Thursday, 21 August 2014

Summer reading 2014

Samuel Pepys: salty
These are the books I'm lugging with me for my week away. I'll be delving, as usual, into Samuel Pepys, and savouring his salty, vivid prose, although it does sometimes feel rather Sisyphean. Henry Green's first novel, Blindness, was written whilst he was still at school; I hope to be left very jealous. I'm revisiting Aldous Huxley, having chanced upon After Many a Summer recently; I'm taking Eyeless in Gaza, his most sincere novel. A classic I've never looked at, and timely given the publication of the final volume, is Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts.

Concerning contempory fiction: Continuing my attempts to catch up on Hilary Mantel's backlist before her next book comes out, I've got Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, a study of isolation in Jeddah. I love those sinister, eerie earlier works. Having loved, as many did, Middlesex, I've left off reading Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot for ages, so that's coming too, and for similar reasons, Don DeLillo's Libra, another author whose works I'm hungrily devouring. Zadie Smith's NW friends assure me is brilliant so she's along for the ride.

I'm also very much looking forward to two works of non-fiction: Peter Stothard's Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, and Helen Macdonald's already bestselling H is for Hawk. I've  read T H White's The Goshawk in preparation, and am tempted to get my own hawk. I wonder if they'll let it through customs?

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Photographs by Izzy Mathie

These photographs were taken by Izzy Mathie, who interviewed me today as part of an ongoing project.

The interview, and videos of readings from THE BROKEN KING, will be appearing soon.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

My inspiration: T H White's Once and Future King

I've written a piece for The Guardian about T H White's The Once and Future King. You can read it here. It follows S F Said's My Inspiration piece, about Ursula Le Guin.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Julia Donaldson, smoking & scarecrows

Captain Haddock enjoying a pipe
Evening all: I've written a piece for The Independent which will be in tomorrow's paper; it's online now. You can read it here. It's about Julia Donaldson, and smoking in children's books.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Making of Mr Bolsover by Cornelius Medvei: review in Literary Review

A happy August to you all: I've reviewed The Making of Mr Bolsover by Cornelius Medvei for the Literary Review; it's in the August edition, which has hit the stands right now, as we speak, and contains lots of other lovely things.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Childe Roland and The Broken King

Just who is Childe Roland? His name is imbued with mystery. The liquid “ls” and hard dentals suggest movement, a march to the beat of a slow-moving army.

There is a picture of him, by Edward Burne-Jones, in which he is encased in armour and defiantly holding his horn. He appears for the briefest of moments in King Lear; Robert Browning wrote a whole poem about him, which ends with the stirring lines: “And yet / Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, / And blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.” There is a  folk story, in which Roland’s sister, Burd Ellen, gets snatched away by the King of Elfland after going round a church backwards; Roland follows his brothers to that strange, other place, and manages to get her back.

He is a character made from many things: shifting, and yet dauntless. When Childe Roland comes to the Dark Tower, in Browning’s poem, what is it that he finds there? When Edgar, disguised as the madman Poor Tom, sings his snatch of a song, he takes Lear off the heath, off stage, into the darkness. Roland is always on a journey, into the unknown. For a character that’s so elusive, he has a great deal of power.

Whoever he is, whatever his origins, and wherever he’s going, he is the direct inspiration for my new book, The Broken King. Roland was a paladin of Charlemagne, historically speaking (though barely attested), who fought bravely for his king. He becomes transformed into a figure of fantasy in the Chanson de Roland, where he is given a horn with which to summon the emperor, and a sword that was brought by an angel.

Thus he pops up in Ariosto’s romantic epic, Orlando Furioso, which is about him, or an idea of him. Here his sword once belonged to Hector of Troy (and perhaps the process he is undergoing, from knight to legend, is the same that Hector, Achilles, Aeneas and Odysseus underwent.) In this long poem he falls in love with Angelica and loses his wits – only to have them restored to him by a knight who’s found them on the moon.

He passes on through the centuries. Surely it is he who is the subject of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, ageless, vital, still on his (and then her) quest for meaning? His journey has in the twentieth century sparked many other works: Alan Garner’s Elidor; Stephen King’s Dark Tower series; Francis King used it for the title of a 1946 novel, To the Dark Tower. Roland’s is a quest that seems to have at the same time both no meaning, and all the meaning in the universe.

When I was smaller, I imagined that “Childe” Roland was a child. Having heard snatches of his story, or stories, I pictured myself as Roland, embarking upon endless strange and terrible quests. Much later I learned that “Childe” was in fact another word for “Knight”; and so it struck me, still later on, that there is no reason why a child could not be a knight.

Children’s books are about becoming an adult, and facing up to strange and terrible things: why couldn’t my new hero be a version of Roland, setting out on a journey which threatened more dangers than he could ever imagine? What lurks in the Dark Tower is endlessly fascinating: not least because it stands for so much of our own dark imaginings; and, perhaps more importantly, it prefigures all our deaths. In Browning, it’s possible that that is what the Dark Tower is: the end of a struggle; the acceptance of the end. And yet Roland is strong in the face of it.

My hero, in twenty-first century Britain, couldn’t actually be called Roland – he’s Simon, though Roland is his middle name. The folk story was the germ of the book’s plot: I changed it so that Simon becomes the cause of his sister’s disappearance. Along the way he picks up a horn and a sword, both of which have magical properties. Having been an ordinary boy, he becomes, in effect, a knight.

His quest is to save his sister from the Broken King. But it’s also the quest that Roland performs, to the dark tower, into nothingness, into the depths of meaning and reality and existence themselves. It’s the journey that children make when they struggle from childhood into adulthood; and one that takes place, always, onwards and onwards, at the steady pace of Childe Roland’s very name, in the backs of our adult minds.

One day we will face the dark tower, if it is death. And who knows what we will find when we put the horn to our lips, and blow?

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Medea at the National Theatre: review for PORT

Helen McCrory as Medea
Medea is on at the National Theatre: I've reviewed it for PORT magazine. You can read it here.