Tuesday, 31 January 2012

On This Day ... The Death of Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes was executed on this day in 1606 for his part in the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Read my brief biograhy for History In An Hour here:


Monday, 30 January 2012

Quote of the Day

Today's Notable Quotable is from Dorothy Thompson, the 'First Lady of American Journalism', who died on this day in 1961, aged 67.

During her lifetime Thompson would come to be regarded as one of the world's most influential journalists and radio broadcasters. 

In this capacity, she championed many causes, but she will perhaps be best remembered for the dire warnings contained in her reportage from Nazi Germany in the early 1930s (during which time she met and interviewed Adolf Hitler, an encounter which formed the basis of her book, I Saw Hitler).

In 1936, following years of reporting from Nazi Germany, Thompson earned the distinction of being the first American journalist to be expelled from the country.  This is hardly surprising given her outspoken criticism of the Fuhrer, whom she described as "inconsequent and voluble, ill poised and insecure [...} the very prototype of the little man".

This is what she had to say of the subject of dictators in 1935:
"No people ever recognize their dictator in advance. He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument — the Incorporated National Will. ... When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American. And nobody will ever say "Heil" to him, nor will they call him "F├╝hrer" or "Duce." But they will greet him with one great big, universal, democratic, sheeplike bleat of "O.K., Chief! Fix it like you wanna, Chief! Oh Kaaaay!"

Thursday, 26 January 2012

An Ukrainian Defection

The normally sedate world of the Royal Ballet was plunged into chaos this week when their star performer, Sergei Polunin, declared his intention to leave the renowned dance company with immediate effect.

The surprise announcement, which sent shockwaves through the ballet world (not least because mid-season departures are virtually unheard of), came after Polunin handed his resignation to Dame Monica Mason, the company’s director, on Tuesday afternoon.

"This has obviously come as a huge shock”, Mason said. “Sergei is a wonderful dancer and I have enjoyed watching him tremendously, both on stage and in the studio, over the past few years. I wish him every success in the future."

At just 22, Polunin was the Royal Ballet’s youngest-ever principal dancer and his prodigious talent had led to constant comparisons to Nureyev and Baryshnikov – but his abrupt departure has left many wondering whether he buckled under the immense weight of expectation.

Certainly, there have been clues to the dancer’s unravelling in his recent Twitter feed. On one occasion, he posted a picture of himself, beer in hand, at 9.30am, while in another he jokingly asks his followers for advice on where to buy heroin – hardly the sort of behaviour one would expect from a performer of Polunin’s calibre.

However, a quick study of Polunin’s background reveals the extent to which he was pressurized into ballet, and goes a long way towards explaining his ‘shock’ resignation.

Growing up in the Ukraine, the young Sergei was pushed into auditioning for the State Ballet in Kiev by an overbearing mother, who saw in her son a chance to lift the family out of extreme poverty. After training in Kiev, he then came to Britain to join the Royal Ballet at the tender age of 13.

In an interview with The Guardian last year, he said, "I would have liked to behave badly, to play football. I loved sport. But all my family were working for me to succeed. My mother had moved to Kiev to be with me. There was no chance of me failing."

Given this background, his recent actions become understandable – they could easily be interpreted as an act of rebellion against the enormous constraints placed on him from a very young age. However, whatever his reasons, let’s just hope that this crisis is short-lived and Polunin finds the will to return to dancing – because if he were to hang up his ballet shoes for good, the world would be a much poorer place indeed.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

An Insight into Stoker and Dracula

Of all the memorable characters in the literary canon, there can hardly be a more pervasive and enduring creation than Count Dracula, the eponymous protagonist of that most famous of all gothic horror novels, Dracula.

Indeed, since the book’s publication in 1897, the Count has become one the world’s best-known and oft-copied fictional villains – but despite this, surprisingly little is known about the inspiration behind the character.

The main reason for this lies in the fact that, in stark contrast to his contemporary and love rival Oscar Wilde, Dracula’s enigmatic creator, Bram Stoker, was simply not in the habit of writing about himself or his motivations.

It is a fact that has long-frustrated Stoker’s legion of fans – while there is no mystery surrounding the facts of the author’s life (he was born in 1847 in Dublin and attended the prestigious Trinity College from 1864 to 1870, he embarked on a brief career as a civil servant before leaving Ireland to take up a managerial position at London’s Lyceum Theatre), there is very little information available which allows readers to gain an insight into the mind that conceived of such an important literary creation.

First Edition of 'Dracula'
However, a chance discovery of a long-lost journal by Stoker’s great-grandson, Noel Dobbs, is about to change all that.
Written in the the author's distinctive handwriting, the recently unearthed notebook (which is about to be published by Robson Press to mark the centenary of the author’s death) spans the period from 1871 to 1881 – and, despite ending almost a decade before he began work of Dracula, it gives the reader some tantalizing clues about the origins of Stoker’s most famous work.

For example, the 100-page journal is written in the same style employed by Dracula’s narrator, Jonathan Harker, and one entry recounts the story of a boy who fills a glass bottle so full with flies, there is hardly “enough room for them to die”. This is, according to Dacre Stoker (co-editor of the Robson Press publication, and great-grandnephew of the author), “a precursor to the tendencies of Bram’s Renfield character”.


'The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker – The Dublin Years (1871 – 1881)' is edited by Dacre Stoker and Dr. Elizabeth Miller. It will be published by Robson Press in March.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Roald Dahl Stamps

This week saw the release by Royal Mail of a new series of stamps which honour the work of renowned children's author, Roald Dahl.

Featuring illustrations by Quentin Blake, who enjoyed a long and fruitful collaboration with the late writer, the series showcases six of Dahl's best-known books, namely Mathilda, the BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox, the Witches and The Twits.

In addition, there will be four James and the Giant Peach stamps available as a collector's set to mark the book's 30th year in print.

According to his daughter, Ophelia, the limited edition stamps would have received the Dahl seal of approval had he been alive to see them. "My dad wrote thousands of letters home throughout his life and never dreamed that one day one of his own characters would grace a stamp", she said.

And the Royal Mail has not stopped there. Another important literary anniversary - the 200th anniverary of the birth of Charles Dickens - will be celebrated with another set of stamps in June.

Quite a year for all you philatelists out there!

Friday, 6 January 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Triumphant Return

Early last year, the literary world (this blog included) was abuzz with the news that the Conan Doyle Estate had, at last, commissioned a new, full-length Sherlock Holmes murder mystery.

The decision, which was a significant departure for the executors of great author’s estate, came as a surprise to many. Up to now, the Estate trustees had jealously guarded Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legacy, steadfastly refusing to sanction any of the unofficial Holmesian tales that had been penned since his death (of which there have been many).

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
And, in another surprising (and not altogether uncontroversial) move, the man entrusted to follow in Conan Doyle’s footsteps was none other than Anthony Horowitz. Although a prolific author with a number of highly successful children’s detective stories under his belt (including the The Power of Five and the Alex Rider series), Horowitz could hardly be described as a literary heavyweight – and many, myself included, questioned the wisdom of the choice.

And so, now that the book, intriguing titled The House of Silk, has finally been published, did the gamble pay off?

In short – yes. Exceedingly so.

The story, like all of Conan Doyle’s offerings, is narrated by Dr Watson, Holmes’s long-time friend and collaborator. By now, the famous detective has been dead for over a year, and the good doctor is putting pen to paper one last time in an attempt to chronicle the most sensational and disturbing case that Holmes had ever been called upon to investigate.

Indeed, so disquieting are the details of this case that Watson is taking great pains to ensure that the account is held under lock and key for one hundred years, in the hope that, when such a time has elapsed, society will be better equipped to contend with startling revelations contained within his narrative.

As a back-story, it’s a rather good one, conveniently giving Horowitz licence to take the classic Sherlock Holmes mystery to altogether different level by allowing him to update the story for a modern audience.

And, thankfully, this unique opportunity is not wasted. In The House of Silk, Horowitz has successfully captured not only the voice of Conan Doyle, but also the very essence of Sherlock Holmes. Characterisations are pitch-perfect, while descriptions of Victorian London (and its seedy underbelly) are as believable as they are disturbing.

Anthony Horowitz
And, as for the story itself, the plot is as convoluted and confusing as any of the classic mysteries, if not more so, and keeps the reader guessing right to the very end.

In fact, in every aspect, the transition from Conan Doyle to Horowitz is simply seamless.

Horowitz has indeed proved himself a worthy successor. The doubters have been silenced.

'The House of Silk' by Anthony Horowitz is published by Orion Books.

Related Stories: http://www.lovelifefoodart.blogspot.com/2011/01/second-coming-of-sherlock-holmes.html

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

On This Day in Literature

For those of you interested in literary history, January 4th is a date that should be noted in the diary as being one of particular significance, marking as it does the anniversaries of the births and deaths of some giants of world literature.

Gao Xingjian
On this day in 1940, Gao Xingjian, novelist, critic and playwright was born in Jiangxi province in eastern China.  Since fleeing his native country in 1987, Gao has lived in France, where he was granted full citizenship in 1997.

Albert Camus

January 4th is also associated with another French author, Albert Camus (who died in a car crash on this day in 1960).

Interestingly, both Camus and Gao have been associated with the philosophy of absurdism, which focuses on the inherent conflict between the human desire to find meaning in life and the impossibilty of finding any such meaning.

Other literary heavyweights who died on this day are TS Eliot (1965) and Christopher Isherwood (1986).

All of the above, with the exception of Isherwood, have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Chistopher Isherwood
TS Eliot

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Happy New Year!

Well, 2012 is finally upon us and I'd like to begin the New Year with an apology to my many followers (all 25 of you!) for shamefully neglecting this blog for so long.

During the latter half of 2011, I was working feverishly on a number of exciting projects, details of which I hope to reveal very soon.

Until then, I will be once again devoting my time to this blog. And be warned - in this, the 200th anniversary of his birth, expect to see a lot of Dickens!