No Acting Experience Needed

My week of faking it as an Actor on the professional stage

After having taught An Inspector Calls as a GCSE set text for more years than I care to remember, the chance of appearing in a professional production of it was too good an opportunity to turn down. And not just any production. This was the legendary Steven Daldry production, which had improbably revived an old creaking classic when it first burst onto the scene at The National Theatre in 1992. The play had been steadily falling out favour as an exam text, despite its many qualities. In stock cupboards of English Departments all over the country, dog eared copies of the play were left gathering dust. The main problem was that it is, essentially, a very wordy play. Not much happens. It takes place largely in one room, where various people tell their story under interrogation from the mysterious police man, Inspector Goole. It’s the ultimate example of tell not show. The drama of Eva Smith’s tragic suicide is conveyed at a distance via the relentless question and answer technique of Goole. This is usually resolved in TV and Film versions by setting up a series of flashbacks, with an actress playing the role Eva Smith, despite the fact that the play makes it clear that the stories the characters tell concern several young vulnerable women, not one.

The Daldry production takes a radically different approach, honouring the text, and using, instead of flashbacks, scenery to ramp up the drama, and to underline the contemporary relevance. The ingenious collapsing house becomes a powerful metaphor for the collapse,  not only of the cosy successful upper middle class world of the Birlings, but also of a society whose structures are rigged against the poor and the dispossessed.

Having ossified into a wordy exam text, at a stroke Daldry transformed it back into a drama that thrillingly presents issues of fairness, poverty, and class divisions in a vital and engaging way for audiences, not readers. For English teachers it has another compelling quality. It’s virtually the only time in a philistine curriculum, when fifteen year olds learn about politics: parties, ideology, structures of government. As a result,  they also learn that boring old politics, despite what they are encouraged to think, produces significant material effects on everybody’s life. Your vote does make a difference.

Its relevance today is unmistakeable, when we have a government that is shockingly cruel, both by design and by outcome, to some carefully selected scapegoats. It’s impossible to sit through the Inspector’s last speech in the play without immediately thinking of our current shambolic set of charlatans who still cling to power. If they cling on for a further term, don’t be surprised to see it removed from exam specs. And in the Gradgrind world of the Tories, if it’s not examined, it may as well not exist.

So when I was sent a copy of the Facebook page of The Churchill theatre in Bromley, just round the corner from where I live, with a notice asking for “Community Volunteers” to take part in their forthcoming production of the play, I was intrigued. Reading it more closely, there was one detail that was the clincher: No Acting Experience needed. That was a selection criteria that I definitely met. Apart from a much talked about role as Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, in a school staff/student Christmas  show, my last performance had been as a tree in my primary school nativity play. It was a role I reprised for several years for Hackney Red Star and then Acacia Dynamo, on the Marshes and Clapham Common, as a willing but limited Sunday League centre forward.

I emailed Charlotte Peters, the Company Director, and then promptly forgot all about it. And then, a couple of weeks later, the invite to take part was received. This provoked a strange mixture of regret, excitement and fear, all of which were in evidence when, as instructed, I made my way to the Stage Door of the Churchill Theatre in Bromley.

It’s a little embarrassing to report that that instruction seemed impossibly glamorous to me, a stranger to the world of theatre. The Stage Door! And even if the Stage Door at The Churchill is hidden in a nest of scaffolding and decay, it was still a thrill. The fact that we (the Community Company) were due to be taken through our part at about 3 pm on Tuesday afternoon and the first performance proper was at 7.30pm the same day, stoked all three emotions afresh. 

The Community Volunteers (left): Thomas, Rosie, Giselle, Peter, Colin, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Asti and Hugh

There were eight of us in the Community Volunteer group, and our role was principally to gather on stage in a cloud of dry ice to sit in judgement on The Birlings as The Inspector reached the climax of his investigation. This was done by taking our positions on stage, then, on cue, taking a threatening half step forward.

For all of our time on stage we were to be stony faced, staring into the middle distance. Then, we were to turn and walk off ahead of the Inspectors exit in the famous scene where the ingenious Birling House literally collapses on stage in a cacophony of fireworks, bangs and flashing lights. We stare at this spectacle over our shoulder, before leaving the stage.

The whole thing took about fifteen minutes. Sounds pretty simple, right? Wrong! In that fifteen minutes of hard-faced staring, one is left in stark isolation under the lights, in front of an audience, contemplating all manner of things to do with the workings  of the human body. An itch on one’s nose. Cramp in one’s left leg. Cramp in one’s right leg. The first, frightening tickle of the beginning of an explosive cough. A tiny belch. A runny nose. Hold that fart in. The palpitations of the heart and laboured breathing that in your fevered, overworked imagination, are clearly the start of cardiac arrest. Actors have died on stage, haven’t they? And then one’s thoughts are overloaded with the practicalities of managing a heart attack on stage, such that you miss the cue to begin your exit turn.

The walk back to the dressing room after successfully getting away with it on stage is a heady cocktail of euphoria and relief. We gathered together downstairs for a 15 minute wait before going back on stage for our curtain call. For three or four of us, there was an additional scene where they investigated the ruined house, but clearly, the criteria for selection for this onerous task was to be young and pretty. (and less than 6 feet 4 inches tall so you could comfortably navigate your way around a crowded space). That left me, a reject along with 3 other losers, to assemble on one side of the stage to take the applause. Sounds pretty simple, but we had to maintain our stony judgemental faces, when every human instinct is to smile in recognition of the audience’s acclaim. Impassive silence is not as easy as Buster Keaton makes it seem!

Well, we spent an awful lot of time together. The role involves an enormous amount of hanging around in the dressing room, so it was very important that we all got on. It would have been disappointing if we had just retreated into the world of social media on our phones for hours at a time. We did do a lot of that as well, but there was a lot of chat and a lot of laughs.

Mobile Phones and the Art of Conversation, above

We did this for 8 performances over 5 days. It was a strangely exhausting week, notwithstanding the fact that, really, we did very little. If it was acting at all, it was definitely the Robert Mitchum version of acting – walk on and point your suit at the audience. But it was a fascinating, thrilling experience, and I finished the week with a huge sense of respect for the skill, teamwork and professionalism that underpins putting on a quality production such as this. That judgement is reserved for the professionals we worked with, but what of the other Community volunteers?

The other people were fascinating. The 8 divided into various groups. First the Young Ones – Rosie and Thomas, who were Front of house staff at the theatre, relishing getting back stage and on stage. Rosie did a great impersonation of an air stewardess in her costume and organised several attempts to get us to do a Tik Tok dance routine. Thomas took great pleasure in mimicking the main players in the cast and took particular delight in honing his Scottish accent to perfection. He was also responsible for most of the photographs.

Then came the AmDram squad, led by the extraordinary Hugh, aged 81, who reckoned he had done about 1500 performances as a Community Volunteer, and who was also a veteran of amdram productions going back years, to the silent movie days. (OK, not quite) Peter and Colin were also heavily involved in amateur productions, with Peter a leading light of the Bromley Little Theatre (Licensee, actor and set builder).

Then we had Giselle, a professionally trained ballet dancer and teacher, whose day job was as CEO of Darcey Bussell’s dance fitness brand, DDMIX. She had boundless energy and would often fit in classes or other work commitments even in days when we had two performances. Finally, there was Asti, who, in between stories about the ABBA hologram gig she attended during the run, brought her laptop into the dressing room, to keep on top of her, remote, day job. In discussion, it quickly became clear that there were no shows or plays of note in London’s Glittering West End that she hadn’t been to.

The Community Volunteers ( minus Asti who was partying with Abba that night) above, right.

In comparison to the others, as far as the theatre world was concerned, I wasn’t even a rank amateur, I was nowhere. I concluded that the only reason I got the gig was because I was retired and available, I lived a 5 minute bus ride away, and I knew the play inside out, having taught it for thirty years or more. To their credit, the others tolerated me and my pretensions to write a novel set in a provincial theatre, (Coming, but not soon, “Exit Stage Left”) and responded patiently to all of my rather obvious questions that were from the box labelled “background research”.

The chat ranged far and wide over topics that included:

  • Lower league football teams – Middlesbrough, Plymouth, QPR. Also Crystal Palace – yes, I know, they’re not lower league yet, but they soon will be. (sorry Colin, but simetimes you have to be cruel to be kind)
  • TikTok and what it’s like to have 500,000 followers
  • Superhero Comic Conventions
  • The history and origins of the Little Theatre movement
  • Agatha Christie and rescuing her reputation as a Playwright
  • The importance of having an expensive lightsabre
  • Jim Davidson and the importance of not being rude and offensive
  • Where to get the best Hot Cross Buns
  • Modern theatre audiences drunkenly abusing theatre staff
  • The Police Force and institutional Misogyny and Racism
  • Stage Fright
  • Where to get hold of cheap theatre tickets
  • Telly: Gold, Succession, Happy Valley, White Lotus
  • The relative merits of Greggs, Pret and the local Greasy Spoon
  • A guided tour of great performances we have given. (I was very quiet during these particular conversations, which happened approximately every five minutes. There’s nothing that actors, particularly amateurs, I suspect, like better than talking about their greatest performances of all time. Colin even brought his script for his latest play, so that he could learn his lines. What a trouper!
Back to the Professionals

We were looked after for the week by Philip Stewart, who took us through the choreography of our scene, and checked in on us throughout each day to make sure we were alright. His main role was as the understudy for Mr Birling. Luckily, we got to see him perform the role in one matinee towards the end of the run. Like everyone else, he was excellent in the role: authoritative and convincing as a self-made, blinkered Capitalist. Birling is someone who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps to make something of himself and can’t see why all those who bleat about poverty can’t do the same. It’s hard to overstate how difficult being an understudy must be. They have to know the part inside out, and have the confidence to step in at a moment’s notice without it showing. Phil epitomised this – he appeared to have been doing the role for the whole of the run. The Company Stage Manager, Brad Fitt, was also very welcoming and helpful, making sure we got loads of photos of our experience.

Because we were onstage for only one scene, we got to know it inside out, and it was fascinating to see how the actors, individually and as an ensemble, varied it from night to night. We witnessed the Inspector’s interrogation of Eric, the young wayward son of Mr Birling, leading to the collapse of the family’s smug, pompous self confidence in a terrible physical confrontation between Eric and his mother, before his father smashes the whiskey tantalus, hits Eric and throws him to the ground. Eric was played by George Rowlands, a young actor in one of his first roles. We were privileged to watch him do this scene so close up. He changed it slightly every performance, but each one was as intense as the last. He’s got a big future, I think.

I’m sure all of the other actors were brilliant as well, it’s just that we didn’t see as much of them. We didn’t see the Gerald Croft character on stage at all, because of the structure of the play. Sorry, Simon!

I must confess that one of my concerns before the first day was how we would fit in with the professionals. I had a very stereotypical view of how that was going to go, assuming that we wouldn’t even register a flicker on the actors’ radar. After all, they had been together since August, and they see a new group of volunteers from the community every week. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if they had regally blanked us all.  Nothing could be further from the truth. They were all extremely friendly and welcoming, and did everything they could to put us at our ease. 

We (the community volunteers) were all struck by how much the audience communicate with the actors on stage, and how much they play a part, differently, in every performance. For the Am Dram crew, this was nothing new, but for the rest of us, it added a whole new dimension to the experience. I imagine we’re all familiar with the concept of a “Good House” or a “Good audience”, but to experience the reality of that was something else. During the matinees, and the evening performances to a lesser extent, in the first few days of the run, school parties, full of GCSE students and their hard pressed teachers, dominated.

For the kids, particularly in the matinees, this was as much an escape from the drudgery at school as it was a theatrical experience. And it was an experience they were determined to enjoy. They whooped! They cheered! They groaned! They showed their approval or disapproval of each character as they all told their stories.

As an ex English teacher with many such trips under my belt, this brought back many memories, some of them uncomfortable. Before we used to take a school group to the theatre, we would spend a lesson briefing them on theatre audience etiquette, emphasising that a trip to the theatre was not the same as going to the cinema, with its noisy, continual eating, and discussing the film (at best) or their social life (at worst). It wouldn’t have been fair to put them in an unfamiliar situation and expect them, instinctively to know how to behave. Even with the briefing, group hysteria and peer pressure would often take over, and we were left fielding disapproving looks and comments from all of the card carrying members of the Young People Today Are Awful Brigade. There were a few of them in attendance at The Churchill, several of them haranguing the box office staff for a refund because they were surrounded by kids. How terrible for them.

So, there were times when I winced at inappropriate laughter, chat, or whooping. But then, as the run went into Friday and Saturday, when the serious local theatre buffs attend, I began to long for some evidence of the audience’s engagement with the play. At moments of high drama, moments when the student-dominated audiences would gasp or groan or cheer, from the respectable burghers of Bromley, there was nothing. And on stage, even as a high class bollard, that was strangely deflating. For the principal actors, it must have felt like being ignored – chatting to someone at a party when you notice they are more interested in looking over your shoulder for someone more interesting. Not that that’s ever happened to me, you understand.

I was struck by the gruelling nature of life on the road for a jobbing actor. For the principal characters in particular, doing two performances a day must be physically very demanding. They’ve been doing this run since September, criss crossing the country, changing locations every week. Living in digs away from one’s family, only getting back for a break for a day every now and again – this is not an easy life. Nor a glamorous one.

Backstage, celebrating our glittering success (above right)

As a tiny example, at the end of the last performance on Saturday evening, the thing I was really looking forward to about the return to normal life was the opportunity to eat something vaguely green in colour. A salad leaf. A broccoli stem. A green bean. Even a frozen pea would have been welcome. An unvarying diet of sugar/grease sludge, snatched between performances in a high street chain is not good for you, particularly when combined with a visit to the pub every night. I had expected the actors and crew to conform to the stereotype of the wild thespian troubadors, out on the lash every night in a carnival of excess, but in fact, they were disappointingly sober and professional. Probably why they were all so good at their jobs, on reflection. Or perhaps they just went, sneakily, to a different pub, away from the Hoi Palloi. Hmm.

I was also fascinated by the innards of a professional theatre. Going through the stage door, and making one’s way down the stairs into the bowels of the theatre was real thrill. There was a warren of dressing rooms and ancillary rooms: rehearsal spaces, the wardrobe and laundry area, kitchen, the Company Stage Manager’s office, the Green room. I thought of all the great names that might have occupied the same rooms over the years. And Jim Davidson.

The wings and back stage were another mysterious area, full of shadowy experts silently going about their business to knit the production together. I was particularly struck by the member of the Company (don’t know if it was the DSM or ASM) following each performance on a monitor, in front of a Star Trek dashboard of knobs and controls, issuing instructions to the crew: “Open the house, please”.She was also the person who summoned us from the dressing room to the wings to be ready for our cue.

The strange world of “Back Stage” (above)

Overall, it was a wonderful, memorable experience, one I’ll never forget. It was the sort of thing that retirement, as a second playtime, was designed for. If only I’d followed up that performance as a tree in the Primary Nativity play, all those years ago, things could have been very different.

Me on set, a strange hybrid of a Tree and a Bollard

Lessons in Chemistry

Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel in “surprisingly good” shock

When I was thinking about this review, I searched for something from the professionals, and came across this, from Stephanie Merrit in The Guardian. Merrit is the real name of the very fabulous S J Parris, writer of the Bruno Giordano historical detective thrillers. And just like in those books, she is right on the money regarding this new novel from Bonnie Garmus. This is how she starts her review:

Every now and again, a first novel appears in a flurry of hype and big-name TV deals, and before the end of the first chapter you do a little air-punch because for once it’s all completely justified. Lessons in Chemistry, by former copywriter Bonnie Garmus, is that rare beast; a polished, funny, thought-provoking story, wearing its research lightly but confidently, and with sentences so stylishly turned it’s hard to believe it’s a debut.”

She’s exactly right. I started the book, primed and ready to savour its shortcomings. Not, I hasten to add, because I’m that kind of sour, narrow minded, mean spirited kind of person, you understand. No, simply because it’s an experience so common that it becomes an expectation. A couple of times a year, at least, a book rockets into the Literary Heavens, seemingly out of nowhere, and becomes the “Next Big Thing”. It’s endlessly tweeted about, suddenly all the weekend papers are splashing interviews with the author, and, in a sure fire sign that this is a genuine publishing phenomenon, it gets traction in mass market publications. The writer appears on the One Show, it’s featured in Hello! Magazine, and lo and behold, Reece Witherspoon has bought the rights and is making a 5 part mini series that can only be seen via some new streaming platform that requires you to take out yet another £9.99 monthly subscription.

I often read these literary meteors while they are still burning brightly. This is partly out of an interest in the Literary world in general, partly in an attempt to discern what the secret is to writing a best seller (though to be honest, I’d be happy with finding what the secret is to writing anything that other people – that’s people I don’t know, personally or professionally- might quite like. Maybe even read to the end of, one day. Well, one can dream.) And almost always, the result is the same. The book stinks.

OK, that’s a little harsh. Stinks is maybe pushing it. How about, the book is a little dull. A little obvious. A little lowest common denominator. A little, a book written for people who don’t really like books, in the same way that Ed Sheeran writes music for people who don’t really like music. Stop it. I’m just being deliberately waspish now. It is a weakness of mine. I often give into it and write damning reviews of these meretricious page turners, sarcastic and withering, condescending and judgemental by turns. 

This has become so common, I was beginning to fear it was indicative, not of falling standards in the literary world, but of a propensity to clever cleverness on my part. Not wanting to be perceived as being a part of the common herd, who fall for any old rubbish as long as it’s being featured in the media. These lumpen members of the herd are incapable of forming an independent opinion of their own, having such atrophied powers of analysis and comparison that they can never step out from the pack and say what they think before checking it against the approved opinion. Was I just signalling my own credibility as a cultural consumer by automatically damning the latest literary blockbuster without even reading it?

Still from forthcoming Apple TV adaptation, above right

With all of this in mind, it’s a relief and a pleasure to report that I can fear no more. It’s official – this is A Good Book. By the end, admittedly, it’s flaws have become more obvious, but the opening is so convincing, so welcoming, so right, that one forgives even the most jarring of errors that emerge as the story unfolds. Set in the dark ages of the early sixties, when the USA, outside of New York and San Francisco,  was a stultifying, homogenous sludge of conformity. The promised land if you were male, white and Christian. A treadmill of lowered expectations and domestic thraldom if not. Particularly for women. And it’s that group who the book is primarily concerned with, via a series of likeable characters who the reader is rooting for right from the get go. The obstacles faced by the protagonist, the intelligent, resourceful, attractive career woman, Elizabeth Zott, are petty, ubiquitous and insuperable. It seems barely credible to our twenty first century eyes that such talent was so routinely and unthinkingly suppressed. Of course, we know the story. We know the progress that has been made. But it still has the power to shock and disturb when we see it dramatically presented through the operations of a woman we instinctively warm to.

So the setting, characters, relationships, plot and themes all tick boxes. This is a book that, from the beginning, enlists our sympathy and support. But often, even such a list of positives is not enough. The clincher in Lessons in Chemistry is the prose style. It’s gorgeous. Immaculate sentence after immaculate sentence aggregate into a steadily growing mound of pleasure: precise, economical, engaging. This is not firework prose. It’s not meretricious. It doesn’t show off, or shout its own virtues to the heavens. Instead, it’s quiet, unassuming and effective. It’s the sort of writing that sneaks up on you. You pick up the book because you fancy a bit of reading, and then, before you know it, you’ve read 90 pages in a flash. It’s like a long cold glass of water when you’re thirsty – just exactly what is required. And, miraculously, all of this occurs in her debut novel.

Bonnie Garmus, above left

And ultimately, it’s that that immunises the reader against the novel’s weaknesses. The characters, although engaging, sometimes strain the reader’s credulity. I simply cannot believe that Elizabeth’s neighbour, even though she is locked in a loveless marriage, would get up at 4 am to mind Maddy, Elizabeth’s daughter, to allow Elizabeth to go rowing with her husband. The bloody minded intransigence of Zott, in the face of the nonsensical demands of 1960s American daytime TV, aimed at the only female viewer the executives recognised, the housewife, doesn’t really ring true. Nobody, except perhaps  someone a fair way along the spectrum, would continue not to recognise the commercial realities of both the university research world and the daytime TV world.

The other weakness is that the plot depends on more bare faced coincidences than even old Charlie Dickens himself tried to get away with. Again, the fund of good will the book has built up with the reader by the time we reach the home strait, generates a willingness to suspend disbelief, but the rope is a little too tight by the closing scenes.

Still from upcoming Apple TV adaptation (above right)

Then we come to the thorny matter of the dog. Yes, the dog. Not the one that didn’t bark, but the one that, apparently, as the arch rationalist Gormus tells us, has a vocabulary of nearly a thousand words. The same one that comments on the predicaments of Elizabeth, Calvin, Maddie and Harriet with more wisdom, insight and emotional intelligence than any human appearing on reality TV. I love a bit of Magic Realism as much as the next Joe, but this was a bridge too far for me. And yet, it does work, no matter how ridiculous it makes you feel as a supposedly discerning adult reader. The dispassionate observer role that the dog, Six Thirty, performs does bring something significant to the table. I just don’t know what, how or why.

Garmus with her dog above left. The dog is, strangely, important

Maybe a little mystery about the mechanics of an engaging novel is a good thing every now and again. As an  antidote to over analysing, perhaps one should simply experience a book, and take pleasure from it. After all, you can’t do a post mortem without killing the subject, so, just for once, let’s trust our reactions and let the book live and breathe without trying to find out why. Try it, and see whether you agree.

Mayflies

After the showing of the two part adaptation of Mayflies on BBC over Christmas, I thought it was a good time to revisit my original review of the book (first published on my other website, www.rjbarron.co.uk last year). It’s a great example, I think, of a TV adaptation being better than the book, although the book has a lot to like and admire. Here’s what I wrote, back in June 2021:

This book looked right up my street – an affectionate memoir of a group of seventeen-year old friends in Glasgow, forever bonded by their shared experience of growing up together as a band of brothers with their love of music holding them together. Then add to the mix a fast forward to contemporary Britain to see how they have fared in the intervening thirty-five years. It’s structured in two halves -then and now-  and it’s almost brilliant. Almost, but not quite.

The first half, an evocative portrait of a group of friends on a mythical weekender to Manchester for a festival, with the obsession of the possibility of catching a glimpse of Morrisey in a club, is beautifully done. Anyone who experienced the salvation provided by a like-minded group of anti-establishment friends at that age, with the same passions, the same obsessions, the same devotions, will read this with a tear in their eye and a smile, as your own memories flicker in and out of focus. The power and significance of the music you listened to when you were seventeen – what pain, joy and agony it can conjure, even when catching a few bars of an obscure track in the gang’s playlist.

The main protagonist, destined to escape working class Glasgow life through his intelligence and determination (and, classically, the devotion of the ubiquitous English teacher who encouraged him and pushed him on his path) is a sympathetic character who is transformed into a very successful writer, critically acclaimed and living in a hipster’s paradise in a beautiful and expensive part of London. He has still remained connected to his roots, however, and to one friend in particular who stayed in Glasgow and who turned his talents to English teaching in a “Challenging “ school where he has spent his entire career, inspiring generations of abandoned Glaswegians through his teaching and his humanity.

The second part reveals very early on that Tully, the Head of English back in Glasgow, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. From then on the remainder of the novel charts how James (“Noodle”) deals with this devastating news and helps Tully end his days at Dignitas. I hope that’s not a spoiler, but the publicity surrounding the novel made the story very clear. There is tremendous sadness and grief and nostalgia, as you would expect, and the novel does not shy away from the anger and unreasonableness people show in these testing situations.

Pic: Andrew O’Hagan

But. And it’s a big but. The second half goes on and on and on, seemingly without the watchful eye of an editor. And then I realised. This was autobiographical. This was O’Hagan’s story. And the novel had become a therapeutic exercise for him, whereby every detail was included because the memory of his part of the second half was too significant to leave anything else out. I googled it, and it was true. This was O’Hagan’s story, almost word for word, and just a year or so earlier. And Tully was, in fact, Keith Martin, his boyhood friend. So O’Hagan deals with grief so recent, it’s still raw and it completely clouds his judgement.

It’s a familiar problem for a novelist, when you are casting around in your own autobiography for material for a novel and the first draft includes a load of stuff that is oh so significant to you, but which means diddly squat to your readers. And the editor was too sensitive to point it out. Or O’Hagan was too blinkered and determined to listen. It’s a pity. I reckon that if O’Hagan had waited a for a few years, he would have written a masterpiece, with the benefit of some perspective.

Pic: O’Hagan with Keith Martin in 2018 (right)

But then, sometimes, what the reader needs is irrelevant. The writer’s human too. And if Andrew O’Hagan needed to write this book to work through his grief, who am I to carp, because it wasted half a day of my time. The friendship he delightfully and brilliantly portrays , a friendship we can probably all replicate in our own back story, deserves the epitaph O’Hagan decides to give it, in his own way and in his own terms. Narrative arc can sometimes take a back seat.

Post script:

The distance between the events portrayed and the writing of the TV script, with the urgent, autobiographical recording of the novel in between, has done the trick, I reckon. And I don’t think it’s insignificant that the adaptation was written by Andrea Gibb, not O’Hagan himself. Mediating traumatic events through a third person has brought much needed perspective, while retaining the raw emotion of the story.

It’s a great piece of work. And the first half of the novel, with its portrait of the obsessive, bonding passions of the gang of seventeen year old friends, remains a beautiful, luminous, evocative piece of writing.

A Review of “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell

“Hamnet” was in my top five novels of the year in 2021, and many other people’s as well, if Twitter is anything to go by, so the announcement of her follow up, “The Marriage Portrait”, earlier this year caused great excitement. English teachers who have taught GCSE Literature in the last fifteen years will be very familiar with the source material: My Last Duchess by Robert Browning. 

The poem, written in 1842, is a wonderful thing. It’s a long poem, a dramatic monologue, in the voice of an Italian Duke, Alfonso of Ferrara. The Duke is escorting a servant of a visiting nobleman around his palatial aristocratic pile. The visitor is there to negotiate a marriage between the Duke and his daughter. They stop at a portrait, hidden behind a curtain,  of the Duke’s late wife.  Browning brilliantly conveys, from his own lips, the cruelty and snobbery of the Duke.

By the end of the poem, the reader is left with an uneasy near certainty that Alfonso has engineered the murder of his young wife, seemingly because she was open hearted and friendly with people other than himself, specifically, people from a lower social class than himself. It’s master class of innuendo and suggestion. Without saying anything incriminating, the case against the Duke and the world he represents seems watertight.

It’s also a marvellous poem for GCSE students. It’s a great example of a poem that at first sight, and after first reading, seems impenetrable: obscure, dull, irrelevant. With a bit of reassurance, and a bit of skillful handholding, students can learn the fact that poetry, with its supercharged language, can be made to yield its secrets, like a tightly folded bud opening its petals one by one. Repeated reading reveals new insights, new possibilities, new pleasures. Once experienced, the joys of poetry seem just a little bit more real, a little bit more accessible, and students seem a little bit more willing to try another difficult one.

And so, given the magic wrought by O’Farrell in Hamnet, it seemed like a rich seam of material to mine. I started, with eager anticipation, a useful store of knowledge, and a fund of goodwill towards the writer. And there is a lot here to admire. I read it quickly, carried along by the narrative and the language. But…..

By the end, I was racing to finish for a different reason. How can I put this politely? It’s a little…..dull. The period and place are beautifully evoked. The language shimmers and sparkles. But the plot, which is the spine of any novel in my opinion, disappoints. The fact that, because of the original poem, the plot is so well known isn’t really the issue here. After all, O’Farrell starts the novel with Lucrezia, the Duchess of the marriage, realising she has been brought to an isolated rural loggia to be murdered. The rest of it is a procession of inevitability.

O’Farrell tries to use structure to shake things up a little, switching between the scenes at the end of her life, “imprisoned” in her husband’s country retreat, and incidents from her childhood in Florence. The scenes in Florence are more engaging somehow. The portrait of a privileged, but loving family, makes a sharp contrast with the Ferrara scenes. There’s a charm and an interest in the depiction of Lucrezia’s childhood, the eccentric younger child of the family. One luminous early section concerns the encounter between Lucrezia and the tiger her father commissions on a whim, to add to his menagerie of exotic creatures, kept down deep in the dungeons below the family home. Her determination to leave her bedroom and travel in the dark to encounter this magnificent beast radiates with poetry and significance. The idea that the Tiger allows her to stroke it through the bars without savaging her, imbues our protagonist with qualities that mark her out as a rare character of substance.

There’s also a pleasing attempt to use the plot to give the Duchess an escape route. No spoilers here, but it is plausible and the idea is satisfying. Ultimately, though, it is rather thrown away, as if O’Farrell herself felt a little uncomfortable about changing history.

In the end, the problem is that O’Farrell, gifted novelist though she is, cannot compete with Robert Browning’s original. (Picture of Browning , right) The subtlety and nuance of his version of events requires readers to work hard to unpick its story. He pays them the ultimate compliment of trusting their intelligence to pick up the thread he has carefully woven through the verse. Somehow, it makes for a more satisfying read than O’Farrell’s four hundred plus pages of prose, no matter how beautiful much of it is.

I was left with a feeling of disappointment and let down. What promised much delivered very little. I’m hoping her next novel will abandon a reworking of our literary heritage and strike out with something new. It’s a difficult habit to kick though, once you’re in the grip of addiction. And there’s so much to choose from: 

  • Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti (All that suppressed sex and oozing juice of ripe fruit. It could certainly stand a Game of Thrones mash up)
  • London by William Blake. (who was that mysterious man wandering around those “Chartered streets”?)
  • Dickens’ affairs with Ellen Ternan and Georgina Hogarth. (With the added Gothic bonus of the Great Man’s attempts to have his wife locked up in an asylum)

And, of course, that old favourite, beloved of English teachers of a certain vintage, from the days of 100% coursework and “creative responses”, a retelling of The Ancient Mariner from the point of view of the Albatross. That would be a challenge. It was certainly beyond the grasp of most of the Year 11 kids who attempted it in the Eighties.

On second thoughts, I have some advice for Ms O’Farrell. Just step away from your laptop, Maggie, take some time out, and come up with a contemporary tale set in the here and now. Now that would be worth waiting for.

The Watcher and The Friend Audio Book

Just a quick announcement that I’m serialising my children’s book, The Watcher and The Friend, pubished by Burton Mayers Books via my Podcast, Telling Stories. I’m hoping to publish a new chapter every week. I’ve had lots of people ask me about this and I can reveal that the second book in the series is almost finished. You can find out more about the book on my other website:

www.rjbarron.co.uk

The Wolf Attack – illustration by Daisy Alexander

The podcast is available here https://spotifyanchor-web.app.link/e/C6FxKvkc4tb

The book is availabe from Amazon here:

The School Prom, part 2

An extract from “Zero Tolerance” by The Old Grey Owl

Rick, Deputy Head at Fairfield High School, is the senior member of staff on duty at the annual leavers’ Prom. It’s a hot summer’s evening and resentment runs high over the Zero Tolerance regime instituted by the new Head, Camilla Everson. Meanwhile, a gaggle of Year 11 students, led by the notorious George Mason, who have been formally banned from attending for a variety of crimes and misdemeanours, have plucked up the courage to invade the event

The disco was in full swing and under the strobe lights, Rick could just about make out the identities of the gyrating bodies. Occasionally, the pursuit of teenage kicks led to Rick and some of the other senior members of staff in attendance having to remind a few people that snogging should be restrained and controlled. The air inside was thick with pheromones, Lynx and Babe Power. It was at moments like these that Rick was most glad that there was a no alcohol policy. Add that to the mix and there would have been carnage.

The familiar and comforting tropes of the Year 11 Prom were being replayed in front of him. He had been asked several times to “Show us some moves” and had dutifully provided appropriate dad dancing to keep the students amused. He had chatted to staff about their summer holidays. He had taken a thousand photos and had photobombed a thousand selfies. Ties and jackets had long been removed, to be replaced by sweat stains and flapping shirts. Expensive gelled and sprayed hairstyles had started to wilt, mascara to run,  and regular missions to the toilets were undertaken for running repairs.

Even better, O’Malley was about to go. Rick had had the delicious experience of walking in to the main dance area with him, to be met with a subtle but unmistakeable outbreak of hissing. To his credit though, O’Malley had stuck it out, even though he was snubbed by both staff and students alike, so that he ended up drinking orange juice on the door with the Security guard. Eventually, after braving several laps of the venue, hissed at wherever he went, he finally came up to Rick and said, straining to be heard above the music, “I think I’ll make a move now.”

“Ok,” Rick replied, “See you on Monday”.

He watched as O’Malley picked his way through knots of people chatting and taking photos, inching his way to the exit. He was about to go and have a sit down in the quiet room when Jason came over to him and shouted, “Eh Sir, come on, it’s the conga.”

He hauled himself to his feet. “Alright Jase, if I absolutely have to,” he said and followed him back into the dance room.

*

On the main road by the entrance, a red double decker bus stopped and about fifteen raucous youths got off, George in the vanguard of the battalion. Twenty minutes earlier they had mooched around in the street outside the Trafalgar, George still smarting at his humiliation in the pub and the ruination of his Friday night.

“This is fucking rubbish man,” George had pronounced, “What are we gonna do now?”

“There’s always the Prom,” ventured one of the others, “Why don’t we go up there and try and get in? It’d be a laugh.”

“Come on George man, they shouldn’t’ve banned me in the first place, and you never went last year. They’d shit themselves if we all turned up there mob -handed. They’d have to let us in.”

“Yeah come on,” George agreed, “Let’s go shop and buy some more cans and then get on the 165. We’ll be there in fifteen.”

Their spirits rose with the advent of this new plan and by the time they boarded the bus they were loud, aggressive and objectionable in equal measures. It was an uncomfortable journey for those passengers who had made the innocent mistake of getting that particular bus at that particular time.

The driver was relieved to see the back of them as they all piled off at the stop. Although it was only fifteen minutes away from the Trafalgar they found themselves on a lushly wooded fast road with detached houses set back behind long, mature gardens. It was golf course territory. They stared at the houses and breathed in the fragrance of money.

“Fucking hell, look at those houses, fam. Why do they have the Prom here? Talk about fucking rubbing our noses in it.”

They all stared, each of them lost in a vision of their own. Some were consumed with jealousy, some anger, some inferiority, some acceptance, of a world that existed and that they couldn’t change. Eventually they roused themselves. They started off down the road towards the entrance to the mansion when George, out in front, stopped dead.

“Shit. There’s security. We’ll never get past him without a bit of trouble.”

Illuminated by a solitary street light up ahead was the unmistakeable figure of a bouncer. Shaven headed, with sunglasses and a walkie talkie. They all ducked tightly into the trees by the side of the road and began talking quietly.

“Listen,” said George, “I aint going back after all this. If we go over the fence here, we can get in that way, go through the woods and end up on the drive way that leads to the big house.”

After a prodigious session in the Trafalgar, topped up on the bus with a few cans, this seemed to them the most reasonable plan ever devised. Without any hesitation, the rabble began to shin up the fence and over. Two minutes later, with a few barked shins and bruised arms and legs, they were all over the top and in the woods. Clutching their carrier bags full of lager, they tracked the path while staying in the woods until it turned a bend, so that they would be invisible from the road.

Under the canopy of the trees, the warm night air was soupy with pollen and earthy scents and there was a strange quiet, with only the distant hum of the traffic leaking into the undergrowth. They were an unlikely crew, with baseball caps, trainers and carrier bags, crashing through brambles and whiplash sappy branches. Occasionally, they stopped to get their bearings and they listened to the eerie sounds of snuffling, scurrying wildlife yards away from them.

“Fucking hell, man, what was that?” exclaimed one of them after a particularly piteous set of cries came from a thick clump of rhododendron bushes up ahead. Something was meeting a brutal end in this lush Surrey woodland. They all pulled up and looked around, peering through the swirling blackness. Suddenly, the Trafalgar, with its comforting brash lights and noise, seemed many miles away.

“I hate the fucking countryside,” George pronounced, “Come on, let’s get on the path.”

They didn’t need telling twice. They spotted a light in the distance, winking intermittently through the branches, and they set their sights on that, pushing aside branches and thorns that whipped back in their faces when released by the person immediately in front. When they emerged from the trees onto tarmac they presented a sorry sight: faces and arms scratched, out of breath and sweating, they resembled the apocryphal lost soldiers emerging from far eastern jungles unaware the war was over. They were thirsty, tired, disorientated and in dire need of something resembling entertainment to make this great trek worthwhile. Recriminations were beginning to bubble to the surface.

George leaned forward his hands on his knees, wheezing, red faced, slicked with sweat. This was the furthest he had walked since he was seven years old, and his head was spinning.

“Jesus,” he gasped, “whose fucking idea was this? This better be worth it fam, or there’ll be trouble, I’m telling you.”

As they filled their lungs with the night air and wiped the sweat from their eyes, they surveyed their surroundings. They were a little confused to see, not the imposing splendour of eighteenth century architecture, but a car park, and a few out buildings.

“Shit,” said Adam, “we’ve come the wrong way. This aint it.”

“Fuck, that’s all we need. I’ve had enough of this, man. This fucking sucks.”

There was a general murmuring of agreement when George said, “Hey, look over there. Who’s that geezer?”

The car park was flooded with lighting and they squinted their eyes to adjust. It was Adam who said, “I don’t believe it. It’s that cunt O’Malley. He was the fucker that had me excluded and banned.”

They all looked at each other, each of them thinking the same thing, but waiting for permission to act. George, still bubbling with resentment from earlier slights gave it to them.

“Come on, let’s get the fucker.”

*

O’Malley looked up at the sound of running and a shout. On the far side of the car park was a group of about twenty youths, all with hoodies up and bandanas on, charging towards him, shouting. He froze.

“What the ..” he exclaimed, but before he could do anything they had surrounded him, shouting and taunting him.

He was petrified. There was nothing he could do, so thinking as quickly as his terrified brain could, he played for time. Surely, someone else would come to the car park soon. He wondered whether the security guard would hear him if he took a chance and started to scream, and he concluded that no, they probably wouldn’t above the insistent thumping of the disco. His only option was to talk.

He held his hands up, outstretched in supplication. “Lads, let’s not do anything silly now. Let’s just calm down, and talk this through.”

George, his voice muffled by his bandana, walked towards imitating his voice, as if it were that of a little girl. “Oooh, lads, let’s not do anything silly now. Let’s just calm down because I am shitting myself here.”

The circle of his accomplices laughed and joined in. George took a few steps towards him and began poking him in the chest.

“I hear that you banned some of my mates from the Prom, Is that right?”

“Look, you need to think about what you’re doing. You’re on CCTV and the house is full of people who can identify you. I think you should just turn around and let me go before you do something you’ll regret.”

O’Malley had mustered as much calm gravitas as he could. He hoped that they couldn’t see he was panic stricken. He was mistaken.

“Nice try, but for once, it’s the kids who are gonna tell you what to do, bruv.”

The circle tightened around him and his cries were muffled by the press of bodies. A few minutes later he had been bound and gagged with some of the bandanas and locked in his own car.

“That’ll do for now ,” said George through the open window. “We’ll be back, so don’t go away. Oh, sorry, I forgot, you can’t.”

This provoked a chorus of laughter and jeering. George wound the window back up and locked the car.

“Come on,” he announced to the triumphant group, “It’s round two.”

They followed him, hoodies and bandanas still in place, carrier bags stuffed with cans swinging in their hands, as he skirted the car park in the direction of the thumping bass of the sound system. They rounded a corner and saw the mansion. In the light that spilled from the open doorway, a second bouncer was clearly visible.

“Shit,” cursed Adam, “another one. Now what?”

They huddled together hard up against the wall of the building, out of his eye line, waiting for inspiration to strike. Just as they were beginning to lose hope, they saw the familiar flare of a match, followed by the glowing tip of a cigarette. The bouncer, taking a drag from the cigarette, stretched and began to walk away from the entrance, away from them and around the corner.

George looked in, a smile spreading across his face. “Yes! He’s on a fag break. Come on lads, we’re in.”

He sprinted to the door, keeping as close to the wall as he could, weaving in and out of the bushes, in case the bouncer returned early. The others followed and they all piled through the entrance into the warm yellow light of the foyer. One or two students, taking refuge from the dance floor, or en-route to the toilets, looked up in alarm as the rag tag army burst in, euphoric after their successful kidnapping of O’Malley, and the ease with which they had gained entry. It seemed to them that there was nothing they could not achieve.

And then, reality dawned on them. They looked at each other with their carriers of lager, hoodies and trainers, and then at the Prom goers, who gaped at them open-mouthed, in their shiny suits and tight dresses.

“Look at the state of us, man,” whined Adam, “we stand out like a sore thumb. What are we gonna do now?”

George considered for a moment and then pronounced his judgement.

“We’re gonna blend in, bruv, blend in. And, we’re gonna have a little drink, and a little dance, and a bit of a laugh, for as long as we can get away with it.”

Adam’s face registered disappointment and the rest of the crew looked sheepish.

George felt like a lion leading donkeys.

“Or, you can bottle it and all just fuck off home. You’re on your own.”

He took a can from his carrier, cracked it open and, and took a long, deep draught. Then he placed the bag behind the reception desk, the open can in his pocket, and he sauntered towards the dance hall. The others watched him go. When he had disappeared into the flashing lights and pulsing shadows, the others looked around at each other, leaderless and unsure.

It was Adam that was the first to crack.

“Oh, fuck it,” he said, “might as well.”

He went through the same series of actions as George, and followed his route towards the promised land. One by one the others all followed.

The two prom goers, who had observed the whole scene with a growing sense of fascination from the corner, watched them go. They turned to each other.

“We’ve got to see this, come on.”

“First things first,” said the other, reaching for his phone.

He opened Instagram and, in a blur of texter’s fingers and thumbs, he messaged, “Prom just been invaded by George M and his gang!”

The news spread like wildfire.

Part 3 will follow in a day or two. Sign up to the blog to get an email alert every time a new post is issued. You can buy a copy of the novel, Zero Tolerance, using the links below:

King Lear at The Globe – Shakespeare at its very worst

A first return to The Globe after a pandemic-induced absence of a couple of years made me long once again for lockdown. As someone who was an English teacher in London for about 35 years, I’ve been a regular visitor, both on my own and with students. In the days of Mark Rylance as Artistic Director it was invariably a thrilling experience, with the pleasures of the authentic setting enhanced by the quality of the productions.

In recent years, however, a trip to The Globe (pictured right) has been something to be endured rather than enjoyed. More and more it has come to resemble just another version of famous world city tourism, an experience to tick off the list made by people on a schedule: The Colosseum in Rome, The Louvre in Paris, The Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank  in Amsterdam etc etc.

I knew nothing of the production before we booked. We originally wanted to see Much Ado, but that was all sold out. There were tickets for Lear and as far as I could  see, very little publicity for it. I was amazed to find out, when digging a little deeper into the production, that this was a reprise of a famous role for Kathryn Hunter, who first did the role back in 1997, also for director Helena Kaut Howson. That, apparently, was a groundbreaking, brilliant production and performance.

It was very hard to tell from this feeble revival. I have to begin this merciless hatchet job with a tiny caveat. We have both got to the advanced age where subtitles are necessary for us to be able to follow any drama on TV. That undoubtedly contributed to the difficulties we both had with this performance, but to be honest, by the time we walked out of the theatre at the interval, I was actually glad I couldn’t quite hear the lines clearly. That would have just served to underline just how much the play was being brutalised. 

We were also badly served by our seats -The middle gallery,  level with the two main pillars of the stage – so for seventy percent of the time, the speaking actors were facing away from us, and their lines drifted away into the summer’s evening air, to compete with the helicopters and jumbo jets that seemed to pass overhead every five minutes.

But all of this was just background annoyance. There are more substantial complaints to come. The story is complex, the language difficult, the characters and relationships hard to pin down. So a production has got to do the bread and butter of exposition much better than this. Clarity of verse speaking, costume, gesture, body language, props, scenery- all of these need to be used imaginatively to pin down what the scenario is from the beginning. Of course, the division of the kingdom, the three daughters and their declarations of “love” were established well enough (partly because they are so well known), but the subtleties  of the interplay between Edgar and Edmund, Gloucester and Kent, the husbands of the “bad” sisters, all of this and much more was abandoned to garbled verse speaking, knockabout comedy, and lots of stage business, with hammy actors walking around the stage for no apparent  purpose except to lend the lines some additional dramatic force. It failed miserably to lend any of it any dramatic purpose at all.

It was old fashioned  Nigel-Planer-Nicholas-Craig-style Actoring at its worst. (Nicholas Craig pictured left) Hand waving, strutting, movement across the stage with no discernible realistic purpose  – it all just screams, “We are doing serious Shakespeare stuff here.” This was also accompanied by full-on, shouting-the-lines,  Shakesperean declamation.

This was particularly the case for Regan. Or, in the case of Edmund, lines delivered in a softly spoken accent that made them very difficult to follow or to take seriously. He also seems to have been directed to play a lot of his lines for laughs, like his legitimate brother, Edgar, whose performance when he had “gone mad” was particularly ludicrous.

That appeared to be the default position. To give this difficult stuff more audience appeal, let’s make sure we mess about and crank up the physical comedy. It seemed to me to be totally inappropriate, and detracted from the drama and tragedy of the play. Unfortunately, on the night I attended, the groundlings seemed to be heavily stocked with the friends and family of the people working on the production, such was the enthusiasm of their laughter, like regular bursts from a machine gun. What on earth they were laughing at, and how that helped a complex, subtle, human tragedy was beyond me.

I don’t especially blame the actors for this. Presumably, they were responding to the director, and in Shakespeare in particular, the director makes (Nicholas Hytner) or breaks (Rufus Norris) a production. In this case, Kaut Howson (pictured right) absolutely destroyed this production. She has been recuperating from an accident, apparently, so perhaps that explains it, but nothing can reasonably excuse this exercise in painting-by-numbers direction.

It did occur to me, as I tried in vain to take my mind off the car crash as it unfolded in front of me, that actually, the play would have been much better suited to the dark, atmospheric candle lit magnificence of the Sam Wanamaker theatre. The Globe can manage knockabout comedy. A warm Summer’s evening lends itself to a lighthearted romp. The Wanamaker would certainly have helped Hunter, whose voice seemed lost in the open air setting.

During one of the many longeurs in the first half, I found myself looking down on a gaggle of young people, mainly boys, either on a school trip or on a foreign exchange arrangement. I lost count of the number of them who were surreptitiously messaging and surfing the net on their phones. My old-person-English-teacher instinct kicked in immediately, but I did manage to exert some self control and stop myself from scowling and tutting. By the time the interval arrived, I’d joined them, checking my messages. 

They’re not daft, kids today.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

A review

Doerr’s latest novel is his first since the Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See. That book was a particularly happy accident for me. I found it lying around the house, and knew nothing about it, so began it with no expectations. After about thirty pages or so, I knew I was dealing with something special. I browsed this new one in Waterstones in the run up to Christmas and rejected it. It just didn’t sound like my cup of tea: three separate stories spanning several hundred years, including a sci fi section, all linked together by a fictional fragment of a Ancient Greek text. No, thank you very much, I’ll pass on that.

How wrong I was. This is a singularly brilliant novel, one of the best I’ve read for years. Each section is perfectly realised: the stories of two of the little people on opposite sides of the siege of Constantinople in 1453 (pictured right) , Omeir and Anna is beautifully done in luminous prose. I’ve read some criticisms about the sentimentality and implausibility of this story, but you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the outcome, after years of hardship and personal tragedy. 

The contemporary section, which tells the story of a teenage eco-terrorist bomber, who is “radicalised” by a shadowy online presence that exploits his vulnerability and his disbelief at what we are doing to our planet, is the starting point for the whole novel. Each section as it is threaded through the bigger narrative, slowly ratchets up the tension of the unexploded bomb in his rucksack at the local library. The library is empty except for a group of young teenagers who are rehearsing a theatre production of the Ancient Greek text, Cloud Cuckoo Land, that  holds the whole thing together.

The links extend to the sci-fi section that is set in a spaceship of humans escaping a world destroyed by global warming. You might think that such a variety of settings would jar, and that the author would naturally display a weakness in the realisation of at least one of the stories, but the reverse is true. There is no sense that, in fact, these are three entirely sparate stories that have been clumsily welded together. The whole thing feels seamless, with each section being part of an organic whole. The plotting, linking all of these disparate parts is exquisitely done. Improbable, but done with authority, credibility and artistic integrity. Each section enhances the others, and the sequencing and pacing of the sections turns a heavy weight literary novel of ideas into a page-turner of real dramatic power.

A further structural embellishment is the regular punctuation of the text with extracts from the fictitious Ancient Greek “novel” by the classical writer, Antonius Diogenes. (pictured left) Each extract is short, with the gaps in the text, supposedly  produced by the passage of time,  represented by missing words, scholarly guesses and question marks. For a while, these sections work well. They are strangely poetic and they are a welcome pause for the reader, providing an opportunity to digest the main sections of the overall narrative. After a while, however, I must admit that I began to skim read these bits, but that was because I was so invested in the main story, I really wanted to press on to get to the resolution of the whole thing. So even the weakest aspect of the book is actually an indication of its great strength.

Doerr himself describes the book as “my attempt at a literary-sci-fi-young-adult-historical-morality novel”. Guess what? He succeeds. It reaffirms the value and power of literature as a cultural endeavour that is capable of producing  great beauty and great insight. Immersive, big stories like this that tell us something about ourselves and our world continue to be important. In many ways,  the book is very explicit about that. It is a celebration of the significance of stories, of texts, (like the imaginary Cloud Cuckoo Land of Diogenes) and their ability to endure over the centuries so that they  continue to speak to people in the future. 

Literature, and story-telling in general, does a lot of cultural heavy lifting in our society, whether it’s a comic, a novel, a movie or the latest Netflix series. It can soothe, entertain, reassure, divert, excite. At its best, it can illuminate and make you see the world afresh, while doing all of the above as well. 

Cloud Cuckoo Land is literature at its best.

Hot Stew

A review of Fiona Mozley’s second novel

This is an unexpectedly fabulous book. Mozley received lots of critical acclaim for her debut novel, Elmet, published in 2017, but, I have to confess, I was underwhelmed by it. It seemed to me to be one of those novels that sacrificed the more humble virtues of plot, character and credibility of motivation for obliqueness and a certain poetic sensibility. Having arrived at an interesting (though not really believable) story, she recast it through a vague lens of obscuring the connections and back stories and motivations to make it more “interesting”.

The reader is forced to become a detective, piecing together fragments of description and dialogue, working out time shifts and changes in perspective until a narrative emerges just in time for a vaguely satisfying resolution to come into view. Of course, you can only do this if you’re an experienced and sophisticated reader, so in a very real sense you’re being set a test. If you like the book, you’re an intellectual. If you don’t and you wish that the author would just bloody well tell the story, then you’re out of your depth and should stick to Mills and Boon. The real sign, the dead giveaway, is when the puzzling out of the connections is actually more interesting, more satisfying than the story that is eventually revealed.

Hot Stew is a million miles away from this. It’s a wonderful confection of a book, Dickensian in its portrayal of contemporary Soho, and the depiction of an extraordinary range of characters and relationships. It also functions very effectively as a critique of modern urban life and the interplay of rich elites with us ordinary folk. Mozley portrays all of them with skill and verve, so that the reader is propelled along by concern for the characters and the forward motion of the plot. She handles a vast cast of characters, who interconnect and intersect at times, very skilfully, and with an instinctive feel for pacing and sequencing. Aspects of the plot verge on the dreaded magic realism, and at times one has to suspend one’s disbelief with an industrial winch, but it’s all done with a knowing wink that left me at any rate, indulgent of any flaws or half baked, unresolved threads. This is partly because it’s funny and partly because Mozley is on the right side – there is a clear affection for the area and for people forging lives and relationships from adversity. This is a welcome departure from the world of Elmet, that turns rural Yorkshire into a kind of Deliverance style grim struggle, a world of violence, amorality and shabby survival. In Mozley’s Soho, there is love and humour, as well as exploitation and snobbery.

It’s received a lukewarm reaction from the critics, in comparison to Elmet. That is clearly because it’s written in a transparent, open style that invites its readers to participate in receiving an entertaining and thought-provoking story. Come on Fiona, wise up! You’ll never win the Booker like that – but you will win readers, who, like me, will eagerly await your next offering.