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Thursday, 27 September 2012

Room at the Top? In Praise of High Fliers...

The Red Arrows, Guernsey, September 2012

John Braine's unforgettable 1957 novel comes to life again on BBC 4 tonight, the same day as Casual Vacancy,  J K Rowling' s first  novel  for adults, hits the shelves.  There appear to be interesting parallels.  Both highlight the vagaries  of the  the good old British class system which, along  with sex politics and money, has spawned tales of greed and ambition  since Shakespeare picked up the quill.

Why should a 55-year-old novel have its place on our screens when the world is awash with aspiring young novelists?  Because, in my view, Room at the Top is  a history book for the next generation and should be compulsory reading for anyone over sixteen.

John Braine's protagonist, Joe Lampton, is a working class Yorkshire  lad with eyes on the boss's daughter and a chip bigger than the whole of Harry Ramsdens  on his shoulder. By no means the original 'angry young man,' Joe nevertheless spoke for a whole host of men in post-war Britain who wanted to better themselves.  Ultimately, however, he 'sold his soul' to achieve his ambition.

J. K. Rowling describes her book as a comic tragedy and it is indeed  tragic that  modern society has made little progress with its 'them and us' view of the world. I look forward to reading  Casual Vacancy, heralded as an everyday story of the rich versus the poor.  In the meantime, I'm on the side of the world's would-be high fliers even if, like Joe, all they do is make us sit up and take notice.

 Ambition may have its downsides but I'd swap it for bigotry every time.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The opening chapter - Weather or Not?

Notice in a Guernsey open air cafe - September 2012

Did you know that a large percentage of would-be novelists start their  first chapter with a description of the weather? This, we are told, is not a good idea.  Yet great novelists have, throughout time, begun their novels in just this way and their names have gone down in history. Take Thomas Hardy in the opening chapter of Far from the Madding Crowd:

Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

 I've cheated a little with this example because it's  on of my favourites, yet Hardy often
referred to the weather in his opening chapters. And so did Dickens. Foggy marshes, damp and dreariness in the cemetery, all of these make Dickens Great Expectations addictive from the beginning and provide us with a fear that is almost tangible. Who could not be moved by  the evil convict Magwitch or the terror enveloping young Pip?

 Look at the opening chapter of Bronte's Jane Eyre: There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

In Ernest Hemingway's 'A Farewell to Arms,' rain  represents death while snow is symbolic of hope. His wonderful 'The Sun also Rises,'  apart from being one of his best novels, refers to - er - the weather. Hemingway was a journalist before he became a novelist so at least I'm in good company!

The truth is that all rules are made to be broken. Success makes anything possible. But for the rest of us, writing is something we do from the heart and shouldn't be restricted by endless rules.  In our genre-obsessed literary world it's hard to write anything these days that doesn't fit into a specific category.

My message to would-be novelists who want to write about the weather is, therefore, simple. Write what you feel, 'weather' or not, and don't listen to too much advice. As Ernest Hemingway once said: The first draft of anything is shit.  Not exactly how I would have put it but, well, I certainly know what he means.

Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and .diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The actress and the priest...

Louis de Bernieres at the Guernsey Literary Festival

I arrived at the Guernsey Literary Festival this week just in time to see novelist Louis de Bernieres make an entrance - and I'm so glad I did. Despite being born in Britain, this surprisingly affable author has an exotic-sounding name that sits comfortably with his collection of works set all over the world. Grateful as he may be to Captain Corelli's Mandolin for catapulting him to fame (not to mention wealth) I can't help wondering if he finds discussing the novel after so many years  just a tiny bit tedious.

He began his talk with a never-before-heard short story about an actress and a priest, that had us all rolling with laughter. 'This is funny and a bit silly but I've only just written it and you are the first to hear it so  you can make up your minds,' he said.  Based  in Norfolk, where the author now lives, it follows the mixed fortunes of Roman Catholic priest Papa De Lyon, (my spelling) , known locally as 'Paper Lion' and a long retired eccentric actress who wants to convert to Catholicism on her own rather bizarre terms.  Louis de Bernieres is, of course, famous for his prurient sense of humour and on this he didn't disappoint.

An adult author, his one children's book Red Dog, written in 2002 and set in Western Australia, was presumed to be for adults and therefore treated as such, much to his amusement.  It was made into an Australian film  two years ago.  Fans of his novels know they are written as stand-alone chapters that subtly connect  to make a whole. Deceptively easy to read  they are clearly far more complicated to write and include The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, Birds Without Wings, Senor Viva and the Coco Lord and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. I am currently reading A Partisan's Daughter (a paper version, signed by the author, of course) a wonderful mixture of sadness, perception and joy which was shortlisted for the  Costa Novel Award in 2008.

After the talk I asked Louis de Bernieres if he thought that the future lay in digital publishing.  He smiled, raised a copy of one of his novels and said 'Whatever happens we will always have these.'

I do hope he's right.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Harry Brown at the Cafe de Paris...

I've recently rediscovered a vintage cartoon from the heyday of  London's most famous venue, The  Cafe de Paris, whose roll call of past guests comes straight from the pages of Who's Who. Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Noel Coward,The Agha Khan, Princess Margaret, the Prince of Wales, Lord and Lady Mountbatten all once graced the venue in London's Piccadilly along with, oh yes, Harry Brown. No, sorry, he wasn't rich and famous - he was just my dad.

In the 1950's Dad, a journalist, was invited to cover a prestigious sportsmen's dinner at the Cafe de Paris along with a well-known cartoonist from one of the tabloid nationals.The cartoonist did this wonderful doodle of Harry in his monkey suit as a memento of the occasion and it took pride of place in my childhood home for  many years.

Established in 1924, the Cafe de Paris was renown for staying open during World War Two when most other similar venues were shut down.  The wartime maitre d', Martin Poulson, was famously quoted as saying it would never get bombed having 'four solid storeys of masonry above.'  Yet on March 8 1941 two 50kg landmines came through the Rialto roof and 80 people were killed - including the hapless maitre d' himself. After the war around £7,500 was spent on refurbishing the blitz damage.

Incidentally, the Mountbattens were known for their choice of menu when they arrived in Piccadilly: a dozen and a half oysters and Steak Diane.... Makes a change from Mcdonalds...

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Drugs for all...

Photo: ~Book                                                     

Here is something  I think should be posted in every doctor's surgery all over the country, in schools, hospitals, pubs and clubs and anywhere people are searching for something to help them escape from the pressure of their lives...It reminds me of a very old lady who was  featured on television a few years ago during National Book Week. She was sitting in a wheelchair surrounded by novels of all shapes, sizes and genres - with a huge beam spread across her face.  'I might not be able to walk,' she said, 'but I can travel all over the world, swim, ski, ride on the back of a camel and stay up till dawn just by flicking through the pages of a book.' And, of course, she was right.

Maybe we should be able to get them on the NHS?