Friday, 23 March 2018

Book Review: The Continuity Girl by Patrick Kincaid

Gosh! Where to start. If a book had been designed by committee to push all of my own particular buttons, it would have been this whimsical, funny and yes, romantic, debut novel by first time author, Patrick Kincaid. Part campus-novel - at least in as much as it has an affectionate dig at academics and their occasionally narrow view of life - and part boy-meets-girl, boy-likes-girl, boy-forgets-to-tell-girl-how-much novel, Patrick’s debut is so much more than that. Various other themes emerge from between the lines like the disturbances on the loch: a meditation on what being Scottish is ( you’ve seen my name and if you heard my incongruous accent you’d understand why this is such a good thing for me), for example. Furthermore, Patrick deals with the nature of reality and perception: by the time I got to the end of the book I was put in mind of a film quote that Patrick doubtless knows

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

As note perfect a rendition of the tag-end of the 60s as you will ever find, The Continuity Girl put me in mind of Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl, so accurate is its portrayal of a particular time. The Continuity Girl hops seamlessly between 1969 and 2014, the year of the Scottish Referendum, with nary a stumble. As a bit of a film buff myself, I loved the asides and references sneaked in throughout the text. However, the story is so winning, and so deftly handled, the reader could care as little for such things as Jim Outhwaite himself - and still be royally entertained. Beautifully plotted and neatly tied up at the end, you’ll want to find out if this Academic Jim turns out to be a Lucky one in the end.

Buy Patrick's book here 

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Daft David and Mad Max

 It is vary rare that I post anything overtly political on this blog. Today is an exception because David Davis's depiction of what he thinks Remainers imagine that life on day one A.B. (after Brexit) will be, is a facile and quite dull one to boot. No-one I know thinks that gangs of marauding truckers and motorcyclists will scavenge their way to a feral society. Not even the most fervent of Remain voters, the ones who insist on descending to an ad hominem level which all too frequently becomes full blown abuse or even libel.

My own personal view is that post-Brexit Britain will be very like The Boulting Bros. satire on 1959 Britain, I'm All Right, Jack. For its time, IARJ is relatively even-handed. No-one from any class comes out of this picture well, except perhaps for Ian Carmichael's simple Not-Quite-Everyman and even then he is a Naïf of Candide's proportions.

The unions get quite as big a bashing as the self-interested bosses and probably rightly so. It's very broad brush satire, I doubt it would get made today, or at least whether it would be so even-handed. As mentioned before, the film is set in 1959.

Perhaps I'm equally unjustified in my suspicion that some of those who voted Leave would not be too disappointed if indeed the UK did turn out like the 1959 version satirised in the film. Maybe this makes me as bad as Mr Davis. Maybe not. He is
Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, I'm just an unsuccessful writer. Anyway, hunt out the film, it's probably on YouTube, see what you think.

There are few BAME characters depicted in IARJ. Mr Mohammed is played by an Anglo-Indian character actor called Marne Maitland, and that's about it. I like to think the Boulting brothers knew very well that a large part of late 50's society had been air-brushed from the film's view of it (doubtless on commercial grounds). Why do I think that? The only character in the film with any real decency is Ian Carmichael's. He is called "Windrush".

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Holiday to the Past (Bansko, 2018)

Щиллгарник / Shilligarnik
Just returned from a place 1500 miles and half a century away. Aside from the strange, replicant enclave that is every ski-resort all over the world, the parts of Bansko that most tourists don't reach are firmly behind the Iron Curtain. If I were handy enough to do a bit of pointing of all the brick walls in the un-named and unloved streets just a half a mile from the ski-lift I could be a millionaire in a week, even if only in Lev, the local currency. 

We stayed in a pension, B&B, or whatever your native tongue has as a tiny 11 room hotel run by two generations of a family. Планинский Здравец/Planinskij Zdravets or Mountain Geranium, if you prefer. The paterfamilias was Stoil, who, with his wife, ran the business through the week. Post lunch-time if you were foolish enough to bump into him after an early descent from the slopes, he would ply you with rakia, the local firewater, which he swore his own grapes contributed to making. Mind you, he said this about the wine which would arrive with an evening meal in an earthenware pot as old as Alexander the Great, too. We paid 11 Euros a night for bed and breakfast and if we did dine we spent more on drink than food and not much on either. Of course, by 9 p.m. Uncle Stoil was a bit worse for wear, but since he and I attempted to converse in Russian and sign language on all occasions, perhaps that didn't matter. At weekends, Stoil's daughter, Sófia, came back from Sofía to run the hotel. This, after a week of shifts as an anaesthetist nurse in a hospital theater in the capital.  

Perhaps you can see the word "Механа" on the paper napkin in the picture. This - more or less - equates to "Tavern" or maybe "Venta" in Spanish. Bulgarian food is a mixture of Balkan (meatttttt!!), Greek (Feta-like cheeses and salads) and Turkish (at lot of frying and an obsession with sugary stuff). The variety of breads available is also remarkable and the Механа-s are the place to enjoy all of the above. Don't go to the places nested around the crossroads of Pirin and Naiden Gerov near to the gondola lift. "Explore" (of course this means get lost in) the maze of un-named sidestreets that make up the greater part of the town of Bansko. Try anywhere that the internet is unaware of and be pleasantly surprised at how heavy your wallet still is when you leave.

Bansko needs a bigger ski-gondola. The queues in the morning to get onto it are of heroic proportions. Five minutes extra on your breakfast coffee can mean an hour or more's  ski-ing lost. Whilst we were in Bulgaria there were smog alerts for Sofia and Plovdiv, private vehicles were banned from the city and car-parking on main routes was prohibited. Public transport around the cities was declared free for the duration. The drive from Sofia airport to Bansko was punctuated by the smoking stacks of 60's era industry. Bansko won't get its bigger gondola anytime soon and perhaps it shouldn't. Above the mercantile and industrial smog we could look out on blue skies and listen to birdsong. Down in the village I saw cars belching blue smoke like the special effects in a village pantomime. Nobody in Bansko wore a seatbelt. Cash is king and some shops sold knock-offs with the brazen insouciance of a street trader in Bahrain. 

If you have ever beaten off the imprecations of Cypriot "getter-inners" in Paphos or on the Limassol Strip and enjoyed the challenge of resisting all blandishments for "best meze on island, my fren'", then Bansko is the place for you. I hate all that "come in my friend, big bastard steak, best price in Bansko" bullshit. In the tourist area, there are casinos and strip clubs, the seedy alongside the plusher hotels and holiday apartments. As you get further from this central area you see the after effects of the crash of 2011, skeletons of apartment blocks and hotels interspersed between those lucky enough to open before the bubble burst.

Bansko (and Bulgaria) is a place of threes... three strands of cuisine, culture and architecture. There is a mixture of the Slav, the Balkan and the Romany representatives of all three work up the mountain and down in the town. The population is oldish. Unless you work in tourism there's nothing for the under-30s, I suppose. I've never seen so many grandmothers cleaning and picking up rubbish around restaurants. The local school looks like a Soviet Era Brutalist design, and probably is. There is the concrete and neon of Pirin and Naiden Gerov's Club Med-style circle of Dante's Inferno.
Would I go again? Maybe not. Do I regret going? No, the ski-ing was good.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Knife Fight Near The Centro Salud

Thursday night was pretty much cracked by the sirens. Straight after dusk emergency vehicles tore down the A-404 past the Satis House-ghost of the Venta Miralmonte, toward Coín. There was no more information to be gleaned by standing on the roof terrace. It was the night before the 3 Kings parade in the town. Every year a float with three locals dressed up as Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior trundles through the town whilst the Magi-impersonators hurl boiled sweets into the crowds of kids, on the eve of Epiphany. It's still more exciting for Spanish children than Papa Noel, but only just, nowadays.

It turned out the Guardia Civil, Ambulances, Fire Engines, Policia Local and Tio Pepe Ramirez and all were heading for the Barriada Fuensanto. What a barriada is very much depends on where in the world you hear the word. In Spain it is a  poor or working class district; in Latin America it is a slum or shanty town. Fuensanto has nice low rise blocks. However, it is home to many of Coín's Gypsies... but there are two clans living cheek-by-jowl. The local Curé believes that tensions simmer below the surface, but mostly the two tribes rub along (until they don't).

The street brawl started over a noisy party. Details remain sketchy several days later. In the aftermath, there were three arrests, three hospitalisations and two dead. The dead appear to be brothers in their 60s, from Los Mudos (The Mutes),  stabbed by a youngster from Los Franceses (The French). They say. Windows were smashed and a car burned, other vehicles were smashed up with baseball bats, though no-one plays baseball here. Then the knives came out.

Put West Side Story out of your mind. Most likely this was an ill-tempered spat that quickly got out of hand and a teenager found out that it's not like Call Of Duty and the guy he stabs hasn't got unlimited lives or a first-aid power-up to undo the damage he does.

One of the dead was taken to the Centro de Salud, a matter of tens of metres from Fuensanto. The Health Centre went into lock-down, under siege from relatives of Luis and José.
The sirens continued to sound as people were removed from Fuensanto to the Guardia Civil Barracks in Alhaurin El Grande for their own safety.

I park down by the Health Centre when I have business in the centre of Coín. It's no problem, I'm the Guiri Longhair - not invisible, but not important. Someone whose greeting is returned, but only in a perfunctory manner.

The sweets were thrown the next night during the The Three Wise Men's Cavalcade. 

Thursday, 14 December 2017


I am a white, middle-aged male. (Don't stop reading, please). My conscience has been pricked a great deal over the last couple of years. Since I began the obstacle course that is getting a novel published, actually. I started looking at my bookshelves about a year ago. There's a ratio of 5:2, more or less. A ratio of what? Male to Female authors.

It is rare I'll pick up a pastel-colour-covered paperback. However, I did have the following: Lionel Shriver's novels, all of Donna Tartt's books (brilliant! But you knew that), Faye Kellerman (not so keen now but earlier books were wonderful, maybe you knew that too), lots of other thriller writers, Reichs, Slaughter, McDiarmid, for example. (There are a lot of books in our house). George Eliot, only Middlemarch, Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss. Mary Wollstencraft, everything by Austen except the last unfinished novel (What's it called?) I have a novel each by the Bronte sisters, same as everyone.


It's still 5:2. I have read, Louisa M. Allcott, L.M.Montgomery, Anna Sewell and Toni Morrison. I have a copy of Bridget Jones's Diary, but I preferred Helen's column in the Independent; I don't know why, seeing as they are more or less the same.

I bet if I counted up all the books I've ever read, it would still be 5:2.

Which brings me to the book in the picture. I've decided I'm going to read a book by a female author for every single one I read by a male author from now on. Katarina Bivald's book was the first one I picked up. You will note it doesn't have a pastel cover, but I'm not convinced I would have chosen it to read, if not for my "little experiment".

This is a book written by a person who loves books. On the surface it is a simple love story, not out of place in Mills And Boon or (haha) Harlequin's catalogues, I would venture.  There is much more to Katarina's book than that. Is it coincidence that Sara's pen-pal is called Amy? Allcott is referenced throughout the book.

And the jokes, the meta-glory of putting the words "all stories start with a stranger coming to town" into a character's mouth. These pleasures are strewn throughout Ms Bivald's book.

It's sentimental, some might call it twee. I would call it Capra-esque, or better still it's like a Preston Sturges film. What's wrong with creating things to make people feel good? Watch Sullivan's Travels, if you don't want to read this book - they want the same thing for us and bless Sturges and Bivard for making their film and book respectively.

Respect, Ms Bivald, I'll change that 5:2 one day, thanks to you. 

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Malaga: City of Culture

After nearly 15 years in Andalucia, I finally made a proper attack on several of the art galleries available in Malaga. An overnight stay in The Hotel Carlos V in Cister was in no way disappointing. Cheapish and very comfortable. No further away than I could throw Keith Richard was La Catedral. For the Spanish, an Art Gallery is a Museo, as is a Museum, it can disappoint the unwary, but then, who goes to an Art Gallery on the spur of the moment? (Me, if I get the chance).

On Friday we visited El Museo Ruso, currently housing works from The Winter Palace's collection once owned by the Romanovs. One day I hope to visit St Petersburg and see what treasures were too valuable to send. Some of the work was, it must be admitted, of variable quality: other pieces were unbelievably good. Like this: "The Ice House" by Valery Yakovi

The Ice House 1878
 Bizarrely decadent - and as disturbing in its way as Velasquez's Las Meninas - this striking painting depicts the Jester's wedding in The Ice Palace built by Empress Anna Ivanova. The jester was in reality Prince Mixhail Alexeevich Goletsyn, who had displeased the Empress by marrying unsuitably. On the death of this unsuitable wife, Anna Ivanova forced him to marry a servant in a degrading ceremony. How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen.

The lighting in the Ruso was most disappointing. There were sufficient spotlights to satisfy the vainest of actors, every one seemed to be positioned for maximum glare on every painting, were it oil on canvas or water-colour behind glass.

Tapas for lunch near the Hotel in the shadow of the Cathedral and then it was off to Museo Carmen Thyssen. The best thing was one of the temporary exhibitions. This compared some of Goya's goriest and grimmest etchings with work by a Belgian artist with a peculiarly Irish name, James Ensor. If you've a taste for grue, I thoroughly recommend it.

Two of Goya's Etchings Featured in the Exhibition
The lighting was better in the Thyssen, thank goodness...

Dinner was at Garum (named after an ancient fish sauce invented when the Romans ruled Malaga) an interesting Restaurant on the Calle Alcazabilla. The menu is not extensive but it really is quite different. Try the 5x2 Atun (10 cuts of Tuna cooked in five different ways) - a real treat. The service was very good too, which, unfortunately, isn't always the case here in Andalucia. 

Garum: Go, it's good.
Saturday morning, coffee in La Café de la Abuela, Granny's Caff, if you like. I read the newspaper-wallpaper, pages and pages from "Cronica de España" from the early 70s. Franco dying, Juan Carlos reinstating the monarchy, Adios à Picasso, off-plan homes on never-built urbanizaciónes with prices in pesetas: all Spanish life was there. My coffee grew cold and eventually the clock showed 10 and we could go to the Museo Picasso. The doors opened right on time. It truly is a beautiful building, a one-time town hall and beautifully laid out with lots of salas off a lovely central patio.

If, like me, you've seen Picasso's Guernica in the Reina Sofia in Madrid, you'll feel that Pablo never did anything as good/significant/important (choose your own adjective) before it or after. So, I'd recommend the Museo Picasso for completists only. But, and it is a big but...

Oh, and Dorothea Tanning is quite good too...

Until 28th January 2018 there is a temporary exhibition entitled "We Are Completely Free: Women Artists and Surrealism". Works by 18 women are featured in this exhibition in a variety of styles. I had heard of several of those featured (Lee Miller, Frida Kahlo, Claude Cahun), many more were artists I'd never heard of. Particularly impressive were : Maruja Mallo, the Leonoras - Fini and Carrington and... (Tada!) Kay Sage.

It was one of the best things I've seen for years. Women in art seem to have been air-brushed out of the picture or painted over by male art-historians, curators and critics. This is one exhibition which makes an effort to overturn some of that. Do go.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

One Hand...

"One hand washes the other and both wash the face."
 Spanish Proverb                            

This blog post is an unashamed plug for some Unbound projects that I am supporting. Unbound gave me a chance and I'd like to see others get a chance too.

This anthology contains short pieces by various and gifted writers on what it means to be different, and how difference and variety are things which enrich our lives, rather than things to be feared. Contributors include, amongst others Salena Godden, AL Kennedy and Matt Haig.

Net profits from the book will be donated to the charities Refugee Action and Stop Hate UK

 Borrowed: Shona Kinsella (Ed.) 

Eight authors from eight locations come together to tell the stories of one small-town library and its patrons and staff. Contributors to this collection are among the best of Unbound's debut and previously published writers; Shona Kinsella, Ian Skewis, Claire Patel-Campbell, Lou Allison, Stevyn Colgan, Paul Holbrook, Elena Kaufman and Erinna Mettler.
The royalties from this book will all be donated to World Literacy Foundation.

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: Julie Warren.

Subtitled "The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens" Julie's book will reveal the story of the man without whom we might never have heard of Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers or Spike Milligan. A biography of a fascinating man, who served as a Marine Commando during WWII, this book promises to be a treat for Goons fans all over the world. 

The older amongst you (okay, us) will remember the title of an Agatha Christie novel whose title is now "And Then There Were None". Damon L. Wakes' book is an intriguing  distillation of Christie's murder mystery into a tense, hard sci-fi thriller.
Well researched and based on current scientific principles and thinking, you'll find no magic space dust here, just a taut and unusual whodunit. 

Well, there you go. Four to choose from. Pre-order these books as a Christmas gift for a loved one or treat yourself. Why not?