Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Gilbert Adair 1944-2011

So Gilbert Adair is gone, and the fine tributes that have followed already are a splendid expression of his achievements as a writer, as well as the good friends and impressions that he made everywhere.
I first discovered Gilbert Adair for myself as a young reader at a time (the mid 1980s) when he was one of a select band of critical writers whose acute literary-visual sensibilities made cinema feel like a significant 20th-century creative endeavour, and a lustrous aesthetic universe that was well worth exploring. Gilbert wrote widely and with great finesse about film: there was wit and playfulness there, as well as a severe assessing eye. My regard for him only grew as I learned of his accomplishments in literary translation (mainly French, clearly his passion); and then around 1989 he began to publish novels, in which all of his reading and viewing were intensely present but which nonetheless wore their learning lightly and offered all sorts of clever and impish pleasures. Love and Death in Long Island, his sly twist on the classic perverse erotic-obsessive classics of Mann and Nabokov, was a book that had me in stitches (and I think of it still whenever I happen to glance at the teenage pop fan-mag sections of any London newsagent's wares...)
A bit later in life I shared an office at Faber and Faber with Gilbert's editor and friend Walter Donohue, and by these means I was very pleased to make his acquaintance. There was both a careful privacy and a sort of refinedly performative quality about him that indicated you would have to work diligently to know him better. But certainly any meeting with Gilbert would be memorable for the range of glittering subject matters that would be raised and rated in quickfire fashion.
When I put together a playful book of cinephile film lists called Ten Bad Dates with De Niro I was delighted that Gilbert made a contribution: a stunningly varied selection of noteworthy films that had (for an assortment of reasons) rather vanished from the face of the earth. Gilbert stuck up for the so-called lesser works of auteurs, cult efforts that deserved better than extinction, and pictures unfairly denigrated by critical fashion (including, perhaps inevitably, Adrian Lyne's Lolita...) In this small way it was a pleasure to work with Gilbert, and to experience close-up (as in his freely expressed opinion of the book's title and artwork) his exquisite taste.
In the range of his interests and writings, and the prodigious way in which he turned his hand to storytelling of his own, Gilbert was a model of the critic-turned-practitioner. To have adapted his novel The Dreamers into a screenplay filmed by Bertolucci has to be as good as it gets for any true cinephiliac. I remember him well at an early screening of the picture, highly nervous of course, but evidently living something of a dream, and deservedly so. (That's him and the maestro in the picture above.)
Thinking back I realise I first saw and heard Gilbert - having admired him for some time only on the page - when he introduced a BBC screening of some films by Cocteau, and offered a typically brilliant and succinct biographical-artistic portrait of the great man. He referred to Cocteau at one point as a 'crackerjack of all trades'; and I daresay Gilbert himself is deserving of a similar sort of epitaph. Moreover he was a special man with his very own charm and you can see already how much he's missed.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Crusaders, and "proper novels"...

Amid the broad spectrum of print reviews garnered by my Crusaders back in 2008 (the 'broad' being a huge bonus for a debut-novelist, and the 'spectrum' probably a necessary corollary of his fledgling level of attainment) I seem to remember the Telegraph, both Daily and Sunday, being kind enough to review the novel while finding a fair few things to criticise as well as praise. Fair do's; and for that very reason I was pleasd to see that in his Telegraph round-up of the best fiction of 2011 Keith Miller made a point (in the course of extolling the most recent novel by Philip Hensher) of offering a rather kind comparison:
"Like Richard T Kelly’s Crusaders of 2008, it is a proper, fat, politically and ethically engaged condition-of-England novel..."
Nothing else to say, really, other than 'Cheers Keith'...

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Durham Big Debate: A resilience test for the North East

Last month I had two distinctive engagements at the Durham Book Festival: the first being the furthering of my nefarious plot to re-infect the modern world with Late Victorian Gothic (for a report on which see here); the second the presentation of an essay commissioned from me by the Festival and addressing the prospects for the economy of North East England in the depressed years that lie ahead. That essay was published locally as a pamphlet, and its text is available online here.
I discussed the essay's various arguments in a panel event on Saturday October 22, chaired by the FT’s Chris Tighe, at which I was privileged to sit down and reason alongside Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central, Paul Woolston (chair of the North East Local Economic Partnership) and Professor John Tomaney from the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS) at Newcastle University. I found the session very energetic, with some good pointed contributions from the floor, though inevitably more dimensions to the debate were opened up than could be adequately explored within the time-slot.
I spent several months mulling over/interviewing for/writing up the essay, an absorbing experience. Can I summarise my findings? Well, I suppose I came to my brief feeling – as I had when I last addressed the subject for Prospect back in 2008 – that the North East is blessed by its industrious heritage, its natural resources, and its people, with all their rightly legendary qualities of resilience; and yet also beset by its particular and substantive share in Britain’s long twentieth-century decline. Even in 2008, as one sensed the tide going out again, it was easier to feel buoyed by the benefits the region had enjoyed from new kinds of jobs, urban regeneration, better living standards. Today, with UK PLC in such a hole, one has to worry for a region under a government that undervalues its strengths and doesn’t believe in ‘regions’ anyway; a government, moreover, that is offering a ‘growth plan’ not unreasonably described by David Miliband (that’s the MP for South Shields) as ‘risibly, depressingly thin.’
We’ve known for long enough that British business needs to innovate more in profitable new growth sectors and to export more of that innovation to emerging markets. Apparently our main innovation goes in the fields of market research, advertising and branding, management consultancy... Not what my granddad would have called ‘proper work’, though a living, for sure. But if your chief skills are selling hot air and processing bullshit you can’t claim surprise if your former ‘emerging market’ then becomes your master.
The thing people in the South East especially like to forget about the North East is that it still makes stuff and exports it: fine and bulk chemicals and pharmaceuticals; tracks and cast armour for tanks; diggers, and a whole lot of cars at Nissan. The North East’s subsea sector has had global stature for three decades. (The transoceanic fibre-optic cables that enable our keen use of the internet are there thanks to seabed trenching technology originated at the firm of SMD in Wallsend.) Hitachi is readying to turn out bi-mode train carriages in Durham; the blast furnace at the former Corus steelworks in Redcar has re-fired under new ownership.
Lest people be unaware, the North East now does both metal-bashing and key-pushing. (Witness the FTSE-measured success of the Sage software group, an inspiration to the region’s recent rash of digital technology start-ups.) It has several world-class universities capable of translating research into commerce, most impressively in life sciences. In all the North East has notable comparative advantages, skills that aren’t so prevalent in the rest of the world; not to mention indigenous raw materials, gold beneath its feet, an entirely plausible claim to be the hub of any future low carbon/clean energy economy.
True, the region is deficient in financial services (but then lately that sector has stuck us with its own ‘dependency’, and attendant strife.) The North East has rather weightier assets, which could yet make a hefty contribution to ‘rebalancing’ the national economy.
The challenge for North East business is how to be sufficiently nimble and entrepreneurial at a time when a state-dependent outlook appears forlorn. Traditionally the region has viewed entrepreneurs as rather rare birds. Throughout the last century the done thing for North Easterners was to work for someone else, whether the Coal Board or British Steel, ICI or the Department of Work and Pensions. And yet it wasn’t ‘working for someone else’ that begat the North East’s great industrial heritage: the entrepreneurial honour-roll of Armstrong, Palmer, Merz, Reyrolle – inspired engineers who made big things happen out of little, beginning with a wager.
Heavy industry has its own fiery kind of historical romance; yet in the era of The Apprentice we know that business innovation can take lighter but still lucrative forms. Consider the more recent North East success story that is Greggs (est. 1951), which chose not to remain a ‘traditional’ baker, pleasant as that may have seemed – and a good job too, otherwise the big supermarkets would have eaten it alive. Instead it was Greggs that did the consuming, of other smaller companies, and built a new brand as a first-rate seller of takeaway food that still does a fair bit of baking.
Much as I enjoy a sausage roll, I don’t propose that the Greggs business model has universal application. But I do believe Greggs offers a useful model of ethos and drive, of seeking out the best available niche in a market that could do with a bit of entrepreneurial development, ‘a properly-engineered solution.’ Spare capacity in our economy is there to be unleashed within our Small-to-Medium Enterprises (SMEs). But one can’t wag one’s finger at them, demand that they speculate to accumulate, adapt or else die. Innovation is expensive, and rarely yields a fast profit. Hiring and training aren’t cheap either, and in the North East as around the UK the skills employers require are not being readily met by the labour pool.
Right now it would seem only government can provide the impetus to the far-sighted investment in innovation and infrastructure that we know we need. Adam Posen, the American economist on the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, has made eloquent calls for a state investment bank that will bypass our tarnished banking sector and lend directly to businesses. Training (and re-training) schemes in hi-tech engineering, digital and green energy vocations would not be wasted. And renewed claims for infrastructure spending, good old-fashioned ‘capital projects’, have force to them: they will create jobs, and remedy a long national deficiency. From transport links to power lines to superfast broadband... we are going to need these things if we’re to have any sort of future.
A Conservative-led government is always liable to be leery of ‘industrial policy’, with its connotations of Labour, a pre-Thatcher era and a North where it has few friends. But I believe a forward-looking Tory ought to think fully on what the state can do as an engine for economic growth, not merely a dispenser of hardship funds. And as a potential engine room for such growth, the North East is fully stocked with tools and resources.
Then again, the excellent analyst/blogger Chris Dillow has been brave enough to propose that maybe no policy fix is possible, since long-term growth “is determined by factors which governments cannot control, such as entrepreneurial spirit or the rate of monetizable innovation.” But it’s those very ungovernable factors in which one is therefore forced to invest whatever hope one has lying around spare...

Monday, 31 October 2011

NUFC: Demba Ba is a Geordie

As you's know, it’s mainly Twitter for me these days; and there the other week I was joshing with some Newcastle fan whom I’ve never met about whether we would take Andy Carroll back, in the event that Liverpool thrust him in our direction, nose and eyes averted toward high heaven... Just banter, as I say, because despite big Andy missing something of a sitter the week before he was said to link up well with Suarez in a win at the weekend. In any case, I expect the much-rumoured ‘psychological flaws’/’refuelling problems’ of the young Bensham Beast would now pose a really unsettling problem for the newly world-famous Team Spirit and United Dressing Room of Alan Pardew’s NUFC.
We are 3rd tonight, and some might say we are walking in a Demba wonderland. It’s an outstanding effort from this squad in every department, and respect is due to the manager whom some of us used to pretend was called Curbishley. Moreover these results and this placing are a useful if temporary two fingers up at free-spending bigger clubs, some of whose fans, despite their mob being several points/places behind Newcastle, are still making free with the patronising remarks online about how they’d gladly consider giving Coloccini a run in their side.
I don’t know one Newcastle fan who thinks European qualification is achievable – not unless Mike Ashley gets so drunk on New Year’s Eve that he goes out and buys half-a-dozen high-waged hot-shots with his own money. Even the much-vaunted Sky/Talksport ‘Battle for Fourth’ is hard to get excited about, since to be involved in that is only to waste a lot of quality time having to think about Spurs and Liverpool. And looking up is an impossibility, first among many reasons being quite simply that right now it looks like Man City have bought the title; and bought it in a way that makes what Jack Walker did at Blackburn with Kenny Dalglish seem hardly more substantive than what John Henry et al are now doing at Liverpool with... oh aye, Miserable Kenny. What should be the ambition be, then? To edge 'The Battle for Eighth'? To be 'North East Top Dogs'? It’s all down to the players, isn't it? God knows what they’re on right now, but I’ll have a shot of it whenever you’re ready.
Anyway, past half-way to safety... and the pleasures of this Newcastle run are in the attractive, smart, committed football that the side are playing, and also in points won that, given the low expectations back in August, almost have the sweet feeling of being stolen - or should I say twocked?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Sean Penn et al give it back to Bill Clinton

Hollywood, politics, and charitable work & donation: they certainly all do mix, whether or not you care for the theory and/or the practice. The Democrats, traditionally, have enjoyed the support of a classier, artier, wittier showbusiness crowd than have the GOP - in public, at least. The artistes who have come out in this video on behalf of ex-President Clinton's Foundation are comedic performers in the main, but there among them is Sean Penn, who has - to be fair - a certain amount of form in the knockabout tradition, and whose JP/HRO organisation for post-earthquake relief and reconstruction in Haiti have been generously assisted by the Foundation's purse. This is a fun 5 minutes, for sure. Those who recall Tony Blair's cameo in a 2007 Catherine Tate TV special may reflect that in the final comic pay-off Clinton exhibits a remarkably similar ease and apparent sense of timing in front of a camera, even alongside a professional and double-Oscar-winning mummer (not, in this instance, Sean...)

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

FantasyCon2011: The Possessions of Doctor Forrest by Brighton Pier...

So I’m gazing into the depths of the black mirror of my first ever fantasy-fiction convention... FantasyCon 2011, in Brighton, this Saturday October 1. I’m down to be reading from Doctor Forrest at 1030 in Room 134 of the Royal Albion Hotel. Beyond that, who knows...?
My slot is between Julia Knight and Reggie Oliver, so I’ll have to bring my game and hope that their fanbases might look kindly, if darkly, on my sacrificial offering. Perhaps I’m lucky to finish just before Christopher Paolini, author of Eragon, gets started for a reading/Q&A in the main assembly space at 1100.
The amusing conundrum is the choice of what to read for 20 minutes or so. One gets into a certain pattern after having done a few events with a book, and it’s only in the last few outings that I’ve tried to vary things a little, which can be a pleasant surprise to oneself. Until now I’ve vaguely favoured readings focused on character, theme, mystery, intrigue, mood... But in a crowded programme of experienced thrill-practioners, perhaps I ought to offer the closest I can to the red meat of sensation...? Some selections from the 'Confession', perhaps? Murder by scalpel, radical surgery, taboo seduction, perhaps even ‘the speculum scene’...?
Anyhow, if you’re going to FantasyCon this Saturday or know anybody who is, please do speak of me and speak kindly and let them know where I'll be at 1030 - that's room 134, the Royal Albion! - otherwise, being a stranger by the shore and all that, it’ll likely be a case of in and out and barely time for fish and chips on the pier before I’m back off to London, no doubt with Quadrophenia on my iPod.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Financial Crisis Redux: We are all Japanese now

Very interesting this week to see the sudden, riled, edgy urging of a Plan B For Growth/Contra Recession by a good many financial journalists – this urging upon a Chancellor who clearly has wished to be seen as a Man of Iron, and whose confidence is probably rice-paper-thin right now, as the economic forecasts start to turn over the ballast in everybody’s guts. In these circumstances it’s no wonder that Ed Balls, with his mildly psychotic and probably permanent air of assurance, is unusually happy to be asked to give a lot of sound-bites on the general theme that, since everyone in the world has now stopped spending money, then it’s time for the UK to resume the practice.
I can see that George Osborne hates the thought of humiliation, maybe even more than the rest of us. I hadn’t thought he could bear the idea of calling a slippage on his deficit-reduction programme. But I’m truly curious to see what else he can do now. No amount of small-beer red-tape-cutting or enforced ‘flexibility’ upon the labour market, no greenbelt home-building or income tax tinkering can turn around the grim figures. Some big infrastructure projects – ‘public works!’ – would be the smallest start, and very welcome to my mind – but themselves inconceivable as of a few months ago, and thus a lot for Osborne to swallow. Let’s see if he can face the idea of ‘finding’ money to stuff into the public maw.
My problem with Ed Balls – sorry, one of my problems – is that I don’t believe he’s bothered by the notion of rebalancing the economy, only with slackening the pace of deficit reduction, and what that could mean for him in the eyes of Labour’s usual voters. And I don’t think that’s an adequate showing from an Opposition in these circumstances. Obviously no Opposition would put up costed plans this early in a parliament but, given the State of the Nation and the slough of public disregard that Labour's fallen into, I think they could do themselves a favour by seeming to be chomping at the bit with smart cost-efficient fiscal ideas.
I’ve been intrigued to see the amount of press play given (as here in the New York Times) to Adam S. Posen, the American economist on the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, ‘a leading expert on what is often called Japan’s lost decade’ who sees the US and Europe as repeating ‘the same monetary policy mistakes that left Japan’s once-robust economy stagnant...’ Posen is nakedly advocating ‘more monetary stimulus’, and I admit I don’t see why that’s going to work now rather than before. But I’m more interested in his conviction that ‘the Bank of England and the British Treasury form a government-backed bank to make small-business loans.’
I've just written a long paper about the prospects for the North East England economy, to be discussed at the Durham Book Festival next month. It was largely concerned with urging entrepreneurialism and growth in SMEs. However I fought shy of too many policy prescriptions, just because the paper assumes tight-fisted Tories in power until 2015 at the very least. But then maybe Osborne really is about to un-constrict the spending sphincter, in which case all bets are off. If I were urging positions upon Labour now... well, business-targeted job-creating infrastructure projects, the full gamut of tax breaks for start-up businesses (research, employees, profits), establishment of sector-specific state investment banks, vocational training (also adult re-training) in hi-tech, digital and green energy skilling... yeah, I'd probably be focusing on things like that, in respect of what the state can do as an engine for growth, and not just a dispenser of hardship funds.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Most Recent Riots of 2011

Of all the persuasive things I read in July perhaps the one that took up most solid residence among my mental furnishings was a 'tweet' by the excellent PatrickOsgood, Assistant Editor at Oil & Gas Middle East magazine: “We're screwed, right? By ‘we’ I mean flabby westerners in advanced economies...”
To wit: earlier this month I spent a week’s family holiday abroad, a proportion of which was spent watching BBCNews24, aghast, and debating the usefulness of plastic bullets in situations of violent mass public disorder... A friend with whose family we were sharing the holiday watched these bulletins alongside me with a special set of concerns – he being a producer for the BBC 10 O’Clock News, thus a keen-eyed judge of how well ‘the firm’ was doing in its coverage.
For me there was the special unease of goggling from afar at conflagration and mayhem in parts of North London (N17 and N22) where I used to live – contentedly in the main, among good people, if always feeling fairly rueful about the patches of public deprivation/squalor, and very often nervy/annoyed about the unnecessary levels of edginess on the street courtesy of young males whose chief ambition in life seemed to be making themselves look quite nasty. Still, as an impotent riot-watcher I had the consolation that my current manor (N8) was being spared too much shattering of shop windows. Instead it was Tottenham and Wood Green where the workless class of England smashed and grabbed armfuls of branded sportswear made in China and Vietnam.
I must admit, one of my most insistent feelings in watching the reportage and mulling over it was: fings ain’t what they used to be. To be precise, what I was seeing didn’t strike me as having the full-force ramifications of the Thatcher-era riots of 1981 that I remember, in Brixton, Southall, Toxteth, Moss Side et cetera. In 2011 I simply couldn’t see the point of summoning a Lord Scarman to pick over this wreckage: it just wasn’t an impressive sort of uprising. And by the time one heard the first reports of a millionaire’s daughter in court for nicking – it felt like a 'disenfranchised class'-type analysis wasn’t going to stay on its feet for long.
Arriving home again on Wednesday August 10 I found the heat had abated: the cab driver at Stansted presented me with the Sun, its front cover a mosaic of CCTV-busted rioters, the inner pages given over to a chorus of popular revulsion. Sixteen thousand additional police officers appeared to have worked the trick and laid down the law. (I understand David Cameron, unlike his Home Secretary, had been all for wheeling in the army. Good job cooler heads prevailed - I admit I was one who briefly got into a tizzy of what sort of force might be needed to dampen the rioters' ardour.)
That Wednesday night I watched the father of Haroon Jahan on the news, and burst into tears, as I suspect did others. His remarkable dignity and eloquence seemed to sum up a noticeably prevalent message: for shame. Meanwhile online I found (via Norman Geras) that Kenan Malik had said quite quickly most of what I’d been thinking. (I also endorse pretty much all of what’s written here by Will Davies at his Potlatch blog.)
In a mood of dubious nostalgia I did allow myself a glance back the other day at Alexander Cockburn’s long essay ‘The Underclass’, published by the Village Voice in January 1982, subsequently collected in Cockburn’s Corruptions of Empire (Verso), and dominated by an interview with Darcus Howe, who was then billed as ‘editor of Race Today.’ Interestingly Howe spoke witheringly of a Britain ‘saturated with the concept of welfare’, a placebo that black Britain had come to see as ‘no cure for the cancer’ – the cancer being the threat of ‘permanent unemployment.’ Cockburn ended pointedly with this interpretation of events in the Manchester vicinity by Howe: ‘Whites from Withenshawe (sic), blacks from Moss Side, no prearranged plan. They gather. There is a shout, “On to Moss Side police station.’ That gives you some indication. You must have a convergence of interests in order for that to happen...’ The question, of course, is what those interests can be defined as, and what they amount to. But in any case on the occasion of the Riots of August 2011 I’ve yet to hear or read a resolute class analysis akin to Howe’s of 1981 (or rather, yet to hear or read one that wasn’t outstandingly foolish.)
Finally, what to make of Tony Blair’s contribution to the post-mortem (‘Blaming a moral decline for the riots makes good headlines but bad policy’)? Very well made, I’d say, and firmly on the side of ‘decent law-abiding’ people who don’t want their homes and livelihoods wrecked by reprehensible gang-bangers. But this reflective passage is, for me, ‘the money’:
“I would say that today's generation is a) more respectable b) more responsible and c) more hard-working than mine was. The true face of Britain is not the tiny minority that looted, but the large majority that came out afterwards to help clean up. I do think there are major issues underlying the anxieties reflected in disturbances and protests in many nations. One is the growing disparity of incomes not only between poor and rich but between those at the top and the aspiring middle class. Another is the paradigm shift in economic and political influence away from the west...”
Ah yes, the fading of the West, which is where (with Patrick Osgood) we came in.
Oh, and finally (2): Blair is quite right to express irritation at sections of the media given to “a high- faluting wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally.” In particular one of the most irritating things about the (generally Blair-hating) tenor of left-liberal England is where it joins hands with the most reactionary right in heeding the sermons of Peter Oborne, the churchy Sherborne Tory who is very good at sounding morally vexed by everybody living outside his parish. Oborne lacks even that one highly redeeming feature of Toryism: namely its departure from the Spartan Left in seeing Man not as some perfectable socio-political unit in a grand Utopian project but, rather, as a fallen creature of whom we must simply try to make the best that we can. Still, Socialist Worker and Daily Mail meet over drinks in their shared capacity to get disgusted by the slightest traits of their fellow men and women, and that is one party from which I’ll always run a mile.

Norman Geras on the fading of blogs

Where was I...? Oh yes, Norman Geras. Proprietor of as thoughtful a weblog as you're liable to find, he made these comments last month (on the eighth anniversary of his celebrated site) in respect of some recent "difficulties in blogging":
"Some of the reasons for them are obvious: this particular debate has been had, and one doesn't feel as if there's anything to add; even if there may be, I don't feel like writing about the same thing yet again; just temporarily the 'topics of the day' don't appeal to me; even if I've got something to say, other people are already saying it, saying it a billion times - in the press, on the blogs, on Twitter; and so on. Whatever the case, until very recently I never had trouble finding what to post about; now sometimes I do. Yesterday I came across [a] post by Andrew Sullivan, in which he says that if it isn't updated at least twice daily it ain't a blog; and ideally it should be updated four or five times a day... Anyone who's blogged for any length of time will know why the rate of posting on so many blogs begins to fade, and why those who pack in blogging altogether, which is many many people, do so. And how many former bloggers now prefer Twitter, as being much less demanding of their time..."

Norm has decided to carry on, though. And so, confound it, shall I. We shall see quite what I'm made of in short order, shall we not...? In the meantime you can of course find me on Twitter...

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Normblog: Tolstoy, The False Note, and the problem of Evil

Norman Geras, Professor Emeritus of Government at Manchester University, has since 2003 been fashioning a notable second career for himself as a blogger and tweeter on issues of the day and assorted enthusiasms. A regular feature of the blog is 'Writer's Choice', wherein (as Geras described it for the Guardian) "novelists, poets and other writers have contributed their thoughts on books that have been important to them in one way or another, or books they have simply enjoyed." I am very pleased to say that I am the latest invitee to contribute a screed of this sort to Normblog: my choice was Tolstoy's novella The False Note, also known as The Forged Coupon, and you will find the full essay here. Meantime, a taster:
"I find The False Note an endlessly involving piece, and I feel it ought to be more widely known and celebrated. It is a kind of parable about money (we might better say 'currency') and the problem of evil: how a simple exchange of tainted money introduces a current of malevolence into social relations. Yet it resists a straightforwardly materialist analysis. As the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia read it, Tolstoy exhibits 'a strange conviction that every society creates evil according to some kind of natural secretion, as certain molluscs produce pearls'."

I might have said in the piece - but it was long enough already - that Robert Bresson's masterly 1983 film L'Argent is derived from the first of the two parts of The False Note, the setting transposed to contemporary France. Below, the last movement from L'Argent and the great Bresson in discussion of his work.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Esquire (August 2011) now on stands: I'm Back...

Well now, there's a familiar form of headline for this blog, albeit one that's been out of action for roughly 18 months... Nonetheless, it's a fact that I have written something in Esquire this month, and I'm very glad about it since a) I've remained a Contributing Editor in the time since my last contribution, even without troubling the scorers, as it were; and b) the magazine has a new editor in the excellent Alex Bilmes, who has a raft of fine ideas and has been putting them vigorously into practice since his appointment earlier this year. (To wit, the Esquire website has had a refurbishment recently and is worth your perusal.)
My essay for the August ish straddles the categories of 'Personal/Humour/Lifestyle', I suppose. It's called 'Fitness First?' and it's the up-and-down story of the 20 or so years that I've spent intermittently belonging to gyms and working out: a pastime that has brought me joy and pain, you may be sure - and for which I now feel the need to make an accounting in my life. Why am I harping on this, you ask? Well, because I'm one of many 40-year-old men who received a new gym membership on said birthday from their better half. And, possibly against the run of the mill, I was very glad to have it - because a small but significant part of my adult life has been spent hefting heavy lumps on metal around padded or reinforced floors. But, but... you do get to an age where the gravity of time sits heavy on your shoulders. As I say in the piece:
"... at this new Health Club of mine the fight I am picking is with Nature. My genes having been tidily downloaded to my kids, I am now expendable: Nature has written me off, reckons it has no further business with me. And Nature might be right. Every ten years a man loses four-to-six pounds of muscle. After 40 his testosterone levels ebb, his body hair shrivels, his spine weakens until he’s nearly as titchy as Tom Cruise.
I don’t presume to reverse that process, merely to ward it off just for a bit. I want to feel my heart racing, but under my control; to feel some vigour again in my limbs; to recapture that natural high of physical exertion – the high that brings no self-hating hangover, leaves one indeed feeling better in the morning. My body remembers all this, however vaguely. Because I have a long, complex relationship with gyms..."

To read on, as I'm sure you're dying to on the basis of that, give yourself a present of the August Esquire, it's £4.25 and there's loads of lovely stuff in it. Wrapped round the exterior and draped across a few pages therein is Abigail Clancy (pictured), who I believe has just enjoyed the loveliest of wedding days and is thus newly married to a professional footballer and accomplished body-popper.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Freud & Jung: The Movie!

On the subject of psychoanalysis - well, I've never been there, you understand, but I'm an admirer both of Freud and of Jung, and I'm quite sure that I’ve learned many profound things from the writings of both that, taken together, are not exactly complementary. As such I have waited keenly for a film of The Talking Cure, Christopher Hampton’s play about the great Austrian, the great Swiss, and Ms Sabina Spielrein. Now that film is nigh, under the title A Dangerous Method, which references a book by John Kerr that was (as far as I know – I’ve not read it) the first to take seriously the importance of Spielrein to the history of psychoanalysis on the grounds that she was first a patient of Jung’s and subsequently a disciple of Freud’s. As I understand it, what Kerr didn’t know when he wrote A Very Dangerous Method was that Spielrein and Jung had been lovers during his treatment of her.
Hence the special drama of this story, for which Hampton was the ideal dramatist – Freud and Jung as mentor-and-protégé pioneers in the fathoming of the unconscious; Jung becoming the errant son who succumbed to sex with a patient, then proceeded to an occult-spiritual philosophy that alienated him yet further from rational, disapproving ‘father’ Freud; and Spielrein as the woman who first occasioned this intellectual dispute, then went on to make a discerning contribution to it.
The richness of all this is obvious. Is it ‘a movie’ though? I’ll be intrigued to see whether Cronenberg follows Hampton’s play in jumping forward and revealing to the audience at the halfway stage what was Spielrein’s eventual fate. It’s also worth noting that Paul Schrader, an equally fine piece of ‘casting’ for this project, tried to write it as a play for the National Theatre in 1982 at the prompting of Peter Hall, but could never quite finish his script. (‘It’s such a great story’, Schrader told Kevin Jackson for the excellent book Schrader on Schrader, ‘that it took me a long time to realize that it just wasn’t working.’)
For Cronenberg Sabina Spielrein is played by Keira Knightley who also gets top billing over Viggo Mortensen (Freud) and Michael Fassbender (Jung). For me as for many viewers, this is a small matter of concern, but presumably for many other viewers it will be why they turn out for this movie. So, we shall see… Here at any rate is the trailer.

"The Good of the Novel"

During my adolescence I regularly day-dreamed of growing up to be the sort of fellow who'd be asked to pontificate in print on the current condition of The Contemporary Novel... or I should say that I day-dreamed about this as regularly as I did about winning Wimbledon or taking Susannah Hoffs to the pictures. Still, as of now I have my wish in respect of the first of these, and here you can read my contribution to an online symposium occasioned by the Faber essay collection The Good of the Novel.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Possessions of Doctor Forrest

Just to don my crimson-lined Prince of Darkness cape for a short moment: there was a nice review of Doctor Forrest in Scotland on Sunday recently, and before that another very pleasing one from The Scotsman. Scotland is certainly doing me a world of good right now, for I am also (with Kevin MacNeil) the first act on at the 2011 Edinburgh Book Festival. Meantime the Forrest blog continues to be a crypt-like repository for my blackest and gravest thoughts, with recent musings on Hammer Horror, Robert Aickman, Doctor Who and Yukio Mishima...

Sylvain Marveaux is a Geordie. As is Demba Ba.

In a fortnight NUFC return to action, as they say, with the first pre-season outing at Darlington Arena, followed by a US tour and games against Sporting Kansas City, Orlando City and Columbus Crew. How's the recruitment plan looking then? Alan Curbishley, sorry, Pardew has said "I am really pleased with the way the squad is taking shape." But Al, shouldn't that be more like "Je suis vraiment heureux avec la façon dont l'équipe prend forme."? Because aside from those long-term crocked lads who "will feel like new signings" (and actually this does go for one of them too) we seem to be entirely in the business of adding Frenchmen or French-speakers to the ranks.
No, since you ask, I'm not over L'Affaire Carroll yet. True Faith speaks for me:
"I’d foolishly allowed myself to imagine myself sitting in my SJP pew watching the Bensham Van Basten develop over the next ten years into a bona fide No.9 legend, smashing goals in, leading the line and providing the essential link between team and the terraces he also supported the club from... But the fact is Andy Carroll is not at Newcastle United but £35m of Liverpool’s money is... I didn’t imagine that the big answer to Carroll’s departure would be Demba Ba, on a free with a dodgy knee... and us having had the bum’s rush from No.1 and No.2 targets Gameiro and Gervinho."

The swing to Labour and the margin of error

It does shame me somewhat that I have so little to say on politics at present, which is why I've not said it. Recently I felt my sense of malaise and stagnation on burning issues of the day was expressed to some extent by this PoliticsHome/YouGov poll on the NHS that found 'while voters largely support reforms in principle, they don’t trust the Conservatives to deliver them in practice.' Which leaves us where exactly? Meanwhile, flinching and flip-flopping seems to have become the Cameron Way, and if he thinks that's the way by which he'll win an outright majority in 2015 then he's a braver man than I thought. The creeping lack of assurance, the tendency to panic would be more dangerous for Cameron in the short term, I'm sure, were it not for the peculiar character of the Leader of the Opposition.
Ed Miliband has quite clearly had a result or two at PMQs lately, and Labour's poll lead looks to me to be six points more often than not. This ought to have the look of a strong position: not least since there is no realistic chance of Ed being ousted from the post, no real money in the Labour current account that hasn't come by way of Ed's avowed admirers in the Movement, and no form in the Labour Party for ditching leaders other than those who have won three general elections. And yet... are Labour behind this leader? Are Labour voters actively keen on him? Are undecided voters persuaded by him? I only ask these questions at this time of night because there's no need to answer them.
The delightful photo above I have borrowed from this Jim Pickard piece in the FT.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Kate Bush: The thrill and the hurting

Bloomsday this year brought me a very pleasant surprise in Slate magazine’s splendid set of links for celebrating Ulysses online. It also reminded me that in spite of best intentions I’ve yet to get to a record shop and purchase Kate Bush’s The Director’s Cut, with its allegedly ‘warmer’ and ‘more organic’ re-workings of her material circa 1989-1993, including the new ‘Sensual World’ with approved extracts from Joyce. However the great video jukebox that is YouTube has given me a preview and... well, I don’t know. The musical-production fashions and stylings of the 1980s, which seemed old to me by round about 1990, have a fair bit to commend them now, I’d say. And I don’t think that too much of The Sensual World as an album is really improvable (The Red Shoes rather more so...) But, eh bien, I think one generous YouTube commenter puts it best: ‘None of these songs are better than the originals, i don’t think they were meant to be, it’s just good to add them to your collection and enjoy them for what they are...’ That is indeed the spirit.

The Faber Social: It Lives, and Shall Live Again...

A late word for the inaugural Faber Social which took place on Monday June 6: a really good night, auguring well for many more top-drawer monthly literary-musical evenings ahead. (The proceedings had a nice write-up from Max Liu here). The audience were savvy and engaged, both for myself and David Peace in our discussion of gothic themes, and for Simon Reynolds and Bob Stanley on pop's endless fixation upon recycling. The Social as a venue is both suitably intimate for dialogue and good and lively for the purpose of spinning a few tunes. (Highlight for me having retired to the bar was hearing Simon Reynolds drop John Martyn's 'Big Muff'). But the overall top moment was hearing David Peace's incantatory reading of the 'Battle of Orgreave' chapter from GB84. I must admit that when I headed down the steps into the Social basement for the start of the night's proceedings I was feeling roughly twice my age, yet seeing my face on the promotional posters alongside the DJs was a kind of anti-ageing serum for the soul...

Bloody England in the Summertime

I'll always remember June of 2006: a new home, our firstborn child just a few months’ old, the drama of Zidane's swansong World Cup on the telly, and – I’m certain of this – a kindling early summer heat that came off the very paving stones beneath one’s feet. Conversely the cold, dreich summer of 2007 I'll always associate with Gordon Brown. (And sometimes I feel like we're still living through it.) As for 2011 – we’ve now had the Solstice, a day I always think of as Great Gatsby Day ("I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it...") and still we’re peering up at drear skies, scouring for patches of blue... Good lord, is this how it will be from now on?

Friday, 27 May 2011

Trailer for The Possessions of Doctor Forrest!


(Connoisseurs of the North London Gothic may care to know that the scenic element of this clip in which I read from and discuss the themes of The Possessions of Dr Forrest was shot in the grounds of Abney Park Cemetary, Stoke Newington.)

Dr Forrest at Stoke Newington LitFest 05.06.2011

I’m delighted to say I will be appearing at an event as part of the 2nd annual Stoke Newington Literary Festival on Sunday June 5, details of which are now available at the festival website but which I reproduce below. I’ll have the special pleasure of being part of a panel of fine practitioners in fiction and non-fiction, with whom I daresay I have a good few things in common. Doctor Forrest obviously belongs more to the genre of Horror than to Crime but without doubt it partakes of crime/procedural elements that were the product of research on my part, just as Crusaders, ostensibly a social-realist or state-of-the-nation novel, also included criminal acts and their investigation in a drawn-from-life fashion. So I’m looking forward to chipping in to what I hope will be a lively conversation, with the added marquee value of the terrific recent TV adaptation of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
The Serious Crime Squad
Sunday June 5 @ 6pm
Abney Public Hall, 73a Stoke Newington Church Street, London N16 0AS
Tickets £6. Click here to book online.
Of all genre writing, crime – both true crime and fiction – hold an enduring fascination for millions of readers, male and female, young and old. So much so that crime writing has grown much bigger than ‘genre’ can contain, making considerable inroads into ‘serious’ literature and historical research. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (recently dramatised on ITV), Kate Colquhon’s Mr Briggs’ Hat: The Sensational Account of the First Railway Murder (set in Hackney), Chris Paling’s Nimrod’s Shadow and Richard T Kelly’s The Possessions of Doctor Forrest, are all stunning examples. Together, this is an astonishing panel of some of crime’s most exciting writers. The Guardian’s Alex Clark chairs.

Doctor Forrest - The Film

This post is merely to acknowledge that Doctor Forrest is now in development as a motion picture with the excellent Festival Films and their chief producer Ray Marshall. Your humble correspondent is fully ‘attached’ as the project’s screenwriter, and is currently on work on the highly intriguing task of re-tooling his own novel into a viable film script. The Festival site makes a very handsome home for the Forrest jacket, methinks, and I would hope the tag-line on the dedicated page is just the sort of thing to have people racing to book tickets and babysitters once the finished product rolls out at Odeons Everywhere…
When an eminent cosmetic surgeon vanishes mysteriously, his two oldest friends investigate his disappearance – only to discover that Doctor Forrest has unleashed a diabolical evil that could destroy them all…

Yes, as the showmen used to say, we’ll sell you a seat but you’ll only need the edge of it.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Bookhugger column: "Is There Such a Thing as a Male Book?"

I'm glad to be back onstream in columnist capacity over at Bookhugger, and this month the chaps were kind enough to put in my lap a stimulating brief, namely a response to a fascinating piece on a useful topic written by Molly Flatt (pictured right) over at the affiliated Bookdiva. Said topic is the influence of one's gender upon one's writing and reading choices/preferences. And I daresay we all have a share in that subject. Pictured left, of course, is the late Norman Mailer and his late wife, the last of the six women he married, Norris Church Mailer. And you can imagine that I brought Norman into this discussion, without, I hope, doing anyone a disservice...

Sunday, 1 May 2011

NUFC: Limping to the line

Gettin’ beat 3-0 off Liverpool is a wearyingly familiar experience, as indeed is getting beat 2-0 off Liverpool. Nine years ago one such 3-0 finally robbed the wheels off what had been our very real push to the top-division title under Bobby Robson - wistful to think back on it now, but in that season of 2001-02, with 11 games to play, the title was mathematically in our hands. Seems like dreamland tonight...
Today’s special discomforts: for one it was our owld manager King Kenny in the Liverpool dugout, looking like he’s really enjoying his football, as he never once appeared during his tenure at NUFC (at least not after the day of his coronation and mandatory mobbing by adoring Geordies.) And for two, owld King Kenny reckoned it would be canny just to bring on Andy Carroll for a 20-minute run-out even with the match won. You could have spared us that one, Ken, let it ride for another day... It’s only amazing that Carroll didn’t score, since NUFC alumni nearly always score crucial goals against us, as do the non-Toon-related glamour signings of other clubs, especially when they’ve otherwise been having a lean spell (so back Fernando Torres for a brace at least when we face Chelsea on May 15.)
The corollary to this gloom is that Newcastle rarely ever get to enjoy a reciprocal pleasure in ‘putting one over.’ I remember the hype and the chatter back in 2005 as Michael Owen prepared to face Liverpool for the first time in a black-and-white shirt. What happened that day? That’s right, we’s got beat 2-0, and Owen had the sort of disconsolate just-in-it-for-the-money-pal day that was his stock-in-trade at Newcastle.
The excellent True Faith seemed to me to get it right with this Carroll comment piece before the game. The sad - indeed pathetic - thing is that I dreamed I met Carroll last night – honest – in a crowd amid some kind of post-training canteen chat situation; and he seemed a very nice lad, and told me casually that he reckoned he’d probably be re-signing for Newcastle eventually, after the whole Liverpool thing had gone off the boil... So, alas, I clearly can’t say I’m over this thing yet. Worse, a Liverpool fan of my acquaintance, a good lad generally speaking, seems to have no conception of the pain he causes when he tells me cheerily how much he’s looking forward to having Jose Enrique on the left of defence next season.
In other Toon news the mighty nufc.com kindly transcribes some comments from Kevin Keegan uttered in his capacity as ESPN pundit – another warning that Carroll’s transfer fee will not be spent on new players, and this about our erstwhile #9:
"He (Carroll) was on the fringe when I was there. He was raw. This kid is the best header of the ball I’ve ever seen. That’s his biggest plus point for me... His minus points have always been there. Can he get his head down? Can someone make him realise that all he has to do is train hard, work hard and be a good pro for 10 years and he’ll be a very rich boy? He needs to get rid of the other stuff...”
Ah yes, the other stuff. ‘Very nice lad’? In your dreams, as they say...

Thursday, 14 April 2011

'This Must Be The Place': Cannes 2011

Thankful news emanates from Cannes HQ that Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place has been afforded a competition berth at this year’s edition of the great festival. Sean Penn, as so often, will be competing against himself, as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life also graces the line-up. I await both movies keenly, and look forward to discussing them with their leading man, for the benefit of the revised Sean Penn: His Life and Times which is due later this year or else early 2012.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

'Oh let the sun beat down upon my face...'

Since I now have multiple blogs going on, and since there is nothing happening in politics at present that I’m feeling especially strident about (other than a plan to resist AV on May 5) – well, in that light there is a certain temptation to convert this blog wholesale into a Led Zeppelin worship site. I won’t, you understand, but there’s a temptation...
It was only six months ago in Dublin that I learned (through a conversation with someone who worked on it) of the existence of the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, a recorded symposium and jam-session between Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, three generations of ‘guitar hero’ if you like. I thought then that I ought to see it immediately: in fact I still haven’t, but the existence of this clip – in which Page instructs the other two in the genesis of the riff for Kashmir – reminds me that I’ve got something to look forward to.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Osborne's narrow choices, and ours

I look at David Cameron and see someone who strikes me as passable. This is mainly – and, I concede, a tad worryingly – on account of his dignified, principled bearing on occasions when he has handled matters related to HM Armed Forces: most strikingly, the findings of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and, last week, the issue of deployment of British forces over Libya to enforce UN 1973.
The Libya question, it’s been widely noted, proposes more strongly than ever that Cameron is the ‘heir to Blair’. – a perilous mantle to hold, but you would count on Cameron not to be fazed by it. Even now one hears familiar critiques of his character – that he is a glib and shallow PR man, an aloof and pampered toff, merely Thatcher’s bastard offspring, i.e. one of the ‘same old Tories’, to use the lumbering terms of Labour’s current and hopeless leader. At times it seems to me that observers might as well resort to the analytical method of Harry and Paul’s old club buffers in this celebrated sketch.

Of course, Cameron is patently not a politician who could have been slotted (even by time machine) into one of Thatcher’s 1980s cabinets; and while he is undoubtedly several leagues more posh than me he looks (from my myopia-ridden remove) to be one who mixes well and without condescension (other than in his ripostes to the aforementioned Hopeless Labour Leader, who doesn’t even ‘speak human’ on what I’ve heard, for all that his fan club boasted otherwise those 7 long months ago.)
What does Cameron believe in? To quote from Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka, I think ‘he believes in himself.’ That, too, can be dangerous, a vulnerably Blair-esque distinction. But it certainly suggests someone who will not run into any of the nervous-wreck hazards of leadership, i.e. unlike the excruciating personal style of the now-invisible man whom Cameron replaced.
Approving Cameron to that degree, I find it easier to speak of all the things that are disagreeable about George Osborne, whom I doubt mixes well at all and, worse (as Martin Kettle argues here) seems to be trapped in some hellish mirror-image homage to the wiles of Gordon Brown. John Rentoul did no messing in describing Osborne's Budget speech of yesterday as “the most appallingly crafted, third-rate peroration of any parliamentary set piece I have had the misfortune to witness.”
You can probably trust the view of a Tory who trashes the first routinely scheduled Budget of a Conservative chancellor in 14 years: thus Fraser Nelson, today poring over the Office for Budget Responsibility's report, seeing no authentic pro-growth measures, only creeping inflation, steadily ahead of wages, until possibly mid-2013. (“Result: real wage falls, real drop in living standards and real misery.”) Nelson is avowedly a hardcore tax-cutter and deficit-slasher, believing too that the former aids the latter, and he criticises Osborne for insufficient zeal on the controversial issue of The Cuts (“In 2011-12, the estimated bill for debt interest will be £48.6 billion — a staggering £4.7 billion more than the estimate in the November forecast.”) This may be in part why John Rentoul, however scornful of Osborne's presentation, concludes that “overall, the Cameron-Osborne judgement on public finances seems more right than the Miliband-Balls one, so far as that can be defined.” Or as Martin Wolf puts it in the FT, "The UK is caught between a chancellor who insists his policies are perfect now and a shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, who insists that policy was perfect under Labour" - or, at least, Labour under the glorious leadership of Balls' padrone, Brown.
This week Rentoul quoted with permission a plaintive letter he'd had from one Darren Canning, a Labour member and campaigner:
“I keep hearing how a new generation is in charge of Labour now and keep wondering if there is any place left in it for me... All we have had to say is ‘Vote for us, we’re not Tories.’ It isn’t enough to get excited about... I am pulling out of active campaigning and am seriously thinking of leaving the party altogether. At least then I will be free to defend the last 13 years without constantly being accused of being ‘disloyal’. I am writing to you asking for counsel, is there a place for those who still value the New Labour project in this new Labour party or is it time to take a break?”
On one level you have to say, tough-mindedly, that there is no point whining about where Labour's internal convulsions have taken it, because it's hardly unprecedented, and there's hardly anywhere else to go. But to sound a tad less brusque - I do approve the Canning analysis.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Forrest/Finds: Comparative blogging...

This rather feels like some weird form of autogenesis, but I'd like to point readers to some recent posts on My Other Two Blogs... Over at Faber Finds I've been especially enthused in relation to William Sansom and James Baldwin, and at the Doctor Forrest platform I've had a few things to say about Egon Schiele, William Hjortsberg, Bela Bartok, Alice Krige (pictured) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (What a dinner party that would be, no...?)

Stylist endorses Doctor Forrest...

In case it ever be mooted that I invented the show of support given me by Stylist, of which I blogged a little while ago - well, here is the proof. 'The Chilling Read of the Year', mate. Black and white. I'm pleased to say there have been some other subsequent votes of confidence in the book, and I look forward to taking the wraps off these shortly...

Thursday, 17 March 2011

True Faith: Inside Mike Ashley's Mind...

I simply have to quote the following from the latest editorial at the staunch and pawky True Faith site:
"I’ve often wondered what Ashley gets from owning Newcastle United. Quite apart from why he bought the bloody thing in the first place. I don’t believe he makes money from United, he has hardly gilded his business reputation and if it’s a 50,000 new mates he was after when he walked into SJP in May 2007, then he has been sorely disappointed. Ashley has at rough estimate £900m+ available to him. If he never struck another bat in his life he would never want for anything and neither would his grandchildren or their grandchildren. I think I could think of a few things I’d rather be doing with my weekends than sitting in the best seat in a football stadium at the other end of the country on match day watching a team I aspire to be average go through the motions, surrounded by thousands of people who would love to see me fall down the steps and burst my face open..."

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Mary Shelley@NT: Claire Tomalin, Daisy Hay (and me)

It's happening this Tuesday March 15 2011, at 6:00 pm, and forms part of the National Theatre's 'Beyond Frankenstein' series of platforms in support of the current Nick Dear/Danny Boyle production. The session title is Frankenstein's Creator: Mary Shelley and it's billed as "a glimpse into the life of Mary Shelley with Claire Tomalin, biographer of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, and Daisy Hay, author of Young Romantics, celebrating the idealistic circle who were there when Shelley first told the tale of a monster." It will be chaired by me, is due to last 45 minutes, and will be followed by a booksigning with these two fine literary historians. Tickets £3.50 (£2.50 concessions). See you there then...?
Oh, and - girls? - the quite fabulous image to my left is actually available to wear on a babydoll tee-shirt courtesy of ThinkGeek here...

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Possessions of Doctor Forrest - the blog

I've been claiming the existence of this for so long without substance, you would think I believed in ghosts or something... However I'm pleased to say the official blog companion to the novel - www.doctorforrest.co.uk - is now online, and in early dispatches you can read my deathless views on Bram Stoker's Dracula and Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, with much, much more to come...

The ecstasies of Faber Finds...

It's increasingly easy for me to wax evangelical about Faber Finds, also to think of myself as occupying the happiest little job in publishing, when my editorship of the list allows me - indeed requires me - to be continually sourcing and reading brilliant if neglected books. Over on the Finds blog I've had a few things to say lately - such as this about the counter-insurgency theories of General Frank Kitson, and this on the fiction, long and short, of William Sansom. Sansom (pictured) would be a poster-boy for what I'm saying here - just a fantastic writer, a phenomenal crafter of sentences, and a highly deft storyteller. He is truly worth getting to know on the page. And this biographical sketch is worth a look too.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

David Peace, Mike Hodges, Newcastle, & Me

The Story Engine is an annual forum (founded by filmmaker Ian Fenton in collaboration with New Writing North) where British screenwriters and filmmakers convene in Newcastle to discuss their work and working methods. This year’s focus is on crime fiction – genre’s conventions, creative choices within those, adaptation from book to film. Story Engine: Scene Of The Crime takes place at the Tyneside Cinema on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th of March. Scheduled for the Saturday at 11am is a session entitled THE BLOODY NORTH, where the brochure promises that Mike Hodges and David Peace will “explore the importance of place within the genre and discuss the problems of mixing fact and fiction.” (It further proposes that Peace’s celebrated Red Riding Quartet “lies squarely in the shadow of Hodges’ Get Carter.”)
I tell you all this because I’ll be the chairperson of this Peace-Hodges symposium, which will be a considerable pleasure for me as well as an interesting listen, I expect. There’s little I need say myself about Get Carter (though I do always like to remind people that it marked the memorable screen debut of the Pelaw Hussars Juvenile Jazz Band.) But I can’t wait to hear what Mike Hodges will say of it, looking back nearly 40 years to his masterpiece. I’m extremely keen to know what David Peace will think of it too. And then what will Hodges make of the TV version of Peace’s Red Riding, which was widely felt to be as strong a piece of British ‘cinema’ as these shores have produced in years? (I remember Nicolas Roeg marvelling to me about the James Marsh-directed 1980 episode in particular, wondering also why we’re not allowed to be so stylistically bold in movies anymore. I remember Paddy Considine enthusing to me, not long after 1980 was in the can, about the joyous experience he’d had on the production. I drop these names really because Considine and Roeg are, I think, the last two people I interviewed on stage, in November 2008 and August 2009 respectively. I used to do more of this stuff, actually, but I’m always happy to turn my hand to it, and am also available for children’s parties.
Two clips: Red Riding in US trailer form because it shows just how forcefully this package was assembled from a modern genre perspective. And the ageless , glorious beginning of Get Carter – because that’ll be me in a week’s time, see – on the train from London to Newcastle, the finest of all journeys, and one to which I paid homage in the opening chapter of Crusaders...

Monday, 28 February 2011

"A serious house on serious earth"

I recommend Bruges (where Darling Wife & I just passed a very happy weekend) to anyone. Lovely hotels, fine museums and architecture, a pretty canal, great food and drink, and not one melancholy Irish assassin to be seen. To itemise the highlights? Well, I might speak of the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk) with its glorious marble Madonna and Child by Michelangelo, its rococo pulpit by Jan Antoon Garemijn, its bronze tomb sculpture of Mary of Burgundy, and the boxed-up stained-glass of George and the dragon (beside which an old geezer poses above…) But then whenever I wander round a really great old church, as was our pleasure in Bruges, I do always find myself wondering what finer thoughts Alan Bennett would be having were he in my shoes...

Richard Thompson: Holy Blues

I have been reading, with much interest, the estimable Greil Marcus’s Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010. On the cover is a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle – ‘Why read anyone else’s work on Dylan?’ Well, you would do so given the fact that such a figure as Dylan is liable at any time to inspire more than just one worthy interpreter; furthermore, because for every one sentence of Marcus’s that you might agree with, there’s liable to be another that will have you dropping your bacon sandwich. To take just one from the latter subset: Marcus’s Village Voice dismissal of Oh Mercy (1989) as ‘shapely and airless’, characterising Dylan as an actor who was merely hitting marks chalked by producer Daniel Lanois. Well... apart from any dissenting listeners’ views, Dylan’s Chronicles would seem to suggest otherwise.
I must digress, though, because really I want to say something about Richard Thompson. Bear with me...
The scholar-journalist/filmmaker/bon viveur Kevin Jackson is, among his many claims on artistry, the authorised biographer of writer-director Paul Schrader, and it was in this capacity that in 1991 he filed a set report from New York for Sight & Sound concerning Schrader’s movie Light Sleeper. One of the many fascinating cineaste-matters discussed between the two therein was Schrader’s quest to score his movie with a sequence of songs that would have both an authorial connection and a linking, pervading soulfulness to them. Schrader first called upon his friend Bob Dylan, for whom he’d once directed a promo clip. The hope was that Dylan would license a number of songs, chiefly from Oh Mercy. But Dylan wasn’t having it. Thus a short-order head-scratcher for Schrader, on which Jackson tried to be of some assistance in proposing alternatives. Who could deputise for Bob Dylan? Van Morrison? ‘Too Irish’ was Schrader’s understandable opinion. Richard Thompson? ‘Maybe too English’ was, if I remember right, the final Schrader ruling...
But just as it’s no shame for George Eliot to be compared with Tolstoy even she’s adjudged to suffer slightly by the match-up – it’s quite true that in Richard Thompson England has a musical treasure/songsmith-guitar hero to set by the finest the world might offer. Somehow I managed to miss that he was lately made an OBE. The Old Kit Bag is my favourite of his recent albums, 'Gethsemane' (below) my favourite song thereupon. Thompson is of course a practising Muslim, and his faith has never inflected his work quite as thoroughly as Dylan’s did his c. 1979-1981. But the cadences of the preacher are present always, nonetheless.

NUFC: Bugger-All Money

How are things in black and white then? 36 points on the board as February ends, right enough – a decent place to be. Personally I would want 43 for safekeeping, remembering what happened not so long ago to West Ham... But the main point is that this Newcastle team have shown plenty spirit in adversity. It’s not been a bad season yet, on balance, and that is quite something, given the sum of what’s been inflicted on supporters, again as before and always, by its repulsive present ownership.
Andy Carroll is gone and I must live with that, as must all black-and-white-eyed supporters, including those who actually believe that a shred of the £35 million we got for Carroll will be re-invested in the team. For the prosecution, though, I call Kevin Keegan, who talked to Gabby Logan at the BBC for a spot transmitted tonight and who cited his own thoughts when recently he heard Alan Pardew telling the press about his hopes for what he’d do with the Carroll money: “Alan – you ain’t gonna get any of that...”