On James Baldwin

I read James Baldwin for the first time when I was 13. My English teacher was keen on contemporary writers and issued us a summer’s reading list, which included Notes of a Native Son. It was the first essay collection I had ever read. I was catapulted out of my comfort zone of fiction, poetry and magazine articles from the likes of Time and People and into a world that not only employed metaphors and symbols, but dissected them.  This world had a social conscience and an eloquence that went beyond the dinner-table rumblings of my anti-establishment older siblings.

A few months later I read Giovanni’s Room. That was my first openly gay novel – though there were plenty of suggestively gay works from Wilde, Forster and Mann. Neither of Baldwin’s books were part of the standard curriculum. There were other African-American writers taught in those days, but they tended to be historical slave narratives. Perhaps Baldwin’s books were too raw in their expression to be official reading material for young minds. I am to this day grateful for my English teacher. Together these works formed a literary coming of age.

With the release of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, I’ve been reminded of Iamnotyour negroBaldwin’s life as a civil rights activist. Director Raoul Peck takes us on a journey through the civil rights protests and public discussions on race during the 60s and 70s, with some unspoken allusions to present-day hate crimes in America. Baldwin is positioned at the centre of this sometimes-loose narrative. We watch him on television talk shows, lecturing at all-white university campuses and demurely in the crowd of some of the most iconic marches of the twentieth century. The real treat and reason for seeing this film are the sonorous tones of actor Samuel L. Jackson reading passages from Baldwin’s much-quoted works while images recapture the horrors. Although some of these quotes have been exploited on posters, coffee mugs and Facebook postings, in the context of this film they have re-found their rightful home.

Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday

I was drawn to this book by its author (loved Swift’s Waterland) and cover, a portion of one of Modigliani’s reclining nudes. I’ll confess that I was also seduced by the compact size of the novel of some 150 pages after having just finished a 400+ pager and having another literary brick waiting for me.

Mothering Sunday is a beautifully written meditation on events that take place in one day in Edwardian England in the life of a maid, Jane Fairchild. Although it says ‘a romance’ on the cover, I thought it more erotic than romantic. Jane has been having an affair with Paul Sheringham, a wealthy neighbour of high social standing who is already engaged to someone of a similar background. More than anything else this novel is a study of character, class and the way our lives can be altered by one incident.

Worth reading for the writing alone, this is a masterclass in controlled narrative, navigating a disrupted storyline with descriptive mood and motifs.

Below is another of Modigliani’s nudes, one which I personally prefer for its boldness – this is from 1916.mothering sunday 3

‘The Will of the People’?

Since the Brexit vote, the phrase ‘the will of the people’ has been used not only by Brexiters, but more alarmingly by some of those who voted to remain in the EU. These people clearly have problems with basic maths. Only 37% of the electorate voted for the UK to leave the EU. Hardly the will of the people. If we looked to those who bothered to vote on 23rd June, then we can say that 54% of those voters were in favour of leaving the EU. A majority, yes, but still, not deserving of the nomenclature ‘the people.’ Moreover, this vote was on a simple in/out referendum. There are people who voted to leave the EU on the promise that the UK would remain in the single market. Others voted to leave on the promise of increased funding for our beleaguered National Health Service. Given the government’s insistence on a hard Brexit and the admissions that the NHS will not benefit from this process, the strength of the 54% vote is diminishing. It is less and less about ‘the people.’

So, why would anyone who voted to remain start using the phrase ‘the will of the people’? Those who immediately come to mind are Conservative politicians. At the parliamentary level, they’re standing behind their leaders, afraid perhaps to break ranks or just nurturing their own careers. But when this ‘will of the people’ phrase came up last night at a Mayoral Hustings in Ely, that was a more perplexing matter. The mayoral position covers Cambridgeshire, including Peterborough. Both Cambridge and Ely voted to remain, while Peterborough and the surrounding areas (Fenland) voted to leave. Yet, a few of the participants, including James Palmer, a Conservative Councillor, and the moderator, used the phrase ‘the will of the people’ as if it was the reason to support Brexit. No one else on stage objected to it or felt that it needed to be qualified.  Part of this could have been due to the limited time allocated to speakers. But I’m concerned that part of this shyness or perhaps compliance with such phrasing had to do with fear.ELy Cathedral hustings

Many of those who voted Brexit haven’t stopped campaigning. They’re all over the internet. Some are bullying. Their lapdogs are the tabloid press, whose barks persist and protect this angry mob. They can be scary. The normalising of the phrase ‘the will of the people’ by those who supported remaining in Europe for me is just another sign that the bullies have won. I remind myself and have perhaps said too often for those around me that Brexiters won the vote on the day, they haven’t won the argument.

The Essex Serpent

Some are describing it as gothic because it’s set in late Victoriana and features the fears and alleged sightings of a winged leviathan. But for me, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is mostly a novel of ideas. It cleverly employs characters to represent the burgeoning sciences placed in opposition to traditional Christianity and superstition. It brought to mind Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, which also mixed history with legend and speculation during the Age of Enlightenment. But unlike Pynchon, at times the opposition performed by characters in The Essex Serpent is perhaps a bit too blatant – the novel works best in its more nuanced and subtle moments.

The story is also more a feminist narrative than it is a gothic one. The main character Cora has lost her husband, but finds it hard to play the role of the grieving widow with her joy and sense of freedom getting in the way. An amateur palaeontologist, Cora is quite happy to tromp around the marshes in men’s tweed jackets, her hair dishevelled. Her companion and maid of sorts, Martha, is an active socialist in what the reader knows is the naissance of the suffragette movement.

The Essex Serpent is nevertheless a compulsive read, with an understated love story competing with other plotlines and always an incident cropping up to change the direction altogether.essex serpent 2

Ever the stylistician, I must comment on the writing. The descriptions are exquisite in a pictorial way, though lacking in the psychological detail and intensity one might find in other literary fiction. There isn’t the inventive turn of phrase found in Mantel or McEwan. But the writing contributes to making the work engaging all the same and another reason for reading this book.

Grey Wednesday

Some people are calling today ‘Black Wednesday’ as it’s the day Britain officially notifies Brussels of its intent to leave the EU. I was one of those people. But then, at an Ely for Europe meeting last week, when I suggested marking the day by wearing black, I was met with opposition. Nearly everyone else at our long pub table wanted to be positive about this. For them it was the start of the battle, a sense that at last things are happening. A valid point, but I still don’t see it as a cause for celebration. Nor am I convinced that there aren’t black days and months ahead.
After considering the matter, I’m settling for a grey Wednesday. I’m not saying that I feel neuLondon March 2017.jpgtral about this – somewhere between joyful white and mournful black. I’m using grey in the sense of unclear and murky. The extent to which we can retain useful ties to the EU are unknown and untested. Likewise, Britain’s relationship to the rest of the world, especially in the age of Trump and Putin, are beyond speculation. Most important of all, grey represents the storm cloud over Britain, a country left divided and angry over this referendum.

Writing ‘The Scent of Oranges’

Since the publication of my short story ‘The Scent of Oranges,’ some people have asked me why I chose to write on such a subject. And they’re speaking through gritted teeth, unable to hide their discomfort. The story is about a woman paedophile.

The topic surfaced in part because Mslexia announced that their showcase theme for issue 73 was ‘guilt.’ Of course, like any good self-absorbed writer, I first looked to my own life. We all have our residue of guilt. The guilt leftover from actions in my childhood, some of which I’ve written about, are at their strongest when viewed from a child’s perspective. In keeping with the audience and purpose of Mslexia, I wanted this to be an adult woman’s story. Most of my guilty feelings from adult years are rather undramatic and feeble – not so much guilt, as feeling regretful for not keeping in touch with friends or not taking on more responsibilities or not acting in a more sympathetic way – those sorts of things.  Then I considered the actions of others I’ve known over the years. While I’ve known some dodgy characters, I was never directly involved in their white-collar crimes. Even those adventures seemed too soft for a short story about guilt.

I needed something with force.

Paedophilia is a topic with force. As a child, it terrified me; as an adult, it sickens me. Unlike other crimes, it’s also something I can’t imagine myself doing.  Anytime I see a good heist film, I envision myself with the toolbelt and all the technological know-how to break into the safe, take the rolls of money and get away with it. As an antihero, I’ve even imagined myself committing murder – there are some people I think the world would be better without. But I cannot conjure up a scene involving paedophilia with me in it.

Of course, it’s possible to write about characters unlike ourselves or people we know. I find that easier when I write male characters, and I did in fact write about a male paedophile some years ago in my play A Special Boy. There, I kept myself at a safe distance from the awfulness of the topic. The play was more about a misguided community of vigilantes than a pederast – and that character was an emotional abuser and manipulator, leaving the existence of physical abuse for the audience to decide.mslexia-march2017

For ‘The Scent of Oranges,’ once again I’ve positioned myself and the reader at a slight distance.  I placed the physical act in the past. The paedophile has served her time and has to deal with life on the outside. I drew some ideas from the newspapers. Occasionally one reads about a woman being arrested for having a relationship with a teenage boy – in other words, the boy had to be old enough to get it up, but not old enough for legal sex. But I didn’t want to make it appear that the paedophile was a victim of strict laws about the age of consent – that would have been a copout. So, in the end [SPOILER ALERT] it’s a battle between guilt and temptation to do it again.

The Improbability of Love

Note to self – don’t judge a book by its title. Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love is not genre romance at all. I’d say it’s middle-brow literary fiction. The only love story in it is a small subplot. The rest is a delightful satirical romp through the world of masterpiece art collecting, complete with the avarice, pretence and money-laundering one would expect. ‘The Improbability of Love’ is the title of a painting by Antoine Watteau, a real-life French painter of the rococo period. At some point in its 300-year past the painting went missing and in this story it turns up in a junk shop in London and eventually into the hands of our clueless heroine.Improbability of Love 1

The story integrates elements within the painting, the artist’s emotionally-wrought life and the painting’s history of ownership with a modern-day story depicting many of the same themes. While other novels have fused a painting into a storyline (e.g., Frayn’s Headlong, about a long-lost Bruegel), this is unique in giving voice to the painting – literally. In keeping with the painting’s provenance, the narrative voice of this masterpiece has traces of French and snobbery from years of living in grand homes, including a stint at Buckingham Palace. Rothschild wisely uses the painting to tell only part of the story, allowing for a more tradition third-person omniscient narrator for the bulk of the novel.

But the painting does get some of the best lines, such as this gem:

Like other successful religions, art has evolved and offers glorious temples and learned high priests as well as covenants and creeds. The new churches are known as museums, in which the contemplation of art has become a kind of prayer and communal activity. The very wealthy can create private chapels stuffed with the unimaginable rarities and guarantee a front row seat. It was ever thus.

Although The Improbability of Love is on the whole clever and imaginative, it does falter by bringing into the plot the Nazis and their notorious looting of art works. That plotline is getting worn out.

That aside, it’s an excellent book, deserving of its position on the Bailey Prize shortlist 2016.

T2 Trainspotting

I’m surprised at myself for not writing about film sooner. Between cinemas and television, I must see on average three films per week. On top of that, there were my years of writing and teaching others to write screenplays. Perhaps this delay reflects the fact that 2016 was not a particularly good year for film.

Enough introduction, I begin the film strand of this blog with T2 Trainspotting. Filled with the same sense of fun and visual weirdness as the first Trainspotting, this instalment starts in real time 20 years after the original. Yes, it really has been 20 years. Mark Renton returns to Edinburgh to see his father after the death of his mother. Naturally, he visits his old friends, who had no idea that he’s been working at a low-level admin job in Amsterdam, where he’s been living with his Dutch wife. With these reunions, we get caught up with the characters’ lives. Spud is still a junkie and dealer, Sick Boy – now Simon the man – and his prostitute girlfriend are extorting public figures with sex scandals and Franco is in prison – but breaks out just in time to go after Renton, who stole money from him some 20 years earlier.

While the pacing and music make this an enjoyable dark comedy, the dramatic moments form the framework and give the film an underlying profundity. No truer is this than in a scene where the prostitute girlfriend asks Renton what Simon means when he says ‘Choose life.’ After he explains that it’s a reference to a 1980s anti-drug campaign, Renton offers this fuller answer:

Choose life. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently. And choose watching history repeat itself. Choose your future. Choose reality TV, slut shaming, revenge porn. Choose a zero-hour contract, a two-hour journey to work. And choose the same for your kids, only worse, and smother the pain with an unknown dose of an unknown drug made in somebody’s kitchen. And then… take a deep breath. You’re an addict, so be addicted. Just be addicted to something else. Choose the ones you love. Choose your future. Choose life.

Worth the price of admission.


Winter’s End

Even though spring has already arrived in Nice and some of the early blooms have died off, our return to England later this week marks the official end of winter for us – even if the weather in England doesn’t agree with that idea.

Naturally, I’m in a reflective mood, evaluating the past four months. The weather nicoise of nearly daily sunshine has dominated my assessment. I can say that it’s been a good winter break. This good feeling has been bolstered by meeting my writing targets for the time in France – most writers will tell you the importance of self-imposed deadlines and the arrogant self-satisfaction of meeting those deadlines. David and I also give the winter break full marks for being an opportunity to improve our French. It hasn’t bettered by leaps and bounds, but we both have noticed that following the news media, written and spoken, has become easier.

Above all else, it’s also been a good winter for reinforcing acquaintanceships and building new friendships. Being ex-pats, we naturally seek the company and wisdom of the more seasoned ex-pats on the Riviera. While this clearly has its benefits, it can be a tight compartment of overlapping Venn diagrams. People we know from the British Association might also be writers I know from the Nice branch of the Society of Authors or women from the International Women’s Club (which I only attended a few times). But this year’s Women’s March at least expanded my network, creating another Venn circle. I’m grateful for that.

With winter’s end I prepare mentally for a political spring with local elections in the UK and ongoing protests against Brexit and Trump. My writer self looks to the change in location and the start of a new season to view the quotidian differently and to be inspired to make connections between the mundane and the new and between my little existence and the bigger human landscape.

This reflective time with the changing of seasons also reminds me of the New England Transcendentalists, e.g. Emerson and Thoreau – the latter, especially. Thoreau was quite the diarist, logging the cycles and habits in his natural environment of the woods surrounding Walden Pond. I can’t think of a setting more different from the cityscape of Nice, with its seacoast and palm trees or the town of Ely, with its cafes and cathedral. But such is the power of the imagination. I close with a snippet of spring immortalised in words:

To a Marsh Hawk in Springthoreau

There is health in thy gray wing,

Health of nature’s furnishing.

Say, thou modern-winged antique,

Was thy mistress ever sick?

In each heaving of thy wing

Thou dost health and leisure bring,

Thou dost waive disease and pain

And resume new life again.

–Henry David Thoreau

The Two Faces of the Carnaval de Nice

While the mood was jovial and the music loud, heightened security made the Carnaval de Nice a different kind of event to the one we’ve grown used it. After the terrorist attack of 14 July of last year, the procession route was changed to exclude any part of the Promenade des Anglais. This meant that on the final night when the king of the carnival is set alight and sent out to sea, tradition had been squashed. The king was still killed by flames in a bonfire, but quickly extinguished on the spot by firemen. Also breaking from tradition, the battaille de fleures, where crowds and the people on the floats throw flowers at each other – had been changed to flowers coming only from the floats and not the audience – not so much a battle as a handout.2017-02-11 00.01.28.jpg

Officially, these adjustments were out of respect for those who perished on the Promenade – some of very spots where the killings took place would have been included in the normal carnival procession route, including the king’s route to the beach. Flowers are part of official memorial sites to the attack victims and in the makeshift memorials still peppered along the Promenade. Unofficially, a second reason emerged. The smaller area given to the carnival and spectators not being allowed to enter with bags of flowers clearly made it easier for security forces to manage the crowds and any terrorist threat.

These changes to tradition shouldn’t be taken lightly. Purported to be one of the largest carnivals in the world, it is also the oldest in Europe. The earliest record of the carnival goes back to 1294, when Charles Anjou, the Count of Provence, made mention of visiting the celebrations in Nice. In recent weeks, I’ve heard local people talk about not following to tradition in ways that one speaks of the death of a close friend – nothing will ever be the same without them.

But those were the quiet faces under the carnival masks. The public faces, scarnaval-at-nightparkling with glitter, paper-macheted, sexy, comical, upheld the traditions and essentially gave the finger to the terrorists of our age.