Sunday, 17 December 2017

Wot I'm reading: a Superstar's busy - and varied - Sex life

Wow. This is a deeper dirt-digging biography than any of those by Kitty Kelley. Darwin Porter charts the long career of Paul Newman – ‘the man with the baby blues,’ it says on the cover, referencing his eyes, not his tears in the crib. The author also charts Newman’s sexual history – and what a history it is!

Mr Porter’s main sources seem to be Eartha Kitt, Shelley Winters and an actress known as Vampiria, all of whom claimed close confidence with the blue-eyed star. Porter reports whole conversations which can only be recon-structions based on ‘information received’. There are some startling revelations here, starting with the main one: Paul Newman’s bisexuality which will come as a shock (unbelievable even) to many of his lifelong fans around the globe.

Grace Kelly: (not) 'the ice princess'
Early in his career Newman was competing for roles with Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. According to the author, he had sex with all of the above – even ‘love affairs’ with some of them. Some stellar ladies’ reputations are also trashed here. Gary Cooper is quoted as saying that Grace Kelly ‘looks like a cold bitch before you take her pants down – and then she explodes.’ As well as Grace’s sheets, Newman got to perform on Joan Crawford’s, Lana Turner’s and – OMG! – Sandra Dee’s and Audrey Hepburn’s.

We all (nearly all) like juicy gossip, don't we? But at close to 500 pages this is tittle-tattle 'overkill': an exhaustive – and exhausting – catalogue of all the roles Newman played or failed to get, plus all the men and women he ‘dated’. There are a few gems among all the sleazy details: Judy Garland unzipped his trousers on a nightclub dance floor; ‘I like to check out what I’m getting.’ There’s a memorable ‘cross-over’ moment when Newman is having sex with Kim Stanley (whom he met at the Actors Studio in 1952); after Paul ticks her off for calling out the name of ‘Marlon’ in the heat of passion, she tells him: ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be fucked by Marlon Brando.’ Paul’s answer cannot have been the one she was expecting!

Newman & Woodward: the 'Golden Couple'
Joanne Woodward, the second Mrs Newman, knew she was marrying a serial philanderer, although it's clear that she was the great female love of his life. As to the great male love, we are told that Brandon de Wilde, his cute young co-star in Hud (1963), played a supporting role in Paul’s private life for many years after Hud; but so, if Darwin Porter is to be believed, did Steve McQueen. It really is La La Land out there.

It’s not all sex. Actually, it mostly is. And it’s not all about Paul, although, again, it mostly is – obviously. A jaunty incidental revelation is Anthony Perkins’s claim that he lost his (hetero-sexual) ‘virginity’ at the age of 44 with none other than Dallas’s Victoria Principal. And – a spooky detail I’d not heard before – Tony Perkins’s widow, Berinthia Berenson, was a passenger in one of the jets flown into the Twin Towers on 9/11.

The ‘Casting Couch’ is back in the headlines this year. In Newman’s early days it was seen as going with the territory that he would kneel to or be knelt in front of by agents, producers, directors, studio execs – not all of the time, but a lot of the time. More surprises when the author names men who have, however briefly, trod the ‘lavender path’. Tyrone Power is quoted telling Paul that director John Ford ‘used to throw John Wayne on his casting couch back in the Stone Age.’ Pass the smelling salts! Robert Stack, an early lover of Paul’s, claimed to have shared his sheets with, among many others, Howard Hughes and Jack Kennedy. Come on!

After he married Joanne Woodward (1958) Paul Newman had a stock answer when interviewers asked if he was ever tempted to ‘stray’ with any of the gorgeous leading ladies he partnered onscreen; his regular reply was “Why go out for hamburger when you’ve got steak at home?’ This revealing biography suggests that Paul got through a lot of hamburgers during his marriage to Ms Woodward. At the risk of sounding crude (this is a fairly crude book) I’m tempted to say that quite a lot of sausages were also consumed. 

Newman and Brandon de Wilde in HUD (1963)

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

David at the movies: More grey than 'noir'

SUBURBICON


Co-scripted by the Coen brothers and directed by George Clooney, who have all brought much joy into our lives, Suburbicon is a 1950s satire that falls very flat. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his wife and son live in an all-white enclave with gleaming white picket fences and manicured lawns. All hell breaks out when the first black family move into the house next door. When Gardner’s wife is murdered by intruders in a clumsy burglary, he rapidly finds consolation with his sister-in-law (Julianne Moore). The boy soon learns that his mother’s death is just the beginning of his troubled home life.

The 1950s setting is so believable that I kept expecting Lana Turner or Susan Hayward to enter the story. If only they had! Damon and Moore don’t quite get a handle on their characters, and the peril that builds up around the young son, which seems to be reaching for Joe Orton grotesqueness, comes over as tacky and tasteless. The script also requires us to believe that the town’s emergency services are too busy dealing with the rioting racists (practically the entire population) to notice the mayhem in the house next door. As ‘noir’ satire goes, this is a dingy shade of grey.


FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL


Oh, but they do. Well, almost. This slight but beguiling slice of movie memorabilia is about the last days of Gloria Grahame, a feisty blonde Hollywood actress who played, well, feisty blondes in a bunch of 1950s gangster movies, although my fondest memory of her is as the ‘Gal Who Cain’t Say No’ in Oklahoma.

In her fifties, with movie roles drying up, Gloria went back on stage and and guested in TV series like The Fugitive. She had a weakness for younger men (her fourth marriage was to her stepson by husband number two). A young stage actor in London, Peter Turner, was her last lover and it was to his mum’s house in Liverpool that she retreated in 1981 when her remitted cancer flared up again. Peter and his mum looked after her till almost the very end.

The original Gloria Grahame
Annette Bening has given many fine performances and here she adds another one. I hope this wins her a statuette or two. Her Gloria is vulnerable but cranky and sometimes imperious. There’s a lovely moment when they go to the pictures to see the original Alien: Peter is nearly sick during the John Hurt 'birthing scene', but Gloria finds it laugh-out-loud funny.

Jamie Bell gets to show off his disco-hustle moves and take us back to Billy Elliot. He and Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham (mum and dad) give terrific support. There are some great 70s hits in the sound-track: super to hear Jose Feliciano again. Liverpool (if that’s where it was actually filmed) is atmospherically rainy and grainy; back-to-back houses, grimy streets, shabby pubs. The wall-papers in the Turner house are epically awful (I kept thinking of Oscar Wilde’s deathbed gag in the Paris hotel: ‘either that wallpaper goes or I will!’) The last scene of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is deeply touching and stops perfectly short of being mawkish.


One moment a love-story, another a comedy, but always a ‘weepie’ in the making, this is a small but exquisite gem of a movie that reminded me (a lot) of My Week with Marilyn.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Theatre at the cinema: Sour cocktail with a great taste

Stephen Sondheim: FOLLIES


This was the latest West End show to come to a movie theater near me last night. I saw it in London in 1987 – twice – with Dolores Gray and then Eartha Kitt singing the show’s ‘anthem’ “I’m Still Here”. This new production goes back to Stephen Sondheim’s original vision: a single extended act and a character development study (wow – in a musical?) rather than a plot-driven drama.

A crumbling brick wall on a revolving stage creates the minimalist set, with a fire escape replacing the grand staircase down which the chorus girls would have paraded in the heyday of the Ziegfeld-style Follies decades earlier. At this 1970s reunion (the theatre is soon to be torn down) the focus is on two couples whose marriages have gone very stale: Sally and Buddy and Phyllis and Ben. Sally was in love with Ben (still is) but she married Buddy, who is a serial philanderer, as is Ben and also Phyllis. These four interact with their younger selves in crisp scenes and songs. If this show were a cocktail – and it very much is - it could only be a whisky sour.

Follies makes a kind of 'companion piece' to Sond-heim’s earlier show Company, which took an equally cynical view of several marriages from the viewpoint of a ‘confirmed bachelor’ (the character wasn’t gay, although that was how gay men used to be referred to - PM Ted Heath for instance!). Some of the songs and production numbers in Follies are re-runs of pastiche vaudeville numbers with the players shadowed by and even dancing with their younger selves .

But it’s the bitterest lyrics – ‘torch songs’ - that stand out, show-casing failed relationships and the disappointments life dishes out. ‘Could I Leave You?’ is sung by Phyllis (Janie Dee who kept reminding me of Sigourney Weaver). ‘Losing My Mind’ is Sally’s big number – Imelda Staunton came into her own with this, though I felt she was underplaying the character in the first half of the show. 

Tracie Bennett sings "I'm Still Here"
The absolute show-stopper (equivalent to ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ in Company) is ‘I’m Still Here’ sung by retired stage siren Carlotta (Tracie Bennett). The best ever performance of the song, for me, was Carol Burnett’s in a concert version of Follies from the Lincoln Center in 1985. Shirley MacLaine sang it memorably in Postcards From the Edge, playing a character meant to be Debbie Reynolds. In this new production Tracie Bennett comes close to eclipsing everybody else. Ms Bennett memorably recreated Judy Garland on stage some years ago – a pity she won’t be in the next year’s new bio-pic (Renee Zell-weger). Much as Elaine Stritch lit up the stage with ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ in the 1972 Company, Tracie Bennett stole the show for me last night.

And what a show this is! Catch a repeat when they show an 'Encore' at your local multiplex.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Wot I'm reading: Chamberlain in Berlin

Robert Harris: MUNICH


A few years ago Robert Harris revisited the Dreyfus affair. Now he turns his attention to another ‘dodgy’ moment in history: Neville Chamberlain’s visit to Munich in September 1938 to attempt a watering-down of Adolf Hitler’s intended annexation of a large chunk of Czechoslovakia into the new German Reich. The only alternative to appease-ment is war, and after 10 million deaths in 1914-18, Britain and France are reluctant (and ill-prepared) to face another world war.

Much has been written about Munich. Harris injects a fictional element into history by planting a young traitor in Hitler’s Foreign Ministry who hands a secret document to a former university friend on Chamberlain’s staff, a document which may deter the British from doing a deal in Munich. Paul Hartmann, the traitor in Berlin, is a splendidly complex character: a patriot, proud of his country’s history and culture and deeply appalled that his country’s future is now in the hands of a power-crazed madman. I wonder if Harris will bring Hartmann – and Hugh Legat, his Downing Street friend - back in another story from the war years?

In Fatherland, his acclaimed first novel, Harris vividly and disturbingly created a Britain that had lost the war against the Nazis. The reader is perhaps expecting another rewrite of history here. The Munich scenes are highly dramatic. And what a cast of players! Hitler, whom one character remembers from a few years earlier as “this half-sinister, half-comical brawler and dreamer” who is now poised to turn the world upside-down. Mussolini, when he smiles, is “like a child’s drawing of a sun”. And Chamberlain, “a Messiah of Peace” with no personal charisma but a desperate commitment to postpone another war to end wars.

People are cheering in their gardens as the Prime Minister’s Lockheed aircraft climbs out of Heston aerodrome. The great optimism with which the mission to Munich was greeted by almost everyone in Britain (except Winston Churchill) reminds us that appeasement was welcomed in 1938, however disparagingly later historians have come to view.

Like John Le Carré (and like Graham Greene), Harris elevates the thriller to the class of Literature. His prose makes other best-selling writers look trite. This in the opening scene in the Ritz hotel restaurant: ‘He turned to find the maître d’, palms pressed together as if in prayer, grave with self-importance.’ A page later, with war seemingly inevitable, the author imagines: ‘The diners at the Ritz would abandon their white linen tablecloths to crouch in slit trenches in Green Park.’  Sorry, but you don’t get sentences of that calibre in Dan Brown. 

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Wot I'm reading: Tomorrow's headlines?

SAM BOURNE: To Kill the President


A US president described as ‘a drooling sexist predator …[who] makes billions, never pays taxes, dumps his wives as soon as they sag even a teeny bit’ – we can only be thankful that this is a piece of fiction. Sam Bourne’s unnamed and unstable President is offstage throughout the book, but he wants to bomb North Korea off the map, deport Muslims and other migrants (not just first-generation migrants) and demolish healthcare to lower higher-rate taxes. Not the kind of man you want as leader of the “Free World”.

This is a conspiracy thriller with a difference. From the start we know that it’s the Secretary of Defense and the White House Chief of Staff who decide that POTUS needs to be eliminated for the good of the nation. Maggie Costello, a principled West Wing aide left behind from the previous Administration, learns of the planned assassination and sets out to save the life of a man she loathes – at great risk to herself, obviously.

Mr Bourne’s Washington is horribly believable and many of the characters are believably horrible. The President’s chief counsellor, 'Mac' McNamara (interesting choice of name), is a racist thug whose ideology comes from further to the right than the Klansmen. When the previous year's election campaign is revisited, some familiar chords are struck.

This must be the best assassination thriller since The Day of the Jackal (1971, in case you can’t remember), brilliantly plotted, tautly paced and deeply disturbing. It reads very much as if it’s ‘torn from tomorrow’s headlines’. It has – I will say no more than this – a very satisfactory ending. Watch for those headlines.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Wot I'm reading: Going, going, gone girl

EMILY ELGAR: If you knew her


Emily is a member of my Sussex Authors group and this is her first novel. 

Newly-wed and newly pregnant Cassie is in Intensive Care in a Brighton hospital after a hit-and-run accident on a country lane. Watching her are Alice, the senior nurse in ICU, pregnant herself after many miscarriages, and Frank, an alcoholic stroke patient with Locked-In Syndrome – he can see and hear but is as powerless as the comatose Cassie. Somebody is arrested for the hit-and-run but Alice and Frank think the police have got the wrong man and Cassie’s accident was not an accident. She and her baby may still be in danger …

This ‘woman-in-peril’ story inevitably calls to mind 2012's Gone Girl, which, with its unlikable protagonists, made for an unsettling movie. I was also reminded of Robin Cook’s Coma (1977), the ‘granddaddy’ of the medical thriller. If you knew her is written from three viewpoints (Alice and Frank in the present, Cassie in the recent past) but all three are written in the present tense, which I’m never comfortable with. There’s a lot of grief and perhaps too many miscarriages, but the pace and the tension are neatly tightened. This is a promising debut which would make a nail-biting movie (I hope, for Emily’s bank manager’s sake, that it does!). 

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Wot I'm reading: War and Peace - and Love

WILLIAM BOYD: Sweet Caress


This is a so much better novel than its soppy title suggests. It’s taken me more than a month to finish, not because it’s a hard read (au contraire) but because it’s so well written that I wanted to savour it rather than gulp it down.

Very convincingly penned in the first person female, it’s the 'autobiography' of Amory Clay, a middle-class girl from south-east England who becomes a world-class photographer. She will become famous for her war pictures – post-D-Day France and Vietnam – but she often has to support herself with routine fashion shoots and wedding assignments. In her mind she will be famous for her lovers – not too many, but all of them memorable. The man she marries turns out to be, like her father, psychologically scarred by the horrors of war.

War and peace and love: perennial themes to which William Boyd, as he has before, does eloquent justice. Sweet Caress is illustrated throughout with photos by (and of) Amory, not many of them creatively outstanding but all extraordinarily relevant to the narrative. How did this happen? Were they ‘found’ (and presumably doctored) or are they brilliant concoctions? They make a valuable contribution to the book, although  the writing is what really holds the reader in place.

Of one of her lovers Amory writes: ‘Even two minutes in his company provided some comment or observation that would make me laugh or make me violently disagree with him and so those two minutes of my day were well spent as a consequence.’ That level of perception about ‘Any Human Heart’ (one of his best titles) is what makes William Boyd, consistently, a joy to read. Sweet Caress (I so dislike the title) is a richly observed story about a life richly lived.   

Friday, 28 July 2017

Theatre at the cinema: New York in the 'Plague' years


Part Two: Perestroika

This was more than Part One in every sense of the word. Longer (4 hours 20 minutes) and considerably louder but covering very much the same ground. As the gay Mormon torn between his neurotic wife and (equally neurotic) boyfriend, Russell Tovey holds his own against the competition from Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in considerably showier roles, as do Susan Brown in the role (one of several she plays) of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and Amanda Lawrence as the Mormon mom who 'adopts' Garfield in the hospital Aids ward (she also has multiple roles). 

Nathan Lane has a protracted death scene which is both comic and tragic. Garfield looks like a latter-day Greta Garbo much of the time. He has several more scenes with the Angel who has told him he is to be a 'Prophet': the theme is central to the play but this kind of New Age mysticism (whoops, I nearly said 'claptrap') tends to get on my nerves. Good as the play is, brilliantly acted and thrillingly presented in this production from the National Theatre, I felt that Less might be More (the TV version 'condensed' the two plays into five-and-a-bit hours), but there's no denying what a powerful picture it presents of America during the Reagan years, the 'Plague' years. 

This is a one-of-a-kind play: long, shouty, vehemently anti-Establishment - but dazzling.  

There will be be ‘encore’ showings of both Parts in cinemas next month. Challenging theatre but highly recommended.


Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter in ANGELS IN AMERICA

ANGELS IN AMERICA Part One: Millennium Approaches
(Review from last week)

I didn’t see this award-winning play when it was first performed in the 1990s. This new production from London’s National Theatre was screened live in cinemas this week, with Part Two showing next Thursday. The play revisits the 1980s, when New York gay men were dying in frightening numbers from Aids and the Reagan administration was trying hard to look the other way.


The play is weirdly structured, a mixture of domestic drama, anti-Republican satire and New Age pseudo-spiritualism. The central drama is the relationship between Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), a gay man with Aids, and his lover Louis (James McArdle). Then there’s the collapsing marriage between Joseph (Russell Tovey), a repressed gay Mormon from Utah, and his neurotic wife Harper (Denise Gough). Joseph is a protégé of real-life New York attorney Roy M. Cohn (Nathan Lane), who didn’t consider himself to be gay – he was a heterosexual who had sex with men! – and claimed to be suffering from liver cancer rather than Aids.

Andrew Garfield shows he is as good onstage as he is onscreen in a blistering performance, including a memorable drag-scene in the style of Norma Desmond. Nathan Lane converts his gloriously OTT character from The Producers into an odious but somehow pitiable loudmouthed Roy Cohn. Russell Tovey’s Joseph is much less showy but very persuasive. Nearly all the cast play multiple roles, including gender-crossing parts by Denise Gough and Amanda Lawrence.

This is a tough play about a tough time for New Yorkers. There’s a lot of shouting, a barrage of f-words and even some simulated gay sex. At three-and-a-half hours (with four-and-a-quarter more to come in Part Two) this is a long play, funny, sad, crude, occasionally tiresome (too many hallucinations for my taste), but viscerally enthralling.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Wot I'm reading: Bosch is back

Michael Connelly: 

THE WRONG SIDE OF GOODBYE


It’s a long time since I read a book in just three days, but this one was hard to put down – like pretty well all the previous Harry Bosch tales (this is number 21). Harry has had a sour parting from the LAPD and is now attached part-time to the San Fernando Police Depart-ment, investigating a serial rapist who the profilers expect to morph into a serial killer. Harry also does some private work and is hired by a dying billionaire to find the child he thinks he fathered decades ago, who if he/she exists will inherit his vast fortune.

Neither of these cases is unduly complex but Michael Connelly’s great gift is to make the painstaking follow-up of clues and leads intensely fascinating. He always describes the routes Bosch takes criss-crossing the freeways of Greater Los Angeles: after 21 books I feel I could easily find my way around the city! Like Stephen King (and Charles Dickens – we’re in a great tradition here), Connelly fleshes out even minor players into fully rounded characters, and he also manages, in every book, to spring a last-minute surprise to Bosch’s investigations – two surprises here. 

Mickey Haller, the ‘Lincoln Lawyer’ and Harry’s half-brother, makes a guest appearance, and the paperback ends with the first 40 pages of Connelly’s next book which will introduce an ambitious new female detective to the LAPD. Can we wait? We have to!

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Wot I'm reading: the judge's gay son

Adam Mars-Jones: 

KID GLOVES


Subtitled ‘A Voyage Round My Father’ (borrowing from John Mortimer’s memorable biography), this is a subtle and charming memoir from one of Britain’s leading gay writers. William Mars-Jones was a Queens Counsel, a Knight and a High Court Judge. As a father he was somewhat Victorian, not touchy-feely like today’s dads (up to and including Prince William), not noted for humour, more generous with criticism than praise. He was also homo-phobic, making him a less than ideal parent for Adam. The process by which he came to terms with his son’s homosexuality was a slow one, helped to a considerable degree by the onset of dementia. Ironically it was the gay son who offered the most support during the judge’s long decline.

Adam takes us through the highlights of his father’s illustrious career, but it is the family ‘saga’ that provides the most engrossing element of the book. Some of the peripheral characters are wonderfully presented: the agency carers, lawyers great and small, and Adam’s lovers (odd that he makes them peripheral to his memoir) – one of whom died of Aids at 26.

William’s wife, Sheila, died before him, of a grim cancer. She died at home, in a separate bedroom from her husband to spare him, with his own health struggles, full exposure to her death. ‘She had uncoupled the marital train and left her husband behind in a siding,’ Adam writes in one of the book’s many memorable sentences. ‘It was kid gloves all round,’ he explains the title, ‘some of them elbow-length, in the debutante or drag-queen manner.’

The book is written with dry humour and a measured detachment, but the reader is always aware of the pain and the grief that have been the author’s frequent companions. His dad ought to be immensely proud of him.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Wot I'm reading: Brighton Schlock

PETER JAMES:

 Love You Dead


Brighton police super-intendent Roy Grace is having a busy month. The suspect from his last case, a serial killer, is on the run. There’s a string of car thefts and burglaries from the city’s poshest area. He has a new baby at home and his missing first wife has just been located in harrowing circumstances.

One of the burglars breaks into Jodie Bentley’s house in Roedean and dies from a snake bite. Jodie is a sociopath: she keeps snakes and other deadly creatures to help her bump off the rich old geezers she meets on dating sites. She marries them and kills them on honeymoon! Unluckily for this ‘Black Widow’, one of her victims works for the Mob, so when she returns to Brighton with 200 grand of looted money and a memory stick, there’s a hitman on her trail. Another worry for Superintendent Grace.

Peter James is Sussex’s best-selling author, a bigger seller than Henry James or E.F. Benson (the Mapp and Lucia books) and possibly even Rudyard Kipling, the three most famous authors to have lived in Sussex. Sussex is where I was born and the county I have returned to in my dotage. Brighton Rock is the most celebrated ‘noir’ novel set in Brighton (Graham Greene only stayed here while he wrote it).

Love You Dead is more 'naff' than 'noir'. Peter James is not a disciple of Greene, nor of that other noted James - Henry. If he’s a disciple of anyone, it must be Jackie Collins. Jodie Bentley is a campy creation who belongs in the pages of one of Jackie’s Hollywood Gothic sagas. James’s plotting, like hers, stretches credibility to breaking point, but (I concede this through gritted teeth) it does keep you turning the page. He writes, as she did, in short chapters with cliff-hanger endings His prose has a scarily similar sledgehammer subtlety: "She turned his face towards hers. He stared dead ahead. Unblinking. Nobody home.”

This is the first Peter James novel I’ve read. It will probably be the last. Brighton schlock.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Wot I'm reading: D.H.Lawrence revisited in the 1960s

COLIN SPENCER: The Tyranny of Love


First published in 1967, this is the second in a quartet of novels about the working-class Simpson family from Croydon. I was deeply impressed by this when I read it in the 1960s and re-reading it now, it’s still an outstanding study of relationships.

The central character is Matthew Simpson, whom we first meet as a boy on the beach at Camber Sands in 1939, the last summer before the war. Matthew dotes on his sister Sundy (whose early life was the subject of Anarchists in Love, the previous novel in the series) and he’s close to his much put-upon mother Hester. The dominant figure in this part of the novel – and recurringly as Matthew grows up and grows away – is Eddy, his loud lecherous father, a builder and landlord, serially and unashamedly unfaithful to his wife. Matthew conceives a hatred for his father that will overshadow his life for years.

In postwar Croydon, now a teenager, Matthew falls in love with a fellow pupil at school, Jane, who is not a beauty but scholastically bright and timidly at odds with her middle-class parents who don’t think the Simpson boy is good enough for her. During his National Service Matthew realises that despite his (platonic) love for Jane he is more attracted to his own sex. He becomes depressed, even suicidal, and is finally rescued by Sundy’s bisexual husband Reg, a disturbed and dangerous love-object. Matthew drifts into voluntary work in a refugee camp in Austria, tormented by the impossibility of loving both Rex and Jane.

It’s clear that Colin Spencer was influenced by D.H. Lawrence. The Tyranny of Love has echoes of Sons and Lovers in its early chapters and even stronger echoes of Women in Love as the theme of complex sexual and romantic relationships is explored. There’s a power and intensity in the prose, although it’s not always an easy read: the dialogue is often clunky and laboured (as it is in Lawrence) and the viewpoint sometimes shifts disconcertingly from one paragraph to the next. There are some bawdy sex romps involving Eddy and his floozies which have almost the flavour of a ‘Carry-On’ movie, vividly contrasting with the fervent gay passion towards the end.

Spencer was writing in the era of the ‘Angry Young Men’ and a kind of rage underscores this novel throughout.  It’s not just a book for the Sixties, but also for today when many young people still struggle with their sexual identity and battle against parental influences that, however well-intentioned, blight their children’s emotional development.

A challenging read, but a rewarding one.

[Colin Spencer's quartet A Generation is published by Faber & Faber and is also available on Kindle.]

Monday, 17 April 2017

Wot I'm reading: holy and unholy fathers

Robert Harris: CONCLAVE



A pope (who can only be, but - the author insists - is not Pope Francis) dies suddenly, and 118 elderly cardinals and archbishops from all over the globe gather in Rome’s Sistine Chapel to elect his successor. Events are observed from the viewpoint of Jacopo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and one of the less favoured candidates. It will take three days and eight ballots before white smoke emerges from the Chapel's chimney to tell the world 'Habemus papam' (We have a pope). Shocking revelations eliminate two of the contenders and, since Robert Harris is essentially a thriller writer, one outrageous surprise is kept for the final pages.

In my twenties I was a big fan of the Australian author Morris West, who wrote several highly respected best-sellers about Roman and Vatican politics, most famously The Shoes of the Fisherman, which was made into a movie (with Anthony Quinn). Robert Harris has done extensive research and revisits this territory with confidence and considerable élan. Papal politics and theology may not sound like the ideal ingredients for a thriller, but Conclave never becomes dry or dusty. The writing is elegant, and character and dialogue drive the story forward. It feels like a real picture of the Vatican and its priests, some driven by ambition, some by duty and service. I rather doubt the College of Cardinals will like the outcome of this imaginary election, and I wonder if this is the start of another Roman trilogy from Mr Harris. Perhaps we can look forward to following the career of his provocative new Pontiff. 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Wot I'm reading: "Love and Friendship do not age."

Isabel Allende: THE JAPANESE LOVER


Irina, an ‘economic migrant’ from Moldova goes to work at a posh care home in San Francisco where all the residents 'had led interesting lives, or invented them.’ She forms a close bond with Alma Belasco who has led an especially interesting life, a Polish Jewish refugee whose parents sent her to an uncle in California only months ahead of the Nazi invasion. Alma, now in her 80s, reveals to Irina the details of her marriage to her cousin and her decades-long secret affair with Ichimei Fukuda, youngest son of her uncle’s Japanese gardener. Because of the difference in their culture and status, the pair never dared to marry but they never stopped loving each other.

 ‘Love and friendship do not age,’ Ichimei writes in one of his love-letters to Alma which punctuate the novel. Love and friendship are Isabel Allende’s themes here. Alma’s cousin/ husband is not her greatest love but he is her dearest and truest friend. Ichimei is her great love, and the author conveys the intensity of their passion with an aching clarity: ‘Love and desire for him scorched her skin.’ Equally unflinching is her depiction of the indignities of the WW2 internment camp in which the Fukudas are sequestered.

Allende is one of contemporary literature’s greatest storytellers. She peoples her narrative with characters as vivid as in a book by Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo, bringing them to life with an economy of style that neither Hugo nor Dickens was noted for! At the end she introduces a perfectly exquisite moment of the 'magic realism' which permeated her earliest novels. A new book from Isabel Allende is always a special joy, and this one finds her – and her translators - on top form.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Wot I'm reading: the Internet of Deadly Things

Jeffery Deaver: THE STEEL KISS


Lincoln Rhyme’s twelfth investigation begins with his NYPD partner Amelia Sachs in pursuit of a murder suspect inside a Brooklyn store. An escalator opens up and a shopper falls to a ghastly death inside the mechanism. As Amelia and Lincoln start to help the widow get compensation from the escalator manufacturer, other ‘malfunctions’ occur around the city in fridges and cookers. A devious serial killer is hacking into the software which now appears in many domestic appliances in the age of the ‘Internet of Things’.

This is a squeamish case and one that will make you approach escalators – and even your humble microwave – with a new nervousness. All the regular ‘team’ are on this case, plus some fresh faces. Paraplegic Lincoln has an intern, also wheelchair-bound, and an old boyfriend of Amelia’s is trying to clear his name after coming out of jail. The seriously creepy killer narrates some of the story.

Jeffery Deaver never writes a dull book, but this is not his finest. An air of contrivance hangs over it and his highly original staccato style strains to sustain the reader’s interest during the long stretch between the grisly first death and the quickening of pace as the team close in on the weirdo suspect. The twist in the final ‘reveal’ has much of the ‘get-outta-here’ surprise factor at the end of an Agatha Christie. Nice one, Jeffery, but we know you can do better.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Wot I'm reading: A box of gay goodies

A BOXFUL OF IDEAS


It’s not comme il faut to review one’s own work, but my contribution to this new anthology (their sixth) from Paradise Press is only a brief piece of Flash Fiction (‘Alice Swings’ – on the ‘B’ theme of LGBT), so perhaps it’s okay if I only mention it in passing.

An anthology is like a box of chocolates: they are all perfectly edible but some are more ‘delicious’ than others. Some have ‘a soft centre’; rather more have a harder edge (nothing too ‘hard-core’).  Not every-thing here is on a gay theme (don’t be put off: most of it is), and there is poetry as well as prose. There are several poems by Mike Harth who died last year, one of the founders of both Paradise Press and its ‘parent’, the Gay Authors Workshop (which he naughtily mocks in a story called ‘Group Reading’). Mike’s warmth, his wit and his wisdom are sorely missed by those of us in GAW who came to know and cherish him.

Jeremy Kingston contributes some delicious verse (as he always does at GAW meetings) and a clever story – ‘The Twist of the Vice’ – that revisits Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw from the viewpoint of one of the children and makes the governess more villain than victim. The narrator of Les Brookes’s ‘You Farzan, Me Duane’ recalls the summer when he fell in love with an Iranian boy in his school: this resonated with me! Beth Lister, another of my GAW favourites, has a story, ‘Dog Minder’s Monday Morning’, in which an 80-year-old lesbian yearns for a younger lover/companion. In contrast to this, Alice Wickham’s bitter-toned ‘Love and Hate’ shows a lesbian relationship that fails to take off.

Psychiatrist Donald West, GAW’s eminence grise, contributes an essay called ‘Facing up to Paedophilia’ which invites us to ‘understand’ the mind-set of child-molesters. Our bishops and pastors urge Christians to hate the sin but love the sinner – something many of us find a hard pill to swallow where paedophiles are concerned. I was 68 when I met my Iranian partner, who was 35. Had I met him twenty years earlier he would have been 15 (and probably very delectable, like Farzan in the story mentioned above!), so perhaps I must accept Professor West’s injunction not to be too judgmental.

You don’t have to be gay to appreciate the myriad pleasures of A Boxful of Ideas, though it helps if you are!

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Wot I'm reading: Admirable but not lovable

Kate Atkinson: A GOD IN RUINS


It’s taken me several weeks to get through this, which normally indicates a boring book, but in fact A God In Ruins is one the best novels I’ve read in recent years. It’s not an easy read – there’s as much style as substance at play here – which may be why I kept putting it down. Not that it’s short on substance: over 500 pages on the long life of Teddy Todd, a bomber pilot in World War II, and the complicated lives of his mother, his sister, his wife and his children.

Kate Atkinson does things that authors are generally told they shouldn’t. She switches viewpoint, she jumps in and out of different time periods and she leaks future plot developments. I sometimes felt as if a kaleidoscope was being shaken for me. Atkinson, like Fay Weldon, is an intrusive narrator, ironically critical of her characters’ flaws: ‘There was passion between them, but it was of the orderly, good-humoured kind.’ She pulls one last ‘trick’ at the end which I rather wish she hadn’t. I was reminded, only slightly, of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a novel I found a bit too literary, a bit too tricksy.

The sections covering Teddy’s bombing runs to Germany are some of the best war writing I've seen, at least as good as Pat Barker’s award-winning World War I trilogy. After giving away the fact that a key character will die early, she nevertheless makes the death chapter unbearably poignant. Her prose is wonderfully fluent; the plotting may be pretentious but the writing is not. Overall, though, like John Fowles and Elena Ferrante, Kate Atkinson is easier to admire than to love.