My hurriedly written obituary of Graham was published in the Guardian on 10th September.
A copy is online here. I found the news of his sudden death distressing.
My hurriedly written obituary of Graham was published in the Guardian on 10th September.
A copy is online here. I found the news of his sudden death distressing.
When I was still a teenager, in search of cheap thrills (as I hoped and expected), I bought a Penguin paperback edition of Stan Barstow’s novel A Kind of Loving (1960). I remember enjoying it – but not for the sexy bits, which were few and far between and in their depiction of youthful callowness a bit too close to home to be either educative or erotic.
The film directed by John Schlesinger came out soon afterwards. The sexy bits in this were a bit more explicit (though not much more). I was interested to see that many of the exterior shots were filmed in Stockport, a depressing post-industrial town close to where I lived as a child. For some reason the Luftwaffe had failed to flatten Stockport, so its terraced slums and empty mills and former factories remained standing until at least the early 1960s. IMDb describes some of the filming locations as ‘Greater Manchester’, which I think now includes Stockport. I’m certain that the final scenes in the film were shot in a place called Gas Lane, next to the gasworks and close to Mersey Square in the centre of the town, which even in the context of Stockport’s neglected Victorian areas was picturesquely decrepit.
(I suppose I should add that since those days Stockport’s slums and horrible old gasworks have all been demolished, and it has no doubt become a lovely place to live.)
Stan Barstow, a good writer if somewhat neglected these days, was one of those post-war novelists dubbed by the press ‘angry young men’. They were the immediate literary context in which I began writing: I read several of the books then current, by John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, Keith Waterhouse, David Storey and, of course, Kingsley Amis. His novel Lucky Jim (1954) is often said to have started that particular literary genre, even though it is different in tone from all the others, and a distinct cut above them. Although it is by far Amis’s best-known novel, and probably brought him more money than any of his others, it is not in my view his best. Some of his later novels are written more subtly (unsurprisingly), and in many cases are much funnier and their satire is more effective. However, it remains a favourite from that period.
The other day I bought a secondhand hardback of Lucky Jim on the internet. Not a collector’s item in the usual sense (it is from the twelfth impression, printed fifteen months after the first edition), but a nice copy in undamaged binding. I was pleased to find it. I was even more pleased when it arrived in the mail: from the inscription inside the front cover it turns out to have been Stan Barstow’s own copy.
Everything joins up in the end.
There are twenty short stories in this anthology: nearly all of them are good or interesting or unusual, deserving to be in a book with this title, nearly all are by writers whose work I had not previously come across. The publisher is Salt, the editor is Nicholas Royle.
Three of the stories are of outstanding quality, each one of which would alone justify the cost of buying the book.
“Getting Out of There” by M. John Harrison (first published as a chapbook by Nightjar Press – a Nick Royle imprint), is a story set in what sounds and feels like my former hometown Hastings. The sceptical, defensive mood of the seaside town on its uppers is accurately if selectively caught. The two characters have a marginal, edgy, entirely believable relationship, fleetingly based on knowing each other years before when they were kids. They both reek of authentic Hastings-ness. Mike Harrison is writing better than ever. His reputation seems overshadowed by his contemporaries – Kureishi, Swift, McEwan, etc – but they are shallow, minor, facile writers in comparison.
“The Faber Book of Adultery” by Jonathan Gibbs is the first story in the book, and it set a standard I thought would be difficult to match in what followed. A middle-aged writer seduces (or is seduced by) his best friend’s wife. They do it standing up, leaning against a bookcase. Perhaps that makes the story sound unoriginal, but the delicacy and natural observation of the writing makes the story exceptional. The sub-text is the man’s rambling, almost disorganized thoughts about books, the adultery that is always in them, the way adultery is written. Books are sexy. I particularly liked the description of a book pulled away from a shelf that is too tightly packed with titles: “When it came free, almost with a pop, the books alongside seemed to sigh into the space it left, their pages filling with air.” The story was first published in Lighthouse 1.
The book concludes with a story as good as, or even better than, the Gibbs. It is “Barcelona” by Philip Langeskov, first published by Daunt Books. A man plans a surprise anniversary celebration for himself and his wife, in Barcelona. In spite of several minor worries and problems – pre-existing plans, lost baggage at the airport, the presence of his wife’s former lover in Barcelona, a sudden illness – they arrive there more or less intact, and the holiday goes ahead. It is another story about the effects of literature: Langeskov riskily summons the ghost of Graham Greene, specifically in a short story he reads on the plane, “The Overnight Bag”, which describes a not dissimilar European flight. The uncertainties of the Greene story resound through the visit to the Catalonian city. I think the risk Langeskov took came off: “Barcelona” is a sort of post-Greenean study of a loving marriage, with its nervous ambiguities and shadows. From beginning to end the reader senses unease, things about to go catastrophically wrong, the impact of the past not fully comprehended.
The Best British Short Stories 2014, edited by Nicholas Royle. Salt Publishing, 2014, 240pp, ISBN: 978-1-907773-67-9, £9.99
A man is seeking an appointment he has to keep. He is inside a vast modernist structure, made of concrete and glass, with unsignposted stairwells and unobliging elevators. Other people are present: tourist groups, businessmen, transient visitors. Meeting rooms have long tables and reconfigurable walls to make the rooms into whatever size, shape and function is necessary. Abstract paintings hang on every wall. Members of staff are present, unfailingly courteous and blandly unhelpful. There are hints and suspicions of close personal contacts: rooms where people are eating, where there is a dance floor, where bedroom doors are firmly closed and labelled Do Not Disturb. Offices are glassed-in, or set up as boxed workstations. A motorway runs past. Could this be a hotel? Or a hospital, an office block, an airport terminal, a convention centre?
The images come from a masterpiece of the cinema, these days a forgotten and largely unseen one: Playtime. Three years in the making, and then delayed by several post-production snags, Playtime was eventually released in 1967, starring and directed by the French comedian Jacques Tati. It was then the most expensive film ever made in France, but it did not receive the worldwide success it needed to recoup the expense of filming, and Tati was bankrupted by it. It is rarely seen these days. Although Playtime is available on DVD, the original 70mm frame is cropped, and there have been cuts made to the immense running time. However, with the hindsight of nearly half a century it can be seen as a brilliant foresight into the worst and most soulless aspects of our modern life.
Playtime was made at roughly the same time as two other comparable French films – Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), and Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), although the delays meant it came out some time later. All three films have a distinctly Ballardian flavour – not a coincidence, because J. G. Ballard’s work has always been highly regarded in France.
To say that Will Wiles’s new novel The Way Inn is strongly reminiscent of Playtime is intended as a compliment. The narrator, the protagonist, has the symbolic-sounding name of Neil Double. Double is a professional conference-goer, standing in for middle-grade executives who either do not want to go to the conference, or cannot. He attends the symposia on their behalf, takes notes and reports back. This is his job, and he moves from one hotel and conference to the next, frequently running into the same individuals, and always encountering the same types of people. He has relationships with some of them: he knows which of the other attendees are bores or pests, and he is constantly interested in the women he tries to pick up.
However, Double’s true passion is hotels. He loves hotels, everything about them: the furniture, the abstract paintings, the cuboid armchairs, the TV screen that displays an electronic welcome, the hum of the air-con, the room-service pan-seared salmon, the electronic door key that stops working if you carry it next to your mobile phone, and so on. He also relishes the environment of the modern business hotel: the adjacent motorway, the half-constructed new buildings next door and the muddy areas which will be developed next, the vast parking lots, the nearby airport and its lights, the attached conference centre that can only be reached by courtesy bus. Wiles describes all this with economy and precision, almost a litany of the details of that over-familiar if faintly repellent world of the chain hotel. Anyone who has stayed at the Radisson next to Heathrow Airport (location of several SF conventions in recent years) will recognize the endless corridors, the mile after mile of corporate carpet, the soundproofed windows, the view from those windows across concrete to nothing of human scale, the ease with which you can get lost in the identical corridors and landings and the concomitant habit of always taking the same, safely memorized route to your room, the particular type of bland “international” cooking, the inoffensively abstract paintings, the sense of being surrounded by a Ballardian urban wilderness which you cannot enter or understand, and which will endanger you if you try to walk through it or traverse it.
I have summoned the spirit of J. G. Ballard a couple of times, not accidentally. The Way Inn strikes me as the first authentically post-Ballardian vision of the world as it has become and as it is going to continue to be. Towards the end of his career, Ballard produced a couple of social satires: Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), with discernable elements of social satire in the two much stronger novels that preceded them: Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000). Will Wiles has taken up the satire where Ballard left off, while joyfully reviving memories of the great Ballard novels from an earlier period: The Drowned World (1962), Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974).
There are also Ballardian echoes in the way Wiles characterizes women (in particular the dominant, Amazonian and sometimes enigmatic figure of the hotel para-manager Dee) – there is a constant sense of male sexual awe, without anything ever happening. (Not true of Crash, though!) Wiles’s dialogue too has that odd Ballard characteristic: an errant, oblique, declarative, almost shouted way of coming at you, non-realist but also mundane and worldly. It gives the novel the weirdest feeling, a sense that there is more going on than you think, and then you find out that there is. The final Ballardian touch I will not spoil, as the pleasure in revealing it should be Wiles’s, not mine, but I was reminded happily of one of Ballard’s Borgesian short stories published in 1982. I’ll leave it to others to trace the reference, but to narrow the search the story I’m thinking of was included in his collection War Fever (1990).
I loved The Way Inn, read it with endless pleasure and interest, and am delighted that in this year, apparently doomed to be eponymed by a class of emergent young science fiction sensation-mongers, a mature, expert and wonderfully original talent has appeared in the person of Will Wiles. For me, The Way Inn is the most satisfying and radical new novel I have read so far this year, way ahead of the rest.
The Way Inn by Will Wiles, Fourth Estate, 2014, 343pp, ISBN 978-0-00-754555-1, £12.99
Here is my (revised, final) programme schedule for the London worldcon, Loncon 3. We are planning to arrive on Thursday afternoon, 14th August, leaving on the Monday morning. Nina has listed her own programme items here – there is only one unfortunate clash of same-time scheduling between us (13:30 on Sunday). Everything in italics is from the convention’s schedule.
Friday 14:00 – 15:00 (London Suite 5; ExCel) – Kaffeeklatsch
Christopher Priest, Justina Robson
Friday 18:00 – 19:00 (Capital Suite 7+12; ExCel) – In Conversation: Naomi Alderman and Christopher Priest
Every 10 years, Granta publishes a list of “The Best of Young British Novelists”; and every so often, a writer whose work includes the speculative and fantastic gets included. Christopher Priest was included in the 1983 list, while Naomi Alderman made the 2013 list; for this item they will discuss their work and careers, and ask to what extent literary values and attitudes to “genre” stories have changed over time.
Naomi Alderman, Christopher Priest
Friday 21:00 – 22:00 (Capital Suite 7+12; ExCel) – You Write Pretty
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say, so let us behold some fine fantastical sentences. Our panel have each picked a sentence, and will have a chance to make their case for why theirs is the fairest of them all — but it will be up to the audience to decide.
Geoff Ryman (Moderator), Greer Gilman, Frances Hardinge, Christopher Priest, E. J. Swift
Saturday 12:00 – 12:30 (London Suite 1; ExCel) – Reading: Christopher Priest
Sunday 11:00 – 12:00 (Capital Suite 16; ExCel) – Becoming History
In a review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, John Clute wrote, “It is not easy — it should not really be feasible — to write a tale set in twentieth century that is not a tale about the twentieth century.” A number of other recent books, including Peter Higgins’ Wolfhound Century, Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent, and Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century, are also ‘about’ historicising the near-past in this sense. How is the fantastic gaze operating on the twentieth century? Do we have enough distance to see it clearly yet?
Graham Sleight (Moderator), John Clute, Peter Higgins, Elizabeth Hand, Christopher Priest
Sunday 13:30 – 15:00 (Capital Suite 4; ExCel) – Looking Back On Anger: remembering 70s sf in the 21st century
Almost 30 years on from Jeanne Gomoll’s “Open Letter to Joanna Russ” , this panel will look at how the science fiction of the 70s is remembered today. Which works have stayed in the public eye, and which have faded away? Whose commentary still speaks to us, and what was the conversation like back then? What has proven to be problematic, and what remains unresolved?
Graham Sleight (Moderator), Jeanne Gomoll, Pat Murphy, Lesley Hall, Christopher Priest
Sunday 15:00 – 16:30 (Capital Suite 16; Excel) – SF and the English Summer
Summer is the time for picnics, discovering the countryside and falling through portals, a rainy summer day sends us into the far reaches of the old house. Winter brings mystery, spring brings sacrifice. To each season there is an adventure. The panellists will discuss the “traditional” English weather, its role in fantasy and the effect of Climate Change on our perennial topic of conversation. Bring your own umbrella and sun block.
Caroline Mullan (Moderator), Prof Euan Nisbet, Christopher Priest, Jo Walton
In 1967 I was living in a small basement flat in Fulham Road, London. One of the people who lived there too (I shrink from the word ‘flatmate’) was the millionaire publisher, Felix Dennis, who died at the weekend. He was neither a millionaire nor a publisher when I knew him, but a drummer in a band.
The flat was close to the epicentre of what the American press called ‘Swinging London’, and all that hippie and flower-power stuff now identified with the 1960s was going on around us. Most of it passed me by: I wanted to be a writer and was wrapped up in that, endlessly working at my typewriter.
There were four of us originally living in the flat: myself and Graham Charnock, and two others (who remain nameless). When one of these other two could stand living there no longer (he was having to share a room with the second unnamed one, another millionaire-publisher-to-be, for whom the phrase ‘personal hygiene’ would be entirely inappropriate), Felix Dennis took his place. After that, Graham and I had living with us two people who never cleaned anything, never washed themselves, never flushed the toilet or ever changed their underclothes. I already knew Dennis as a regular visitor to the flat, sometimes staying over: he was uncouth, scruffy and unintelligent. He had a sly, aggressive and cunning manner. He was a heavy drinker and a persistent user of drugs. A few weeks earlier we had had a burglary at the flat, which the local police never solved but said it had all the signs of an inside job. Graham and I were both opposed to Dennis moving in, but there were no alternatives. He came in, bringing his faux-hippie lifestyle and mates with him. Life in the flat quickly became untenable, and a few weeks after Dennis’s arrival I too moved out, but not before a rapidly deteriorating situation culminated on one memorable night, with Dennis threatening me and Graham Charnock with a knife.
He later became famous in the media when he and two others were charged with several offences, including conspiracy to corrupt the morals of minors (for which he was found not guilty) and an offence under the Obscene Publications Act (for which he was jailed). The conviction was later quashed on appeal. He went into magazine publishing and rapidly became rich. During the 1980s I was running a small software company with David Langford, and part of my job was to buy advertising space in computer magazines. We had a monthly spend in the thousands of pounds. I routinely received canvassing phonecalls from advertising departments at these magazines, but whenever one of the calls was from a Dennis magazine I invariably refused to buy space. Because we were advertising everywhere else, one day I took a call from the advertising director at Dennis Publishing – she wanted to know why we would not advertise with them. ‘Because in 1967 your boss tried to murder me with a knife,’ I said. The hilarious reaction from this hapless woman was, to say the least, intriguing. Later, when she was back in control of herself, she said in an understanding voice that we would never be bothered again. We weren’t. In 2008 Felix Dennis bragged to a reporter from The Times that he had murdered a man by pushing him off a cliff. When it became clear that the police were interesting themselves in the incident, Dennis hastily withdrew the claim, saying he had been drunk when talking to the newspaper.
He later became known as a philanthropist, tree-planter and poet. I have no knowledge or opinion of any of that. He suffered some terrible illnesses in later life, and in recent years was a victim of throat cancer, which eventually killed him.
The artist Fay Ballard has an exhibition in London called House Clearance. This consists of a large number of touching and beautifully executed drawings and paintings inspired by the familiar clutter she found when clearing out the house of her father, J. G. Ballard. We were fortunate enough to visit the gallery yesterday, where Fay herself was present. Although I had met her father several times over the years, I had not met Fay before and it was a great treat to sit in the peaceful gallery and hear her memories of life at home with him.
Information about the gallery Eleven Spitalfields can be found here — the exhibition is continuing until 27th June 2014. And Fay’s own website has many of the images to be glimpsed online — but are no substitute for seeing the originals.
My new publishers in the USA, Titan Books, are doing a great job of finding my latest books some publicity. For the last month or so I have been slogging away at one interview after another. Although there is inevitably some overlap in the questions, considering that most of the interviewers had to think up their queries ‘blind’ there is a surprising amount of diversity.
As well as interviews, Tom Green at Titan also gained some space for me in the Huffington Post. So for once I feel my books have a fair chance of making a tiny impression on the greatest reading market on the planet.
Here are links to the interviews which have been published so far. I don’t expect anyone to read all of them, but here they are. Others are in the pipeline, so I will add to the list from time to time.
Titan Books themselves.
And the essay in Huffington Post.
Thanks to Tom Green, and all at Titan!
Just back from a week in France, where I was serving on the competition jury of a film festival in Tours, called Mauvais Genre. (‘Bad, Evil or Wicked Genre’: these were all non-mainstream films, some horror, some weirdness, some comedy, all broadly uncategorizable. The sort of films in fact that I love to discover.) This was the fourth festival jury I have been on, and watching movies all day can be surprisingly hard work. Enjoyable, though.
We watched nine movies in competition, plus two sets of shorts (courts métrages): eight live action films (worryingly, most of these depicted violent attacks on women: rape, torture and/or murder — can’t people think of stories any more?), and ten animated (these were of the highest quality, making a choice of winner really tricky). And any other out-of-competition films we cared to see as well.
The main competition turned out to be a bit of a problem, because as one film followed another it was difficult to pick out a clear winner. The competition opened with a Dutch film called Wolf, directed by Jim Taihuttu: a long and exceedingly violent story in monochrome, about a young man just released from prison who tries to redeem himself through kick-boxing. For most of the rest of the festival I thought this would have to be the winner, because in spite of its sordid material it was professionally and expertly made, well written and performed with conviction … but for me it seemed to lack a quality that would lift it above the familiar round of on-screen beatings and deaths. The films that followed Wolf were unexciting: two ‘found footage’ horror films (unconvincing, unoriginal and not even good for a bit of fright), a German-made broad comedy set in a forest, an American comedy about casual burglars, a lightweight Swedish drama about mind control, a couple of lukewarm Asia Extreme films … nothing that was fresh or surprising or shocking or even written particularly well.
Then came the final entry, Der Samurai, a werewolf film from Germany. I confess the heart sank horribly at the thought – the title alone was enough to slow the pulse. But from the first frame the film looked quite unlike any werewolf film I had ever seen before. What followed was subtle, well acted, unusual, radical … it even had a subtext. The ‘samurai’ of the title was violent, unpredictable and frightening, but also oddly vulnerable. We on the jury gave thanks to Till Kleinert, director and writer, and with one dissension came to a quick choice of winner.
One morning I went to Instant Cine, an excellent DVD shop in the town, and with not much warning and no script I had to give an impromptu 3-minute recommendation of recent films I had seen. Here is the result:
The other people on the jury with me were three French actors: Yannick Solier, Sofia Manousha and Julien Courbey, and the ‘president’ of the jury was a porn-video actor called HPG (Hervé Pierre Gustave).
There were enough breaks between the films to explore the town, which has a modern commercial area and an attractive old centre, close to the Loire. The festival director was Garry Constant. He had been working on festival preparations all year. Everything went well.
Then to an overnight stay in Paris, where I gave a talk and Q&A at a bookshop called Librairie Charybde (129 rue de Charenton, 75012 Paris). I was daunted by the large crowd who had turned out. They let me do the gig in English, which was to me a vast relief, but even so brought on the embarrassed suspicion that a French writer doing the same thing in London would be expected not to speak French. Charybde is one of those small bookstores that immediately you enter imparts the feeling that every book there has been selected for a reason, that it is an implicitly recommended title. For the hundredth time in my life I wanted to up sticks and move permanently to Paris.
Then home, and the inevitable piled-up backlog of emails and bills.
Late last week I received my first copies of Titan’s American editions of The Islanders and The Adjacent.
The Islanders is published as a trade paperback — there never was an American hardcover, so this is the first edition in the US. The Adjacent is a beautifully bound hardback, with an eye-deceiving design on the cover and attractive typography inside. I’m delighted by both editions, and more glad than I can say to be back in the US market.
This website carries a selection of reviews of both books: The Islanders here, and The Adjacent here. There is usually a link to the original text, so those of suspicious mind can check to see what amount of qualification and downright hostility has been omitted, no doubt entirely by accident.
What can you ever know of a major city, a foreign country, from a short visit? For a few days in April last year I was in Kyiv (Kiev), attending the Eurocon. When you are invited as a guest, when you have never been to a country before, when you speak nothing of the language, it is not only impossible to form reliable impressions of the place, it would also be close to bad manners to assume you could. You go where you are taken, see the places and things you are shown, you try to find your way around on buses and the metro, you tend to stay in the company of the local people who can speak your own language or other visitors whom you might already know from other trips to other places, you make friends with the people who have invited you … and eventually you gain a glimpse, but only a glimpse, of what are the lives and concerns of these people who are being so generous and welcoming to you. That’s what it was like for me in Kyiv.
I had few preconceptions before I went. I knew little of Ukraine or its capital city, but I was aware, in a horrified sort of way, of what had happened there during World War 2, when it was occupied at different times by both the Soviet Red Army and the German Wehrmacht. One of the worst Nazi massacres occurred in a ravine in a park called Babi Yar, near the centre of Kyiv – some 34,000 people were murdered in a single action. I thought before I went I should pay a visit, especially as it has gained literary connotations since. The book with that title, Babi Yar by A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov), was described by its author as ‘a document in the form of a novel’, but even that was a disguise, as it is clear that every event described in the ‘novel’ really happened. Anatoli’s book includes the testimony of the only known survivor and eye-witness of the events, a woman called Dina Mironovna Pronicheva: her testimony was later included, controversially, in D. M. Thomas’s novel The White Hotel. However, once I was actually in Kyiv it seemed a visit was never going to be possible: several people said they had only barely ever heard of it, others said the ravine had been filled in and the park re-landscaped, hardly anyone would admit to knowing where it was. I didn’t push the point.
One morning I went with a group of fellow visitors from the convention to visit Maidan Nezalezhnosti – known in the West as Independence Square. We were a multinational lot: from Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, France. The photos show what we saw that cold day. Most major cities have similar large open spaces where crowds gather, where speeches are made, where ceremonies are conducted. That was how Independence Square seemed to be. In the last few weeks the world has gained an altogether different image of the place, as many of the people of Kyiv are engaged in a violent protest against their government. The word ‘horrified’ rises again: this complex, historically important and often beautiful city is tearing itself apart. Of course, the chances are remote that any of the people I met in Kyiv are directly involved, but even so it is extremely concerning. I am especially thinking of Alexandr Vasilikovsky (who invited me to Kyiv and who spent hours taking me around), of Yuliya Kiro (who gave up a day of her university studies to take me around the galleries and memorials of the city), and of Natasha Krynytskaya (who acted as my interpreter and translator). These are the people of Ukraine I know best – I can’t stop worrying about them.
Regard the photograph below. It was taken by my father with his Voigtländer Brillant camera. This model dated from 1932, and is a ‘box’ type camera, which looks a little like a twin-lens reflex, although the upper lens is used only for lining up the shot. Focus cannot be adjusted through it. The camera used 120 film, allowing 12 pictures (56mm x 56mm) per roll. The Brillant was made in Austria and was something of an improvement on the popular Kodak Brownie camera. It had three shutter speeds as well as B (Bulb) and T (Time) settings, could focus from 1.2m to infinity, and had aperture settings from f6.5 to f22.
This photograph was taken in the summer of 1950 on the beach at Frinton-on-Sea, which was where my family took all their holidays at that time. My father’s parents had lived in Frinton most of their lives, and still ran a toy shop in the centre of the little town.
The two adults in the picture were called Noël and Chloë, and I think were friends of the family. For convenience they were known to me and my sisters as ‘Uncle’ Noël and ‘Auntie’ Chloë. The small child holding the sailing boat is me, aged about 6 or 7.
The reproduction here is of course a digital scan from an old print, but in the 1950s film was processed by a photographic shop (or more often by a pharmacy) and returned to the customer in the form of contact prints, together with the original negatives. The negative of this particular photo has long been lost, and because of the muddle of my unsorted old albums and packets of unmounted prints I had thought the contact print was missing too. However, I have been having a clear-out this week and rather to my pleasure this photograph came to light once more. It is the only one I can find from that particular roll, although I do remember other, similar photos taken at the same time.
A close look at the photograph reveals a certain oddness. Uncle Noël is wearing a wristwatch on his right arm, whereas most people (both right- and left-handed) usually wear a watch on their left wrist. The dress that Auntie Chloë is wearing is buttoned with the left side over the right, while nearly all women’s clothes are buttoned the other way. And the small child, me, has a plaster cast on his right arm.
A few weeks before this holiday, I had been messing about in the garden at home, and had unwisely tried to climb a large pile of logs. The pile gave way, I plunged headfirst to the ground and in a moment of astonishing agony I broke my arm. It was a memorably traumatic incident — I had never before known such pain, and hope never to do so again. However, by the time of this holiday there was no need any more to wear a sling, and the plaster was due to be removed soon after we returned home. The holiday photographs came back from the chemist’s shop at about the same time as the plaster came off, and to my surprise they showed the plaster on the wrong arm. I knew for certain I had broken my left arm, not my right … as the photos appeared to reveal.
To the adult eye, the explanation is simple: for some reason, presumably accidental, the contact prints had been made with the negative reversed. But at age 7 I had no idea how photography worked, and although no doubt my father tried to explain it to me, no doubt I failed to understand. It was a significant mystery.
By the time I was a teenager I had become seriously interested in photography and was developing and printing my own pictures. I was no longer in any doubt about the method, and I had forgotten all about this incident. However, some thirty years later, in 1980, I did remember it all over again, and usefully so while I was writing.
In Chapter 3 of my novel The Affirmation, the narrator, Peter Sinclair, describes a similar incident from his own youth. Trying to write an autobiographical account of himself Peter looks at old photos to check out details, and comes across a series of similarly anomalous reversed prints. The conclusion he draws from this (and my own intention in describing it in the novel) is how unreliable memory can sometimes be, and how even objective reality, a practical test of the past, is something you can’t always depend on. The Affirmation grew from that incident, and itself became a long elegy to the wonders of unreliability.
I am another three and half decades on from the writing of that novel, and at last I can find and reveal at least one of the photos that was behind it all. I still have my father’s Voigtländer camera. It is in full working order, and from time to time I take it out and think about trying to buy some film for it and seeing what it can do. Here it is today, taken with my much more up-to-date Japanese camera:
I was 21 and my future was determined – I wanted to be a writer. For my 21st birthday my father bought me a manual typewriter: a Hermes 3000 Portable. This replaced the machine on which I had learned to type: an elderly Olivetti belonging to my parents. The new Hermes was everything I wanted: a smooth, steady action, a nice clear 10-pitch typeface, and a solid base. This meant that I could balance it on my knees while I sat on the side of my bed – already my favoured position while writing. An extra bonus was that I knew somehow it was the same machine used by Brian Aldiss, who was then something of a role model for me.
I worked on the Hermes for about four years. I never thought of changing it or looking for a better machine, because I considered it to be perfect. On it I wrote all my early short stories, and a thousand letters. But then my friend Graham Hall won a scholarship to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and suddenly everything changed.
Graham is now largely unknown, but he was a familiar and anarchic figure during the years of the British New Wave, in the 1960s. Like all of us he dreamed of being a writer, and in fact sold two or three remarkable short stories. The best of these was called “Sun Push”, published in the January 1967 edition of New Worlds SF. Three years later he and Graham Charnock co-edited an issue of New Worlds: December 1969. Graham Hall was a funny, highly intelligent and sensitive man, and was always entertaining and provocative company, but he had a weakness. He saw himself romantically as a doomed figure, and did whatever he could to confirm this by drinking heavily. I never once saw him drunk, but I also never saw him without a drink. He was to die of cirrhosis when he was only 32.
At the time of his scholarship to the American university, Graham had just bought his own Hermes typewriter, but unlike mine it was a huge manual, an office model. This was the period when the first electronic typewriters were coming on the market. They seemed likely eventually to replace both manual and electric typewriters. They were much quieter and less strenuous to use than manuals, and some even had a small memory bank to enable corrections. They were also much cheaper than electric typewriters, which were designed for office users and priced accordingly. Some of them used dot-matrix technology, but most of them printed with a daisywheel head. For writers, who spend hour after hour typing, the electronic machines felt lightweight and flimsy. Many writers in the USA at this time were using IBM Selectrics, with the golfball head and the distinctive typeface. (This typeface has become, incidentally, the expected and required font for all film scripts – even in these days of computers Hollywood producers will not read a single word of a screenplay unless it is in what these days we call Courier 12-pitch.) But for most of the people I knew in Britain at that time IBM Selectrics were beyond the pocket, and certainly were beyond mine and Graham Hall’s.
Graham’s reasoning for buying an office manual was sound, even if I didn’t share it. He said he wanted to future-proof himself: by buying the best-made office manual on the market he would own something that would last forever, and survive all the likely technological trends and gimmicks to affect typewriters.
To take up his scholarship in the USA, Graham needed a typewriter. His Hermes was far too unwieldy and heavy for travel. He asked me if I would be willing to trade mine for his, for the duration of his two years at Smith. I was not at all keen on this idea because I used my Portable every day and was completely at home with it. However, in the end I did reluctantly agree. I made Graham promise that he would treasure it and bring it back in one piece, and he solemnly promised he would. In any event, I would have his much larger machine as a replacement.
Shortly afterwards Graham flew away to the USA, leaving me with his Hermes Manual.
I didn’t like it much. It had a heavy action and the carriage required a hefty push at the end of every line. I had also grown attached to the Portable’s 10-pitch typeface (10-pitch = 12 characters to the inch), and was used to the smaller, neater face and could readily estimate line- and page-length. The Manual used 12-pitch (10 characters to the inch), and I kept missing the end of lines as I wrote. In short, I was disappointed with it and after a few weeks I bought a secondhand typewriter for £25 and began to use that instead. I passed Graham’s Hermes across to Charles Platt, who at that time needed a spare machine.
Time passed and several changes occurred. Charles later went to live and work in the USA, leaving most of his property (including Graham’s Hermes) in his old flat in London … which he now sublet. I continued to use my £25 manual typewriter for a while (my first two novels were bashed out on it), but it really wasn’t any good and in the end I invested in a secondhand electric machine, followed by several others as the years went by. And Graham Hall returned from the USA two years later with news that surprised and saddened me. Knowing how attached I was to my Hermes Portable he had felt unable throughout his entire sojourn at Smith to admit to me that it had been smashed by baggage-handlers on the outward flight. It was beyond repair.
Even though by this time I was used to electric machines, I had been looking forward to being reunited with my Portable. Graham felt the loss created a debt of honour. His stay abroad had given him the urge to travel, and he was planning to set out on a long worldwide tour almost immediately. He said I should keep the Hermes Manual, and added that one day he would return from his travels and buy it back from me. In the meantime he asked me to look after it, keep it in good repair, treasure it as I had asked him to treasure my own machine, and although it was a sentimental and rather silly agreement, I accepted.
Graham departed again to travel the world, and the Hermes Manual remained in Charles Platt’s sublet apartment. Graham sent occasional missives from Yugoslavia, India, Thailand, etc., but I was never to see him again. At the end of the 1970s he was in the USA, and by this time he was seriously ill. His drinking was beyond control and the inevitable hit him. He died in February 1980, a month short of his 33rd birthday.
A few years later, Charles came to visit me during one of his occasional visits back to the UK. He was getting rid of his London flat, and he asked me if I would at last take permanent possession of Graham’s typewriter. I was not all that keen, but we had another fairly sentimental conversation: we both knew Graham’s attachment to his old typewriter. Although I had no need of it, I felt I should take it.
By this time I was accustomed to working on an electric machine: I had a beautiful Adler electric, which had served me well for a long time. But I began to use Graham’s machine occasionally because I liked the change. I wrote several short pieces on it during 1982-1983.
Then came the computer revolution: I acquired my first PC in 1984, began word processing on it more or less straight away, and thoughts of typewriters, manual or electric or anything else, disappeared. I did keep Graham’s Hermes, though, storing it on a shelf in my study. I kept it clean and in repair, it had a new ribbon and I had a spare in my stationery box. The Hermes remained in the corner of my study for thirty years.
But two weeks ago I moved my study to another room in this house: a smaller room upstairs, looking out across the garden. The smaller room meant a major reappraisal of what I really needed in a work room, and drastic culling actions began. Mick Smith, our local totter, soon spotted the skip on the drive and began ferreting through it. At the end he asked if there was “anything else”. Graham’s typewriter now stood more or less alone in my former study. Reader, I let it go.
Sorry, Graham. I did keep the spare ribbon, though.
Lavie Tidhar’s new novel The Violent Century has been packaged as a general novel, with no hint of what is inside. The cover, with its silhouette of Brandenburger Tor, and anti-aircraft shells bursting in the sky around looming bombers, suggests a WW2 novel. The blurb refers coyly to a gunshot, a body in a river, a plane crashing into a skyscraper … and a perfect summer’s day. That the publishers (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) are not letting on about something is manifest. However, I suspect most early readers of this novel, at least as long as it remains in hard covers, will have come to it because they admired Tidhar’s earlier novel, Osama. I certainly did. Those readers, like me, will not be misdirected by the cover, as our appetites for what this young writer might do after the brilliant, if slightly flawed, Osama were well whetted.
It turns out that the publishers’ guilty secret is that the novel is about superheroes. The Violent Century presents an alternative view of the history of the 20th century, as seen by a group of Übermenschen, or super-men. But these are not Nietzsche’s Übermenschen – they are the sort of superhero characters you find in comic books. The comics of course partly originated from the Nietzschean concept of men and women who should aim to rise ‘above or beyond’ the normal – but they were no longer super-men in that philosophical sense. The comic book writers created the popular idiom, but the Nazis were there two or three years before them. Both took the concept literally and then dumbed it down.
Nietzsche of course never intended the concept to mean a body-builder in a brightly coloured skin-tight costume who can halt a hurtling train with his hands, and neither did he mean the breeding of a genetically managed master race. This interpretative misnomer provides much of the plot tension of The Violent Century, as Tidhar’s small group of super-men witness or observe or marginally take part in various violent episodes of the Nazi era.
The central character, Henry Fogg, has the ‘super power’ of creating a blinding miasma of mist or smoke or fog, with which he can confuse, obfuscate, escape, etc. His friend and would-be beau, Oblivion, has the power when sufficiently provoked to, well, cast into oblivion those who threaten him. Other super-characters appear: a Whirlwind, a Tank, a Tigerman, a Machentraum, and so on. The plot largely turns on the quest to find the Übermensch who has, so to speak, gone over to the Nazis, one Schneesturm, as well as Fogg’s more personal quest to be reunited with Klara, after a romantic and sexual interlude with her. Klara is the daughter of Vomacht, the scientist who is said to have developed the process by which these people were ‘changed’, and she was in fact the very first to be changed.
The novel concentrates on Nazi atrocities during WW2, although there is a postscript set in the ruins of Berlin in 1946, and a brief incident in the Indochinese wars during the 1960s, and an even more fleeting reference to 9/11. Because of this over-emphasis on one relatively short period of history the main events of the novel really constitute a violent decade, rather than a century. An author should not be held ransom to his title, but this one does suggest a deeper engagement with history than is in fact the case.
Fogg and Oblivion mostly observe incidents which are well known to history: the D-Day landings, the military occupation of Minsk by the Nazis, the hideous experiments of Josef Mengele in Auschwitz, and so on. As observers they are inert. What is the point of these superheroes merely looking and commenting? When they do involve themselves, the brief action is almost always on the fringes, the historical outcome not being affected in any way. The implication is that superheroes should not act effectively. Wouldn’t that be contrary to the whole idea of being a superhero?
It is unclear what we are intended to learn about history that we did not know before. Fiction provides a mirror to reality, a way of testing what we believe to be known, and we can presume that this was the sort of instinct that lay behind writing the novel. In an afterword Tidhar sets out the reality behind his fiction, but it merely confirms the facts that most people are already familiar with. What he does not address is that because his characters are inert his take on history can never be more than superficial. The novel is also partial. By concentrating on the 12-year period of Nazi rule in Germany it says nothing about other events that were as bad, or worse: the Stalin purges, the killing fields of Cambodia, the massacres in Rwanda, the use of nerve gas by Saddam Hussein, the fire-bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Pforzheim, the nuking of Nagasaki. And there is another kind of partiality: the novel concerns itself for instance with the division of Germany and the building of the Berlin Wall, but is silent on the equally brutalist West Bank Barrier. Tidhar’s history is more or less bunk.
In essence, the novel is told on two levels: a sort of debriefing in the present day by a George Smiley figure called the Old Man, who takes a paternal interest in his young heroes, with the main narrative consisting of flashbacks to the incidents themselves. The conversations that take place in the Old Man’s office throughout the book are banal, chatty and inconclusive, so really serve as a sort of narrative continuo, quiet bits that link the exciting bits. But the main passages, the flashbacks, are also curiously uninvolving.
All of this raises the connected problem of using superhero characters in a serious novel.
Seriousness is Tidhar’s own agenda. Attempts at it spill from every page of The Violent Century, with the same sort of interest in psychological realism, human urges, emotional complexity, etc., that has been the inspiration of the recent Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan. Superheroes have become big business, at least in film, and their presence is starting to be taken for granted, a sort of donnée that by sheer persistence is no longer questioned.
In this, superheroes are similar to what has happened to zombies, a current infatuation of many writers, readers and publishers. Familiarity does not eradicate the essential silliness of such trivial notions. There is not a crumb of scientific possibility (or, for that matter, of imaginative viability) for reanimated corpses wandering down apocalyptic streets – or, to keep to the subject in hand, neither is there for adapted humans who can breathe underwater, kill with a well-aimed spit, put back time by a few minutes, and so on. The superhero comics celebrated by Tidhar in this novel are by design simplistic. Problems and crises are usually of a single issue, and are resolved in their pages in an emphatic and single-minded way. Comic book apologists often point out that the characters’ self-doubts, foibles, weaknesses and heroic shortcomings are part of the tradition too, but such sub-plot materials are resolved only by sub-plot devices. Both zombies and superheroes have become so familiar and degraded that they are clearly in what Joanna Russ described as the Decadent stage of worn-out genre materials.
The tropes of superheroes are fanciful notions, not ideas with metaphorical depth, and any attempt to dignify them with a serious purpose is to try to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear of narrative material that has been debased for years by shallow and exploitative work.
Finally, Tidhar’s chosen style of writing cannot be ignored. Most of the narrative is told in short, unparsed sentences. Here is a typical short section from close to the beginning of the novel:
Walks away, towards the building. Fogg follows. Nondescript building. Can’t really tell what, if anything, is inside. Could be a bank. Could be a warehouse. Could be anything.
They go around to the side of the building. A narrow alleyway. A door set in the wall. No handle. They stop in front of it. Stare. [p.17]
This is lazy, evasive writing. It is lazy because no trouble is required to type one expressionist ejaculation after another. It is evasive because it uses what amounts to bullet points to establish every image, and does not take the trouble to find the best arrangement of words to convey the message. It seems to seek to recapture the quality of narrative panels in the comics, the voice-balloons which accompany almost every action, no matter how violent. It also smacks of an attempt to reproduce the terse, effective noir style of thriller writers like Hammett or Chandler. Formal prose (which Tidhar employed well in Osama, and which as a matter of fact both Hammett and Chandler excelled in) has not been developed as a sort of posh mannerism favoured only by literary writers. English prose can be subtle, exciting, descriptive, rhythmic, mood-inducing, beautiful, shocking. Good prose is a required art, and to scatter short sentences in undigested lumps throughout a novel is a wicked thing to do. It is a type of writing familiar to anyone who has read a screenplay: the words are deployed as shorthand, a simple code to convey images and ideas without distracting the presumably busy producer or director. Film scripts are never read for style – they are seen as a halfway house before the storyboard is drafted. Film people only feel safe with pictures.
In fact, Tidhar’s style is not half bad when he can be bothered to write properly. There is a short sequence in the middle of the novel, a lyrical passage describing Fogg’s affair with Klara, where the ugly machine-gun scatter of words temporarily ceases. Here he writes plain descriptive language, and although at times it teeters on the edge of being something that could be nominated for the annual Bad Sex Award, it is written in a way the reader will comprehend and so it becomes one of the best scenes in the novel.
Nor is the lack of descriptive prose the only thing that’s wrong. For some reason, Tidhar has opted in this novel to abandon the conventions of dialogue, and sets out all the characters’ words so that they blend with the rest and are indistinguishable from it. Maybe some will see this as a dramatic and even daring innovation, but it is a gimmick many have tried before and it is always tiresome for the reader. Tidhar compounds it by sometimes leaving off question marks, and although his solecisms are not as bad as those of many of his colleagues he should be more careful of details.
A fug of smoke cannot ‘crescendo’; the word ‘oblivion’ means the state of being forgotten or disregarded, and is not a synonym for ‘annihilation’; similarly, there is no such word as ‘obliviating’; air does not condense out of mouths in cold weather, but breath does (Tidhar gets this right later, so he knows the difference); someone who has a hole blown out of his head is described as ‘very dead’, which is presumably much more dead than just dead; ‘“We don’t age,” the Old Man said’, which suggests he must have been born old; colours don’t ‘leech’ away.
A copy editor, or Tidhar himself in a final draft, should have corrected all of these. They weren’t corrected, though, and as Tidhar is clearly being treated now as a high quality writer, the question of his style is important.
In spite of all this, Lavie Tidhar is a gifted writer. When he puts himself out he writes effectively and well, but in this novel those occasions are few and far between. He researches thoroughly and displays discernment over what he uses. He clearly has an original mind. His vocabulary, when he chooses to deploy it properly, is good and varied. I hope he will grow to see The Violent Century as an aberration, an error of judgement. Osama quite rightly drew attention to Tidhar’s real qualities and genuine promise as a novelist of the fantastic, but this is not the novel he should have written to consolidate his reputation. It is boring and shallow, clumsily written and not at all pleasant to read. It required a conscious struggle to stay interested enough to get to the end.
I am at present working slowly through the first draft of a new novel, something which of course sucks up creative energy like an adjacent neutron star. This is my excuse (probably a bit unconvincing) for not writing more on this blog. The life of a writer is externally really dull — I have been saying this for years and no one outside the world of books seems to believe it, but it means in effect that most of what I do when not writing is watch DVDs of TV programmes and films that other people have already seen, and read books ditto. On TV we are racing through the backlog of Breaking Bad — we are now up to the fourth (penultimate) season of this extraordinary story. I have never come across anything remotely like it before. There must be a total of something like 60 hour-long episodes, and yet it has genuine character development and a story that is fully structured, and it is deeply plotted and consistent throughout … as well as containing some of the most astonishing, imaginative and sometimes shocking imagery and situations I can recall ever seeing, either on TV or in a film. (It is also, at times, extremely funny in a ghastly sort of way.)
Books. It is probably best to skim diplomatically over the three last novels I have read (one of them a near-beer literary/fantastic novel, the other two being recently released SF novels), although the book in which I am currently revelling, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, is a solid masterpiece. I consider it to be at least an equal to the same author’s Pale Fire — no higher praise is possible. It is one of those books that you miss between reading sessions, and long to get back to, as I long for it as I write this. Such a reading experience is great therapy after the weak and discouraging efforts that immediately preceded it.
One of the frustrations of the autumn months was the fact that for at least two of those months The Adjacent was out of print and unavailable. It sold out in its hardcover edition in just over three months, but I am now pleased and relieved to say that the book has been awarded a reprint and is on sale again, at least for now. It can be bought from Book Depository here — not only at a decent discount but with free delivery to most parts of the world. Orders placed in the next few days will probably be fulfilled by Christmas. Although Book Depository is owned by the Amazon multinational, they manage to seem altogether more human in scale and should be supported. Amazon itself has been behaving erratically with its information about availability of books — I gather from Gollancz that The Adjacent is just one of many books which has not been properly displayed by Amazon.co.uk as available, when, in fact, some copies were in the warehouse. (It’s always virtually impossible for authors to know or discover exactly what is going on.)
At the time of writing, The Adjacent in hardback is still not being listed by Amazon … although it is possible to buy secondhand copies through them, and one “collectible” copy, apparently new, which at the moment is being offered by an outside dealer for approximately three times the cover price. If the trade hardback returns to Amazon availability I’ll mention it either here or in a later post. (PS: Now available again from Amazon.)
The Islanders is available from Amazon.co.uk: the hardback here and the paperback here, both discounted and with a choice of delivery costs/options. Book Depository also has both formats on sale: the hardback here (small discount, plus free delivery) and the paperback here (slightly better discount, and free delivery). E-book and audio copies are available of course from both these dealers, as well as others.
Life seems to have become one long commercial.
First of all, here is the extremely attractive cover illustration for my latest-but-one novel, The Islanders, which will be published in the USA in April 2014. It is coming out in trade paperback at the same time as The Adjacent, which is being published in hardcover. I don’t know who told them that I always prefer typographical covers, but they’ve got it right as far as I am concerned.
Speaking of The Islanders, it’s been a long time since I saw any copies of the Gollancz paperback on sale in bookshops here. I gave up patrolling bookstores decades ago, prowling around to check what my publishers might be up to (or not, as the case may be). For writers, it’s a bit of no-win situation: if the book’s not on sale you wonder why it has not been stocked, but if it is sitting there on the shelf you wonder unfairly: why can’t they sell it? Not much joy in either of those. But I am a regular visitor to bookstores and I can’t help noticing if that important if slightly narrow space between the titles by T. Pratchett and R. Rankin remains unfilled. I generally hope for the best and carry on. However, Amazon.co.uk has at present no copies of the Gollancz paperback of The Islanders on sale, even though according to my editor at VG, they still have many copies in the warehouse. The only copies you can buy now through Amazon are either secondhand copies, or pricey marked-up ones from specialist dealers … or, of course, the Kindle edition.
While I grumbled about this, Amazon suddenly and inexplicably announced that The Islanders was once again available in HARDBACK! What is going on? Where have those copies come from? I was given to understand that the hardback was long out of print.
Answers have come there none. But if you have been trying to get hold of one of Gollancz’s attractively printed hardbacks, now’s your chance. I suspect the situation is likely to change without warning. Click here soon!
Autun Purser is a deep-sea ecologist and freelance illustrator, whose beautiful and witty artwork may be viewed on his website. He will be exhibiting his work at the World Fantasy Convention at the end of this month, in Brighton. I hope many people will take the chance to seek him out and see his work. I cannot be there to meet him myself, which is unfortunate because about a year ago he sent me a poster he had designed as part of his series of ‘Fantastic Travel Destinations’, based on the imaginary island of Seevl. This place has featured in two of my darker narratives, one of which is included as a whole island-chapter in my recent novel The Islanders. (I have been a bit laggardly in getting it framed, but now it is hung prominently in the stairwell of the house. Photo by Nina.)
Many thanks, Autun!
Here is the beautiful and effective cover for the US edition of The Adjacent, which will be published in hardcover by Titan Books in April 2014.
A few extracts from the reviews of the book are now available on this site. (A new page is opened.) For those doubters, the full un-extracted reviews can also be found, with links from that page.
I suddenly realize I have written nothing here since the beginning of August, just after returning from our trip to Avilés (below). I have been in that strange and unproductive realm where a new novel lurks tantalizingly out of reach. Many false starts have led to raised and dashed hopes, but I think I have finally cracked it. It doesn’t take more than a few words of draft to realize that you have found a way into a complex story, but it can take ages to reach that realization. A decade and a half ago I spent nearly six months fruitlessly trying to find a way in to the book that eventually became The Separation. I drafted some twelve different openings, only to realize that the very first attempt was actually the one I wanted and should have been using all along. Anyway, after only about six abortive attempts, the new novel now has a beginning I think will lead somewhere, and I have even worked out the title for it. Dark winter days with the comfort of something in progress lie ahead.
It has been a time of reading. I have just finished Simon Ings’s new novel, Wolves, which strikes me as certain to be one of the key books of next year. I have no idea why it is called Wolves, and I don’t like the cover (which I think separates me from everyone else), but it is a serious, ambitious and discomfiting novel.
I also gave a long and attentive reading to a new novel called Erotic Lives of the Superheroes, by Marco Mangassola. I truly wanted to like it, as in many ways it is extremely well wrought and appears to have been given an excellent translation (by Anthony Shugaar). The publisher, Salammbo Press, is a small independent house, who must have gambled heavily on the book. Good luck to them. But it’s a novel that takes superheroes seriously and literally, and because of that it walks directly into one of my blind spots. I thought Watchmen was pretty good, but firstly that was enough, and secondly it was a quarter of a century ago. I’m going to pass this copy across to Nina, as she is more receptive than I can ever be to this sort of thing. Sorry, Salammbo. Sorry, Signor Mangassola.
I am currently reading Richard House’s The Kills. I might be gone for quite a while.
We have also seen some terrific movies in the last few weeks, some of them real discoveries.
Try Chronicle (dir. Josh Trank, 2012), a fabulously entertaining found-footage sf film, written by Max Landis, son of John.
Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax, 2012) was a real oddball, about a man touring Paris in the back of a limousine, performing good deeds (or otherwise) on the way. Kylie Minogue appears in a scene in a ruined department store, shades of Liebestraum, in one of the most surreal pieces of casting I can remember. The film is a lot better than David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, with which it is often compared (also about a man being driven around in the back of a limousine).
Alias Betty (dir. Claude Miller, 2001) comes close to being my film of the year so far – it is based on a novel by Ruth Rendell, and has a constantly intriguing structure and plot.
In spite of a long antipathy to the work of Neil Jordan (don’t ask), I rather enjoyed his new film Byzantium (2012) not least because it was filmed effectively here in Hastings, gaining little gasps of recognition from the audience in our local Odeon.
My film of the year so far: The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance, 2012). The worst thing about the film is the title, which is meaningless, pretentious and irrelevant, and I’m certain helped ensure that few people paid to get into the cinema. On one level the film is a well-made violent thriller (starring Ryan Gosling), but the truly wonderful thing about it is its structure. It drives a train through the received Hollywood wisdom that films must have a certain story arc or structure: unless you peek at the reviews first (I rarely do) you will have no idea where this film takes you, or how it is going to turn out. It breaks most of the storytelling rules that so cramp Hollywood style, and does so brilliantly.
We caught up at last with Summer of Sam (dir. Spike Lee, 1999), which was another film that did not at all develop in the direction you assume from the subject-matter (serial killer in New York) and the opening scenes.
Finally: Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell, 2012), a film about people suffering personality disorders, and unusually for a Hollywood film not softening up the awkward details. It is remarkable for a brilliant performance by Jennifer Lawrence. All of these films I recommend.
Currently: catching up with the box sets of Breaking Bad. Best thing I’ve seen on TV in years, rushing through it incontinently.
Last week we went to the Celsius 232 convention in Avilés, in the Asturias region of Spain. It was a hugely enjoyable visit, largely hosted by Ian Watson and Cristina Macia. Writers from the UK included myself, Nina Allan, Paul McAuley, Jonathan Grimwood and Joe Abercrombie; from the USA there were Robert Sawyer and David Simon; from South Africa came Lauren Beukes. Most of the best Spanish writers of the fantastic were there too. A high point, recognized by everyone, was the instant translation provided by Diego Garcia Cruz, who not only interpreted our fumbling words with precision and real inflective flair, he worked seemingly without a break for hour after hour. Unfortunately I do not have a good picture of him, as he was the star turn. We visiting writers from abroad do not exist without translators.
However, here is the pedestrianized centre of Avilés. It was siesta time, and only mad dogs and photographic Brits were about:
Our hotel, the NH Palacio de Ferrera, was a conversion from a former palace in the Plaza de España. Although most of the guest rooms were in a modern extension at the back of the old building, the main part remained. The room below had been restored to its former appearance, the spiral staircase leading to a small balcony on a tower overlooking the town:
During one of the free days we visted Gijon, a coastal town (part Spanish Navy, part tourism) where some eight years ago I was a guest at the annual Semana Negra, a book fair mostly concerned with thrillers and the fantastic. As I had found in 2005, Gijon seemed unphotogenic to me, but while we were having lunch in a shaded alley in the old town, I noticed this sign for the Street of Recollections:
Now a few pictures of some of the people who were there.
Here is Jon Grimwood, a shy writer, who has recently re-invented himself for his literary novel The Last Banquet:
Ian Watson now lives in Gijon, and seems to be blossoming under the heat of the sun, the rejuvenating impact of the sea winds and the wonderfully tasty Spanish cuisine. Here he is, not pulling a silly face:
Finally, here are Joe Abercrombie and Lauren Beukes, being sociable in the modern way. I read in the Guardian this morning that this activity is now known as phubbing: