Thursday, 6 May 2021

What I'm reading: Silver spoon tarnished by tragedy

ANNE GLENCONNER: Lady in Waiting

When her memoir first came out, Lady Anne Glenconner was a frequent presence on chat-show sofas, high-lighting two incidents from her long and hectic life. She was a friend as well as a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret for many years. And Colin Tennant, Anne’s husband, took her to see a live sex show on their Parisian honeymoon.

Growing up on a Norfolk estate near Sandringham, Anne was a childhood playmate of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. She is careful not to gossip about Our Sovereign Lady, and what she reveals about Margaret is not exactly hot news: Tony Snowdon was bisexual and prodigiously unfaithful; Roddy Llewellyn, more than Peter Townsend, was the great love of the Princess’s life. From TV documentaries we know that Margaret was haughty and demanding; Lady G. suggests that she could be (selectively) a kind and supportive friend.

A party on Mustique in the 1980s: Mick
Jagger, Lady Anne and Rupert Everett
Colin Tennant, Lord Glenconner, owes his fame to his canny purchase of the island of Mustique in 1958 (for £45,000) and the parties he hosted there and elsewhere. He was not the best choice of husband – unstable, decadent, flamboyantly camp – but their marriage lasted for decades and ended with his death, not divorce. Busy with their social lives and developing Mustique, the Tennants largely left their children to be raised by nannies and servants, as they themselves had been. Silver spoons turned to dross when tragedy struck their three sons: HIV/Aids, drug addiction and a devastating motorbike accident. Anne had to mother her boys more as adults than she had as kids.

These family dramas are the most appealing element of the book, more than the celebrity/royalty tittle-tattle. The book has been dictated rather than written, which gives it a chatty readability. At its worst, there are gushing echoes of Barbara Cartland. At its best, Lady in Waiting vividly – and not always attractively – reinforces Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “The rich are different from you and me.” Very different.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

What I'm reading: Art theft and murder in the Christie style

BEA GREEN: Stealing the Spanish Princess

A painting recently identified as a "lost masterpiece" by El Greco is stolen from the London flat of its Russian billionaire owner and his girlfriend left murdered. Art theft specialist DCI Richard Langley’s investigation takes him to St Petersburg and Madrid and uncovers two more killings and a trail of ruthless international art thieves.

I’m used to reading US crime fiction, which tends to be gory and garish. Stealing the Spanish Princess is in the more workaday tradition of television police procedurals like Morse or Foyle’s War. Bea Green writes in an unaffected style that has echoes of Agatha Christie, the ‘grandmother’ of British crime authors. The pace is good and the art history well researched.

Monday, 19 April 2021

What I'm reading: Murder and Covid go hand-in-hand

MICHAEL CONNELLY: The Law of Innocence

A body is found in the trunk of Mickey Haller’s Lincoln in LA, and Haller is charged with murder: no bail, sent to a jail where he has many enemies. Clearly one of his enemies has framed him. Suddenly the “Lincoln Lawyer” has to defend himself against a possible life sentence.

This is a mixture of crime thriller and courtroom drama. Harry Bosch, Haller’s half-brother, is one of his team of investigators, so we have high hopes that the truth will set Mickey free. Despite being in and out of jail he finds time to romance two ex-wives and a new lady. And to add some topicality, a new virus from China is pushing crime off the news headlines.

As is often the case with Haller, it takes a mixture of luck and skill to resolve the issue. This is another guaranteed page-turner from Michael Connelly. 

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

What I'm reading: the brutal reality of ladyboy bars


Forty-year-old Londoner Graham leaves his wife to start a new life in Bangkok, opening a cabaret bar with a ladyboy lover. The obstacles to this enterprise include corrupt policemen and an American hardman who muscles in on both the business and Graham’s lover. Other rivals meet grisly deaths.

Robin Newbold does not dwell on the glamour and camp of the cabaret scene. He highlights the squalid streets of Patpong and the intense trafficking of young flesh for those visitors who are not in Thailand to admire its temples and beaches. When Graham goes to Cambodia to renew his visa he doesn’t tour Angkor Wat: he visits a genocide museum and bars with teenage prostitutes. Bangkok Burning is a grim, unflinching read.

Thursday, 25 March 2021

What I'm reading: Video-inspired kidnap and murder

Jeffery Deaver: THE NEVER GAME

After Lincoln Rhyme and Kathryn Dance, Jeffery Deaver launches a new series centered on Colter Shaw, a freelance investigator of Missing Person cases. He doesn’t like to be called a bounty hunter but the reward money is what draws him in. Here he investigates a trio of abductions in which the victims are put in deadly peril with a handful of survivor items similar to those supplied to avatars in video games. The prime location is California’s zillionaire Silicon Valley, and the link to producers of online gaming will prove to be the key to unravelling the mystery.

 This clearly is a Book for Our Time when too many of our kids (or of us) are addicted to violent video games. The story has great pace, moments of terrific tension, a few crafty red herrings and then a rattling series of final resolutions.

There’s a romantic element that fails to catch fire. And I didn’t entirely warm to the crisp new style Deaver develops for this new series. Very short sentences. But these can have an impact of their own: “Her nature was clothed in kindness. Under-neath was iron.” An up-to-the-minute thriller about the dangers that lurk in a certain kind of game for a certain kind of gamer, this is sure to win Jeffery Deaver some new fans. 

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

What I'm reading: Gay porn and Barbara Cartland

Gordon Merrick: FORTH INTO LIGHT


Originally published in 1974, this concludes the gay trilogy that began with The Lord Won’t Mind. Painter Charlie and art-dealer Peter are spending another summer in their Greek island villa with Martha, by whom they have each fathered a child. Martha is not the only woman in their life: art historian Judy arrives to consult Peter about some paintings that may be fakes. She inspires a heterosexual hiccup in Peter.

The paintings have been bought by celebrated New York author Mike who is on the island visiting his friend George, a not-so-celebrated author with a drinking problem and a rocky marriage. George’s teenage son Jeff thinks he may be gay and develops crushes on Mike and our two heroes (and one of the natives).

Gordon Merrick
Large dollops of sex are duly introduced as Jeff works his way through his crushes. And Peter consummates his heterosexual hiccup with Judy in scenes that veer between Barbara Cartland daintiness – “He opened his mouth, and she gave him hers” - and cinematic hardcore. Charlie is not simply well-hung; his endowment is “prodigious”. Graphic – not to say pornographic – sex is Gordon Merrick’s trademark, though I wonder if gay and straight porn belong in the same book: is there a demand for “bi-porn”? 

Aside from the sex, which comes close to the “classic” turgidity of the Song of the Loon trilogy, the book consists of long – even tedious – conversations about love and fidelity. There’s a “MacGuffin” involving a missing wad of dollars which, with the extended dialogue, has echoes of one of Terence Rattigan stodgier dramas. The debate about the “openness” of many gay relationships is an interesting one, to which Merrick makes a thoughtful contribution. Forth Into Light brings his ultra-erotic trilogy to an uneven climax (if I may use that word).

Thursday, 25 February 2021

What I'm reading: Retro comedy-thriller romp

James Essinger: ROLLER-COASTER

In a preface James Essinger warns the reader that you might find the author of this comedy thriller ‘somewhat bonkers’. It’s a book he wrote in the 1970s and is only now bringing to print. With a hippie hero who has created his own slang (like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, 1971) and a supporting cast with names like Terrapin and Tortoise (and a security chief called Pickling Fox-Foetus), I was reminded of  BBC 1950s radio hit The Goon Show and (two decades later) television's Monty Python. The story has terrific pace, but ‘bonkers’ barely begins to describe it!

Ancient eccentric Dr Tortoise sends wannabe-hitman Terrapin to Marseilles to kill some renegade Finns who are planning a terrorist outrage to avenge the brutal Russian occupation of Finland during World War Two. The wartime chapter is the one that isn’t funny – it’s extremely powerful – but the rest is a helter-skelter of comedy disasters. John Gardner (who later wrote a dozen or more James Bond adventures) began his career with a series featuring an inept MI5 assassin called Boysie Oakes – The Liquidator. Before Boysie there was The Dolly Dolly Spy in the 1960s, the first of a quartet of Carnaby-flavoured spy novels by Adam Diment. Rollercoaster clearly belongs in this quirky company. As a first novel forty-plus years ago I would have given James Essinger a schoolmasterly report: ‘Shows promise. Needs discipline.’ A zany, nostalgic romp.

Monday, 15 February 2021

David at the movies: Alcohol-fueled masterpiece




Always a joy to see a new black-and-white movie. Mank has luminous cinematography – the best I can recall since Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973). It’s a “Making-of” story, or more precisely a “Writing of” story about Herman Mancievicz’s writing of the screenplay for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, which was to win "Mank" an Oscar in 1941.

Gary Oldman’s Mank writes in a booze-filled haze, drawing on memories of his years of friendship with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and the magnate's mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) to create cruel parodies of them in his script. Orson Welles (Tom Burke) makes only a small contri-bution to the writing process, we’re told, although he shared the Best Original Screenplay award, the only Oscar Kane won despite going on to be hailed as a movie masterpiece.

Like the 1930s pictures it evokes, Mank is very theatrical, more talk than action. Oldman is at his seedy and brilliant best, and Seyfried invests Marion Davies with more depth (and talent) than she is usually credited. Writer/director Jack Fincher gloriously recreates the spirit and the texture of the era of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, Hollywood’s Golden Age. A splendid tribute to a high spot in cinema history.

Monday, 8 February 2021

What I'm reading: Not licensed to kill



I’m playing catch-up with Charles Cumming, having admired The Trinity Six, his contribution to the Cambridge Spy saga (Philby & Co.). A Spy by Nature was his first book. Alec Milius flunks the training for MI6 but MI5 offer him a probationary assignment: he is to join a “sting” operation with an oil exploration company in the City of London, whose contracts in Kazakhstan a US rival is trying to poach. Alec must befriend an American husband-and-wife team and feed them false intelli-gence.

In this early novel (2001) I detect the influence of Robert Ludlum. Cummings writes everyday prose and uses extended dialogue scenes to shade his characters and build up the tension. I wish he didn’t write in the present tense, but this is an impressive debut. Industrial espionage (by our closest ally) doesn’t sound as murky as penetrating terrorist cells, but in fact it is. The ending is as bleak as a Le Carrè.

The author’s biographic introduction tells us that as a post-grad he was approached by MI6. I hope it really is true that their recruitment briefing includes the statement: “Officers are certainly not licensed to kill.”

Sunday, 31 January 2021

What I'm streaming: The Plague before this one


(Channel 4/All4)

A series about the early years of the AIDS crisis would be a hard watch at any time; it’s especially tough while we’re locked down because of Covid. Written by Russell T. Davies, who gave us the taboo-breaking
Queer As Folk twenty years ago, this series has a similar structure: a group of gay friends sharing their lives – and their beds – as the liberation of the 1960s and 70s turns to ashes with the arrival of HIV.

As he did in Queer As Folk, Davies spares us no detail of the rampant promiscuity that turned HIV into a pandemic. He doesn’t show us the bigotry of Evangelicals (mainly but not exclusively in the US) who saw AIDS as God’s wrath upon the citizens of Sodom, except that maybe the series’ title is nod towards the Fundamentalists.

Olly Alexander and Lydia West as Ritchie and Jill
The ensemble acting is faultless, production values are off the scale, the pop soundtrack perfectly selected. The main character is Ritchie (Olly Alexander), a struggling actor, although the key role is that of Jill (Lydia West), “den-mother” to this camp group who offers strong support as her flatmates fall in love and break up and die.

It’s hardly a spoiler to say that someone will die in each of the five episodes: from pneumocystis, KS lesions, CMV, cancers – the grim toll of diseases that harvested men with compromised immune systems. There was a stand-out episode in LA Law when two parents cut their son off from his lover and all his friends and took him home to die. Russell Davies revisits that storyline in the final heartbreaking part of It’s A Sin.

Many of my generation and the one behind us lost people we loved and people we liked during that terrible decade and a half. The grief of those losses will come gruellingly back to us watching this series. Ultimately, medical breakthroughs and human kindness saw us through the age of AIDS. Inshallah, they will also see us defeat Covid.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

David at the movies: Breaking up is hard to do


(Netflix and cinemas)

This movie was filmed some ten miles from where I live on the Sussex coast. Grace and Edward (Annette Bening and Bill Nighy) have been married for almost thirty years, but their marriage has withered into staleness and bickering and Edward is about to leave her for somebody else. Their son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) is caught in the crossfire, and his mum expects his occasional visits from London to become weekly.

This a somewhat “slight” story about a break-up. It reminded me a lot of David Lean’s 1940s Close Encounter: two very ordinary people caught up in a relationship without a future. If this was a TV soap, it will be full of fisticuffs and shouting. The scene where Grace overturns a kitchen table is the closest it comes to violence and doesn’t entirely ring true. Being left, for Grace, is a lot like being widowed. Bening, never less than outstanding, captures perfectly the grief and confusion that abandonment induces. Nighy, like Trevor Howard in 1945, masks guilt and pain behind a “stiff upper lip” which is probably just as real in 2021 as it was back then.

Josh O'Connor as Jamie

Josh O’Connor, whom we have come to feel pretty negative about as Prince Charles in the Diana/Camilla series of The Crown, gets Jamie exactly right: helpless to know what to do and quietly hurt by the break-up. You get the feeling that Jamie too will marry someone who seems exactly right but will turn out not to be.

 Hope Gap is a small stony beach below Seaford Head. In my novel Lillian and the Italians (publishing next month) it’s where Lillian scatters her husband’s ashes. Hope Gap the movie will not lift your spirits, but it shows exquisitely the pain and bitterness of a marriage turning to ashes.  

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

What I'm streaming: Pawn takes king



They’re saying you don’t need to be a chess aficionado to enjoy this, but the games are totally central to every episode. Non-chess fans must surely wonder what the hoopla is all about.

9-year-old Beth Harmon is sent to a near-Dickensian orphanage in Kentucky after her mother’s death in a car accident. An immigrant janitor (Bill Camp) introduces her to chess and unleashes a prodigious talent. Fostered in her teens in the mid-1960s, she is soon meeting – and beating – champion players at state, national and international matches.

All the men in the story are chess nerds. Beth sleeps with a couple of them and lives with one for a while, but chess is her only real passion. The death of her foster-mother affects her less than losing a match.

Queen’s Gambit boasts superb sets (mostly hotel rooms and tournament venues) and fine performances, notably from Anya Taylor-Joy as the enigmatic Beth. Production values are very, very high: I particularly liked the stalactite chess moves Beth visualizes on bedroom ceilings. But the emphasis on the games completely swamps the story. The deaths of both her mothers lack emotional heft, as do her brief romances. This might have been better as a two-hour movie. Style triumphs over substance, but it’s a substantial triumph. And if a few thousand youngsters swap video games for chess, the series can be deemed a double success.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

What I'm reading: If you go down to the Swamp today ...


This is a sequel to The Last Child, revisiting young Johnny Merrimon ten years after he confronted the terrifying abduction of his sister. Now in his twenties, Johnny lives a hermit existence in The Hush, several square miles of forest and swamp he has inherited in North Carolina. A billionaire neighbor bids to buy The Hush to extend his hunting reserve. Johnny doesn’t want to sell. He has dreams and visions centering on the 1850s when his ancestor and namesake fell foul of a female shaman with malevolent healing powers. 

A descendant of the shaman responds to a summons to return to the county and cross paths with Johnny Merrimon. And there’s Something lurking in the swamp (the author calls it “Something”), a dark presence that for more than a century has been savagely culling unwelcome intruders.

Like Stephen King, John Hurt elevates the Gothic thriller into the realm of literary fiction. The Hush brings some echoes of The Shining, where it's the location itself that threatens the mental and physical health of trespassers. The story builds to a shattering climax as Merrimons past and present reach a "confluence" on a hill in the center of the swamp. A couple of loose ends suggest that this may be the middle segment of a projected trilogy.

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

What I'm streaming: Pride without Prejudice


Goodness me, this is the most startling recreation of Regency England since Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy found zombies on their lawns a few years ago. Bodices are more spectacularly ripped than we usually see in Jane Austen adaptations, although the fundamental challenge of finding a rich titled husband for your cosseted (and corseted) daughters is still at the heart of the story. This is a Georgian Downtown Abbey, quite a bit raunchier and a lot more downmarket.

What sets Bridgerton apart is its “colour-blind” casting. Simon, Lord Hastings, our dashing hero (and boy, is he dashing!) is played by a black actor (RegĂ©-Jean Page), as are many of Queen Charlotte’s queen’s courtiers and even the Queen herself (Golda Rosheuval). It takes a bit of getting used to – I kept thinking (very unPC, unBLM) that we were in Louisiana and (oh, happy thought) the slaves had taken over the plantation. But the casting is the key ingredient that gives Bridgerton its big dollop of freshness. Phoebe Dynevor’s Daphne Bridgerton, whose on-off relationship with Lord Hastings is at the core of the drama, gives a feisty modernist performance, but she rather pales (if I may use that word) in comparison with some of the other debutantes.

The court of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuval)

The Simon-Daphne romance gets too much screen-time, as does Miss Thompson’s unmarried pregnancy and the mystery identity of gossip-monger Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews who, alas, does not appear onscreen).
Bridgerton plays out as a period soap, which is what Jane Austen’s intricate social comedies tend to be reduced to for viewing audiences. Mad King George is barely glimpsed, and the Prince Regent not at all. The one gay couple at court seem to have fallen foul of censorship or more likely the cutting-room shears; let’s hope this is redressed in Series Two.

Series Two? A decade from now we’ll be in Series Ten. This is pure tosh, lavishly costumed and backgrounded, and it will run and run.

Lady Danbury and Lord Hastings (Adjoa Andoh and Rege-Jean Page)