Saturday, 28 November 2015

December, Fawley Down

From here
the downs look flat

their cold lines
converge on Liddington

one strip of pink
beneath a roof of cloud

these hills know
that snow is coming

even now
the earth folds in upon itself

no sound
of birds

Sunday, 22 November 2015

(Thoughts on ‘Spectre’ and the wonderful world of James Bond)
My wife and I sometimes partake of a pleasurable activity known as ‘Doing a Jimmy’. This isn't Cockney slang for a bodily function but our pet name for watching a James Bond film. It derives from a very silly offering back in the sixties when Woody Allen - cashing in on Bondmania - played a spoof character called Jimmy Bond.
Whenever we do a Jimmy, we always take care to do it ‘ironically’, thereby maintaining our moral and intellectual superiority while compromising none of our enjoyment. If we do it late at night in the privacy of our own home, things often get a bit out of hand with whoops and cheers of delight as our hero sends a carful of baddies plunging over a cliff, or howls of playful derision as – having dispatched the evil villain to oblivion – he tosses off some remark like, ‘It’s a pity he couldn’t keep his head in a crisis’.   
Much as we love our Jimmys, we seldom actually pay good money for one. Last Saturday was an exception. The weather was frightful, my 97 year old mother-in-law was making us feel guilty (as usual) for 'never taking her anywhere' and my wife’s nephew was nobly enduring a two day stay in a town with as much social life as an abandoned cemetery. So we caved in and all set off to our local Kino to check out ‘Spectre’ – the latest and much-hyped slice of Bondage.
I won’t give away the plot or bore everyone with a review. Suffice it to say that it was all rather splendid on the big screen (especially the train tootling across the desert into the sunset) and very "authentic" except for one or two little lapses, like when our hero suddenly acquires an aeroplane from nowhere (as you do) in order to pursue the villain down a mountain pass; and when he hands his evening suit to a guard on a train saying, ‘Will you press that for me, please?’ I’m going to try that next time I’m on the Hastings-Brighton line. 
Afterwards, over tea and cake, the analysis began. My mother-in-law, as usual, was the most outspoken, proclaiming that Craig Douglas’ suits were too ‘nippy’ (she meant Daniel Craig, of course) and that the heroine was too young for him, as though, instead of the customary carnal quickie, they were planning to settle down together in a cottage in the Cotswolds. Her best contribution was, ‘I’d never be able to make love after killing all those people – I’d be too exhausted’. I’m not sure which of the two scenarios suggested by that remark is more alarming. 
Despite having been an ardent Jimmy fan for more than half a century, I’ve become increasingly aware of the awkwardness of the character in the contemporary world – especially now, when directors take such delight in their hero’s tangled personal back-story. Are we supposed to take him as a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out or just a little bit seriously? If so, one cannot help wondering at the emotional content of an apparently friendless and family-less existence devoted to indiscriminate slaughter, witty one-liners and a string of meaningless copulations? Ian Fleming, a product of the wealthy upper classes who was hewn in wartime intelligence, gave birth to Bond more than sixty years ago, publishing the first novel, ‘Casino  Royale’, in 1953. This was the age of chisel-jawed wartime heroes like Biggles and Bulldog Drummond – the sort of chaps who were more concerned with zapping jerries than with their inner emotional complexities–so Bond seemed comparatively well rounded, not to say glamorous and colourful in those days of post-war austerity. I clearly remember finding a thumbed copy of ‘Dr No’, discarded by my elder brother, at the awkward age of twelve, and it was like finding the entrance to Aladdin’s cave. As a painfully slow dyslexic reader I had only ever made it through ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Black Beauty’ and James Bond proved to be my unlikely guide into literature. The books were so readable, so pacey and exciting with their exotic characters and sunny locations and, best of all, those beautiful women with ‘breasts’ (I’d never heard the term before) who actually made love to our hero (something of which Biggles, I am sure, would have heartily disapproved.)
Surprisingly, despite his glamour, Bond did not make it onto the screen until nearly ten years later, with ‘Dr No’, starring rugged, lishpy and flarey-nostrilled Sean Connery – then unknown but now every granny’s favourite Jimmy. Yet the world was changing by then and James Bond already seemed out of step with it. Under his stylish exterior, he embodied patriotism, Empire, the class system, the old order – all the things sixties popular culture was trying to sweep away – and his condescending attitude to women was hardly in tune with the budding cause of feminism. Also, of course, he tended to kill people – which didn't sit too well with flower power and all those anti-war sentiments of peace and love – relaxing afterwards with the perfect Martini (shaken not stirred) while the rest of the world was pulverising its brains with pot. Judi Dench, as a new and alarmingly female ‘M’ in ‘Goldeneye’, famously calls Pierce Brosnan’s Bond a ‘sexist misogynist dinosaur’ but the truth is that dear old Jimmy was a bit of a sexist misogynist dinosaur from the very start.
Every decade since the sixties has been different and Jimmy has managed to remain out of sync with all of them. It’s interesting how different actors and directors dealt with this problem. Roger Moore of the quizzically arching eyebrows did it by hamming Bond up into almost a comic character - a technique which worked quite well at first but eventually got so silly as to make the films unwatchable (with giant winking fishes and groan-inducing lines like ‘Something just came up’.) Under Pierce Brosnan, Bond went off into the realms of fantasy with invisible cars, ice palaces at the North Pole and Korean gentlemen turning themselves into Toby Stevens with the help of very talented plastic surgeons.
I’ve noticed in the Daniel Craig films that Bond’s failure to keep in step with the ‘real’ world has not so much been glossed over as cleverly incorporated into the character - and this, ironically, is a reward for his longevity. Once Her Majesty’s obedient, if somewhat unruly, servant, he has become the loose cannon, the rogue operator, disobeying orders and doggedly doing things the good old-fashioned way while his masters tie themselves up in diplomacy, bureaucracy and political correctness. Having saved the world, of course, he always gets the last laugh, the grudging approval of his superiors and the girl. He has turned himself into the trusty old maverick who reminds us of basic values and a simpler, rosier world that never really existed – a kind of Jeremy Corbyn of covert operations.  
Then there’s that other interesting evolution – that of the ‘Bond girl’. In the early films the Bond girl was little more than Jimmy’s decorative but helpless appendage who depended entirely on his manly strength and resourcefulness for her survival and who, once the world had been saved, could be happily bonked and binned with tearful acceptance of the inevitable. In the latter films the Bond girl (though still stunning of course) has become deeper, more serious (she has a degree), more distinctive and self-reliant. In a good light she could almost be mistaken for a real person. There is also the suggestion that Jimmy has grown deeper in his relationships – there’s some pain, some anguish, a bit of baggage, and the suggestion that the impossibility of a lasting relationship (mainly because he’s got a new film to make) is causing him mild regret.
Which brings me to my own contribution to the tea and cake analysis of ‘Spectre’ – one which left my audience agog with admiration at my film buffness. It was the idea that it was not so much plagiarising the other Jimmys as nodding affectionately in their direction. The Day of the Dead was straight out of ‘Live and Let Die’, the sexy (and completely ridiculous) train ride across the desert ‘From Russia with Love’, and, most blatant of all (though you’d need to be a nonagenarian to spot it), Jimmy and the heroin’s abduction to Blofeld’s desert hideout where an unctuous minion greets them with, ‘We’re so glad you’ve arrived safely. Your host is expecting you for cocktails at six.’ The words winged me wistfully back over half a century to that well-thumbed paperback I read at the age of twelve – Dr No. His adversary, ever thoughtful, had even had a dress laid out on the heroine’s bed just as Dr No’s jolly ‘housekeeper’ did for Honey Ryder (since she’d turned up in nothing but that world-famous white bikini which propelled a generation of teenage boys into manhood). It was almost as though Jimmy was rounding things off, summing things up and – dare I suggest it? – saying goodbye.
At the end of 'Spectre', Jimmy has Blofeld wounded and defenceless in his power and he does something completely unexpected and rather beautiful to him (I won’t say what) before strolling off into the (proverbial) sunset with the girl. Into what future? That cottage in the Cotswold, being brought his afternoon tea and slippers by a woman thirty years his junior? I think not. A man who has saved the world more times than most of us have had hot dinners will not be so easily terminated. Those hints of finality in ‘Spectre’ will turn out to be just a tease and James Bond will rise again in a new and ever more splendid incarnation – as he always does – so my lovely wife and I can carry on doing our Jimmys all the way to the telly lounge in the old people’s home.         

Saturday, 14 November 2015


I have recently published a new novel, ‘Marielle’. It is set in Paris in the present day (or rather, about the turn of the millennium which was when I started it) and concerns a prosperous fifty-year-old dentist whose marriage has run into problems. Sadly it has not been published by a publisher as a print edition (I’m still trying!) but is available on Amazon Kindle and Kindle apps.
As always, I had trouble with the cover. Covers on e-books, it seems to me, are quite different to those on printed books in bookshops. Though often very beautiful, they are generally less subtle, more explicit and more directly related to the book's content. I tend instinctively to veer towards the former sort, which is probably why my sales are so low.
With ‘Marielle’ I was completely stumped. All the photos I had of Paris (whether they featured the Eiffel Tower or some bohemian back street in Montmartre) somehow looked corny. Also, the action of this novel moves away from the Paris of the tourists. Then I remembered staying in Senlis in 2007 and travelling by train to the Gard du Nord through the northern suburbs. This is the poor part of Paris – the equivalent of the London's East End before it was yuppified – with a very high immigrant population, mostly from France’s former colonies in North and Central Africa. It is also, to me, the graffiti capital of the world. Every wall, every door, every bridge, every girder and every junction box seems to be covered with it – some in the most incredibly inaccessible places – and there is no better way to view it than from the train.
As an artist, graffiti has always fascinated me – not obscenities scribbled on lavatory walls but the real thing. The idea that ordinary, poor, disadvantaged people should spend hours creating those lavish, complex, witty and often beautiful images knowing they’ll receive no financial reward or approbation from the art world, must testify to an extraordinary creative energy underlying the surface of these deprived areas. Of course, I’m aware that this underground, alternative art world has its own stars, its own heroes and some of them, such as Banksy, have finally been embraced into the ‘real’ art world. Street art has become fashionable but only on the surface. The real body of work is still subversive.
So I finally decided, what the hell? I’d use some of it as the cover for ‘Marielle’. The piece I chose looks quite effective, I thought. The thumbnail looks like a fire and it’s only when you open it that you realise it’s graffiti. It’s the sort of graffiti I like – colourful and textural, a bit messy and not too neat and clever. As a book cover people will probably either love it or hate it – mostly hate, I should imagine. Ah well! 

Sunday, 1 November 2015

My dear old Volvo, about to incur a parking fine in the charming Norfolk market town of Fakenham

This post was inspired by two recent events in my life. The first was the unlocking of my ageing Volvo from a distance of about thirty yards using the remote control button on the key (normally you have to be more like six inches away) and the second was a funeral.
First the unlocking thing: nothing remarkable about that, you might think – you, I, everybody does it a dozen times a day, every day, without a second thought. Yet if I were to travel back in time (taking my Volvo and its key with me) and demonstrate that feat to my five-year-old self, that scruffy little self would be utterly gobsmacked. It would seem like a miracle – a real miracle – not just some trick which seems baffling until you’re shown how it’s done, like when my great-uncle Lorny made his teeth disappear, horrifying us children until we were told by my mother that he wore dentures and had simply removed them. It would seem miraculous because it employed forces which weren’t fully understood and couldn’t be harnessed to our uses at that time. Yet remotely unlocking a car, using a mobile, having this blog post simultaneously ignored by millions of people all over the planet actually employs forces as natural and logical as that which makes an apple fall from a tree and which are now as familiar to us as the falling of said apple. Most of us still don’t understand them, of course, but we’re prepared to accept that somebody in some hi-tech factory does and to place our lives more and more trustingly in their hands. Those forces are not really miraculous at all. Or are they?
As to the funeral, it took place in the very tasteful chapel of a crematorium but was a first for me as it turned out to be a ‘humanist’ funeral. The charming old lady in the coffin – my aunt-in-law – was not a Christian and nor were her family, so it seemed inappropriate to give her a Christian send-off. Nonetheless, I found it all rather disconcerting at first, as I leafed through the order of service wondering which hymns they’d chosen and finding only a recording of something by Enya – the musical equivalent of very rich chocolate cake covered in honey and topped off with a dollop of syrup. Now, to me a funeral just isn’t a funeral without a few of those dreadful dirges delivered in that agonised, tuneless warble of which we English are such masters before being informed  by a beaming vicar that the deceased is being embraced into the love of Christ. For someone raised and educated in the Christian tradition there’s something familiar and reassuring about it even if, like me, you’re a bit lapsed in the old Christianity department. The proceedings were conducted by a very energetic gentleman who described himself as a ‘humanist minister’ and, though he fulfilled his task with warmth, dignity and feeling, he seemed a little vague as to the destination (spiritually-speaking) to which we were dispatching the deceased – not surprisingly, since it’s a subject which invokes vagueness in most of us.
It seemed to me, thinking about it afterwards, that my Christian education and upbringing had presented me with a view of life and death in which our time on earth in human form – subject as we are to the laws of nature – is somehow very material, very pot-bound, very limited and limiting and, of course, all tied up with the idea that we are born sinful. I’ve noticed that the clergy keep a bit quiet about original sin these days as it’s not a very good selling point for Christianity but nonetheless it’s always there, lurking in the background. Images like dust and ashes, common clay and mortal coils abound in the scriptures, and the spirit – which is capable of eternal life – is seen as separate, and separable, from the body which ages, dies and decays. The true life of the spirit which awaits us is something we can only glimpse occasionally beyond our corporeal confinement, through little gaps and apertures – ‘We see through a glass darkly… ’ as St Paul – Jesus’ tireless PR man – wrote to the Corinthians. We achieve eternal life by having faith in the miracle of divine grace. I believe that – particularly with my generation – this is a perception which is deeply embedded in the psyche even of those who claim to have intellectually outgrown religion.
Yet it seems to me that this life, this earth, this universe, is the miracle. The evidence of that is all around us, from the bursting of a seed in spring to the remote unlocking of my ancient Volvo. If an apple detached itself from a tree and went upwards instead of downwards, it might be seen as a miracle, but the fact that it falls to the ground is the real miracle, the fact that the earth and moon and stars and galaxies are bound together in an eternal dance by a force called gravity which is turning out to be stranger than anyone could have imagined.
Human beings will always explore, research and endeavour to explain the unexplainable then harness some of those explanations to practical uses. If my grandchildren or greatgrandchildren (not that I have any yet, I hasten to add) could travel back from fifty or a hundred years in the future, the tricks they could show me would seem mind-bogglingly miraculous to me. Teleporting? Taking a three-hour Ryanair flight to Mars using a wormhole while one’s luggage lands up on Venus? Who knows? Yet mysteries will always remain, even for them. No discovery will ever provide the final answer, only lead on to new questions. Every child of every generation has looked up at the stars and wondered what ultimately happens ‘out there’. How can the universe just go on and on forever – billions upon billions of light years of it? Yet there cannot be some sort of boundary, some perimeter fence around the universe or – even if there could – what would lie beyond that? No one – child or professor of astrophysics armed with a Higgs Boson – can get their head around it (however much they claim they can), yet it now seems to me, at the ripe old age of 65, that it’s fitting that we can’t. It is a mystery and that is how it should remain because mysteries are good.
So what about the destination of the dear old lady disappearing behind the tastefully closing curtains in the crematorium? On the drive home from the funeral, my wife said, ‘I do hope I don’t go to Heaven because I can’t face spending all eternity being criticised by your mother.’ I suggested that things probably didn’t work like that but I wasn’t speaking with any authority. The truth is I have no idea what happens when we die and, to me, anyone who claims to know – and to force that knowledge on others – is not only crassly stupid but guilty of the most dangerous and despicable form of religious dogmatism. Then again, if this earth, and this life, is miraculous, maybe we are not simply extinguished. Maybe something else – something quite unexpected and even rather amazing happens – like my unlocking my Volvo from thirty yards away. Who knows? We just have to have faith in miracles – which should not be difficult since they’re all around us.               



the sense of never knowing

how another sees; though each human eye

can fold about the stars, project

a kind of homespun order on the void,

and though our features flow

in other veins, still

remains the chill sense

that, even skin to skin, a space divides us wider

than the sky; is this shade of blue

your shade of green, my world 

your world? Each child alone in darkness,

father, daughter, son

conjoined by love while every sight and scent

is formed by memories of what alone is ours,