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since 09/01/2003


James Bond - Kingsley Amis 04/11/2015

Bond Rises From His Creator's Ashes

James Bond - Kingsley Amis A decent enough stab at continuing the Bond series, this was the first Bond novel to be published after Ian Fleming's death. Robert Markham was a pseudonym for Kingsley Amis who presumably, despite his enthusiasm for all things Bond (he had already published The James Bond Dossier, an analysis of the James Bond novels) did not want his literary legacy muddied by including a derivative thriller with a borrowed main character in it. Amis/Markham brings in a new enemy - the Chinese military - into the series, and the plot involves Bond's supremo M to a much greater degree than the average Bond novel. Much of the action happens in Greece, the exotic locations being obligatory for every Bond novel bar Moonraker The author's patrician fascination with violence and sex come to the fore, particularly in the description of tortures planned for 007 by his Chinese adversary. As you would expect there is sex although Bond is quite abstemious in this one, basically sticking to the one girl. It lacks perhaps some narrative variety or surprise to lift it above the norm of the series, but Colonel Sun is a good read and Bond fans reading it should not be disappointed. The selection of Amis marked the way to the future of trying to give the books literary credibility, with recent entries into the canon having been penned by the likes of Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd. Available from Blackwell's at £8.99

Julian - Gore Vidal 24/04/2013

Apropos the Apostate

Julian - Gore Vidal The novel Julian by the celebrated, and now sadly deceased, American author Gore Vidal took as its subject the Emperor Julian, better known as Julian the Apostate for renouncing Christianity and embracing the old pagan religions, in the process also displacing it as the official religion of the Roman Empire something which his uncle Constantine the Great had decreed. This has really been the defining trait in history of Julian and what makes him stand out amongst his rather less well-known predecessors and successors to the purple. Future generations love someone who seems to go against the wind – witness the fascination with the monotheistic Aknhaten in ancient Egypt – and ply the fascinating “what if” speculations onto their actions. Could Julian, if he had survived as Emperor for more than the mere three years he had in the purple, really have re-established the old pantheon of gods whose adherents had been severely persecuted by the newly-powerful Christian authorities.. Actually there is another more intriguing question to Julian's reign which looks forwards rather than backwards and that is to what extent was he advocating religious toleration rather than simply exchanging the prevalence of one personal belief over another. Vidal's Julian follows closely the main historical sources. Whilst Gibbon wrote admiringly about the emperor closer contemporaries, even on his side of the religious divide, were not always totally uncritical whilst (as might be expected) the ...

Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe - Norman Davies 06/03/2013

Where's That?

Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe - Norman Davies The concept behind “Vanished Kingdoms” is an interesting and original one: how and why do states die and what happens afterwards? A cursory search on even such an unreliable source as Wikipedia will reveal dozens of political entities which have disappeared in Europe alone. Sub-titled “A History of Half-Forgotten Europe” this is a worthy attempt to trace what happened to some of these casualties of history. Author Norman Davies is a respected historian whose earlier work includes substantial publications on Polish history in particular, and his questing mentality and undoubted expertise on continental history makes him an ideal guide on this journey through weird and wonderful entities which existed and then made way for different nations, states or other political groupings. The book is structured in a loosely chronological order – thus the first chapter is concerned with Tolosa (a substantial Visigothic kingdom largely contained within what is now south-western France but also occupying a small area of Spain which existed in the 5th century AD) whilst the final chapter concerns the break-up of the Soviet Union – but there is necessarily a need to skip back and forth through the centuries as the history of different countries overlaps. Indeed it is interesting to see how one event can sometimes be referred to in contrasting chapters: the history of modern Italy is very different if you are looking at the brief history of the Napoleon-created Kingdom of Etruria or that of ...

Like The Roman - Simon Heffer 28/06/2012

Rivers of Typos

Like The Roman - Simon Heffer Enoch Powell, the centenary of whose birth has been celebrated this year, was probably the most controversial postwar British politician; a reputation largely garnered from his incorrectly named “Rivers of Blood” speech which painted an apocalytic picture of what continued immigration, and failure to assimilate or disperse these immigrants, would do to areas of the United Kingdom. The book was written in 1998 by the outspoken right-wing journalist and columnist Simon Heffer, himself not someone who minces his words. This edition is published by Faber Finds and before reviewing the book as such I feel it appropriate to offer both praise and criticism to them. Praise because they are doing a very noble thing – rescuing important books from the dreaded “out of print” state. Criticism because this book has been proof-read horrendously. There is scarcely a page without typos and/or spelling mistakes but there are also clearly mistakes where a word that sounds like another giving a totally senseless meaning. I worked out a lot of these from context but I do have a certain amount of knowledge of the history of the period. How many I actually missed I obviously cannot tell. For someone who may only know John Enoch Powell from his political life it may come as a huge surprise to find how he almost fell into it through circumstances. In fact he seemed to be heading towards a career in academe. A brilliant, if somewhat socially dysfunctional student, he was born in Birmingham to a ...

Live (Live Recording) - Jonathan Richman 06/06/2012

Captain Kook

Live (Live Recording) - Jonathan Richman Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers came to fame, rather bizarrely, as proto-punks when they had a hit single with Roadrunner. I have never subscribed to it sounding like punk but then there was a point in the 1970's when everyone and everything was “new-wave” until they became something else. Richman might have something of the punk in it's original American sense, a bum or simpleton, but vomiting, glue and safety-pins? Gimme a break! The guy looks as though he doesn't drink anything stronger than root beer! He is the Peter Pan of rock, the boy who never grew up, a Harold Skimpole without the hypocrisy. Whether singing about dinosaurs, Martians, yetis or insects the constant theme is not hurting anything and trying to help. Punk? Bunk! The man himself had been in the Velvet Underground's circle in the late sixties, allegedly sleeping on their manager's couch and doing odd jobs, but his failure to break into the New York music scene led him to return to Boston and start his own band. The first Modern Lovers album was unreleased until after they broke up and after a stint as a solo artist the Modern Lovers second instar recorded two albums which met with some modest success. By the time this live recording was made in 1978, and after further changes in personnel the band was made up of: Jonathan Richman Lead vocals, guitar Leroy Radcliffe Guitar, vocals Asa Brebner Bass, vocals D. Sharpe Percussion, vocals Whilst I am not normally a fan of live records this one is a ...

Fotheringay [CD On Demand] - Fotheringay & Sandy Denny 20/05/2012

What Might Have Been

Fotheringay [CD On Demand] - Fotheringay & Sandy Denny Fotheringay was perhaps the saddest casualty of folk-rock's failure to become a major commercial genre in the early seventies. So much so that this album, which borders on perfection, was their only release and disillusion set in during the abortive recordings for their second album which, with considerable work from guitarist Jerry Donahue and some padding, was finally released in 2007 as Fotheringay 2. The band's memory will always be touched by the tragedy of the early deaths of the wife-and-husband team at their heart. Sandy Denny died tragically at the age of 31 from a fall at home and husband Trevor Lucas only outlived her by twelve years. The feeling of wistfulness and what-might-have-been here is not for the music alone but for the two great talents lost to us. Sandy Denny left Fairport Convention after their seminal album Liege and Lief and the natural thing seemed to be to team up with her then boyfriend Trevor Lucas, born in Australia but based in London (he was part of another short-lived group, Eclection) and a great lover and connoisseur of the folk music of the British Isles. Ironically the album is not always folky. Lucas was also influenced by country and some of the songs have a distinct West Coast feel to them. In fact there is one single traditional track in the original version, Banks of the Nile. It so happens that, as Robin Denselow pointed out in a history of folk-rock, The Electric Muse, it is one of the greatest interpretations of a traditional ...

The Tempest (DVD) 16/05/2012

Damp Squib

The Tempest (DVD) The late Derek Jarman was a stage designer but is best known as a film director, particularly for his forthright defence of gay rights during the 1970’s and 80’s, which translated into a number of films on artistic/historic subjects the crux of which seemed to be to find a specifically gay perspective by sexualising characters of interest to him. Thus his film about St Sebastian is about homo-eroticism rather than martyrdom, Edward II's army in his film of Marlowe's eponymous play are portrayed as gay activists and in Caravaggio the artist (on no evidence other than he apparently paints attractive boys) is also portrayed as homosexual. It is not unkind to suggest that nobody could really accuse Jarman of having a two-track mind. On this occasion he tackled the last play to be written solely by William Shakespeare who, hopefully, needs no introduction. Ominously, the dvd is sometimes marketed as “Derek Jarman’s Tempest” (although the copy I purchased is titled “The Tempest”). Rightly so, as the Jarman in this film overrides the Shakespeare. The title may be the Bard's, everything else is Jarman's. The story of The Tempest is of a widowed Duke of Milan, Prospero, who neglects his dukedom for his studies and is deposed by his brother with the help of the King of Naples and exiled together with his infant daughter, Miranda. Helped by an old courtier Gonzalo who gives them food they are set adrift on a boat, They reach an island where Prospero’s magical arts free a spirit, ...

Waiting for Sunrise - William Boyd 08/05/2012

Spying for King and Country

Waiting for Sunrise - William Boyd William Boyd is indubitably one of the finest living writers in the English language. Less honoured by awards ceremonies than he should be, and perhaps less self-publicising than some of his near-contemporaries (Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan), Boyd is, notwithstanding, a highly-respected and versatile writer whose easy style can sometimes disguise the startling originality and command of the English language. Boyd has carved a niche for himself as a successful literary author, not an easy feat; with his last two novels – Ordinary Thunderstorms and Restless - being rightly described as best-sellers; his stock is will no doubt rise further when the expected film of Restless is shot and released. Waiting for Sunrise is Boyd's sixteenth work of fiction. His previous novel Ordinary Thunderstorms was such an astonishing tour de force that it was difficult to see how he could follow it. Boyd's literary style, perhaps deriving from his birth and upbringing as a white boy in Ghana and Nigeria followed by the consequential public school schooling in his ancestral Scotland, always celebrates the outsider. In addition, there is a Greenesque quality in his writing, he is a tremendously eclectic and cosmopolitan writer who is always, in his work, restlessly making himself at home in a strange location. Waiting For Sunrise revisits territory now familiar in the Boyd oeuvre. It is an espionage thriller (like Restless and to an extent Any Human Heart) ...

The White War - Mark Thompson 18/04/2012

The Forgotten War

The White War - Mark Thompson The Italian participation in the First World War, was effectively fought in a reduced geographical area bordering what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Italy joined the war for totally mercenary reasons and indeed wavered between the two sides, basically considering which side offered most. Italy was a member of the Triple Alliance, with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but it used the fact this was a defensive alliance and its erstwhile allies were the aggressors to justify its bowing down to popular opposition to the war and initially remain neutral. To be absolutely fair, Italy as a unified nation was a very young country (the final conquest of the Papal States had not occurred until 1870) and there was a sense, more amongst the politicians than the populace, that notwithstanding its ancient history the newly-unified country was still searching for its identity and establishing its borders. To this end, and mindful of the substantial Italian-speaking minorities outside its borders, it was not surprising that the politico-military establishment should see the war as an opportunity rather than a hazard. In the end the decision to join the Allies was made on the strength of promises that there would be substantial territorial gains from the Austrians. These promises were vague and in some cases conflicted with those being given to Slav nationalists in Slovenia and Croatia and stored trouble for the future. There was significant opposition to the war within Italy but once war ...

On the Beach - Nevil Shute 28/01/2012

It's The End of the World As We Know It

On the Beach - Nevil Shute Nevile Shute Norway, to use his full name, has not been with us for half a century now so Vintage's decision to reprint his full catalogue was a timely one. A British author and aeronautical engineer who served in both World Wars and emigrated to Australia after the Second World War, he is best known for the novels On The Beach and A Town Like Alice; both set in Australia and both the subject of successful films in their day. On The Beach is part of a sub-genre, perhaps best referred to as apocalyptic literature, which became popular in the fifties. With mankind having acquired for the first time in its existence the ability not just to destroy itself but the whole planet, through the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), it seemed like a matter of time before someone pressed the red button, by design or by accident, and we would all be blown to smithereens. As we now know it never happened (which is no guarantee it may not still happen in different circumstances) and in fact the nuclear balance probably prevented a major shooting war between the Great Powers. But a whole generation grew up terrified that the next crisis might be mankind's last with a “No Future” mentality causing much anxiety and depression. Shute's novel does not deal with the nuclear holocaust itself but with its aftermath which actually makes it a far more poignant novel. Set largely in Melbourne, Australia, the events follow on from a brief nuclear war in the northern hemisphere between the ...

A Very British Coup (DVD) 08/11/2011

It Couldn't Happen Here....Could It?

A Very British Coup (DVD) The world in which "A Very British Coup" was conceived was a very different one to the one we live in now. Chris Mullin, then considered to be a fairly left-wing journalist who subsequently in 1987 entered Parliament as a Labour MP, supported a Labour movement which seriously doubted whether it would ever regain power by the ballot box, had the idea for the novel following a chat with fellow political animals on how a coup might happen in Britain. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the row over the siting of American missiles in Europe had made the Cold War take a more glacial turn than it had for a couple of decades. Although coups (in the British psyche at least) have always been things which plagued Johnny Foreigner, there had been talk of destabilisation of Harold Wilson's Labour government in the sixties and feelers put out to Lord Mountbatten, the Queen's uncle, to see if he would head a military government if the "chaps" thought action was needed. Nowadays with "New" Labour very much a part of the establishment the premise for the book, and for the series being reviewed here, appears somewhat quaint but since it was a work of fiction it has to be judged on its own terms. Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally), a steelworker from Sheffield (where Mullins was and is a real-life MP) wins a landslide election victory on a pledge of unilateral nuclear disarmament, UK leaving NATO and becoming neutral, American bases being closed down, mass nationalisations, attacks on ...

The Last Picture Show (DVD) 04/10/2010

It Wasn't....Really

The Last Picture Show (DVD) Peter Bogdanovich was one of the first directors of the so-called New Hollywood to score a critical and box-office success in 1969 with The Last Picture Show. Sadly for him, his career has been a textbook lesson in diminishing returns and, despite reasonable success with his second and third movies, (What’s Up Doc and Paper Moon); it all went downhill very quickly and steeply after that. Bogdanovich, the son of immigrants, was a film buff who wrote about film and had only two very minor directorial credits to his name. He managed to get himself the opportunity to direct a film adaptation of Larry Mcmurtry’s novel, without even having read the novel. Bogdanovich got encouragement from Orson Welles, whom he revered and in a sense wished to emulate. Being on one of his regular loose-ends, even stayed with him for a while and may have been influential in persuading the younger man to shoot the film in black and white. The Last Picture Show is in some ways a coming-of-age film in the tradition of The Grapes of Wrath, The Yearling or The Catcher in the Rye, but at a deeper level it is also an elegy for an America that had just been lost – this was the height of the Vietnam War - and rock n’roll had given way to Manson and draft-dodging. The small-town innocence of the high school characters in the film had largely passed. This is what makes it a darker and more interesting movie within the genre. The plot centres round a number of high-school students coming to the end of ...

Cranford (DVD) 22/05/2008

This England!

Cranford (DVD) "Cranford" was adapted by the BBC as a five-part serial from various sources, mainly fictional works (Cranford, My Lady Ludlow and Mr Harrison's Confessions) by the mid-nineteenth century author Elizabeth Gaskell but also including elements of her biography and some of her works of non-fiction. Elizabeth Gaskell (calling her "Mrs" seems to be one of the reasons for her relatively low position on the canon) has had undeserved bad press over the years and pigeon-holed as a writer of women's novels. This adaptation shows that view to be a nonsense. Gaskell gives us here not just strong female characters but also independently-minded women who can take action without the dominant males, even in opposition to them. Although this is a series dominated by females it is not television for women - notwithstanding the fact the screenplay writer, producer and executive producers are also female! Cranford is a vindication that "sisters are doing it for themselves" not in the narrow, exclusive, pamphleteering sense of the Lennox/Franklin dirge but in the real world with gender takes a back seat to professionalism and the discerning of what is quality and what is not. In fact Gaskell's social concerns stemmed more from her religion, she was a Unitarian and both the daughter and wife of Unitarian ministers, than from politics or gender issues. A second reason for the attack on Gaskell has been her perceived "provincialism". Since she wrote about country towns she was seen as a ...

Armadillo - William Boyd 04/04/2008

Boyd's Void

Armadillo - William Boyd The curiously named "Armadillo" is William Boyd's eighth novel. Born in Ghana and brought up there and in Nigeria, Boyd has had a successful career as a novelist, short-story and screenplay writer and as a journalist. His novels have won critical and popular acclaim. The Ice-Cream War was nominated for the Booker Prize and the superb Restless won the Costa (previously Whitbread) Award for Best Novel in 2006. What is "Armadillo" about? Boyd helpfully gives us a pointer that small, scaly animals are not necessarily going to be involved by providing a frontispiece to the novel proper where he defines the origin of armadillo as being from Spanish "diminutive of armado armed man, so literally 'little armed man'". Actually it is not a pointer, it is a whacking big clue to understanding the main character, Lorimer Black. It seems a strange Martin Amis sort of name, except it is not just the name of a fictional character, it is a fictional character's fictional name for himself. Black, or Milomre Blocje to give him his real name, is a loss adjuster by profession. Basically loss-adjusters are called in when an insurer has reason to believe, or suspects, that a major claim might be fraudulent or overstated. It sounds like a respectable profession, but Boyd quickly gets to the murkier side of the business and manages, incredibly, to make it all sound rather interesting. His firm, GGH, works closely albeit "independently" with a major insurance company, Fortress Sure and there is a ...

Soldier Of Orange (DVD) 25/03/2008

Pass The Dutchie

Soldier Of Orange (DVD) Dutch cinema has, no disrespect, never quite taken the world of celluloid by storm. Its most successful director is unarguably Paul Verhoeven who hit the big-time with films such as Basic Instinct, RoboCop and Starship Troopers. The best-known actor has to be Rutger Hauer who came to fame as the android in Blade Runner, was a fearsome baddie in The Hitcher and has gone on to build a successful career from then, known in this country as well for the iconic Guinness adverts. The films in which both these film personalities shared a billing are therefore emblematic as far as the Dutch are concerned, and of no little interest to the rest of us. "Solder of Orange" (Soldaat van Oranje), the thirdd film which falls into this category, is a 1977 movie set during the Second World War but its appeal goes beyond lovers of the genre, indeed anyone expecting major battle scenes will be disappointed. It tells the story of a group of friends at the University of Leiden, one of the oldest and most prestigious in continental Europe, and how the war affects their lives. A photograph of the group is poignantly seen again towards the end of the film, many of those posing for it having lost their lives in the interim. The movie starts with a rather brutal initiation scene where a group of freshers is submitted to all manner of indignities by older students. Eventually Erik (Hauer) suffers a cracked skull at the hands of Guus (Jeroen Krabbe) but, oddly enough, they become good friends after ...
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