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Saturday 30 October 2010

Don No

Last Sunday, by chance, I saw a bit of the first James Bond film, Dr No, released forty-eight years ago in 1962. It was, of course, made before Bond became a franchise that multiplied and morphed. The makers were trying it out to see whether or not it would fly with consumers.

My interest was drawn as I realized that I was seeing in historical time, as it were, the film background to the American TV series Mad Men. It had not struck me before just how much the series protagonist, Don Draper, is a version of Sean Connery’s portrayal of Bond as a hard-boiled, long-zipped hero. It’s not just a question of the male hair applications, or the women poured into girdled moulds, but even, despite the difference in accents, down to some intonations.

Dr No links male tradition and female corsetry. Men bear and command; women pour, and just can’t help it if they like a pillar of strength. But it is an escapist fantasy - I was particularly fond of James Bond turning the radioactive level explosively up and then looking for the girl chained into a sloping Angelica position.

Unless you’re a fashionista, Mad Men is less escapist. I think of the series as skilful Balzac for today, but rising from time to time into a stylish existentialism and, just occasionally, into wonderfully scrappy bits that mean living people clash at indecorous, often unknowing levels of deference, self-respect, discomfort and resentment. From that point of view Mad Men is rather sophisticated. I understand the character of Peggy Olsen is, to some extent, based on the female founder of Cosmopolitan magazine. In other words, a boss is not a lover, but may be even more time-consuming and influential. Her narrative danger? Just a little too much of the Ad-woman’s pilgrim’s progress.

But what really struck me is that it is TV series like Mad Men, (and The Sopranos and The Wire) that lead the way in popular narrative terms. Written narrative, though it gradually assumed the cuts associated with film, is still not sharing that freedom and those possibilities.

It may be of course that the audience for written fiction feels happier with more traditional exposition and explanation, but it is probably more to do with the producers’ economic model.

Take, for example, last Wednesday’s episode (in the UK, that is.) in which Peggy casually mentions Margaret Mead. In a book, I suspect the author would need to add ‘the anthropologist’. And very likely ‘author of Coming of Age in Samoa’. The fact is, that by mentioning Margaret Mead, Peggy is misreading male irritation and confusion with a vending machine. She is about to get a crash course in ‘Mating in Manhattan’ and ‘The position of crude innuendo in the work place’, and finds out that solidarity amongst women can lead to being called a ‘humourless bitch’ by another female - the recipient of the original Margret Mead remark.

I am aware that some people, particularly of my mother’s generation, find Mad Men uncomfortable, or even unwatchable. It can seem a very sharp portrait of the extent to which conformity and decorum, and what was regarded as important, look, in retrospect, pointless and trivial and cruel.

Don Draper’s ex-wife, Betsy, would-be but failing model of the supported, supportive and fragrant trophy wife, described his date as ‘at least fifteen’ - reflecting her own emotional age rather than accusing her ex-husband of cradle snatching. ‘He has it all,’ she complained, with considerable envy.

The girl in question, poured exactly into the same hairdo and fashion sense as she is, is a younger clone of herself. With one exception. The young lady made Don ‘comfortable’ before trotting demurely and knowingly back to her dorm.

Yes, at one level it is excruciating. But I’d point to two justifications. It's scalpel sharp. And if anyone thinks this could not be applied to life now, they might like to think again before it’s too late.

Sunday 17 October 2010


My husband takes solace in the works of David Hume. He finds something reassuring in the great sceptic philosopher’s prose. It is true, of course, as Julian Baggini and others have pointed out, that Hume was pre-soundbite. My husband says the prose is nearly hypnotic, like hearing the click of a verbal abacus.

I tend more to hearing the civilized whirr of a privileged 18th Century mind – never knowingly oversold, as it were.

Hume is famous on several counts. One is his remarkably brief autobiography, My Own Life. At just ten pages long it is, on one level, anti-Proust – at another, anti much detail at all, once a rigorous process of selection has been applied.

Hume’s life is a literary life. As one of the first, possibly the first, man of letters to make a living from 
writing books (his histories sold more than his philosophical works) he describes what he calls the ‘vanity’ 
 involved in writing an autobiography:  ‘It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity; 
therefore I shall be short.’ 
This is not all puff. Overegging it a little, he describes, his first work as having fallen ‘still-born’ 
from the press. 

Hume, of course, was not given any literary awards – they are a more recent invention. And of course, they vary. The Nobel Prize, recently given to Mario Vargas Llosa, is big. The Booker, recently given to Howard Jacobsen, is big in Britain.

But there are others. And I have recently been nominated for the Ellis Peter Awards (along with five other writers, two of whom have already won the award before). The Ellis Peters awards are for historical – that is now minus at least 35 years – crime fiction.

My attitude is – I really am very grateful to be nominated at all.

But it has struck me that ‘history’ is a long time. I think my Washington Shadow is the most recent in terms of setting (1945) – three of the shortlisted books are set in Tudor times. All historical novels, of course, reflect the present to a greater or lesser degree. Whether they mention doublets or zoot suits, they all have an angle on now.

And I suppose what I am really saying is that I am increasingly conscious of why the past matters. The attitudes of the nineteen forties in Britain, what I will call the non-funding of sometimes admirable, sometimes over-ambitious things, sticks to us now. For the last sixty years Britain’s efforts to remain a world power but with a degree of social justice have proved … let’s call it expensive.

Good luck – I mean it – to the other short listed writers.

Monday 11 October 2010

Shortlisted for Ellis Peters Historical Award

I have heard today that Washington Shadow has been shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Award, together with fellow John Murray writers Rory Clements (for Revenger) and Andrew Williams (for To Kill a Tsar), as well as S.J. Parris (for Heresy), C. J. Sansom (for Heartstone) and Andrew Taylor (for The Anatomy of Ghosts)

The results will be announced on 4th November.

Tuesday 5 October 2010


Many years ago, on reading a poem by W B Yeats for school (see The Tower), something stuck. I became conscious the poet was complaining of age: he had ‘fantastical’ imagination, but what he lacked as an old man was stamina, the ability to hold and sustain the construct that turns imagination into the something people can read and share.

As I say, I made a note of this for future reference. Would I ever, I wondered, given my evident differences from a great poet, experience something similar? And when?

Blogreader, I may just have done so. I have been working hard on one hundred thousand words (Blacklight) and last Sunday, the effort to hold the whole book in mind resulted in, or rather collapsed into, a fantastic image – a vulture perched on an empty skull. I’d guess that image follows on from a sensation of dark, heavy wings at the back on my mind before the old scavenger took over.

It may even be a rather literal take on the word ‘deadline’.

However grandiose the image however, it was simply like the mind turning its own light off. Also known as working too long.

Sleep helped.

It did give me pause however – enough to write this, anyway. As I have said before, I do not read long books when I’m at this stage of writing. And I have been looking at The Original of Laura by Valdimir Nabokov.

Described on the cover as ‘a novel in fragments’, that is precisely what it is. It appears that Nabokov himself wanted it destroyed. I don’t want to get in to whether it should have been published or not. (It should not have been).

What it does show is Nabokov at the end of his life, being sporadically what we think of as ‘Nabokov’ – but it is really more a collection of notes, mnemonics and puzzles, and problems to do a lot of work on and develop.

Nabokov was also a considerable lepidopterist. Rather cruelly, The Original of Laura is like bits of a butterfly with too many legs, missing scales and misplaced antennae - almost a butterfly broken on the wheel before it had become a butterfly.

Romantic? No.

Right at the end of writing a book, even this modest writer is anxious not to lose the energy and stamina needed to make it enjoyable.