Tuesday, 16 September 2014

William Wordsworth and the French Revolution

Follow this link to read my article exploring William Wordsworth involvement in, and thoughts on, the French Revolution.


Monday, 15 September 2014

Roddy Doyle. He's at it again. The writin', like

 – Come here. Do yeh know yer man, whatsisname, that writer fella from Dublin?
– Which one?
– The baldy one with the funny glasses.
– Joyce?
– Don’t be thick. Joyce wasn’t bald. I’m talkin’ about the one who wrote The Commitments.
– Wasn’t that a fillum, but?
– It was a book first. Do yeh know annythin’? Hang on – I have it now, yer man’s name – Roddy Doyle.
– Oh yeah. Wha’ abou’ him?
– Well, he’s at it again.
– At wha’?
– The writin’, like.
– Fuck sake. Does he ever stop?
– Don’t think so. There’s a word for that, y’know.
– Glutton for punishment?
– No. Prolific. Annyway, that’s three words.
– So what’s he writin’ abou’ this time?
– Another one of those Two Pints books. A sequel, like.
– Yeah, what’s it abou’, but?
– It’s a collection of conversations between two auld fellas, chewin’ the fat over a few pints of the black stuff.
– Sounds familiar, wha’?
– Yeah, ‘cept these two don’t talk shite like us. Well, not much. Annyway, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all tha’.
– So what are they talkin’ abou’, these two pint drinkers?
Important stuff … like abortion, and the Pope, and Seamus Heaney …
– Who’s tha’?
– …and Richard III, and a topless Kate Middleton.
– Wouldn’t mind readin’ that one.
– Listen, would yeh? These two fellas are suppin’ away and philosophizin’ to beat the band. They really get yeh thinkin’.
– Insightful, like?
– Yeah. And funny too. Gas. They don’t think much of Bono, though.
– Sure, who does? ‘Cept Bono himself, like.
– True. I reckon auld Roddy is one of the lads. Despite all the writin’.
– I’d say you’re right there. Sound, like. Wouldn’t mind havin’ a pint with him myself.
– Speakin’ of which. Another one?

Two More Pints by Roddy Doyle is published by Jonathan Cape on 11 September 2014
With thanks to http://www.welovethisbook.com for the review copy.

My Reviews on We Love This Book

I've been busy reviewing books for the lovely people at We Love This Book of late.  Check out my profile page to read reviews of the latest offerings from Andrew Marr (Head of State), Roddy Doyle (Two More Pints) and Nick Davis (Hack Attack).  


I Have Moved!

I have moved!  All my latest news, reviews, and blogposts can be found at http://sineadfitzgibbon.wordpress.com.

Drop by and say hello!

Monday, 25 February 2013

The Devil's Ribbon - D.E. Meredith

“Man’s inhumanity to man / makes countless thousands mourn!” (Burns)

The year is 1858, high summer.  Temperatures in London are soaring, and the city’s beleaguered residents are suffocating under the weight of odious vapours rising out of the Thames - a river so polluted that the only life it can support is of the bacterial kind.  In the morgue of St Bart’s Hospital, Smithfield, the resident pathologist, Professor Hatton, and his assistant, Monsieur Roumande, are knee-deep in diseased-ravaged corpses, a consequence of the cholera epidemic sweeping through London’s slums. 

But worse is to come.  Enlisted by Scotland Yard to help investigate a string of strange murders, Hatton and Roumande find themselves exposed to an altogether different kind of toxicity, more insidious than cholera, and almost as deadly.  Drawn into a poisonous atmosphere of political unrest and revolutionary fervour, the pair follow a green-ribboned and bloody trail from the affluent suburbs of northwest London to the heaving rookeries of St Giles, where poverty-stricken Irish immigrants, driven from their homeland by famine and British oppression, harbour a deep-rooted desire for revenge.  Both men will need to push the boundaries of their fledgling science - forensics - to the very limit if they are to have any hope of halting the terrifying killing spree.

In The Devil’s Ribbon, the second in the Hatton and Roumande series of murder mysteries, D.E. Meredith deftly weaves a suspenseful and multi-faceted tale of political intrigue, abuses of power, long-held secrets, and insatiable bloodlust. Set just a decade after the devastating Great Famine in Ireland, and featuring a host of convincing characters, the story draws its inspiration from the long and bedevilled conflict between Ireland and the rest of Britain, an ugly and long-running drama from which neither side emerged unsullied. 

The Devil’s Ribbon reveals the author’s remarkable insight into an emotive, highly-charged and painful period of Anglo-Irish history. Painstakingly researched, this book is more thought-provoking than a Victorian crime novel has any right to be.

“Revenge is a wild kind of justice.”

The Devil's Ribbon by D.E. Meredith is published by Allison & Busby. Out in hardback and as ebook now. The first Hatton and Roumande mystery, Devoured, is also available. 

Monday, 21 January 2013

New Address!

Just a quick note to let you know that, although this blog will continue to be active, I've also set up shop on Wordpress.

Drop by and have a peek!


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 fĂȘted 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.