Monthly Archives: January 2014

In Praise of January

The daughter and I have a shared project of trying to lose a few pounds between now and Easter. Neither of us are natural athletes and both of us are fond of pastry and chocolate, so progress has been slow. I have an additional fondness for a good-sized glass of vino at the end of the day, which might explain why she’s doing rather better than I am. Dieting is always painful and working from home doesn’t help one bit; the biscuit tin is only too near at hand and it’s quite possible to avoid leaving house for days on end. Of course the ghastly weather has been a further disincentive – there’s nothing like a bone-numbing east wind to make you realise that maintaining a decent layer of subcutaneous fat is actually what nature intended. If human beings were hibernating animals, we could curl up in a cosy corner at the end of October and live off our fat reserves until spring. One would then emerge again in April, super slim and svelte, having missed the worst of the winter and without having to endure the agony of sustained and deliberate food deprivation. Sounds like a fantastic idea if you ask me.
Still, January does have some good things about it too. It’s a great month for making plans and organising a few treats for the year ahead. Now is the time to dream of the glorious summer to come (well, you never know; it might), filled with long, hot days, and balmy evenings at the beach with family and friends. We can’t resist scanning websites advertising holiday destinations, each of which features azure seas, acres of empty, unspoilt sand and not a hint of the seething hordes that will undoubtedly be there to share it with us if we do succumb to the temptation and book.
Some of the loveliest flowers bloom at this time of year too – snowdrops, of course, but also golden aconites, hellebores and Christmas box. We have a large bush right by the front door, and at the moment, its beautiful, unmistakeable perfume greets me every time I go outside.
January is also the month when we celebrate our Scottish roots with the annual Burns night supper. Burns night wouldn’t be Burns night without a freshly caught haggis (for more information about this mysterious and shy creature see http://www.robertburns.org.uk/Assets/Documents/haggisarticle.pdf), accompanied by buttery neeps and steaming tatties. Haggis has about two million calories per forkful, but come on, it’s only once a year… It never fails to remind me of the years when I was growing up in Glasgow. It was still a rough city in those days and for my mother, who was a Sassenach through and through, arriving there from the genteel Thames Valley town where we had hitherto lived was a huge culture shock. Being kids, me and my brother and sister soon adapted to the local ways and all of us made life-long friends there. It’s always a pleasure to return and even though it’s more than thirty years since I moved south, it still feels like home whenever I go there.

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Hit or Miss

Okay, I’m going to abandon my career predicting award nominations right here and now. As has been repeatedly remarked upon, 2013 was a particularly rich year for films, but even so, I’m more than a little disappointed that most of my favourites have failed to garner even a mention in respect of the Oscars. Whatever happened to The Place Beyond the Pines, which featured Derek Cianfrance’s lyrical and thought-provoking script and a number of terrific performances, including Dane DeHaan as Jason and Eva Mendes as Romina? Nor was there any mention for Steve Carell or Alison Janney, both superb in The Way, Way Back. Or what about the many other very worthy contenders such as Behind the Candelabra, Breathe In, Side Effects, Mud and Frances Ha, none of which have been recognized in any category whatsoever. Some very decent British films have likewise failed to pick up nominations – for example Sightseers, The Selfish Giant or my personal favourite, Le Weekend. There have been some similarly surprising omissions from the list of foreign language film nominations too, for example Blue is the Warmest Colour, Wajdja and Cate Shortland’s Second World War story, Lore. Again none of them got a single mention.
That isn’t to say that the films that have been nominated aren’t great too. I loved American Hustle, and Bradley Cooper richly deserves his nomination for his performance in that. It would be fantastic to see Steve McQueen carry off the Best Directing award for Twelve Years a Slave. Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine was another stand out for me, though on the night, I predict the statuette will go to Sandra Bullock for her space tears in Gravity. I haven’t yet seen either Nebraska or The Dallas Buyers’ Club but am looking forward to doing so soon.
What this indicates is just how arbitrary the whole business is. Every so often, I’m asked what my favourite film is, and the truth is that I don’t have a favourite film because there are dozens I love for all sorts of reasons. Some remind me of a particular time in my life, some are clever and thought-provoking, some are deeply moving and some just make me laugh out loud time and again. Each of them is wonderful in its own right. How do you go about comparing Some Like it Hot with The Godfather? Or Breakfast at Tiffany with Carlito’s Way or Little Miss Sunshine with The Painted Veil? At the end of the day, success depends on luck as much as anything else. Yes, talent and perseverance and sheer hard work are essential prerequisites, but the fickle finger of fortune plays a very big part too. What about all the great films that have never been made because the writer just didn’t manage to find the right producer, or because the director didn’t manage to pull off that all important pitch that could have secured the necessary funding? When you really think about it, that journey from an idea in the head of a writer typing away at the kitchen table somewhere in an obscure corner of the globe, to the big glittering night when the finished film is celebrated and rewarded by a theatreful of the most famous and glamorous people on the planet seems nothing short of miraculous. Do I really believe in my heart-of-hearts that it could happen to me? I don’t know. Is it worth trying for it? Again I don’t know, but for now I’m still sitting here.

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What Makes An #Editor publish a Short Story in a #Literary #Magazine?

Useful tips for short story writers

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Dressing down

It’s been fine weather for ducks, as they say; perhaps a little damp for the rest of us. One of the delights of the week after New Year is not being obliged to go out. The parties are all over and done with, and there’s no need for frantic last-minute shopping sprees. Instead one can spend whole days slobbing around in one’s jim-jams, snacking on Christmas leftovers, watching old, familiar movies or perhaps losing oneself in a really good, gossipy biography from the golden age of Hollywood.

One of my best gifts this year was a dressing gown. Not just your plain, ordinary sort of dressing gown, but arguably, The Greatest Dressing Gown of All Time. It’s truly magnificent – thick, velvety towelling, cut generously with a hood and wide sleeves and featuring a quasi-aboriginal design in golds, ochres and burnt umber. It’s probably the closest thing to a Russian khalat that you can get in this country – something I’ve long coveted. The traditional khalat was lined with fur and worn over skimpier European-style clothing by Russian aristocrats as they languished in draughty houses on their country estates during the long northern winters. It’s practically impossible to feel cold in one, so it was ideal for the conditions. As a garment, the khalat was immortalised by Ivan Goncharov in his novel, Oblomov. The eponymous main character is a kind of 19th century Russian Walter Mitty, though with considerably less energy, who spends his days lazing around in his khalat dreaming of all the noble and commendable things he’s going to do. This invariably leaves him so exhausted, that he’s obliged to retire to bed, leaving his neighbours and servants to help themselves to his dwindling possessions. Oblomov came to be seen as the epitome of the parasitic landowning class in pre-revolutionary Russia – well intentioned, but rendered utterly impotent by the straitjacket of autocracy; the book caused an uproar when it was first published.

Nevertheless, reading in bed when you should be up and about can feel wonderfully self-indulgent. It helps that the kids are now old enough to be able to fix themselves breakfast if they get peckish, although being teenagers, they’re quite capable of spending the whole morning in bed too. The unputdownable book in question was the first part of Anjelica Huston’s new autobiography, A Story Lately Told. I loved the honesty of it. The first part provides a moving portrait of a childhood spent semi-abandoned on a remote, country estate in the west of Ireland, surrounded by kindly retainers and a gorgeously eclectic array of flotsam and jetsam picked up by Huston’s parents as they pursued glamorous lives in distant, exotic places. It was an upbringing with much to commend it; freedom to explore the surrounding country-side, sensuously described by Huston, and to take risks, much time spent messing around with horses and other animals, hours of being left to one’s own devices. By her own admission, Huston seems to have spent many of these gazing at herself in the mirror, dreaming about what her illustrious parentage might mean for her future life.

At the core of the book, however, is an overwhelming sense of loneliness and loss. More than once, Huston mentions the coolness between her parents; she wonders why they don’t call each other “darling” when they use the term for almost everyone else. Likewise, she describes her shock and disgust when she discovers that a half-brother has unexpectedly been born to one of her father’s mistresses. Not long after this, her parents separate and Huston finds herself transported to London just as the sixties are getting into their stride. She adapts, settling into new schools and finding new friends until, at the age of seventeen, a car crash deprives her of her adored mother. Bereft and almost against her will, Huston embarks on an acting career and immediately finds herself clashing disastrously with her exacting perfectionist of a father. The resulting film garners terrible reviews. Crushed, Huston decides to become a fashion model instead. This leads her into an unhappy and destructive relationship with a man more than twice her age that drags on for four years until her father finally intervenes. The story ends with Huston’s decision to leave New York and move permanently to California.

The book’s beautifully written; Huston does a fine job of capturing the atmosphere of the time, the social mores of the rich and famous and the hollowness at its heart. There’s a carelessness about how children were treated that would be unconscionable today; they’re left alone with servants or strangers, little heed is paid to their safety or well-being and there’s absolutely no recognition of the impact, emotional or otherwise, that their parents’ actions might have on them. In many cases, children weren’t even informed about major decisions until long after the event, let alone consulted or considered. It was a gilded existence, but not a particularly warm one.

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