Mary Ann In Autumn – Armistead Maupin (2010)

maryann

Armistead Maupin’s “Tales Of The City” novels seem to have been around forever.  The first appeared in 1978 following its existence since 1974 as a newspaper serial, in true Dickensian style, in two San Franciscan newspapers.  Forty years on I am reading the 8th in the series of what now consists of nine novels.  I have normally read them much closer to their publication date.  I actually think it was the fairly pedestrian title that slowed me down picking this one up, together with the obvious main focus, Mary Ann,  being one of my least favourite of the characters.  But I shouldn’t have waited so long.

 I have always enjoyed the “City” novels but the book of Maupin’s that I really loved was the stand-alone “Maybe The Moon” (1993) which was my favourite read back in 1994.  However, when I re-read this a few years later I wasn’t as impressed, suggesting that Maupin may fall into the category of writers where the response is more immediate than lasting.  This could be so, as despite a long association with these characters I find that I only remember a couple of them between novels but the author is always good with his prompts reminding us of the connections, obviously aware himself of the long gaps in its publishing sequence.

 There was an excellent TV adaptation in 1993 of the early novels shown over here on Channel 4 which starred Marcus D’Amico (whatever happened to him?) as the endearing “Mouse” and a never-been-better Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal.  This is real character-led fiction and once settled into the book and reminded who is who it feels like a reunion of old friends to which the reader is invited and really the actual plot does not matter a great deal.  Detractors of this series say it is trivial with weak plotlines and too politically correct for its own good and thus completely miss out on its charm, its quirkiness in the plot department and its importance in the canon of modern American literature.  Maupin is far from trivial, he was one of the first authors to deal with AIDS and there’s been other big issues- unexplained deaths, paedophilia and betrayals a-plenty but all handled so adeptly that some could write if off as too light.

 Here with the main characters aging we get cancer as a theme and ends that have been left untied for decades are tightened up.  Mary Ann does take a central role, and she has always been one of the characters I’ve not always been fond of, but the rest of this expanding cast are present and this is another highly enjoyable read.

 In 2014 Armistead Maupin published what he has said will be the last in the series, “The Days Of Anna Madrigal”.  I can’t help but think that this will be a bit of a tear-jerker so I’m having to build myself up to it and I’m not in any rush to bring a series which seems to have always been around in my adult reading life to an end.

 fourstars

Mary Ann in Autumn was published by Black Swan in 2010.

Advertisements

100 Essential Books- A Ladder To The Sky- John Boyne (Doubleday 2018)

images

boyneladder

Just occasionally the words I use in these reviews like to come back to bite me. It was only last week when I wrote in a review of Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less”; “Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are.” I excused Greer from this statement and certainly proving me wrong here is John Boyne, author of my 2017 Book Of The Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” who has produced another outstanding novel- this time about writers.

Sometimes reading choices turn up these unintentional patterns. Take the last two books I’ve read, “Less” with its gay writer as lead character and Boyne’s excellent children’s novel “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain” with its Nazi Germany setting and then comes along this book which begins with a gay German writer looking back at his youth in Nazi Germany.

It is 1988 and prize-winning author and Cambridge lecturer Erich Ackermann has returned to his Berlin roots for a book event. At the bar of the hotel he meets an ambitious young waiter. Their story spans 30 years to the present day. It is told by a number of different voices and has an enthralling mixture of the purely fictional and real life literary figures (one section is narrated by Gore Vidal whose writing Boyne has certainly re-whetted my appetite for). Running through the narrative are the machinations of a fabulous baddie and I’m not even going to reveal who this is, only to say that John Boyne has created a compelling monster whose antics had me often open-mouthed in horror.

Like “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” this is a beautifully balanced book, another complete package, which offers a tremendous variety for the reader with humour, tragedy, twists, crime and moral dilemmas all present to form a heady brew. I also loved the publishing background even if a week before reading this I was down on it as an idea.

With more literary fiction being spawned from real life and the stories of others this novel raises some thought-provoking points about the creative process and the ownership of ideas in a way which is thoroughly entertaining. When I read “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” back in December 2017 I justified my stinginess (compared with many other reviewers/bloggers) by saying; “If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.” This is the third John Boyne novel I have read and my third 5 star rating for his work. This shows just how highly I think of him as a writer and he’s not even given me the chance to do too much exploring of this back catalogue between his two latest publications. I still think “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is his masterwork (of what I’ve read of his so far) but then it is probably my favourite read of this century but “A Ladder To The Sky” is also very, very good indeed. Be prepared for a real treat of a read and one which I would expect in the upper echelons of my end of year Top 10.

fivestars

A Ladder To The Sky will be published in hardback by Doubleday on 9th August 2018. Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain – John Boyne (2015) – A Kid-Lit Review

imagesYC433BKV

boyne

I’m more than happy to delve into the back catalogue of the writer of my current Book of The Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies”. This book choice was thanks to me drawing from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge: “Read A Book With A Red Cover”. I do have John Boyne’s newest adult title “A Ladder To The Sky” lined up to read next, thanks to Netgalley, but I thought I’d explore his writing for a younger audience first.

I am still to read “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” but I know enough about it (and I’ve seen the film version) to realise that there are parallels here. We begin in Paris in 1936 with 7 year old Pierrot living with his widowed mother. In the first few pages we get shell shock, domestic abuse and suicide all related to his German father unable to adapt to living in post-World War I France. Tragic circumstances pile up forcing Pierrot to leave France for Austria and a home at the top of Obersalzberg.

I actually didn’t know where this book was going (I read nothing about it beforehand) so I’m determined not to give away much plot for there are twists a plenty to satisfy its intended audience.

This is a great novel for an enquiring developing mind. It is a complex book, emotionally speaking.  Perhaps elements of the plot might seem contrived if written for the adult market but it would all make sense for a younger audience and has a moral depth that I’m certainly unused to in Junior Fiction. Pierrot develops from being an extremely likeable character to something of a monster and this feels unusual and chilling. His actions become increasingly difficult to explain away even in a society where the old rules no longer apply. All this would resonate with every reader, child or adult.

There are throughout references to a children’s classic of an earlier generation “Emil And The Detectives” which I certainly loved as a child and Boyne’s novel should have an equally long life for future generations. He has written a powerful, compelling novel which I found difficult to put down and read in a day (which is unusual for me- even for a children’s book) and as in “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” he brought me close to tears on a number of occasions. The characters are memorable and the plot, as in “The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas” would be impossible to forget- and nor should we. It would be a great and lasting purchase for a sophisticated child/young adult.  This is a children’s book now in its third year after publication and its reputation should continue to grow.

fivestars

The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain was published by Doubleday in 2015.

 

Less – Andrew Sean Greer (2018)

 

less1

American author Andrew Sean Greer is no stranger to my end of year Top 10s.  His 2004 “Confessions of Max Tivoli” impressed me much on the two occasions I have read it.  Its clever conceit of a man getting younger as those age around him may have been used before, but by putting a love interest in for main character Max and having their lives intersecting over the years gave it a fascinating dimension.  My only niggle with the book was the fictional world Greer created did not feel to me much like the turn of the twentieth century America he’d intended.

less2

 He is sticking with the present with this, his 5th novel which was a surprise winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Praised on the cover by writers such as Armistead Maupin and Ann Patchett  this seemed like a must for me to read.  It has scooped perhaps the top literary prize of all and yet it is a fairly straightforward romantic comedy rather than some heavy tome.  It just shows the world is in need of lightness right now.  But does this book actually deliver this?

 It’s just a few months since the judging panel of the Wodehouse Prize for comic novels took the controversial decision of not awarding this year as they did not consider any of the 62 novels submitted to be funny enough.  I think Greer would have missed the publishing deadline for this year as this comic novel with literary plaudits would surely  have given the judges something to think about. 

My only alarm bells were that this is a book about a writer and the publishing industry.  Is there much comedy mileage in this for the general reader?  Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are.  They can have a tendency to inflated importance and pretentiousness.  Would a comic novel about writers only be funny to those in the know (ie: those who promote and review books and sit on judging panels).  Would it be full of in-jokes?

 Title character Arthur Less is approaching 50 and faces rejection of his latest novel, his age milestone and his ex inviting him to his wedding by planning a world tour of writing-based activities, from taking part in festivals, teaching, attending award ceremonies and attempting to find space to revise his latest work.  The humour is largely in the character of Arthur Less, who did win this reader over (it took a while) by his vanity and self-absorption which actually becomes surprisingly quite endearing.

 Greer’s writing is infused with humour.  There are some of the pratfalls and misunderstandings which are all too common with lead characters in chick-lit but the humour here runs throughout the narrative and this is what works well.  I did laugh out loud a few times but there is a wit and a warmth which heightens this novel’s appeal.  There’s also the irony of the rejected novel being about a middle-aged gay San Franciscan on a journey, questioning the meaning of his life, when this is what “Less” is all about.

 I did find it very enjoyable but I am still surprised by its Pulitzer achievement as it seems very understated compared to the more showy novels which tend to be up for awards.  It just shows what an impression this must have made on the judging panel to garner the prize but I’m still not convinced I liked it more than “Max Tivoli” even though on paper it seems just like the sort of book I would adore.  For those who tend to steer away from prize-winning novels this might be the time to think again and see if Arthur Less can win you over.

fourstars

 Less was published in the UK by Abacus in 2018

Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green & David Levithan (2010)

willgrayson

I’m always fascinated when two people write a novel together.  What is the actual process?  Do they write alternate chapters, like the husband and wife who write as Nicci French, with one writer ending in cliffhangers that the other has to get out of or does one do the bulk of the work and uses the name of the writer with the bigger reputation to help sales, as I suspect some of our more prolific writers who are writing in tandem with others must operate.

 I found out how the writers of this 2010 Young Adult novel worked in a conversation between them printed at the back of the book and this partnership and process makes sense.  The novel is about two American teens with the same name who meet up in complex circumstances befitting a YA novel midway through the proceedings.  The boys have alternate narratives throughout the book helmed by one of the authors.

 John Green’s Will Grayson is overshadowed in every sense by his larger than life gay best friend Tiny Cooper.  They have stuck together since Little League with Will’s strong sense of justice proving him always ready to come to the defence of his friend from those who disapprove of him.  This is in spite of Will’s philosophy for life being to keep quiet wherever possible and to try not to care, which just isn’t working, particularly when he gets interested in Jane, one of Tiny’s entourage and another member of the High School Gay-Straight Alliance.

 David Levithan’s Will Grayson is prone to depression, has a simmering anger, knows he is gay and doesn’t yet feel the need to proclaim it.  He writes entirely in lower case, which I initially really didn’t like as it’s hard to follow but I get why the author has done this for what it says about Will’s self-perception.

 This is a brash, very American book.  Tiny decides to mount a musical production of his life story and he is the link between the two Wills.  It took quite a while for me to see Tiny as anything else but cartoonish and implausible but he did manage to win me over.  There’s such great self-assurance in these characters, if only they can tear themselves away from social media, even from those who claim to feel anything but self-assured.  I think if I were a British teenager reading this such confidence would alarm me.  A whole musical gets staged without seemingly that much effort and their put downs to one another seem so resolutely sharp that I longed for more comradeship between them.  This is, after all, a novel about friendship.  The characters seem ready to rush into relationships without having friendship in a way which made me feel, well, just old and out of touch with modern youth.

 I do know that I’m not the target audience here but I think that even as a teen I might have liked the tone pitched a little subtler and a little less casual and I cannot recall a YA novel where a significant location is a porn shop.  However, if you come across this novel at the right age and with the right frame of mind I’m sure it could become a highly valued book with its own particular bespoke message to tell.  It does have a big heart at its centre and it did make me laugh out loud.

 Since the publication of this novel in 2010 John Green has achieved major bestseller success with “The Fault In Our Stars” and David Levithan’s subsequent work has been praised for its strong young gay characters.  I think they probably have both done better work independently but I did largely enjoy this collaboration and see it as a brave attempt to inject some serious sparkle into the Young Adult genre, which can at time take itself a little too seriously.

 threestars

 

Will Grayson, Will Grayson was published by Speak books in 2010.

David Bowie Made Me Gay – Darryl W Bullock (2017) – A Rainbow Read

rainbow

davidbowie

Subtitled “100 Years Of LGBT Music” Darryl W Bullock does a thorough job with his overview of popular music and the role played by LGBT artists.  If there is a central character then that is David Bowie whose “otherness” struck a chord with a whole generation who felt they didn’t fit in.  I was a little too young to comprehend the seismic shift which occurred in popular culture when Bowie appeared on the scene. Viewers who saw him put his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson on early evening “Top Of The Pops” (we obviously were not used to men touching then) were instantly divided into those who “got Bowie” and those (largely but far from exclusively split along generational lines) who most certainly didn’t. 

davidbowie4 

In 1972 Bowie interviewed in “Melody Maker” said “I’m gay and always have been even when I was David Jones”.  How much of this was the fame-hungry Bowie looking for headlines?  This statement was revised over the years and we know enough about him to understand that his sexuality was not as defined as he suggested at the start of his career but these words ensured the music world would never be the same again.

 But the questioning of sexuality did not begin in 1972 and Bullock provides a largely chronological study. He begins in early twentieth century New Orleans with its ethnic mix, red-light districts, poverty and party atmosphere which saw blues, ragtime and jazz emerging from the dives and honky-tonks.  Gay pianist Tony Jackson was a leading light and blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith led the way in hitting the big-time often with female lovers in tow.

 As the music business got more profitable and big fortunes were to be made record label executives did not want to do anything to rock the boat and so closet doors shut firmly on artists such as Liberace, Johnny Ray and Johnny Mathis and in the UK, Noel Coward and Ivor Novello.

 By the 60’s and 70’s the sexuality of big stars became a tabloid newspaper obsession and artists such as Dusty Springfield, Elton John and Freddie Mercury were hounded waiting for them to be caught out.  Closet doors creaked open a little and then shut.  Dusty left the UK, Elton married a woman and Freddie died of AIDS.  By the late 90’s another much-hounded performer George Michael was able to turn the whole thing on its head when he was outed following a “lewd act” arrest (something which had more or less killed the career of Johnny Ray in the US decades earlier) and he came out unapologetically with the celebratory, joyous “Outside” single and video.

 davidbowie2

Bullock does not just focus on the stars who made it and is perhaps even more illuminating on those who were unable to find success because of their sexuality.  Some forms of music opened doors (Disco, British 80’s pop, Folk music, New Romantics and Punk) and some did what they could to ensure LGBT artists would not succeed (Country, Hip hop, Reggae, Christian Rock).  Bullock examine these artists who have tried to change attitudes but it is a slow process in some areas.  In 2016 Trey Pearson of Christian Rock band Everyday Sunday’s coming out led to immediate axing from festivals and with the US veering more towards conservatism things might not change that quickly. 

In the UK more positive attitudes have ensured that an artist’s sexuality is not a kiss of death career-wise and this has meant that LGBT artists are now amongst our best loved stars – Elton, Freddie and George Michael have been joined as household names by Boy George, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Morrissey, Jimmy Somerville, Marc Almond, Andy Bell of Erasure, Tom Robinson, Will Young, Sia, Sam Smith etc.  That etc. suggests that we are hopefully fast approaching the point where sexuality does not matter. Since the 1980’s the British pop charts have been fuelled by the sound of gay and gay-friendly acts (Stock Aitken and Waterman had a significant part to play in this) but in other parts of the world this is not the case.  I like very much the scope of Bullock’s work and his ability to document the past and project into the future.  This made “David Bowie Made Me Gay” both a celebration and highly thought-provoking.

 fourstars

“David Bowie Made Me Gay” was published in 2017 by Duckworth Overlook

100 Essential Books – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017)

images

johnboyne

2017 seems to have, as far as my reading choices are concerned, kept the best till last.  The following review might sound as if I’ve been knocking back the sherries and become overly-infused with Christmas goodwill, but no, it’s just that I’ve spent the last few days in the company of this book which is undoubtedly the best book I’ve read (excluding re-reads) since I started this blog.  It may very well be my favourite book of this decade.

I suppose we are all on the look-out for what we would consider to be “the perfect book”, the book that exactly matches the reader, the book which represents all that we are looking for in our reading and this, for me, may very well be it.  Too often I’ve chosen a novel wondering if it could be “the one” and it hasn’t lived up to my expectations, or the hype, or it is unable to sustain the potential throughout the course of its pages.  This, I think, has managed to pull together all that I look for in my fiction into one tidy volume.

The odd thing is that I’ve never actually read anything by Irish writer John Boyne before.  I have had a copy of “The Boy With Striped Pyjamas” on my shelves for some time, but  I don’t think I’ve yet g0t over seeing the very good film adaptation.  My partner, who has read it, said it was one of the best books he has read, so perhaps the writing was on the wall.  “Pyjamas” is aimed at the older child/YA market and that is where, up to now, Boyne has perhaps been most celebrated.  I have picked up his books in shops and on library shelves and thought “I must get round to reading that”, but so far I haven’t.  It feels like there’s almost been a kind of courtship before I committed myself to this author.  So why has this worked so well for me?  Why is there such a match?

It’s a possibility that nationality has something to do with it.  As far as I know I haven’t got a drop of Irish blood in me but I’m often attracted by the work of Irish authors.  In recent years novels by Paul Murray, Donal Ryan and Sara Baume have appeared near the top of my end of year lists and there have been a number more who have written books that have really impressed me, including  Anne Enright, Nick Laird, Sebastian Barry, Jess Kidd and Graham Norton.  I have found myself favouring Irish and Irish-set novels (Hannah Kent’s “The Good People) and Emma Donoghue’s “The Wonder” both springing to mind) on this very blog.

Is it also because it has a gay central character and the novel explores a life-long battle with his own sexuality dominated by the repression of mid twentieth century Ireland.  Gay themed novels are likely to resonate and Allan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, Armistead Maupin, Michael Carson and David Leavitt have written such novels which are amongst my all-time favourites.  This book has pushed itself to the front of such esteemed company.

I’m also looking for characters to emotionally respond to and, boy, do I here, not just with the main characters but with a superbly drawn supporting cast which creates a novel of depth and feeling.  I also like a book which is going to make me laugh, as so few do, and even fewer do so consistently.  Paul Murray (another Irish author) with his tale of Irish financial institutions “The Mark & The Void” was the last to make me laugh as much as this.

I’m also a sucker for an epic sweep and this novel spans from 1945 to the present day.  There is a potential pitfall here, which I’ve highlighted often and that is I can be reading a book and loving the narrative flow then the section ends and it’s twenty years later and you’re left trying to re-establish who is who and what’s going on.  The danger being, of course, if you don’t like the new time-frame as much you find yourself yearning for a return to the earlier section.  This is also a trap faced by multi-narrative novels.  Here, I did feel occasionally saddened that a section I was so much into had ended but what came next was just as involving or even better.  At over 700 pages it is not the longest novel I have read this year but avoids all of the potential pitfalls of the fuller-figured work and becomes a rare thing – a long novel that I just did not want to end.

Boyne keeps to the one first-person narrative and that person is Cyril Avery who begins his tale with his pregnant mother being denounced as a whore by the parish priest in the midst of the Mass, leading her to having to flee her village and deal with Cyril’s inevitable arrival in a Dublin where a single mother with child is not a good option for survival.  Cyril is moved on and this is the tale of his life.  I’m not giving much away in order to maximise your reading pleasure.  I knew nothing about this book when I started it which heightened the experience and made the unpredictable turn of events throughout an absolute joy.  I did spot that Rachel Joyce had enthused on the cover “Invest in this journey because it will pay you back forever” and I can’t remember agreeing with on-cover blurb more.  Finishing it today (and I really slowed down on purpose, another great sign) I’m feeling quite bereft and am almost tempted to start the whole thing again, but recalling the recent memory of the Xmas tin of “Celebrations”, to gorge myself again so soon might be too much of a good thing.

Looking back over this I don’t know why I’ve spent the last few hundred words justifying why I’m praising this novel so much.  Just get over it!  It’s a superb book! I know that I’m stingier with my star ratings and with words of praise than many of the bloggers I follow and read but for me this book is exactly what the five star rating was made for.  If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.

fivestars

The Heart’s Invisible Furies was published as a Black Swan Paperback in December 2017.  Many thanks to Netgalley and to the publishers for the review copy.

 

Joe Orton Laid Bare (BBC2 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

watching

Joe Orton2

The summer I left school I discovered Joe Orton.  I was about to embark on a Drama course and was encouraged to read as many playwrights as possible.  I don’t remember if Joe Orton was actually on any recommended reading lists but it was his work that I became side-tracked by.

My eighteen year old self appreciated the rebel, the working class boy made good, his love at taking swipes at the establishment and most of all his use of language, rooted in what people actually say, which has always been for me one of the things I find most funny and has led to my love of Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood even right along to “Gogglebox” which just last the other night had me crying with laughter at an observation made by one of the regular viewers  (Izzi from Leeds actually).

joeorton

The more I read by and about Joe Orton the more obsessed I became.  His violent end appealed to my sense of the macabre and I devoured his diaries, probably not the most suitable reading material for an impressionable teenager.  When I eventually went to college I spent a good chunk of my first term producing an essay on, if I remember rightly, a quote of his about his work being from “the gutter”.  I don’t think I ever researched anything with such enthusiasm and it was probably my academic peak as I remember the assignment being awarded with an “A”.

joeorton3

His work has never entirely left me. I read his plays, the diaries, and John Lahr’s masterful biography regularly and all three would appear on my lists of my favourite books.  The 1987 film, based on Lahr’s work, “Prick Up Your Eyes” with its screenplay by the perfect choice, Alan Bennett, is one of my all time favourite films and features career best performances from Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina.  Over the years I’ve seen a number of productions of his plays.  They are not always easy to get right.  Probably the best I’ve seen live was a touring version of “Loot” with Letitia Dean.  That was certainly better than the 1970 film version starring Richard Attenborough and Lee Remick in the part of the nurse played by Letitia Dean.  I do, however, rate the film version of “Entertaining Mr Sloane, also from 1970, mainly because of the delightfully grotesque performance by Beryl Reid.

joeorton4

Gary Oldman & Alfred Molina from “Prick Up Your Ears”

Joe Orton Laid Bare was an 80 minute documentary on BBC2 which marked 50 years since the death of the playwright at the hands of his partner Kenneth Halliwell, who bludgeoned him to death with a hammer and then took his own life.  It featured a range of talking heads and extracts of Orton’s work- none of which fully conveyed the full flavour his work.   Orton specialised in farcical comedy which needs layers to be built as the play proceeds so to see a section out of context is probably not the best way of viewing his work.  The repertory company including Antony Sher, Jaime Winstone, Ben Miles and Freddie Fox who portrayed these segments with great gusto but they were perhaps the least successful aspect of the programme.  Orton was a writer who was perhaps just finding his peak at the time of his death, his last play “What The Butler Saw” is acclaimed his best.  There was a dramatization that I hadn’t seen before of a piece submitted for “Oh Calcutta!” which was embarrassing in its crass crudity which I think if I was producing this documentary I would have cut.

joeorton5

There were sections taken from the diaries brought to life by actors portraying a young and older Joe Orton which worked well.  There’s a recognition generally that the British Prison Service made Orton the playwright.  It took him away from the influence of the older Halliwell whose belief in his own literary skills was stultifying Orton’s writing and gave him the chance to find his own voice.  Both Orton and Halliwell were imprisoned (and this sounds incredible now) for defacing library books.  As someone who works within libraries I would have to take a dim view of this but there is something about the enthusiasm and care over the period of time that they did this and the outrageousness in what they came up with that always makes me laugh (against my better nature of course!)

joeorton6One of the many defaced library books which ended up in a prison sentence

There was a shining light in this programme which made it memorable to me who wasn’t expecting to find out a great deal of new things about Orton and that was the participation of his sister, Leonie as consultant and talking head.  Leonie, I believe manages the Orton Estate and is memorably portrayed in “Prick Up Your Eyes” by the fabulous Frances Barber.  Leonie in real life was more Julie Walters, (who played Orton’s mother in the film and who had the immortal line, and I may be paraphrasing a little, “I bet Dirk Bogarde never distempered his mother’s tablecloth!”) and her contributions to this programme were an absolute joy.  

joeorton7Joe’s sister, Leonie

For fifty years she has lived with the memories of her brother, from a working class Leicestershire background, who absorbed his parents into his characters (the weak men were his father, the surreally outrageous often coming from his mother).  She told a story about Joe returning home and hiding a microphone behind a loaf of bread to record his mother’s utterances which were then used in his work.  There were the few months of the golden era when Joe became the feted star of the West End – a radical new voice who won awards, appeared on the telly, was asked to write a screenplay for the Beatles and began to aspire to an existence completely baffling to the family.  And then, all of a sudden it was all over.  Leonie had to live with the repercussions of such a violent, horrible death, the discovery of the diaries and her inheritance of the whole of the Orton output, including unpublished works which she says pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable, and yet, she says with a twinkle in her eye, are still funny. Fifty years may have gone past but you can tell from Leonie that the presence of that naughty older brother, 11 years her senior, is still very much with her and a very real love for him shone through. 

joeorton8

Other talking heads included biographer John Lahr and those that appeared in the original productions of his plays including Kenneth Cranham, Patricia Routledge and Dudley Sutton and those who knew him and Kenneth Halliwell in their professional capacity and even a casual pick-up of Joe’s .  I felt Kenneth was moved further back than usual, certainly more so than in the film, which focuses on his mental deterioration to the point of murder of suicide and which elicits a fair amount of sympathy in Alfred Molina’s portrayal.  There was less sympathy in this documentary, nobody really had anything good to say about Halliwell.  What was interesting was the willingness to apportion some blame into a direction I had not heard before.  Peter Wills was the head of Rediffusion Television Drama who seemed to be guilty of continually undermining Kenneth publicly when he was obviously suffering from serious mental health issues, he interfered with treatment and seems to have exacerbated Halliwell’s paranoia.  Kenneth Cranham said “Almost certainly I think that Peter Wills brought about the murder…I think there was something Machiavellian going on….I think Peter Wills is a nasty piece of work.”  This view was echoed by other talking heads.  There was a tape-recording from the doctor who treated Hallilwell who showed how far we have thankfully come in the treatment of mental health patients.

joeorton9

The documentary built up towards the grisly killing in the small claustrophobic flat they shared as Halliwell began to fear separation from Joe, because of both what he had read from the diaries and from what Joe and others had been saying.  An air of continuing mystery is maintained by the latter days of the diaries going missing, taken by Peggy Ramsay, Orton’s agent when she arrived to identify the bodies. 

These 80 minutes fed my continuing fascination with Joe Orton.  I think the balance of the programme was right.  I’m not sure how well Orton actually benefits from academic research on his output.  I’ve read some over the years and it doesn’t ever come off.  It was important to let those like John Lahr, who has spent decades examining the man and his work, those who worked with him and especially sister Leonie to have their say to commemorate this extraordinary individual who burnt brightly and whose influence on comic writing still can be felt today.

fourstarsJoe Orton Laid Bare was first shown on BBC2 on Saturday 25th November at 9pm.  It is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player

The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst (2017)

sparsholt

I’ve been really looking forward to the publication of this, Hollinghurst’s sixth novel in 29 years.  This highly talented British author is one of the few novelists whom I’ve read everything by.  I read his debut “The Swimming Pool Library” (1988) not long after it first came out and it is one of my all-time favourites.  The standard was every bit maintained for “The Folding Star” (1994) and both of these were my Books of The Year from when I first read them and have been re-read and much enjoyed since.  His Booker Award Winning “The Line Of Beauty” (2004) may very well be my favourite Booker winner.  This is an author I hold in very high esteem. 

But it is not all roses.  He has let me down in the past.  His third novel “The Spell” was nothing special and his last from five years ago “The Stranger’s Child” was good but didn’t make it onto my end of year Top 10 (and thus ended up at the charity shop).  I couldn’t shake off a slight disappointment over it.  His characters were strong but largely unlikeable and although I admired the epic sweep of British life from World War I to the present day I felt his “moments in time” structure a little artificial and felt that it led to him not following through with his characters.  It was undoubtedly haunting, but I also described it as “mannered and often dry.”

There has been five years between novels and I’ve been certainly eagerly anticipating the latest since the title was being bandied around in notifications of forthcoming releases at the start of the year.  I’ve changed a lot in the 29 years I’ve been reading Hollinghurst, but I’m not totally convinced that he has nearly as much.  He’s found his groove and has stuck to it.  Unfortunately, this means that the criticism that I aired for the last novel largely still applies, but this time more so. 

Once again he’s gone for a saga format with two generations of family and friends.  We move from Oxford during World War II to present day (ish) London.  A group of artistic friends notice another student working out which sparks an interest in him as a potential friend, lover or artist’s model (or some combination of the three).  We meet this athletic young man, David Sparsholt, at other times in his and his son’s life.

The most successful section features a tale of unrequited love.  David’s teenage son, Johnny, had a fling with Bastien on a trip to France.  A year later Bastien is with the Sparsholts in England and Johnny is keen to rekindle things but Bastien’s interest is now firmly in girls.  This is handled perfectly.  Once again, though, I found it to be too dry and mannered (which the first two novels are definitely not) and that I felt indifferent to many of the characters.  I think it’s that they take everything too seriously and there’s no humour in their relationships, which just doesn’t ring true with family and friends, where most of us need the humour to survive!  Also, a lot of the action in the lives, including the central “Sparsholt Affair” and most birth, marriages and deaths take place between the sections.  This reminded me of a production of “Madame Butterfly” I once saw where much of the action seemed to take place off-stage.  It leads to me feeling a bit cheated.  On that occasion I threw off Opera as being not for me, but I don’t wish to throw off Alan Hollinghurst, we go back such a long way!  I thought his early novels spoke to me directly as a reader in a way few novels of the time did.  As we have both got older this no longer seems to be the case.  The worlds he depicts, both in the distant and recent past and in the present feels somewhat alien and aloof. 

There are memorable sections and it is carefully plotted and so elegantly written and put together but there doesn’t seem to be much development from the last novel and it felt like I’d read it before, which after a five year wait and a nearly thirty years devotion to previous work made me feel somewhat disappointed on this occasion.  I’m sure that this is just a rocky patch between us but I hope I don’t have to wait another five years to find out.

threestars

The Sparsholt Affair was published in hardback by Picador in October 2017.

 

Good As You – Paul Flynn (2017) – A Real Life Review

realives

goodasyou

Subtitled “From Prejudice To Pride: 30 Years Of Gay Britain” Paul Flynn’s non-fiction publication seems a timely work.  Gay Pride has been particularly visible this year in our streets and through the media celebration of fifty years of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.  The grainy black and white footage of men dancing together at a house party has been used many times in various television documentaries produced recently.  Such is the paucity of images from this era.

Flynn uses a different starting point to show how far we have come in this cultural history of Gay Britain.  As a twelve year old boy growing up in Wythenshawe his life experienced a seismic shift around a TV on a Thursday night watching the perennial British game-changer “Top Of The Pops”.  In our multi-platform digital age it’s hard to recall just how influential to young Britain this show was.  Two acts with  openly band members appeared in 1984- The Communards and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whose song “Relax” (banned by the BBC) seemed to suggest aspects of life certainly never portrayed on a chart-topping single before.

These highly significant acts challenged the stereotypical depiction of gay men for a generation brought up on John Inman, Danny La Rue and Larry Grayson.  As much as Quentin Crisp’s life portrayed in “The Naked Civil Servant” (1975) had been lauded as ground-breaking television (and it was) it distressed many unsure of their sexuality and probably banged as many closet doors shut tight at it opened. 

These men had their own part to play towards acceptance but we needed to open the closet door a little wider to let other representations and role-models out.

From this time forward the whole of British society begins to inch towards a time where equality and gay marriage becomes both possible and stops mattering to objectors so much that they think the world will implode if it happens.  It’s certainly been a one step forward one step back approach and Flynn records with this with clarity and conviction.  There’s the characters of Colin and Barry in “Eastenders” which for a time became “Eastbenders” after a hateful diatribe from the Sun newspaper after Colin gave Barry a peck on the forehead.  Michael Cashman, who played Colin, now sits in the House of Lords, an out gay pillar of establishment with a superb record on gay rights whilst the straight actor who played Barry found himself afterwards being turned down by children’s television because he had played a gay character on TV.  That move from unacceptability to acceptance and recognition is tracked in this book.  Following this ludicrous objection it seems extraordinary that within a short space of time we had “Queer As Folk”, Brian Dowling winning “Big Brother” and Will Young victorious in “Pop Idol.

goodasyou7The kiss that supposedly distressed a nation

There is an examination of the music industry where Stephen Gateley was forced to open the closet door by a tabloid threatening to out him amidst a climate where the whole collapse of Boyzone’s career was anticipated should this information ever come out.  This was evidence that the Britain the media portrayed was different to how things were as his honesty was applauded and his popularity soared.  From here this nervous industry is followed to Olly Alexander from chart-topping Years and Years where his sexuality is just a given and who made a recent personal and brave documentary about the mental health issues of teens coming out.

Along the way there are chapters on the AIDS crisis and the British government response which undoubtedly saved many lives and terrified us all, regardless of sexuality or risk; the development of Manchester into a gay-friendly city; the importance of the pink pound leading to publications such as “Attitude” and the part sport has to play from the shameful treatment of Justin Fashanu, forced to put his head unwillingly above the parapet leading to a hounding which led to his suicide to Tom Daley, whose public coming out and marriage to a man, where the age difference might once have been deemed “predatory” being totally accepted because we all now understand that this national treasure is happy and living his life as he should.  Professional football still has a long way to go with these issues.

goodasyou8

Dustin & Tom – “as good as you”

This is an informative, nostalgic read.  It is very much a personal response from Flynn who went from his Wythenshawe front room to a journalism career, to London, to ending up as a guest at Elton and David’s wedding.  He certainly has the experiences, the authority and involvement in what he records to offer his take on developments.  There were many things I had  forgotten, many things I didn’t know and many things I did not realise the significance of at the time, as to how they fit into this British journey “from prejudice to pride”.  It is a great read for the general reader, for anyone interested in social history and is a highly illuminating book on popular culture.  I really enjoyed it. Once again I find myself hovering towards the five star buttons but on reflection this is a book which feels very much of its time (2017) so might not have the lasting value my all-time classic rating of 5 stars would suggest.  But it’s certainly a very close call.

 fourstars

Good As You was published by Ebury Press, part of the Penguin Random House group in 2017.