November 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
Before she developed an inoperable sarcoma, the late wife of the Bishop of Worcester found bones under her floors. As a traveller in deserts and climber of mountains, she was well used to dealing with fear in life; but faced with ancient human skeletons laid out in her own charnel house, she felt the final fear, “quiet as cat’s feet”, “heavy as a tomb”. When she understood her own mortality as a reality, her tour of other ossuaries in Europe took on a more directly personal significance. But “this is not primarily a book about cancer and recovery”, she writes. “Looking the greatest fears full in the face can open up the cupboards of your life and throw the dust out.” Denise Inge’s jewel of a memoir is suffused with an indomitable spirit that pays generous testament to the “beautiful brevity” of living well not in terms of luck or hope, but of having done “some life-bringing thing”, and of death well apprehended.
‘Murder will out’, no doubt, but in what version? There are several, about what exactly happened on the night of 7 November 1974 when Sandra Rivett, a nanny, was battered to death in a Belgravia townhouse. Her employer, the Countess of Lucan, was also attacked. Shortly afterwards her husband, the 7th Earl of Lucan, disappeared. Since then, despite numerous searches by the media and many alleged sightings, he has never been found. For forty years, the seductive combination of bloody murder, a glamorous but cowardly aristocrat on the run and the alleged connivance of Lucan’s high-end friends in concealing him, has been irresistible to investigators. Laura Thompson delivers the goods: a compelling narrative, hypotheses based on close examination of the evidence, hearsay reports of Lucan’s own testimony to a friend just after the events, and a possible solution. But she goes further, putting the murder in the telling context of British aristocracy and social attitudes towards it
If there is a current zeitgeist, Amanda Palmer not only surfs it – literally, being borne aloft by adoring audiences – but she contributes to it generously as a body-liberated rock star, confessional songwriter and social activist, married to writer Neil Gaiman, by understanding that there is no divide and no distance between herself as a performer and her fans. Real stardom may seem glamorous, she realised, but it’s lonely. The gift, she says, must always move. It is this co-dependence that has enabled her career through the crowdfunding concept of ‘Kickstarter’ house parties: “I didn’t want to force people to help me. I wanted to let them.” Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab gets Amanda: hers is “A story about life in one dollar bills, from [living] statue to icon, where media doesn’t matter, crowds do.” She is not a rebel: her book, like her life, is a true tribute to the energising power of art and empathy.
November 24, 2014 § 3 Comments
There was a prankster-ish, Dada-ist character to The Rock Hotel in Gibraltar during the week of the Gibraltar Literary Festival (14-16 November); first of all, whole areas were partitioned off to maze-like effect. Then bits of it were suddenly not there. Visitors to hotels take for granted the permanence of the Reception desk. If it’s fully functioning in the evening, but is literally gone in the morning, it is disturbing. When the front door also suddenly vanishes, there is a growing reluctance to go to bed in one’s room on the 4th floor in case that too ceases to be during the night. But there was reassurance of reality (with an element of virtuality) when, twice, guests were roused by fire alarms early in the morning to evacuate their rooms to flee non-existent fires. To be fair, the hotel was undergoing what an American ambassador famously described to the Queen as “elements of refurbishment”, but Festival guests had already started devising strategies for living in a virtual ‘Twilight Zone’. These days at and on The Rock will turn up in novels for years to come. I’m looking forward to them, because the quality of the literary performers at the second Gib Lit Fest was very high.
The Festival was bookended by my event, one of the first on the Friday morning (coinciding with a presentation on ‘The Secret War: Gibraltar and Spain 1939-1945’ by Peter Martland, Jimmy Burns and David Liebler) and, in the last, by a dramatically and passionately performed event on Sunday afternoon, by Nick Rankin. My own contribution was a talk about ‘Tangier: City of the Dream’, a book first published some twenty years ago but republished in paperback earlier this month by I. B. Tauris in their continuing list of books about North Africa. Nick Rankin’s book, ‘Telegram from Guernica’, was first published in 2003 and paperbacked in a new edition in 2013 by Faber. This tells you two things; first, that good books (ahem!) do survive, and second, that the development of the Gibraltar Literary Festival is less concerned about width than depth. This year, like last, it looked not only towards British writers, but also towards its immediate neighbours: Spain on the one hand and Morocco on the other. It is strong on themes and it is strong on authoritative speakers.
None of this is surprising when you know that the Festival was organised by Sally Dunsmore and her team who run the annual Oxford Literary Festival. Drafted in by the Gibraltar Ministry of Tourism and Gibunco Group, a major private enterprise company in Gibraltar and sponsor of the Festival, their expertise had been honed on the first Festival in 2013. Total attendances this year rose substantially from 1999 in 2013 to 3569 this year, an increase of 79%. Online ticket sales also registered an increase from 1034 in 2013, to 1475 in 2014, an increase of 43%. Tickets sold in Gibraltar experienced a 125% increase from 357 in 2013 to 805 in 2014. If confirmed figures and statistics alone testify to success, these will do it. It didn’t hurt, either, that money was thrown at the Festival.
For a week, from Tuesday 11th to Sunday 16th, the invited writers, their companions, event sponsors and local bigwigs were regaled with banquets in the evening, ferried by cars from hotels to events, provided with alfresco lunches in the gardens of the beautiful Garrison Library which served as the hub of the Festival. There may be no such thing as a free lunch or a lavishly gratis dinner, but the generosity was well spent, largely directed towards creating the future of Gibraltar as an events destination. The Literary Festival is the major jewel in the crown of Gibraltar’s reinvention of itself as a tourist attraction. There are enough – millions – every year of everyday tourists, but the intention is to create prestige events pinned to books, music, jazz, chess, etc., that will raise the reputation of Gibraltar.
And so it was worthwhile to sprinkle literary stardust over Gibraltar for a week: Joanne Harris and Ben Okri told stories, Mark Lewisohn gave the Beatles extraordinary depth in his talk about their family history, John Julius Norwich talked about his mother and the Mediterranean, Madhur Jaffrey and the Nepalese novelist Prajwal Parajuly complemented each other perfectly (deadpan cool met knockabout humour), chanteuse Patti Boulaye planted herself on the lap of Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Kate Mosse talked taxidermy, Maggie Gee wittily summoned the ghost of Virginia Woolf in a New York library, Erica Wagner told how to judge a Booker Prize, Claudia Roden cooked lunch, and Marillion put words to music. A major joy of the Festival was The Bookshop Band, a trio of young people who write and play songs based on books. They perform in libraries, bookshops, at book launches and are the troubadours of literary festivals. They especially sang Joanne Harris and Ben Okri, interpreting their stories as they spoke them. Anyone who has written a book or a story needs The Bookshop Band to sing it.
“Gib is all right,” said a writer friend of mine before I flew out for my first visit there. “But it’s changed massively from the late-80s; tarted up a lot since then. The whole coastline has been. It was the Costa del Crime back then and crossing the border from France to Spain was quite scary – Spain was still coming out of the shadow of Franco and poor, with wrecks of cars everywhere and a Wild West feel to it. The Gib border had only recently been reopened. It was a squaddy/smuggler town. When I’m a millionaire I intend to have an apartment in Gib.” Main Street is just a straight line of booze ‘n’ baccy shops, perfume palaces and leather jacket joints, all duty free. But just a little off the main drag, there are little alleys, ramps, old buildings that remind you that this is still a sturdy garrison town, and an echo of pirate town.
Gibraltar, as every literary schoolboy knows, is immortalised in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’; Molly Bloom’s final soliloquy reminisces about her girlhood in Gibraltar in the 1880s. The climax of the monologue rises in her memories of “the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the fig trees in the Alameda gardens… and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls”. The Alameda Gardens are still there, just below the Rock Hotel, for a long time neglected but now being renovated and brought back to their former bloom. If the Alameda Garden and Molly Bloom become symbols of a blossoming of literature and other cultural pursuits in Gibraltar in the coming years, they will do very well. GibLitFest 2014 was in every respect an astonishingly consistent burst of literary energy that now seems established as one of the best go-to festivals in the literary charivari. As they say, you had to be there. Please, may I be there again next year?
[photographs by courtesy of Mark Lewisohn]
November 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
Margot Asquith’s sharp humour, modern style, intelligence and wealth fascinated men such as the diplomat Harry Kessler who described her in 1913 as “very much the grande dame … a little, dark, brisk, witty woman … not sentiment but all push. She keeps ‘society’ quiet while Asquith and Lloyd George bleed it.” Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister was her husband, and for five years, until he was ousted in 1916, Margot was at the centre of London society and the Liberal government in the days before and during the Great War in which Asquith lost a son. By then, Margot had lost her husband emotionally to his jealous daughter Violet and her best friend Venetia Stanley. Anne de Courcy has a firm grasp of politics, an acute eye for social detail, and a keen perception of Margot’s pains and pleasures. Her narrative of war and peace in Downing Street and at all levels in the nation is confident, concise and compelling.
There are as many Philips as there are historians of his reign as King of Spain and ruler of the first global empire from (by his own reckoning) 1543 until 1598. During that time, he was perpetually at war with pretty much the rest of Europe and, from 1571, determined “to kill or capture” Elizabeth Tudor. Drawing on a large cache of documents, unseen since they were filed some four hundred years ago, Geoffrey Parker reviews anew Philip’s career and character. In essence, was Philip II driven and distracted by events or did he create and control them? He was certainly diligent enough, working long hours, tired and hungry, at paperwork. Parker believes that his decisions, however calamitous, were considered and deliberate. He is at pains to know him through the testimony of his friends, foes, courtiers and his own words, and this authoritative, intelligently revisionist biography must stand now as the primary reference.
Since the premature death two years ago of screenwriter, essayist, anecdotalist and aphorist Nora Ephron, there is a gap in the niche market of witty, wacky writing for women. Caitlin Moran has current proprietary rights in the UK, but with this collection of lists (reasons we cry in an airplane), haikus (on plastic surgery), insider Hollywood stories (Antonio Banderas smells the best), lifestyle advice (on sex: “ladies, try not to fake it”; “gentlemen, you can’t fall asleep right after”) and tips on how to make it in showbiz (perform with Tina Fey as two policewomen called Shortfuse and Powderkeg), Amy Poehler, best known as the star of the comedy series ‘Parks and Recreation,’ is bidding for performance rights over here. Though sometimes her assertive, aspirational advice seems to be channelled through Goldie Hawn as Super-Blonde, Super-Mum, Super-Star, Amy is proud, positive, punchy and powerful in her own right and writing.
November 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
The common English names for fauna and flora being too various and fanciful, Latin has been adopted as the ideal language which can precisely define a parasitic mushroom as pseudoboletis parasiticus, but waggishly describe the Loch Ness Monster as Nessiteras rhombopteryx (an anagram of ‘monster hoax by Sir Peter S.’) “My aim is to inspire a delight in Latin names”, says mycologist and foodie forager Wright, who can tell an entoloma incanum (mousepee pinkgill) from a tubaria furfuracea (scurfy twiglet). This is rather a recondite ambition, charming and playful, since taxonomy is often as challenging to Wright as to others. Though he earnestly, sometimes irritatedly, advises “creators of nomenclature acts” to beware of illegitimate homonyms, irresponsible anagrams, and poetic tautonyms, the great pleasure of Wright’s book is the endearingly skittish contrast he draws between the linguistic rigour required for giving names and the careless minds, romantic whimsies and mischievous humour of those who devise them.
Football used to be a Saturday afternoon kick-about with pale ale and pies at halftime, then home to the wife and the whippet, until the toffs, the oligarchs, the celebrities and the culturati took it over and soccer became a national socio-media-political-economic eco-system. Even when the British working class core and ethos of the game was subverted by aspirational glitz in the 1980s, football – says sports aficionado and sociologist Goldblatt – still stood its ground as the national game and became invested with the national identity. His bold analysis of Britain’s economic and social change refracted through football moves from class and urban identities, through race, sexual and nationalism issues, to the feminisation of football and finally to the governance of the beautiful game by the FA which, for the past twenty years and more, has reflected wider British politics. How did a working class sport so quickly become an elite culture? Goldblatt explains how football won, and lost, by scoring own goals.
As a young, opportunistic novelist, Walter Kirn scented a good story when he volunteered in 1998 to drive Shelby, a seriously injured Gordon setter, from a rescue centre in Montana to Clark Rockefeller, a rich young banker in New York who had adopted it on the internet. The dog’s benefactor turned out to be Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a fraud, an impostor, a sociopath and double murderer. But this is mostly about a novelist’s naiveté, about his misinterpretation of the real-life anti-hero, and collusion in the real-time plot. Over fifteen years, the relationship rolled out disturbingly like a movie in slow motion directed by a freakishly unreliable narrator, his monstrosities beginning in Manhattan and winding up in a Los Angeles courtroom in 2013. In terms of suspension of disbelief, on being suckered, Kirn is a piercingly frank dramatist, a writer caught between the incredulity of fact and the innocence of fiction. From that tension, he creates a heartbreaking, heartstopping psychological thriller.
November 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
Schiap, as she is still known to fashionistas, was the fashion designer who invented ‘Shocking’ pink and vied with Chanel for the title Queen of Paris haute couture before and after WWII. Dali and other Surrealists inspired Schiap’s wittiest creations, such as the lobster hat. Allegations of collaboration with the Nazis in Paris during World War II did her harm professionally, but she defended herself as being “a zone of neutrality”. Secrest is no fashion hagiographer: she is as sharp about the rich, demanding customers for haute couture as about the imperious, eccentric designers who dressed them. Though Daisy Fellowes, an American heiress, was irritating and a bully, she personified hard Thirties chic. She was the smartest, the most up to the minute, and she belonged to Schiaparelli. They suited and deserved each other. Whatever the shock behind the pink, Secrest gets to it with admiration for Schiap’s unique style and appreciation of her as a true reflection of her times.
Only a curmudgeon will open an essay with the words “Why do people ask such stupid questions?” But it is an intelligent rhetorical question for a seasoned performer at literary festivals to ask. As a modern man of letters – translator, teacher, critic, novelist and memoirist – Parks is well placed to diagnose what it means to be a writer and a reader in one world, one culture. In these short, “comically serious” pieces for the NYRB blog, literate and literary in a medium that encourages the wit of brevity, he has no worries about the survival of literature, but “maybe it’s time that the beast carried a health warning.” He cares that writers in a globalised world are editing their own texts and allusions as they write, to avoid translation problems. A lingua franca replaces “culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity.” So, what of literary greatness now? It is a marketing tool; look at Jonathan Frantzen, says Parks. Bah!
When you become the punk rock voice of anarchy in the UK as Johnny Rotten, it’s sobering to think back on first getting your voice heard and being smacked down for howling outrage at the society of the 1970s that resulted in power cuts, three day working weeks and uncollected garbage. “But once you’ve had the bravado to stand on that stage, it’s yours. … I did not run from it.” So which was the real anarchy – pop protest or politics? “Words are weapons,” says Lydon. As a kid “from the dustbin”, from a “piss-poor neighbourhood in North London”, he thanks the local public library for the voracious reading habit that made him literate. Now as a long-term happily married man, raising kids to respect education and observe boundaries, he is still a “naggy little git” whose career in this energetic, mouthy memoir is a tribute to surviving a lifetime of negative judgements in his own brave, positive terms.
November 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
Richard Coles is a parish priest in Northamptonshire and the witty, tolerant host of ‘Saturday Live’ on BBC Radio 4, but in the 1980s, he and Jimmy Somerville, who looked like a tough street urchin but had the counter-tenor voice of an angel, formed ‘The Communards’, an out gay duo. They enjoyed pop music success (“we were pissing champagne”) in the charts and the reckless rock star life “(I knew that I had to stop or I would die.”) to excess. “I am a sinner”, Cole declares up front in his memorably frank, worldly-wise, bleakly comic memoir, but his sins were surely moderated by his commitment to gay liberation and radical politics during the AIDS pandemic. He was saved not only by the hard knocks of self-awareness and the hunger to reform, but by the sudden “classic Protestant conversion” to religion. The rest is a quieter history, perhaps, but Coles is still dedicated to the gaiety of living.
From 1976, writer James Salter and his wife Kay, then living in pre-touristic Aspen, first did the washing up after dinner and then wrote reviews of the day’s food, drink, guests and conversation in a series of notebooks that have been edited here as a commonplace book of good American and European dining and some high-tone diners. The Salters keep fine company: they toast Hemingway’s taste for daiquiris with his own recipe, they salute E. B. White’s dedication to the classic Martini (he “admitted he drank them the way other people took aspirin”), and they snap their fingers at Julia Child and Richard Olney who grandly dismiss Vichysoisse as an American invention based on French working class leek and potato soup. In Paris, at humble Bistro Flo, everybody eats on one floor, whereas nobodies are exiled to the second floor at haughty Brasserie Lipp. If this is what you need to know, this is the book of foodie folderol for you.
How the nation ever became a united kingdom may be answered by the processes of politics, but it seems a social miracle when judged region by region of dialect and divergence, even acre by acre of difference in detail. The perceived characteristics of Scotland, Wales and Ireland seem more homogeneous than those of England, and so it is “unexamined England, so little understood even by its own inhabitants” that especially fascinated Matthew Engel. Choosing to examine England in terms of its “historic, ancient and traditional counties” rather than the administrative units imposed upon it by the bureaucratic, unromantic 1972 Local Government Act, he turned up one day in Ashington in Northumberland, famous for leeks, whippets, the Pitmen Painters and sex-starved pigeons (“It’ll do anything for sex, a pigeon.”) He was delighted. And that’s just one page of Engel’s three year-long, quirky quest for the essence of England. If you could bottle his wit, it would taste as sharp, rich and savoury as Worcestershire sauce on a Cornish pasty stuffed to bursting.
October 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
This timely and thorough biography of Ernest Shackleton marks the centenary of the Edwardian pioneer’s ‘Endurance’ mission to the Antarctic by reassessing his life and legend in terms of modern attitudes towards heroism. Though ‘Endurance’, his ship, was frozen and crushed into the ice, his courage and caution saved himself and the crew stranded in a freezing wilderness. Captain Oates declared, “If I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.” But Shackleton’s posthumous reputation as a superstar in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration has been doubly handicapped by being Anglo-Irish at a time of political difficulty, and because his success and survival seemed less gallant than the failure and death of Captain Scott. But as a buccaneering Edwardian adventure, as chaotic and hapless in his private life as he was dynamic and optimistic in his public exploits, he is rescued by Michel Smith’s genial biography as a flawed, enduring inspiration.
Show Ben Goldacre a balloon full of hot air and he’ll take a pot shot at it. Deflation of hype and grounding of opportunists who pitch fancy as facts, aspirations as assertions and, especially statistics as the tool of special interests is not only his self-appointed duty, but very often his pleasure. In a busy world where most of us believe what we’re told, wiseacre Goldacre looks behind the quackery. “Science is squabble”, he says: close critical appraisal is the strategy whereby we discover, say, that pink was not always for a girl; pink was for a boy until the 1940s; that IVF kids are not smarter than unplanned children; that many medical claims are akin to magic, that television presents ‘real’ science as cheap stage effects and don’t even get him started on bad academia, biased government and credulous media. In short, everything you take at face value is wrong. Maybe even this review: now read Ben.
Adam Smith, the 18th century Scottish author of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and political philosopher of choice for all modern market-led behavioural economists, was also a moral philosopher, author of that great but difficult work, ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments.’ As a product of the Edinburgh-based Scottish Enlightenment, Smith’s stoic moral values are rather neglected by right wing financiers and politicians who find the socially liberal context of his economic theories inconveniently disturbing. Happily, Russ Roberts has good-humouredly digested, condensed and commented upon Smith’s theories of the good life. Ambition, for instance – the desire to be rich or famous – is not to be pursued for its own sake. Smith’s economic theories are not simply about the making and management of money: the pursuit of happiness is not the pursuit of money. Roberts tests Smith’s classic sober moderation against our modern intoxication with excess. That should shake a few CEOs and celebrities.