Tuesday, 24 December 2019

What I'm reading: Olympic name-dropping


Nicholas Haslam: REDEEMING FEATURES


This memoir by interior designer and all-round fashionista Nicky Haslam’s is firmly pitched at celeb-watchers and lovers of gossip. Well, I fit the second of those categories. There’s some fruity stuff here, and if name-dropping were an Olympic sport, Nicky would win platinum!

Haslam was a very pretty boy who has aged into a handsome old geezer, much as Cary Grant and Paul Newman did (but not Marlon Brando or Orson Welles).

Our hero comes from an aristocratic lineage, so the name-dropping starts before he’s born: his mother has Byron’s mistress Lady Caroline Lamb in her family tree and also Giorgiana, the "naughty" 18th-century Duchess of Devonshire memorably played onscreen by Keira Knightley. His father, though not gay, was friends with some notable homosexuals of the 1930s, including Harold Nicholson and Harold Acton. Nicky’s mother had a jet-set life before her marriage, living in Vienna and then in New York where she worked as Fanny Brice’s secretary and visited Fanny’s husband Nick Arnstein in Sing Sing prison with her.

His “top-drawer-ness” is undeniable: he went to the party given by the Queen at Claridges on the evening of Charles and Diana’s wedding. Diana was Nicky’s cousin, but he doesn’t have anything new to add to that sad story.

With Joan Collins and Andy Warhohl in 1980

In his early teens Haslam had sex in a public convenience with Hugh Paddick, whose memory is cherished by fans of Round the Horne. He went to parties where he met Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, Frederick Ashton, Tony Armstrong-Jones, Cecil Beaton – the great and the good (and the gay) of the 1950s. At 15, an Eton schoolboy, Nicky had a brief fling with an (unnamed) actor in New York who took him to meet Tallulah Bankhead.

The names reel by as love affairs and his career with Vogue flit him between London and New York: Garbo and Dietrich, Cole Porter, Jackie Kennedy, Nureyev, Gloria Swanson, Capote, Gore Vidal. He went to a séance with Salvador Dali and his wife at which the ghost of Marilyn Monroe, not surprisingly, failed to appear. He was a fan of Wallis Windsor but not of the Duke, about whom he has some revealing gay gossip. His anecdote of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine (Haslam says they were only married for three weeks: actually it was 32 days!) is an oft-told tale, but always worth telling. And the bitchy tone is enjoyable: Graham Sutherland “seemed less like an artist than a civil servant, dust-dry and persnickety and dainty”; his wife was “somewhat sullen.”

Still a glamour-boy in his 70s
It’s the tidbits of scandal that perk up the page. I must confess to fast-forwarding through some of the endless parties and first nights. Haslam writes well, but the descriptions of house interiors run to Proustian detail and there are lapses into Barbara Cartland phrasing - “a fatally handsome man”, “the shapely white cheeks of Lady Chaplin” – that made me wince and occasionally lol.

Endlessly reinventing himself, Haslam befriended rock stars as well as royals; he sings cabaret and wears leather in old age (which he fought off with plastic surgery). With friends in high – and occasionally low – places, his biography is a gluttonous feast for lovers of celebrity tittle-tattle.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

What I'm reading: Russian mole becomes a fox

DANIEL SILVA: The Other Woman


A new Gabriel Allon adventure is an annual treat, much as a new James Bond or Modesty Blaise used to be. (The Bond stories continue with their pick-n-mix authorship, but Peter O’Donnell wisely killed off Modesty before the franchising wolves could gather). This year I’ve got through two Gabriel Allons, playing catch-up.

The Israeli superspy turned intelligence chief is usually defending his beleaguered homeland (and the world’s capital cities) from fanatical Muslim terrorists, but every now and again he turns his attention to the other great threat, the new republic of Russia with its tyrannical president whom Daniel Silva refers to as “the Tsar”.

A Russian defector reveals that a mole has infiltrated British Intelligence at the highest level since the era of the “Cambridge Five”. A parallel story introduces the reader to a French exile in Spain who had an affair in Beirut with a famous traitor – and bore him a child. Most readers will guess the name of her lover well before Mr Silva names him, the most famous of the Famous Five.

MI6 traitor Kim Philby
 depicted on a Soviet stamp
As Allon and his pals in the CIA and MI6 close in on the identity of the highly placed defector, the mole becomes a fox and a chase ensues, nail-biting and, frankly, a bit credulity-stretching. For the first time I found an error in Silva’s intensive research: he refers to “the dreary London suburb of Crow-borough” where Kim Philby abandoned his wife and children in 1956: Crow-borough is a small town on the edge of a forest in the High Weald of Sussex, 25 miles from me, 50 miles from London, and deemed “an Area of Outstanding National Beauty”.

Revisiting the Cambridge Spies gives The Other Woman strong echoes of John Le Carré, although the climactic chapters belong more to the age of the cinematic Jason Bourne. This is Daniel Silva a little off his very best, but that said it’s ideal reading for anyone on a longhaul flight or a sun-lounger – gripping stuff.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

What I'm streaming: God help our gracious Queen

THE CROWN


Some people will have watched the new Netflix series of The Crown in a one-day binge. I’ve taken a week.

In the pre-publicity I thought that Olivia Colman still looked like Olivia Colman but minutes into Episode One I totally accepted that she was the Queen, every bit as much as Claire Foy before her. She has caught perfectly that air of haughtiness and slight discomfort that Her Majesty has never quite shaken off. I’m not so sure about Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip: Matt Smith seemed a better look-alike somehow, though he actually wasn’t. Helena Bonham Carter is spot-on as Margaret: needy, greedy and totally self-absorbed. Ben Daniels is well cast as Snowdon and despite looking nothing like him Charles Dance makes a credible Dickie Mountbatten. Josh O’Connor bears little resemblance to a young Prince Charles but he grows into the part well. When Emerald Fennell first appeared as a potential girlfriend I thought she was Sarah Ferguson, as she looks more like Fergie than Camilla, but Camilla she is, playing her as a sort of junior Margaret, promiscuous and manipulative.

The series has produced some fine moments, though perhaps not as many as the Claire Foy episodes, and one or two surprises. The series highlight was the Aberfan episode with its vivid CGI recreation of the slagheap engulfing the village school, though I rather doubt the Queen would have admitted to faking a tear after meeting the bereaved at Aberfan. Anne bonking Mr Parker-Bowles was a bit of a shock, as was Sir Anthony Blunt threatening Philip with some unwanted publicity if he (Blunt) was outed as one of Cambridge Spies. Did Mountbatten and the Queen Mum really ‘conspire’ to break-up Charles’s puppy-love affair with Camilla and accelerate her marriage to Parker-Bowles?

Helena Bonham-Carter and Ben Daniels as the Snowdons
- a marriage not made in heaven

Which raises the obvious question: is some of this royal ‘docu-drama’ factual or fictional? We’ve been down this road before with the Helen Mirren movie and more than one screen version of Diana’s life and loves. The writers this time seem to have toned down Prince Philip’s alleged philandering, which was such a feature of Kitty Kelley’s scurrilous book about The Royals (1998), and there were ‘revelations’ there and elsewhere that (so far) have not made into The Crown.

I’m as fond of a juicy piece of gossip as the next person, but I wonder how fair shows and movies like this really are. I’m sure Her Madge and the senior Highnesses don’t watch it, but it must be mortifying to the younger royals, whether they see it or not, to know that all their friends are tittering over the lives (especially the sex lives) of their parents and grandparents.

Prince Andrew: not exactly helping
You could almost argue a case that the Royal Family need a #MeToo movement to restore a bit of their right to privacy. In trying to modernize the institution, the Queen has perhaps allowed us to let too much “daylight” in; the “magic of the Monarchy” is getting a bit tarnished. Prince Andrew, of course, is not exactly helping.

Monday, 18 November 2019

What I'm reading: a timeless classic of Love and War (but not Peace)

Dave Boling: GUERNICA


I’m a bit late reviewing this novel, which was published in 2008. Critics have compared it to Captain Corelli's Mandolin and The English Patient. Its historical and romantic sweep even brings an echo of War and Peace although, sadly, peace does not come to Guernica within the time-frame of the novel.

The title is enough to send shivers down your spine, if you recall Picasso’s famous mural. The artist appears in the background of the story; we are shown him conceiving and executing the painting. Franco is another background character, the ‘generalissimo’ who tried to destroy the Basque culture and presided over decades of brutality for all Spaniards. The German aviator who leads the bombing raid over Guernica is a Von Richthofen, a cousin of the ‘Red Baron’, suave and gentlemanly, and ruthless.

At the heart of the story are the three Ansotegui brothers (Basque names are as intimidating as Tolstoy’s patronymics), three motherless boys whose father abandons them. One will become a fisherman, one a carpenter, the third a priest. We follow them from boyhood to manhood and watch as they work and play, dance and drink, fall out and fall in love. Guernica is, like many of the great novels, a superior kind of soap opera (very superior). While you read this, you are waiting for the bombs to fall. The history we know casts a dark cloud over the story. On the day of the bombing you wonder – and you care deeply – who, if anyone, is going to survive.

This was Dave Boling’s first novel. His wife is from the Pays Basque. He writes simply and vividly about the horrors of the Civil War. A villager taken away by the Guardia “was gone as if erased.” After the bombing, in a makeshift mortuary, “The undead shuffled past, staring into the faces, praying to find loved ones and praying not to find loved ones.”

The post-bombing story introduces two British characters and a hint that there can be light after the most terrible darkness. I’m a novelist. I sometimes kill off my own characters. It’s rare that a novel moves me to tears. This one did.

Picasso's GUERNICA

Friday, 13 September 2019

Theatre at the cinema: comedy at its rawest

FLEABAG


Raunchy gets redefined in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show, which wowed Edinburgh Fringe audiences in 2013 and is now back in London and being relayed to a cinema near you. She developed the character into two not-to-be-missed TV series. And she scripted Killing Eve, which was more must-see television. (Onstage last night she reminded me quite a lot of Villanelle.)

Fleabag is not stand-up - well not exactly. It’s billed as a “one-woman play”, so perhaps the character is a performance rather than an autobiographical confession. Phoebe W-B sits on a chair and tells us Fleabag's recent life story, which is mostly about her busy hectic life (mostly with men, but some of it “solo” with online porn), her collapsing business (a guinea-pig themed cafe), relations with her business partner (dead, a suicide), her sister (estranged) and her mother (also dead). There are some sound effects and one voice-over (a job interview), but mostly she either talks about people or does impersonations of them. Her mimicking of a weasel-faced Tube pick-up is one of many high spots.

This is humour – this is life – at its rawest. A lot of it is rude (very) and funny (achingly), but there are hollows in Fleabag’s life which she doesn’t flinch at showing us: laughter some-times comes through tears. Waller-Bridge is at the cutting edge of contemporary comedy. If you missed it last night, cinemas plan a whole bunch of repeat showings. Do not miss it.

PS. If you're hoping to see the cute horny priest from Series Two of Phoebe's TV show, you're out of luck. BUT Andrew Scott will be appearing at a cinema near you this autumn in an NT Live (actually recorded) showing of Noel Coward's Present Laughter. And, of course, we'll be seeing Phoebe's contribution to the script of the new Bond movie next year. Will she bust his balls?

Monday, 19 August 2019

What I'm reading: 007 before Casino Royale

Anthony Horowitz: FOREVER AND A DAY


Anthony Horowitz contributed Trigger Mortis (daft title) to the 007 canon four years ago, which slotted into the chronology between Goldfinger and For Your Eyes Only. He now gets a second bite of the franchise cherry with Forever and a Day (not much better as a title, a bit Barbara Cartland), which is a prequel to Casino Royale, giving the 66-year series a new first chapter.

It begins with an echo of Daniel Craig’s cinema debut with M conferring on Bond, the new kid on the block, his ‘licence to kill’. This is the old pipe-smoking M, not the Judi Dench version. Our hero is then sent to the French Riviera to investigate the murder of his immediate predecessor, whose 007 handle he has chosen to inherit. On the Côte d’Azur Bond  encounters a CIA guy, a predecessor to Felix Leiter (who has been fed to the sharks more than once onscreen). He also meets an American billionaire who insists on calling him 'Jim' and a humongously fat Corsican gangster who could only be played by Marlon Brando or Orson Welles. And he meets a mysterious French beauty called Sixtine who seems to be playing two sides. Madame 16, as she’s also known, is a few years older than 007, but you get the feeling she will be bedded if not wedded in due course.

Like Ian Fleming, Horowitz lifts the sheet on the bed but doesn’t take us beneath it, so the erotic element is left to our imagination. (I always wished they had done this in the Roger Moore movies.) But he doesn’t skimp on the mayhem, and the adventure gathers plenty of momentum: a casino, a factory in the hills guarded like Fort Knox, a brand new cruise liner. The villains (more than one) get their just desserts, as we expect. The romance is one of those with an elegiac ending, paving the way for Bond to meet Vesper Lynd on his next assignment. Sixtine is a somewhat daft name, though not as daft as Pussy Galore (truly unforgivable, Ian, and only exceeded in awfulness by Plenty O’Toole in one of the films!).

Mr Horowitz perhaps does the best job of any of the inheritors of the mantle at capturing Fleming’s style: elegant prose with just the right amount of background, a seductive heroine, credible adversaries and slowly rising tension. The franchise is in safe hands.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

What I'm reading: Painting kings and courtesans


SIMON EDGE: A Right Royal Face-Off


London in the 1770s, during the reign of George III (the ‘mad’ one). A boy from Suffolk starts a new job as footman to the curmudgeonly Thomas Gainsborough, regarded as the ‘second-greatest painter’ in the land. The greatest is Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, who is deaf as a post and who uses cheap pigments that are apt to change colour after a few weeks. The foot-man’s letters home to his mum chronicle the almighty rivalry between the two artists, both often commissioned to paint the same sitters – up to and including the King and his numerous offspring, plus rich courtiers and (richer) courtesans.

In a parallel modern story, a vandalized painting which may be a ‘lost’ Gainsborough turns up on ‘Britain’s Got Treasures’, a wicked parody of BBC’s ‘Antiques Road-show’ with some very close to recognizable ‘Experts’. The portrait will be critical to the show’s (and the experts’) survival – but who is it?

Both the Georgian story and its modern corollary are a joy to follow. Simon Edge has a delicious tongue-in-cheek humour that put me in mind of Alan Bennett (our national treasure) and the late great Tom Sharpe, who gave us the Wilt series and (inappropriate to be named alongside Thomas Gainsborough) Blott on the Land-scape. The footman’s voice is especially appealing: ‘Sir Joshua is a strange old gentleman with the complexion of a boiled beetroot.’ I enjoyed A Right Royal Face-Off more than anything else I’ve read this year.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

What I'm reading: Gay porn à la Cartland


Gordon Merrick: ONE FOR THE GODS

I’m still ploughing my way through some of the gay ‘classics’. Originally published in 1971, this is the first of two sequels to The Lord Won’t Mind, Gordon Merrick’s ‘landmark’ novel about gay love and gay sex in postwar USA. Our hunky well-endowed heroes Charlie and Peter are on an extended holiday on the French Riviera. Charlie is heartbroken when Peter two-times him with a cute local lad. After this little hiccup they join their rich friends Jack and Martha for a cruise to Capri and the Greek islands. More hiccups.

The yacht trip begins with a night storm which is almost in the Herman Melville league. Then Charlie, who has bisexual tendencies, decides he wants to have a child with Martha. He also – spoiler alert – wants Peter to have sex with Martha, at which point the novel unravels into tawdry melodrama.

Gordon Merrick 1916-88
Rich people on a yacht drinking too much and screwing their brains out, there’s a faint echo of Scott Fitzgerald, although some of the writing – “his dark eyes were soft with desire” - is more evocative of Barbara Cartland than Fitzgerald. The sex scenes are hardcore without being too crude, but here too there are lapses: I’m not sure if Barbara Cartland ever described a blowjob (I’m trying not to picture her giving one!), but she could well have written “he lay back and surrendered to the rapture of Peter’s miraculous mouth.”

As gay porn One For the Gods delivers the goods, but as a study in gay relationships the story’s artificiality weakens its conviction. A ‘juicy’ read, then, but not much more.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

What I'm reading: Apartheid revisited

Toeckey Jones: BOKKIE


Toeckey Jones is a friend and neighbour of mine on the Sussex coast. In the 1990s he published three award-winning novels, set in his native South Africa. This year they have been reissued.

Bokkie is set in 1960s Johannesburg where 19-year-old Sam Mane lives in some style with his mother, a celebrated star of stage and screen. In the summer before he starts university Sam falls in love with Pixie, a ‘Bohemian’ painter five years older than him, and they begin a passionate affair. Pride of place in Pixie’s flat is given to her portrait of Bokkie, a black boy from her childhood whose story she is reluctant to share.

Toeckey Jones vividly evokes the heartless savagery of the Apartheid regime which casts a shadow over Pixie’s life, past and present. The sounds and smells of Africa emerge strongly from the author’s fluid prose. The era of Apartheid may be over but South Africa is not yet a safe or a happy place for all its citizens and even less so for its wildlife.

This is a poignant and timeless love story, beautifully told. Originally targeting Young Adults, Bokkie will capture the heart of readers of all ages.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

What I'm reading: Never too much of Mr Bennett


Alan Bennett: KEEPING ON KEEPING ON


Having read the previous volumes of Mr Bennett’s Diaries, I put off reading this, thinking it was bound to be more of the same. Well, it is – and that’s what so joyful about it! His life is only a little bit grander than yours and mine – he and his partner shuttle by car and rail between their homes in Camden and Yorkshire (and an annual trip to a cottage in France). They take sandwiches on visits to beauty spots and country churches, they shop for antiques which usually require Rupert to do some restoration. Alan, of course, also does talks and readings and book-signings – and writes plays.

He supports causes close to his heart: keeping libraries open and schools open-minded are two of his great concerns. And he has bees in his bonnet: during the decade covered here, 2005-2015, the police kill an innocent Brazilian on the London Underground and never apologise. The British government colludes in the rendition of terror suspects. Tony Blair continues to pop up; Mr B despises him as powerfully as he did Lady T in a previous era. Nor is he a fan of David Cameron (“smart alec”), Richard Branson (“a bit of a pillock”) and Boris Johnson (“doesn’t seem to have a moral bone in his body”), among many others. He blames Classic FM and the National Trust for “the Torification of life” and deplores “the nastification of England” by property “improvers”. Waiting to go on a stage in West Yorkshire he is confronted by a pair of “sabre-toothed pensioners.”

He confesses to “a fully developed ability not quite to enjoy myself”. A newborn baby, his partner’s nephew “doesn’t make me feel old, just huge.” Old age (he’s approaching 85) has brought health issues and other drawbacks: “These days I am too old to be on my best behaviour. And I’m too old not to be on my best behaviour.”

Alex Jennings (who plays Mr Bennett)
 and Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van
There are insights into his creative process, in this case the writing of his Britten/Auden play, the one set in a not-so-stately home and the movies of The History Boys and The Lady in the Van. There’s a nice smutty episode when the cast of A Habit of Art are listening to sound-effect farts to choose an appropriate one for the actor playing Auden. After the Diaries there are some bits and bobs, including a lovely funeral tribute to John Schlesinger who directed An Englishman Abroad, in my opinion one of the finest hours television has ever produced.

 He is offered a cameo in the BBC mini-series of Fanny Hill – playing an old codger whom Fanny “fucks to extinction” – but turns it down: “I’ve always thought of myself a bit of a fraud as an actor.” Back in the 1960s when Beyond the Fringe was on Broadway he declined a supper invitation from Jackie Kennedy, only because of his natural shyness, from which he still suffers. Not only shy but modest. He tells us the critic Robert Hanks remarked that “personally he can have too much of Alan Bennett. I wonder how he thinks I feel.

One cannot have too much of Mr Bennett.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

What I'm reading: Sleeping Beauty and the Italian Stallion

Kate Zarrelli: TUSCAN ENCHANTMENT


I’m not normally a reader of Erotic Romances, but I made an exception for this one because Kate Zarelli and I became friends last year after meeting up on an editorial course run by the Curtis Brown literary agency. What a little gem her newly published novel is.

Antonia, a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ English librarian, emotionally scarred by a heartless lover, takes refuge in a research job in Italy and falls for her employer’s nephew Lorenzo, a magnificently gorgeous Italian stallion (the 'Bobby Ewing' cover doesn't do his gorgeousness justice!). Lorenzo’s ex, a Swiss beauty with a heart of ice, casts a shadow over their happiness.

Kate Zarelli’s style, polished and elegant, put me in mind of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. She breathes Tuscan warmth and perfume into the pages of the story. The erotic scenes are intense and sensuous with none of the lurid sensationalism of Fifty Shades of Grey. Tuscan Enchantment is very much at the Quality end of the Romance bookshelf.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

What I'm reading: The cemetery of unforgettable books


Carlos Ruiz Zafon: THE LABYRINTH OF THE SPIRITS



The Shadow of the Wind was one of those books that ‘blew me away’, much as John Fowles’s The Magus did in my teens and, much later, Salman Rushdie’s Shame and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. These were novels which seemed almost a reinvention of the storyteller’s art, taking fiction in new directions.

The Shadow of the Wind has become a quartet with the splendid overall title of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. After 18 years the series concludes with The Labyrinth of the Spirits. This – 800 pages - has taken me much longer to read than the others. The ‘magic’ that drew readers in their millions to Shadow is still there, though perhaps a little diluted this time.

As well as continuing the story of Daniel and Bea Sempere, the Barcelona bookshop proprietors, and their larger-than-life friend Fermin in the 1950s and beyond, Labyrinth introduces a new heroine, Alicia Gris, physically and mentally scarred in Spain’s civil war and grimly pursuing Mauricio Valls, a minister in Franco’s regime who formerly directed a brutal prison for political dissidents. The monster Valls is kidnapped and treated to some overdue rough justice. Alicia has a hard time catching up with him.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Towards the end of the novel Zafon unveils his literary ‘alter ego’ whose mentor stresses the importance not only of writing but of re-writing. Ironically, this epic novel could have done with a bit more rewriting. Many scenes are very overwritten and some of the dialogue is larded with clunky humour that seems to be channelling Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane. But Zafon’s insightful way with words has not entirely deserted him: phrases like “the perfume of broken souls” fairly jump off the page.

This quartet is a magnificent achievement and its conclusion is sure to resonate with Zafon’s multinational legions of admirers. Salud y fuerza!