Katie Hutton: ANNIE OF AINSWORTH’S MILL
1897. Following her mother’s death Annie Maguire and her father escape the poverty and unemployment of County Down and relocate to Cumberland, where there is work – hard, dangerous work – in cotton mills and iron-ore mines. When her father moves away again to live (in sin) with an abandoned married woman, Annie makes a temporary home in a series of lodging houses, treated as an outcast because of her father’s situation. She falls in love with Robert McClure, who has also fled from County Down. But Robert is a Protestant and Annie a Catholic. The hatred between the two branches of Christianity is as strong in 1900s Cumbria as it was in the time of the Tudors – and still is today in the more sectarian areas of Northern Ireland. The ancient enmity creates a wall against which the love of these two young people is hard pressed to prevail.
Harsh deaths – consumption, childbirth, hideous accidents – are a daily risk, as is the threat of the poorhouse. There are rare moments of tenderness or humour. Robert compares the Roman ritual of confession and penance to “an account book at the Co-operative”, a simile that will stay forever with Annie (and with me). There is one priest with a reconciliatory mindset; at the other extreme there is Philomena, one of Annie’s landladies with a merciless soul.
Katie Hutton is a gifted writer. A lot of the novels I read I devour in great chunks; Annie of Ainsworth’s Mill is a book you want to read slowly, savouring the lovely lilt of every page, every paragraph. You hear the rise and fall of Irish accents in every line of dialogue. The evocation of harsh lives in the harshest of times stands comparison with writers like Arnold Bennett and Mrs Gaskell. This is a novel at the very pinnacle of the Historical Romance genre.
SEE HOW THEY RUN
Early in the first 1950s season of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap (destined, as we know, to become a theatrical Methuselah), an American producer moves in with a plan to make it into a motion picture. His early murder is an obstacle to the project – though it doesn’t stop him narrating this “film of the film that wasn’t”. Hilarious plot twist? Not for me.
Sad to say, I suffered a sense-of-humour outage during this movie. The rest of the (sparse) audience laughed out loud; I almost never did. It’s beautifully shot: interiors and exteriors have the lushness that we’ve come to expect from Poirot adaptations. Costumes were divine. Performances were spot-on for the period, although Saoirse Ronan’s monotonous policewoman grated with me. The screenplay was not kind to Ronan, whereas Adrian Brody was gifted the (Sunset Boulevard-inspired?) role of the murdered narrator and played it with juicy relish. Shirley Henderson’s cameo as Agatha Christie was a joy, and I welcomed the (Bridgerton-influenced?) casting of her husband.
There’s a lot to like about this movie, but the pace is leaden and so, for me, is most of the humour. I dozed off a couple of times. I’m as big a fan of Agatha Christie movies as anybody else, but not this one. Sorry.
Brownie points to Netflix for sponsoring this movie, which must have only limited appeal even to older gay viewers. Jack Lowden stars as World War One poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden), whose emotional and sexual life director Terence Davies explores in this gloomy biopic. After publishing a letter condemning the military chiefs for the appalling death toll the conflict has brought, Sassoon is lucky not to be shot as a traitor; they send him to a mental institution where he meets and falls in love with fellow poet Wilfred Owen who’s suffering from shell-shock (as PTSD was called in those dark days). Owen is sent back to die in Picardy in the last week of the war. The screenplay skates past Sassoon’s brief return to active service.
After the war Siegfried has a brief affair with Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), shown here as the uber-bitch in London’s far-from-discreet gay set. Siegfried has a longer but equally unhappy affair with upper-crust socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch), the model for Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Unhappy with homosexual life and converting to Catholicism, Sassoon marries. Flash-forward to his later life shows Sassoon (now played by Peter Capaldi) at odds with his wife and their son.
Throughout the movie Davies inserts horrific glimpses of battle casualties which never cease to haunt Sassoon. His poems are voice-overed from time to time, although two poems of Owen’s make it clear that Sassoon was somewhat Second Division in comparison.
This is a beautifully shot movie, and all the cast perfectly evoke the look and feel of the 1920s and 30s, but the scriptwriter’s prevailing tone is depressing. Male lovers and a wife all fail to bring happiness to Siegfried Sassoon. A life unfulfilled; a glum but riveting movie.
Daniel Silva: PORTRAIT OF AN UNKNOWN WOMAN
Now retired from masterminding Israeli secret intelligence (surely he’ll be back?), Gabriel Allon has resumed the life of an artist in his wife’s native Venice, but he agrees to take time out to help trap a beautiful Spanish dealer in forged Renaissance masterpieces. The trap involves Gabriel dashing off a Titian here, a Van Dyck there, as “bait” for the art smugglers. The trail takes him to London, New York, Rome and Sardinia, familiar locations to Daniel Silva’s loyal readers. Tel Aviv, unusually, gets barely a mention. In a postscript the author makes it disturbingly clear that fraud and forgery are perpetrated on a massive scale in today’s art world with its status-seeking billionaire buyers.
Death is dealt in smaller doses than in Silva’s regular forays into Middle Eastern and/or Russian terrorism. Also missing are the labyrinthine machinations of Vatican politics, which is another of the furrows Silva has frequently and impressively ploughed. The pace of this one is as crisp as always, the writing supremely elegant, but at times it feels almost like a pastiche of his usual thrillers. Ever so slightly daft, Portrait of an Unknown Woman is still hugely enjoyable. That said, I hope Silva sends Gabriel back to the Vatican and/or Moscow/Jerusalem/Damascus in his next annual adventure.
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.