Thursday, 22 November 2012

On This Day - The JFK Assassination

Today is the 49th anniversary of the death of JFK, who was murdered by an assassin's bullet as he travelled through the streets of Dallas, Texas in an open-top car.   In a brief extract from my book, 'JFK: History In An Hour', available on the History In An Hour website, I recount the events of the fateful day.

Monday, 5 November 2012

A Picture of a Man's (Miserable) Soul

Last week, the National Portrait Gallery unveiled its latest high profile acquisition – a portrait of a relatively young Winston Churchill, painted in 1916 – to great fanfare.  The excitement surrounding this event is understandable considering this is only the second time in its almost 100-year history that the painting has gone on public display - apart from a brief outing seven years ago when it was featured in an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, it has languished virtually unseen in the home of Churchill’s grandson. 

However, following the death of said grandson (also called Winston) in 2010, the NPG has been in talks with the Churchill estate to acquire the piece on long-term loan – and the fruits of these labours are now available for all to see, hanging in the gallery’s 20th Century room.

This painting is significant for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it was painted by the celebrated World War One portraitist, William Orpen and is undeniably a very accomplished work – in fact, it is believed by many to be the finest portrait of the statesman in existence.  But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this piece is its rather unique historical provenance.

Churchill began sitting for Orpen in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign – a failed operation to capture Constantinople (the capital of the Ottoman Empire), which had been masterminded by Churchill in his capacity as First Lord of the Admiralty, and which had cost the lives of some 46,000 Allied troops (mostly ANZAC – Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – forces). 

The fall from grace had been spectacular – as a consequence of his fatal miscalculations (which were based, to some extent, on incorrect intelligence) Churchill was forced to resign from his beloved politics in the face of accusations of irresponsible leadership.   He was also facing ian inquiry by the Dardanelle’s Commission, which was set up to investigate the reasons for the Gallipoli campaign’s catastrophic failure (an inquiry, incidentally, which ultimately concluded that Churchill was not, in fact, personally responsible).

All of the turmoil of this period is reflected in the painting itself.  There is no sign of the brash self-confidence typical of Churchill in his later years.  We see instead a man weighed down by disappointment and doubt.  His eyes appear tormented by … what? Guilt? Regret? Self-reproach? Perhaps a combination of all three.  He could not have known then that he would be exonerated by the Commission (technically, if not morally).  Neither could he have known that his political career was far from over, that history would grant him a chance to rehabilitate his reputation.  And, above all, he could not have known that he would one day be regarded as Great Britain’s finest ever statesman. 

But even when these events did come to pass, it seems Churchill never forgot the lessons learned in 1915/16.  Of all the portraits ever painted of him, Orpen’s is the one he valued most.  He kept it all his life.  "It is not the picture of a man,” he said.” It is the picture of a man's soul."

About the artist: Major Sir William Orpen was an Irish artist and an official World War One painter.  He captured many disturbing images on the Western Front, including paintings of dead soldiers and German prisoners of war.  In 1918, he was made a Knight of the British Empire (KBE), and the following year was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts as a Royal Academician.  Orpen died in 1931 in London, aged 53 years.  He is buried at Putney Vale Cemetery. 

Remember, Remember ...

In honour of Bonfire Night tonight, the historically curious among you may be interested in my article for the History in an Hour blog on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the role the infamous Guy Fawkes played in it:

And, if this whets your appetite, read the full story of the audiacious 17th century plot to blow up James I and his parliament with my new bite-sized ebook, The Gunpowder Plot: History in an Hour. Available from Amazon, iTunes and all other digital platforms for just 99p.

Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

'A Treacherous Likeness' by Lynn Shepherd

First, there was the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park, which saw Jane Austen’s much-loved classic re-imagined as a riveting Victorian murder mystery.  Then came the darkly gripping Tom-All-Alone’s, a thriller set in the shadow of Dickens’s Bleak House. And now author Lynn Shepherd has done it again with her third outing, A Treacherous Likeness.  Except this time, her fiction centres not on characters and settings from classic Victorian novels, but on real events and real people. 

However, this does not mean that A Treacherous Likeness is in any way less influenced by Victorian literature than her previous efforts.  If anything, it is more so – because the real people on which this novel is based are none other than the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, one-time lover of Lord Byron. 

But I’m in danger of getting ahead of myself.  Let me begin, as they say, at the beginning.
The year is 1850.  Charles Maddox, thief-taker par excellence, has barely recovered from the harrowing climax of his investigation into the Tom-All-Alone’s mystery when he finds himself summoned to the home of Sir Percy Shelley (only surviving son of the long-dead poet) and his crass wife, Lady Jane.  It soon transpires that Charles is required to investigate a rather straightforward case of blackmail – someone has threatened to publish papers relating to Shelley which, if genuine, may cast the poet in a rather unfavourable light (and, indeed, undo the family’s decades-long work in sanitizing his once-dubious reputation).

But, as is always the case in Shepherd’s novels, nothing is what it seems.  It isn’t long before Charles finds himself ensnared in a web of lies and deceit borne out of seething jealously, sibling rivalry and unfulfilled love.  It is a web which stretches through time and space – from 1814 to 1850, from the valleys of Wales, to northern Italy and the shores of Lake Geneva.  It is a web which witnessed the creation of Frankenstein, one of the most celebrated gothic novels ever written, but which could also have given rise to more than one shocking murder.

Drawing on all we currently know about the Shelleys and their turbulent lives, A Treacherous Likeness seeks to fill in the many acknowledged gaps in the factual records.  Told through the eyes on an omniscient, 21st century narrator (who benefits from both hindsight and advancements in our understanding of psychological disorders), this exhaustively-researched and intricately-plotted novel casts this fêted literary family in an entirely different light.

While this is, undeniably, a work of fiction, it is a very compelling fiction – and one that will leave you questioning all you thought you knew about that ‘dazzling but doomed’ generation.

A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd will be published by Corsair in February

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Hollywood Costume at the V&A

“Costume is the most important element of my films.”

This is the assertion made by legendary director, Martin Scorsese, in an interview featured as part of the V&A’s new blockbuster exhibition, Hollywood Costume.  Quite a bold pronouncement, even by Scorsese’s standards - and one I was initially tempted to take with a rather large pinch of proverbial salt.  Surely there are other parts of the film-making process which are equally, if not more, important than costume design?  Like casting perhaps, or script-writing, or maybe the all-encompassing process of directing?

However, a few hours spent wandering around the exhibition (or, rather, elbowing my way around – the gallery was packed to capacity) was enough to win me over to Scorsese’s view.  Featuring over 130 costumes from a century of film-making, and guest-curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis (whose design credits include Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blues Brothers, Coming to America, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video), Hollywood Costume is an exercise in promoting the often-overlooked role of costume designers in the movie-making process – an exercise in which it wholly succeeds.
Deborah Nadoolman Landis
But why the need for an exhibition to underscore the talent of Hollywood costumiers in the first place?  Surely, they already receive ample recognition and credit for their achievements?  Well, perhaps this is the case these days – but it wasn’t always thus.  In those halcyon days of early Hollywood, the role of the costume designer was not so much under-appreciated as ignored completely.  Often disregarded as being ‘women’s work’, costume design was, more often than not, referred to dismissively as ‘wardrobe’.  Tellingly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only deigned to create an award category for costume design in 1948, despite handing out its first gold 'Oscar' statuettes in 21years earlier, in 1927 – and only then after extensive lobbying from people like the pioneering designer Edith Head.  This meant that, unbelievably, costume designers of such classic films as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind (both made in 1939) never received Oscar nominations in recognition of their efforts.

And while attitudes have improved markedly in the intervening decades, costume designers were still being paid up to 33% less than their counterparts in production design as recently as the early 2000s.  Again, this differential seems to run along gender lines – the poorer paid costumiers still tend to be women, while production design is a predominantly male-dominated area.  (Incidentally, Landis succeeded in redressing this inequity when she became President of the Costume Designers Guild in 2001.)

The secret of this exhibition’s success lies in its three-part structure: Act 1, or ‘Deconstruction’, takes us back to basics by examining the beginning of the designers’ creative process and the research necessary to bring a costume to life.  Act 2, or ‘Dialogue’, focuses on the collaboration between the designer, the director and the actors who will eventually inhabit the costumes.  This section features video interviews with the likes of Tim Burton, the aforementioned Scorsese, and those perennial chameleons Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. 
And last, but certainly not least, comes Act 3 or the ‘Finale’.  This is the blockbusting part of this blockbuster exhibition featuring as it does a mind-blowing selection of some of the most celebrated costumes ever to have graced the silver screen. Uma Thurman’s yellow Kill Bill cat suit, Harry Potter’s cloak, Keanu Reeves’s full-length Matrix coat, Rose’s gigantic hat from her first scene in Titanic, Holly Golightly’s black dress and pearls, Dorothy’s simple blue pinafore from The Wizard of Oz – they all take their place in this awe-inspiring costume Hall of Fame.

Indeed, the sheer number of weird and wonderful costumes included in this exhibition leaves one in little doubt as to the integral role these outfits have played in the creation of an iconic movie character.  Would Marilyn’s infamous subway scene have succeeded if it wasn’t for her white billowing dress?  What about Dorothy’s jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road – would it have been quite so memorable without her ruby slippers?  And as for Charlie Chaplin’s tramp – that character has now become inextricably linked to his bowler hat and cane.

Hollywood Costume also brings into stark relief the quality of the workmanship that goes into film costumes.  While some of the exhibits have, inevitably, faded over time (Vivien Leigh’s green curtain dress comes to mind here – so much colour has drained from the fabric that curators have been forced to illuminate it with a green spotlight), others have remained in remarkably good conditions.  In particular, the wonderful sequinned fuchsia creation worn by Ginger Rogers in the 1944 film, Lady In The Dark, remains as vibrant today as it did 70 years ago – so much so, I initially mistook it as a piece worn by Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge.

There was always a danger with an exhibition of this sort that the costumes, displayed without their famous erstwhile inhabitants, would look flat and lifeless – after all, Brad Pitt’s Fight Club costume would inevitably look better if Brad Pitt was still in it.  However, the curators have cleverly overcome this problem by displaying the actors’ faces on strategically-place television screens above the headless mannequins –instantly bestowing a semblance of life to the overall image.

But for all its triumphs, this exhibition is not without its faults. 

The lighting of the exhibits is surprisingly hit-and-miss.  In some cases, light has been used to great effect in order to enhance the costume (like Leigh’s green Gone With The Wind curtains), but there are too many instances where the illumination detracts from the effect.  In particular, Johnny Depp’s Demon Barber ensemble is so poorly lit, it is difficult to even recognise the costume, let alone appreciate any of the detail.  Similarly, the choice of black mannequins works well in some cases but not in others, namely when the costume itself was black.  Natalie Portman’s black tutu from Black Swan, for example, is indistinguishable from the black mannequin upon which it displayed (a problem accentuated by the darkness of the gallery).

And finally, why on God’s good earth did the curators decide to mount the superhero costumes in such elevated positions?  Yes, I know that Spiderman likes to scale high buildings, but was it really necessary to re-enact the scene? Ditto for Superman (flying near the ceiling), and Batman and Catwoman (both perched in improbably vertiginous positions).  Such staging eliminates any chance of examining the detail of these hugely influential costume designs.

Which is a great shame – because I doubt we will get such a chance to get up close and personal with these magnificent creations again.

High Points: Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Charlie Chaplin’s tramp ensemble
Low Points: Inaccessible superheroes, dodgy lighting.

Hollywood Costume is sponsored by Harry Winston (for reasons which will become clear at the end). It runs from 20 Oct to 27 January at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Tickets £15.50 (Concessions and group discounts available). Booking fees apply.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Johnny Depp: Performer, Producer - and Publisher?

Johnny Depp has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Throughout his 28-year film career (yes - it has been that long), his endlessly left-field roles have earned him the enviable reputation of being Hollywood’s most unpredictable chameleon - from the many weird and wonderful characters he has created in collaboration with Tim Burton, to his rum-soaked depiction of Disney pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp seems to pride himself on his changeability.

Indeed, this precocious eccentricity is not just confined to his acting. In his capacity as a fledgling Hollywood producer, Depp recently adapted Hunter S Thompson’s typically off-the-wall novel, The Rum Diary, for the big screen, to somewhat mixed reviews from critics.

And now, just when we thought that his capacity to shock was beginning to wane, JD has done it again. In fact, with his latest career move, which was announced last week, he has delivered his biggest surprise yet – Depp, it seems, is about to try his hand at publishing. And by publishing, we are not referring to the usual run-of-the-mill celebrity memoir. Oh no. That would be far too predictable. Johnny, in true Johnny style, has decided to launch a new imprint in conjunction with publishing giant, HarperCollins.

The new HarperCollins off-shoot will bear the same name as Depp’s film production company, Infinitum Nihil, and will promote “outspoken and visionary ideas and voices” and will "deliver publications worthy of people's time, of people's concern. Publications that might ordinarily never have breached the parapet." Among the first titles set to be released by Infinitum Nihil are two music-related volumes; The Unraveled Tales of Bob Dylan by Douglas Brinkley (a book which has, incidentally, received considerable input from its usually reclusive subject) is expected in 2015, while the folk singer Woody Guthrie’s previously unpublished 1947 novel, House of Earth will hit the shelves this coming January.

Reaction to news of Depp’s new venture has been almost universally positive. Many new authors find it difficult to get their work into print – and for those writers who fail to fit into conventional literary niches, the task is nigh-on impossible. But with Depp at the helm of Infinitum Nihil, hopes are high that this new imprint will come to their rescue. Indeed, any initiative that attempts to breathe new life into the staid and increasingly short-sighted book industry can only be positive.

Let’s hope Mr Depp doesn’t disappoint.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Yellowism - A New Definition for Vandalism?

Sunday is usually the busiest day of the week for most of London’s art galleries and museums.  In addition to the ever-present throng of tourists, Sunday is the day when city dwellers, freed of the shackles of the working week and the tyranny of Saturday chores, venture out to explore all that London has to offer.

And for the Tate Modern, that temple on the banks of the Thames dedicated to the worship of modern and contemporary art, this past Sunday was no exception.  From the time the doors swung open at 10am, the crowds began to build, with attendance reaching its zenith by mid-afternoon.

But, as it turned out, this particular Sunday was to prove rather more exceptional that anyone at Tate Modern could possibly have predicted.  Because, unbeknownst to the overworked museum staff and the hordes of jaded art lovers elbowing their way around the various exhibition spaces that make up gallery’s cavernous interior, one man stood poised and ready to commit the ultimate act of vandalism – the defacement of one of the world’s most valuable works of art.

Tate Modern's Rothko Room
The target was Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon (1958), one of a series of large murals (originally commissioned by the Seagram beverage company to adorn the walls of the company’s premises in Park Avenue, New York) which the artist bequeathed, free of charge, to the Tate in 1969.  This bequest was to prove something of a boon for Tate curators, especially considering the murals are now thought to be worth in the region of £50 million each.  And now, one of their number was about to be vandalized.

By 3.25pm, the deed was done.  Brandishing a brush and black paint, the culprit calmly (and in full view of anyone who happened to be passing), tagged Black on Maroon with the words ‘Vladimir Umanets ’12, A Potential Piece of Yellowism’.  Ironically, the defacer seems to have misjudged the space required because the graffiti was executed rather clumsily – the words were squished into the lower right-hand corner of the mural, while the runny paint dribbled messily into tiny black rivulets on the purple-hued canvas. 
The defaced canvas
Witnesses immediately raised the alarm, and the gallery was closed briefly while police were called in to investigate – albeit too late to ensnare the vandal, who had already fled the scene.  But considering Vladimir Umanets had used his real name in the cryptic message scrawled on Rothko’s canvas, it wouldn’t prove overly difficult for Scotland Yard’s finest to track him down …

And track him down they did.  The following evening, Sussex Police arrested Mr Umanets, a Polish national, in Worthing - and having been transferred into the custody of the Met Police, he was charged on suspicion of criminal damage.

Umanets has made no attempt to deny the allegations, freely admitting that he is the culprit.  He does, however, deny that he is a vandal, preferring instead to believe his actions have furthered the cause of the hitherto unheard-of Yellowism movement (of which, Umanets is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a founding member).
Umanets (R) with his Yellowism co-founder

So, what exactly is Yellowism?  A new art movement?  Or is it an anti-art statement?  Well, neither, apparently.  According to Umanets himself, "Yellowism is not art, and Yellowish isn't anti-art. It's an element of contemporary visual culture. It's not an artistic movement.  It's not art, it's not reality, it's just Yellowism. It can't be presented in a gallery of art, it can be presented only in Yellowistic chambers.  The main difference between Yellowism and art is that in art you have got freedom of interpretation, in Yellowism you don't have freedom of interpretation. Everything is about Yellowism - that's it.”

Confused? I certainly was. The art world is often guilty of adopting affected and grandiose vocabulary – but this opaque description of Yellowism was one of the most perplexing I have ever come across. I have, however, endeavoured to translate it for you, dear reader, into the following definition which may be somewhat easier to understand:

Yellowism is an undefinable, abstract movement borne out of an over-fertile, deluded, and most likely unhinged imagination. It has no obvious function except to increase the public profile (and consequently the income opportunities) of the owner of said imagination by engaging in the destruction of genuine works of art.
So there you have it. However, don’t expect this definition to enter the OED any time soon - after all, vandalism by any other name is still vandalism.

Friday, 5 October 2012

The Company of Artists

The Company of Artists is new book by Charles Saumarez Smith which charts the origins of London's most venerable artistic institution, the Royal Academy of Arts.

My review for History In An Hour here:

Friday, 21 September 2012

The Evolution of the Biography?

As the name suggests, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects: The Life and Collected Works of Thomas Darwin (1857-1879) is the biography of the short, yet eventful, life of one Thomas Darwin, youngest son of the celebrated evolutionary scientist, Charles Darwin. 

Except it’s not. The book is, in fact, a novel, and the character of Thomas Darwin is entirely fictitious, the product of the rather lively imagination of author, Harry Karlinsky - as is the account of Thomas’s struggle to emerge from his father’s imposing shadow, his slow descent into madness, and his tragic early death in a Canadian asylum.

However, Karlinsky’s construct is so utterly convincing, the story so absorbing, that I would challenge any reader not to lose sight of the book’s fictional nature at least once during the reading.  I, for one, had to remind myself several times that this tragic life had never, in reality, been lived.

This blurring of the lines between reality and illusoriness is achieved by combining actual biographical data of the Darwin family with wholly factitious sources, including the invented correspondence of Charles and his wife, Emma.  In taking this approach, the author deftly weaves a tangled web of fact and fantasy, which mirrors the deluded mind of his subject, as it oscillates between the realms of sanity and insanity.

This is a gem of a novel – eccentric, discombobulating, delightful.
'The Evolution of Inanimate Objects' is published by The Friday Project. It has been longlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize.

For more information of on the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, click here:

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The First 30 Minutes of Anna Karenina - A Review

I don’t go to the cinema much anymore.   The reason for this is two-fold. 

Firstly, I find that most movies coming out of Hollywood these days tend to have quite a limited target market, of which I am emphatically not a member (nor, it seems, is anyone other than teenage males with violent sociopathic tendencies).

Secondly, the older I get, the more misanthropic I become - and therefore less enthusiastic about the prospect of spending two hours of my dwindling life penned up in a dark, uncomfortable, claustrophobic room with OTHER PEOPLE.

However, every once in a while, a movie comes along which simply cannot wait to be viewed on Sky Box Office.  And if there was ever a film to force me off the sofa and into the movie theatre, it was Anna Karenina, the new blockbuster adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel of the same name. 

Directed by Joe Wright (whose previous credits include Atonement and Pride and Prejudice), and with a screenplay written by Tom Stoppard, this is a movie that promised much.  Add to this an all-star cast - which includes Keira Knightley as the eponymous heroine, Jude Law as her cuckolded husband, and the up-and-coming Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the dastardly Count Vronsky – and one would be forgiven for thinking that this would be the movie event of 2012.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a lot, actually…

Alarm bells were ringing from the outset.  Fully expecting to be dazzled by fabulous location shots of Moscow and St Petersburg, I was rather puzzled when the opening sequences instead showed a rather grungy theatre set.  Instead of vast marble staircases, there were rickety wooden ones. Scenes that should have been set in stunning mansions took place on a stage, completed with wobbly backdrops.  Extras stumbled clumsily into scenes, as if the actors on the stage were merely rehearsing their lines, as opposed to being filmed. 

Some reviewers have praised this theatrical approach, which no doubt saved the producers a fortune in location costs, and which will probably earn innumerable technical gongs come awards season. I, however, found it only succeeded in making the film visually confusing, not least because these rather dodgy sets were combined with some breathtakingly magnificent costumes, as well as some ‘normal’ outdoor scenes.

Macfayden as Oblonsky
And I wasn’t the only one confused – so, I believe, were the actors.  With the exception of Jude Law, the other main players seemed to forget they were making a film, and instead performed in that over-emphasising way common the stage actors.  Movements were exaggerated, and voices were raised as if they were trying to be heard in the nose-bleed seats of a Shaftesbury Avenue theatre.  Matthew Macfayden, in particular, was guilty of this – his court-jester type portrayal of Oblonsky, a serious character in the novel, verged on the ridiculous.

But for all my misgivings, I was still prepared to stick it out.  Surely, it could only get better.  But then, some 30 minutes in, after another absurd Oblonsky scene, my husband (who has never read Tolstoy) leaned across and whispered “I didn’t realise Anna Karenina was a comedy”.  Anna Karenina, one of the masterpieces of 19th century Russian literature, a comedy?  That was it – we were outta there.

So there you have it - my review of the first thirty minutes of Anna Karenina. Maybe the movie improved in the hour-and-thirty-minutes I missed – but I doubt.

The short version: A very Baz Luhrmann-like production, except Luhrmann would probably have pulled it off.  Tolstoy purists will hate it.  Flouncy frock lovers and theatre luvvies will simply adore it, daaahling. 

Monday, 17 September 2012

Man Booker Prize 2012 - Shortlist Announced

The literary awards season is definitely upon us!

Hot on the heels of the announcement of the Wellcome Trust Book Prize longlist (see below), the judges of the Man Booker 2012 prize last week revealed their six shortlisted titles.

And the nominees are:

-          Will Self, Umbrella, (Bloomsbury)
-          Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies, (Fourth Estate)
-          Deborah Levy, Swimming Home, (And Other Stories)
-          Jeet Thayil, Nacropolis, (Faber & Faber)
-          Alison Moore, The Lighthouse, (Salt Publishing)
-          Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists, (Myrmidon ) 

Analysis at a glance:

-          Two of the shortlisted titles are debut novels, The Lighthouse and Nacropolis.

-          Three of the final six titles are published by small, independent houses or a not-for-private-profit publisher (Salt, Myrmidon, And Other Stories).

-          Despite the fact he is one of the UK’s most highly regarded and prolific authors, this is the first time a novel by Will Self has featured on a Man Booker shortlist,

-          Bring Up The Bodies is the much-anticipated sequel to the 2009 Man Booker winner, Wolf Hall. Can Hilary Mantel make history by ‘doing the double’?

-          Perhaps the most controversial exclusion was Michael Frayn’s Skios – once thought to be a contender to win the prize, the fact that this book failed to graduate from longlist to shortlist surprised many commentators.

So, who is likely to win the £50,000 prize?  Currently the two big hitters, Mantel and Self, are hotly tipped.  However, this year’s panel has already proven that they are not influenced by established literary reputations (Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith and Martin Amis all failed to make their longlist) – so this is one competition that is definitely still up for grabs.

The winner will be unveiled at a ceremony at the Guildhall on Tuesday, October 16th.

For a brief description of all the shortlisted books, and to find out what the judges had to say about them, click here:  

Update (17 Oct 2012): Hilary Mantel pipped Will Self at the post to take home the prize.  The win makes Mantel the first woman (and the first Briton) to do the Booker double.  The only other novelists to win the award twice are Peter Carey (Australian) and JM Coetzee (South African).  Well done, Hilary!

Friday, 7 September 2012

The Wellcome Trust Book Prize

Twitter was abuzz this week with news of the longlist announcement for this year’s Wellcome Trust Book Prize. 

Now, I’m usually quite au fait with the various book prizes out there: the Man Booker, the Orange Prize, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Costas – I try to keep an eye on them all, as regular readers of this blog will attest. The unveiling of the longlist for this particular prize, however, caught me somewhat off-guard - mainly because, before this week, I had never even heard of Wellcome Trust Prize.

Fearful that I no longer had my finger on the metaphorical pulse of the literary world, I set about investigating further.  I didn’t have to look very far - a quick Google search of ‘Wellcome Trust Book Prize’ directed me to the award’s official website, and, lo, the mystery was solved.

The Wellcome Prize, it turns out, is a relatively new award – established in 2009, it is now in its fourth year, a baby in comparison to those venerable institutions like the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature, both of which seem to have been around since the dawn of time.

The award’s raison d’etre is to acknowledge the year’s ‘finest fiction or non-fiction book centred around medicine’.  (This mission statement does not seem quite so left-field when one realises that the Wellcome Trust is a charity dedicated to the advancement of human and animal health through biomedical research and medicine.)  To that end, the winner, which will be chosen by a committee chaired by Radio 4’s Mark Lawson, will be awarded a generous £25,000 in prize-money.
In 2010, the award went to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by American author, Rebecca Skloot – a book which charts the extraordinary journey of a cell line taken from the cervical cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks, who died of the disease in 1951.  This cell line, known as HeLa, is still being used in cancer research today, over 60 years after the death of its progenitor.  Along with the Wellcome Prize, Skloot’s book also picked up the Heartland Prize for non-fiction and the Salon Prize – and, as of 26 August this year, it had spent 75 weeks in the New York Times Bestseller List.  No pressure for this year’s nominees then … 

The longlist for the 2012 prize are as follows:
  • John Coates, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, (Fourth Estate)
  • Joshua Cody, [Sic], (Bloomsbury)
  • Nick Coleman, The Train in the Night, (Jonathan Cape)
  • Mohammed Hanif, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, (Jonathan Cape)
  • Peter James, Perfect People, (Macmillan)
  • Harry Karlinsky, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, (The Friday Project)
  • Darian Leader, What is Madness?, (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Ken Macleod, Intrusion, (Orbit)
  • Professor Peter Piot, No Time to Lose, (W.W. Norton & Company)
  • Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain, (Constable & Robinson)
  • Tim Spector, Identically Different, (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson)
  • Rose Tremain, Merivel: A Man of his Time, (Chatto & Windus)
  • Thomas Wright, Circulation. (Chatto & Windus)
  • Paul Zak, The Moral Molecule, (Transworld)
The shortlist will be unveiled on 11 October, with the prize-giving ceremony scheduled to take place in London on 7 November.

PS – Watch this space for a review of one of the long-listed titles, Harry Karlinsky's The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, published by the Friday Project.
Update (17 Oct 2012): The shortlist, which was announced last week, is as follows:
  • John Coates, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, (Fourth Estate)
  • Joshua Cody, [Sic], (Bloomsbury)
  • Nick Coleman, The Train in the Night, (Jonathan Cape)
  • Mohammed Hanif, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, (Jonathan Cape)
  • Peter James, Perfect People, (Macmillan)
  • Rose Tremain, Merivel: A Man of his Time, (Chatto & Windus)
  • Thomas Wright, Circulation. (Chatto & Windus)
Sadly, Harry Karlinsky did not make the cut.  For what it's what, my money is now on Rose Tremain.  Winner announced 7 November - watch this space.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The Classic Novel That Almost Never Was

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Anthony Burgess’s classic dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange.  (I, however, read it for the first time only this year - no-one can ever accuse me of being ahead of the game, that’s for sure…)

 The novel (or, more accurately, the novella) is set in the near future in an unnamed city (which appears to be a curious mix of the darker elements of New York, London and Gotham).  This hybrid metropolis is over-run by gangs of feral youths, who nightly inflict terror on those citizens who are unlucky enough to find themselves in their path. The novel’s narrator, Alex, is the leader of one such posse, and the book is littered with his sometimes incomprehensible idiolect – an argot deriving from Russian, gypsy patois and rhyming slang.

However, Alex’s reign of terror is brought to an abrupt end when he is betrayed by one of his fellow gang-members (or ‘droogs’).  After being arrested by the ‘millicents’ (police) and charged with murder, Alex is subjected to ‘aversion therapy’ in attempt to ‘cure’ him of his violent urges and sociopathic tendencies. 

The notion of good and evil, and the free will to choose between the two is the central theme of this book.  But in a departure from the ‘good-guy-turned-bad’ approach so common to this theme, Burgess has presented us with a thoroughly bad character who is turned good against his will.  And, it is this rather unorthodox slant which has elevated A Clockwork Orange to its well-deserved status as a modern classic. 

However, the novel’s success was far from a foregone conclusion – in fact, a recently-uncovered document seen by The Independent on Sunday reveals that the book’s publishers suffered a bad case of pre-publication jitters which almost resulted in the book being shelved (!) entirely.

The document was written by Maire Lynd, an in-house fiction reader for the publishing house, Heinemann.  Maire, it seems, could not decide whether A Clockwork Orange, was destined to be a hit or ‘an enormous flop’.  Lynd correctly noted that slang used in the book would pose ‘great difficulty’ to the reader, but by the same token, felt brave enough to predict that some of it may find its way into teenage vernacular. 

As it turned out, Maire’s assessment of the novel’s chances was proved right - on both counts.  The book posted very poor sales figures, and unenthusiastic reviews, when it was eventually published in 1962 – and it wasn’t until Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 movie adaptation that it was embraced by the general public – and it has retained its place among the cannon of modern literary greats ever since.

Interestingly, Burgess was somewhat less enthusiastic about his best-known work: "It is ironic that I am always associated with A Clockwork Orange”, he said in a previously unpublished interview. “This, of all my books, is the one I like least."

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The History of the Fabergé Eggs

Peter Carl Fabergé's was born on this day, 166 years ago (as noted by today's Google Doodle) . To mark the occasion, here is a short history of his most famous creations:

The Fabergé Eggs - A Brief History

From their beginnings in Imperial Russia, where their fate was inextricably linked to that of the doomed Romanov family, to their ignominous off-loading in Depression-era America, the story of the Fabergé Eggs provides an interesting snapshot of early 20th century European and American history.

The tale begins in 1885 when the penultimate Russian Emperor, Czar Alexander III, took the Easter tradition of decorating eggs to an entirely different level by commissioning the renowned goldsmith and jeweler, Peter Carl Fabergé, to create an extravagantly ornamental egg as a present for his wife, Empress Maria. It is believed that the idea for this ostentatious gift was borne out of Maria’s admiration for a similar egg owned by her aunt.

Hen Egg, 1885
The precious egg, which became known as the Hen Egg, was made of gold and was covered with transparent white enamel to give it the appearance of a real egg-shell. The outer shell of the egg could be pulled into two parts, revealing within a gold yolk, which in turn contained further bejeweled gifts.

Maria was so delighted with the present, her husband decided to have one made for her every Easter, with subsequent offerings becoming increasingly decadent and larger in size. Thus, the giving of lavishly decorated Fabergé Eggs became an Easter tradition for the Romanov family, which continued when Nicholas II succeeded his father in 1894, right up until the overthrow of the monarchy during the Russian Revolution in 1917 (by which time a total of 50 Imperial Eggs had been made).

Post-revolutionary Russia, however, was a very different place to that which existed under the House of Romanov. With Nicholas II and his immediate family ruthlessly executed, the country was now in the grip of the Bolshevik’s Communist regime. Where did the Fabergé Eggs fit in this strange new world?

Coronation Egg, 1897
In truth, the Bolsheviks were at a loss as to what to do with them. The eggs, undoubtedly valuable and noteworthy, had nonetheless become synonymous with the extravagance associated with the former Imperial Family. They were also, perhaps, an unwelcome reminder of the bloody and brutal revolution of the not-so-distant past - undoubtedly, Fabergé’s creations suffered from a bad case of guilt by association. In the end, Lenin arranged for all the eggs to be rounded up and stored in the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow. Consequently, the stunning pieces were left to languish for years, all but forgotten, in a dusty basement.

The Imperial Eggs came to prominence once again in the late 1920s under the Stalinist regime, when they were resurrected from their ignominious hiding place. Desperate for western currency, Stalin sold many of the eggs to overseas buyers, scattering the collection to all four corners of the globe. Indeed, between 1930 and 1933 alone, fourteen Imperial Eggs left Russia for foreign shores.

Rosebud Egg, 1895
One of the more prominent buyers was Armand Hammer, a well-known American businessman, who had connections with Russia (he was a good friend of Lenin’s and his father established the Communist Party in the US). Hammer’s motives for buying up ten of the eggs, and a lot more Romanov treasure besides, has been widely debated. Was he trying to promote the cultural, artistic and historic importance of the Imperial Easter Eggs, or was he purely interested in making money? We shall never know.

There can be no doubt, however, that Hammer went to great lengths to sell the treasures in America in the early 1930s. Despite an extensive promotional tour which took him from the East to the West coast of the United States, the Great Depression ensured that buyers were few and far between. Eventually, he did succeed in off-loading the eggs, but at bargain basement prices. The majority fetched only a few hundred dollars each.

Chanticleer Egg
It would be several decades before collectors finally realised the true value of the Fabergé eggs - they now carry multi-million dollar price-tags; indeed some people believe the eggs to be priceless.

But while the Fabergé Eggs now inspire fascination and admiration around the world, as much for their intricate craftsmanship as for their tragic and blighted history, few have found their way back to Russia. At present, only ten can be found at the Kremlin, while a further nine have been bought by the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. The rest (apart from the eight whose whereabouts remain unknown) are strewn all over the globe, with Her Majesty’s Royal Collection boasting three of the miniature treasures. It is indeed a sad fact that by selling the eggs, Stalin significantly diluted Russia’s artistic and cultural legacy.

If you fancy getting your hands on a Fabergé egg for a loved one and don’t have millions of dollars to spend, don’t despair - there is a raft of authorised reproductions and unofficial fakes on the market with somewhat more affordable price-tags. And even if these are outside your price-range, there’s always the Kinder Surprise …

Tate Britain Receives Significant Art Donation

Tate Britain has received an impressive collection of modern art, including pieces by David Hockney and Lucien Freud, from an Austrian philanthropist.

Click on the link below for further details:

Monday, 19 March 2012

'Gillespie and I' by Jane Harris

“It would appear that I am to be the first to write a book on Gillespie.  Who, if not me, was dealt this hand?  Indeed, one might say, who is left to tell the tale?”

So begins Gillespie and I, the Orange Prize long-listed second novel by Jane Harris.  Set, by turns, in 1880s Glasgow and 1930s London, the story is narrated by the elderly Harriet Baxter.  Now almost in her 80s, Harriet has decided to record for posterity the story of her close, if short-lived, friendship with the talented Scottish artist, Ned Gillespie, and his family.

The narrator first encounters the Gillespies during the 1888 International Glasgow Exhibition, at a time when Ned‘s talents are slowly gaining recognition in the elitist Glaswegian art world.  Indeed, after years of struggling to make a name for himself, it seems he is finally on the cusp of a professional break-through. And yet, in just a few short years, the once-loving and close-knit Gillespie family has been torn apart, Ned has taken his own life and his artistic legacy destroyed.  What could have happened in the intervening years to cause such cataclysmic destruction?  It is this question that Harriet sets about answering in this tragic tale of parental love and neglect, wasted devotion and obsession.

From the outset, Harris skilfully conjures an unsettling and insidious sense of foreboding – like a cat toying with her prey, she deftly weaves a plot so complex and unnerving that the reader is left discombobulated, perplexed, unbalanced and disturbed.  Indeed, the only thing one is sure of is that nothing is as it seems in this rather brilliant novel.  Reading this book is akin to the slightly panicked feeling one has when stumbling through a hall of mirrors – in each disorienting image we catch glimpses of our actual reflection, but thanks to certain faults, distortions or biases in the glass, the truth remains tantalizingly out of reach …

Masterfully written, this is a novel that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.  Not to be missed!

'Gillespie and I' is published by Faber and Faber.
This year's Orange Prize short list will be announced on 17 April, and the winner will be unveiled 30 May.  For more information, see

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

'How To Be A Woman' by Caitlin Moran

Let me start by saying I was really looking forward to this book. I'm a fan of Caitlin Moran's columns in Saturday's Times and the book itself, which has been billed as a feminist manifesto to rival Germaine Greeer's The Female Eunuch, has been widely popular (in the UK at least).  It has garnered innumerable 5* reviews in the mainstream press and has even won the Galaxy Book of the Year Award last year.  With all this positive buzz, this was going to be one great reading experience, right?

Wrong!  I'm currently half-way through, and struggling to make it to the end.  Although I have only 150 pages to go, they are dragging out before me like a yawning abyss. These last pages are as insurmountable as Everest would be, if I was ever crazy enough to try to climb it - indeed, 800 pages of War and Peace would be preferable to 150 pages of How To Be A Woman.

The main problem with this book lies in the author's rather unique style.  Although she is undoubtedly a talented and funny writer, her reliance on capital letters and endless exclamation marks is extremely annoying - if not downright off-putting.  Any writer worth their salt will tell you that the words on the page should be sufficient to get the point across, while a single exclamation mark, and perhaps the odd italic, is all that is needed to add emphasis.  Overuse of capitals makes the writer come across as belligerent and, in Moran's case, slightly mad.  More often than not, while reading this book, I found myself thinking 'STOP SHOUTING AT ME, YOU LUNATIC!! JUST CALM THE HELL DOWN!!!!'  And as such, any point she was trying to make was simply lost on me.

Another issue I have with this book it's is crudeness.  Note to the author - it is not necessary to mention the c-word and f-word on every other page to prove your feminist credentials.  We are no longer in the 1970s - you do not have to resort to shock tactics to drive home your feministic point. In fact, maybe if you made an effort to drag yourself out of the gutter occasionally, your argument may be better received.  Also, as a reader, I have no desire to be subjected to an entire chapter devoted to your quest to find a suitable name for your vagina and that of your new-born daughter.

And don't get me started on the Twitter-isms and abbreviations she has incorporated into the text.  Is it too much to expect to read actual words in a book?  Surely it isn't beyond the realms of reasonableness to expect a writer to type 'to be honest' instead of 'tbh'??  Whether this is laziness or just an ill-advised affectation is unclear, but coupled with the fact that the text is littered with spelling and grammatical errors, it gives the impression that the book was nothing more than a sloppy rush-job, a cynical and hurried attempt to capitalise on the author's current popularity as a newspaper columnist. 

On that note, I'd advise anyone considering buying this book to stick instead to her journalistic ramblings - because, if How To Be A Woman proves anything at all, it is the fact that Ms Moran's writing is bearable only in very small doses.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Fantastic Mr Dahl

The name Roald Dahl is one that enjoys instant recognition. The author’s phenomenal success as a writer of children’s books has meant that Dahl has become a household name the world over. His unique ability to communicate with children through fantastical tales, and his capacity to bring to life such memorable and enduring characters as Willy Wonka, the BFG and Fantastic Mr Fox, has meant that Roald Dahl’s stories have become indelibly etched on the psyche of generations of children. Beloved by both adults and children alike, Roald Dahl’s position as revered children’s author is assured.

However, it seems Dahl’s immense success as a writer has somewhat skewed our perception of this enigmatic man – most of his fans are quite unaware of the eventful and highly unconventional life he led prior to his late-flowering career as a children’s author. It is a situation that Donald Sturrock sets out to rectify in his authorised biography, aptly titled Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl.

Sturrock, in a manner reminiscent of his subject, weaves a compelling narrative, tracing Dahl’s life story from his privileged childhood in Wales, under the gaze of his indomitable Norwegian mother, to his ill-fated career as a WW2 fighter pilot and his subsequent secondment to America as a wartime diplomat and spy. As Dahl stumbles from one unlikely career-path to the next, the reader marvels at his ability to be in the right place at the right time. Opportunities seem to fall into his lap, and soon he is drawn into a glamorous social circle, striking up friendships with such political and literary heavyweights as Franklin D Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway and embarking on liaisons with numerous society beauties before his eventual marriage to Hollywood star, Patricia Neal.


It soon becomes apparent, however, that fortune did not continue to favour Roald Dahl. In fact, one is struck by a sense that he lived a life of two halves. After his sojourn in America, Dahl returned to England and took up his writing career in earnest. It was during this time that Dahl was stuck by a succession of family tragedies, namely the death of his beloved daughter Olivia, the car accident which left his infant son brain damaged and finally the stroke which almost killed his wife. These calamities left Dahl with a distinct feeling that a dark cloud hung over his family – and this feeling of impending calamity never quite left him. Add to this the constant pain he suffered as a result of a wartime plane crash, his struggle to gain acceptance among the British literary establishment, and the clandestine love affair which eventually tore his family apart, the reader is left in no doubt that the life of Roald Dahl was no fairytale.

Although Sturrock is a sympathetic biographer, he does not shy away from his subject’s much-documented dark side. This is a warts-and-all account of a man who, while celebrated for his genius, was also irascible, argumentative, contradictory and narcissistic. Storyteller is thoughtful, insightful, well-balanced … and an absolute must-read for anyone with an interest in the life and work of this complex, multi-faceted and multi-talented man.

Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock is published by HarperCollins and is out in hardback now. (Paperback due in Sept 2011).