The gay Pride and Prejudice?

I hate it when this happens. Here’s a review I wrote late last year for the reissue of Renault’s wartime novel The Charioteer. The piece was commissioned but never ran. I thought it was a wonderful book.

 

The Charioteer by Mary Renault, Virago £8.99

 

The Charioteer, first published in 1953 and now republished by Virago, marks a transition in Mary Renault’s work, being the last contemporary novel she wrote before turning to historical fiction. A lesbian, she wrote perceptively and passionately about the lives of gay men; as Simon Russell Beale affirms in his introduction, setting her stories in the ancient world gave her ‘the freedom to portray homosexual love as part of the unquestioned order of things… without judgemental baggage’. By contrast, Laurie Odell, the protagonist of The Charioteer, is dimly aware of what he is and might be, but society’s hostility chills his dreams.

There’s a crucial early scene at boarding school, where the 16-year-old Laurie is thunderstruck to learn that Lanyon, the revered head of his house, is being expelled for alleged sins with another boy. Convinced of a miscarriage of justice, Laurie calls for an insurrection; summoned to Lanyon’s study he has a fierce, almost violent confrontation with his idol. In farewell, the Olympian Lanyon hands the awed younger boy a copy of Plato’s Phaedrus, with its image of the civilised man resembling a charioteer controlling two mismatched horses. ‘It doesn’t exist anywhere in real life, so don’t let it give you illusions. It’s just a nice idea,’ Lanyon says cryptically. The whole scene is a masterclass in repression and self-control.

A few years later in 1940, Laurie, badly injured at Dunkirk, is undergoing treatment for his shattered leg in an English hospital. The arrival of a troupe of conscientious objectors as orderlies electrifies the whole ward; the war-wounded bitterly resent those whom they feel chickened out of the fighting. But the COs’ calm dignity wins most hearts, and Laurie falls in love with the boyish, cheerful Andrew, aware that even a chaste friendship might set tongues wagging. Then by a strange twist of fate, Lanyon reappears in his life.

Renault, a trained nurse, expertly captures the boredom, drama and gossip of a ward where the sisters rule supreme and the men are infantilised. The war seems both far away and horribly close; there are raids and blackouts, dogfights in the skies and bombs in distant London. Drugs are omnipresent; Laurie shovels down official and unofficial pills to kill the pain he suffers for much of the book; and there’s a brief, poignant glimpse of a pilot so wired he can barely function. ‘Relax, my dear, you’re full up with Benzedrine and five drinks behind. Come along and get loaded.’ ‘Shut up… What he wants is bromide and ten hours’ sleep.’

Still besotted with Andrew, Laurie can’t expunge the glowing ideal that Ralph (as he learns to call Lanyon) represents for him. Joanna Trollope has recently published her modern version of Sense and Sensibility. It suddenly struck me that Renault has written the gay Pride and Prejudice, with Ralph Lanyon an irresistibly dishy, dark and masterful Mr Darcy.

If Ralph has pride, then Laurie has prejudice aplenty. In a pivotal scene at a gay party, he looks around aghast at his febrile fellow guests. ‘They were specialists. They had not merely accepted their limitations, as Laurie was ready to accept his… they had identified themselves with their limitations; they were making a career of them.’ Beale quotes this as an example of ‘a degree of conflict’ in Renault, but just as in all great romantic fictions, lovers who appear to be destined for one another must be kept apart, or there’ll be no story. Laurie doesn’t know what he wants; perhaps he doesn’t even want what he wants.

Beale is on surer ground when he points out that in Ralph there is a flicker of Renault’s great hero Alexander the Great, whose fictionalised biography she went on to write. They are both composed of bravery, menace, self-will, beauty, charisma and personal flaws – not least problematic drinking. Laurie is cast down to discover that Ralph already has a partner, the camp Bunny, and revolted when Ralph abbreviates it further to ‘Boo’. But the hypermasculine Ralph has also had a few, not unenjoyable affairs with women: ‘I thought I might become naturalised, so to speak,’ he explains. ‘Some people seem to take inordinate pride in never having made the attempt, but I don’t see it myself.’

It’s left to Alec, a doctor, to provide a stagey ‘defence of the homosexual’, probably essential in 1953, less so now: ‘I think that probably we’re all part of nature’s remedy for a state of gross overpopulation, and I don’t see how we’re a worse remedy than modern war… I’m not prepared to accept a standard which puts the whole of my emotional life on a plane with immorality.’

Romantic trappings or no, the background of the war and its extravagant wastefulness of young male flesh underpins a narrative that seems first to be tiptoeing, then galloping, towards tragedy. Such is Renault’s insight that you care desperately for her troubled characters and turn the final pages with a beating heart.


A glass of fizz with Donna Tartt

I’ve had several out-of-town literary treats recently. First off was a visit to Plymouth International Book Festival to discuss Victorian women’s fiction with two pals, Min Wild and novelist Helen Dunmore. Remarkably, the festival is only in its second year; charming helmsman Bertel Martin has big plans and outlined some of them to me over a coffee. Min is an academic, and Helen, alarmingly, seemed to have the works of all the Brontes, plus Gaskell and George Eliot at her fingertips, so I think I was only there for comic relief. But it was great fun and I met some lovely people.

I elected to stay overnight and was put up at the splendidly ornate Duke of Cornwall hotel. The next morning was Remembrance Sunday and a lot of people were walking around in naval uniforms, clinking their medals. I managed a walk round the Hoe in glorious sunshine before it all kicked off.

Down by the waterfront I found a great second-hand bookshop, The Book Cupboard, where I spent at least an hour browsing (and listening to the friendly bickering of the man and woman at the till). There’s an extensive poetry section, and I eventually came away with a fine copy of George Meredith’s sonnet sequence Modern Love (thinking of my friend Max Wallis, whose debut collection of the same name is both homage and update). I also bought The Faber Book of Chidren’s Verse, pub 1953, with an exquisitely designed and intact dust jacket. Gosh, children were erudite in those days. It’s a stunning and challenging anthology – heavy on rhyme and metre, as you’d expect.

Next stop was Edinburgh to interview the legendary Donna Tartt. This time the hotel was quite wacky: The Angels Share just off Princes St, where all the rooms are named after Scottish actors and singers. A massive blow up of Paul Brannigan’s face brooded over my bed, and the tea and coffee stash came with Tunnocks tea cakes. Bliss.

I got a bit lost on the way to the venue (and to be honest had popped into another bookshop) so Donna and her entourage were already there when I arrived. She’d already done several events on a hectic tour up and down the country but was relaxed and charming in the green room. She’d only been in town for an hour or so, but had already bought a kilt in a vintage shop.

On stage, she read beautifully from the end of The Goldfinch and responded to every question with warmth and candour. After an ‘in conversation’ I can never really recall what was said if it went well (you only remember the horrors) but one remark did stick in my mind. You’re never far from the sound of bagpipes in Edinburgh and for Tartt, they mean only one thing: the aftermath of 9/11. Bagpipe music, she explained, always signified the funeral of a policeman or firefighter, and the pipes played almost daily, for weeks on end.

At the end the staff of Waterstones presented her with a bottle of champagne and she insisted on immediately opening it and  pouring me a glass. How lovely is that? She then spent time with every person in the lengthy and very patient signing queue, and I felt bad at the end asking her to get her pen out yet again, even as she was flexing her tired fingers, but I had to get my copy signed too!

The next day after breakfast (which included something called a ‘tattie scone’ – yum!) I wandered to 60 George St where Shelley spent his honeymoon after running away with his child bride Harriet. A note to the proprietors of the clothes shop that now occupies the premises – the commemorative plaque needs polishing.

Then there was enough time before the train home to check out the National Gallery of Scotland, where I admired the magnificent Titians that recently came to the NG in London, and Poussin’s Seven Sacraments, among many other masterpieces. But I was equally struck by four Arts and Crafts hangings by a Scottish artist, Phoebe Anna Traquair, entitled The Progress of a Soul. They were loosely based on a story by Water Pater which I tried to read later, but found deadly dull. Traquair, however, was inspired. The virtuoso embroidered panels feature a Orphic figure with a harp, clad in leopardskin, moving through states of Stress and Despair to final Victory. The lines are sinuous, the textures and colours scintillating and the subject matter intriguing and ambiguous. My 24 hours in Scotland were a treat for the soul and the senses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


A Lord, a prize and some parties

This week brought a snazzy new addition to the book bag collection. I shall be brandishing my ‘Books are my Bag’ carrier with pride from now on. The campaign was launched on Monday with a party in the Gallery at Foyles in Charing Cross Road. Speakers, including Maurice Saatchi and Gail Rebuck, enumerated some tragic statistics: in 10 years, a third of the country’s bookshops have closed – which is one every week. When a bookshop goes, readers vanish, never to return to the printed vale. The supporters of the campaign believe passionately that the best way to sell books is via bookshops and the blissful hours of serendipitous browsing they provide. The Gallery was decorated with giant photos of the many writers and celebs who are backing the campaign.

In his speech Lord Saatchi gave a touching tribute to his late wife, the much-lamented Josephine Hart, whose books brought the delights of poetry to so many. I had a brief chat with him afterwards. Apparently he has been cataloguing Josephine’s vast collection of poetry books. I told him about my treasured memory of one of her events at the British Library, at which I had a long conversation with the knowledgeable Bob Geldof about W B Yeats.

On Wednesday it was Polari night at the South Bank. It was a spectacular line up. My part in the proceedings was to announce the shortlist for the third Polari Prize. The shortlisted books are The Murder Wall by Mari Hannah; The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf; The Sitar by Rebecca Idris; Catching Bullets: Memoirs of a Bond Fan by Mark O’Connell; and Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson. We have till November to come up with a winner; it’ll be a tough decision.

Bernardine Evaristo read a hilarious extract from her new novel Mr Loverman, about a raunchy pensioner and the secret he has kept from his strict religious wife for decades. Damian Barr chose a passage from his memoir Maggie and Me highlighting his experiences as a teenager with gay Lonely Hearts ads: ‘This is what we did before there was Grindr.’ And Susie Boyt read a touching short story about the twilight years of a Hollywood star, now in a retirement home with her ever-attentive, chatty companion. It was camp and funny with a heartbreaking conclusion. Our inimitable host, Paul Burston, sported various outfits variously comprised of feathers, rhinestones, a silk scarf, a top hat and a giant silver cape.

And there was yet more glamour last night as Wendy Holden launched her latest novel, Gifted and Talented, at a beautiful Georgian mansion in Fitzroy Square. George Bernard Shaw, Ford Maddox Ford and Virginia Woolf once lived nearby, she informed us, and Roger Fry founded the Omega workshops in that very building. Later I headed off to one of my favourite London bookshops, Treadwells in Store Street (where Mary Wollstonecraft once lived, history fans). It was the launch party for the graphic novel Briony Hatch by sisters Ginny and Penelope Skinner (Limehouse Books), featuring a schoolgirl obsessed with a fantasy series about a female exorcist, Starling Black. All the hapless Briony wants to do is bring a touch of magic to a dull world, and the first step is – go to a bookshop.

 

 

 

 


Love and death in Iceland

I was supposed to meet author Hannah Kent yesterday. For various reasons it didn’t work out, which is a shame as there are questions I’d’ve loved to have asked her about her debut Burial Rites (Picador). Mainly, about the true-life murder story at its heart; and the reasons why a fiction writer might wish to be bound by the facts of a story she can’t amend.

Burial Rites concerns the true-life murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson in 1828, on a remote Icelandic farm. Three people associated with the deceased were charged: a labourer, Fridrik Sigurdsson, and two maidservants, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir and Agnes Magnusdottir.

In a twist that would seem bizarre if it weren’t factually accurate, Agnes is sent to work on a farm for the winter while waiting for her execution. She lives with the scandalised and unwilling family – Jon, the ailing Margret and their daughters Lauga and Steina – sleeping alongside them in their plain and functional home. The transformation of their feelings from fear and dislike to compassion forms the basis of the book.

Agnes has had a miserable life, recounted in the sparest of prose. Rejected by both her parents, passed around from farm to farm, stalked by death and misfortune, she is nevertheless thoughtful and intelligent. Her existence, shortly to be brought to an end by an axe, is a worthwhile thing, whatever her misdeeds. The narrative is partly first-person, partly third, as we also follow the perspective of the timid young priest appointed to minister to her spiritual needs.

The pace is slow to begin with; almost too leisurely. Then the story begins to bite. Agnes is tough enough to resist all overtures, but, as the grunt work of the farm punctuates the days, she gradually begins to tell her account of the murders. The stark ending had tears prickling in my eyes.

There are moments of, if not brightness exactly, at least a little less gloom. The narrative is punctuated by letters from pettifogging authority figures, debating, among other things, who is to pay for the axe. There is a pure beauty in the landscape of sea and rock; a poignant desire for betterment in the humble personal effects of shawl, ribbon and brooch; an honesty in simple food and hard work. The glories of the Icelandic Sagas and the Bible run deep through people’s lives; and there is the minor but telling character, Rosa-Poet, famed for her wordplay. Natan, too, with his warlock reputation, is a compelling character. But just as everything else in this harsh land soon ends up either dried or frozen, moments of joy – erotic joy in particular – are heartbreakingly brief. I think I’ll remember the atmosphere of this novel for a long time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Marcel Duchamp by the sea

Perhaps it’s not very well known that in 1913 Marcel Duchamp spent a transformative month in the Kent seaside town of Herne Bay. It was certainly a surprise to me. The town is currently hosting a playful Duchamp festival, neatly positioning this most cerebral and unconventional of artists alongside the fish and chip shops, slot machines and ice cream.

Yesterday I went down to Kent to catch two performances of In Pieces, the latest in poet Pele Cox’s series of events linking art and poetry. Her regular collaborator, the actor Christian Roe, who has already played David Hockney, Shelley and Degas, was Duchamp. This ‘Performance in Three Moves’ is as much about Duchamp the chess player as Duchamp the artist; three tap dancers from The Pulse Collective played chess pieces, their elegant moves undercutting and enhancing the spoken words.

I found the whole group rehearsing on the pier, Cox directing, Roe running through lines while the dancers, Kane, Guy and Ryan leapt, hopped and spun behind him. Roe was temporarily lost for words at the sudden appearance of  a car towing a 15-foot urinal to the end of the pier (a reference to Duchamp’s famous ‘Fountain’ sculpture). ‘You can’t compete with a giant toilet!’ the driver called out cheerily as it crawled past.

The inhabitants of Herne Bay were already showing a lively interest in the proceedings. ‘You cheeky wotsit!’ yelled a passing woman when Roe delivered the words: ‘I am not dead. I’m in Herne Bay’ (actually a line from a postcard Duchamp sent to a friend). Squares of hardboard representing chess squares arrived, and were duct-taped into place. With half an hour to go before the show, the dancers went to get tea and put on their tap shoes.

The first performance, set against the sea and the bright sky – and the giant urinal – was expansive, funny and fast-paced, the exuberance of the dancers drawing keen applause from the onlookers.  ‘Let’s play chess,’ Duchamp invited, then outlined his personal and artistic philosophy in a series of compelling axioms. The human chess pieces tried to outdo each other in audacity, while Roe’s Duchamp prowled, smiled, provoked, and even bust a few moves himself.

The interval between performances was spent at a Duchamp-themed cocktail party at a nearby house (no alcohol for the performers, alas). I had a delicious and potent  ‘Bicycle Wheel’, an allusion to another key Duchamp work. Other cocktails included the witty ‘Large Glass’ and a renamed Old Fashioned (Duchamp was anything but).

The 5.30 performance took place in the bandstand, against a painted sea rather than a real one; here the dancers took virtuosity to even greater heights, and it was fascinating to see their individual styles shine forth. At the end, a posse of small children invaded the stage and headed straight for the chess squares, where they jumped and jigged in frantic emulation. In the distance could be spied the replica ‘Fountain’, like a large upturned nose glimmering at the end of the pier.

As Duchamp said: ‘Living is my trade and my art. Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere… it’s a sort of constant euphoria.’ I think he’d have liked it.

 

 


The gigantism of Jay Gatsby

I went to see The Great Gatsby with some trepidation. I’ve read the book several times, always to fresh surprise; it seems endlessly enigmatic and brilliantly faceted. Was Baz Luhrmann the right director for this beloved classic? We knew he could direct a party sequence: and yes, the sequins shimmer, legs scissor, corks pop, pearls and swimming pools glimmer. But the novel shows up the hollowness, dreariness and pain at the heart of the era and foreshadows the long hangover to come. To fall in love with all the decadence is to miss the moral point.

It took me a while to get used to the 3D; the prettified opening scenes somehow combine flatness and depth like a Pollocks toy theatre. Also, I kept feeling travel sick. No one can mention ‘the light at the end of Daisy’s dock’ without Luhrmann swooping you over the waves at high speed to meet it. There is also the question of what we might call Gatsby’s gigantism. Not only does he live alone in an enormous castle, he’s having a millennium party every single weekend, just to get Daisy’s attention. The financial scale is ridiculous, merely drawing attention to the film’s artifice, rather than to Gatsby’s mystery. This lack of realism fudges the central question: what sort a person is Jay Gatsby? Even Russian oligarchs don’t carry on like that.

Gatsby is great not because of his money, but because of his capacity to love and hope eternally. Does a great love require a great object? As Daisy, Carey Mulligan looks lovely and delivers her iconic lines with aplomb: the awkward, bathetic ‘I certainly am awfully glad to see you again’ on her first sight of Gatsby for five years, and the bitter ‘that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’ She’s cute, charming, delicious, but we can’t fathom Gatsby’s adoration because, well, you never can understand such a thing from the outside.

Nick Carraway is one of those unobtrusive narrators who make perfect sense on the page; his are the eyes we look through, his is the moral viewpoint. But in a film we just think, what’s with this dozy, sexless guy and why does he keep hanging around? Tom Buchanan gives him a sleazy raison d’etre I don’t remember from the novel: ‘I know you like to watch…’ Tobey Maguire plays him attractively with an air of depthless puzzlement, which is probably the best you can do.

The framing device of having Carraway write the novel as a memoir at the behest of his psychiatrist is less successful: too many shots of Maguire tapping at an old typewriter. And if the ludicrous excesses of the party scenes can be explained as his  exaggerations, then why should we believe any of his story? Not everyone will like the hip hop soundtrack (though I found it unobtrusive enough).

But the main reason to see this version is Leonardo Di Caprio, not an obvious choice for Fitzgerald’s ‘elegant young roughneck’ with the extraordinary smile ‘that you may come across four or five times in life’. The strongest scenes turn out not to be the orgies of Twenties decadence but the painfully tense showdowns as Tom and Gatsby fight over Daisy’s very soul. I was captivated by Di Caprio, long before Gatsby finally takes to the pool in his adorable onesie. Gatsby is the freshest, frankest, most unspoiled character here, which, when you think of how he makes his money, is the book’s central irony (and maybe the reason it still resonates today). Di Caprio with his old-young-baby-man face is wrong in the right sort of way for this part, and makes it entirely his own.

 

 

 

 


Hotel cats and marzipan roses

Mid-afternoon slump. The book was cast aside, the writing abandoned. Low blood sugar or some less tangible malaise? There was only one thing to do. I had to get baking.

Mary Berry At Home had the answer: Anzac crunch biscuits, which would use up the oats and the mysterious half-full bag of desiccated coconut lurking at the back of the cupboard. Some adjustments needed to be made; I didn’t have plain  flour so used self-raising and accordingly reduced the bicarb; I was down to my last scrapings of golden syrup, so supplemented with maple syrup. Perhaps these tweaks are the reason why the biscuits didn’t rise and spread as much as Mary said they would. But oh my, they were good! Mug of tea, couple of warm biscuits, depression lifted.

It’s a principle John Whaite understands. The Great British Bake Off winner is frank in his sumptuous new cookbook, John Whaite Bakes (Headline): ‘I am unashamed to admit that I am a moody person,’ he confesses. ‘I have done, and do, battle depression.’ Since the trauma of his parents’ divorce, baking, he relates, ‘has been an inherently comforting process for me, and I turn to it whenever I am feeling particularly blue or when I’m worried about something.’

I was recently asked by Waterstone’s to interview John at the Piccadilly branch. Gigs with cooks aren’t normally my thing – I’m more used to grilling literary novelists or non-fiction writers – but meeting him for a glass of wine in the 5th floor bar beforehand, I was reassured by his easy manner. ‘Ask me anything. I love talking,’ he chirped.

The event was an exhilarating hour, as we talked about food memories and associations, healthy eating and the place of such indulgent fare in the British diet. His book features quite complicated delights like Salted Caramel Rum Babas, a variety of fabulous breads and cakes, some savouries and of course biscuits (must make his caramel shard cookies  and cranberry, chocolate and pecan biscotti some time). John is now studying to be a patissier – ‘My marzipan roses are rubbish.’

Cooking is his art form and he’s always on the lookout for new flavour combinations (what I called ‘eating a marmite sandwich in a rose garden’). We solved some mysteries, too – why does Nigella never weigh anything? ‘I think that whole counter of hers is a giant weighing scale,’ said John sagely. And we discovered a shared obsession the programme Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, in which Ina ‘How easy is that!’ Garten, the happiest woman in the world, wafts around her enormous house and garden in The Hamptons, wondering what to cook husband Jeffrey for his Friday night supper.

A few days later I ran into John again at the Headline sales conference at BAFTA. (His marzipan roses were improving, he related.) Earlier I’d sat through a presentation of autumn books, and when Mary Berry herself came on to the screen the backing track was Elvis Costello, smoochily singing ‘She’, which made me giggle. Mary joined our table, looking astonishingly slender (John himself is a mere slip of a boy). Alas, she was too far away to talk to, but at the end of the dinner, my chance came. In the lobby, she heard me burbling about my Aga cookbook, then took both my hands in hers, fixed me with those extraordinary eyes and cooed, ‘Oh, DO promise me you’ll keep enjoying your Aga!’ And she floated away.

A few days later I went off to Kaspars, the newly opened fish restaurant at the Savoy, for a charity lunch with children’s author Michael Morpurgo, who was the writer in residence before the hotel’s closure for its grand Art Deco refurbishment.

While staying there (for three months!), he became fascinated with the story behind the hotel’s famous cat sculpture. Kaspar is always brought to sit at any table of 13 diners to avert bad luck. In gratitude for his three-month stay, Morpurgo wrote Kaspar Prince of Cats (HarperCollins), about an aristocratic cat who forms a bond with a Savoy bellboy. In between courses, there were cat-themed readings, from Carol Hughes, who read the late Poet Laureate’s work ‘Esther’s Tom Cat’ and other poems, a lovely Christmas story, ‘Cat in the Manger’ by Morpurgo’s illustrator Michael Foreman, and Virginia McKenna doing a spellbinding recitation of Blake’s peerless ‘Tyger’. And, of course, a reading from Kaspar Prince of Cats. There was no mid-afternoon slump that day.

 


It’s here… the Best First Novel Award shortlist for 2013

Never let anyone tell you that evaluating novels is ‘all subjective’. There is individual taste, true, but in prize judging, it very quickly becomes clear that the same titles are cropping up again and again at the top of people’s lists. During the process, everyone had to sacrifice something or other, but coming up with a longlist was surprisingly easy.

But the more unanimity in a longlist, it seems, the fiercer the fighting will be with the shortlist – over titles which we had already agreed are wonderful books. The clinching question is ‘would we be happy if this book won?’, given that the final choice is made by an external adjudicator. Suddenly, Sicilian-style passions erupted, as the debuts were scrutinised, picked apart and tested to destruction.

So it was a tussle (I tell you, it’s less trouble electing a new Pope), but at long last I can announce the six shortlisted titles for this year’s Author’s Club Best First Novel Award.

They are:

The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber (Sceptre)

Absolution by Patrick Flanery (Atlantic)

Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (Chatto)

Mountains of the Moon by I J Kay (Cape)

Seldom Seen by Sarah Ridgard (Hutchinson)

The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd (Simon & Schuster)

 

I’d like to thank the members of the the Authors Club, and the prize committee, for all their hard work – and their passion!

There will be a shortlist event at Foyles on 15 May (see their website for details) and the winner will be announced on June 3. The guest adjudicator is the novelist Salley Vickers.

 

 


Too many good debuts

Yesterday was a hell of a (literary) day. It began for me with an interview with Kate Clanchy for the Independent on Sunday. We met at Blacks club to discuss her excellent debut Meeting the English (Picador), which I’m sure will be a hot contender for next year’s Authors Club Best First Novel Award. But first we have to get this year’s prize out of the way.

I didn’t have to move far for the shortlist lunch – one floor down, in fact. At a meeting the previous week, the committee had chosen 12 longlist titles without too much blood on the carpet. It was one of the strongest longlists we can remember, and as chair of the committee I suspected it wouldn’t be easy to get down to a final six.

I started off by suggesting that three titles that had consistently reaped excellent readers’ reports (the prize is judged by members of the Authors Club) should go straight on to the shortlist, but oh no – ‘I didn’t like that one…’ ‘I wasn’t impressed’ and ‘I preferred…’ came the dissenting voices. About an hour later all three were indeed placed on the shortlist. Sigh. It’s not a process you can rush.

With some sulks, and howls, and outbursts, the shortlist pile began to grow. It reached five…. and there we stuck fast. Three amazing books are contending for the final place. Last year we decided to have a shortlist of only five, but we are determined to get to six this year. So, although time is pressing (there will be an event with the shortlisted authors at Foyles on May 15) we all have over the weekend to come to a final decision.

Therefore, we’ve decided to publicise the longlist in the interim. All the discussions that take place involve the books and only the books, but once we get a list together it’s interesting to crunch the numbers: 10 women, 2 men; a good showing from Random House; and only one small press this year.

So, I bring you:

 

The Authors Club Best First Novel Award Longlist 2013

The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber (Sceptre)

Every Contact Leaves a Trace by Elanor Dymott (Cape)

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan (William Heinemann)

Absolution by Patrick Flanery (Atlantic)

Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (Chatto)

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson (Bloomsbury)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)

Mountains of the Moon by I J Kay (Cape)

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane (Weidenfeld)

Ramshackle by Elizabeth Reeder (Freight Books)

Seldom Seen by Sarah Ridgard (Hutchinson)

The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd (Simon & Schuster)

 

It’s an incredible list. Next week, the shortlist will be unveiled.

Somewhat battered and bruised, I hand-delivered five of the titles to our guest adjudicator, novelist Salley Vickers, whose job I don’t envy one bit. It will be terribly hard to pick just one.

Finally, my extraordinary literary day ended with a sumptuous Mayfair dinner held by Andrew Kidd to thank the members of the committee who set up the Folio Prize, of which you will hear much, much more in the future. We toasted, we feasted, we laughed, we gossiped. And after all that I didn’t want to think about literary prizes again for quite some time.

Except – dammit – we still have to agree on that final title!

 

 


‘I hate women…’

Someone at Simon & Schuster has a dark sense of humour. Handsome Brute: The story of a ladykiller (£16.99) by Sean O’Connor is published on Valentine’s Day. O’Connor uses a gruesome case to illuminate a whole era, Mr Whicher-style. In 1946 Neville Heath’s crimes gripped and horrified a nation already somewhat unnerved by the reabsorption of a generation of trained killers after World War Two. No doubt I should have been reading something far more edifying, but horrible Heath drew me in.

Heath commanded public attention and fascination for two things that seemed then to be incompatible: his dashing good looks, and his appalling sadism. The cover image is rather ugly, but there’s a portrait on the back that’s much more striking; fair-haired and pensive, he looks a bit like Leslie Howard.

The portrait of post-war London is utterly compelling, with its relieved, over-stimulated and exhausted populace. O’Connor takes us right in to Heath’s seedy world of drinking dens, smoky clubs and shabby hotels. Pauline Brees had a lucky escape; the man who enticed her into a room in the Strand Palace Hotel, then beat and stripped her, was dissuaded when she screamed and alerted the management. ‘Why are you doing this?’ she had pleaded as the assault began. ‘I hate women,’ he replied. Two other young women were not so fortunate.

Heath is never allowed to overshadow the figures of his victims, Margery Gardner and Doreen Marshall. The poignancy of their brief lives and the horror of their deaths is never sacrificed to their killer’s ‘charisma’. Heath, ex RAF, possibly traumatised by the war, remains enigmatic, a compulsive liar who killed two women he had been seen drinking with on the nights of their deaths; he told  fanciful stories about his subsequent movements, as though only half-interested in avoiding detection.

Once firmly in the male-dominated criminal justice system he was charm itself, although he declined to explain his crimes. His fond mother convinced herself that the sex-killer wasn’t ‘the real Neville’. There was some disquiet over executing someone seemingly insane. His last letters, reproduced here, are striking in their facile glibness: ‘So now I’ll leave you. Cheerio, my dear, and very many thanks for everything.’

O’Connor quotes an extraordinary, almost homoerotic account of Heath’s execution from  Albert Pierrepoint’s memoirs. He treated the corpse with a mawkish respect, draping a shirt modestly round the waist: ‘I received this flesh, leaning helplessly into my arms, with the linen around his loins, gently with the reverence I thought due to the shell of any man who has sinned and suffered.’ All very noble; but spare a thought for the victims, who had not sinned, who suffered considerably more and who were not treated so gently in death. Pierrepoint did congratulate himself, however, on his record timing: seven seconds between Heath entering the execution cell and the lever being pulled.

It is a grim and gripping tale, and it’s the details that linger in the mind: the anguish of Margery Gardner’s grown-up daughter when she finally discovered, years later, the truth of her mother’s death; Doreen Marshall’s sad, neglected grave in Pinner; and poor Mick Heath, the younger brother, who was always being asked: ‘Any relation to Neville?’ As O’Connor demonstrates, the curse of Neville Heath lingered for decades like an exceptionally bad smell. It’s a story worth pondering; not for the sake of one vile individual (O’Connor eschews cheap analysis), but for the stricken society his crimes grew from.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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