Saturday, 23 August 2014

Wot I'm reading: the man who loved dogs


After two books in which he listed the (few) artists he admires and the (many) he despises, plus a blow-by-blowjob account of his busy sex life, 80-year-old art critic Brian Sewell now sets out to catalogue the dogs he has owned,  from boyhood up to his present great age: usually two or three at a time. Some were pedigree animals, some were cross-breeds, a few were mongrels. Most were rescued from re-homing centres; one he brought back from Turkey.

This is a short book (130 pages), each chapter encompassing the life of one or two of his beloved pets. The life and the death. Brian sticks with his dogs in health and in sickness, tenderly nursing them through injury, blindness, incontinence. Some of them he was forced to take to the vet to be euthanased but more often than not he cared for them to the very end. "The deaths of dogs grow more painful the more we experience them," he writes with poignant accuracy. Some of his dead dogs were buried in his or his mother's garden; a few were dug up and re-buried in another garden. Others were treated to a Tibetan 'sky burial' on the roof of his house. Mr Sewell, lord love him, is a bit weird.

He writes an elegant Edwardian prose, dense with commas and subordinate clauses. He writes with a touching tenderness and a fierce passion. This is a man who has clearly loved his animals, loved them wantonly, lavishly and slavishly. Any committed animal-lover will not fail to weep and laugh with Brian as he bonds with - and inevitably parts with - dog after dog after dog.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

David at the movies: let's twist again


If, like me, you have fond memories of Earthquake in the cinema, with low-tech Sensurround shaking you in your seat during the tectonic sequences, you will get a similar blast from Into the Storm which has some seriously audience-engulfing CGI as a barrage of tornadoes rip a town in Oklahoma to shreds. It's only 90 minutes long and inevitably has to recycle much of its plot from Twister: imperilled townsfolk, a group of storm-chasers with state-of-the-art equipment. A couple of local loonies on motor-bikes add some comedy to the mix. 

A B-list cast is headed by British TV actor Richard Armitage in (I think) his first starring Hollywood role as the widowed high-school principal trying to save the entire final year on Graduation Day, while one of his tearaway sons is trapped in a derelict building outside town.

There's not a lot that's new here, but the storm sequences are visceral, with buses and aeroplanes as well as cars and roofs (and people) sucked up into the air. Yes, it's hokum, it doesn't pretend to be anything else, but as disaster movies go this one delivers the goods.


This is (obviously) one of the last of Philip Seymour Hoffman's movies we're going to see - there are some more to come, along with a final few from Robin Williams. I could write a separate piece on why some people blessed with a great talent are also cursed with the demon of self-destruction. Like meteors, they blaze across the sky and then burn up and crash.

God's Pocket is a working-class slum in Philadelphia where work is scarce and debts mounting; it's the 1980s but it could also be today. After his wild-kid stepson dies a violent death Mickey (Hoffman) promises his wife Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) he will give her boy an A-class funeral. He and his pal Arthur (John Turturro) hijack a meat delivery, but find it hard to sell what they have stolen. Meanwhile an alcoholic reporter (Richard Jenkins) is sniffing round Jeanie after a story and maybe some leg-over action.

The boy's dead body is used, not in the best possible taste, as a comic prop. Britain's Eddy Marsan does a funny turn as the undertaker who won't extend Mickey any credit. Arthur's missus runs a flower-shop and proves to be handy with a hand-gun. The comedy is mixed with rough sex scenes and more than one savage beating. As in last week's Nicolas Cage movie, God's Pocket delivers visceral violence in a beautifully shot movie with fine performances from its ensemble cast.

Despite the moments of comedy and the pleasingly upbeat postscript, the overwhelming mood is grimness and grunge. But this is how people live in today's city slums, scratching a living, fighting off creditors, killing each other.


When Nicolas Cage takes a break from action movies - the good (Con Air) or the bad (Ghost Rider) - he's apt to appear in something uglyLeaving Las Vegas, 19 years ago, was riveting (and deservedly won Cage an Oscar) but it was not a pretty picture. Joe is a study in violent relationships - several of them. Joe himself (Cage) is an ex-con who makes a living poisoning trees so that they can legitimately be cut down and replaced with commercially valuable pines. He likes to drink and go whoring and pick fights with local thugs. There is still some tenderness in him but he's running on empty.

Into his life come a family of drifters: Gary (Tye Sheridan), his alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter), his broken-down mom and his silent traumatised sister. Wade is a much meaner drunk than Joe, apt to beat his son and abuse his daughter. Joe employs them in his tree-killing gang: Wade soon takes off to look for booze, but Gary is trying hard to improve his family's life, works hard and begins to bond with Joe.

Everyone in this movie is 'damaged' and either violent or a victim of violence. Joe and Gary are severely damaged but usually able to contain their violence. Wade is beyond control: the scene when he beats another drifter to death is as bad as anything we see in gross-out horror, worse because it is 'real'. This is not a Redemption movie; the ending is almost Shakespearean.

Aside from some fine if decidedly visceral acting, this relentlessly grim movie has the most exquisite cinematography: the woods and shanties (we're somewhere in Southern Fried territory) are filmed in luminous sunlight and heavy downpours. (There's one inappropriate scene when sunlit trees can be seen a few yards behind sprinkler-system rain.) Tye Sheridan looks to have all the promise of DiCaprio in his first performances. As he did in Vegas, Nic Cage plays with great subtlety a man fighting vainly to control his demons. Gary Poulter (a non-professional, a homeless man whom director David Gordon Green plucked off the street - and who has since died) offers a vivid and disturbing portrait of the deepest depths of alcoholism.

This is a movie to admire. It is not one to enjoy.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Wot I'm reading: After Philby, Blunt etc .... a sixth spy

Charles Cumming: THE TRINITY SIX

Historian Sam Gaddis  has just published a controversial book comparing Sergei Platov, Russia's autocratic President, to Peter the Great. At a launch party Gaddis is approached by a woman whose recently dead mother was researching a book on the KGB, which employed Sergei Platov in the dark days of the Soviet era. Soon Gaddis finds himself on the trail of the long-suspected 'Sixth Man' in the Cambridge spy ring (Burgess, MacLean, Philby, Blunt, Cairncross and ?????). He meets a man who assisted at the faking of the death of the sixth superspy in order to vanish him behind a new identity.

One by one the people who know - and leak - this naughty secret die sudden deaths. Is MI6 having them eliminated, or is it the Kremlin? Gaddis has clandestine meetings in Winchester and Berlin and Vienna as he seeks to uncover the truth about the Cold War's last secret. It turns out to be a secret of startling magnitude.

This is the kind of espionage story with which John Le Carre first made his name, but Cumming gives his plot all the pace of a Dan Brown blockbuster thriller with the added ingredient of a disturbing  plausibility (which tends not to feature in the Da Vinci/Masonic/Knights Templar tales by Mr Brown and his many imitators). 

The Trinity Six is instantly up there with the best spy novels I've ever read. The ending is an outstanding example of what they like to call Realpolitik. It's chilling to think that Russia might one day have an ex-KGB President with a megalomaniac ego and an aspiration to be compared to the greatest of the tsars, but that's never going to happen - is it?

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Proud at PRIDE in Brighton

I emailed the Brighton Pride organisers last winter on behalf of Paradise Press and GAW (London's Gay Authors' Workshop). No reply. Then, two weeks ago, I learned that East Sussex Libraries were going to run a Literature Tent in Preston Park. The librarians invited me to join a pre-Pride workshop in Lewes library run by Maria Jastrzebska and John McCollough, two local poets who lead Queer Writing South, a Sussex version of GAW.

At the workshop on the Monday before Pride we prepared a letter of ‘solidarity’ for our oppressed brothers and sisters in the gay community in Russia which we were to read out in the tent on Saturday.

Banners of solidarity with our oppressed brothers and sisters in other lands were very prominent in Saturday’s parade. Do I need to remind you, Dear Reader, that despite Putin’s homophobic stance homosexuality is legal in Russia, whereas it is illegal in 42 of the 53 countries that participated in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games? John Barrowman needs to kiss a lot more guys.

Barrowman would have enjoyed the parade and the huge gathering in Preston Park. Sam Bailey and Katy B were among the acts headlining in the main arena, which attracted a bigger crowd than I was inclined to join. There was also a cabaret tent, a dance tent and stalls marketing everything from erotic paraphernalia to auditions for the Actually Gay Men’s and Women’s Choirs (living locally, I patronize the choirs but am too shy – and too unmusical – to audition.). 

There were several bars and, strategically near them, banks of Portaloos. Strutting their stuff in the park were some  seriously toned hunks in trunks (and a larger number of chunks in trunks) and some seriously gorgeous drag queens, the best of whom in a sparkly clinging costume (where does everything go in these tight outfits?) had legs that made Betty Grable look like Albert Steptoe.

Up in the Literature Tent our group had a 30-minute slot booked for 5.15 but we went on an hour late. Queer Writing South, in contrast to GAW, has more lasses than lads. In LGBT terms there was a woman I think is a B, a T lady (not, so far as I know, a tea lady!),  6 Ls and me, the only G in the village. We had just 2 or 3 minutes each to read our prose or verse. Alice, the T lady, read a very touching poem: ‘I am a woman.’ I read the cover blurb from The Bexhill Missile Crisis and a (very) brief extract. Finally we each read the lines we had contributed to the letter ‘To Russia With Love.’  Our audience was 40-50 strong – an appreciative and appreciated number.

Then there was a brief ‘open mike’ session. Chris Preston, who had made the journey from London but was ineligible to perform with the QWS girls, got up and read an extract from Twenty-Two Eighty-Four, and I managed to get back onstage and perform my Talking Heads monologue ‘The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond’ which some GAW members have heard at a previous outing.

After an over-priced under-cooled lager at the nearest bar, Chris and I wended our way back towards the city centre, Chris to the station, me to catch a bus home. Chris expressed the view that Preston Park was a better organized venue than Trafalgar Square, so Brighton’s Ls and Gs and Bs and Ts can give themselves a big pat on the (sequinned) back.

Here I am with some of the fine upstanding women from Queer Writing South after our readings in the Literature Tent.

Next year the librarians have promised that Paradise Press will be considered for a slot of our own at Pride. We’re also going to try and storm the Fringe at the Brighton Festival. 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Wot I'm reading: inside the mind of a paedophile

Colin Spencer: PANIC

US publishers Valancourt Books have set out to revive neglected novels from both sides of the Atlantic. After seeing my review of Colin Spencer's recent volume of memoirs they invited me to review Panic, his highly acclaimed and deeply weird novel set in 1960s Brighton. This short book (160 pages) is centred on a grief-stricken father whose young daughter was murdered a year ago. Rod Johnson now haunts Brighton's seedier streets and pubs, hoping to find a clue that will lead him to Lucy's killer.

The story is narrated in successive chapters by Rod, by his 'damaged' girlfriend Emma and by her creepy uncle Woody. With the disappearance of Madeleine McCann seven years ago still in the news, together with revelations about predatory priests and celebrities, it's a bold gesture by the publishers to reprint a book that attempts to get inside the head of a child-molester, which is what Spencer does in two very disturbing chapters. But I guess Lolita would not be an easy read today, if it ever was.

I'm a big admirer of Mr Spencer. I rate The Tyranny of Love, the second in his quartet A Generation, one of the greatest modern 'relationship' novels, up there with James Baldwin's Another Country and John Updike's Couples. I'm not sure how I missed Panic when it came out in 1971. In the early chapters his characters all seem to be speak with a rather similar 'voice'. In the Introduction he admits to an influence by Faulkner, but what I picked up were echoes of Forster,  which makes the back-story seem more Edwardian than post-war. The shorter chapters in the second half are more dynamic, and the climactic confession scene is another gruelling read. The subject matter makes this book as 'challenging' for the reader as it must have been for the author.

I consider myself to be very much a liberal (small L) but I can understand why many people (especially parents) would want the death penalty applied - harshly, even summarily - to killers of children. Discussion topic: Which is more crucial, justice for the victim or compassion for the perpetrator?

Monday, 23 June 2014

Wot I'm reading: Shine on, Danny

I broke off the book I was reading (and the one I was writing!) to read this, the keenly anticipated sequel to The Shining. Sorry to report that it was a bit (not too much) of a disappointment.

Mr King begins by telling us what happened to Danny Torrance and his mom immediately after they fled the Overlook Hotel. Then we jump forward a couple of decades to find that Dan is now a dropout and an alcoholic like his dad. He drifts into a small town in New England and into Rivington House, a home for the old and the demented. Dan still has the 'shining' - 'his terrible privilege", the author calls it - which means he sees flashbacks of the lives of the patients he is looking after. And he is able to help them make a calm and fearless crossing from this world to the next.

Dan's life is about to intersect - psychically rather than physically at first - with that of ten-year-old Abra, a girl with even greater powers than his. Dan is still haunted by the ghosts from The Overlook, and both he and Abra see visions that no ordinary mortal expects to see. Over the next three years their lives will intersect - psychically and physically - with the True Knot, a group of ancient marauders who scour the country in a convoy of RVs looking for kids like Abra; they rejuvenate themselves by feeding off the Shining which they call 'steam'. The process by which they extract 'steam' from children makes this a more than usually gruesome read.

Doctor Sleep revisits themes from previous novels, not just The Shining: ghosts, vampires, telekinesis. The yuck factor occasionally overtakes the scare factor; I began to find the 'mind-games' a bit tiresome, and the ending is more House of Hammer than vintage King. But, as always in a Stephen King, every single character is vividly brought to life. He truly is another Dickens or Victor Hugo. And he can turn a wonderful phrase: watching a sunset through a gap in the mountains, "it was as if God was holding His breath."

In the Afterword he outlines his mission statement: "telling a kick-ass story." Which he what he has done in over 50 books. Almost all of them have been good; some not just great horror stories but great books. The Shining, of course, was one of the greatest. Doctor Sleep is not such a ground-breaking contribution to the horror genre, but it's vivid, intense and fairly disturbing.