Monthly Archives: July 2012

What is any ocean but a multitude of drops? Cloud Atlas the movie

Words cannot express how excited I am about this.

I was blown away by Cloud Atlas when I first read it – it’s my favourite David Mitchell novel – and by the looks of this trailer I think the adaptation may well do it all kinds of justice. I like that it looks like they’ve embraced the slightly schlocky aspects of each of the genres, rather than trying to make it consistent throughout. That, cats and kittens, is what’s so good about David Mitchell!

One thing: Tom Hanks I am pretty sure you are too old and white to play Zachry, but I’ll probably end up letting you off.



Judging a Booker by its Cover

Bing bing bing bing bing bing bing! It’s that time of year already! The Booker list is upon us, and we can now spend the next three months rifling through Waterstones displays and gnashing our teeth about the choices on offer.

Sadly for me I have only read a grand total of ONE of the longlist thus far, so as far as insider tips for the winners go, I got nothin’. But then I thought, you know what? Rather than read them, why not just make vague and arbitrary assumptions on them based on their covers?!

The Teleportation Accident
Bring up the Bodies
The Lighthouse

The Yips – Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)
A modern reworking of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, this time set in the contemporary world of professional golf tournaments. A down-and-out sports agent becomes obsessed with the rat’s natural proclivity for scouting out small holes, and how that might be harnessed to create a golfing champion. But all that seems like a pipe dream… until he meets a punk-rock frontman with a penchant for smashing up his guitars – and a swing to die for.

The Teleportation Accident – Ned Beauman (Sceptre)
Dr. Who slash fic in which he regenerates into a woman and becomes trapped in the 1920s. Posing as a Hall of Mirrors kiosk attendant while (s)he tries to fix the Tardis without the use of plastics, things take a distinctly erotic turn when the Louise Brooks look-a-like contest comes to town, with one particularly spunky contender.

Philida – Andre Brink (Harvill Secker)
A young girl comes to terms with her traumatic past on a plantation by learning to commune with the animals. Dr. Doolittle meets Jonathan Norrell and Mr Strange meets Wide Sargasso Sea.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng  (Myrmidon Books)
A lonely Japanese woman finds an outlet from her loveless marriage by corresponding with the local newspaper’s gardening advice columnist.

Skios – Michael Frayn (Faber & Faber)
If you liked Mama Miayou’ll love Skios!

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)
A down on his luck but kindly tramp chances across a battered copy of The Canterbury Tales. Inspired by their spontaneity and his affinity with Middle English (which he has honed through years of listening to Tinny Tim garble through 6 cans or more of special brew), he follows in their footsteps.

Swimming Home – Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)
One salmon’s story.

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)
Cheating! I actually read this one.

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore (Salt)
Variously described as a scathing comment on Cameron’s Britain or a Pynchion satire of modernist subjectivity, this is an avant-garde piece told from the point of view of the lighthouse. It only consists of the words ‘off’ and ‘on’.

Umbrella – Will Self (Bloomsbury)
Old Bill Spokes has lost his wife, is abused by his two grown children, and now even his cat has left him. All he has left is his bespoke umbrella manufacturing business, and he hasn’t had a customer in a month. But all that changes when a man walks into his shop with a request for a very special umbrella indeed. Spokes soon finds himself caught up between two warring East end families – and making the greatest umbrella of his life.

Narcopolis – Jeet Thayll (Faber & Faber)
A chance encounter with a tourist leaves young Indian snake charmer obsessed with the works of Picasso. Soon, his reproductions are picked up by a travelling art dealer who launches him onto the Young British Artist scene. But when Damien Hirst starts to take a little too much interest in his snakes, things become rather less…charming.

Communion Town – Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate)
An insightful look at using public records to find the optimal location for your new church.

So I reckon that’s got to be at least 90% accurate, right?


Review: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the BodiesThis is a quote-heavy review, because really, the best review I could possibly write would just be to transcribe huge chunks of the prose and roll around in them all day. The thing about novels about Henry VIII is that you know the plot – you come to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies knowing full well this is not going to be happy ever after for Anne, and it really doesn’t matter. (The endpapers of Anne’s neck in the hardback edition are a nice touch, after all, that’s what it all boils down to!)

Where Wolf Hall followed Anne Boleyn’s play for power and the legal and political divorce of Katherine from Henry, Bring Up the Bodies shows Henry’s waning interest in Anne, her increasingly hysterical attempts to keep him, and the rising star of the Seymours. Thomas Cromwell is again the man at the centre of it all – keeping balls rolling, plates in the air, tales spinning, kitchens running – and it is a delight just to be in his presence, to feel his mind working through Mantel’s masterful free indirect narration. The novel is steeped in historical research but wears it so lightly you barely even notice. People swear by saints you don’t recognise and talk about festivals and clothes and places you don’t really understand, but you never feel lost.

Indeed, the prose skips along so vividly and deceptively easily, you don’t realise you’ve found yourself immured in a single-minded plot for revenge until it’s too late. When Cromwell anticipates the King’s desire to be rid of Anne Boleyn, he sees the perfect opportunity to rid himself of those men who mocked the death of his master, Cardinal Wolsey, in Wolf Hall, dressing up as demons and carrying him off to hell. It is so officiously done, so scrupulously enacted, that you can almost miss the fact that you are witnessing the calling in of a debt the debtors had forgotten. What is scary is not only Cromwell’s unflappability in his accusations, nor his bloody mindedness to get at the truth, but also the idea that somewhere, beneath Cromwell’s apparent unruffled feathers and within the games of politics and strategy at court, that you can strike a blow on Cromwell that will not show and to which he will not retaliate, but which he will not forget, and which seven years later will be called to account.

Bring Up the Bodies not only alludes to the phrase used to describe prisoners taken to the Tower of London, but to Cromwell’s own settling of those debts. The bodies he is haunted by – his wife and daughters, Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey – and how they return in subtle, unexpected ways. Both Henry Norris and Anne recognise that despite the talk of marriage and annulment, adultery and witchcraft, this boils down to payback.

Cromwell says time and again, that once you have set your mind on a course of action, you must follow through without hesitation. And most powerfully, we have the rare glimpse of, not remorse or unease, but acknowledgement that these complex legal machinations boil down to something bloody and murderous.

Let us say you are in a chamber, the windows sealed,  you are conscious of the proximity of other bodies, of the declining light. In the room you put cases, you play games, you move your personnel around each other: notional bodies, hard as ivory, black as ebony, pushed on their paths across the squares. Then you say, I can’t endure this any more, I must breathe: you burst out of the room and into a wild garden where the guilty are hanging from trees, no longer ivory, no longer ebony, but flesh; and their wild lamenting tongues proclaim their guilt as they die. In this matter, cause has been preceded by effect. What you dreamed has enacted itself. You reach for a blade but the blood is already shed. The lambs have butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves, and picked their own bones clean.

Yet Cromwell does not stop, and shows no regret for his actions. Bring Up the Bodies so vividly encapsulates a world in which subtext is everything, anticipation is key, and where the courtly manners, rituals and titles are underpinned by the ever-present threat of ruin or death. In this, Anne Boleyn is more Cromwell’s equal than he recognizes.

One thing she set out to do, this side of salvation: get Henry and keep him. He has lost him to Jane Seymour, and no court of law will judge her more harshly than she judges herself. Since Henry rode away from her yesterday, she has been an impostor, like a child or a court fool, dressed in the costumes of a queen and now ordered to live in the queen’s rooms. She knows adultery is a sin and treason a crime, but to be on the losing side is a greater fault than these.

[…] He says ‘Anne is dead to herself. We shall have no trouble with her now.’

But with the first steps towards reformation, the changing fortunes of Cromwell’s enemies (and who at court is really a friend?) and the ever-changeable, unpredictable King Henry, we can be pretty sure trouble will show up elsewhere for Mantel’s third book of the trilogy.

In a tweet:
 ‘Give him a dirty look and he’ll gouge your eye out…But he’ll stand anybody a drink.’

To read: The Great Gatsby

Since I’ve seen the play of the book being read, and the film of a reading of the book is shortly to arrive, I thought I might try to sandwich the actual book in between them. Gatz was a great way of discovering nuances I would have missed in the printed book, but I don’t hold out similar hopes for Luhrmann’s sumptuous reworking. It’s easy to be snobbish, which I don’t want to do as I’m sure it’ll be entertaining and beautiful and, y’know, totes emosh, and I don’t feel this way with all novels, but I think Fitzgerald needs engaging with on a personal level first.

One thing I am going to be snobbish about. That autotune…GOD.

Mid-Week Treat: SEX

Really enjoyed this short piece from The Nervous Breakdown about that brilliant horrible awkward adolescent discovery about sexy times.

Two words: HOT HAMSTER.



Hangover Square revisited

In my search for the correct Hangover Square book cover, I actually stumbled across this Flickr, which shows a beautiful installation (fittingly) at the University of Brighton Gallery in 2010 that recreated some of the most iconic scenes from the book.

Netta's bedsit, Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton @ University of Brighton Gallery

(reproduced from Nige B’s Flickr, created by Cinecity and Anna Deamer, with help from University of Brighton and City College students. Phew)

I was particularly encouraged by the installation’s dual focus – on the novel, but also encouraging onlookers to create their own narrative. A suitably split-personality for such a work. And great pants hanging up, there.

Review: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

It starts with a Click, and George Harvey Bone is walking with no idea of where he is or what he’s doing.

It was a noise inside his head, and yet it was not a noise. It was the sound which a noise makes when it abruptly ceases: it had a temporary deafening effect. It was as though one had blown one’s nose too hard and the outer world had suddenly become dim and dead. And yet he was not physically deaf: it was merely that in this physical way alone could he think of what had happened in his head.

This confusion, disjunction and disorientation serves as a framework for the novel as a whole. George has fallen in with a bad crowd, and spends his days getting drunk in various Earl’s Court pubs with a variety of shady characters in an effort to impress the beautiful, cold-hearted, slatternly Netta. But Netta is only interested in George for his money (of which he has very little, but more than the rest), his tenuous connections to an acting agency, and the opportunity to use him as dogsbody. The novel’s action is a litany of tiny acts of humiliation, all at ‘poor Bone’s expense. Little does she know that in his ‘dumb moods’, as these fugue states are termed by the gang, George’s sole impulse is to free himself of Netta – by killing her.

Participating so closely in George’s consciousness, we can’t help but desire Netta’s death, too, sharing his desperate idea that if she could only be got rid of, George could leave and go to Maidenhead – the childhood town he holds up as a talisman of better times. Hangover Square toys with our ideas of a thriller, and of a villain. It is also held up as a classic ‘pre-WWII’ novel, capturing the essence of the tension and bleakness of the months leading up to war in 1939. Various characters flirt with fascism including Netta (who is aesthetically attracted to it more than anything else – and in that she has some interesting parallels with Jean Brodie) and her occasional lover Peter. But it is not a schematic metaphor for the failures of appeasement and the advent of war. Whatever George does, whether he follows the path of peacefulness and submission, or violence and anger, he is damned. Maidenhead is a lost idyll, an unattainable ideal, that George will never be able to return to.

It is a hard read, often unpleasant, but it is not the hopeless dirge a novel with this kind of story could so easily have become. The writing is fantastic, atmospheric and encourages you to keep working at the character: one chapter ends ‘He felt his way down the stairs – slowly, staggeringly, blackly, cleverly.’ I’ve heard varied accounts of how realistic a portrayal of schizophrenia or split personality disorder Hamilton manages, but I found it singularly realistic in its warped logic and fixation.

What also struck me about is how relevant (is that a horrible turn of phrase?) this book remains to the London of today? Earl’s Court is perhaps not the den of iniquity it once was, thanks mostly to its notorious conference centre that just means that lost-looking tourists are constantly clogging up its incredibly confusing tube station, but this vision of a no-man’s land of a lost, unemployed underclass trying to get on with their lives in the shadow of an impending war certainly rings true in 2012. With the UK’s shocking levels of unemployment, its withdrawal of state support (particularly in areas of mental health) under the guise of Big Society, and the government’s struggle to create a coherent identity for Britain – Olympic good-time city, financial capital, cracking-down on corruption with Leveson while turning a blind eye to the never-ending banking crisis – it seems to have plenty of say about the country’s split personality 70 years on, and the pressures it places on a still unacknowledged, downtrodden section of society.

Earl's Court: still kind of a shithole.

In a tweet:
 Slowly, staggeringly, blackly, cleverly.





Mid-Week Treat: Mark Twain Brain Training!

Or as I like to call it….BRAIN TWAINING. (Zing!)

Yes, apparently Mark Twain was not only content to write American classics and pithy epigrams about his own death, he also invented what was basically an old-style brain gym!

Sadly, it looks like the world’s most insanely boring item.

As far as I could tell before I stopped reading lest my eyes leap of their sockets out of sheer despair, you’re supposed to make a game of sticking pins in the holes depending on famous dates? So really the game relies on you already having memorized a load of stuff, and also having a load of pins helpfully to hand (something presumably all children did in those days, before small pointy objects became dangerous to infants).

If you would like to learn more about Mark Twain’s life-enhancing recreational products, this website contains probably more than you would ever want to know. Or remember.

(thanks to vintage Maud Newton for the excellent tip-off).


On paper, the idea of an 8-hour play about a man reading The Great Gatsby, with a script comprised only of every word of Fitzgerald’s novel (that’s Every. Single. Word.) sounds like the sort of undergraduate train wreck you would go to see at the Edinburgh Fringe after 3 bottles of bad red wine. Even when I bought the tickets, I was doing it in a half-undergraduate-2-bottles-down-aren’t-I-so-post-semi-ironic kind of way. Luckily, I have a couple of half-undergraduate-2-bottles-down-aren’t-I-so-post-semi-ironic friends, so we all decided to take the plunge together and book tickets for some distant day in the future.

And then it turned into something of a coup, as everybody in London discovered they’ll be getting substantially more value for money for their theatre seats if you go in at matinee time and come out at last orders. Elevator Repair Service are staging only 23 shows, and I think they’re mostly sold out by now. Reviewers seem to be unanimous in their cry – it shouldn’t work, but it does.

The play is set in a run down office – Nick (Scott Shepherd) finds his computer broken and, at a loss for anything else to do, cracks open a copy of The Great Gatsby and starts reading. Stilted at first, he becomes drawn in and as he does so, the rest of the office characters become part of the novel too. It’s amazing how easily the drab office fades away – drunken, lascivious parties are evoked with a simple throwing up of the nearby paperwork, upending a couple of chairs and lounging across the office sofa. You’ll find as Nick’s narration works up to talking about a particular character, that they have been idling in the background or subtly wandering to shift some papers around. The attention to detail, and the wittiness with which the play’s creators have engaged with the novel is incredible – more so because it is worn so easily. The swaggering, vaguely intimidating security guard (Gary Wilmes) makes a particularly brilliant Tom – selfish, thoughtless, cruel, earnest.

And it’s funny! Never in all my wildest A-level coursework dreams did I think ROFLMAO @ NICK CARRAWAY’S OBSERVATIONAL ONE-LINERS but it’s true! Hearing it aloud, seeing characters react or participate in the funniness, really emphasises Fitzgerald’s eye for the sublimely ridiculous in high society. The layers of characters playing characters means that there is a knowing nod to the unreasonableness, and unreality of some of the scenes playing out in the novel. It didn’t always work – sometimes I felt like parts were played for laughs when they didn’t need to be, and there was one bit during Tom and Daisy’s climactic argument in the hotel room where Jordan Baker inexplicably made a fart joke which (rightly) went down like a lead balloon…and I am speaking as one of the Fart Joke’s staunchest advocates. But when it did work, it was brilliant! It was somebody lifting the lid on what had always been sold to me as an Important Work of Literature And A Great American Novel and said – but also, it’s FUN. You can’t have an 8-hour play without it, and it means that largely, the pacing is spot on.

By the novel’s climax, the office has receded almost completely and the novel has taken over. You’re no longer wondering why the narrator is wandering around with a book in his hand and you’re fine that people keep using office stationery as cigar boxes or whisky decanters. It’s poignant and moving, hitting the right notes in the right places. I felt like the fourth act dragged a little, thanks to Fitzgerald’s post-amble (it struck me that actually the novel is structured in a really weird way, actually, with all the action, then a long period of dissection. It works, but…isn’t it weird?), but there’s not really a lot you can do about that, plus the ending is one of the most famous and beautiful endings in the canon, so you’d be as well not to sneak out because your parking ticket’s about to run out.

I wasn’t as blown away by it as some of the reviewers, perhaps because I’d read the reviews and was primed for big things. I felt like Gatz himself was a bit of an odd fit – Gatsby’s such an elusive, mesmerising figure who’s defined by Nick’s own memory that it was incongruous to have an older, balding (sorry, Jim Fletcher) man in the role who didn’t have that same charisma. But then I guess the point is that Gatsby himself isn’t that charismatic – it’s his money.

Similarly, I initially struggled with asking ‘Why an office? Why anywhere, for that matter.’ While I totally understand the benefits of having the process of reading as part of the play – Fitzgerald’s writing is such an important part of the drama that to simply take the dialogue would be to immeasurably reduce the work as a whole – I wasn’t sure how relevant the dated office setting really was. Matt Trueman suggested that reveals the dirty truth of the American Dream, that it is built on American Workers toiling in American Offices just like that one. It is the modern(ish) day equivalent of Fitzgerald’s Ash Heaps.  I think this is probably it, but because you don’t really encounter the office workers in their own right, I didn’t feel like this was really brought out. But then I guess you didn’t come for somebody else’s polemic. These would have been minor gripes in a shorter play, and here they provide food for thought, more than anything else.

In a nutshell, this was eight hours well spent, and the smartest, sexiest show you’ll see with a filing cabinet in it.

Correction: This post originally said Tom was played by Robert Cucuzza – while he has played the role, the night I saw it it was the excellent Gary Wilmes. (Sorry, Gary!)