FILM: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Branagh MurderFirst there are the moustaches. They flow out of Brangh’s nose, sweep across his cheeks and end up about an inch from the lobes of his ears. They are described by Agatha Christie as ridiculous and these ones certainly are. There’s a rather worrying moment when we see the contraption that Poirot wears at night to keep his moustaches safe. It makes him look a bit like Hannibal Lecter. Close your eyes at that point.

This being Branagh. Poirot is Branagh-ed, Branagh is certainly not Poirot-ed. Branagh is incapable of playing him as ‘a ridiculous little man’ so there is longing in the gazing at a photo of Katherine and there is manly striding and Poirot does clever things with his stick. The beginning sequence is extremely bizarre. Poirot solving the Middle East crisis while measuring the height of his oeufs. I’m sorry if that line is obscure but you’ll just have to go and watch it to see what I mean. I suppose the purpose behind it is to inform us that Poirot is clever and odd and it certainly does that!

The plot is changed somewhat from the book, which is a relief because if it hadn’t been there would have been endless scenes of Poirot interviewing suspects and going. ‘Làlàprécisémentmon cher and eh bien mon ami…’  and  nothing much else. Fortunately, we have introduced here a stabbing, a shooting and a chase and this livens things up no end in comparison to the book. In one scene Poirot strides across the top of the snow-covered train and he keeps his footing. Phew!

The settings are all very beautiful. We have a lovely train, we have thrusting pistons, we have steam and we have snow-filled valleys, snow drifts and snow falls. Yes, there’s lots of lovely snow and the scene when the train steams out of Istanbul is particularly gorgeous. I love all that.

Now to the rest of the cast. I could have done with a great deal more of Olivia Colman, a woman who can do no wrong in my eyes. Here she gets to order the fish, play some cards with Judi Dench and utter a few lines in German. I could have done with more of Judi Dench as well, if it comes to that, although she does look very splendid in velvet and toque. Derek Jacobi gets to say more and is as always eminently watchable.  Johnny Depp plays a rotter perfectly well and can do this kind of thing standing on his head so can Willem Dafoe and Penelope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer. The ones who stand out are not the starry ones but more Josh Gad as Hector McQueen, Phil Dunster as Col. John Armstrong and Leslie Odom as Dr Arbuthnot.

I was looking forward to the product placement episode that I had been warned about in a review. If you have not heard of GODIVA CAKES you will certainly know about them at the end of this film. And Poirot does utter the immortal lines ‘I lerve theese leetle cecks.’ It is a startlingly stand-alone line. It’s not even as if he says, ‘The knife is hidden in these leetle cecks.’ or ‘Theese leetle cecks are filled with arsenic.’ No, it is apropos of nothing that he lerves them. I wonder how much money Godiva paid for the privilege of having Poirot utter this line. And I wonder if the  cecks will follow Poirot to the Nile. I worry the chocolate might melt in all that heat. Mind you, I worry that Branagh’s moustache might get a bit bedraggled as well. At the end of the film Poirot is summoned to Egypt so we know that’s where he’s heading next. I think Ken will look very nice in the linen suit and the panama which he is probably being measured for as I type.

Would I recommend it?  Well, I think your enjoyment will depend on two things. First your view of Kenneth Branagh, who is in my opinion a bit of a marmite actor. If you don’t mind lots of close ups of his big, angsty blue eyes, you’ll be fine, if not, it’ll be a long couple of hours. Second, if you’re someone who knows Agatha Christie’s writing very well and wants a film that reflects that, the depiction of Poirot may well infuriate you. Probably best to give this a miss and seeks out the DVD of David Suchet’s version or Albert Finney’s, both of whom are much closer to the original.

MoustachesFinally, if you would also like to experiment with your own moustaches here is a lovely box of moustaches I spied in Paperchase. You can get to choose between six moustache styles: traditional gent, cowboy, rusty brush, Italian plumber, oil baron and Abra-Kadabra! (I know, I know but I’m only writing down what’s on the packet). Poirot’s incidentally is closest to traditional gent. This being my own product placement. Paperchase, darling, if you happen to be reading, I’m a writer so how about notebooks for life. Oh, and pens I could do with some pens as well, especially those fancy ones you lock in the glass cabinets. Waiting to hear from you. Thanking  you ever so, as Marilyn might once have said.

Have you seen the film? What did you think of it and Branagh as Poirot?

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THE MOUSTACHES HAVE LANDED

murder on orient

Couldn’t we at least have a train on the cover?

It has probably not escaped your notice (unless you are living in Antarctica with penguins) that there is a new film out of Agatha Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It hasn’t escaped my notice because there are ads for it on the side of London buses and when the 22 stops in traffic outside my flat (which it has been doing a lot recently due to heavy plant activity – not triffids),  I have a very nice view of the cast. Kenneth Branagh, sporting luxuriant moustaches, is playing Poirot and directing it. In preparation for this wildly exciting event I read the book and here is my imagined dialogue between Agatha and an unnamed modern day literary agent after the agent has read it.

 

 


A DIFFICULT CONVERSATION

Agent: Is this a first draft?

Agatha: Oh dear, well no I didn’t see it as such.

Agent: (sighs) But where are the descriptions? As it stands it might just as well be MURDER ON THE 7.15 CROYDON TRAM. You say the train is stuck in a snowdrift but where is the snow? There is no indication of the snow anywhere. Does it melt immediately? Does no one look out of a window and see it? Does no one scrunch a snowball or throw it?

Agatha: Oh dear you obviously don’t like it at all.

Agent: It’s not that I don’t like it but  there are no descriptions. I want to be able to see it. I want snow, I want lush interiors. I mean frankly you wouldn’t really know it was taking place on a train. What do the cabins look like? And if it comes to that what do the people look like.

Agatha: I do describe the people I think.

Agent: You describe Poirot a little bit – huge moustaches …egg-shaped head …ridiculous-looking but as for what’s her name … What is her name? The Countess …

Agatha: The Countess Andrenyi?

Agent: No.

Agatha: No?

Agent: She’s a drag queen or something.

Agatha: Oh you mean the Princess Dragomiroff.

Agent: Oh yes, that’s right – well simply telling us she’s ugly doesn’t tell us much. What kind of ugly?

Agatha: But there’s the yellow toad-like features and the toque.

Agent: The what?

Agatha: The toque, the toque, I describe her as wearing a toque.

Agent: What is that – some sort of otter?

Agatha: It’s a hat.

Agent: Oh. And there’s another thing. Poirot …

Agatha: Yes?

Agent: Well, can’t he fall in love with one of the suspects.

Agatha: No, that wouldn’t do at all he is a sexless individual with a large brain.

Agent: Whatever made you think that would be a good idea, darling?

Agatha: Well, my sales. So far Poirot has appeared in seven novels one play and one  short stories and he has always been the same. I can’t change him now. My fans wouldn’t like it.

Agent: Oh, you have fans do you? Hmm…

A long silence ensues …

Agatha: Are you still there?

Agent: Yes, I’m thinking.

Time passes …

Agatha (tentatively): What did you think of the plot?

Agent: The plot is OK as far as it goes although it sort of falls off the end of a cliff doesn’t it? Couldn’t we have a scene when they are all saying goodbye to each other on the platform, something to round it off. Now let  me see how can we salvage this … could we have longing perhaps … yes, that’s it, longing …

Agatha: For what?

Agent: For pretty much anything darling. Yes, that’s it longing… Now then I can’t hang on here sorting this out for you but basically it’s plot B+ and all the rest C-. Have another go at it and bung it back to me in a month.

Agatha looks down at the notebook in which she’s been making notes of the conversation and sees the following words: Lush Snow, Lush Interiors, Toque, Longing … Otter????? She picks up her pen and begins:

Poirot scrunched the lush snow into a ball and filled with longing threw it playfully at the Princess. It struck her toque and she laughed gaily galloping through the snow towards him. She might have been the ugliest woman in the world but to him her yellow toad-like features were the epitome of beauty … Suddenly, out of nowhere an otter appeared scything through the lush snow. It threw itself at his face. It latched onto his lush moustaches. Poirot screamed as it dawned on him too late – the otter had done it!

Agatha threw down her pen and went and poured herself a large gin …


So here’s the question. Are you a fan of Agatha, Poirot, the books the films? And what kind of Poirot do you think Ken will be. I can’t imagine him playing him as a sexless brain can you? After all, Ken is always the hero – so what’s going to happen? My guess is a bit of longing and some manly striding. Anyway, I’m off to see it tomorrow and I can’t wait. Apparently there is an outrageous piece of product placement which produces this piece of dialogue from Poirot: ‘Ah, lerve theeese leeetle cecks’. The cecks incidentally are of the Great British Bake Off variety. And so that you can excercise yeur leetle greh cells which I know you long to do, answer this. What was the title of the German version of the book?

 

 

 

 

ON MY DESK – or, why growing a Morning Glory on your desk is not a good idea…

Some of you will remember that a while back I wrote about the morning glory growing on my desk, or at any rate in a pot on my desk. At that time it looked like this…

tiger and morning glory

A tiger with the odd elegant leaf hanging from his paws.

 

It was all very manageable. But then time passed and this happened …

morning glory three

A tiger in the jungle

And further up it looks like this …

morning glory four

Up and up it goes …

It has nipped its way up all the hanging doodahs (technical expression that) in my window and a rather hungry looking tendril is now hanging speculatively about a foot over my head. I feel like Charles Dance in Alien 3. I’m not going to put the You Tube link in here because it completely terrified me watching it just now but if you want that pleasure type in Alien 3 and Dr Clemens/Charles Dance dies/killed and you’ll get the general idea. However all you really need to know is that it doesn’t end well for him.

And there is not a flower in sight. Not a single one.

The only good part of this is that instead of my partner walking into the room I work in and being aghast at the number of books and general mayhem there is now a completely new cause of aghast-ness. And our conversation goes something like this: ‘What are you going to do when it reaches your head?’ Me, à la Violet Elizabeth Bott (she had a lisp) : ‘I’ll thcream and thcream ’till I’m thick.’

If you don’t hear from me again you’ll know that Sigourney didn’t hear my thcreams either.

Tell me your bad growing experiences. All of them. In technicolour. It’ll make me feel so much better about things. And if you have any tips about how to get my morning glory to flower tell me that as well.

HATS OFF TO YOU!

Hats off – or in this case I think actually my great uncle Norman’s top hat off, to all those of you who nominated my book THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN  for The Guardian’s NOT THE BOOKER PRIZE. It is on a glorious long list of 150! Not only hats off but hats off with sunflowers. Thank you all so very much!

hat and sunflowers

THANK YOU, DARLINGS …

In order to get THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN  onto the SHORT LIST of six you now have to vote for two books (on the long list) published by two different publishers. So in my case don’t pick another Black and White title. Give a 100 word review of one of them and put the word ‘vote’ in your comment. If you click on the link below you’ll see all the details of what you have to do. Incidentally, I quite understand if at this point you think, ‘Forget it, dearie, I’ve got better things to do with my August and this is simply too much trouble.’

But wouldn’t it be ABSOLUTELY THRILLING to get THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN onto the SHORT LIST? And if you do, apart from loving you for ever, I will post a picture of myself in my great uncle’s pith helmet. You think I jest? Well, here it is patiently awaiting its elevation to my head! It longs to be placed there, it really does and only you can make it happen.

pith helmet

AWAITING ELEVATION …

Oh, and VERY IMPORTANTLY I should add that the deadline for this part of the competition is 23.59 BST on Monday 7th August 2017 so get voting darlings or the pith helmet will stay where it is, sadly gathering dust, forlorn, forgotten and pithed off … 

 

http://theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/jul/31/not-the-booker-prize-2017-please-vote-on-the-long-long-longlist

MY DESERT ISLAND BOOKS

Here’s a piece I did for the Historical Writers Association (HWA) on what my five desert island books would be. Tricky deciding but I went a bit for laughs on the assumption that I’d need them. Don’t worry, you won’t find The Brothers Karamazov here, but maybe some books you might enjoy. They contain the following: rats, playwrights, an actor having a nervous breakdown, a woman with webbed feet, a war hero and the magnificent city of London. Sorry about the dolphins by the way – don’t know what came over me!

http://www.historiamag.com/desert-island-books-victoria-blake/

 

A SHAMELESS PLEA!

Darlings, I know you’re longing to nominate me for The Guardian’s NOT THE BOOKER PRIZE. The idea of the prize is to uncover hidden gems. If I win  I will receive a lovely Guardian mug and lots of publicity. If I get shortlisted  I will also get some lovely PUBLICITY for my lovely book. HURRAH! How can you resist? If you do I will take my hat off to you or I might even post a picture of myself wearing this hat in a burst of sunny gratitude.

hat and book

Hat and book

My friend Maggi has brought this to my attention and already nominated me. Thank you darling Maggi. So join Maggi in propelling THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN into the public eye.

To nominate me you have to use the word nomination and name my book in the comments of the link below and also name the publisher. Because my book has changed title it would probably be good to say something like this. Nomination: The Return of the Courtesan by Victoria Blake first published as Titian’s Boatman (Jan 2017) by Black and White Publishing. The deadline is 30th July so that gives you nine lovely days.

Sending you kisses in advance…

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/jul/17/not-the-booker-prize-2017-needs-your-nominations-now

COINCIDENCE IN LIFE AND ART

As readers haven’t we all at some point felt that a writer has stretched our credibility to breaking point. That, ‘Oh come off it!’ moment when, however much we’ve enjoyed the book up to then, we draw back and think ‘Well that would never have happened.’ Speaking for myself (with my writing hat on) this is usually because I’ve got myself into a corner and am now doing something ridiculous to get myself out of trouble while hoping the reader won’t notice. It’s akin to a cat which has climbed a high tree and is now howling for the fire brigade. However, weird coincidences do happen. Here’s one example from my life – a strange day earlier this year in London, a city of 9 million people.

Image result for pictures of the foyles cafe

The lovely cafe at Foyles

I’d arranged to meet an old school friend in the café in Foyles in central London. It had been lovely to see her but after we parted I started thinking rather negatively about how I am with maintaining friendships – rather bad – and why that was. Then, walking back to the bus stop with diminishing feelings of regard for myself, I made the mistake of going into Waterstones, Piccadilly to see if I could find my book. This is generally not a good idea because if I can’t find it I feel despondent. In this case it was nowhere to be seen but I noted that the book of someone I know only very slightly, from a party we both go to at Christmas, was there and I felt, shall we say, a little more despondent. That is, despondent with a neon green tinge, I’m sure you understand. I then went and gazed at the stationery.

Image result for pictures of stationery department in waterstones piccadilly

Brightly coloured stationery failed me

For some reason staring at and indeed buying brightly coloured stationery usually cheers me up. It didn’t in this case and so I went and got myself some coffee and a cake in the café which looks down onto the stationery department.

I tried to do a bit of writing but then decided to give up any pretence of writing that day and got out my paper and read it from cover to cover. My reading was interspersed with eating what can safely be described as the oldest almond croissant to have ever existed in London, (make that the universe), at any time. It was so dry that when I gave it a speculative prod it shattered and hurled an atomic cloud of icing sugar and flakes of pastry all over me, the table and the floor. This did not improve my temper.

When I stood up to go, it required a prolonged period of brushing flakes of pastry off me. As I turned round to leave there was the man whose book I had seen earlier in the shop. He at least had his lap top out and so was doing better than me that day. ‘Is it Christmas?’ he said and we both laughed. I felt awkward because I knew he had seen that I had been doing no writing. It is one thing for a writer not to be writing but it is quite another thing to be seen by another writer who is writing not writing.  And it is indeed quite another thing to have been seen having an altercation with a one hundred year old almond croissant while not writing by a man whose book is prominently displayed in a shop which does not contain mine.

cover

The book that was not there

We chatted and then he said the fatal words ‘How is the book going?’ And because I was discombobulated with not writing and being covered in shards of pastry and icing sugar and not being a good friend, I did not say THE RIGHT THING. The correct answer would have been, ‘Yeah, fine thanks – what about yours?’ Writers are highly strung beasts and when they get into each other’s company they can spiral into a sort of collective neurosis. Stratagems are required for such encounters and these may include – bluster, lying, weedling, ironic detachment and charming self-deprecation. Or when that gets too exhausting you can ditch all that and just get drunk and lie in the  gutter hugging each other whilst crying. Also the truth about how one’s book is going is a tricky one to answer although obviously not if you are Lee Child, J.K. Rowling, Wilbur Smith etc. One third of the time you don’t really know, one third of the time you do not have the courage to find out and one third of the time  you have been told and you’re trying very hard to forget what you’ve been told or you’re not telling anyone (other than the cat that is now not up a tree).

But what with the not writing and the not finding my book and being attacked by a violent, exploding, almond croissant which had been nosed and rejected by an Archaeopteryx dinosaur at the end of the Jurassic era and thinking I was a hopeless friend I did not manage this encounter very well.  ‘Oh,’ he said, looking rather startled ‘What’s the title? I’ll look it up.’ Please don’t bother…’ I said shortly after telling him the title and making sure he had typed it into Google correctly. Then, as several flakes of pastry fell from my eyebrows onto his laptop, I said, ‘I should let you get on with your work.’ ‘Well, see you next Christmas,’ he said which was approximately 10 and a half months away. And that was that and I went a stood at the bus stop and festered.

There are 9 million people living in London so tell me exactly how did that sequence of events happen?  Oh, and by the way my book is about to nudge Lee Child off the top of the bestsellers list. Thank you for asking. Isn’t that amaaaaaaazing? Oh God, where’s that gutter, Oscar?

IMG_3270 (1)

Incidentally, the book that was not there in February has now morphed into this in paperback and it will definitely be there from the 27th July… definitely… it’ll be everywhere…absolutely everywhere…

 

WALKING WITH THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE

wisteria and mwbs

An afternoon walk with THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE is always enjoyable. Here he is worried that he might be outdone by some very beautiful wisteria … Of course nothing can be more beautiful than him …

handkerchief treeAnd here he is in contemplation of the handkerchief tree or if you’re that way inclined Davidia Involucrata, a deciduous tree from SW China that happens to be in my local park. Family Nyssaceae (don’t ever get me to spell that again).

If you want to visit him he will welcome your attendance in Room 2 of The National Gallery in London. He always has a lot to say for himself unless he’s on loan which is wearisome.

TIPS ON WRITING SEX SCENES

back cover TB

The back of Titian’s Boatman’s jacket

1. Don’t – you fool! Are you insane? People have sex but it doesn’t mean you have to write about it. Don’t, don’t, don’t …

2. However if one of your main characters is a Venetian courtesan (as in my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN …) do not think you can skip them. Sex, after all, was the currency of the courtesan and if you avoid them everyone will rightly think you are a coward.

3. If you feel you have to, make sure you mother and father are six foot under. Whatever it takes – literally is best but metaphorically will do. Dead, dead, dead … ashes to ashes … because you simply cannot imagine them reading … oh dear God … (puts fingers in ears and closes eyes and sings la, la, la…) and you can’t afford the twenty years of Freudian therapy to call them by their first names let alone . . . No, sorry, dead parents is the only answer.

4. Now convince yourself that no one you know will ever read them. Your book will not be published. No one will ever read them other than you.

5. If you are writing Renaissance sex scenes read Renaissance pornography. Pietro Aretino’s Ragionamenti are bawdy, funny, satirical and you will pick up some useful descriptions and metaphors … ‘Rubbing his rod and olives’ was one I particularly liked and would never, ever have dreamed up. Also you will never view nuns and monks in the same light.

6. If your book is going to be published do not read through the sex scenes obsessively at the editing stage and fret about those elderly aunts who are approaching 90 who might read them. Do not do that whatever you do, especially if they disapproved of one of your earlier books in which someone swore once or twice (OK it was the ‘c’ word) … and in which your main character had sex once or … Oh good lord, she was tied to the banisters in the first scene, wasn’t she? Excuse me while I . . . delete . . . delete . . . dump memory . . . dump memory . . .

7. Now where was I? In fact who am I? It is probably best not to say to your agent or your editor when in a state of high anxiety, ‘Are the sex scenes alright?’ because it will only embarrass them and you and really what are the poor dears going to say to you? If the answer is ‘no’ where do you go from there?

8. Once the book is published if at all possible obliterate said sex scenes from your mind completely, so that when your partner after a phone conversation with a mutual friend looks at you quizzically and says ‘She’s enjoying the sex scenes…’ you can immediately respond, ‘What sex scenes are those?’ in an entirely natural tone of voice.

9. If you end up in the Bad Sex Awards blame your agent and editor and comfort yourself with the thought that at least one person has read your book and all publicity is good publicity… and then make a secret vow that you will never write another as long as you live. Never, never, never … to quote King Lear. Oh, dear and look what happened to him …

10. If you bump into your neighbour and he looks at you in a curious way and says, ‘Oh, I’m half way through and I’m … (very, very long pause here broken by his mobile going off) … excited … err, sorry I have to take this call.’ Do not overanalyse any aspect of what he has said. Just don’t. And it’s probably best to delete the whole scene from your brain immediately along with the sex scenes.

11. Make a vow that you will never write another one as long as you live.

What do you think about sex scenes in novels? Like? Loathe? Laughable? Oh, go on – do tell. I’m absolutely not looking for comments on mine because I didn’t write any, did I?

BODLEIAN SHOP – OXFORD (with photos!)

I spent the day in Oxford a while ago doing a short interview at Radio Oxford about my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN. It went very well in the sense that I did not make a complete idiot of myself and kept talking. Nick Piercey was lovely but even so the levels of adrenaline these things bring out in me are akin to the time I jumped out of a plane with a parachute on my back. So the relief of it being over meant that I then ran amok in the Bodleian shop in the Broad. A shameful example of behaving like a tourist in the town of my birth.

First up this lovely bar of chocolate. I actually prefer dark, dark chocolate preferably 85% but I couldn’t resist this one for obvious reasons. Next time anyone asks me about WRITER’S BLOCK I will say, ‘Oh, it’s delicious. It’s luxurious … I wish it was darker but I eat it whenever I can …’

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Is there any chocolate left in it do you think?

I like writing related consumables and have come across WRITER’S TEARS (not sold in the Bodleian shop) which is a whiskey. The packaging makes the tear look rather cheerful. It would be nice if there was only one and it was this lovely orange colour. Interesting how anything writing related seems to be about the downsides rather than the upsides. I wonder why that is?

writers-tears

Fancy some writer’s tears. No neither do I!

Second up from the shop this postcard of the oath you have to swear when joining the Bodleian. I must have sworn this myself a long time ago but have absolutely no recollection of doing so. I particularly like the bit about not setting fires and it’s interesting to see the word ‘kindle’ in there.

bodleian

I swore this a while ago. I like the presence of the word ‘kindle’ here.

 

Third, a selection of beautiful bookmarks and also a turquoise leather notebook. Along with having a bad 85% chocolate habit I also have a very bad stationery habit. I couldn’t resist this one. Nostalgia, the memories of childhood home – the usual sentimental guff I’m afraid. When will I realise that a beautiful notebook is not going to make it all any easier. Probably when I’m laid out in my coffin.

turquoise-notebook

 

Finally books. I’ve been doing a bit of research on the early days of the Bodleian and both these were perfect.

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So there we are. The website says, “Take a treasure home today!” Well, I did didn’t I? A sack load of the stuff!