Thursday, 30 December 2010

Books of the Year: Final Day: Children's Books


Bonjour! Although why I've suddenly gone French I have no idea. And here is the final list. Since all my lists have been books that I've actually read this year, rather than books necessarily published this year, there's a couple of oldies on here. Obviously, my best children's book of the year was something called, er, what was it, oh, The Liberators, by, er, that chap, you know, he reviews for the Telegraph, what was his name? Wasn't his first book called something like The Other Book? Oh yes, Philip Womack. So, apart from that obviously brilliant novel, take it away:

1. The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber


An absolute delight - Shakespeare quoting, twisted fairy tale in which good somehow triumphs over evil. A disguised prince must carry out impossible tasks to rescue a princess from a cold duke who's 'forty six and six foot four'. A book like this just wouldn't be published today, I'm afraid. Come on, publishers, be more adventurous!

2. Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

What those in marketing like to call a 'cross-over' novel, this is a brilliant account of a time-travelling goth who, after the death of her brother, becomes deeply involved in a life of Marie Antoinette's imprisoned son; one day she finds herself actually in the eighteenth century. Very well-constructed and written.

3. Blitzcat by Robert Westall


Another children's book that just wouldn't make it today: why? It doesn't even have a child in it, nor is the heroic cat even anthropormophised. Instead Westall provides a bleak and brilliant account of various different grown ups' psychologies as a cat called Lord Gort attempts to make its way home during the Second World War.

4. Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore

This was a lovely little book, published this year, about the blossoming love between a dancing girl and a prince - unfortunately the prince has been metamorphosed into a clockwork doll. I hope to hear more from Dolamore.

5. The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley


A brilliant pastiche of all things gothic, and yet still frightening, this is an excellent ghost story about the workings of revenge.

6. The Rainbow Orchid (Vol II): Julius Chancer by Garen Ewing

Charming, Tintin-esque comic book adventure, set in the early part of the twentieth century. If ever there was a rip-rollicker, this would be it.

7. Frightfully Friendly Ghosties by Daren King


All the ghosts in this zany little book are absolutely terrified - of each other, and of real life humans (or 'still alives' as they somewhat snootily call us.) Funny and sweet.

8. When I was Joe by Keren David


A sharply written contemporary thriller about a boy who, having witnessed a murder in a park, must change his identity and come to terms with himself and his new life. An exciting new talent.

9. Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie on the Road by Joel Stewart


A skewed fairytale, this picture book will delight little ones (and their parents) with its tale of a little boy who can't stop tootling on his pipe. He must wake up a princess - but will she be able to stop playing too?

10. A Web of Air by Philip Reeve


As ever from the excellent Mr Reeve a stylish and involving chapter in his chronicles of a devastated future world. This is a prequel, before the moving cities, and it's as involving and clever as anything he's written.

11. Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling


On here for mostly sentimental reasons, I was actually amazed (having read it for the first time since a boy) at the message in the book - that 'England' was made through the combined efforts of all its settlers - Jews, Anglo-Saxons, Normans - and that peace is the only way forward. Who would have thought it from such a tub-thumper? Also deeply poignant, as Dan and Una forget what happens to them when they've seen Puck (which sort of defeats the point of what they've learned, don't you think?) It has special resonance for me as I grew up in Sussex, and would often dream about turning the corner to find a knight leading his horse to drink at a stream...

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Books of the Year: Day Four: Poetry


A rhapsodic top of the mornin' to you all on this foggiest of days. Welcome to Day Four of my Books of the Year - in which I give you some poetical delights. Here they come...

1. Faber New Poets 5 by Joe Dunthorne


This little pamphlet showcases the brilliantly ironic, often delicately beautiful talent of the young poet Joe Dunthorne (whose zanily dark first novel, Submarine, was published a couple of years ago). The poems reward re-reading - they explore friendship, memory, childhood and more, all with a sideways, intelligent glance. I look forward to more.

2. In the Flesh by Adam O'Riordan

Another promising debut by a fellow Oxford-ite (and, according to Tatler, Britain's Sexiest Poet), displaying a matured voice, and tackling a range of subjects in careful, studied form that shows both great control and passion.

3. Hesiod's Calendar by Robert Saxton


An excellent adaptation of possibly one of the dullest poems to come out of Greek literature, this is much better than the original. Split into two halves, The Theogony and Works and Days, the poem achieves a lightness of touch and wit that doesn't conceal the harshness of Hesiod's depiction of life.

4. The School Bag edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney

I read this all the way through in August. It's extremely satisfying to feel the shape of the themes rise up in your mind as you read - they are collected according to a vague, undisclosed scheme - as one moves from the sea, through animals, life, death. There are some true gems here, as well as some of the more canonically recognised poems. My only criticism is that there was too much folky stuff, which does not repay careful reading.

5. Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

Initially I didn't like this very much: but after dipping in a few times, one can appreciate the real craftsmanship of the poems. They seem to be about the ameliorative power of work - the 'human chain' being a physical chain of people passing sacks, as well as a 'chain' of poetry - and also to be hugely aware of death, with Virgil's Book VI (the descent into the underworld) looming large.

Well then, off I go. See you tomorrow for the final list: children's books. Ciao!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Books of the Year: Day Three: Recent Non-Fiction


Hello! And welcome! On this third day of my bumptastic books of the year, I give to you a selection of recent non-fiction. Which, er, for obvious reasons, are mostly to do with classics, but never mind. There's one about roads in there too.

1. Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler

This is a superbly erudite work tracing the birth of Latin as it fought against its neighbours (Oscan and Umbrian, anyone?) to become the global language that it still is. It's funny, well-written and even - dare I say it - gripping. Latin is alive! It also contains many interesting examples of real Latin, such as this, from a Roman school primer:

Et maledicit bestiarius? Dimitte me et dentes eius excutio.
Is this beastfighter dissin me? Let me go - I'll knock his teeth out.

Ego te excaeco.
I'll have your eyes out.

Video quid mihi facies.
I know your little game.

There is also a play written by a nun in the form of a Terentian comedy, about how maidens should keep their virtue, which is worth the price of the cover alone. And did you know that there were Incan princesses who wrote in Latin? (see picture). Oh yes. Ite! Legite! Emite!

2. Why Socrates Died by Robin Waterfield

This (also gripping) work traces the last days of the philosopher, placing him in a political and social context. He also has a marvellously clever interpretation of Socrates' last words - which you'll just have to read the book to find out.

3. On Roads by Joe Moran

Yes! It's a book about roads! I never thought I'd be excited by tarmac, but honestly, this is a work of genius. Moran has a novelist's sensibility; he interprets the psychological implications of roads in a way that J G Ballard would have been proud of. And if you've always wondered where Mills and Boon novels go when they die - well, they're under the wheels of your car.

4. A Single Swallow by Horatio Clare

Clare followed the swallows' migration from South Africa to Britain. This is a moving and vivid account of a young man's mental and physical journey.

5. Full Circle by Ferdinand Mount

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ferdinand Mount this year about this book - a warm, genial account of how in our thoughts and actions we really can't escape the classical world - and are in fact perhaps much closer to those Romans and Greeks than we think.

Toodle pip, till tomorrow ...

Monday, 27 December 2010

Books of the Year: Day Two: Recent Fiction


Welcome to Day Two of my Books of the Year, and here I present to you a thick slice of contemporary fiction, taking in mysterious deaths by doughnut at Catholic boarding schools, uber-rich amoralists, ghosts, gods, surf punks, mysterious strangers, quests, more ghosts, and a Jane Austen homage. It hasn't been a vintage year for fiction, but there has been a lot of interesting stuff out there.


1. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

I have raved about this before - lyrical, eerie, funny, this is definitely my overall book of the year.

2. The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

This is an absorbing and exciting account of an American couple's dubious ascent into the realms of billionaredom - a modern day Faust, without Mephistopheles.

3. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sarah Water's pastiche manages to be a classic ghost story, with a pervading sense of the eldritch on every page, and an ending that causes everything to be thrown into question.

3. The Infinities by John Banville

I had dreams about living in the universe portrayed in this charming, weird novel. It's set in a slightly different world to ours - the theme being that that are infinite universes, and infinite gods of the universes, who play idly with mortals and often take mortal form (hence the picture: here the Greek gods are highly significant). The novel is, like the bones in the song, rich and strange.

4. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Completely loopy: the plot concerns a marijuana smoking detective in 70s California, who's been set to find a missing property developer. Everyone seems to be after everyone else; or maybe it's just the dope. Immensely enjoyable, even if it is as mad as several boxes of frogs.

5. In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

Finely-constructed triptych of inter-connected stories following the emotional development of the writer ('Damon') as he travels around the world. Beautifully written, and experimental too, this is a satisfying and troubling portrait.

6. Ghostlight by Joseph O’Connor

Initially, I didn't like this very much; but as I went on, I became immensely involved in the story of an old actress looking back at her involvement with the playwright Synge - so involved as to be moved almost to tears. Delicate and elegant and powerful.

7. Rat by Fernanda Eberstadt

A warm and gripping tale of a young girl's quest through France to England to find her father; vivid and truthful.

8. Corpus by Susan Irvine

These short stories are mordant, mournful comments on the art world. Ninety per cent of them are ingenious, original and funny.

9. Kehua! by Fay Weldon

The loopiness of the plot wins it a place on the list - Weldon manages to be so much more interesting than a lot of writers around at the moment.

10. The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

This is an often hilarious homage to Jane Austen, concerning the late divorce of a seventy year old woman, and the effect it has on her and her two middle aged daughters.

11. Lights Out in Wonderland by D B C Pierre

A rollicking tale of decadence and drugs, the slightly baggy middle section can be forgiven because of the zaniness and excitement of the rest.

12. Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

A late addition to the list (read over Christmas), these fantastical short stories show the influence of Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones; several of them are truly brilliant, including 'The Library', about a strange TV show that only plays randomly and may or may not be a TV show: it takes place in an enormous library that has its own tundra and desert - and even boasts its own ocean.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Books of The Year: Day One


As a reviewer, I don't get to read as many classics as I would like, but I do try to keep at least one at a time going. This year, my most satisfying discovery was J G Farrell's 'Empire' Trilogy. Such meatiness of prose - if his books were meat, they would be enormous capons or possibly large legs of lamb with giant crunchy roast potatoes and really thick gravy. And bread sauce, of course. And they would bring a spirit lamp to your table to make your coffee afterwards. Now, where was I. Yes, I'm going to give my own personal books of the year, spread over five days. I had intended to write them in sonnet form - or at least in the form of 'The Hunting of the Snark' - but then I thought it would probably take too long.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me (or if she had sent these books to me, then she would definitely have been my true love) a whole load of classic works. Furies, fops, fiends and fripperies (and ladders): it's my top twelve old books of the year.

1. The Family Reunion by T S Eliot

It's like the worst and best Christmas ever all at once! And it's all in poetry! Amazing. Just watch out for the Eumenides, who happen to be hiding behind the curtain. Of course.

2. The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan

Oddly enough, I'd never read this at school, though everyone else had. I won't tell you what the Thirty Nine Steps are. You probably know. This is most definitely the most rambustiously exciting of all the Buchan thrillers.

3. Barry Lyndon by William Thackeray

If you've seen the wonderful film, (pictured here with Mr Lyndon about to blow smoke into his wife's face), then you'll be stunned at the novel - Barry Lyndon is here portrayed with the blackest of morals; even Lady Lyndon is frightful. It still makes me want to walk around in a frock coat and duel a lot, though. The first of many dubious heroes who have accompanied me this year.

4. The Black Sheep by Honore de Balzac

Intricate and thrilling tale of sibling rivalry - Philippe is as much of a monster as Barry Lyndon. Fortunately virtue prevails in the end, in the form of his artist brother Joseph.

5-7. Troubles by J G Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell, The Singapore Grip by J G Farrell

See above for the steakiness of these books. They create a world so entire that it occupies one's mind for days. Empire collapses; hypocrisies are exposed; absurdities pile up; and does anything change? We can only hope...

8. The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

A beautifully wrought study of loneliness and misdirected intentions. Taylor is brilliant at having her characters mooch about London not doing very much - and her writing is beautiful too.

9. Hippolytus by Euripides

Poor old Hippolytus doesn't really get much of a look in... It's such an alien concept, that to still feel the blade of the tragedy centuries later as keenly as ever is deeply thrilling. Watch out for that bull!

10. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

No bulls, but more blades, and a human tragedy, this study of evil resonates loudly.

11. The Italian by Ann Radcliffe

Scary monks! Last minute reprieves! Underground vaults! Illicit marriages! Comedy servants! Nuns! There is absolutely nothing that you could want in a gothic novel that isn't in this stonkingly brilliant novel. There's even a moment to rival the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, really.

12. The Red and the Black by Stendhal

The last of the dubious heroes, Julian Sorel is a carpenter's son who hacks his way up from a position as tutor to a provincial noble to the salon in Paris of the Marquis de la Mole and conquest of M Mole's daughter. The plot veers excitedly from farce - he's putting a ladder up against his lover's window! And then three pages later he's doing it again! - to tragedy, with a good dose of mordant satire in between.

Merry St Stephen's Day! I can't see anyone collecting wood from my window, but if you can, I'd invite them in for a mince pie - and a reading of T S Eliot.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Review of The Liberators in The Oriel Record


And so as Christmas approaches, I attack the pile of magazines that has piled up in my post box over the last couple of months, and find an issue of The Oriel Record. It contains a marvellous review of The Liberators, by my old tutor, James Methven. He takes particular delight in the scenes at The National Gallery (hence the picture). Here it is in full, below. Incidentally, Methven has himself just published a collection of versions of Catullus, called Precious Asses, published by Seren Books. Click HERE for their website, where you can buy a copy.



The Liberators, Philip Womack
By James Methven, Oriel Record, 2010

Philip Womack’s second novel pitches us into a world of global financial crisis, fear of deadly attacks on the Underground, and the false fashionable world of arts junkets in the capital. This sounds the very model of a modish political and economic setting to an adult thriller, yet this is a novel for young teen readers from the author whose debut, The Other Book, (Bloomsbury, 2008) was reviewed in these pages two years ago. Where The Other Book player upon themes and ideas from epic and Arthurian legend, The Liberators draws its energies from the world of Greek mythology.

The story opens with a savage narrative bang: mass hysteria afflicts the passengers of an underground train and when the laughter and panic subsides a man is discovered beheaded and dismembered. Moments before, he has pressed a mysterious small black object in to the hand of a young boy with the strange injunction: Koptay thurson. The police are baffled and the media speculate as to the nature of this possible terrorist attack. The narrative voice shifts and we run for the rest of the novel with Ivo Moncrieff, a young boy let loose from school for his Chrismtas holidays, who is tasked with a quest that will deny him his freedom for a while, but, should he fail, all our freedoms will be destroyed. Freedom is the central motif of the book; the problem posed being what freedoms we truly have. The monstrous forces against which Ivo must fight represent the absolute anarchic freedoms of the god Dionysus; here taking split human form as the devilishly seductive Luther-Ross brothers who seek to unman the nation to a violent squabbling mess of inhuman savages. These figures from beyond mortal time are a spooky incarnation from Greek mythology, shape-shifting between a grotesque true self and a suave falsity. Their monstrous appetites and their desire to feed others the freedoms they normally avoid form the core of the descriptive power of the novel (there is a horribly queasy scene in which the young hero is force-fed alcohol and tempted by the antagonists to give licence to his inner demons.)

As with Womack’s previous book, there is a twisting plot, some rather gruesome violence (a dead cat features nastily at one point), and some hard moral lessons for the protagonists. The writing is of a high quality, with a poetic turn of phrase; the sentences have pace but also hold our interest such as to make us read without missing detail. Ivo befriends two other youngsters, Felix and Miranda (beset with the horrors of a private tutor in the Vacation), who, along with an organization called FIN (Freedom is Nothing), devoted to the ousting of the Liberators, must undergo all manner of slick and sudden shocks and trials before the grand show-down which comes in the National Gallery in the presence of HRH the Prince of Wales ‘and his Duchess’.

The strangeness of the London depicted – it’s real, but its inhabitants at times seem not to notice the horrors being perpetrated around them – and the delightfully batty shift from apparent elderliness to lithe marshall arts prowess on the part of the members of FIN calls to mind the old TV Avengers from the 60s, and the stylishness of the antagonists suggests that any film version would need a very groovy design indeed. And if so, who will play the Prince of Wales ‘sheltering behind an upturned table’, as anarchic humans and the devilish Acolytes of the Liberators battle it out? For early teen readers this is a highly entertaining and heady mix of contemporary fun and quite sophisticated satire, laced with satisfyingly horrid danger for the young heroes.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Apprentice as Greek Tragedy


The Apprentice as Tragedy

A fearsome presence descends from the heavens, attended by two hovering Furies clashing their teeth, ready to dispense justice upon the mortals quivering below. An unearthly light permeates the air: the scene is metaphorically dripping with blood. It is, as Cassandra says when she arrives at the house of Atreus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, ‘a human slaughterhouse’; a body has just been displayed to the baying audience, whilst the other characters have been through a test of psychological and physical endurance. Yet one person will be saved; one who has performed correctly; one person to make some sort of order out of the chaos left behind by a glut of misunderstandings and errors. You might be forgiven for thinking that I’m describing the end of a Greek tragedy. I am – up to a point. In fact, it’s The Apprentice, with Lord Sugar as the deus ex machina, and Karen and Nick as the crime-pursuing Furies.



Yes, it’s the closest thing we have today that both follows the same arc and has the same effect as a traditional Attic tragedy. An audience of Athenians, settling in at the City Dionysia (a festival of plays and other events), would have known exactly what to expect from what was put in front of them. When it came to tragedies, they were in for a bout of kin-killing, incest, or another sort of god-defying behaviour; the point being, according to Aristotle, that having watched the antics of a Pentheus (torn apart by his own mother) or an Agamemnon (slain by his wife), afterwards they would be ‘purged’ of pity and fear, and thus be able to live happily.



So it is with The Apprentice. Like the City Dionysia, it brings the country together in voyeuristic pleasure – what Mrs Radcliffe called ‘the strange delights of artificial grief’. We settle down in front of the television, and as ‘Montagues and Capulets’ kicks in, our brains spark with the knowledge of what we are about to receive. We are gripped by the consistency of the narrative, with all its dramatic ironies and reversals of fortune, just as the Attic audiences were. The formal nature of the program feeds our synapses in exactly the same way. Aristotle posited that a tragedy has unities of time and space. The tasks in The Apprentice take place over 24 hours. The house and the boardroom function as fixed loci, with the beautiful London townhouse standing in for the ancient palaces of the nobility (the skene, from which characters emerged to meet their fates); and the contestants’ tasks do tend to be confined to a certain place, such as a shopping centre.



Greek tragedy concerned the misbehaviour of people in an elevated position – kings, queens and heroes. In our meritocratic society, what more elevated position could there be than someone in Lord Sugar’s ambit? Fighting for position in an ‘agon’ (contest), just as the actors in the Dionysia contested to win a prize, these are Brtain’s ‘brightest business hopes’. And, in the same way as Pentheus refuses to believe in Bacchus, or Agamemnon walks upon the purple cloth, thus showing his pride, the contestants yap and bark about their brilliance at various different skills (well, mostly selling.). They’re riding for a fall. They have committed hubris – an assault on the gods.

Of course the real tragedy in all this is that the prize of the one who’s saved is a job with Lord Sugar. This, to my mind, makes The Apprentice a far more effective tragedy than even the Agamemnon. That cycle came to an end with the Furies tamed; we know, however, that The Apprentice could go on for ever. And that is what makes it so brilliantly tragic: with no limit, it reflects the endless vicissitudes of human existence. So let us pour libations to Lord Sugar (anax glukus?) and joyously acclaim the next series.

(Incidentally, Chris Bates should have won. Anax Glukus seems always to be swayed by where people come from. Is that prejudice? I think so.)

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Used Up by Dion Boucicault


A great deal of Christmas cheer was to be had last night at a performance of Dion Boucicault's 'Used Up', at Edward Barker's house in Notting Hill, in aid of the Notting Hill Churches Homeless Concern. Boucicault's London Assurance is a staple of the repertoire; Used Up probably hasn't been performed in a while. Director Matthew Sturgis stumbled upon it in the Lord Chamberlain's Archives. It concerns a gentleman called Sir Charles Coldstream (ably played by Sturgis), who is tired of life. He's been all around Europe, loved hundreds of women, but 'there's nothing in it.' His friends bet him to marry the first woman who comes along; she turns out to be a marginally dodgy bigamist called Lady Clutterbuck. Also in the mix are a bankrupted blacksmith, two carousing aristos (Sir Adonis Leech and the Hon Tom Saville), a farmer called Wurzel and an innocent maid. When Coldstream and Ironbrace the blacksmith fight (erroneously) over Clutterbuck, it causes them both to fake their own deaths in fear of having murdered the other. Yes, it's a marvellously complicated farce, involving wills, ghosts (real or not), hidden chambers and wit. Ultimately it is an assurance of life - Coldstream comes to realise that life is about, basically, having something to do - but it's nothing, he finishes, 'without the approbation of friends'. The cast included William Sieghart, Rupert Smith, Andrew Barrow and Emma Hope; the audience never stopped roaring with laughter. It was indeed marvellous to see even the smallest children thoroughly enjoying themselves (including one little boy who helpfully pointed out where Ironbrace was hiding). In the audience were novelist Edward St Aubyn and satirist Craig Brown, amongst others; Nicky Haslam turned up to the party afterwards looking like a chic cowboy.

Here is some information about Boucicault (pronounced Boo-si-co) from the program:

'Dion Boucicault was, like many great English playwrights, an Irishman ... The author of over two hundred plays, Boucicault said 'I can spin out these rough-and-tumble dramas as a hen lays eggs. It's a degrading occupation, but more money has been made out of guano than out of poetry.'

So here's to guano, and the making of it; and also a Merry Christmas, as this shall be the penultimate post of this extraordinary year. Next up will be my Books of the Year - which may or may not take the form of a sonnet....

Monday, 13 December 2010

Literary Review Christmas Children's Round Up


My ravishing round up of children's books for Christmas is in the bumper December / January issue of Literary Review. Again, no online version, so a trip through the snow to the newsmongers to find it is necessary. Or you could subscribe. The books I've reviewed are:

Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley
Ministry of Pandemonium by Chris Westwood
The Fool's Girl by Celia Rees
Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly
Almost True by Keren David
Now by Morris Gleitzman
Elliott Allagash by Simon Rich
Pull Out All The Stops! by Geraldine McCaughrean
Ghostly Holler-Day by Daren King
The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future by George Beard and Harold Hutchins
Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie on the Road by Joel Stewart
Alienography by Chris Riddell.

Phew! Now I'm going to read the entire Faerie Queene for a change of scene. See you in the New Year...

The Three Wisemen... I mean Weissmanns, of Westport, by Cathleen Schine: review


My review of The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine is in The Tablet this week. It's a lovely novel. The review is unavailable online, so you'll have to mosey on down to the newsagents to get a real actual ink and paper copy. Gosh! It's a very Jane Austeny novel, so it's all the more suitable to read a review of it in hard copy. In fact, you all ought to go out and buy a frock coat now.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Christmas Party Season

...is upon us, and the first of the lot was Bloombury's Children's Authors Party, which was for people with books out this year, and took place in their offices last week. I almost didn't make it - there were small matters of riots, the Royal Variety Show, and entire streets in Soho vanishing under enormous blue barriers for Crossrail. But, weary and thirsty, I did eventually make it, and I chatted to the ever-lovely Mary Hoffman, and also to Jim Carrington, whose debut novel was out last year, Inside My Head, which has received good reviews, and Lucy Jago, author of Montague House. Mince pies and cheese puffs were the order of the day.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Liberators becomes... an Audiobook!


Here's something to brighten up February: The Liberators will be fully morphed into an actual, real-life audiobook read by an actual real actor who speaks and everything! It will be published by Oakhill Books, and is available via their website for pre-order. I'm very excited to hear what the actor, Tim Bruce, has made of it... And what really gets me is that it says 'Complete and Unabridged' on the box.

Click HERE to visit the site.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Ovid and Euripides: They've Done it Again


The weekend was spent buried deep in various texts, for various reasons; as I truffled through them I did come up with this:

'saepe pater dixit: 'studium quid inutile temptas?
Maeonides nullas ipse reliquit opes.'

Plus ├ža change
. It's from Ovid, Tristia (4.10), and its translation is as follows:

'Often my father said, 'Why are you hacking away at that pointless fad?
Homer himself didn't leave behind any money.'


It's Ovid's father, telling him off for wanting to be a poet. Ovid's brother, of course, is a sparky lawyer. (Maeonides is a name often used for Homer as he was thought to have been a native of Maeonia, or Lydia as it was otherwise called.)

It is so marvellous to hear the voice of the father roaring out across the centuries as his useless son potters about with ink and papyrus instead of swotting up on legal precedents. More proof, if any is needed, of the 'relevance' of classical studies...

Also, what could be more beautiful than this, from Euripides' Ajax?

'horo gar hemas ouden ontas allo plen
eidol' hosoiper zomen he kouphen skian'

Translated (poetically, in the Penguin translation) as

'Are we not all,
All living things, mere phantoms, shadows of nothing?'

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Inkblots, Jelly and a Hungry, Hungry Hippogriff


I haven't had anything in the Telegraph for a while, and now two pieces come along at once... First is a gift book round up, which takes in everything from inkblot tests to manuals on knitting dogs, with detours into jelly, bikes, royal alligators and annoying meerkats. HERE is a link.

And also Russell Hoban's new book. I haven't actually read any of his other books - everyone tells me I must read Riddley Walker - but this extraordinarily odd little novel has certainly piqued my interest. Click HERE. The book takes as its premise the idea that the hippogriff from Ariosto's romance poem Orlando Furioso is in love with Angelica; he bursts into twenty-first century America in order to find her. As someone who has grappled with Orlando, and is currently re-making his way through The Faerie Queen, as the basis for a novel (for me at any rate) it's got to be a good one. A talking hippogriff beats a talking meerkat any day... (Pictured is one of Gustave Dore's etchings from OF.)

Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award


Monday night brought the best party of the year - the Literary Review's (s)extravaganza, which takes place at the In and Out Club in St James' Square. This year was no exception to the festive excellence: the room was crammed with literary and other types right from the beginning. It's a place where Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey can be seen next to Nadira Naipaul; where Rachel Johnson of The Lady (an ex-winner of the prize for her novel Notting Hell) can be spotted with Nicky Haslam; soldier Patrick Hennessey appeared briefly; Latinist extraordinaire Harry Mount; actresses Olivia Grant and Daisy Lewis; novelist Elspeth Barker; biographers Anne Somerset and Jane Ridley; writer Louise Guinness; literary editors, journalists, teenagers and liggers; it's the only party where the young and the old mingle happily, much as at Margot Metroland's parties in Vile Bodies. All washed down, of course, with laudatory amounts of champagne and Hendrick's gin. Alexander Waugh, as always, compered the readings wittily and smoothly. The winner was Rowan Somerville (pictured), who very sportingly accepted the prize, saying that there was nothing so English as Bad Sex; it was given by Michael Winner, who said he'd prefer to be at home watching I'm A Celebrity... . Not the done thing, Mr Winner. Courtney Love once gave the prize - she was much more gracious. Aside from the rudeness of Mr Winner, it was a marvellously exciting evening. A toast: to Auberon Waugh and the Literary Review!