Posts Tagged ‘Book Reviews’

Review: Life in Suspension / La Vie Suspendue – Hélène Cardona

Life in Suspension cover image web
Published by Salmon Poetry

By Guy Sangster-Adams

Extraordinarily, magically, poignantly, I could have sworn just as I finished reading Hélène Cardona’s latest poetry collection and was switching on my laptop to write this review that I could faintly hear a lone piper playing Flowers of the Forest. Highly unusual in a house on the southern coast of England close on 500 miles from Edinburgh. As I threw open the windows with a clear view of Cap Gris Nez on the French coast 20 miles away the music grew louder. The air was suffused with the 500 year old air lamenting the Scottish fallen at the Battle of Flodden, the crash of the waves and the wind in the trees on the cliffside. I could see no piper but highly appropriately in my reverie post reading Life in Suspension / La Vie Suspendue as I looked out to sea the music pulled tight on the Celtic thread of my ancestry.

‘Highly appropriately’, because through the poems in the collection Cardona explores life after loss, particularly the loss of one’s mother, when one feels as though one has gone into suspended animation between the past and the future. How one can feel lost in the heartbroken void of the present, but also how one can slowly become receptive again to the the threads of memories and not only pull them tight but also wrap them around the lines stretching back through one’s parents and through the generations of one’s family. As she writes in the poem, In Search for Benevolent Immortality:

‘I hear beyond the range of sound
the ineffable, the sublime, my mother’s
breath, grandmother’s smile, ancestors’
voices, to soothe and heal the sorrow.’

HeleneCardonaGS-Photo-by-Marta-Vassilakis2 web

Hélène Cardona photographed by Marta Vassilakis

Life in Suspension / La Vie Suspendue is a bilingual collection. Cardona wrote each poem first in English and then in French, linguistically reflecting the fact that she was born in France and now lives in the USA. But a life in suspension for Cardona is a life suspended between many different languages and lands, cherished memories and experiences in a variety of different tongues, and the ancestral voices she hears are as multi-lingual as she is: she speaks English, French, Spanish, German, Greek and Italian fluently. Her mother, Kitty, was Greek, her father, Jose Manuel Cardona, is a Spanish poet, and her formative years were spent all across Europe, in addition to time in the USA.

As an acclaimed and accomplished poet, actor (her credits include: Chocolat, Mumford,The 100 Foot Journey, Heroes Reborn), and literary translator, language and literature are her lifeblood and passion and she is as beautifully deft with the words of others as she with her own. As she compounds in the first verse of the collection’s titular poem, in which she beautifully and evocatively encapsulates her poetic voice and muse:

‘Let me introduce myself.
I’m the Memory Collector, your companion, and spirit guide.
Let’s unwind the clock, peel the past.
The reflections you give me, conjure, surrender from within,
I throw into the fire, the cauldron of resolutions.
They burn into embers and flickers that evolve into butterflies.
They flutter away, heal and free you of all chains
So they can revisit and reinvent who you are.
Let the dance begin.’

Helene-Cardona web

The dance, ‘a dance to the music of time’ to borrow from Nicholas Poussin/Anthony Powell, in Life in Suspension / La Vie Suspendue is in four parts. For me, the poems in the first part explore the loss of a mother, how life becomes a frozen present – there is no future, only a past one is desperate to remember, to remain in; ‘a cloister of shadows loved’ as Cardona writes in Twisting the Moon. Whilst in the second they reflect on how the love of another can help one heal, allow one to continue, as she writes in Eagle, ‘On the wall of time to come / a window appears’.

As a teenager Cardona spent time in Wales, and later in Ireland, and the collection and, for me, particularly the poems in the third part take inspiration from Celtic legend, from Ceridwen, a mother, an enchantress, and the Celtic goddess of rebirth, transformation, of whom Medieval Welsh poetry speaks of having possessed the cauldron of poetic inspiration. The poems in this section explore transformation, metamorphosis, and the natural world to reflect on the changes in oneself bereavement brings, the natural cycle, and also that in searching for one’s mother after losing her, and wondering how one can ‘find’ her again, there is the realisation that she is in everything, throughout the beauty of nature. The final part is contemplative of one’s own place in ‘the dance’; the past is gone, but lives on within the child, what are the ways in which we are reborn, and how do we face our own end. As Cardona writes in Between Klimt and Giacometi, ‘Every wall is a beginning’.

To end with the three words with which this review began the beautifully realised Life in Suspension / La Vie Suspendue is extraordinary, magical, and poignant.

Hélène Cardona:

Salmon Poetry:

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Review: Parisian Chic City Guide – Ines de la Fressange with Sophie Gachet

Parisian Chic City Guide Cover for P-TCP

(Flammarion) £12.95
Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams
“You can never have enough notebooks,” writes Ines de la Fressange, in her latest book, Parisian Chic City Guide, which is indeed beautifully styled as a notebook, including blank pages for the reader’s own notes and an inner pocket to collect whatever catches one’s magpie eye: tickets, tags, fabric samples, business cards, or precious notes on scraps of paper. “I contracted a notebook fixation,” she continues in her entry for her favourite source for her cahier fix, Dubois, in the Latin Quarter, “and hoard them as if a catastrophic stationary shortage was imminent”.

ParisianChicCityGuide Ines de la Fressange © Alessandra d UrsoFlammarion 2015 for P-TCP

Ines de la Fressange ©Alessandra d’Urso/Flammarion 2015

A perfect pocket companion to the best-selling, Parisian Chic Style Guide, and once again co-written with Elle fashion journalist, Sophie Gachet, the book is wonderfully multi-layered in that it is an exquisite, informative guide to the city, in which de la Fressange divulges her secret sources and her new favourite places to shop, eat, hang out, and more, but also it is written with such an engaging and readable, wit, wisdom, and joie de vivre that it is by turns a fascinating travelogue, an enchanting diary, and a love letter to Paris.

ParisianChicCityGuide_3DFR_pp130-131 map for P-TCP

©Taride, from Parisian Chic City Guide (Flammarion, 2015).

The book is bound with a tricolour bracelet, keeping the contents safe, a bracelet that wouldn’t look out of place at A.B.P. Concept – The Atelier Bracelet Paris boutique, in the 1st arrondissement which specialises in watchbands – “a good and affordable NATO nylon military wristband (only 20€!) paired with any watch will perform honourably in the service of fashion”- and is an Enterprise du Patrimoine Vivant, which is, “the French distinction of a ‘living heritage’ business,” de la Fressagne explains and adds, “That’s so Parisian!”.

pp94-95 Le Petit Souk and Lat Tarte Tropezianne Parisan Chic City Guide for P-TCP

©Le Petit Souk and ©La Tarte Tropézienne from Parisian Chic City Guide (Flammarion, 2015).

Just along the rue du Marché-Saint-Honoré from A.B.P. is Styl’Honoré – a stylo or pen specialist – where, de la Fressange delightfully reveals, “you’ll find one of the last Parisian craftsmen who knows how to cut a quill pen” and the ‘Say it like La Parisienne’ (a style declaration with each entry in the book) declares: “In an era of e-mails, a handwritten letter is the sign of a rebellious spirit”.

ParisianChicCityGuide_p112 Ines de la Fressange shop front for P-TCP

Ines de la Fressange Paris flagship store © Dominique Maître, from Parisian Chic City Guide (Flammarion, 2015)

Described by L’Oréal, for whom she is a brand ambassador, as “The Eternal Parisienne” and “the epitome of French style”, de la Fressange is descended from one of France’s oldest aristocratic families. She began modelling in the 1980s, at the age of 17, on the runways of iconic fashion houses such as Christian Dior, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Christian Lacroix, and then became Karl Lagerfeld’s muse, and at his request, in 1983, the face of Chanel and global ambassador for the brand, for prêt-à-porter, accessories and perfume. In 1989 she was chosen as the model for Marianne, the national symbol of France. Whilst continuing to model she is also now an highly regarded creative, designer, journalist, writer and business woman. She is creative consultant for Roger Vivier, designs a line for Uniqlo, and this year relaunched her luxury lifestyle brand, Ines de la Fressange Paris.

ParisianChicCityGuide_p112bottomright interior Ines de la Fressange for P-TCP

Interior of Ines de la Fressange Paris flagship store © Dominique Maître, from Parisian Chic City Guide (Flammarion, 2015)

Her flagship store in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés is included in the book, of which she writes, “think of it as a cross between a fantasy department store and a sundries emporium”. It stocks both her brand and items from other designers and makers which she’s sourced in an eclectic range spanning clothes, jewellery, stationery, home  décor items through to brooms and olive oil.

ParisianChicCityGuide_p112centerleft Ines de la Fressange interior for P-TCP

Interior Ines de la Fressange Paris flagship store © Dominique Maître, from Parisian Chic City Guide (Flammarion, 2015)

Divided into five sections, The Heart of Paris, That Marais State, The Latin Quarter, Saint-Germain-des-Prés Style, Chic near the Champs-Élysées, and The Bobo Attitude, covering 12 arrondissements, with maps for each area, the entries range from luxury brands and high-end stores to fantastic finds where one can discover the highest quality at low prices. Including fashion designers, stationers, florists and hairstylists, cafés, hotels, home décor and toy shops, and the wonderfully named, Musée de la Vie Romantique.

ParisianChicCityGuide_3Dpocket for P-TCP
From the legendary Colette and the fabulous timeless lingerie of Fifi Chachnil in the 1st arrondissement, to the evocatively named, Carouche: Interprète d’Objets in the 11th arrondissement– as de la Fressange writes, “anyone who calls herself ‘an interpreter of objects’ deserves our attention”, and then to La Tarte Tropézianne in the 6th arrondissement, the patisserie from which Parisians can now buy the cream-filled brioche which for years was only available in St Tropez… the ‘Say it like La Parisienne’ note wryly appends: “they say pâtissier Alexandre Micka named this confection after Brigitte Bardot. Remember Roger Vadim’s film And God Created Pastry?” Parisian Chic City Guide is a treasure trove journey through the myriad elements of what it is to be truly chic in la Parisienne mode.

Ines de la Fressange Paris

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Belgravia – Karen Knorr

Belgravia - Karen Knorr cover for P-TCP

Published by Stanley/Barker
Ltd edition of 1000 £45
Special edition of 35 (Clamshell Box set with a signed print) £400

By Guy Sangster Adams

The high white cover of Karen Knorr’s beautifully produced new monograph, Belgravia, echoes the resplendent stucco of the grand terraces of this exclusive area of London. Much of Belgravia was built by Thomas Cubitt, commissioned by the then Viscount Belgrave in the 1820s and predominantly still owned by his descendent the 6th Duke of Westminster. Belgravia lies a diamond’s throw from Buckingham Palace of which Cubitt also built the east façade which faces The Mall; the palace’s ‘public face’.

Karen Knorr Belgravia A House in Town for P-TCP

©Karen Knorr

Stepping behind the stucco and playfully subverting the idea of a public face, Knorr describes her photographs of Belgravia residents, taken between 1979 and 1981 and collected for the first time in this book, as “non-portraits”. Vanity and verity is the inherent struggle in traditional portraiture, but as Knorr explains her photographs are ‘non portraits’ because “they do not aim to flatter or to show the ‘truth’ of these people”. Equally her sitters are not named and remain anonymous, because, as she says, “the photographs are not about individuals but about a group of people and their ideas during a particular time in history”.

Karen Knorr Belgravia Security is for P-TCP

©Karen Knorr

Their ideas are conveyed epigrammatically beneath each image. Reflecting after each shoot on the conversations she had had with her subjects, Knorr constructed the texts – capitalising key words to emphasise the constructed and ironic nature. But the texts are not designed to illustrate the photographs they sit beneath, nor vice versa; Knorr’s intention is that in the space between the two they create a ‘third meaning’ “to be completed by the spectator”. Intriguingly that meaning will differ depending on the spectator’s own background and views. Knorr showed the photographs and accompanying text to all her sitters; some saw her intended humour, whereas, she says, “a lot of them said, ‘yes, that’s pretty much how things are’”.

Karen Knorr Belgravia Debs' Delights for P-TCP

©Karen Knorr

Beneath the image of the cover star, hair, stance, and clothes so archetypally early 1980s that he looks as though he would be equally at home at a Sloane Ranger Handbook informed débutante ball—which had a resurgence in the 1980s— or a Duran Duran concert, the text reads: “Debs’ Delights are on the list/They wear Gucci shoes/pinstripe suits/and take girls out/to places like/Regines.” Reading which I was reminded of lines from The Jam song, Saturday’s Kids: “Saturday’s girls work in Tesco’s and Woolworths/ Wear cheap perfume ’cause it’s all they can afford/Go to discos they drink Babycham talk to Jan – in bingo accents.”

Saturday’s Kids was on the album Setting Sons, which was released the same year that Knorr started taking her Belgravia photographs. It also contained the hit single, Eton Rifles, which Prime Minister David Cameron, who in 1979 had just started at Eton, has said was one his favourite songs at the time. In response to Paul Weller’s reported incredulity at this, wondering if Cameron did not understand that the song was satirising Etonians, Cameron told Alexis Petridis in The Guardian in 2011: “of course I understood what it was about. It was taking the mick out of people running around in the cadet force. And he was poking a stick at us. But it was a great song with brilliant lyrics. I’ve always thought that if you can only like music if you agree with the political views of the person who wrote it, well, it’d be rather limiting”.

Karen Knorr Belgravia Drones for P-TCP

©Karen Knorr

Similarly with Knorr’s photographs the spectator must decide whether the assumed privileged background of the proto-Goth band, the Dulcet Drones, given that they are photographed around a dining table in Belgravia, makes them risible or intriguing/possibly worth a listen… and whether it negates or makes laughable the text beneath the image: “I am part of a group/called the Dulcit Drones/We are basically into Rebellion/into changing Youth today.”

Privilege is, understandably, a key theme of the book. The text, “There is nothing/ wrong with Privilege/as long as you are ready/ to pay for it”, appears beneath a photograph, and is then repeated on the penultimate page, and broken down on the last page to “There is nothing wrong with Privilege …”; the ‘third meaning’ lying in the space between the ellipsis. In her exploration of privilege there is an element, Knorr has said, “of self-critique” in that she “was the product of a very well-to-do family; I had a lot of privilege and I was able to study in Britain thanks to them”.

Karen Knorr Belgavia Privilege for P-TCP

©Karen Knorr

Knorr’s upbringing was peripatetic – born in Germany, she spent her childhood in Puerto Rico, and completed her education in Paris and then in England. Her parents had moved to Belgravia in the mid-1970s, and when she in turn moved to London she lived with them for a few months, but only a few months because, as she says, “I felt uncomfortable actually being in Belgravia, I couldn’t relate to it”. This provides another layer to her series of photographs, which feature her family and their friends/neighbours, the simultaneous sense of being both an insider and an outsider.

Belgravia is a fantastic series of photographs, intriguing and thought provoking. It is equally fascinating 37 years on from when Knorr began the series to see what seems most outmoded and from another time, in both image and words. The deluxe/futuristic 1960s/1970s moulded plastic chairs, mirrored and chrome expanding coffee tables, now look far more of the past and retro, than the classical interiors. Lamentations about the lack of ‘pink’ – ie the British Empire – on the map is not something one hears whereas, “Every morning I wake up/and do 50 push-ups/I eat muesli and wheatgerm/for breakfast/You are what you eat”, sounds far more now than then. Whilst what sounded reactionary then, “I live in the nineteenth century/the early nineteenth century/I am fascinated by/Napoleon and Metternich/two antagonists”, now doesn’t sound like too bad a place to live…!

Karen Knorr Belgravia Theatre of the World for P-TCP

©Karen Knorr


It’s also interesting how Belgravia itself has changed in the intervening years. Although post-war many of the townhouses were no longer residential, but were embassies, charity headquarters, and offices, at the time that Knorr was photographing there were still residents of Belgravia to be photographed. With the exponential rise in London property prices and the attendant trend for properties in exclusive areas like Belgravia to be bought by international buyers purely as investments less and less people live there – as Sarah Lyall noted in her 2013 article in the New York Times, A Slice of London So Exclusive Even the Owners Are Visitors, “It seems that practically the only people who can afford to live there don’t actually want to”.

Which makes the rather poetical first text in Belgravia, which in 1979 would have sounded outdated, sound positively 19th century not 20th: “A House in Town brings much/Splendour and Comfort to a Gentleman/who must spend there the time/required for the administration/of State Affairs as well as/Patrimony and Property”.

Karen Knorr


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Book Review: Press Trip – Robin Mead


eBook: Kindle edition £1.95


Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

As a child growing up in North London travel writer Robin Mead’s dream, for as long as he could remember, was to be a journalist. “Whilst other boys were dreaming of becoming train drivers, or whatever else constituted professional ambition in the 1940s,” he writes, “I produced mock-ups of newspapers filled with local gossip both real and imagined”. Something which no doubt stood him in good stead some years later when working for a local newspaper he and a colleague, to cover the fact that in their editor’s absence they had spent the day in the cinema watching Some Like it Hot, fabricated a story about a tea-drinking giant cabbage in Ponders End. A plan that backfired when the editor decided it should be front page news and wanted photographs to accompany the article.

Mead’s dream of being a journalist had become a reality in 1953 when, at the age of 16, he joined the Enfield Weekly Herald as a junior reporter on a six-month probationary period leading to a three-year apprenticeship. An entrée into journalism which he reflects now sounds very “old fashioned”. Coincidentally the same year saw the publication of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, which opens with the famous line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, a line which is both apposite to Mead’s journalistic beginnings and also to Press Trip as a whole.

As a freelance travel writer for over four decades Mead has written 29 travel guide books and over the course of the last five decades countless travel articles for newspapers and magazines worldwide. As a result of which he has visited over 100 countries and continues to travel around 50,000 miles a year. Press Trip, as his first volume of memoirs, is his first book to visit that foreign country that is the past and look back on the many thousands of miles travelled. One of the many fascinating facets of this journey is just how dramatic the changes have been in newspapers, journalism, and travel during Mead’s career.

After serving his apprenticeship Mead moved on to work for national newspapers, first the Daily Herald (which was later re-launched as The Sun), then the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, followed by The Times and Sunday Times. At that time Fleet Street was not only a generic descriptive phrase for the national press but also a literal description of where the majority of the newspapers had their offices. During the course of Mead’s career that has all changed – there are now no newspapers based in the street. But when Mead arrived in Fleet Street in 1959, even standing on the pavement in the early evening he could feel “the anticipation and excitement” generated by the fact that, as he evocatively describes:

“deadlines were approaching; news editors were shouting at reporters to finish their stories; sub-editors were sweating over headlines; Linotype machines were chattering with increasing urgency, turning thousands of words into hot metal; in cavernous basements the huge printing presses – as vast and impressive as the mighty steam locomotives I had once so admired – were standing by to begin their nightly ‘run'; and lorries were already lining up to take the first editions to the main line railway stations for distribution around the country”.

It’s not just the location of newspapers that has changed dramatically during Mead’s career, but also the culture within their offices. When he first started working in Fleet Street not only were the titles almost entirely all-male preserves, but many of the senior positions were occupied by former military officers. At the Telegraph newspapers the hierarchies between the ‘officers’ and ‘other ranks’ even extended to which toilets they were allowed to use. Whilst when Mead moved to The Times in the mid-1960s the newspaper, although attempting to shake them off, still had some of its traditional vestiges, as he writes, “sub-editors traditionally had their afternoon tea served by a butler in front of the fire […] and the editor and other department heads liked to get home in plenty of time to change for dinner”.

In the 1986 Mead found himself on the front line, or more specifically the picket line, during the ‘Wapping Dispute’, which brought seismic changes to The Times newspapers, and ultimately would bring about the demise of Fleet Street as the geographical home to the newspaper industry. By the mid-1980s The Times and Sunday Times were owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International who had secretly built and equipped new offices and a printing plant in the Wapping area of London. The NUJ (National Union of Journalists) advised their members not to work in the new building unless agreements were reached on a raft of issues covering the move. A strike ensued and the strikers, of whom Mead was one, became known as ‘refuseniks’. When the strike ended as he writes in his insightful and emotive chapter covering the dispute, the remaining ‘refuseniks’ were dismissed. Mead went to work at The Observer, but it is clear that having worked for The Times newspapers for three decades the dismissal hurt.

Robin Mead

Robin Mead

The media coverage of travel has also been another big change during Mead’s career growing exponentially hand in hand with the rise in mass tourism and the widespread availability of air travel. “Travel editors were”, as Mead writes, “a rare breed in the early 1960s”. Serendipitously the Daily Herald, his first national newspaper job, did have a travel editor and looked favourably on such content, and his first Fleet Street by-line was an article about a holiday in Cornwall.

By the end of the decade Mead had written over 200 travel articles, including the first travel articles ever to be published in the London Evening Standard, and travel had become very much a buzz word – the BBC began broadcasting its long-running Holiday programme in 1969, which would be followed by ITV’s Wish You Were Here in 1974, both of which would include amongst their regular presenters Mead’s then Travel editor at The Times, John Carter. Whilst keeping a part-time Editorial Executive role at The Times newspapers, Mead launched himself into what he describes as “the Golden Years of travel” (the 1970s and early 1980s) as a freelance travel writer.

Through his many articles and books Mead quickly established himself as an expert on particular countries and areas of travel, principally Greece, Australia, the USA, and closer to home the Channel Islands and Britain, and also on all aspects of cruise ships and cruises. As he reflects on the miles travelled in Press Trip the book becomes not only an highly engaging travelogue filled with amusing, inspiring, often gripping, and sometimes poignant adventures, but also a fascinating and revelatory behind-the-scenes insight into the writing of travel books and articles with all the help, hindrance, and often extraordinary behaviour of PR people, hoteliers and the like, and fellow journalists.

Incidents that include, to highlight but a few, being manhandled away from an interview in the USA with the founder of the Marriot Hotel chain, J Willard Marriot – an interview that Marriot was only too happy to give Mead, whilst Mrs Marriot made cups of tea for them both – by four PR men who held Mead against a wall whilst demanding his interview notes, despite Marriot’s protests. Whilst, on another trip to the US being lead by a PR person into the desert and an ambush by rogue cowboys.

Also, despite speaking only a smattering of Greek, Mead was twice put in situations where he had to be a front man (or as Mead puts it “a ventriloquist’s dummy”) whilst Greek answers were whispered in his ear. The first time was having just landed in Athens airport Mead was made to give a television press conference, in Greek, by his host the owner of Olympic Holidays, whilst the latter whispered the answers to the Greek journalists’ questions to him. On the second occasion a Cretan hotelier implored Mead to meet local people who objected to her plans to build another hotel development – once again Mead responded to the their concerns, all voiced in Greek, via the hotelier whispering the answers to him.

One of my favourite stories in Press Trip occurs far closer to home, during a trip Mead, his wife, and their young sons made to Scotland, to Loch Ness to hunt for the Loch Ness monster.  Which, in a borrowed cabin cruiser fitted with underwater detection equipment they may well have found… except Mead has no proof because when the equipment showed up something very strange immediately below their boat, “we should have stopped to investigate, but instead of reaching for the binoculars or camera, I did what any sensible person would do if they found themselves perhaps 12 feet from a prehistoric monster: I reached for the throttle, jammed it wide open, and headed for the shore as fast as possible”.

Press Trip is a thoroughly engaging and very enjoyable multi-layered book that combines travelogue, cultural history, memoir and more filled with adventure and incident which Mead presents in a wonderfully readable style that is by turns, gripping, humorous, poignant, informative, and inspiring. All-in-all an highly recommended read.

Robin Mead:

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Book Review: Life with a Porn Queen – Maurice Suckling


(Ink Monkey Books) eBook £2.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

In mid-air over the Atlantic Ocean, en route to New York from London, 28 year old Zach Periton meets Mopsa Welch who might be the titular porn queen, a prophet, a physicist, a professor of English Literature, or a combination of all four. Equally given the severity of her painted nails, the tight scantiness of her clothing, the largeness of her fake breasts, alongside her geekyness (their initial conversation involves matching each other in roller-coaster G-force facts), and privately educated English accent, she might purely be a fantasy that in-flight dehydration has lead Zach’s mind to conjure. Or, since Zach is, or was until he walked out of his job, a computer games designer, she could also be his avatar.

Whichever or whatever she might be she has a name that sounds as though it must be an anagram until one puts it into an online anagram solver and is repaid with hundreds more phrases which are both instantly nonsensical but which one could immediately make some sort of case for them being completely relevant to Maurice Suckling’s début novel, such are its twists and turns, possible clues and potential red herrings.

Feeling that his life has become too predictable, Zach has walked out of his job, given away his possessions, and boarded the flight to the USA with the intention that when he arrives he will embark on a coast-to-coast road trip, before settling in California where he will surf, work in a bar, “living one day and one wave at a time”, and end up living with a porn queen. But Mopsa points out to him that that narrative would be clichéd, that it’s a story already written countless times, and that it would be just as predictable as what he’s leaving behind. She tells him that he’s suffering from “Story Over-Exposure”, from only living stories that he already knows the endings too, and then wondering why he feels unfulfilled.

As a cure she tells him a story, but leaves it to him to decide whether it’s a course of action he should follow: “So this man gets on a plane to another new country, he lands, and he feels just the same as always. It’s different, but any arrivals lounge is much like any other. This place doesn’t surprise him either. So, he walks through arrivals and he sees people holding up boards with names. Then he chooses a name at random, and goes up to the person holding the board – and he says, that’s me”.

Suckling is both a writer of fiction – he holds a PhD in Creative Writing from University of Newcastle, and his very well received short story anthology, Photocopies of Heaven, was long-listed for a British Fantasy Society award – and also of computer games, including the critically acclaimed, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. He also co-authored the book, Video Game Writing: From Macro to Micro. For me both sides of his work and studies intertwine in the multi-layered Life with a Porn Queen.

Maurice Suckling

Maurice Suckling

Zach and Mopsa discuss narrative predictability and unpredictability within a narrative frame that is equally unpredictable. Although Zach does follow through with Mopsa’s advice to choose a random name in the arrivals lounge, it’s a narrative thread that is discontinued after only a few pages, although long enough for one to both want to know more and to feel at first a little cheated/disconcerted that one isn’t going to.

But then there’s not much time to get stuck on that before Zach has re-met Mopsa in a bar and agreed to go and stay with her in her house in California, the outcome of which will at least finally begin to make sense of the confusing and bizarre parables that intersperse the text (The Parable of The Three Live Web-Cam Sex Workers, The Parable of The Man Who Was a Watermelon)… or does it… as Mopsa seems to be the leader of a religious cult, but there again that could just be one’s own projection.

And besides by this stage one has so fully entered into the themes/intent of the novel that one is already thinking, well if Suckling isn’t going to elucidate on what might happen when one says, that’s me, to a name-sign carrying person in an arrivals lounge, I am just going to have to go and try it for real, myself!

Reading Life with a Porn Queen, very much as Zach does in and around Mopsa’s house when he’s there alone, one does find oneself looking for clues, wondering whether there are fragments that one should put to one side that will help one later in the book – very much as one might with a computer game. Equally there is a sense, particular with the unexplored arrivals’ lounge narrative, that perhaps that narrative is there, if only one could find the right ‘key’ to enter that level of the ‘game’ – one finds oneself scrolling back through the book to see if one missed a way in.

After all of which, as one would fully imagine that it would, Life with a Porn Queen ends not only with a twist to the narrative but also to the narration, meaning that it remains a roller coaster read from beginning to end: innovative and unpredictable, engaging and insightful, fun and disconcerting.



Maurice Suckling will be reading from and talking about Life with a Porn Queen (Ink Monkey Books, 2013), at Plectrum-The Cultural Pick’s (P-TCP) Mustered No.9: Shake, Rattle, and Roll Dem Bones, on Wednesday 30th October 2013 at The Betsey Trotwood, London EC1.

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Maurice Suckling

Ink Monkey Books

Book Review: Mickey the Mimic – Kirk Lake


(Ink Monkey Books) eBook £2.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

I finished reading Mickey the Mimic just before going to sleep. When I awoke I hadn’t quite realised the extent to which the story had stayed with me until a few hours later when I had to telephone the author, Kirk Lake. The call went to answerphone and suddenly my head filled with scenarios from the book, and since as the jacket copy says it’s, “a neo-noir narrative of black comedy and casual violence”, my imagination did rather run away with me, or from me, screaming. Before I realised that I was conflating Lake with his protagonist, Mickey Dallow, and that another cup of coffee might be needed to sort out the fact from the fiction. In fact, my parallel universe moment is entirely appropriate both to the themes of the book and Lake’s adept telling of the story.

Duality, duplicity, what is real and what is fake, who is reliable and who is unreliable, including the narrator, and whether knowing for sure would be a help or a hindrance are central to Mickey the Mimic.

Set in London in the 1990s amidst the rise of Cool Britannia, Britart and Britpop, Lake has intermingled artists, pop stars, models, artworks and events, both real and imaginary into Mickey’s world. Mickey is both a prodigiously talented artist, but equally unable to express his own original creativity on paper or canvas. His nickname, Mickey the Mimic, dates from childhood, at first applying to his talent for impressions and then from art school onwards to his innate ability to perfectly replicate the works of other artists. Which sounds very happy-go-lucky, and seemingly is, until he meets Audrey:

“I was certain that Audrey was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She looked like Tippi Hedren in The Birds painted by Gil Evgren […] only this Tippi had brown hair and was wearing jeans and a Cure t-shirt. I wasn’t sure about the t-shirt but everything else worked for me.”

As a reader, in the knowledge of how the novel mixes life and art, one wants to shake Mickey and say, the Cure t-shirt is the least of your worries. Falling for a woman who looks like an actress who on-screen was one of Hitchcock’s ice blondes (manipulative, passionate, sometimes criminal women who make the leading men fall madly in love with them, whilst also bringing danger and complication to their lives) and who said that her off-screen relationship with the director, who was 30 plus years her senior, was characterised by him being “too possessive and too demanding, I can’t be possessed by anyone”, brings foreboding aplenty.

But sadly Mickey can’t hear the readers. Throughout the year of their MA course they live in each other’s pockets and are inseparable. But Audrey’s increasingly vociferous and insistent urgings that Mickey take off the mask of mimicry and reveal and produce his own creative work, the destabilising effect this has on him, and his increasingly obsessive feelings for her, build up to the collapse of their relationship. Although the final blow is delivered fittingly at the MA final show when Mickey unveils his artwork directly opposite Audrey’s and it is a double of her work, a perfect reproduction.

Kirk Lake

Kirk Lake

A particular instance of how successful and fun Lake’s mixing of real people and imaginary characters in the art and music scenes around Mickey and Audrey (in addition to how it evocatively explores the nature of the art scene at the time) comes in the form of Mickey’s post-MA job working for the artist, Matt Caine. He is Damien Hirst’s great rival, covering everything in his trademark stripes, in riposte to Hirst’s spots, pre-selling, for vast amounts, the ideas for artworks sketched on napkins or cigarette packets, and then having his assistants, Mickey and Stephanie, do the actual creating and painting of the work. When Caine decides that his pinstripe period is over, the two create one last huge canvas for him: “when we’d finished it,” Mickey recounts, “we both decided it was the best work Caine had ever painted”.

The idea of Caine works so well, much as I alluded to in the first paragraph, that I fell into the enjoyable and also slightly disconcerting duality of knowing that Hirst didn’t have a replica rival called Matt Caine, but liking the idea that there was someone matching him spot for spot, stripe by stripe, so much so that I started to seriously doubt whom I knew to be real or fake… Google beckoned. Although by then I fully expected Damien Hirst to be the make-believe character…

When Audrey the ice brunette re-enters Mickey’s life it is with her French gangster lover, Lionel, in tow: a man 30 plus years her senior who is particularly possessive and demanding of her – foreboding  come to fruition. They set about manipulating Mickey, who is still very much in love with Audrey, into their plan to fake a Picasso. But first as an initiation, ostensibly they say for them to decide whether he is the right man for the job or not, they commission him to paint a version of Gustave Courbet’s painting, L’Origine du monde, with Audrey as the model. The painting is a close-up view of the genitals and abdomen of a naked woman, lying on a bed with her legs spread.

As Lake says in the Q&A included at the end of the book, “for the female model to pose for such an explicit portrait, at the request of one man in order to manipulate another man, requires a degree of complicity in the manipulation on her part. Otherwise it’s just misogynistic fantasy. I was more interested in the noir character of the femme fatale. Audrey is ultimately the most devious character but also probably the most intelligent. Not that it helps her that much.”

Indeed, ultimately the painting doesn’t help any of the trio ‘very much’, as from the moment Mickey starts the first sketches they are all caught in a highly destructive trajectory, that culminates in the book’s surprising, but certainly, and wonderfully, Hitchcockian twist at the end.

To still be engaged with a book the day after reading it, as per the beginning of this review, says so much about the quality of Lake’s writing, in addition to his seamless ability to both draw one far further into the plot and characters than one realised, and also to create such an engaging and enjoyable hyperreality. Mickey the Mimic is also a book that once I’d read it (and worked out what my real life was again), I thought, I’d really like to read it again. Which in many ways is the best review one can give a book.

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KIRK LAKE will be talking about and reading from Mickey the Mimic (Ink Monkey Books, 2013) at Plectrum-The Cultural Pick’s (P-TCP) Mustered No.8: From Marble Arch to the Arc de Triomphe on Thursday 26th September 2013 at The Betsey Trotwood, London EC1.

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Book Review: They Eat Horses, Don’t They? The Truth about the French by Piu Marie Eatwell


(Head of Zeus) HB £15.99 eBook £7.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

I was very struck by the opening lines of Piu Marie Eatwell’s prologue in which she writes of what had been intended as a weekend break in Paris but which has now extended for over ten years living in France, meeting and marrying her husband, working, and raising her three children there. She writes, “It was on a sunny August bank holiday that I checked into a hotel in the Latin Quarter […] I never did get to stay in that hotel (spending that whole first weekend with my future husband).”

Inherent in those lines, for me, was what I have always found about Paris that it is both everything I expect it to be and nothing that I expect it to be (as I imagine French visitors to/residents of London equally find). Eatwell doesn’t elucidate further about that weekend, but reading it one does imagine that in the lead up to going away the Left Bank hotel was a central tenet in the dream of an idealised, romantic, cinematically perfect Parisian weekend… but in reality it became purely a left luggage locker, as she met the man she would later marry elsewhere in the city. Although, of course, meeting your future husband on a weekend break in Paris does rather compound the perception of Paris as the most romantic city on earth.

As a student at Université Paris IV, despite it being the 2000s not the 1940s/50s, my friends at home in Britain envisaged that my time would be spent clad in a black roll neck striking existential poses in Left Bank cafés that had long been artistic and intellectual hang-outs. Whilst it’s true that pre- and post- lectures I would go for coffee a lot with French student friends in Saint-Germain-des-Prés the favoured rendezvous was Starbucks in Odéon… which isn’t to say the conversations weren’t as erudite or that there wasn’t just as much people watching.

As Eatwell writes, “one can still check out Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore, if forking out a fortune for a continental breakfast is not an issue. But don’t expect to find a philosopher sitting next to you if you do.” This is in the section of the book in which she explores the reality of Myths about Paris, in this case that, ‘The Left Bank is a haven of writers and intellectuals’. The book as whole explores 45 preconceptions about France that are widely held in Britain and also to a degree in the USA.

Ranging from the titular and of the moment ‘They eat horses, don’t they?’ to myths about French women: being the most stylish in the world/not getting fat/not shaving, from ‘The French are obsessed with sex’ and that their children don’t throw food, through to ‘The French are a nation of cheese-eating surrender mokeys’, ‘Paris is the European capital of canine excreta’, and ‘The Paris Métro stinks’.

In each case Eatwell, who trained as a barrister and worked in chambers in London, before working for international law firms in London and Paris, explores the background and evidence for each cultural claim and then gives a verdict on each as to whether they are straightforwardly true or false, or somewhere contradictorily between the two, or equally whether they were once true but no longer are. Her ruling on the veracity is then carried at the end of each entry in a caption next to a Myth Evaluation logo. This is a fun device and often brings extra illumination.

Piu Marie Eatwell

Piu Marie Eatwell

I particularly liked her Myth Evaluation to ‘The Paris Métro stinks: “True: The Parisian Métro still smells most peculiar, although garlic and Gitanes have now been replaced by unusual chemical odours. However, for complex socio-cultural reasons comprehensible only to Left Bank intellectuals and Deconstructionist philosophers, the unique and irrepressible odour of the Paris Métro is not noxious, but apparently – in anthropological terms – a nexus of urban experiences encompassing alienation, excitement, repulsion, danger”.

The book is as thoroughly engaging as it is wonderfully well researched. Eatwell has drawn on a wealth of sources including books, periodicals, company and governmental surveys, statistics, reports, films and music, interviewing/statement taking from almost everyone she spoke to, be they English or French, and also her own observations and experience garnered from living in France for over a decade. Writing with wit, erudition, insight, and a lightness of touch (I am trying to ignore the part of my brain that is insisting on making a soufflé allusion here) They Eat Horses, Don’t They? is highly readable and personable whilst also being a fascinating, immaculately considered and referenced discourse on its theme.

In considering her findings at the end of the book, Eatwell who was born in Calcutta but raised in Britain, and studied at Oxford University, explains that although writing the book taught her a great deal more about France and the French it also “taught me even more about myself – or rather, I should say, about us, the Anglo-Saxons” and also that the relationship between Britain and France has always been very different to Britain’s relationship with any other country. “Underlying all these myths we construct about France,” she writes, “there lies a romantic and indefinable yearning… a sense of emulation, jealousy and desire”.

Her idea chimes with a very similar thought that had struck me when I was again studying outside Britain, this time in Finland (underscoring the Herderian idea of gaining insights into one’s nationality when abroad) – although I would suggest that the feelings she describes go both ways across the Channel.

One morning in the student accommodation kitchen I glanced across at the television – the sound was muted but the news was showing then French President, Jacques Chirac, and British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, arriving at the unveiling of the Airbus A380, in France. Both leaders made their way along the front row of seats from opposite ends, warmly greeting everyone they passed along the way but studiously not making eye contact with each other. When they arrived at their seats, next to each other in the centre, they made a great play of not greeting each other, other than a fleeting ‘covert’ glance, and then sat down taking great pains to do so at oblique angles to each other. This was representative of diplomatic bad feeling at the time, but what hit me watching the images without commentary was how extraordinarily coquettish it looked.

As though Britain and France are the archetypal boy and girl in the playground hitting each other, when in fact they want to kiss each other, making up and spreading bad stories about each other in the fear that someone might realise their true feelings.

Reading They Eat Horses, Don’t They? provides a fascinating insight into this love/hate affair that has played out across the Channel and across the centuries, and I heartily recommend the book.

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PIU MARIE EATWELL will be talking about They Eat Horses, Don’t They? The Truth about the French (Head of Zeus, 2013), and exploring some of the myths and stereotypes that colour Britain’s relationship with France, at the Plectrum-The Cultural Pick’s (P-TCP) Mustered No.8: From Marble Arch to the Arc de Triomphe on Thursday 26th September 2013 at The Betsey Trotwood, London EC1.

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Piu Marie Eatwell
Twitter: @PiuEatwell

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Book Review: Diamond Street – The Hidden World of Hatton Garden by Rachel Lichtenstein


(Hamish Hamilton) Hardback £20.00, Paperback £9.99, ebook £5.99
Diamond Street App free to download from iTunes or Google Play

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

One does not need a jeweller’s loupe to appreciate the multi-faceted beauty of Rachel Lichtenstein’s Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden. That said, because it flows with the highly engaging pace of a novel, and often the excitement of a thriller, despite being non-fiction, and one becomes so gripped by Lichtenstein’s journey that one starts to read and reaches the end before one wishes, it is a book that one immediately wants to go back through, to hold up to the light to examine in close detail the interplay of a wonderful spectrum of people and places and the stories they convey.

The book was more than five years in the making, in terms of both Lichtenstein’s research and writing, but in familial terms it has been three generations in the making because as a student she worked in her parent’s jewellery shop in Hatton Garden, which her husband now runs, and her uncles and aunts, and her grandfather all worked in the London street that is internationally renowned as the capital’s jewellery and diamond quarter and for many years was the centre of the world’s jewellery market.

Equally the stories and histories that Lichtenstein relays and uncovers have been many centuries in the making, for Diamond Street is not only a rare view through the closed doors of the inherently secretive and mysterious world of the diamond dealers, goldsmiths and jewellers on the street, but also a fascinating exploration through multiple layers of London history both in the street and its surrounding area from the life-size solid-gold sculpture of Kate Moss, to the lawlessness and the squalor of the alleyways and rookeries that inspired Dickens’ Oliver Twist, to the upmarket and highly desirable Georgian housing estate, from the mansion of Elizabeth I’s favourite, Sir Christopher Hatton, the palace of the Bishops of Ely, and further back to the days when the nearby River Fleet, which is now contained within Bazalgette’s Victorian sewer, was a mighty London waterway, second only to the Thames.

Diamond Street begins with a quote from Virginia Woof’s essay, A Room of One’s Own. The essay has long been a favourite of mine, and I have always liked the passage within it in which Woolf leans against the walls of Newnham College, Cambridge, and the physical connection triggers a journey back through centuries of the town’s history in her imagination. The passage and the essay as a whole are vividly and accessibly told – as a reader one very much travels with her.

Likewise and more so in Diamond Street; Lichtenstein makes time travel easy and delightful, which is far from easy to do. She trained originally as a sculptor and through the course of Diamond Street she very cleverly gradually builds up the layers of history so that as one reads on the text, the history, and the people become a wonderfully tactile sculptural object in one’s imagination. Often, and highly successfully, this is achieved through her accounts of the separate walks she took around the area, along similar routes but each time with experts in different fields, from historians, to geologists, to visionaries, and ultimately with sewer flushers… as the book concludes with Lichtenstein underground, thigh deep in the sewage of the River Fleet.

Rachel Lichtenstein photographed by James Price

Rachel Lichtenstein photographed by James Price

The accessibility, readability, and enjoyableness of Diamond Street also stems from Lichtenstein weaving the story of her research methodology into the text. This brings the history alive, and also makes the reader feel a far greater connection to the people she meets and interviews, as though one is meeting them oneself.

So much so that one gets very caught up in her search for Isadore Mitziman (‘Mitzy’) an infamous Hatton Garden character, who Lichtenstein had bumped into by chance in 2004 whilst she was working on her last book, On Brick Lane, the first of her trilogy of London street books of which Diamond Street is the second. That day he told her many stories about Hatton Garden, and when she began working on Diamond Street she was desperate to track him down. As reader one becomes hooked on her search for him, almost thinking that one can see him at the end of the street, just out of Lichtenstein’s view, and one wants to enter the text and tell her!

Diamond Street in its printed form affords, as I say, the most wonderful mind’s eye travelling both in the present day and through time. But now, Lichtenstein has brought a whole new wonderful level to her Diamond Street project with the creation of the Diamond Street App, which is the first of its kind and uses content from the book in addition to specially developed rich media, soundscapes and interactive features. The App adds two new additions to journey one can take with Lichtenstein to Diamond Street, from the mind’s eye of the book, to either the visual, aural, and virtual, armchair travelling of the App, or if one is in Hatton Garden in actuality, a real guided tour via the App and its GPS system.

Whichever form you choose, and I would strongly recommend all three, Lichtenstein and Diamond Street are the perfect travelling companions.


RACHEL LICHTENSTEIN will be celebrating the launch of The Diamond Street App and the publication of the paperback edition of Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) at the P-TCP Live Edition Mustered No.7: ‘Hubcap Diamond Star Halo’ on Thursday 27th June 2013 at The Betsey Trotwood, London EC1.
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Book Review: Jar Baby – Hayley Webster


(Dexter Haven Publishing) paperback £7.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

For the majority of those attending the posthumous retrospective exhibition of the work of celebrated fashion designer, Sir Rohan Rickwood, the exhortation of the last line of the museum’s press release to, “‘Drown in glamour and worship the sea'”, would sound like the most perfect mode de vie. To them, the childhood and teenage years of Diana Rickwood, through whose eyes Hayley Webster’s compelling début novel is told, would sound like a fairy tale existence. Because she spent them living with her Uncle Rohan in his beautiful beachside house and studio, to which celebrated models and famous faces would flock for fittings.

But the once-upon-a-times of Diana’s formative years were not a fast track to happily-ever-afters, for although Webster powerfully incorporates allusions to fairy tales in her narrative it is not to their post-Disneyfication versions, but to their far darker tellings from previous centuries by writers such as Charles Perrault in the 17th century and the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century in which violence, sexual threat, and abuse are common themes. There are also echoes to another 19th century writer, Heinrich Hoffmann, and his macabre and grotesque collection of cautionary tales for children, Der Struwwelpeter (Shockheaded Peter).

Far from drowning in glamour, Diana grows up drowning in a well of loneliness. Orphaned, her Uncle tells her, when her parents were drowned in a boating accident, when growing up her “entire life was made up of the interpretations of a lonely girl looking for meaning”. Exiled from the studio whenever anyone arrives for a fitting, and not allowed to meet the models, the only vestiges of a glamorous life her uncle allows her are the pins he asks her to pick up and untangle from the carpet post-fittings.

Far from basking in the reflected light of her Uncle’s glittering career, they share a bed because they are both afraid of the dark. But even in the daylight Diana’s life is permeated by darkness: from the sexual and mental abuse she suffers from the chauffeur of her uncle’s model muse, Stella Avery, to the titular half-formed human baby in a jar of formaldehyde who watches her from a shelf in Rohan’s studio, from the dog she kills on the beach, despite the fact he seems to represent “a sign of hope”, to her subsequent complete withdrawal for six weeks/mental breakdown, from her self-harming and self-abuse, to the animal’s shocking reappearance later in the novel.

Hayley Webster

Hayley Webster

At the age of 19, on the night of her uncle’s engagement to Stella Avery, having projected all the blame for her life’s troubles onto her in loco (evil) stepmother-to-be Diana leaves her uncle’s home, moving to London, to never see him again and spends the next 10 years until his death both cutting herself off from and suppressing every facet and memory of her past.

With the tide of media attention following his death, in addition to the retrospective exhibition, a biopic in development, and a biography being written, Diana is forced to rewrite the person she has spent the last 10 years becoming, for she is “no longer Dee Rickwood, food writer for Fair’s Fare supermarkets, but Diana Rickwood, niece of the glamorously dead and fêted designer Rohan Rickwood”.

Implicit in which, in her desire that the truth of both her uncle’s life and her own, as she knows it, doesn’t become submerged in a revisionist retelling, she has to re-examine her past and revisit the memories she has suppressed for so long. Which initially gives rise to ever wilder imaginings about those with whom she is reconnecting, particularly Stella Avery, but increasingly she discovers that the reality of who she is and of her past goes far beyond her wildest imaginings, is far more troubling than her darkest fears, and has been as carefully constructed by her uncle and his circle as the beautiful cape he sends her seemingly from beyond the grave.

With Jar Baby Hayley Webster makes a striking and particularly powerful début. Diana’s search for the truth, her attempts to cut through the mesh of concealments and to rethink the red herrings that she has created for herself generate the gripping excitement of a thriller, whilst the disturbing and chilling aspects of the story, both for Diana and for the reader, bring elements of Gothic fiction to the dramatic mix. Her weaving of fairy tales into the story is done so in a wonderfully evocative and playful way. I particularly liked that when Diana/Cinderella finally goes to the ball it is in a very surreal way as it is in a room in West London around which a myriad of ‘Rohans’ and ‘Stellas’ are waltzing, in rehearsal for a scene for the planned film about Rohan’s life.

Throughout the novel, Webster handles light and dark wonderfully well, in a way that heightens the power of both, for Jar Baby is both humorous and troubling, playful and deathly serious. Her exploration and depictions of the story’s unsettling and poignant themes of abuse, sexual, physical, and mental, and of interpersonal and sexual taboos, are singularly adept and insightful. Jar Baby is a book which I urge you to read.


Hayley Webster will be reading from and talking about Jar Baby (Dexter Haven, 2012) at the P-TCP Live Edition Mustered No.7: ‘Hubcap Diamond Star Halo’ on Thursday 27th June 2013 at The Betsey Trotwood, London EC1.
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Book review: Derby Shorts – The Best New Fiction From The Roller Derby Track Presented by For Books’ Sake and London Rollergirls edited by Jane Bradley


(For Books’ Sake) paperback £5.00 Kindle edition £3.60

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

Pace, power, and panache abound, both thematically and in the manner of their telling, throughout the 14 short stories collected in Derby Shorts. Each story is set in and around, or inspired by modern roller derby which, although it has its origins in the sport developed in the 1930s, began its grassroots revival in the early 2000s as an all-female, self-organised, amateur, full-contact sport which eschewed the solely entertainment spectacle that the original sport had become, with scripted bouts and predetermined winners, in favour of a return to championing athleticism, prowess and a true sporting contest.

By 2006 the revival which had begun in Austin, Texas, was sweeping through the USA and in that year the London Rollergirls were the first league to bring women’s flat-track roller derby to the UK, the first European member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), and also played a key part in engendering the sport’s spread Europe-wide. There are now around 1250 amateur leagues worldwide and the sport is being considered for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics.

London Rollergirls and For Books’ Sake is an inspired pairing. The guiding principles of the former are to “take pride in being a positive character building experience for women, whilst not excluding men but working alongside them in equal respect” and to “endeavour to empower all women by promoting athleticism, good sportsmanship, both teamwork and independence, and positive self-image”. Whilst the acclaimed, intelligent but irreverent UK-based webzine, For Books’ Sake, founded in 2010 by Jane Bradley, is dedicated to promoting and celebrating writing by and for independent women, providing a dedicated platform for readers and writers alike, and “is a response to the systemic and institutionalised sexism which continues to be a problem in publishing, media and beyond”.

London Rollergirls photographed by Steve Newton

London Rollergirls photographed by Steve Newton

Both London Rollergirls and For Books’ Sake are also imbued with an inspiring joie de vivre, energy and a DIY/punk ethic of there being no reason not to do something, whatever the challenges or obstacles might be – if you want to do something, if you want to change something, start doing both. In collaborating and acting as both Pivots (the pacesetters of a roller derby team) and Jammers (roller derby ‘sprint’ skaters) in bringing their anthology to fruition, they have successfully created a book in which every story both celebrates and crackles with that same engaging and energetic joie de vivre.

Compliled following an open call for submissions, Derby Shorts features stories by Kaite Welsh, Cariad Martin, Robyn Frame, Kylie Grant, Steven LaFond, Evangeline Jennings, Magda Knight, Gavin Inglis, Daphne Du Gorier, Elena Morris, Kat M. Gray, Pam Berg, Jemima von Schindelberg and Tom Snowdon… or to put it another way, roller derby players, referees and fanatics from all over the world!

Their passion for the sport and the fun that they have clearly had writing the stories adds to the enjoyableness of each one. For newcomers to roller derby many of the stories are eye-opening (ghoulishly literally in Gavin Inglis’ equally funny and chilling, Derby of the Dead, about a Zombie grudge bout) not least in how all-consuming a passion it can become, highlighted in great style in Jemima von Schindelberg’s My Wife’s Wedding, in which moments after Louise’s wedding to her husband, Cesar, she then puts on her skates and a dress embroidered on the back with her ‘derby name’, Lou de Change, and is wed to her similarly be-skated and name-embroidered ‘derby wife’, The Mel of Fear, aka Mel.

“A derby wife is more than a friend,” von Schindelberg writes, “although friendship plays a crucial role, and a derby wife is different to a lover, although we love our derby wives dearly. Your derby wife is the skater you turn to when you don’t make the team and want to throw in the towel. She talks you down and convinces you that forty push-ups and an hour of plank will make everything better. She is the skater you will happily remind to ‘skate it out’ when everything has become too much. She is the skater you watch out for, who has your back. You defend her, protect her and when necessary slap her back into place if she’s got too big for her boots. She is the missing piece in your puzzle.”

London Rollergirls photographed by

London Rollergirls photographed byJames Laidlaw

There is plenty of love, lust, rivalry and rebellion, both inter- and intra-team, throughout the pages of Derby Shorts. In Cariad Martin’s Cuts and Grazes, a tale of Derby Brats (skaters in the junior roller derby leagues) the rivalry is sibling. Evocatively told through the eyes of ten year old Haf who not only yearns to join The Gosker Lil’ Rockers, the Derby Brats team which her dad coaches, but also to skate faster than her 13 year old sister, Skye, the team’s jammer. Lucie York’s act of rebellion in Kat M. Grey’s Tiptoes is to swap the role of prima ballerina in the making at the Key West Ballet Theatre, for jammer with the Key West Rollin’ Rogues.

The stories in the anthology are also played out through a variety of genres. I particularly enjoyed Kaite Welsh’s riotous and beautifully realised satirical short, This Is Not Your Great-Great-Great Granddaughter’s Derby, which imagines Victorian debutantes scandalising polite society by inventing roller derby on the banks of the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park. Also Magda Knight’s fantastic neo-noir, Dead Girls Don’t Wear Blades, which adeptly conflates Blade Runner and roller blades and is both gripping and amusingly knowing in its tale of a milk drinking assassin’s mission to kill a mutant roller derby coach who secretes biotoxins not sweat.

Staying with noir, Daphne Gorier, entertainingly and effectively creates a new strand, referee noir, or to put it in its specific roller derby terminology and the title of her story, Zebra Noir, as her hard-bitten, Marlowe-esque ‘zebra’, Potomac Ripper, is called in to help the police on a puzzling case.

London Rollergirls photographed by

London Rollergirls photographed by Steve Newton

There is an insightfulness running through Derby Shorts, and for me this was particularly highlighted in Elena Morris’s story, Pivot, which begins and ends with Rory doubled up on a pavement after a violent mugging. On both occasions the physical pain is no less severe, but the first time she’s in shock, in tears, her loneliness in a new town is heightened, and she also realises “that self-defence class turned out to be pretty useless”. The second time, nine months later her response has changed, although “the knee in my stomach hurts just as much as it did before I had washboard abs. But wait! I’m thinking, I didn’t have time to engage my core! He sprints away with my smelly kit bag, my purse and my phone and I’m left doubled over in pain on the pavement again. All I can really think is, wait until he gets a whiff of my wristguards. And then, I needed new skates anyway”.

What has changed in the interim is that she has joined a roller derby team which has completely changed her sense of herself: “When I skate, I feel powerful. I feel the wheels of my skates hit the floor and I feel my calves and shins take that impact and transfer it up to my thighs. I feel my strong arms pumping at my sides. I feel something that two years of working as a general dogsbody on TV sets could never make me feel: I matter. I am important. I am training so that my teammates can depend on me to give them a whip when they need it, and so I can put on that extra burst of speed to get me through a miniscule gap and score that winning point. I am Roary. Hear me roar”.

Inspiring, fun, bittersweet, energetic, all infectiously so, hugely enjoyable and filled with many moments to cheer about… Derby Shorts is very much in the mould of the sport it celebrates.


In celebration of Derby Shorts, Jane Bradley, Kaite Welsh, and Magda Knight are all appearing at the P-TCP Live Edition: Mustered No.6 on Thursday 30th May 2013 at The Betsey Trotwood, London EC1. Jane Bradley will be talking jammers, pivots, and zebras, and a world where fierce, fast women are often hell on wheels, Kaite Welsh will be reading This Is Not Your Great-Great-Great Granddaughter’s Derby, and Magda Knight will be reading Dead Girls Don’t Wear Blades, their short stories from the anthology. For more details please click here.

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Book review: The Spy who Loved – The Secrets and Lives of One of Britain’s Bravest Wartime Heroines by Clare Mulley


(Pan) paperback £7.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

In the years following World War II the name of Christine Granville has been eclipsed in the popular imagination by those of her fellow Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents Odette Sansom Hallowes and Violette Szabo. Due in no small part to the highly successful films, Odette (1950), starring Anna Neagle in the title role, and Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), starring Virginia McKenna as Szabo, and the best-selling books on which they were based by Jerrard Tickell and R.J. Minney.

This would in all probability have been very different had the plans of Granville’s close friend and former SOE colleague, W. Stanley Moss, to write both a biography and a screenplay for a biopic of her come to fruition. Ill Met by Moonlight, Moss’s memoir of his own SOE years published in 1950 was a best-seller and was followed in 1957 by Powell and Pressburger’s very popular film adaptation of the book. For Moss’s proposed film about Granville, Sarah Churchill, Winston Churchill’s actress daughter, was already slated to play the lead role and apparently gave her reason for choosing the part as being that, “Christine was her father’s favourite spy” (although as Clare Mulley explores in The Spy who Loved this is an anecdote which is not possible to conclusively verify).

Similarly ultimately unverifiable but equally enticing is the suggestion that Ian Fleming and Granville were lovers and that he based the character of Vesper Lynd on her in the first of his James Bond novels, Casino Royale (1953), and thus perhaps over the years there have been silver screen representations of her, in the form of Ursula Andress in 1967 and Eva Green in the 2006 film, though the latter actress is far closer in looks to both the real Granville and how Lynd is depicted in the book (after writing which I then discovered that Eva Green has been linked to the role of Granville in the biopic that Polish film director and screenwriter, Agnieszka Holland, is said to be working on, Christine: War My Love). As Mulley writes, “a dark and enigmatic European agent, perpetually caught between sunbathing and action” and who Fleming characterises as being a fluent French speaker, who is in love with a Pole, and combines being “full of consideration without compromising her arrogant spirit” and whose raison d’être is “doing everything fully, getting the most out of everything one does”.

Lines which do serve very well to encapsulate the real Granville, although through her research Mulley believes that it far more likely that Fleming was inspired by stories he read of Granville rather than the woman in person. The title of Mulley’s biography of Granville playfully alludes to the ninth book in Fleming’s Bond series (The Spy who Loved Me), but as her story unfolds through its pages one quickly discovers that it would it would be far more fitting to find that she was an inspiration behind the character of Bond himself than a Bond-girl. One also discovers through Mulley’s excellent telling of Granville’s real-life story that it is far more compelling, extraordinary and larger than life than any fiction could dare to be.

Christine Granville

Krystyna Skarbek / Christine Granville

Purely by stating the facts pertaining to the beginning and end of her life, that she was born Countess Krystyna Skarbek in Warsaw in 1908, to a Catholic scion of one of Poland’s oldest families and a Jewish, banking heiress mother, and that when she died in 1952, murdered by an obsessed former lover in an hotel in London, she was a British citizen called Christine Granville and holder of the George Medal, an OBE, and the Croix de Guerre, one would know that a fascinating and ultimately tragic story had unfolded between those two points.

Her restless desire for action and adventure, her abilities with outdoor pursuits and her love of nature, her bravery her beauty, and later her love of sex, were threads that developed through her childhood and early life which retrospectively appear as though they were all in preparation for the role she played in World War II. Her father inspired her love of the outdoors, teaching her to ride almost before she could walk, to hold a gun, to use a knife, and also passed on his innate connection with dogs and horses. From her mother, a noted beauty, she certainly inherited her looks; at the age of 21 Granville was shortlisted in the Miss Polonia beauty contest and was declared “a national star of beauty”.

But it could also be said that her resilience and fearlessness in the most desperate and dangerous situations came from her mother; despite the best efforts of her daughter to persuade her otherwise, her mother stayed in Warsaw after the Nazi invasion, living outside the ghetto and teaching in a clandestine school, for both of which she could be executed on the spot, before being arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the notorious Pawiak prison where she is believed to have died.

In her twenties in the 1930s, frustrated by life with her first husband Granville became an expert skier spending a lot of time at the ski resort of Zakopane at the foothills of the Tatra Mountains on the Polish/Hungarian border, where, as Mulley writes, she “satisfied her need for excitement by dodging border patrols to smuggle cigarettes across the frontier into Poland”. This now appears a strangely prescient dress rehearsal. Because a few years later when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, by which stage she had married for a second time and was in Africa with her husband, she hurried to London and offered her services to the British SIS (MI6) who duly accepted her offer, and sent her to Hungary. From where she ran many missions skiing across the treacherous mountain ranges into Poland to lead British airmen to safety and also to compile and carry intelligence reports.

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming – it has been suggested that Fleming based the character of Vesper Lynd on Christine Granville

As a female agent working in the field for British intelligence from the outbreak of war she was very much a pioneer. Indeed it wasn’t until two years later that SOE, as Mulley writes, “was officially given the green light to recruit women for operational duties”. So Granville was very much a forerunner, paving the way for agents such as Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo.

Through six years of war Granville’s missions, adventures, and exploits, are as manifold as they are thrilling and fascinating to read about. From the challenging and treacherous mountains, to escaping Budapest in the boot of the British Legation’s official car, smuggling microfilm in her gloves, to mesmerising vicious guard dogs trained to kill to not only not give her and comrades away but also on one occasion to convince a Nazi Alsatian to swap sides permanently! From driving with her childhood friend, lover, and fellow SOE agent and Pole, Andrzej Kowerski, in his Opel Olympia overland from Yugoslavia to Egypt, often only one step ahead of the Nazis, to parachuting into occupied France, joining the Maquis at the Battle of Vercours, to saving another lover and SOE colleague, Francis Cammaerts, and two other fellow agents from the Gestapo HQ in Digne, France, just before they were about to be executed… and many, many more tales beside.

Throughout this time she also left a string of lovers in her wake, often to be picked up again whenever and wherever the circumstance presented itself. Mulley recounts that W. Stanley Moss described her as having a “‘mesmeric power'”, and that “her attractiveness lay in ‘a blend of vivacity, flirtatiousness, charm, and sheer personality… like a searchlight’ which when she chose could blind anyone in its beam.”

Sadly the last man to be blinded in this beam murdered her. The tragedy inherent in her death is compounded by the fact that as an agent on active service for British Intelligence from 1939-1945, she had survived six years often in theatres of war where the expected survival rate was six weeks, and also that had she lived into old age she would have witnessed the restitution of, and been able to return to, an independent Poland, her patriotism for which had always motivated her. Also she would have lived through a cultural shift and seen the beginnings of a world where empowered and independent women were ‘allowed’ to be so, not only during wartime, but in peace time too.

An Opel Olympia similar to that driven by

An Opel Olympia similar to that driven by Christine Granville and Andrzej Kowerski from Yugoslavia to Eygpt

For a women who was so empowered, so independent, and in many ways so ahead of her time, the fact that up until now her name has been allowed to be largely forgotten, especially in relation to Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo, is not because of her bravery but in many ways because of her beauty, the effect it had on men, and the many men who fell under her spell. Because in an extraordinary further twist to her life story following her tragic murder, an all-male ‘Panel to Protect the Memory of Christine Granville’ was set up by Kowerski, Cammaerts, and three other WWII friends and colleagues.  Over the years they successfully vetoed plans for biographies and films (including Moss’s mentioned at the beginning of this review), and only finally allowed the first biography to be published in 1975, but then with a content that very much presented the image of Granville that Kowerski wanted presented – purer than pure.

Nearly 40 years later, Mulley has been free to tell Granville’s full story, presenting the complete and remarkable woman in all her complexities. The Spy Who Loved is an extraordinary story exceptionally well told. Through her unstinting research for the book she has had access to a wealth of previously unseen archive material and also in meeting people who knew Granville and the families of those who knew her, in Britain, France, and Poland, holding items that belonged to her, and retracing the journeys she took and the places she knew, she has gained an intimate understanding of her subject which underscores the vitality and vividness of Mulley’s writing. Indeed her research process including being arrested by the Gestapo in Warsaw… during filming outside the flat she had been leant by the son of one of Granville’s close friends, to the green parrot that nuzzled the neck of one of her interviewees throughout their two hour interview, would also make a wonderful book in its own right. The Spy who Loved is thoroughly engaging, wonderfully considered, endlessly illuminating, and highly recommended.




Clare Mulley will be talking about Krystyna Skarbek/Christine Granville and reading from The Spy who Loved at the P-TCP Live Edition: Mustered No.6 on Thursday 30th May 2013 at The Betsey Trotwood, London EC1. For more details click here.

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Clare Mulley

Pan Macmillan

Book review: The Drowning Pool – Syd Moore


(Avon) Paperback: £6.99; ebook: £4.49

Reviewed by Dave Collins

Taking the codes and conventions of classic ghost stories and positioning them within a contemporary setting, Syd Moore’s debut novel, The Drowning Pool, is literally a tale of two dimensions. Sarah Grey, a young widowed mother, appears to be receiving signs, visions and visitations from the spirit of a long dead, although still unsettled, 19th century sea witch, also named Sarah Grey. But is it stress, illness or something genuinely supernatural that’s behind the hauntings?

The novel’s threads of historical wrong doings and teaser glimpses of horrors-to-follow have the long shadows of H. P. Lovecraft cast across them, while the serial style chapter closers draw on Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker, with the veil of local myths and mysteries stirring memories of Thomas  Hardy and The Withered Arm.

Bringing us into the present day, Sarah Gray and her network of female friends and family are a compact circle of extended sisterhood – almost an allusion to unwritten coven bonds for modern times – reclaiming the ‘Essex Girl’ image as an East Anglian archetype rather than a tangerine-tinted stereotype.

Taking its base, build and background from the area’s tradition of witchcraft, witch hunters and cunning men, keeps the fantasy rooted in reality but also brings a fresh perspective to the sexual politics of ‘Witchfinder General’, Matthew Hopkins’ 17th century hate crusades – particularly in Essex.

Like Hardy’s studies and sketches of ‘Wessex’, the book’s topographical map is also Syd Moore’s home town, Leigh on Sea, a Thames-side fishing village terraced between its neighbours, Hadleigh and Southend-on-Sea. If you are a Southender (or familiar with the area) you’ll click and connect with the micro-local references immediately. If not, you’ll want to visit and root around the town ticking off The Drowning Pool locations: Old Leigh, the Library Gardens, or St Peter’s Church, looking for sword marks on the Mary Ellis grave (yes, they really are there) and similar historical reminders of a hidden past.

One of the most accomplished debut novels I’ve read, The Drowning Pool’s now-wave narrative, historical story arcs and subtext of gender politics through the ages presents a fully formed, confidently voiced entrance into the world of fiction of any genre. With none of the style finding Bambi-steps and plot-wobbles that usually dilute the early works of established authors. It is a pitch-perfect read for a wild, wind-whipped, wintry evening. A black Jackanory, that at its ghostliest moments will trace a line of grave-cold fingernails down your spine, and one of the few books-at-bedtime that has genuinely given me a fidgety night’s sleep.

Tuesday 6th December 2011: Syd Moore will be in conversation with Dave Collins on the Radio Podrophenia programme on Chance Radio (
Listen live from 9pm or catch up with the programme after broadcast on iTunes.


In addition to being a regular contributor to both the webzine and print editions of Plectrum-The Cultural Pick, Dave Collins is editor of the blog, Planet Mondo, and also presents the programme, Radio Podrophenia, with co-host, Piley, on Chance Radio every Tuesday from 9pm. Following the live broadcast each episode of Radio Podrophenia is available on iTunes (search under, ‘Podrophenia’).


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Book Review: Everything Beautiful Began After – Simon Van Booy


(Beautiful Books) Hardback £15.99; ebook £12.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

At first one is struck by the sheer beauty of the words. Words that combine poetically and often with seemingly abstract imagery into sentences that feel like the most delicate threads that should be reread and savoured for their own protection. The story seems secondary to the desire to maintain the feeling they engender, but the only way to do that is to keep reading. In so doing, one is almost unaware of the degree to which one is being drawn into the narrative, so gently and sensuously do the sentences envelop one.

However, when tragedy befalls the characters half way through the book, following the anger one feels with Simon Van Booy for not only turning the lives of Rebecca, George, and Henry upside down, but also one’s own, realisation dawns as one picks up the book thrown to one side in an effort to break the skein in which he has enmeshed you, that he has you well and truly caught on the hook at the end of those threads. The desire to keep reading is underscored by the fear of how it would feel to go cold turkey at that point such is one’s addiction to the book. Thankfully, although sadness does remain, as the second half of the story unfolds, hope is restored so fully to both the characters and the reader, that like them one does feel better equipped to embrace the future.

Haunted by events in their childhoods, the three lost and lonely protagonists have come to Athens, Greece, from three different countries and ostensibly with three different intentions: French artist, Rebecca, to paint, American expert in ancient languages, George, to translate, and English archaeologist, Henry, to dig. As their lives intertwine, their love for, and dependency upon each other grows, and in the streets of modern Athens and amidst the ruins of Ancient Greece, to further that love they begin to excavate and make sense of their own pasts, ultimately creating the means for independence and redemption.

Van Booy’s debut novel wonderfully and exhilaratingly compounds the promise, talent, and acclaim inherent in his two collections of short stories, Love Begins in Winter (Beautiful Books, 2009), which won the 2009 Frank O’ Connor Short Story Award, and The Secret Lives of People in Love (Beautiful Books, 2010). Beautiful, innovative, devastating, delightful, Everything Beautiful Began After is everything and more.

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Book Review: The Novels of Simon Astaire: Private Privilege, And You Are…?, Mr Coles

(Each book published by Quartet Books)

Reviewed by Sam Burcher

Simon Astaire (c)Simon Astaire

Simon Astaire ©Simon Astaire

Simon Astaire’s loosely woven trilogy of novels is an attempt to free himself from his past and become a respected writer. No longer content to manage the lives of other people, he has come a long way from being the best friend of Sting, the squire of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Ulrika Jonsson, and the personal manager of Princess Michael of Kent.

By his own admission, Astaire began writing because his therapist suggested it after they hit upon the fact that he had been so emotionally unavailable in his relationships. This is something that he relates directly to the experience of being sent away from home at a very young age to Harrow School.

The first two books, Private Privilege, And You Are…?, are his rites of passage, whilst Mr Coles is an extension of that exploration and written with extraordinary darkness.


In Private Privilege, Astaire’s alma mater is thinly veiled as Montgomery House, and it is through this medium that I found myself vicariously returning to a world of Sunday exeats, black tails and boaters, and bumpy rides on the Metropolitan line to Harrow-on-the-Hill, on London’s outermost margins, for Speech Day.

Reading this book has helped me to understand what happened to my brother Julien during his time at Harrow, which was concurrent with the story told here.  Astaire’s peripatetic take has undoubtedly demystified some of my private perceptions of public school education.

The books central character Samuel Alexander, note the initials match the author’s, is sent away from home at 13 to begin a life at Montgomery House. From day one he is greeted with an oppressive regime of fagging, toshing, and bullying by older boys as the norm. Calculated acts of rebellion such as graffiti, theft, truancy, and drug taking intensify to arson and even suicide, all of which are hushed up by the school.

In empowering Sam in whichever ways he can against this dysfunctional backdrop, Astaire is giving a respectful nod to Lindsay Anderson’s powerful film, If, which is about a schoolboy lead revolution in a public school. From this forms surreal images of the shape shifting and shamanic psyche of a schoolboy torn from his roots and situated in a conditional culture where loneliness and abandonment reign and, fortunately, Matron is the only succor.

The task of raising public consciousness about the sticky subject of adolescent boys from an insider’s view of an ‘establishment’ institution is a tricky one. But the author manages it by using a literary camera obscura that allows him to entertain, whilst asking questions that go beyond mere survival.


Astaire’s second novel, And You Are…?, follows seamlessly and swiftly on the heels of Private Privilege. Sam, the central character, has graduated with dishonour from his emotionally deprived public school, and is ready and willing to face the challenges of young adulthood.

A former agent to stars, Astaire draws deeply on his own experience of Hollywood to entertain us.  He cleverly plays with time to measure just the right amount of reverie for the grand days of a Hollywood past to balance the book’s present.  Indeed, this mix of fact and fiction acts as a powerful stimulus to the reader’s imagination.

There are plenty of laughs, as well as an eclectic coterie of friends, acquaintances, a snake and Telly Savalas. On the other hand, the emotional darkness of the first novel remains. Only this time, the grief of a boy’s separation from everything that is familiar to him is disguised as the death of his older brother.  His grief finds company with the lonely Hollywood actors, who despite their fame, drink alone at the bar.  Perhaps no one is as lonely as the stars.

The second novel demands a second love affair, which comes in the form of the free-spirited February, who is the conduit for the author’s detailed and sensuous descriptions of nature.  She is the muse guiding the juxtaposition between the smog on the Scaletrix streets of Los Angeles and the scented forests high above the Hollywood hills. Such attention to the natural world would make the Pre-Raphaelites proud.

As I read this book one afternoon at Kentish Town station, I couldn’t help but notice a railway worker flapping a pretty grey and white pigeon off the opposite platform. After much wafting with the lid of a large cardboard box she succeeded.  I had just got to the part in the book where Sam is imagining his own death during lovemaking with his first love. I was reading about death, thinking about death and suddenly death was imminent. I looked up from my reading.

A shrill whistle meant that the worker had not finished tormenting the pigeon, which was now perched upon the track.  Its body convulsed with the electric current as the 18.30 to St Albans collided into it.  In one motion, the bird fell to its own little death and as the train departed there was no sign of it. I dared to believe that the pigeon had flown away like an angel, or a Magi. Then, from beyond the track, I saw a white wing rise once, twice, and then no more.  A railway worker looking on flashed me a cynical smile as he made towards the opposite platform with a pair of plastic litter pickers at the ready.

This book has strange ways of connecting with the reader through different mediums. As with the previous novel, music is used as a channel. So too is food, place and smell.  But it is the celebration and the tribulations of youth in search of identity that connect you to its core. Ultimately, Sam’s story is about the ambitions, with sensitive limits, of a boy who will not be broken by systems that don’t always care, be it the public school system, or Hollywood.


Mr Coles is Astaire’s third novel, published this year.  It picks up the theme of private school, this time from the perspective of a teacher in a boys’ prep school in Norfolk.  But this is no ordinary teacher; this is Mr Coles, pederast and fantasist. Written in the first person narrative it takes the reader intimately into the lurid depths of the daily machinations of an alcoholic child sexual abuser.

Lyrically beautiful, tighter and more multi-textural than the previous two novels, it is a compelling read rather than a comfortable one.  A book of two halves, we fast forward twenty years after Mr Coles has tricked the family of his most desired pupil into being invited to their summer retreat in Cannes, and is eventually found out. But who tells?

Comparisons can be made to Thomas Mann’s novella and film, Death in Venice.  However, Mr Coles is not merely a voyeur.  His sweaty desires are actualized and when not in the act, he is a lone predator prowling the dormitories sniffing the sheets of little boys.

The three novels demonstrate just how successful Astaire has been in his stated mission. All three books have enjoyed critical and commercial success. Private Privilege is a bestseller and Astaire has recently adapted Mr Coles into a screenplay for a film which begins shooting in Norfolk, in the East of England, early next year. He has also received a lot of feedback from Old Harrovians who similarly found it hard to commit to a relationship or communicate with their partners. Although equally, he has also heard from those who said their time at Harrow was very happy and the best start to life they could have had.

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Book Review: Surf Mama – Wilma Johnson


Paperback: (Summersdale) £8.99
Hardback: (Beautiful Books) £20.00

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

One could perhaps extrapolate that a defining formative moment for Wilma Johnson was the afternoon that she arrived late for a date with Joe Strummer, the legendary frontman of the equally legendary band, The Clash, to find he had already left and she never saw him again.

As she recounts in Surf Mama they had originally met in Camden Town, North London, whilst she was still a pupil at North London Collegiate School, when she chatted him up in a bar by asking, “‘Hello, are you Joe Strummer? Do you want to buy me a drink?'” To which, she writes, “‘I already have,’ he said with the coolest smile in the history of rock ‘n’ roll and handed me a can of Colt 45.” After which he would always put her on the guest list for gigs The Clash played, one of which coincided with her favourite day at school – the day she left! – when she hitchhiked to Aylesbury, a town to the north west of London, to see them.

Johnson had already begun her degree in Fine Art/Painting and Photography at St Martin’s School of Art in central London when Strummer took her out to lunch in nearby Soho and also bought her a present of some fabric from Berwick Street market. They arranged to meet the next day to go to an afternoon rockabilly gig, but she got stuck in a photography lecture and arrived late to find the gig had been cancelled and Strummer had left, and was heading off on tour soon after.


The what-might-have-been has stayed with her, and continued to irk her, and one could make the case that the lesson she learnt by staying in lessons that day and conforming to a timetable placed upon her, and by extension conforming to what external powers would consider the best choice for a girl at her age and stage, to put classes before “a date with my favourite rock star”, was a lesson hard learnt. Particularly brought to bear twenty plus years later when she had turned forty and was living the life of a self-professed “earth mother” with her husband, three young children, and ducks, on the west coast of Ireland. One day looking out to sea on the “westernmost beach in Europe” reflecting on her long held desire to be a surfer, she edged into the initially comforting thought that now being a woman, a mother, and over 40, no one would expect her ever to do so, and admitting to herself that no one had probably expected she would, or could, anyway.

But her comfort was immediately submerged, as she writes, “as if an icy wave has crashed over my head. What does this mean? That I will never learn to surf? That it’s too late? That I’m too old?” She resurfaced with the revelation that she did still want to become a surfer and a voice in her head repelling the dictates of convention with ever greater force: “‘NONONONONONO!’ the voice shouts. ‘I cannot be too old, I will become an extreme sports heroine if I choose to.'”

Though I am wary of underplaying the power of Strummer, and The Clash per se, challenging convention was in Johnson’s blood long before she met him. Her motorcycle riding grandmother was one of the first women dentists in the 1920s, and when she was growing up her economist, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, father would “wander around the house in a kimono at the weekends singing along to the soundtrack of The Jungle Book”, and took up windsurfing in his fifties. Equally, after Strummer’s departure from her life, Johnson turned away from punk to New Romanticism, of which her generation of St Martin’s students was the epicentre, and also, with Christine and Jennifer Binnie and Grayson Perry, in 1979 she founded the Neo-Naturist Cabaret, a ‘performance based live art practice’, whose idiosyncratic, body-painted, naturism took night clubs, galleries, festivals, public places, and even the stage of London’s Royal Opera House by storm.

Apres Surf at the Naturist Beach © Wilma Johnson

Après Surf at the Naturist Beach © Wilma Johnson

All of which, to my mind at least, creates an eccentrically perfect set of ingredients for not only taking up surfing in one’s early-forties, but also becoming an accomplished surfer! Although the ingredients did not begin to really blend until a few years after her epiphanic moment on the Irish beach, by which stage she and her husband had split up and she was living with her children in a village near Biarritz, the Atlantic coast city in south western France, which has become internationally renowned for surfing since the late 1950s. In addition to her own determination not to be beaten, Johnson’s surf chefs de cuisine came in the form of two friends she made in Biarritz, Johanna Matsson, a former professional free-skier, with whom she hatched a plan to form the Mamas Surf Club, a women-only surf club with the motto, ‘Out of the kitchen and into the surf’, and Matsson’s partner, Christophe Reinhardt, a former French surf champion, who became the Mamas’ instructor.

Now in her fifties Johnson is more than an accomplished surfer, she is a “surf addict”, her blood does more than stream, it crests with waves:
“I paddle down the face, then I stand up as the board becomes weightless and starts to accelerate. I can hear the white water breaking behind me and see the glassy blue curve stretching out in front of me. The spray blows into my face, flickering with prisms in the sunlight. In a moment I might be underwater swallowing seawater and small jellyfish, but right now I am an ancient princess of Hawaii, I am a bikini model, I am a goddess before the crest of a monster billow.”

Surf Mama is an exceptional memoir. Exceptional both in the story told and the storytelling. Exciting, funny, touching, revelatory, so completely does Johnson draw one in that one gets knocked for six when she wipes out, one dances for joy when she eventually hangs ten. Equally in all the exceptionality, in all Johnson’s brilliant upending of age and gender proscriptions and stereotyping, Surf Mama is a tale to which everyone can relate and take inspiration from. Because it is also a book about love and family, dreams and ambitions, and how one responds to, or more appropriately, rides the waves of, the changes that getting older brings to them all. Surf Mama is also a beautifully produced book, the publishers, Beautiful Books, very much living up to their name; the text is complemented and interspersed throughout with Johnsons’ wonderfully evocative paintings… writer, surfer, mother, she is also an internationally exhibited artist. Ultimately, Surf Mama is an highly inspiring, thoroughly enjoyable, and heartily recommended book.

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Book Review: A Taste of Chlorine by Bastien Vivès


(Jonathan Cape) £16.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

Originally published in France in 2008, A Taste of Chlorine won the prestigious Essential Révélation prize, awarded to the most outstanding new talent, the following year at the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée d’Angoulême, Europe’s largest festival of graphic novels and comic book art held every January in the town in south west France. At the time Bastien Vivès was just short of his 26th birthday and the book was his third published work. All of which adds another layer to the accomplishment of this beautifully realised book.

Finally giving in to the repeated requests of his chiropractor to take up swimming, a teenage boy, suffering from curvature of the spine, begins going to his local pool every Wednesday. At first he finds not only the exercise hard going but also the environment to be just as hard, cold, anonymous, and uninviting. But then he meets an enigmatic, pretty girl, whose Arena swimwear, he rightly deduces, signifies that she has been a competitive swimmer. Their friendship develops hebdomadally, with few words, predominantly through touch and demonstration as she helps him improve his swimming technique. As they get closer and his prowess increases, so the swimming pool becomes a softer, more intimate space, with the other users fading into the background.


But when he seeks to find out more about his muse, she is evasive to his questions, finally mouthing something to him underwater, which she promises to elucidate the following week, only to then not show up that week, or the week after…

A Taste of Chlorine is a wonderfully engrossing book, with few words, Vivès’ artwork, in ripple-edged frames and a muted palette, predominantly of aquamarine, draws one in, almost imperceptibly until, in parallel to the closing underwater scenes, one finds one has become completely submerged by the characters and their simple story beautifully told. And, like the boy, completely desirous to know more about the girl and as desperate to decipher what exactly it is she said underwater.

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Book Review: The Hardy Tree, A Story About Gang Mentality – Iphgenia Baal


(Trolley Books) £14.99

Reviewed by Delisia Howard and Chris Price

We really like this book… It’s a wild and poetic history which, while hanging on by white knuckles to the facts, stirs up a dark potion rushing through the stygian channels of London – the ragamuffin gangs of ne’er-do-wells and resurrection men, Coney catchers and bawdy bastards. The book itself, beautifully produced, is stained by a ‘dish o’ tay’ thrown in the mists of time, seeping into the type like unconscious memory. There are also very nice pictures, well-spaced and by human hand.

Baal touches the dead hand of Hardy as a young man working for the railway as an engineer, moving the rotting dead cadavers from the St Pancras bone yard, with the help of Jerry Cruncher look-alikes and gin and porter soaked navigators, and the gilded dustman admires his seething heaps against the fire of a Mad Martin sunset. Magically their stones are girt around a huge tree like a ruff on a Danish Lutheran proclaiming the Day of Wrath.

Hardy’s dark world – the whispering Egdon Heath, the hanged children in Jude, his miskatonick Fates weaving their cold logic as it guides lost souls to destruction from Casterbridge to Christminster – this book explains it all.

When St Augustine preached from old St Pancras Church, the Angles had already been identified as angels in their chains, with golden hair and milk white skin… The pale kings and princes too stalk this marvelous place… All England stretched out on a once rural hillock…  Here lay Bristol’s Marvelous Boy, Chatterton, leaping out of a sarcophagus months before expiring in that lonely attic in Brooke’s Market, Holborn, a small blue vial and a fragment of forged Saxon verse falling from his 17 year old hand…   Here reigns, in his Portland stone telephone box, Sir John Soane, dreaming of a London in ruins, the ragged manacled gates of Newgate opened at last… Blake and Fuseli chatting to Augustine’s angels and Charles Dickens summoning up the marsh gas as it rises above the image of a man with a spade…

Iphgenia Baal has created a spectacular panorama, a thrilling breath of fresh air, crackling with life, as well crafted as a Flaxman bas-relief, even if it is about the lives of the dead…

Read Delisia Howard and Chris Price’s regular column in the print edition of Plectrum – The Cultural Pick.

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Book Review: Haunted Air A Collection of Anonymous Hallowe’en Photographs, America c.1875 – 1955 – Ossian Brown

With an introduction by David Lynch and an afterword by Geoff Cox
(Jonathan Cape) £25.00

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams

‘The one that scares you is Donnie,’ is the smudged, handwritten annotation on the deckle edge mount of the fading photograph of three boys, of different ages, perhaps brothers, playing on the swings in the yard of a weather-boarded, municipal looking building. From the clothes and the hairstyles it is probably the 1950s, though it might be ten, or even 20 years earlier. The youngest of the trio wears a grotesque mask which makes his head look out of proportion to his body. As do the handmade, decorated, grocery bag masks, with cut out eye- and mouth holes, over the heads of five little girls, photographed against the white weather-boarded side of a school or church or court house, wearing their best dresses and shoes, the stockings of each wrinkled at the knee. Maybe it’s these juxtapositions and the allusion to executioners’ hoods, belied or perhaps reinforced by their homemade-ness, but to appropriate the opening line of this paragraph, it is these butter wouldn’t melt girls of the scaffold that scare me.

All manner of costumes are here, from the expected witches and their black cat familiars, ghosts and skeletons, to pierrots, policemen, and a woman with dress intriguingly decorated with spoons and the legend, ‘won’t you come spoon with me’ emblazoned on her chest, all made gruesome with the addition of a mask.

Photograph from Haunted Air by Ossian Brown (Jonathan Cape)

Photograph from Haunted Air by Ossian Brown (Jonathan Cape)

Like the contradictory emotions of autumn leaves that bring fun and satisfaction when walked or run through, but also sadness that after a blaze of glory they are detached from the tree that bore, often to be thrown into the blaze of a bonfire, leafing through the pages of Haunted Air brings a mixture of fun, fascination, and melancholy. As Geoff Cox recounts in his afterword, the photographs in Ossian Brown’s collection were “torn from album pages, sold piecemeal for pennies and scattered, abandoned to melancholy chance and the hands of strangers.” These costumed portrayers  of lost souls are now lost themselves, the hands that took the photographs now as anonymous as the subjects, detached from the family trees that bore them. But in this beautifully designed, cloth bound book, Ossian Brown has restored them to an album that not only celebrates these celebrants, but also provides an invaluable record of cultural traditions and photographic history.


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Book Review: Or Glory 21st Century Rockers – Horst A. Friedrichs

(Prestel) £19.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams or-glory-cover

Throughout the pages of Horst A. Friedrichs’ photographic exploration of the Rocker subculture in the first decade of the new century, there are some wonderfully evocative juxtapositions created by the images on facing pages. One of which that particularly stands out for me is the pairing of the photographs of Kenneth, taken at The Pavilion in 2009, and Sammi at Rhythm Riot, the annual 1950s music, dancing and vintage lifestyle weekender at Pontin’s Holiday Camp at Camber Sands, also in 2009. Kenneth has a Marlboro Man look about him, his face weather-beaten and etched with the lines of many miles in the saddle, though his steeds have been two-wheeled and resonantly British marques – Royal Enfield, BSA, Norton, Triumph, and the hybrid Triton. His hair though grey and thining, is still quiffed, his sideburns long. From his lips hangs not a mass produced cigarette but a roll-up, over the fraying collar of his faded denim jacket. Rendered in grainy halftone, his portrait contrasts strikingly with the high colour, glossy image of Sammi. She is a beautiful pin-up girl with an edge, very much in the manner of an Angelique Houtkamp heroine. Everything about her is flawless and immaculate, from her curled under Bettie Page bangs, pencilled eyebrows, long, long eyelashes, and red, red lips, to her high waisted indigo denims, and short sleeved black and white striped top, showing off her Houtkamp-style tattoos.

Sammi at Rhythm Riot ©Horst A. Friedrichs

Sammi at Rhythm Riot ©Horst A. Friedrichs

The juxtaposition is both aesthetically striking and also encapsulates the strands that run through Or Glory. Though Friedrichs took all the photographs between 2001 and 2010, in the faces, the places, the clothes, and the motorcycles (to say nothing of the music that you’ll swear you can hear as you turn the pages), is the progression of a subculture from the Ton-Up Boys of the 1950s, to the Rockers of the 1960s, which then proliferated via a myriad of black leather rebel stances through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and now in the 2000s, as Friedrichs documents, crosses over with the wide breadth of the Rockin’, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s Vintage Lifestyle, Kustom Kulture, and Burlesque, scenes, and more besides. But be they 59 club veterans, or new converts from around the world, at the core of the Rocker subculture remain the British motorcyles, the ‘A’ road landmarks of the Ace Café (lovingly restored by Mark Willsmore, who is interviewed in the book) and Jack’s Hill Café, and the Lewis Leathers jackets, which from studded, painted, bedecked in badges, and battle worn through to pristine, the pages Or Glory inherently portray 60 years of history of this iconic 118 year old British company, the owner of which, Derek Harris, is also interviewed in the book. Or Glory presents a multi-layered visual narrative that is as fascinating as it is stunning to look at.


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Book Review: Members Only The Life and Times of Paul Raymond – Paul Willetts

(Serpent’s Tail) £14.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams


In 1949, whilst running a lottery machine on the pier at Clacton-on-Sea, in eastern England, the 24 year old Anthony Quinn met a man working at a nearby funfair who had once been part of a variety mind-reading double act. After paying the man £25 for a trunk full of all the prerequisites of the act, Quinn changed his name to Paul Raymond, employed a female assistant, and took the act on the road as, The Modern Man of Mystery. Though he struggled to find bookings as a mind-reader, his purchase of the act and his name change foretold the career that was to follow for Raymond, in which he demonstrated an high level of prescience in his acquisitions, in judging the zeitgeist, and in always giving, as he maintained, “the public what it wants, not what I think it should have.”

The die was further cast, when in 1951, seeking bookings for a follow up to a successful touring variety show he had produced the year before, having moved to London and moved from performer to producer, Raymond was told by the manager of the Queen’s Park Hippodrome in Manchester, that he would only book the act if  it contained a nude act. Rather than lose the booking, Raymond offered the two tap dancers he had already taken on for the show an
extra ten shillings if they agreed to pose topless.

Seven years later in London’s Soho Raymond opened the Raymond Revuebar, the strip club which, with its ‘Festival of Erotica’, was set to become internationally famous, and over the 45 years (40 of which with Raymond at the helm) it was open its famous neon sign became a London landmark. Fittingly, given Raymond’s first foray into a theatrical career, The Beatles filmed a segment of the Magical Mystery Tour at the Revuebar, and during its heyday the venue attracted a famous and infamous clientele, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Peter Sellers, and The Krays.

The success of the Revuebar quickly afforded Raymond the opportunity to not only buy the premises but also other venues, such as theatres, along the way becoming a successful theatrical impresario, and in 1971 in buying and turning around the fortunes of the ailing top shelf magazine, Men Only, adding a highly profitable pornography publishing business to his portfolio of companies. Astutely, throughout his career, Raymond used the lion’s share of his the profits he made to invest in property. Most notably buying up the freeholds to large parts of Soho when very few other people could see the worth of the area. Though his property holdings also spread to commercial properties in Chelsea, Kensington, Notting Hill, and Hampstead. The value of which was underlined three years before his death in 2008, when Forbes magazine listed him at number 13 in their list of British billionaires.

But such a placing only tells of the glitter, and unsurprisingly for a career that a large part of which was based in pushing at the boundaries of what was legal, a career which had nightlife as its epicentre, not only is ‘all human life here’ (as the News of the World advertising slogan used to have it) in Willetts’ fascinating biography, but also quite literally a lifetime of trials and tribulations. Not only as a result of his near constant monitoring in the first few decades of his career firstly by the Clubs Office of the Metropolitan Police, and then by
Obscene Publications Squad (which would itself be the subject of a widespread corruption investigation), but also via libel cases and as the target of an extraordinary extortion campaign. His personal life was similarly riven with complexities, that lead him to be largely estranged from his extended family. Save for his daughter and protégé, Debbie, whose death at the age of only 37
in 1992, engendered him to lead an increasingly reclusive life until his own death at the age of 82.

Through his assiduous research for Members Only, Willetts interviewed friends, relatives, acquaintances, and employees of Raymond, and a number of former Metropolitan police officers, amongst this roster, even now, intriguingly there  are many who would only agree to talk if Willetts undertook to preserve their anonymity. His printed sources also include many documents only just released under the Freedom of Information Act, including witness statements, police files, and the transcripts of telephone taps. All of which he has marshalled to present a very balanced, fascinating and richly evocative insight both into Raymond’s life and the changing face of a notorious square mile of London’s West End which has mirrored the nation’s changing views towards sex and pornography over the last half century.


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