Adam Macqueen: THE ENEMY WITHIN
Adam Macqueen’s first novel Beneath the Streets revisited the Jeremy Thorpe/Norman Scott scandal and inserted his rentboy hero into that squalid episode in political history. Now, with the same hero, Tommy Wildeblood, he re-examines the 1980s, the bruising miner’s strike and the dawn of Aids when undertakers often refused to deal with the bodies of those who died from the “gay plague”.
Tommy is now 29, living in a Finsbury Park bedsit and attending a degree course at the politically radical North London Polytech as a mature student. A (somewhat cynical) left-wing activist, Tommy falls in love with Belfast-born Liam, who is very active with the pro-IRA anti-British demonstrations. At the peak of their relationship Liam suddenly disappears and the search for him takes Tommy down a dangerous road. We know from the Prologue that the drama will climax in Brighton’s Grand Hotel in October 1984.
In Beneath the Streets Macqueen imagined a totally different ending to the Jeremy Thorpe affair. Here he takes fewer liberties with the historical facts, but his scenario allows Tommy to cross Margaret Thatcher’s path. And there’s a stand-out gaudy episode when Tommy and Liam take drag-queen Clarrie’s ashes to Derek Jarman’s beach in Dungeness.
Adam Macqueen has served up two vivid, stylish flashbacks to flashpoints in 20th-century history; and he promises a third.
WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING
There’s always a risk with a much-loved book that the movie version won’t do it justice. I’m pleased to say that this picture makes a fairly good job of it. Daisy Edgar-Jones captures the essence of Kya, Delia Owens’s captivating heroine, “the marsh girl” who grows up fending for herself in a Carolina swamp after her abused mother and siblings abandon her and even her vile abusive father disappears.
The screenplay telescopes Kya’s girlhood in order to concentrate on her trial for the murder of one of her boyfriends. There’s the good boy (Taylor John Smith) who badly lets her down, and there’s the two-timing ne’er-do-well (Harris Dickinson) whom she’s accused of killing. Both players are attractive but the roles have a soap-opera shallowness.
David Straithairn’s defence lawyer very much recycles Atticus Finch, as the character does in the novel. Filmgoers who haven’t read the book may find the ending a bit of a puzzle, but that’s no bad thing. The marshland and its creatures are beautifully filmed, and the local community is broadly well sketched. Cinematic gloss slightly dilutes the Gothic element that contributed much to the novel’s enchantment, but as a movie this comes close (perhaps not quite close enough) to the intense power of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Mark Kermode’s rave review on BBCtv encouraged me to see this, but I wasn’t as blown away as he was. Austin Butler gives a wildly energetic performance, especially in the “snake-hips” early years, and he sings most of the numbers, but his face often looked as if he was in an animation and I kept getting flashes of Victoria Beckham, not sure why!
The movie is way too long. There’s too much time spent with Tom Hanks’s money-grubbing Colonel Parker and his not-so-secret secrets. Hanks’s accent, veering between B-movie Nazi and Mexican waiter, got on my nerves.
The essence of the Presley mythology is there: the fame, the exploitation in some dire movies, the marriage to Priscilla, the Vegas slippage into drugs and self-parody. As he has in several previous movies, Baz Luhrmann fires up the screen with razzle-dazzle, but I would have liked a bit more depth, more of Presley’s “inner life” – and a lot less Col. Parker.
Paul Baker: FABULOSA
Paul Baker’s study of Polari, the “secret gay language”, wears its intensive research lightly, rarely lapsing into tedium and mostly highly entertaining – altogether totally bona, you might say.
“When you learned Polari, you weren’t just learning the words but the attitude that went with them,” Baker tells us. He trawls (no, not ‘trolls’!) through Polari’s rich ancestry dating back to Victorian and Edwardian times, a cocktail of medieval criminal slang, Romany, Latin crossed with Italian, back-slang (‘riah’ = ‘hair’ backwards) and Cockney or ‘Mockney’ used or invented by Merchant Navy gays (‘sea-queens’). The author mentions Crystal Spring – I wonder if that’s the same Crystal whom I trained at a BT Continental call-centre in the 1960s: she had a wondrous command of Polari.
Polari had a heyday in the 1950s when the odd word dropped into a conversation leaked the fact that you were a fellow traveller; drag-queens overused it as a kind of flag-waving. Julian and ‘my friend Sandy’ introduced it to the wider world on BBC Radio in Round the Horne in the late 1960s, but after Decriminalization in 1967 and the growth of Gay Liberation Polari came to be seen as “a toxic relic of a time that everyone wanted to forget.” Even camp was viewed as regressive; John Inman and Quentin Crisp were pilloried for their mincing limp-wristedness. Imported from the US, the ‘clone’ look created a more manly brand imagine for gay men around the world.
Homophobia hasn’t been totally eradicated in the West today, but most us are freely ‘out’ and ‘Proud’. I wonder how gay men and women secretly communicate their identity in ultra-repressive countries like Uganda and Iran. In Iran homosexuals are not hanged, they’re strangled, hauled off the ground by a crane with a rope round their neck. If they have a secret language, let’s keep it secret.
On our cosier shores, camp is still fluttering in the new millennium thanks to RuPaul and his drag-queen cohorts and – God bless ‘em – the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence whose ‘unholy order’ has outlived some of Rome’s originals! And a few Polari words have entered the general vocabulary: ‘naff’, ‘trade’, ‘butch’. Maybe now, Paul Baker argues, Polari can be recognized as part of the wider History of the Gay Movement, from a time when its use was a kind of defiance. From defiant to dated but not (quite) to defunct.
According to Paul Baker, in the 1960s you could be a ‘chicken’ up to the age of 25, but after that you were old. That was my judgmental mindset in the 1960s, in Earls Court: “Oh God, there’s Grandma” (‘Grandma’ might be in his thirties or forties). No change there today, I’m pretty sure. Sorry, girls!
WITH A MIND TO KILL
This is Anthony Horowitz’s third bite of the 007 cherry. He’s not good at titles: this one is too close to A View to a Kill which became Roger Moore’s (overdue) swansong in the movie series. The new book is set immediately after The Man With the Golden Gun and sees James Bond in disgrace for the apparent murder of M and sent back to the Moscow clinic where he was brainwashed into perpetrating this outrage.
This mission is more SMERSH than SPECTRE. The pace is measured with only sporadic lurches into violent action. Protracted briefings in London and Moscow recreate Fleming’s ‘exposition’ scenes which were wickedly spoofed in the Austin Powers scripts. No maniacal super-villain, only Cold War bureaucrats wedded to the Soviet ideology. The NATO mindset is credibly recreated: the USSR is ‘this dreadful, merciless country’; KGB warhorse Colonel Boris is ‘the high priest of an evil religion.’ On the plus side, there is Katya, a glamorous member of the brainwashing team who is of course ripe for seduction.
With a Mind to Kill is a belated sequel to From Russia With Love, the high-point of the Fleming canon and one of the greatest spy adventures ever written. Horowitz is probably the best of our hero’s ‘custodians’, serving up three nostalgic and stylish (and slightly dated) excursions into the original world that Bond operated in before all the stunts and CGI that have come to dominate the movies.
Paolo Grossi: THE TIERGARTEN TALES
This story collection spans more than a century of gay life in and around Berlin. The earliest – three stories plus an epilogue that combine to make a novella – is the study of a complex marital ‘arrangement’ in 1890s Prussia. Felix Kimmich, the son of a well-to-do landowner, camouflages a lifelong liaison with his butler-turned-secretary (with a few rent-boys on the side) behind a marriage of convenience to a broad-minded lesbian; the conventions of the era are beautifully captured and inventively circumnavigated.
A concentration camp story has the commandant developing a crush on an inmate who is there by mistake, like the Boy in Striped Pyjamas. A modern setting introduces a gay widower trying to effect a reconciliation with a bi friend’s estranged and disturbed young son. The love affair between a viola player at the Berlin opera and a blind boy in the audience is exquisitely poignant, and emperor/queen Frederick the Great is treated to a charming episode he would surely have relished.
Paolo Grossi is an Italian writing in English about Germany – an intriguing back-story. His style reminds me happily of Angus Wilson, who wrote gay-themed stories and novels in the 1950’s and 60s with an elegance and restraint that are not always on offer to readers of 21st-century fiction. And, of course, The Tiergarten Tales inevitably bring a few pleasing echoes of Christopher Isherwoood – ‘Mr Issyvoo’.
Paolo Grossi is a writer I hope to see more of.
A widow ‘of a certain age’, Nancy (not her real name) books a hotel room and a fit young sex worker, Leo Grande (not his real name). Nancy never had an orgasm during thirty-one years of married life, so she has some catching up to do.
Emma Thompson’s performance and Katy Brand’s crisp script convey very believably the awkwardness and nervousness Nancy feels. Take out the sex and nudity (please don’t!) and this could have been written by Terence Rattigan to be played by Deborah Carr back in the 1950s. There is a degree of theatricality to the film, although Thompson gives her all and courageously bares her all (my mum would say “You could see what she had for breakfast”) in a role that most actresses of her generation would have reluctantly turned down. In 2001 I saw Linda Gray nude, at about the same age as Thompson, in a stage version of The Graduate, and Kathy Bates did a naked hot-tub scene with Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt in 2002 – bravissime these ladies!
Daryl McCormack matches Thompson for both bravura and skill as the young escort who’s not as self-confident as he pretends. More explicit even than Netflix’s Sex Education, this is not a movie for porn perverts, it’s a serious study of desire, disappointment and desperation. Both its stars deserve to pick up awards next winter. And if they make a movie of my novel Lillian and the Italians (please do!), I want Emma Thompson to play Lillian!
Alan Bennett: HOUSE ARREST
After the heft of previous volumes of his Diaries, Mr. Bennett’s House Arrest, covering the Lockdown and Vaccination years, is little more than an Epilogue at a mere 49 pages – a bit longer than a Talking Heads monologue.
His observations are as crisp and sharp as ever. The Queen watches the Remembrance Day ceremony at The Cenotaph with “a beady eye on the revamped choreography.” Bennett’s eye is beadier than Her Majesty’s. Boris Johnson’s nightly addresses during the Pandemic are “pretty pointless… a poor orator and speaker generally… the plainness of Keir Starmer a relief.”
As always, Alan’s mind is half in the present, half in the past. He still cherishes memories of Mam and Dad and schooldays in Yorkshire. Now eighty-six and arthritic, he has swapped his bicycle for a wheelchair, but he gave us two new monologues for the revamp of Talking Heads in 2020 – the royalties from which he donated to NHS charities. Short as it is, House Arrest is, please God, not his Last Post. It is, like everything else he has shared with us, undiluted joy to read.
John Le Carre: SILVERVIEW
Despite it’s James Bond-ish title, this is very much not John Le Carré’s send-up of Goldfinger. Unless he left some notes or incomplete manuscripts for somebody else to knock into shape (hopefully not), Silverview is the final novel from Mr Le Carré. Initially I found it a bit tiresome and undeserving of the glowing reviews with which it’s prefaced. But after going back and starting again I can see what an appropriate ‘swansong’ it is.
A Polish émigré called Edward Avon is at the heart of the story. City high-flier Julian Lawndsley, who has retreated to an unnamed seaside village to open a bookshop, finds that Edward is a neighbour with knowledge of Julian’s father’s secrets. And Stewart Proctor, a middle-ranking figure in MI6, is investigating an intelligence leak that seems to point to Edward.
Proctor is a blatant clone of George Smiley, our favourite spy chief (Proctor even has a faithless wife), and there’s more than one female with strong echoes of Connie Sachs, which makes Silverview read a bit like a pastiche of the author’s most famous works. Some of the scenes of marital life recall The Naive and Sentimental Lover (my least favourite of his books); and they come with an acerbic tone reminiscent of Muriel Spark and Fay Weldon. Le Carré switches erratically between past and present tense, sometimes in the same paragraph, which many readers will surely find annoying. The book has a surprising but entirely appropriate ending.
Silverview lacks the magisterial tone of the Smiley books and some of the later polemical novels, but it does serve to remind us that this was one of the finest writers of his time, producing – like Graham Greene, with whom Le Carré was always compared – novel after novel that illuminated the bitter betrayals of the spy-world and of the human heart. All Le Carré’s books seem to convey, vividly, that sense that – against great odds – ‘Look, we have come through.’ RIP.
Lionel Davidson: KOLYMSKY HEIGHTS
I’ve decided to re-read a few of my favourite books. When I read it in the 1990s I thought that Kolymsky Heights was one of the best adventure thrillers I’d ever read.
A captive scientist in a secret research station deep in Siberia smuggles a message to an Oxford professor he knew earlier in his life. The CIA send Jimmy Porter into the post-Soviet wilderness to infiltrate the station. Porter is a Canadian-Indian (now more wokely called a “native Canadian”), a gifted linguist and survival expert. Getting him into Siberia in the guise of an “indigenous Russian” takes up two thirds of the narrative. What’s going on at the secret establishment has echoes of the X-Files. Getting him out with this world-changing secret is another challenge.
Lionel Davidson vividly recreates the Siberian permafrost and the people who live there (it’s where gold and other minerals are mined in huge quantities). This is a story like no other, bone-chilling in its setting and nerve-shredding in its tension. After twenty-five years I still rate it in my all-time top ten thrillers – maybe in my top five.