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.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Wot I'm reading: From Yemen to Manchester

Stella Rimington: CLOSE CALL

Stella Rimington was the first female head of MI5, the inspiration for Judi Dench’s take on ‘M’ in the Bond movies. This is her eighth novel featuring Liz Carlyle of MI5’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, who is presumably a version of her younger self. In Close Call Liz and her team are following up an international arms-smuggling outfit whose reach extends from Yemen and the former Soviet republic of Dagestan to Paris and London – and Manchester, where this story comes to a thrilling climax.

As spy-writers go, Mrs Rimington is a ‘disciple’ of Le Carré rather than Fleming – no Goldfinger-sized villain, but an emphasis on the nitty-gritty of espionage: bugging and shadowing. Her style is a lot less rich than Le Carré and seems to be pitched for a Mumsnet readership (no disrespect). But it’s very clear that she writes with real authority about those who protect us from those would destroy us.

David at the movies: Leonard Cohen - life in the Stoned Age


Patched together from interviews and old home movies, this 100-minute documentary charts the 10-year romance between Leonard Cohen and the woman he called his ‘Muse’, Marianne Ihlen from Norway, whom he met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. We know her from the song "So Long Marianne" – a farewell song. There were many farewells. As the years passed,  Cohen made shorter visits to Corfu, living back in his native Montreal when he wasn’t on the road.

There were other women – many of them, sometimes more than one a day. Leonard’s life as a songwriter/ singer began in the Hippy Era when Free Love was the name of the game. Free Love, fuelled by drugs – acid, uppers, downers - was just an excuse for promiscuity, but promiscuity was mandatory in the 1960s. And not without casualties: suicides and deaths from overdoses. Marianne had a son by her first husband, Axel, whom we see as a happy child on the island. Like other children of that era, he was so fucked-up that he ended in an institution.

Cohen has given us some great songs – "Hallelujah" has been recorded by more than 300 artists – and his dark gravelly voice is one of the iconic sounds of the last sixty years, but Nick Broom-field’s unflinching documentary paints a portrait of an egotistical, self-destructive man who took up women and dropped them as casually as a Kleenex.

Three months before he died and knowing death was coming, he sent a love-letter to Marianne who was in her final days. So maybe, the man had a heart. His songs seem to say so, but his life rather less so.