as a realm presence in US politics, the role he most craved. But his output as novelist, historian and essayist was prodigious. Other writers may have left a bigger footprint (Roth, Mailer, Updike, Irving,), but Vidal deserves to admitted to the literary pantheon. He wouldn't thank me for this, but he is probably, as Somerset Maugham is supposed to have said of himself, "in the very front rank of the second-raters".

Saturday, 9 April 2016

RIP, Jackie: "tasteless and flashy" to the end!


We're not supposed to speak ill of the dead - so here goes! I gave up on Jackie Collins many books back. Yes, her Hollywood novels are glamorous and gossipy, like the film and pop 'fanzines' whose style she writes in, but the formula became very repetitious. And this one is no exception. We're not told how old Lucky Santangelo now is, the ruthless hotel and film studio mogul who is also the insatiable wife of comedian Lennie Golden and matriarch to a brood of gorgeous but dysfunctional children, now grown, who variously model, act, sing or run nightclubs. As always, there's lots of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. One of her characters uses "amazeballs" as a superlative, an adjective I'd only previously heard on TV's Miranda show. Everyone else uses the f-word, of course, excessively. "Tasteless and flashy" is how one bitchy character describes Lucky to her husband. There's no arguing with that.

Again as before, there's a vengeful psycho stalking Lucky's family and friends. This one, topically, is the ruler of an imaginary Arab state called Akramshar. His name is King Emir Amin Jordan - shouldn't that be al-Jordan? And how did her editors let ludicrous King Emir get into print?

RIP Jackie: will she write from beyond the grave?
Ms Collins writes her own kind of prose, which almost defies criticism. An undercover cop "was Puerto Rican and verging on pretty, in a tough 'don't fuck with me' kind of way." The bar on this sort of writing has been lowered rather than raised by la Collins during her long reign as the Queen of Hollywood fiction. She was famous for her raunchy sex scenes, all written with sledgehammer subtlety in fifty shades of scarlet and often unintentionally (or intentionally?) comic: "Men got off on her nipples; in full bloom, they were quite spectacular."

Harold Robbins, without any grand aspirations, was a much better writer: The Carpetbaggers and The Adventurers had all the greed and gossip of a Collins novel, but his style had a kind of Mickey Spillane crispness and grandeur. Jackie Collins occasionally reaches for crisp but she cannot (couldn't) do grand.

Billed as 'The Final Chapter' in the life of Lucky Santegelo, this ninth instalment may not be the last. Harold Robbins carried on writing from beyond the grave, and so too may Jackie Collins. There's gold in them thar cemeteries.

The fabulous Collins sisters - only Joan is left now
Two weeks ago I reviewed a Southern Gothic thriller that was one of the best books I've read in the last few months. The Santangelos is far and away one of the worst: scrappily plotted, poorly written and under-edited. Total tosh, in fact, but - although I skimmed through chunks of it - I had to read through to the end! Jackie Collins had her own kind of magic: RIP.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Wot I'm reading: Another girl gone in this stunning thriller


It's six months since I discovered John Hart, reading Iron House, his most recent novel (there's a new one out next month). Iron House blew me away. The Last Child is his previous book, similarly set in North Carolina. 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon's twin sister was abducted a year ago and never found. His father has disappeared; his grief-wrecked mother has taken up with a bullying property magnate. Johnny spends many hours scouring the area looking for clues to his sister's disappearance. Another abduction and an encounter with a black vagrant who seems to know something spur the boy on. One local detective also refuses to let the case go cold and tries to watch over Johnny and his mom.

This is not a new theme but John Hart gives the story a Southern Gothic twist that makes it feel fresh and exciting. His prose style is as rich as Stephen King's: one suspicious local man "was sixty-eight, with bristled hair, two loose teeth  and eyes like raw oysters."  There's a riverside cemetery scene with an atmosphere that calls Charles Dickens to mind. The suspense builds to a vivid, visceral climax that tears at your heart strings.

Hart is a real find. Thrillers don't come any better than this. I can't wait to read the next one.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Wot I'm reading: "If you liked SHADOW OF THE WIND, you'll love ....."


Well, that's what the back cover promises. And on the front cover Isabel Allende calls this "One of the best books I have read in a long time." An endorsement from the author of The House of the Spirits, and comparisons with Carlos Ruiz Zafon's modern masterpiece: who could resist? Sad to report, I somewhat wish I had.

Shortly after saving a beautiful Portuguese woman from suicide, Raimund Gregorius, a middle-aged Swiss teacher, comes across a book of modern philosophy by an obscure Portuguese doctor turned revolutionary during the time of Salazar. Gregorius abandons Bern for Lisbon and a quest to learn more about the mysterious author (and, the reader must surely hope, re-encounter the equally mysterious lady). It's a long and slow journey, almost entirely comprised of encounters with men and women who knew and loved/admired Amadeu de Prado. The author punctuates the narrative with chunks of Prado's sententious prose. 

This is not an easy read. The book is well written (and translated) but the passion that drives Allende's writing is missing, and so is the undistilled magic of Zafon's. The prevailing (albeit prejudiced) view of the Swiss is that they are staid, precise, somewhat dull. And that's how Night Train to Lisbon felt to me through most of its 430 pages. The slow unravelling of a mystery was the core element in John Fowles's splendid The Magus, the first modern epic (1966) on a slightly 'supernatural' theme. But there just isn't enough mystery in Lisbon; and the ending was a disappointment.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Wot I'm watching: The X-Files relaunch: a feast for conspiracy buffs!

I guess a lot of us got pretty excited on hearing that The X-Files were being re-opened after a fourteen-year hiatus. Funny how little Mulder and Scully have aged - is this the wonder of studio make-up or alien intervention? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson slipped quickly back into character, although I detected an element of "tongue-in-cheek" as they recycled the government cover-up mythology on which the series hangs.

There was a new kid on the block (though not for long) who'd suffered multiple alien abductions, and we had a nervous wait for DNA tests on Scully to come back with the result we all expected. I remember reading back in the show's heyday that one in three Americans believed they'd been abducted and "probed" (mostly anally: does this tell us something about US obsessions or anxieties?). Like Mulder, I (sort of) Want to Believe.

Anyway, well done, Chris Carter, for bringing Fox and Dana back into our lives; it was like a jolly Friends Reunited event. These revamps tend not to have a long shelf-life (Upstairs Downstairs and Dallas come immediately to mind) so we must seize the moment and enjoy Scully and Mulder (and Skinner) while they're back on our screens. It almost certainly won't be as good as the original run (nothing ever is), but I felt a real thrill being back in the world of massive government conspiracies, which for some people is the same as the real world of today - and tomorrow.

The Truth is Still Out There - somewhere.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Wot I'm reading: Carry On up the colonies


This novel won the Booker prize in 1973, so I'm a bit late catching up with it. Reading a novel set in colonial India recently made me remember a couple of 'imperial' works I'd missed out on. This is one; the other is The Raj Quartet, a somewhat bigger challenge, four volumes (I've watched the TV series three times, the best television drama of its time).

Mr Farrell sets his novel in 1857, the year of the Indian Mutiny, in the imaginary outpost of Krishnapur in the baking plains of Hindustan. Mr Hopkins, the 'Collector' (as the governor is called, because of his vast hoard of possessions), gets wind of the uprising and offers the expatriate community refuge in his Residency only hours ahead of the first assault by rebellious 'sepoys'. The expats are mostly the families of British soldiers, a few merchants and the managers of the opium farms. There are more women than men: the so-called 'fishing fleet', spinsters from England hoping to find husbands in the Imperial Army. The early chapters of this book are reminiscent of Jane Austen, a 'comedy of manners' moved to a dusty Indian outpost. Even as the bullets start to fly and putrefaction becomes the odour of the day, these ladies fret about the protocol of sheltering with people of lower class and looser morals.

As well as Miss Austen, I occasionally caught a flavour of Carry On Up the Khyber, so inept are the British soldiers and so hapless the women cowering in the Residency. During the siege the last desperate cannon shot is loaded with cutlery, marbles and even a set of dentures. The characters are well-drawn but their eccentricity gives many of them the sheen of caricatures. The Magistrate - who "had the red hair and ginger whiskers of the born atheist" - is an avid student of phrenology. The Collector has a vast hoard of souvenirs from the Great Exhibition; he also collects grim statistics about death and disease. Hari, the Maharajah's son, comes across like a Peter Sellers impersonation. These people engage the reader's mind more than his heart; I found none of them especially sympathetic and was not deeply involved in their fate, certainly not in the way I was in The Far Pavilions, still and by far my favourite novel from the annals of Empire. Humour, even grim humour, sits uncomfortably with cholera and starvation as The Siege of Krishnapur reaches its climax.

I can't remember what I was reading in 1973 - not J.G. Farrell, obviously! - but this is a strange book to be regarded as the best of its year. Iris Murdoch and Beryl Bainbridge were on the shortlist, so the judges (who included Mary McCarthy and Edna O'Brien) must have seen something in The Seige of Krishnapur which I did not. To me it seemed leaden and repetitious; had it not been a prizewinning novel I would have given up on it and missed the rather splendid conclusion. Not the first time I've found an award-winning book (or play or movie) totally at odds with my reading(/viewing) preferences. I hope this doesn't make me a philistine!