CULTURAL HIGHLIGHTS

One of the things keeping me sane during lock down was the watching of CALL MY AGENT on a loop. Have you watched it? It’s fantastic! If you haven’t, go and watch it immediately. It’s on Netflix and once you’ve done that we can have a discussion about which agent you’d want to represent you. Personally, I favour far left. He’s the only sane one there is and he’s good at nipping at ankles.

Is Call My Agent!: Season 3 (2018) on Netflix Spain?

Another thing I saw was COUP 53. This is a film about the coup which took place in Iran in 1953 in which MI6 and the CIA ousted Iran’s democratic PM Mossadegh and replaced him with the Shah. Ten years in the making, it’s excellent and informed me of something I knew next to nothing about. You can find out more about it and how to watch it here.

I am currently reading SWAN SONG by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. It’s about what happened when writer Truman Capote published a story in Esquire magazine which spilled the beans on a whole load of his closest female friends. Capote is a writer I love and he’s a fascinating personality, so if you like his writing this will probably interest you. The Esquire story, La Cote Basque 1965, can be found in Answered Prayers. One of the enjoyable tit-bits from the book is that Jackie Kennedy and then Onassis produced a number of drag queens one of which was named Jackie Uh-oh.

Love Capote, love this.

Finally, I listened to some Katherine Mansfield short stories on BBC Radio 4 a while ago. They were excellent. I’ve not read her before but these really got me hooked. You’ll find them here on BBC Sounds.

What are you reading? What are you watching? What do you recommend?Spill the beans below.

TRUMAN CAPOTE: IN COLD BLOOD

Of himself Capote once said:

“I am a homosexual. I am a drug addict. I am a genius.”

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Conversations with Capote (New American Library 1985.)

It’s tempting to add to that list ‘I am a spectacularly good self-publicist’ because he certainly was! It’s fifty years this month since In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was published. A book that was merited with introducing a new form to the literary world the non-fiction novel and the basis perhaps for any assessment of him as a genius. The story was of the murder of the Clutter family in Holcombe, Kansas by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. Capote went there before the murderers were apprehended, later got to know them in prison and researched the murders for six years. The emotional effects of writing the book were depicted in the film Capote (2005) for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar and also Infamous (2006) a film covering almost exactly the same ground but with Toby Jones in the title role. Both films are excellent but Toby Jones is much more realistic casting than Seymour Hoffman.

I thought it might be interesting to see what Capote had to say himself about the book towards the end of his life when he was interviewed by Lawrence Grobel.

“I became so totally involved in it personally that it just took over and consumed my life. All the trials, the appeals, the endless research I had to do – something like 8,000 pages of pure research – and my involvement with the two boys who had committed the crime. Everything. it was a matter of living with something day in day out.”

On being asked about the experience of writing it:

“Well, I certainly wouldn’t do it again. If I knew or had known when I started it what was going to be involved. I never would have started it, regardless of what the end result would be.”

Not surprisingly he was completely disgusted by Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song written about the murderer Gary Gilmour, which was published thirteen years later. His main criticism was that Mailer had hired two researchers and had then written the book on the basis of their research. Capote did not like that one bit.

“I have no respect for Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song which as far as I’m concerned is a nonbook. He didn’t live through it day by day, he didn’t know Utah, he didn’t know Gary Gilmore, he never even met Gary Gilmour, he didn’t do an ounce of research on the book … he was just a rewrite man like you have over at the Daily News. I spent six years on In Cold Blood and not only knew the people I was writing about, I’ve known them better than I’ve known anybody. So Mailer’s book just really annoyed me.”

Another thing that annoyed him was that Mailer made no reference to the influence In Cold Blood must have had on him in the writing of his own book. The reason Mailer gave was as follows:

“I just thought that book [In Cold Blood]was so famous that you didn’t have to give credit to it.”

A specious argument to my mind. He probably simply didn’t want to admit that Capote’s book had influenced him.

In trying to sum up the effect of writing the book on him Capote said:

“I came to understand that death is the central factor of life. And the simple comprehension of this fact alters your entire perspective … The experience served to heighten my feelings of the tragic view of life, which I’ve always held and which accounts for the side of me that appears extremely frivolous; that part of me is always standing in a darkened hallway, mocking tragedy and death. That’s why I love champagne and stay at the Ritz.”

After all those sales he could certainly afford to.

Finally, one time Capote was asked to speak at a college to a hall of students. He turned up drunk and then rounded on them:

“Why, if you want to be writers, aren’t you home writing instead of crowding into this hall to listen to an old croc like me?”

He then passed out at the foot of the podium and three people had to lug him from the stage. Below is the link to a recent piece on In Cold Blood in the Guardian.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/nov/16/truman-capote-in-cold-blood

Have you seen the films? Have you read the book or Capote’s other novels and short stories? What did you think?

 

GOING ON HOLIDAY BY MISTAKE

Taormina, Sicily: Etna early in the morning.

Taormina, Sicily: Etna early in the morning.

I don’t really like holidays. To misquote from the film Withnail and I if I am on holiday I usually feel it is a mistake and I agree wholeheartedly with Henry David Thoreau who said:

“Beware all enterprises that require new clothes.”

Some people book holidays and then look forward to them. When I book a holiday it looms over me like a dark tower filled with bats. But recently I’ve come to the conclusion that instead of dwelling too much on the catastrophes that I am absolutely certain  will occur when I leave home, I should adopt another policy which, for want of a better expression, I will term embracing disruption. And I thought I’d blog a bit here about habit and disruption, as it relates to my writing life.

So, first of all, habit. God knows how many hours it has taken me to develop a writing habit. What I do know is that one of the most difficult writing years of my life was when I took a year off and stupidly told everyone I was going to write a novel. It was awful. Everyone kept asking me how it was going and as far as I could tell it wasn’t going very well at all. I hadn’t done this before and I struggled. But at the end of the year I had a first draft. I thought it was terrible but  at least I had written something and I had established some sort of writing habit. That novel was never published but I did complete and polish it. It was a step in the right direction. I was no longer a person who wanted to write a novel. I was a person who had written one. In terms of my own identity as a writer that made a huge difference to my confidence levels.

The Greek Theatre in Taormina, Sicily.

The Greek Theatre in Taormina, Sicily.

Now I know that if I have a pen in my hand and a blank sheet of paper I will generally start writing in the same way that I will at a certain time each day automatically brush my teeth. I don’t have to think about it. Of course, what I write may be utter gibberish but I don’t really mind. Somerset Maugham said that he would just sit there and write his own name until something came to him. I’ve never tried that one but I’m happy to write myself into something. I don’t suffer from first sentence perfectionism; I’ve written too many awful ones in my time to have any illusions that what comes out first will be useful or kept.  I just jump in and blunder around in my mind until I come across something that takes my fancy and then I follow where it leads.

Taormina, Sicily: Etna at sunset.

Taormina, Sicily: Etna at sunset.

While on holiday I was reading The Writer’s Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes. It’s a great book and so is the one he wrote about writing and fear, The Courage to Write. I was reading it while the plane was coming into land at Gatwick and being buffeted by the end of  Hurricane Gonzalo. The experience was not unlike being a dry pea in an empty tin can, tied to the ear of a horse, competing in the Grand National. So I was feeling little hope and lots of fear when this sentence caught my eye.

“Regular work habits and high tolerance for tedium characterize working writers.” 

Hmm, I thought, that sounds just a tiny bit familiar. Maybe a high tolerance for tedium contributes to my  low tolerance for holidays. Because on holiday everything is different and new. The temperature, the food, the money, the language and the interesting range of biting insects. There is also the fact that one is a tourist. Writers, on the whole, like to observe and that’s much harder to do as a tourist because you are the observed. You’re bound to be because  you are a source of cash to the local tradesmen, restaurants, tourist guides and postcard sellers. This loss of the ability to fade into the background makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s a big disruption to how I generally am in the world.

Agrigento, Sicily.

Agrigento, Sicily.

There was a bar just off the Corso Umberto. White cushions on the steps, neon cocktails and the super cool crowd dressed in hippy chic. Unfortunately we had to pass them on the way back to our hotel. I tried smiling at some of the more hatchet faced ones a few times and then gave up and decided, charitably, that Botox was probably inhibiting their normal facial expressions.  Near the end of our stay, as I was puffing past them, puce-faced and sweaty, I saw a very large, reddy-brown cockroach lever itself out of a drain and begin to climb quickly up towards them. It was a lovely moment. It reminded me of the scene in the film Victor Victoria when the impoverished Victoria Grant, played by Julie Andrews, goes and has an enormous meal in a grand Parisian restaurant secure in the knowledge that she has a cockroach in a matchbox that she can  throw in her salad and use as an excuse not to pay. The cockroach escapes and crawls up the leg of a large woman and the whole restaurant erupts in chaos.

The gardens in Taormina.

The gardens in Taormina.

So, had I gone on holiday by mistake? No, of course not and it would be arrogant to suggest it. Taormina in Sicily is spectacularly beautiful and it has a history of attracting writers from Oscar Wilde to D.H. Lawrence to Tennessee Williams. It’s also supposed to be the place where Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I enjoyed the sun setting over Etna (very beautiful), the temples of Agrigento (spectacular), and the mosaics of Piazza Armerina (you must go). And I really enjoyed a large cockroach heading towards the cool crowd.

I also came back with an idea for a novel that would never have come to me if I hadn’t visited the gardens in Taormina. Showing, I think, that a little bit of disruption is good for the creative juices.

When we got home there was a postcard waiting for us from a friend who’d been on holiday in Crete where the temperatures had been rather higher than she’d expected. She wrote:

“So hot I’ve aged 100 years and taken up knitting.”

Now that’s a holiday I can relate to!

ON BECOMING A WRITER: PART ONE

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Truman Capote (above) said:

‘I started to write when I was eight years old. I mean really seriously. So seriously that I dared never mention it to anybody.’ CONVERSATIONS WITH CAPOTE: LAWRENCE GROBEL (NAL BOOKS 1985).

Good for Truman!

He certainly had a head start on me. I came to writing much later. Many writers, like Capote, start making up stories from a young age but I wasn’t one of them. The only story I can remember writing as a child was for a competition set by The Puffin Club. For which I received a notebook with ‘The Posh Puffin Pad’ emblazoned on it in gold letters. I think they gave them to everyone who entered.

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I was well into my twenties before I began writing seriously.  For a long time my dream of becoming a writer absolutely terrified me. And yet in answer to the question: What do you really want to be?  it was always writing that came up and specifically writing fiction.

Why the terror?

Having a respected writer for a father probably had something to do with it. I remember reading a review of his highly acclaimed biography of Disraeli. Harold Macmillan had written of the book:

‘It is outstanding. Robert Blake is a great historian – sympathetic, exhaustive, and with a light touch withal. He has not attacked; he has defended. He has portrayed, with delicacy and penetration, the most exciting and, in a curious way, the most modern of all Victorian statesmen. A great book.’

I felt tremendously proud but also rather alarmed; it seemed like a lot to live up to. It also made me think there must be hidden depths to the shy, courteous man who sent up smoke signals of burnt toast every morning.

I did not enjoy my degree and reading out essays in tutorials was always an embarrassing form of torture.  By the time I left university I was right off writing. I was right off everything.

And so, uncertain how to pursue my dream of writing fiction, I decided to make myself as miserable as possible by training to be a solicitor.

To be continued…