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A bloody canvas

Pierre Lemaitre was awarded the 2013 Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger for his first outing in crime fiction, Alex.

pierre lemaitre

The follow-up, Irene, sees Commandant Camille Verhoeven – his dwarf hero and main protagonist – married and about to become a father. His life is a long sought after one of ease. The story opens with a murder of unprecedented savagery. The author is unrelenting in his description of the macabre crime scene. This is not a spoiler alert but a warning to the squeamish amongst readers.

When they arrive at a crime scene, rookie officers unconsciously look around for death. Experienced officers look for life. But there was no life here; death had leached into every space, even the bewildered eyes of the living.

The French writer paints a picture and it is a gore-ridden massacre, not so much on a small detailed canvas, more of a bold brash bloody mural. The killer’s signature style is to pay homage to the classic crime novels. The gutter press, one suspects the French equivalent of The Daily Fail or The Scum, quickly label him the Novelist.

The tale soon becomes a personal duel between Verhoeven and the sick murderer. It is a credit to translator Frank Wynne for he transfers this piece of writing from the French into a succinct and exceptionally well written piece of crime fiction.

IRENE

What works about this gripping and intelligent story is the clever plot that weaves dark and comic scenes into a tapestry of realistic terror that surreptitiously wraps around the reader, attempting to choke. You share the sense of urgency with Camille and his team, to catch this serial psycho and stop him recreating tableaus from the pages of crime novels. It is an enthralling read and clearly written by a crime aficionado, as the author himself declares,

Since I owe almost everything I am to literature, it felt natural to begin by writing a novel which was a homage to crime fiction.

I recognised the first murder but could not think were from until informed it was from the cult classic, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.

AmericanPsychoBook

Le Maitre explains,

American Psycho was a tremendous shock to the reading public. Bret Easton Ellis raises so many moral questions with such intelligence, such skill. Though not considered a crime novel, this defining work deftly addresses readers’ ambiguity towards the very violence which is an essential, ‘pleasure’ of crime fiction. Yet many criticised the visceral brutality in American Psycho, as though the purpose of such fiction is to exercise our hyper-violent societies, but to remain within ‘reasonable limits’.

Simply, this is a pulp crime novel taken to another level. It does not leave a temporary fixture on the imagination, like some throwaway novels in this genre, so much as a dark imposing stain.

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Votes for the people, by the people

On the 27th January 2015 as I began to organise my thoughts for this piece, it was 100 days until the election. Already the bun fight has begun, cakes and pastries layered with shale gas, tuition fees, immigration and other issues. The word that seems to be repeatedly being used, issues, issues, issues. I often think it is like a schoolyard scrap, ‘My plans for the NHS are better than yours’, yada, yada, yada.

What appears to be lacking in this debate is a vital ingredient to credibility and that is authenticity. I do wish some of our politicians would take heed from the ancient poet Rumi,

If only people raised their words, instead of voice, it is rain that grows flowers not thunder.

Who to vote for at this stage is a decision of extreme difficulty. I am somewhat apathetic as I look at the parties and what they have to offer. Although I do know for certain one I am not and that is UKIP. I have no desire to be transported back to 1957.

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As I drove across Yorkshire before Xmas, I was startled by the abundance of posters and paraphernalia associated with UKIP that I saw, a surreptitious malignancy that is growing. My friend drove me past rural picturesque scenes, I was immediately reminded of the scene in the magnificent film CABARET, where a young Aryan school boy in Nazi youth attire breaks out into song at a propaganda rally, Tomorrow Belongs to me.

Recently, I found myself in the jewel in the crown of Liverpool’s Bold Street, News From Nowhere. I can always guarantee finding a book that will stimulate my mind, feed my soul and challenge my way of thinking.

On this occasion, I found myself mulling over the political spectrum and how it is exceptionally difficult to see between the different policies, many of the parties seem to converge, with the deviations being unseen by the untrained naked eye. It used to be a simple battle of red versus blue, but now it is not so straightforward.

Yet people are hungry for change, for something more. I do not in any way want to start to sound like Russell Brand. I have always thought of that man as a ‘Brand’. Brand by name and Brand by nature. I still have not forgiven him for recreating the fabulous role of Arthur in the same titled film, ingeniously played by Dudley Moore, in the same way I will never forgive Nicholas Cage for remaking The Wicker Man.

So, on this charcoal grey January day, I stumbled upon a little book of wit that was published in 2010 by Mark Thomas, The People’s Manifesto. The author toured the country to find out what people really wanted out of their elected government in 2009. The book evolved from a live show and I think it is worth reading to stimulate the current political debate. Re-awaken your voting animal!

If we can just cast our minds back to 2009, the world was in the middle of an economic crisis. Banks and countries collapsed, only to then be rewarded generously for the mess of their own making. Thomas asked audiences from all over the country to voice their ideas for policies. He was working on the basis that most people often proclaim that they could run the country. The eclectic mixed bag of written forms were sifted through and then the audiences would vote on the ones that they would like to see put down into the manifesto. The result is this witty, satirical – and often surreal – call to arms.

Some of the policies are exceptionally practical. I particularly liked the proposal to cure the world from the rise of body dysmorphic disorder:

MODELS SHOULD BE CHOSEN AT RANDOM FROM THE ELECTORAL ROLL. THIS OF COURSE WOULD RESULT IN A MORE REALISITIC PORTRAY OF REALITY IN ADVERTISEMENTS.

I was pleased to see that one law has actually been executed, IT SHOULD BE LEGAL FOR GAY COUPLES TO GET MARRIED. After all homosexual couples should suffer the same as married heterosexual couples, it is only just!

As mentioned, some of the laws declared are downright surreal: I do not own a dog and although doggy poop or doggy caramel as I often call it, (to try to detract from the harsh reality of canine roughage) on pavements does anger me, I feel this particular point is somewhat sadistic.

PEOPLE WHO ALLOW THEIR DOGS TO S##T ON THE PAVEMENT WITHOUT CLEANING IT UP SHOULD BE FORCED TO WEAR IT AS A MOUSTACHE.

After seeing too, too many pictures in the newspapers of the elderly battered and bruised by muggers, perhaps this next rule is one that may act as a deterrent:

TO RANDOMLY ARM OAPs

That would cause some surprise to hapless crooks.

There is lots of press at the moment about the minimum wage and zero hours contracts, so I do think that to state THERE SHOULD BE A MAXIMUM WAGE seems fair. Certain points make perfect sense, EVERYONE SHOULD BE GIVEN THE DAY OFF ON THEIR BIRTHDAY. If you think about it even an atheist is given the day of for Jesus’ supposed birthday, one for his death and one for the David Blaine-like trick of coming back from the dead.

My particular favourites in the manifesto are those that the author quite rightly highlights,

…are they really suggesting that managing a banking crisis, a recession, mass unemployment and a massive national debt of around 200 billion doesn’t require their full attention.

And then there is another,

POLITICIANS SHOULD HAVE TO WEAR TABARDS DISPLAYING THE NAMES AND LOGOS OF THE COMPANIES WITH WHOM THEY HAVE A FINANCIAL RELATIONSHIP LIKE A RACING DRIVER.

I have had an innate disliking for the newspaper the Daily Fail for a long time so it was refreshing to discover my gut instinct was right. One of the papers original founders was an anti-Semite who visited Herr Hitler on several occasions and thought the little ball of fury was misunderstood! Lord Rothermere excused the stories of Nazi violence as exaggerated. Therefore, it seems only correct that:

THE DAILY MAIL SHOULD BE FORCED TO PRINT THE WORDS, ‘THE PAPER THAT SUPPORTED HITLER’, ON ITS MASTHEAD.

Whilst on the subject of fascists, I liked the suggestion that ANYONE FOUND GUILTY OF A HOMOPHOBIC HATE CRIME SHALL SERVE THEIR SENTENCE IN DRAG.

I think Putin would look fabulous with a Dame Edna-esque purple rinse and a Gucci dress, being forced to sing From Russia With Love.

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This Manifesto is required reading and works well with a good dosage of the only newspaper worth looking at, Private Eye. I find this satirical rag is also a great way to get a handle on a political story.

Mark Thomas’ The People’s Manifesto is an antidote to the acidic political debate that we are going to see more of until Election Day.

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Naomi’s Room

We have all been there, so it’s not hard to conjure up the scenario. A bustling Saturday shopping afternoon, you try to manoeuvre yourself through the lagoon of people who bash past oblivious to anyone in their pathway. Basic manners and people skills: clearly two lessons that were eradicated from their upbringing. People who were not brought up, but rather brought down.

You clasp tight hold of the child’s hand by your side. But being an infant, this is no ordinary day, no day is ever ordinary when you are three or four. It’s a world of imaginative possibilities. An escalator is a runway to a sci-fi alien world, a conveyor belt to the land of robots. A discarded take away box is a trunk of treasure and then there are all the neon flashing distractions of window displays and other excitements.

You may lose your grip for a fraction of a second, look down and he or she is still there, look away and then back and the kid has vanished, gone! This is every adult who is responsible for a child’s absolute nightmare. Because adults know the darkness of the world we inhabit. In that fleeting moment, the amygdala does not just hijack the brain, it tortures it.

Generally a few seconds later the child re-appears, you catch sight of him or her and your heart returns back to its normal rhythm. You shout, an almost roar, out of sheer panic about wandering off and how it is naughty or some other disdainful reprimand. It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s just words, noise expressing your inner fear. And equilibrium is restored.

But what happens if the child does not re-appear?

This is precisely the dilemma that Jonathan Aycliffe throws at his reader in the beginning of the short tale of terror NAOMI’S ROOM. From the onset he establishes his tale in the land of comfortable academia. It’s domestic bliss with Charles, the main protagonist, aged 30, his wife Lucy, 26, and their daughter Naomi who is 4.

It’s a world of possibilities,

Your life seems so directed when you are thirty.

Charles is a published promising academic, with an acclaimed piece on Gawain and the Green Knight. The loving couple and their daughter live a charmed life and the action starts with the two prepping for Naomi’s first proper Christmas. Taking Naomi on a trip to London, on Christmas Eve, her mood is one of excitement.

Naomi’s sense of adventure was infectious.

This picturesque idyll is not so much shattered as completely decimated when Naomi goes missing.

Nothing bad happened to children on Christmas Eve.

Each chapter is crafted to keep you reading on with a suspenseful final paragraph. This tale is in the style of supernatural masters like M.R. James and Susan Hill. The sadistic style of writing that is unflinching in its descriptions, slashes the canvas of comfort and provides an engrossing narrative. It is horror writing at its best, suspenseful, chilling and occasionally gruesome.

I’d say you know it’s a captivating tale when you open the envelope it came in as you come home from a solid day of graft and decide to look at the first paragraph to realise you are 80 pages in and the last hour or two has gone by. It was only when I finished NAOMI’S ROOM that I actually looked at the cover in greater detail. Thankfully, I had not given it a glance as on reflection this could have put me off, a naff superimposed stock image of a spooky child clutching a doll over a staircase was about as sinister as athlete’s foot, but I guess that depends on the severity of the foot ailment!

naomis-room

If like me you choose to read this tale in a room of your own, I can guarantee that when you bed down in the evening, a light of sorts will have to be turned firmly on somewhere in sight of the naked eye. You will hope that the mind does not decide to work overtime and you will hope that Madam Sleep wrestles you quickly into unconsciousness.

It does amaze me the fixation that society seems to have with fictional horror and crime. The world is crammed with gruesome realities from IS to UKIP, yet we still have an innate fascination with atrocities from watching hangings in Elizabethan times to reading penny dreadful novels in Victorian days, the 1970’s slasher flicks to the bordering-on-snuff films of the SAW franchise.

Perhaps we are all just twisted souls?

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The tortoise had it right!

Next time you’re in a public space, a café, a bar arena or even a restaurant, take a peep around at how many people either alone, in couples or groups of friends are on their phones, travelling the internet, keeping up to speed with the latest viral sensation.

everyday robots Copy = Babycakes romero

This need for a flash spectacle is fantastically portrayed in the recent film BIRDMAN. Michael Keaton’s character, a washed up actor, gets accidentally locked out of his Broadway production naked midway through the play’s performance and has to walk through a congested Times Square. A common nightmare that I and I am sure others have.

People are addicted to the net, trailing through Twitter, Facebook and the like, an endless stream of information flowing like a river full of driftwood that cannot be used for anything of purpose. Although there will be an occasional salmon. This buzzing is constant on all apps.  We are all moving so fast and trying to achieve the unachievable.

I saw Carl Honore talk on the excellent TED site last year on slowing down and paying more attention to what is around us. His discussion on the slow movement encouraged me to buy his book, IN PRAISE OF SLOW. I generally buy a lot of books from the site ABE books. As they deal in second-hand copies, there is always something exciting about getting a book someone else has had, with occasional receipt or ticket as book markers, scribbling inside and the odd personal message.

In praise of slowIn general the books come in a day or two from the time I order them.  For some reason this particular book took a few weeks. Perhaps a witty bookseller was teaching me a lesson before I had even opened the pages of the manifesto. In keeping with the title of this book, I have read it slowly over the last few weeks. Normally when I am captivated by a subject I consume it quite fast, but I felt particularly with this topic it would be better to cogitate over each idea. I’d highly recommend reading it in a similar fashion.

Warhol said,

We spend much of our lives seeing without observing.

This is very apparent in the arguments put forward in the for a slower approach to all aspects of our lives from sex to food. To start the New Year, ten minutes hate caught up with Carl Honore and asked him to summarise why we should slow down:

  1. To recharge your physical batteries. Our bodies burn out when stuck in fast-forward. Pausing from time to time to rest allows us to enjoy life with more energy.

  2. To look back. Memories are hard to form when we live too fast. Pausing allows us to savour and learn from past experiences.

  3. To see the big picture. Pausing to reflect allows us to look beyond the trivial distractions of the moment to ponder the deeper questions: Who am I? What is my purpose here? How can I make the world a better place?

  4. To take pleasure. Many of us are racing through life rather than living it. Pausing allows us to engage fully with the moment, which means doing everything better and enjoying it more.

  5. To connect. Relationships wither when we try to rush them. Pausing allows us to listen to other people, to be with them fully. It also allows others to connect with us.

  6. To be more creative. Neuroscience tells us that slowing down is an essential pre-condition for creativity. Pausing allows us to unleash our imagination and creative powers in the workplace and everywhere else.

  7. To save the world. We are burning out the planet by consuming much more than we need. And much shopping is driven by impulse decisions. Pausing allows us to resist the siren call of turbo-consumerism and to make sensible decisions about what to buy.

You can find more information here.

So far for 2015, I am trying to ensure I spend quality time with friends and family, where they have my undivided attention, not ‘oh, I just need to take this call.’

I’ve joined a rambling club so a couple of times a month I can land in the middle of nowhere and walk for the day without any digital toxins, using a compass not a sat nav. I find it quite disturbing to be told you have reached your final destination, it sounds too much like death. In the same way I can never get over the fact they call an airport a terminal, after all that is also too, too final.

To combat the 24 hour online working society that we have become, where we can work anytime and anyplace, I now have a tech-free curfew for a few hours every day, I keep away from a digital screen. I can still write down my ideas but only in a sketch book. No digital sound beats the scratching down on to paper with a sharpened pencil. In the orchestration of our lives, we would all benefit from a marked rallentando, before the inevitable conclusion that awaits us all.

tortoise and the hare

As Simon and Garfunkel aptly sang in The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy):

Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the moment last…

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The Sound of the City

My desk space in the city is located just off Dale Street. I love walking to work across town in the morning, past the sprinkling of market traders that are left, setting up for the day ahead. I see steaming cups of tea being administered to people who look like they desperately need them. I try to interact with this dying breed of trader. Use them or lose them! I try to buy vegetables from the stalls as often as I can. I could not get a pumpkin at Halloween last year for love nor money. One of the regular stalls I go to complained about how they simply cannot compete with the supermarkets,

Even I had to buy mine from the Asda, lad!

I love this humour that is used as an attitude in this city. The unshakeable wit of Scousers that can be heard everywhere. Recently on a bus a teenage girl was arguing/flirting with one of her male friends, who had taken a picture of her on his phone,

Do you know it’s illegal to keep a picture on ye phone if the other person doesn’t want you to?

She barked. To which he quickly retorted,

Do you know it’s illegal to have them eyebrows?

The acidic comeback is natural to the average Scouser. It’s all part of the sound of the city. It is all about survival. I have noticed in the past few years, a couple of the flower sellers have vanished on my route, withering away into nothing like the flowers they sold. There is still the occasional Eccoooooooooooo of an Echo seller and thankfully the sounds of the buskers if you can manage to ferry your way past the Predator, the Alien, a balloon squeezing Mario (plumbing obviously has been affected by the recession) and the odd Olaf. (Please note it is not recommended to tell a three-year old if the said man in a snowman costume is not present by stating, ‘he must have melted’, as my nephew was traumatised by this for several hours after.)

But one of the most gratifying sounds is the one I often hear, the music from rehearsal rooms on Dale Street. A banging drum set beat as I walk to work early in the morning and guitar solos flooding into the night air as I finish in the evening. This always raises a smile on my face, as you can hear the soul that is going into the practice. It is so much more refreshing a sound than ‘Cashier number three please.’ It is part of the DNA of this city, music, yes respecting the past but also moving progressively forward, to the future bands.

princes buildings

I was appalled at the news that this magnet for musical talent, the Princes Studios could be threatened with closure. We need to close a vital creative hub – that makes great sense! We need new apartments in the city like the world needs Ebola!

As those behind a recent petition to the Council asking to save the building have written:

Princes Studios currently houses over 250 musicians and 50+ bands who make up a large percentage of Liverpool’s illustrious music scene.

If the building closes it will have a huge negative impact on the Liverpool music scene as there is a chronic shortage of flexible and permanent rehearsal space in the city.

I was so proud to show off this City over the holidays to friends who were genuinely shocked by the culture, humour, history and vibe that we have. I do wish I was equally as proud of its elected leaders. The local Council – the alleged custodians of the city – do not seem to realise they do not own this city, the people do!

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The world can never have enough glitter!

In the limbo period of Xmas and New Year I found myself taking several parties of friends and families around the Pool of Life at different times. It is quite something, seeing the City through the eyes of strangers, aliens to its charms. I have a love affair with the City Centre which anybody who has read features on here previously will know.

The first shock to my friends was that the Museums are free!

If you have not had the pleasure of embarking on a ship as an emigrant at the Maritime Museum, do so! Although the black wigs on the dummies looked like they could have been stolen from a Human League Appreciation party. The Walker has a wealth of art, so much that only a limited supply is actually on display. Check out the new exhibit of Liverpool images though the years to see views of Castle Street and the St John’s Market resembling Covent Garden.

In a world where Russia creates ridiculous restrictions for LGBT drivers, it was an absolute pleasure to show off the cultural richness the City proudly exhibits and particularly the work of Homotopia:

  •  An ongoing exhibition about Gay life in the Navy with HELLO SAILOR at the Maritime Museum. It was an insight to discover that the common Scouse term bevvy (slang for a drink) stems from Polari .
  • The internationally ground-breaking April Ashley exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool Life. April Ashley has LIVED a life, a pioneer in LGBT history. I read the book April Ashley’s Odyssey last year. What a ride! From dining with aristocracy and being dated by Hollywood royalty to being skint in Hay-on-Wye, living on tinned food.
  • THE GANG, photographs by Catherine Opie at The Walker. Her collection of portraits of LGBT friends, an entourage of individuality, subverts American archetypes.

OPIE-square-The-GangCatherine Opie sums up how far we have come in terms of equality,

I made THE GANG after individually shooting them all for the 1991 body of work, Being and Having. It was great to see them with their moustaches and I couldn’t resist making some group photos of them…..I think it is perfect in celebrating Homotopia as this work was made 20 years ago, in relationship to visibility within my queer community. It is good to reflect on the equality that has been achieved, as well as the fight in regard to homophobia that continues.

So to banish the January blues, I would suggest painting over the grey and dark bleakness brought to us by the weather by catching the Technicolor works on display at all of the above.

Sail away to another land.
Check out the LGBT exhibitions.
The world can never have enough glitter!
And the Museums are free!

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Everybody’s looking for something

At a recent re-union with my two close friends, I went through my archive to find photographs from our collective past, remember photographs? Actual hard copies, actual physical images? I had a suitcase-full from the University days in Aberystwyth: theatre projects, pantomime and holidays, all shared histories. At the time we looked so fresh, yet were stacked with insecurities. It was striking how visually we had changed, faces, bodies, the core of the physical.

One of the funniest – yet lamest at the same time – cracker jokes I had this year was about Santa having to discipline his staff, as productivity on toy production was down in his factories. This was due to the Elves taking Elfies. Indeed, if you think about it, 2014 was the year of the selfie.

Nowadays, everybody airbrushes, changes, edits, deletes! We all do it, we all modify our digital life experiences promoting the fun times and the happy memories. We are all self-aware to a degree, but only projecting what we want the world to see. We are all Public Relations agents. Some admittedly are better than others.

It made me extremely happy to see a musician I have admired, Ms. Annie Lennox in a portrait that did not iron out her life lines or laughter marks. An image that did not tone and gloss her face to resemble an alabaster porcelain doll. To be raw, to be unaltered, to be authentic.

annie lennox

It reminded me of an anecdote I heard about Audrey Hepburn, who was appearing on the front of Vogue. One assistant, when showing her copy from the shoot, told her not to worry about the wrinkles as they would airbrush them out of the picture. To which this dignified actress said,

Don’t you dare! Leave them all in. I have earned every single one of them.

The recent picture of the Eurythmic legend was accompanied by a telling quote about our society on the Purple Clover Facebook page,

There’s this youth culture that is really, really powerful and really, really strong, but what it does is it really discards other people once they reach a certain age.

I actually think that people are so powerful and interesting – women especially – when they reach my age. We’ve got so much to say, but popular culture is so reductive that we just talk about whether we’ve got wrinkles, or whether we’ve put weight on, or lost weight, or whether we’ve changed our hair style. I just find that so shallow.

Perhaps we all should be made to read Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Perhaps we all could do with a reminder of what happens when you try and remain youthful for eternity. Perhaps it’s time to delete that picture in the attic or re-examine the profile image of our digital selves?

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The Life of ‘The Master’

In the epicentre of the city, an electrical jungle, it seemed quite fitting that I started to read a biography of Lou Reed in Lime Street station, Liverpool. The speed of life was all around as I leafed through the pages of the book, LOU REED, THE LIFE BY MICK WALL. It was so cold you could smell the frost. Trains sighed, constantly in a mood. A distant whistle, then a robotic articulation read out train departures, all clipped vowels and pronounced words mixed with the click-clack of heels. A bird scream shattered the air.

The noisy chaos of a city, its people and their stories. The very madness of living that Lou Reed quite skilfully captured in his music. The singer lived the majority of his life in the middle of the similar hustle of New York City.

lou reed the life mick wall

This biography focuses on the rise and fall, rise and fall again cycle that the artist had during his lifetime. At times he was arrogant, vengeful and downright nasty.

He can’t leave any situation alone or any scab unpicked.

It was Mr. David Bowie who dubbed Lou Reed the ‘Master’. Yet they fought quite publicly, on many occasions. But we all love a Rock ‘n’ Roll feud, remember Oasis versus Blur?

What I discovered about the idol was not endearing. You don’t always have to like your idols; you can fall out and be frustrated by their actions. After all, it is okay to be contradictory, that is a necessary part of being human.

I continued to read the book at 6am on the day after Boxing Day, with a cup of tea and a bowl rammed with Yule log and extra-thick Jersey cream, which did make me giggle. I was reading about the musicians’ hedonistic exploration, dibble-dabbling in pharmaceuticals and narcotics as I was devouring the bowl of wrongness. How rock n roll, what a game, eh!

Thankfully, this festive over indulgence can be combatted by a couple of extra sets of sit ups. It’s clear from this book that a diet of heroin, LSD and other toxins cannot be so easily sorted. I have seen first-hand friends who danced the tango ballad with drugs in their twenties only to have hangovers either take root immediately or more innocuously in their mid- to late-thirties and forties. They had forgotten to read the small print, that drugs could lead to paranoia, claustrophobia and other anxieties, sometimes heaped together.

Kierkegaard said,

Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.

Wall’s no nonsense style of writing highlights the damage that the New York City man’s vices did to his mental well-being but hints at how it also stimulated his finer hours, like the pieces BERLIN and TRANSFORMER.

lou reed Berlin

I walk around Liverpool and hear the fragments of pieces of conversation, banter, arguments and all that I love about the city, the language, the talk, the buzzing. Where else in the world would you find scrawled on a toilet wall,
‘Ye ma’s baldy and collects Panini stickers’?

The type of dry sense of humour that is apparent in Lou Reed’s work. A great lyric in his track LAST GREAT AMERICAN WHALE (on the album NEW YORK) about where this sea creature has been spotted is delivered in that inimitable Yankee drawl,

My mother said she saw him in Chinatown, but you can’t always trust your mother.

I think Lou Reed would have loved Liverpool and its kick-ass attitude, finding the humour in the tragic.  It was his sardonic take on life that attracted me initially to his music. Its tales of picaresque characters from Warhol’s Factory, the broken people, transvestites, street workers and drug fiends who bleed glitter, glamour and damage. A cast of deranged souls.

velvet underground

The unsettling sound of THE VELVET UNDERGROUND with Nico’s droning somnambulist chanteuse next to Reed’s sandpaper-scratched vocal chords. John Cale’s avant-garde experimental score next to Mo Tucker’s anarchic drum beat. I remember buying their first album with Warhol’s Banana on the front from PROBE records, when I was a teenage bag of tie-dyed insecurities with blue hair and eye brow piercings, trying to standout but really unknowingly conforming. It was like something else! I lost track of his career trajectory as I grew up, with his pieces like albums ECSTASY and THE RAVEN.

This entertaining rock biography does exactly what it sets out to do, talk about Lou Reed and his musical legacy. It is also unflinching in describing his personal life, there is no airbrushing of the past. I found I didn’t warm to his attitude, but it has encouraged me to re-visit his back catalogue particularly. Like I said, you don’t have to like your idols, the person who created the music. It is, after all, the work that will always stand out.

Perhaps Bowie was right and he was the ‘master’, but I will let you be the judge of that.

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A year in books – 2014 – John Maguire

Since I purchased myself a Reading Chair, my reading habits have become far more structured this year. It’s true I still read haphazardly in between appointments and on my daily commute on the buses of Liverpool. It takes 21 days for a new habit to be formed and now if I do not snatch a few moments in my chair daily, I feel like the day has not really been complete.

stack-of-booksI started the year with Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS, a first-hand observation of New York during the Bohemian seventies. It details her relationship with the controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The poetry behind her descriptions of the creative process is intense, dark and beautiful.

BREAKFAST WITH LUCIEN by Geordie Grieg tries to get behind the skin of the cantankerous painter Lucien Freud. This book does not shed the artist in a great light. I would hate for a friend who I chose to have breakfast with regularly to narrate all the things we intimately discussed (allegedly) after I died. As Freud was an enigmatic private man I find this well, quite frankly, quite rude. The book was an addictive read and proof that you can appreciate the artist even if his or her life choices are somewhat questionable and contradictory to your own moral compass.

THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES by Roald Dahl were delicious, macabre, tales of the everyday with a sadistic twist, a tapas board of terror. I wanted to re-read THE GREAT GATSBY before seeing the new-fangled 4D bluescreen adaptation.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I would say that this is the greatest book of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, perhaps second only to TENDER IS THE NIGHT. Sadly, it left me questioning how he would have developed if he had not drowned himself in hard liquor. How many great writers have been lost on the wild seas of intoxication?

I abandoned THIS SIDE OF PARADISE as I felt it was like being in a room with a married couple when they drank too much and argued at a party. LAST DAYS by Adam Neville is an enjoyable horror focusing on a lost cult from the seventies. I could not help drawing parallels with Scientology.

Back to the classics next with the episodic story of self-development DAVID COPPERFIELD and then onto NICHOLAS NICKELBY both by Charles Dickens, I think I found my favourite Dickensian character too (so far) in the eccentric Mr Dick. I struggled through BLEAK HOUSE, a great tale but I found the legal wranglings tedious.

THE APPRENTICE by Tess Gerritsen was a grizzly and graphic suspenseful horror. Nothing quite like feeling like you are actually attending an autopsy when reading whilst on the bus to work at 6:45am. Surgically accurate fiction, you feel every cut. (Pardon the ridiculous pun!)

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walters will make you yearn to visit the slow country, Italy. A gorgeous tale of romance that reminded me of the great Sixties films by Fellini or the recent The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorrentino.

KEEPING THE DEAD by Tess Gerritsen took me back to the morgue. A guide on how to mummify a dead body is always a good thing to have in your mind’s library. Perhaps though, something to omit from a CV or job application? A masterclass in pulp horror. With & SONS by David Gilbert, you can taste the atmosphere of New York City. The narrative focuses on a writer and his complex relationships with his siblings. DON’T POINT THAT THING AT ME by Kyril Bonfiglioli was camp farcical fun James Bond meets a sexed up Jeeves and Wooster.

DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King is the sequel to one of his masterpieces, THE SHINING, and is equally as horrific. Wow, I am now grateful for having read some of King’s weaker books as this illustrates the man’s sheer genius. When asked in an interview where he gets his ideas from he said,

I have the heart of a child. I keep it in a drawer in my desk.

REVENGE by Martina Cole is a recipe for gangster revenge tragedy. Take a dose of Danny Dyer, add a few WAG-like women, a sprinkling of Ray Winstone and a few reated metaphors, like he was ‘strung up like a kipper’. An entertaining spectacle of a book. MAGGIE AND ME by Damian Barr, is a coming of age tale about a gay guy growing up when it was not deemed acceptable to be gay, running parallel with the political changes during the Thatcher years. JUBILEE by Shelley Harris took me to the hot summer of 1977, one street in Blighty and all the little hidden tales behind the closed doors of its residents.

THIS BODY OF DEATH by Elizabeth George was an epic crime thriller that cleverly entwined several plots into a climatic conclusion. It left me trying to solve its mystery right up until the explosive conclusion.

goldfinchTHE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt was my book of the year. My only regret is I will never have the experience of reading this book for the first time again. With stunning sentence structure and imagery throughout I encourage all to indulge in this literary treat.

THE LEMON GROVE by Helen Walsh, a titillating tale of a Mum’s sexual obsession with her daughter’s boyfriend, had some luscious descriptions of the Mediterranean landscape. Like a holiday one night stand, it was fun at the time, enjoyable but didn’t develop into anything more substantial.

DECEPTION by Philip Roth is an experimental stream of conscious, dialogue between a writer and his mistress through the years of their affair. This then began an addiction to the writer’s work. THE BREAST followed a Kafkaesque story of a man who literally turns into a giant breast. Anyone who thinks of Roth as a misogynist needs to read this story. It brings us face-to-face with the intrinsic strangeness of sex and subjectivity. The narrator of this fable is David Kapesh and I followed his future adventures in THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE and then THE DYING ANIMAL. This piece sees Kapesh as a 60-year-old lecturer and cultural critic begin an affair with a 24-year-old student. An exploration of the human condition, the strange facets that make up an individual and the paradoxical emotions of love and desire.

I moved on to Roth’s other collection with narrator Nathan Zuckerman. THE GHOSTWRITER details the young writer meeting his literary hero E.I Lonoff. Again Roth takes the reader through this characters life story with ZUCKERMAN UNBOUND and THE ANATOMY LESSON, a tempestuous ride through relationships, fame and addiction. The thinner volume THE PRAGUE ORGY takes the reader along with Zuckerman’s adventures in Soviet Russia, a scabrous and gutsy observation of this country.

Okay, I made a Philip Roth patch to wear to wean me off this literary obsession and picked up A LIFE STRIPPED BARE by Leo Hickman, a non-fiction book which chronicles an experiment in how to live a more sustainable existence in our throwaway fast society. NOW AND YESTERDAY by Stephen Greco was an interesting story about a gay designer in his sixties looking for love in Eighties New York. The descriptions of his lifestyle and the interiors of New York were fabulous and decadent.

THE LITTLE BOOK OF TALENT by Daniel Coyle, short sharp tips on how to improve performance in your chosen field has equipped me with a few points on self-improvement. I slipped off the PHILIP ROTH wagon, as I wanted to read a book about the complex Israel-Palestine conflict. The COUNTERLIFE was a challenging and thought-provoking investigation into this chaotic mess.

SISTER MAYBE by Ann Tyler was recommended by my dear friend and fountain of wisdom Rita Tannett. As this lady has previously recommended the amazing BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin and many others in the past, this was priority. What a piece of writing – each chapter crafted to have maximum emotional impact. A tale of an American family and the undercurrent of troubles behind their perfect family set up.  It reminded me of the Roxy Music lyric,

in every dream home a heartache.

Prior to seeing the Andy Warhol exhibition at the Tate Liverpool, I read Viktor Bokris’ THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ANDY WARHOL. Bokris has written fantastic works on Blondie and Lou Reed. He is not frightened to ‘tell it how it is’ and focuses on Warhol’s love of art in the early years and his metamorphosis into a complex, cold, master puppeteer. I found this one of the most disturbing books to read, as for so many people that he came into contact with, although messed up to say the least, he seemed to add to their troubles. Not really one of those friends who you can describe as a life enhancer.

I re-visited one of my favourite poets William Blake, SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE. A volume of work that like a classic Kate Bush album needs to be digested in one sitting.

oh the places you'll goThe great thing about buying Xmas gifts for my nieces and nephews is I get to read the books before I give them away. THE LORAX and OH THE PLACES YOU WILL GO by Dr Seuss are like little nuggets of philosophy.

So be sure when you step,
Step with care and great tact.
And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed)
Kid, you’ll move mountains.

Tove Jansen’s MOOMIN BOOK OF WORDS is like a kindergarten class taught by Salvador Dali. THE CHARIOTEER by Mary Renault, an of its time novel about the love that dare not speak its name during the war. It was an articulate brave, novel that plays an important part in LGBT history. On Xmas Day I read possibly one of the best gifts I have ever received, a Ladybird classic, CHARLES DICKENS, a thirty page book that neatly sums up the master craftsman’s career.

Final book of the year was Michael Faber’s THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS. He is the author of one of my favourite novels, THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE. What I love about this writer is the way he can adapt to different genres, from Victorian prostitution to sci-fi with his excellent UNDER THE SKIN. Incidentally, the adaptation of Under the Skin was my film of the year. Seeing Scarlett Johansen’s alien drift through the street of modern Glasgow past Clare’s Accessories and later try to understand Tommy Cooper on the television was surreal.

His latest work is a re-visit to the sci-fi genre, a novel about a religious preacher travelling into deep space to bring God and the light to an alien tribe. A graphic exploration of the importance of faith and what we mean by the word, ‘home’.

farage HITLERI may send it directly to Bigot – sorry I mean Briton – of the Year. Nigel Farage.

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An alternative to panto

I love Pantomime – it is awful but fantastic at the same time, if that makes any sense – but if looking for an alternative this break, perhaps these two theatrical treats may tempt you.

First, The Frozen Scream is a collaboration between the Wales Millennium Centre and Birmingham Hippodrome. The Welsh performances are over but it will run in Birmingham in January. The piece is co-written by Christopher Green and Sarah Waters, adapted from a tale by CC Gilbert.

frozen scream

I was fortunate to catch this production in late December. The proviso was to wrap up warm and wear sensible shoes. The hardest part of having seen this production is that I cannot really say too much about it, I now do not want to spoil the enjoyment, so I cannot reveal its secrets. My lips must remain frozen!

The-Frozen-Scream-cover-NEW-FORMAT

All I can say is it is camp and self-aware, a chilling evening’s entertainment. It is an experience that I would highly recommend. A beautiful glacial ornament, I hope remains frozen and complete in the memory box of my mind. Beware the Ice!

The second alternative is back on my home territory of Liverpool: Rumpelstiltskin.

rumplestiltskin

The Unity at Xmas never fails to impress. Through the years, a festive trip with my niece and nephews has become part of our annual yuletide celebration. Indeed, I buy tickets in lieu of toys or the latest fad. Funnily enough, experiences can sometimes be more enjoyable than fancy dressed festive wrapped gifts.

The Red Shoes, The Pied Piper, The Snow Queen, Hansel and Gretel, and traditional tales that are timeless and severely dark. I encourage anyone who has not read Grimm’s Fairy Tales to do so. At times they are shocking in their brutality. With this year’s offering, there is a simple set of hay that is used to create props, furniture, even a castle turret. The abolishment of the fourth wall means the audience are involved with the action at all times, with one kid even playing the part of a Bishop and marrying the King and Queen.

Rumpelstiltskin, a dark fairy tale that spins theatrical gold. A piece of real theatre, fabulous cast, fabulous set, fabulous lighting and an excellent score. I normally have an aversion to singing kids’ stuff, Frozen, well, freezes me… but the opener of the second act was magnificent, like a Grimm Brothers version of Cabaret. My three-year-old nephew’s first trip to the theatre and he was mesmerised. Result!

If these two dynamic productions do not appeal to you, there is always pantomime…

Oh no, there isn’t!

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