Saturday, 27 May 2017

Chatsworth: House Style

Facebook-inspired trip
On a very hot day in May, inspired by a Facebook Friend set of photographs, Sally, Emily and I visited Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Of course, it isn’t Pemberley from Pride and Prejudice, though Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightley pretended it was in the 2005 film. (The house and gardens also features in the 2011 Jane Eyre, the 2008 The Duchess and Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon, among other notable TV and cinema outings.)

Jane Austen’s description of Pemberley
It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

House Style
The room guides suggest it was Laura Cavendish, now Countess of Burlington, who set the ball rolling when she was rummaging in the Chatsworth attics for a christening gown for her son. Enlisting the help of Vogue editor Hamish Bowles and talented designers, Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfreda, Laura has produced an exhibition of costume, fashion, social comment and insight into class, power, leisure and influence that is consistently surprising.

There are highly theatrical oases like the funereal dresses arranged in a sombre grouping; and exuberant sections like the dinner party fashions sequence. The 1897 Devonshire House costume ball gets its own ghostly room and the phrase “Traditions and Transgressions” is used about one sequence which reveals the clash of styles represented in the exhibition as a whole. Part of my interest was to feed my obsession with history but also to fuel my imagination as I approach the closing chapters of my first novel. The costume ball was useful for that!

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Legend of the Sword

All things Camelot
I have blogged about King Arthur before (links at the bottom): not as many times as Shakespeare, but looking at the Label tally opposite, more often than Jesus. All things Camelot caught my imagination at a formative age and I am a sucker for lapping up Arthurian projects – not uncritically, I have to say. I was the perfect target audience for a recent book about Arthur as “dragon of the north” – yes, King Arthur from Yorkshire, count me in – but I found it unconvincing and tenuous. So, with a professional interest and a critical eye, I went to the cinema on my own to see King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, just in case it made me weep like a colicky baby. I wasn’t alone on Friday afternoon – one woman (who fell asleep in the middle) was there with a Charlie Hunnam lookalike (might have been him, I suppose); and the rest of the audience were individual men like me, looking like they spent too much time indoors reading….

Swords and Serpents….

My favourite thing in the film was Excalibur. Not just the prop, which was beautifully made, but the way Charlie Hunnam handled it, the way Guy Ritchie filmed it, its place in the story, its journey from the stone to battle to mud to water to more battles to various supernatural nuclear-Moana-goddess–Mordor-fire-Sauron-type explosions and ripples. It was a very busy sword. The script made me laugh – out loud twice. It looked excellent, as far as CGI films can. The spin on the legend was intriguing, though I would have liked more agency from Annabelle Wallis’s Maggie, a potentially beguiling character, Poppy Delevingne’s Igraine and Nicola Wren’s Lucy. The one female character who wasn’t doomed, a Mage played by Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, certainly made her presence felt as an acolyte of (the unseen) Merlin. From my understanding of Arthurian Romance, Guy Ritchie was tapping into Welsh interpretations of Arthur as a hero who battled demons and giant serpents, although in this film, Arthur has his own serpent thing going on.

More please

I believe Guy Ritchie was hoping to use this film to launch a series of Arthurian films and, after seeing this one, I’d sign up for another in the hope that he’ll build in more scenes in the future for his daughters to enjoy. I loved the design angle that Ye Olde Londinium still had plenty of Roman ruins in evidence. And Daniel Pemberton’s score was a rumpy-pumpy blast.
  • Charlie Hunnam is a convincing reluctant hero, pulled up by his boot straps from his childhood as brothel orphan 
  • Djimon Hounsou is magnificently charismatic and noble as Sir Bedivere 
  • Aiden Gillen is always wry value as crack archer, Goosefat Bill (Bill?) 
  • Jude Law eats the scenery and swivels his eyes in demented villain mode 
  • Geoff Bell always gives great geezer, this time as someone called (I think) John 
  • Eric Bana is memorable as the ghost of old Hamlet (not quite, but if you see it you’ll know what I mean).
  • The small parts were sketched quickly and boldly: Kingsley Ben-Adir as Wet Stick, Tom Wu as George, Neil Maskell as Blue’s dad, Black Lack, David Beckham as (did they say Trigger?)
Overall it felt like a version of King Arthur that some mates down the pub might act out. (If they had a multi-million pound budget.) But it passed a rainy afternoon for this Arthurian geek quite nicely, thank you. PS, there was a very smart performance by young actor Bleu Landau as Blue.

Past blogs about King Arthur
Reading Arthurian Romance:
The Sword in the Stone
The Once and Future King
One Brief Shining Moment

Road trip with Emily to Arthurian sites:
Road to Avalon
Road to Glastonbury
Road to Stonehenge and Winchester 
Thanks, Mr Ritchie, for adding to the Arthurian canon

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Monte-Carlo Murders

First there was 1950s Paris;
Then there was 1920s Chicago;
Then there was 1900 Paris;

Now it’s 1950s Monte Carlo
The palace of Prince Reynard on a very specific date: the evening of 12th May 1951. As Europe recovers from the horrors of the Second World War, perhaps one more death shouldn’t amount to a hill of beans. But when the corpse of Roxy Foxx, actress, is discovered on a private beach in Monte Carlo, the international jet set are bound to gossip.

Exclusive beach
The body is found on a beach that can only be reached through the palace of Prince Reynard. Who are the guests on the night of the murder? And can the host be trusted?

Suspicious dinner guests
  • Prince Reynard – the most eligible bachelor in Europe, but what is he doing being engaged to his cousin?
  • Princess Peacock – a distant cousin of Prince Reynard and the last survivor of an obscure branch of Bavarian royalty, and what did you do in the war, Princess?
  • Amy Jackson – the celebrated female pilot who flew missions for the RAF during the war, and, yes, that is a two-seater plane she arrived in, folks - but who did she bring?
  • Colonel Jock Strapp – a distinguished Scottish veteran (well-travelled, accounting for his unstable wandering accent) who won a Victoria Cross on D-Day but never returned to Britain - and why not?

From the sporting and film industries
  • Bobbie Driver – the unofficial women’s world champion golfer who is trying to break into movies, but where are her balls and are they made of chocolate?
  • Alfred Higginbottom – an English film director, currently the most powerful man in Hollywood; did he know the dead starlet, and was she going to star in his next film?
  • Cassandra – a newly-famous film star accompanying the director as they seek movie locations; she's soon to be in a sequel to the smash-hit film that starred Roxy Foxx!
  • Lady Lummy – one of the best-known, with-it, hip&happening, dance-band leaders in America, currently hipstering around Europe on tour; she introduced a famous detective into the midst and guided the house party through the clues....

Who Murdered Roxy Foxx?
The sumptuous menu did nothing to alleviate the tension as clue after clue, drink after drink, accusation after accusation and revelation after sordid revelation discombobulated the assembled celebrities.  Inspector Hercule McClue did unmask a Prime Suspect by the end of the evening but the forthcoming trial means it is not possible to reveal who will stand in the dock….

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Walking firmly over stones

Brontë birth anniversaries
I am living in a time of Brontëphilia. The Brontë Parsonage at Haworth begun a slew of anniversaries last year with the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth and is continuing to celebrate milestones over the next few years.
  • 2016 – 200 years since Charlotte’s birth 
  • 2017 – 200 years since Branwell’s birth 
  • 2018 – 200 years since Emily’s birth 
  • 2019 – 200 years since the Reverend Patrick took up the role of pastor in Haworth 
  • 2020 – 200 years since Anne’s birth
The number of labels on the right link to earlier blogs I’ve written about the Brontës. Like Shakespeare, their works and lives, are bottomless pits of fascination. Sally and I went to see Bolton Octagon’s production of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, adapted by Deborah McAndrew and directed by Elizabeth Newman. The set was beautifully versatile, designed by Amanda Stoodley and the lighting and sound wutheringly atmospheric. Helen Graham, the tenant of the title, prompts malicious gossip in the nearby town. Will the town ever come to understand the headstrong tenant? Is she truly a widow? Who is the father of her son? What is her relationship with her landlord? Like the novel, the adaptation used the bold narrative device of the truth pouring out of the pages of Helen’s journal that, in a theatrical flourish, appeared just before the interval. Any road up, the production was so enjoyable we booked again to see it at the Theatre Royal in York where we were even closer to the actors’ expressions – and Sancho the eager dog!

Subversive work

Published in 1848 (under the male pseudonym Acton Bell) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an instant and scandalous success. One contemporary reviewer proclaimed it “revolting, coarse, disgusting” and Anne’s own sister, Charlotte, prevented its re-publication after Anne’s untimely death. Is it the vivid portrayal of the lecherous and drunken husband and the debauchery of the aristocrats that offended? Or the issues surrounding the morality of bringing up a child in abusive circumstances? Or the blatant refusal of Helen to be a meek dutiful wife? Or the portrayal of a woman who refuses to compromise her principles? Or the class-upsetting thought of a “rich widow” attracting the admiration of a working class Yorkshire farmer and she going after him as an equal? Does the novel deserve its reputation as an early feminist tract? (Probably yes in answer to all these questions, in my view, and a masterpiece in consequence.)

A uniformly superb cast, beautifully choreographed, skillfully distinguished
Elizabeth Newman coaxed terrific performances out of the cast, some of whom played two roles effectively:
  • Pheobe Pryce as the complicated, religious, determined, straight-talking Helen Graham/Huntingdon
  • Michael Peavoy as the hard-working, steadfast, jealous, dogged, stubborn but lovable Gilbert Markham
  • Nicôle Lecky as Rose Markham, loyal and industrious, sometimes susceptible to gossip; and as the dazzling and amoral Lady Lowborough
  • Susan Twist as Mrs Markham, Yorkshire mother, blind to her own son’s faults and eager to be hospitable to all; and as courageous servant, Rachel
  • Marc Small as the charismatic, authoritative but doomed drunken rake Arthur Huntingdon
  • Colin Connor as the hypocritical pastor Reverend Millward; and as the hapless toff Lord Lowborough
  • Natasha Davidson as the flighty Eliza Millward; and as the abused Millicent Hattersley
  • Philip Starnier as the enigmatic landlord Lawrence; and as the weak-willed Ralph Hattersley
  • + a variety of child actors as the younger Arthur, crucial in scenes showing the contrast between Arthur Huntingdom and Gilbert Markham
  • + a variety of canine performers as Sancho the dog (woof!)

My favourite quotations
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall doesn’t contain some of the rock-hewn language of the works of Charlotte and Emily, but Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation included a couple of my favourite quotations from Anne's magnificent novel:
I maintain that if she were more perfect, she would be less interesting.
If you would have your son to walk honourably through the world, you must not attempt to clear the stones from his path, but teach him to walk firmly over them - not insist upon leading him by the hand, but let him learn to go alone.
I would rather have your friendship than the love of any other woman in the world.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Boy, let me see the writing

Aspiring author - will my book ever be a page-turner?

Murder your darlings

In Shakespeare’s Richard II, the Duke of York repeats “let me see the writing” twice in the same scene. It’s very tough to show someone your writing. But when you do, miraculous things can happen. Having presented daughter Emily with another new section of my novel to look at, she asked a pertinent question and I removed 250 words within seconds. And instantly saw how much better the page was. Clearer. More vivid. You need a critical eye to help murder your darlings.

And there it is in writing, fairly drawn

So far Emily is my only reader. My “First Reader.” My “Prime Reader.” And will be the only one until I am certain I want a second reader. If I ever do. I want to spend every second with my characters. It’s noticeable that my other retirement projects have fallen away. I’m walking less, which I must change. I’m mopping and hoovering less, which can wait. I haven’t really spent time on jigsaws or piano practice. What happened to learning Italian? Facebook and Emails barely get a look-in. I’m behind on TV, cinema and theatre-going. But I’m fully immersed in the crises on the planet Rhenium.
Bruising edits....


Bruising edits

The trilogy was originally called The Akolyte Wars but even that’s changed – it’s now The Rhenium Wars (editor: PS at some point in the future it becomes Rhenium Tales!) and all past labels in this blog have been changed accordingly but, for the record, that change happened on May 1st 2017. As did Raydan’s solo instrument. (He’s my first person character.)  Raydan used to play the violin, but now he plays the mandolin. Why the change? Something clicked about something in a future chapter and a mandolin it had to be…. Write. Edit. Write and edit. Write. Write. Write more. Edit later.
Raydan, possibly, aged 35+ (he's 14 when the book starts....)

Kill your darlings

I attended a Guardian masterclass on writing suspense with Claire McGowan and a very inspiring day it was too with terrific follow-up materials and exercises to complete. It helped me fully understand the notion of murdering or killing your darlings, that famous writerly advice about being ruthless in the editing stage. Don’t be precious about things you’ve written. Slash. Burn. Purge.
Scene of an inspiring writing day....

Origin of phrase?

The true origin of the phrase is lost, I think. Contenders for its invention include: Anton Chekhov, G K Chesterton, William Faulkner, F Scott Fitzgerald, Alan Ginsberg, Eudora Welty and Oscar Wilde. But I’ll quote two:
From Stephen King’s On Writing: a memoir of the craft
“kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
And from Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1914 lecture On Style
“If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
For no reason other than....