February 22, 2013
My play with Mandy Rice Davies, Well He Would, Wouldn’t He, is broadcast tomorrow, Saturday, at 2.30pm on Radio 4. It’s about her part in the Profumo scandal, which helped bring down Macmillan’s Tory government fifty years ago. Mandy was eighteen at the time, and her friend Christine Keeler only a couple of years older. As you probably know, Christine had an affair with John Profumo, the Minister for War, and was also said to have slept with Eugene Ivanov, an attache at the Russian embassy. This being the height of the cold war, the press had a field day when they found out. Profumo resigned in disgrace. In retaliation, the establishment hounded Stephen Ward, a society osteopath and libertine, charging him with keeping a brothel. (Stephen had introduced Christine to Profumo). The trial attracted massive media attention, and was an appalling miscarriage of justice. The ferocious sexism of the remarks made by the judge and the prosecutor during the trial are beyond belief – this was 1963, not Victorian Britain! (Mervyn Griffith Jones, the prosecutor, was the same barrister who announced in the Lady Chatterley trial that ‘you wouldn’t let your wife or your servants read this book’.) During the trial, Ward was so viciously bullied that he committed suicide before the jury could give their verdict.
Mandy, along with Christine and others, was pretty much forced to give evidence at the Ward trial (she’d been imprisoned in Holloway on a trumped-up charge beforehand). When she took the stand, she was questioned about her sex life, which was rather ‘steamy’ at the time (as she puts it), and which she seemed quite unabashed about. During the questioning, Griffith Jones told her that Lord Astor, one of Ward’s friends, had denied ever meeting her, let alone sleeping with her. She famously retorted, ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he’. The remark went down in history not just because it was so surprising – this confident, glamorous eighteen-year-old refusing to be intimidated by the powers that be – but because it marked a turning point in Britain after the war, where ordinary people were no longer prepared to take orders from an arrogant, hypocritical, and out-of-touch establishment.
This is a truly fascinating story about class, money and sexual politics in Britain. While we were writing the play, I kept thinking, so much has changed (for example, in those days, homosexuality was illegal). Yet so much, in terms of gender divisions and social attitudes, remains the same. Mandy is a terrific raconteur, intelligent, witty, and warm. She’s also had an extraordinary career; she was the mistress of Peter Rachman, the ‘slum landlord’ (but that’s a whole other story – as it turns out much of Rachman’s reputation was down to British anti-semitism , since the church and the aristocracy treated their Notting Hill tenants a good deal worse). After the scandal, she toured Europe as a singer, settled in Israel, and became a successful businesswoman with a chain of discotheques, later returning to Britain, writing two novels, and appearing on the West End stage. She now lives in great style in Surrey, has a wonderful collection of artworks, is extremely hospitable, and great company. A true survivor. Much of the play is recounted by her, and she makes a great narrator. So do tune in, either on the day or on i-player, where it will remain for a few days after the broadcast.
February 10, 2013
This week I went to the Bristol Museum with my friend Paul to see the No Borders exhibition. I’d seen it before, at the opening, but with so many people there, it was hard to concentrate. This time I found it more absorbing.
The most striking images for me were those of Yto Barrada, an artist who had taken photographs of economic migrants sleeping in the parks of Tangier, as part of her project ‘A Life Full of Holes’. These are men waiting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to work illegally in Europe. Each of them lies alone, head covered, having shed their identities in the hope of remaking their lives. Very moving, I thought.
Also memorable were Imran Qureshi’s images of blood, blossoms, and contemporary miniatures.
The best known piece in the exhibition is probably Ai Wei Wei’s Ton of Tea. It’s a block of compressed puer tea, a dark purplish brown in colour. I was surprised how small a ton actually is. I suppose we use the word metaphorically so often one imagines it to be a massive amount. It’s actually not much bigger than a large guitar amp …
If anything, there’s too much in this exhibition – covering the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, is a tall order. But it does repay going back, perhaps to focus on each artist one at a time.
January 28, 2013
I’m very glad to see that GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn has hit the top of the crime fiction charts. I read it last year, and thought it was exceptional. It’s about a yuppie New York couple, Nick and Amy, whose marriage is based on mutual self-regard – they both consider themselves bright, successful, and attractive – and a reassuring story they constantly they tell themselves about how happy they are together. However, when Nick loses his job, he and Amy move back to his home town in the mid-west to start a bar, an enterprise that’s a miserable failure. Their finances unravel, and in the process, their lack of emotional connection – indeed, their deep dislike for each other – is revealed. Amy vanishes, and via numerous twists and turns, we eventually find out why.
What I found so compelling about this book is that besides creating two entirely believable, unique characters, Flynn also manages to show how they’re the product of a greedy,banal culture that undervalues compassion, loyalty, supportive communities – indeed, everything it takes to build a marriage. Her individuals are mostly unpleasant (apart from the dowdy, dogged cops) but they never degenerate into ‘types’, because we see all too clearly how they developed into the people they are. Her portrait of the couples’ parents – on both sides – is chilling, particularly in the way she shows how a certain kind of neglectful over-praising of children leads them to an unwarranted sense of entitlement and high self-esteem in adult life. So, too, is her description of how a relentless focus on commodities and lifestyle – also characteristic of the eighties – produces a couple who believe that if they look like the perfect match, they must be. Finally, Flynn’s account of the disintegrating communities of the mid-west, huddled around the outskirts of deserted shopping centres hit by the recession, sent a shiver down my spine.
This is a very bleak book, in many ways. As such, I thought it was destined to become a cult classic rather than a bestseller. But it’s extremely encouraging for all of us – writers and readers alike – that it’s done so well, especially with the amount of drivel that’s recently been topping the charts.
This week, I went to the Pan Macmillan women’s fiction party. All the authors got to wear corsages (flowers, not basques) . It was the first time I’ve been given a flower for writing a book, and it was very nice. (It looks a bit the worse for wear in the photo here, after a few too many proseccos and the journey home on the train.) Anyway, the publisher gave a speech in which he defined women’s fiction as being essentially about ‘relationships’ and ‘redemption’. I started thinking about this with regard to the Flynn book. It was all about relationships, so that seemed right. As to redemption, I wasn’t so sure.
I thought more about it, and came to the conclusion that a book revealing the truth, however depressing, has a strong redemptive quality. It’s so invigorating, and such a relief from the lies we so often tell ourselves. That’s why some of my favourite novels, like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (incredibly similar to the Flynn, transported to a different age) and Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark are cathartic. Nobody gets transformed, nobody gets happy – but the author has taken the trouble to nail exactly how human beings are thwarted in their continuous, and sometimes entirely self-deluded, quest to do so. In that sense, these stories are redemptive, because they make us take a long, hard look at the society we live in,and think about how it can corrupt our personal relationships, in the most insidious of ways, unless we take care not to let that happen.
January 20, 2013
Copies of my new novel arrived this week in a big box. I felt very pleased and proud. The hardback seemed much more substantial than I’d imagined, or perhaps it was just the sensation of actually holding the finished book in my hand, after so many months of writing, rewriting, editing, discussions, and so on. Anyway, I felt a real sense of achievement, all the more valuable because I’m right in the middle of writing the next one, Mirror Twin.
I’ve decided give some time to painting and drawing, so my friend Carol and I are meeting up once a week for a couple of hours to have a go. We’ve done two sessions so far, and enjoyed them. We both did ‘A’ level art about a million years ago, but Carol went on to art college, and continued to sketch a lot, so she’s now a very good draughtswoman. We’re doing some still life drawings at the moment, with a bit of watercolour thrown in. She’s been helping me get my objects to sit properly; they seem to float about – or even fly around – in space, whereas hers are nicely grounded. So far, we’ve been meeting at my house in the late afternoon, and one of the pleasures has been noticing the light fading a little more slowly each time. The other has been thinking of seasonal arrangements, such as these.
January 13, 2013
A trip to Builth Wells this week, to see my friend,artist and musician Jeb Loy Nichols. He lives near Welshpool, so we met half way between there and Cardiff. Going up to Builth entails driving through the Brecon Beacons, always a spectacular sight. That day, the sun was shining brightly, but looking down the road I saw a valley swathed in thick fog. Moments later, I drove slap bang into it. Everything went white and it was hard to see more than a few feet ahead. Then, just as suddenly, I came out the other side again, into bright sunshine. Very Lord of the Rings.
Jeb and I met at the Drover’s Tea Rooms in Builth, an old-fashioned establishment that serves great home-made soup. Then we wandered round the town, which boasts an ancient bridge, a large statue of a prize bull, and a number of murals, including this one:
January 6, 2013
I spent new year at the Druidstone Hotel, Pembrokeshire, as guest of some friends who rent a cottage in the grounds there. Strangely enough, it’s only now that I realise how much the place was in my mind while writing my novel The House on the Cliff. The hotel is an old farmhouse, whereas the house in the book is a Jacobean mansion; but the spectacular setting, on the edge of a cliff overlooking St Bride’s Bay, is very much the same.
Today was another coastal ramble, up to Rest Bay near Porthcawl, where surfers were out in force. Quite a few of the surfers were using paddles, which I haven’t seen before. Less lying on the board, more standing up like a gondolier. The sea looked freezing. Afterwards a lot of the surfers had gathered at the cafe overlooking the bay, which serves delicious warm biscuits on surfboard-shaped tables looking out over the sea.
December 30, 2012
I’ve spent the time between Christmas and New Year visiting family and friends, sitting by the fire, eating too much, and having a lie-in in the mornings (very enjoyable). Today I went to a family lunch at my parents’ place, and took a picture of this painting I did in my teens, which they still have hanging in their kitchen. You can see the reflection of the trees outside the house in the glass. Where they live, by the Thames in Wiltshire, is currently surrounded by water. Thankfully they haven’t yet been flooded.
Yesterday, I went for a walk to the barrage at Cardiff Bay, which I thought would make a great location for a future novel in my crime series- the road becomes a bridge that is raised for shipping coming into the harbour from the sea. A terrifying chase, getting trapped as the bridge goes up in the air, would make a great set piece. Watch this space. On the Penarth side of the barrage is a lovely old hotel which has sadly been left to rot, while any number of dull modern houses have been built round the marina nearby. I’m told there are plans to revamp the hotel but if they leave it any longer it’ll fall down.
December 23, 2012
Last week, I went to the film Amour Michael Heneke. It’s well worth seeing for the two central performances, by Jean-Louis Trintignan and Emmanuelle Riva, who play a couple of retired music teachers (Georges and Anne) in their eighties, and also the appearance by Isabelle Huppert, playing their self-involved daughter. The story revolves around what happens when Anne has a stroke and becomes helplessly dependent on Georges, as she moves slowly towards death. The couple become marooned in their elegant but crumbling Paris apartment, Georges struggling to cope with the situation on his own. The film was a serious look at the bleak way in which all our lives inevitably end, in pain and misery, unless we meet a violent or sudden death – which actually began to seem an attractive alternative by the end of this film. I did respect the director’s ambition to tackle the subject so courageously, and despite its many long, slow passages, the film was thoroughly absorbing. However, I almost felt the director took a sadistic pleasure in revealing the horror of death, denying us any comforting thoughts about what surely, at least sometimes, must lighten the load – a certain kind of black humour, the support of family and friends, for instance. I couldn’t help comparing the relationship with another one I’ve been following recently – that of Hank and Marie in the brilliant TV series Breaking Bad. Hank isn’t dying, but he’s become severely disabled and thoroughly bad-tempered, while Marie’s reaction to the stress of the situation has taken the form of kleptomania. As ever in the series, even the bleakest of situations is leavened by moments of surreal hilarity. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference: the French couple were heroic, reserved, stoical, while the Americans alternated between being vile-tempered, mentally unbalanced, and touchingly demonstrative. I rather preferred the American way.
Death reared its ugly head again in an exhibition at the Wellcome Trust in London, which I visited as a jolly Christmas outing this week. I very much enjoyed it. It was mostly to do with skeletons, which somehow seem to have a reckless, cheery quality about them as they rattle their bones and grin. The most memorable effigy, I thought, was a tau tau, an Indonesian ‘grave guardian’ which really had a strange, otherworldly quality about it. There were some gruesome works about war by Otto Dix and Goya but overall the collection was quite a tonic, I found – if only because it made me appreciate the fact that I’m still in the land of the living.
December 16, 2012
At this time of year I always get a visit from Johnny Onions. Johnny Onions is a Frenchman (not always the same one) in a beret who sells onions from a bicycle. The onions come in a long, fat rope that you can hang up in the kitchen. They’re really good – very fresh, not dried out like most supermarket onions, with a slight pinkish tinge. The sellers come from Brittany and Normandy, I’m told, and bring the onions over directly after the harvest. Apparently most of the sellers stopped coming over to Britain in the 1970s, but they’re still a common sight in Cardiff at the beginning of winter. Today I made a ratatouille with them for lunch.
According to Nigel Slater, the trick with ratatouille is to fry each of the vegetables separately on the hob (first the onions, then the aubergines, courgettes, peppers) before laying them together in a roasting dish with some sliced fresh tomatoes and putting them in the oven for about forty minutes. He says they are much tastier if you do it this way, as all the flavours are distinct – he’s right. Though it’s more like roasted veg than ratatouille.
December 9, 2012
I went to an exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff, where they were showing many of their best twentieth-century Welsh artists such as Gwen John, David Jones, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, as well as some great contemporary artists. This was partly research for my new novel, which is set in the art world, and partly just because I like looking at paintings. Some of them were actually affordable, or would be if I had a bit of cash to spare. My favourite was a small deer by David Jones, whose work I love – he was a mate of Eric Gill, and lived in a lay community at Capel-y-Ffin in the Black Mountains. Maybe if my new book does well, I’ll buy it.
Of the contemporary artists, I liked Vivienne Williams, who reminds me of Ben Nicholson, who is one of my favourite artists. I’d really love to get back to painting myself – I haven’t done any for years – but I don’t know if I’ll ever find the time.
The national museum here has some fabulous paintings, my favourites being the Cezannes, which make me think of the year I spent in Aix-en-Provence as a student. Currently, they’re showing a bunch of Turners that were deemed to be fakes after being bought by the Davies sisters at the turn of the twentieth century. The sisters were spinsters, daughters of a coal baron, who collected cutting-edge art of the period and donated it to the museum. Apparently new techniques of analysing paintings now show that these Turners are the real thing, so they’ve been hauled up from the vaults. They’re pretty amazing. That figure in the painting below is just a couple of blobs of paint. Also shown in the exhibition are some letters breaking the news to the sisters that all their dosh had been wasted. Imagine their disappointment. If only they’d known the experts of the day were wrong.