Friday, 23 November 2012

SAS man hits the high street | Theo Knell struggles to adjust

If there is ever an invasion.... I want TheoKnell on my side.

Theo served with the British Army, including the SAS, for 22 years. A Hell for Heroes is his attempt to give an honest account of army life and very importantly, life after the army.

It’s a fascinating read, warts and all – covering service in Ireland and Africa - which will leave you with deep respect for the military. Even Paras puke with fear, but they jump just the same.

People like Theo are fitter, tougher and more capable than 99% of civilians could ever be. They can load weapons under fire, run 40 miles, cure a village of dysentery and perform surgery, as and when required.  

But when they are thrown out into Civvy Street, all the structure, camaraderie and usefulness is gone, leaving a terrible vacuum.

For Theo, that was when the nightmare of post-traumatic stress disorder began. He found it hard to land even the most menial of jobs: a leader of men it took him years to find his feet. He urges the services to do more to make the transition from military life to civilian life better. They should.

CJ Sansom | Dominion | Nazis in Great Britain

He is best known for his historical detective series starring the Tudor hunchback, Shardlake – think Wolf Hall crossed with Inspector Morse. But with Dominion, CJ Sansom takes history by the neck and sends it flying. “What if,” he’s asking, “Germany hadn’t lost the war?”

We’ve been here before. The author has already highlighted two influences in Len Deighton’s SS-GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland. But Sansom has a different approach and the result is a highly entertaining, thought-provoking page-turner.

His scenario is that when Chamberlain resigns as PM in 1940, Churchill is sidelined. Winston wasn’t really the favourite at the time, so perhaps it isn’t that big a stretch to imagine Lord Halifax, the senior Tory, squeezing him out. Sansom argues in a lengthy historical note at the back of the book, that had this happened Britain would have likely sued for peace and learned to live with the Nazis.

The consequences of this become clear as we flash forward to a fictional 1952, where Sansom weaves a story of resistance fighters, spies and Gestapo detectives. It hangs together, just about, and certainly kept me gripped. There’s a large cast, but it is handled well, with plenty of time taken to make you care about each character, just enough. Sansom manages another trick too: he is able to remind you why Nazis are so scary 
– capturing both their deranged logic, and their cruelty – while avoiding the worst stereotypes.

He’s clearly done his research: barely a page goes by without some sort of clever twist on reality. The newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook has become a Nazi-sympathising PM, Enoch Powell is in the Indian Office, the fascist leader Oswald Mosley – who in reality spent the war in prison – in the Home Office.

As a Scot, Sansom saves some of his most vitriolic contempt for the Scottish Nationalists – having one character note how they voted against conscription at the start of WW2 – which they did, in 1939. And in his lengthy historical note he brands the SNP “dangerous... shrewd political manipulators”, an outburst that has already earned him column inches north of the border.

Actually, I thought at times the author dwelt a little too much on his re-writing of history, allowing his characters to discuss events a bit too often. But the plotting is both complex and well paced. Yes, there’s a sort of ITV drama feel – perhaps because the prose comes without F or C-words, explicit sex scenes and the violence is never overwhelming. In fact, everything is somehow quite proper, like a 1950s black and white movie. But that will only help it, deservedly, find a big audience.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Tulisa Honest My Story So Far | Celebrity Biographies, two for a pound | Oh no, it's Christmas

You can tell it’s getting close to Christmas from the glossy tell-alls piling up in the shops. Out of the current top ten hardback non-fiction chart no fewer than six titles are celebrity memoirs.

Getting well groomed, expensively dressed actor and singer types to turn up at the annual staff barbecue is a nice bonus for publishers, but the real reason these books exist is that folks like Cheryl Cole have the kinds of fanbases mere fiction authors can only dream of.

Consider: 12 million people watch The X-Factor. So if just ten percent stumble into a shop and accidentally buy Tulisa’s new book... kerching!

Be warned though. Sleb books (as I shall now irritate you by calling them) come in two broad categories. There is highly rare but prized “great story involving a Sleb”. Remember Richard Hammond from Top Gear writing about the crash that nearly killed him? Corking stuff. Sold a shed-load. But the follow up in which he mused about stunt biker Eval didn’t.

Which brings us to the common or garden “Sleb in search of a story, any story”.

Take Miranda Hart for instance. If you love her BBC1 comedy series, ahem, Miranda, and many apparently do, then I guess you might well get a kick from Is It Just Me? in which said famously tall person discusses life themes with her 18 year old self. (Yup. She really does.)

Literary types might suspect the well-educated Ms Hart (she went to boarding school and played Lacrosse) is channelling not just the classic dialogues of Plato and Aristotle, but also Tristram Shandy, the celebrated 18th century meta-novel which spends most of its time worrying about how to begin. She even addresses us as My Dear Reader Chum or MDRC for short. But ol’ Shandy just wasn’t as “hilaire”, a term that crops up a lot, as ol’ Miranda.

A lot of Hart’s comedy is based on embarrassment, but the embarrassment that oozed from these pages was that of an otherwise talented performer and writer who had a highly lucrative contract to deliver a book when she had very little to put in it.

Perhaps Miranda is too young, at 37, to have a proper biography or a memoir in her. But then there’s Tulisa, who has just published Honest at the grand old age of 24. And it’s packed with... stuff. No Lacrosse jolly sticks here: Tulisa grew up in gritty North West London, lost her virginity at 14, and was a pop star about five minutes later. She likes to “get up to mischief”, a phrase she actually uses, and the detail, as you would expect, is fairly intense: “Chapter Five: After my success in Bugsy Malone at primary school, I was determined that I would become a recording artist.” Gasp.

High points include going to a strip club with her non-boyfriend record producer (“Of course, the press were all over it”) and how she never slept with Mark Wright from The Only Way is Essex (“Why is it that I can’t be friendly, or even a bit of a flirt with a guy without everyone presuming I banged him?”)

Saturday night TV fans will note that Tulisa is up against Strictly Come Dancing’s Bruno Tonioli, not only as judges on rival shows but on the bookstand, which brings me to one of the few genuinely good reasons to buy Sleb books: embarrassing pictures of the subject’s youth.

Bruno’s pics are particularly hilaire: as a toddler he was clearly rescued from the Italian version of The Addams Family and as a teenager from the Italian version of The Breakfast Club. You’ve never seen so much hair and teeth. Or man nipple. But the actual content? How can I break it to you darling? You write like a moose... doing a tango... wearing a swimsuit... on its head. Pass the sickbag.

Monday, 5 November 2012

JK Rowling | Lennoxlove book fest

So I'd actually booked tickets to go to Lennoxlove for the JK Rowling event. The main tent, where JK was appearing, was sold out, but they had a cheaper ticket for another marquee where the interview would be streamed live. So I bought a pair for Carmen and I.

Yes, we're Harry Potter fans, and as writers we were both extremely interested in what Rowling was up to writing a grown up book about ....

Well at the time we didn't know what it was about. This was back in September, or August, and The Casual Vacancy was still a mystery. Actually, most of us hoped it would be a mystery. What we got instead was a highly serious, literary novel with a million different characters which was funny in parts, impressive in parts, emotional in parts, but hard to like.

Anyways, we were resigned to being in the satellite tent when Carmen's sister got in touch. Would we like VIP tickets?

Turns out a business contact of hers had sponsored the book festival and had a handful of spare tickets. Two to be precise. Carmen's sister was booked to do something else that night, but the contact was happy with the idea of us going.

I really enjoyed myself. Rowling is a highly polished speaker and in person, at a literary event -- and, admittedly, with an interviewer who couldn't have fawned more (Muriel Gray, take a bow, you are in Hufflepuff) -- she comes across as far more relaxed and humane than she ever does on TV.

She has a wicked, almost boozy laugh, too, which was put to good use on discussion of the stronger launguage in the book. Telling one woman that she should "reclaim that word" -- the c-word -- because it is, after all, a reference to part of a woman's body. Also she spoke very passionately about the politics of the book. And she kept the Daily Mail jibes to a minimum, which was probably a good idea. Because by the look of the audience almost all of them were Daily Mail readers.

Actually, the audience was very sweet. Refined certainly -- a cut above that crowd who go to Edinburgh book fest -- and we did have a Duke at the next table during dinner. The Duke, it was his house, you see. But I found the people I spoke to very entertaining.

Lennoxlove is a terrific venue, actually. Small and intimate, but stunning visually. I'd definitely try to go again.

Robyn Young on Robert the Bruce and Scottish independence from England

I really enjoyed my recent interview with Robyn Young.

There's a lot to admire about an author who stuck with it, for so long, in order to get her first book published. Seven years, and as she put it, countless re-writes.

Eventually she found an agent and eventually she and that agent were able to get a small huddle of publishers interested. Her recent book, Renegade, part two in her second trilogy -- this one is about Robert the Bruce -- was a top ten hardback bestseller. Her books also sell round the world. So it makes you wonder what the problem was -- why did it take so long to get one publisher to back her with her first book, Brethren?

Well, sometimes it just does that's all. I know from personal experience how many times you can redraft a book, how you can take a manuscript that you thought was done and improve it in ways you never thought possible. Interestingly, Robyn changed the narrative point of view -- I think twice -- taking an MS that was at one point told in the first person into the third person.

These technical things make a huge difference to the reader's experience and to the kind of market you can reach. Young's books are "mainstream historical fiction". they appeal to Bernard Cornwell fans. I actually prefer her writing to Cornwell's.

Here's the interview that appeared recently in Big Issue:

The best historical fiction doesn’t just recreate the past, it speaks to the present. Robyn Young has the knack of finding subjects that resonate. Her debut trilogy – Brethren, Crusade and Requiem –told the story of a young Templar knight while offering a startlingly fresh view of Christian-Islam relations in the 13th and 14th centuries – just as 9/11 threatened our own 21st century safety.

Young is currently deep into her second trilogy – and this time her concerns are closer to home. The action is centred not on Accra and the Middle East but on Scotland and its wars for independence, just as talk builds of a referendum north of the border.

Insurrection and the just released Renegade follow the controversial career of Robert the Bruce: King, warrior, turncoat and/or murderer, depending on your point of view.

“I was in Scotland doing research for Requiem, in which I thought Bruce and William Wallace would have their part to play,” Young explains. “But the moment I started looking in-depth into Robert’s story, I realised a sub-plot in a story about the Templars and their downfall would not do it justice.”

Young has since retraced Bruce’s steps from the remotest parts of the Highlands and Islands, to battle sites like Caerlaverock Castle near Dumfries in the south.

“Wallace’s story is simpler, more black and white,” she notes. “But Bruce’s is so complex, convoluted and shifting in terms of his allegiances -- I couldn’t have conveyed all of that in the earlier book.”

So compared to the hero Wallace, lionised by Mel Gibson, does Bruce gets a bad press? “He gets really short-changed in the film Braveheart,” Young says. “It narrows his story down to a very simplistic role. But he was far more complex than a Hollywood film can portray. I don’t know how you’d even begin to fit Robert into a movie.”

Part of the Bruce appeal was undoubtedly the novelty. Born and educated in England Young admits she was completely unaware of his part in British history – it wasn’t on the syllabus at school when she sat her History GCSE, and she isn’t a formally “trained” historian. As she conducted her research, she quickly found herself transfixed.

“I got the sense not just of how important it was for Scotland but for Britain as a whole,” she says. “And I wanted to convey the many crossovers and similarities there were between the kingdoms – as well as the differences. There were marriages and relationships that crossed the border. On the ground, the armies weren’t Scots v English, it was more mixed up.”

So are their parallels with the current debate about Scottish nationalism? “Doing the research makes me understand why there is such a strength of feeling behind Scottish nationalism. But my own family goes back to Scotland, Ireland and Wales more than England. I’m English but I think of myself as British and I would like to see us stay together.”

The thrust of Renegade is the English King Edward I’s attempts to gather together the Scottish Stone of Scone, the English Sword Curtana, the Crown of Arthur from Wales, and from Ireland, the Staff of Malachy. This is a delightful McGuffin, which not only drives the action but is placed on sound historical evidence.

“At a point in 1307 just before Edward I’s death, there is an odd little reference in history that the Prophecies of Merlin were being re-told throughout the land so that when the covetous old king dies, Britain will live together in harmony,” Young explains.

“We know Edward definitely owned a copy of Prophecies of Merlin, and then you look at what he did – in taking the crown of Arthur from Wales and the Stone of Scone from Scotland. I read about this early on in my research and just went with it. But whether he believed in it himself or whether it was all clever propaganda I don’t know.”

The Stone of Scone of course was returned to Edinburgh in 1996, a year before a referendum gave the Scots their own parliament. But who believes in Merlin nowadays?

Patrick Leigh Fermor | A Time Of Gifts | Mr Foote's Other Leg

These days, “adventurous” is buying an airline ticket and Skyping home to mum from a Thai beach bar. For Patrick Leigh Fermor, “adventurous” was flunking school and heading off, aged 18, to walk across Europe on a pound a week. No iPhone for him, it was 1934, and the journey took him a year.

He ended up in Greece, but when WW2 began dashed back to join the Irish Guards, because he thought if he was going to die he might as well have an attractive uniform. When he missed out on a commission he grudgingly accepted a transfer to the Intelligence Corps.

But Fermor was an extraordinary individual: outgoing, widely read, good with languages. His walk across Europe, “from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople”, immortalised in the much lauded travelogue A Time Of Gifts (1977), had broadened his horizons and formed his life view and he turned out to be a brilliant wartime agent.

The SOE sent him to Nazi occupied Crete where, for almost two years, he led a group of resistance fighters. Apparently he was one of several classical scholars working there – a knowledge of ancient Greek seen as a shortcut to the modern language.

Later, he was awarded the DSO for a daring mission in which he kidnapped a Nazi general and smuggled him off the island. He even left a note in the man’s car making it clear that it had been a British operation, signing it PM Leigh Fermor, Maj, O.C. Commando. In peacetime, his activities on the island earned him a “blood vendetta” from those who blamed him for terrible Nazi reprisals. And yet he carried on living on Crete for most of his life.

When he died last year at the grand old age of 96, Fermor was fittingly described as a cross between “Indiana Jones, James Bond and Grahame Greene.” Artemis Cooper’s excellent, un-put-downable biography of lives up to this mix and offers a third person viewpoint Fermor’s own books, by definition, lack. She is lucky in her subject, not just because his life is littered with famous connections – the Sitwells, Lauren Van Der Post, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – but because even from birth Fermor’s circumstances were extraordinary, and his attitude to life formidable. He loved to party, drank like a fish and squeezed the maximum from life.

While Fermor was famous for crossing Europe on foot, Samuel Foote was famous for having just one foot – he lost one in a riding accident. I’ve been relishing Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, about this once-celebrated 18th century actor, comedian, true crime author and friend to Princes.

Like Oscar Wilde in a later era, Foote was said to be the wittiest, most famous man in London, at a time when a clever remark in a coffee house was the equivalent of appearing on Radio 4 or getting a million followers on Twitter.

He made his name with a scandalous pamphlet describing how one of his uncles killed another in an argument over a will – a long running family dispute Dickens is said to have used as the basis of the interminable legal case Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Bleak House. Then he traded on his fame by taking to the stage.

But rather like Wilde, Foote was brought low by the scandalous suggestion that he was homosexual. For a 21st century reader, the transcripts from the court case are shocking and yet also, strangely hilarious. Foote might have recovered from the scandal, but according to Kelly his bitterness and wit got the better for him. He was ruined, forgotten and died, his one remaining foot in his mouth.

This review appeared in The Big Issue