Friday, May 11, 2007

Is Somerset Maugham ripe for revival?

A reference to W Somerset Maugham on a writers' forum [private] yesterday reminded me how much I enjoyed his novels in my early teens.

There seems to be a feeling that the movie of his book The Painted Veil will revive his popularity.

Looking for Maugham online led me to a delightful site called Cap-Ferrat à Pied? by Ted Jones.

Mr Jones writes : "I left the coastal path at its southernmost point in search of the scrambled-egg coloured Villa Mauresque, built by King Leopold to house his personal priest. His lifestyle - he was known as le noceur - required confessional convenience.

Today, the street opposite, the Avenue Somerset Maugham, commemorates a more recent resident. Here the great storyteller spent the last 38 years of his long life - except for the years of the Occupation during World War II, when it housed German and Italian officers. André Cane, a retired builder and regional historian, now aged 95, remembers being called to brick up the window of Maugham's study because he found the panoramic view a distraction.

Many of Maugham's guests at the Villa Mauresque were writers, such as H. G. Wells, Ian Fleming and Evelyn Waugh, but many others achieved their fame in other fields. They included Winston Churchill, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Cecil Beaton, press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who lived on nearby Cap d'Ail, musician Arthur Rubenstein, dancer Isadora Duncan and painters Matisse, Picasso and Marc Chagall."

Villa Mauresque can be rented

Then at an American site, I found that anyone with enough money – I don't know the cost but would guess it's extremely expensive – can rent Maugham's house on Cap Ferrat.

"Villa Mauresque is available for rental year-round. Substantially discounted rental rates apply November through March. Because of its many sculptures and the delicacy of some furnishings, the owner declines to accept children less than six years of age. A large security deposit is required."

Titanic blackguard cleared

Another writer who spent his last years in the South of France was Sir Anthony Glyn whose obituary in The Times [22 January 1998] I keep among the pages of his biography of his maternal grandmother, Elinor Glyn, about whom I wrote on Monday 9 April.

Another clipping I've added to the biography is a recent Telegraph story headed "Letter clears 'blackguard of the Titanic'."

It opens – "He was one of the great blackguards of pre-First World War British society: Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, the man who not only was said to have bought his way off the sinking Titanic, but then stopped his half-empty lifeboat from returning to pick up drowning passengers.

However, the history books might have to be rewritten. A letter discovered in a London attic appears to exonerate the old Etonian baronet and fencing champion Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon of either cowardice or callousness."

What is the connection between Sir Cosmo and Elinor Glyn? He was her brother-in-law, the husband of her eldest sister Lucy who later became famous as the dressmaker Lucile.

Re-reading Sir Anthony Glyn's obit made me realise I should hunt for his other books, particularly The Companion Guide to Paris published in 1986 which sounds exceptionally good.

Comments on readers' comments

There have been some interesting comments recently which I hope to discuss on Monday.
Until then...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ruined by women?

"The BBC is being ruined by women, says Patrick Moore" was a headline I noticed this week. The piece began -

"Sir Patrick Moore has identified an alien species that threatens to destroy intelligent life – the women who have taken over the BBC. The veteran astronomer celebrated the 50th anniversary of The Sky at Night with a withering attack on the female executives he believes have dumbed down the corporation."

"Sir Patrick, 84, was asked by the Radio Times if television had got better or worse during a career spanning the medium’s life. The answer was worse – “much worse”. He said: “The trouble is that the BBC now is run by women and it shows: soap operas, cooking, quizzes, kitchen-sink plays. You wouldn’t have had that in the golden days.”

At the time I read it, there were 68 comments, one of them this – "I'm a woman, and I hate soap operas, makeover shows, reality TV, property porn, & c. The problem is not gender-based, but one of programmes aiming for the lowest common denominator. Terrestrial TV seems to have abdicated all responsibility to provide universal access to work of real cultural purpose and value. Doc M, Glasgow"

Although some comments disagreed with Sir Patrick's views, the majority supported his opinion.

Daily Telegraph columnist Jan Moir was outraged. "Sir P may still present The Sky at Night, the longest-running series on television, but the poor old fossil seems not to realise that some of the programmes he has enjoyed appearing on, such as Have I Got News For You, have women at or near the helm, too. It is an understandable mistake. Sir Patrick only recognises a woman if she's wearing a crinoline and a bonnet, or bent double over the smoothing iron as she attends to a pile of his capacious gaiters."

Not enough time in the day

Yesterday was a bit of a madhouse and there wasn't time to complete today's blog. Whether I'll get time to post some additions today remains to be seen. They may have to wait till tomorrow.

Meanwhile, if you haven't already done so, read what Danuta Kean has to say about fictional prostitute memoirs. I agree with her that these books are a disgrace to publishing.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

TV trash dished out for the uneducated

Also in today's blog
Liberation Day

Today is Liberation Day in Guernsey and the other Channel Islands, the only part of Britain to be occupied during WW2.

At nine o'clock the All Clear siren, a familiar sound to people of my generation, sounded. Later, returning from posting a letter, I saw a Royal Marines band, including two young women, climbing into a coach outside an hotel on their way to play at St Peter Port's harbour when most of the festivities will take place.

Unfortunately the weather this morning is bad, grey and windy, but perhaps it will clear up this afternoon.

How's this for a rant?

"The eighteenth century was an age such as our imagination can barely comprehend; weltering as we do in a slough of habitual ugliness, ranging from the dreary horrors of Victorian sham gothic to the more lively hideousness of modern jerry-building, with advertisements defacing any space that might be left unoffendingly blank, and the tourist scattering his trail of chocolate paper, cigarette ends and film cartons, we catch sight every now and again of a house-front, plain and graceful, with a fanlight like the half of a spider-s web and a slip of iron balcony."

The writer goes on, "That there was no cheap, sophisticated entertainment for the masses was part of the state of things in which thousands and thousands of people were less comfortable, less well dressed, less entertained, less informed than they are today; but it also meant there was not a vast majority which by its very numbers imposed its ideas, it prepossessions and its tastes on the world in which the educated person must now exist; the lower middle class, as it is the most considerable among consumers, dictates the canons of taste by which, by its preponderating bulk, has corrupted and destroyed the standards of language, of architecture, of entertainment and of literature, which once prevailed."

That was published in 1938 in Elizabeth Jenkins' biography of Jane Austen [Victor Gollancz], "one of the best literary biographies published in England for many years. Everything that a biography should be: beautifully written, full of atmosphere, lively in humour and wisely critical."

What would Elizabeth Jenkins make of today's society, dominated by money and celebrity worship, one wonders?

In fairness to her, she does balance her criticisms by writing – "But if we are in danger of breaking our hearts over this spirit of beauty which has vanished from the earth, it is our duty to remember that there existed with it, ignored and tolerated, a state of squalor and wretchedness which, to this relatively humane and hygienic age, is nearly as difficult to visualize as its heavenly obverse."

"The state of English prisons as revealed by Howard's survey published in 1777, the London slums, in which Dr Johnson roughly computed that one thousand people starved to death every year, conditions in the Army and Navy, on active service, and when thrown crippled and destitute, without pension and without charity, on a heedless world, the savage callousness of the officials entrusted with the administration of Poor Relief…" and so on.

You would think that, almost 70 years on, our society would have found a way restore the spirit of beauty and eliminate the squalor and wretchedness. Some improvements have been made, but not nearly enough.

One has only to turn on the television to see that educated people still have little influence on the trash dished out to the uneducated masses.

The other evening I watched Hannah Scott-Joynt, [see photo left] daughter of the Bishop of Winchester, concluding a series about south coast cathedrals. Twenty years ago she would not have repeatedly referred to her father as "my dad". This was clearly a sop to the Coronation Street type viewer, who probably wouldn't have been watching the series anyway.

Interview with Elizabeth Jenkins

"Memoirs of 100 years as a literary lion" is the heading of an interview with Elizabeth Jenkins by Ruth Gorb I found at the Camden New Journal

The piece ends – "Doctors of the first rank, she says, are always attractive. She is quiet for a moment then says she had some successes with men, was always going from one disastrous attachment to another, but it was a doctor who was the love of her life and it was their relationship that inspired her to write her novel, The Tortoise and the Hare. “He was a surgeon and gynaecologist, Sir Eardley Holland. He was very distinguished, handsome, charismatic. I worked during the war in the Ministry of Information with one of his daughters, Chloe, and she engineered a meeting with him. “He took rather a shine to me. He wasn’t faithful to his wife. I wondered why she didn’t value him more; so many women, including me, would happily have changed places with her. I offered him my heart on a plate. Yes, he made me unhappy, but it was worth it. My feeling for him lasted after his death. It is still going on now.”

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Public rebuke for Savoy over costly ramp

Also in today's blog
Lesley Blanch dies
Rosie Thomas interview

An extraordinary story has emerged in the aftermath of the Romantic Novelists' Association's 2007 Award lunch at the Savoy Hotel, London, last month. You can read it in full at Buzzle, but the bones are as follows -

"Equality chief threatens boycott over charge to install wheelchair ramp
The Savoy hotel in London has been publicly rebuked by Trevor Phillips [see photo], chairman of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, after it demanded £1,000 to install a temporary ramp for a wheelchair-user who was the star guest at an awards ceremony.

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, Britain's greatest Paralympian with 11 gold medals, was chairwoman of the judges at the Romantic Novel of the Year award last week. The organisers requested a ramp on the platform leading to the top table and were shocked when the Savoy told them a £1,000 charge was involved. They eventually managed to negotiate a reduction to £200."

Lesley Blanch dies

Browsing the UK broadsheets this morning, I was sorry to read in The Independent that Lesley Blanch has died, aged 103. She wrote some excellent books and, until it was burned down, her house in the south of France sounded bliss.

Don't miss a visit to her excellent website. There's also good piece about her, written in 2005 by Joe Boyd, here.

Extract : "Born in London in 1904, she was entranced as a child by a mysterious Russian, later her lover, who instilled a love of the exotic. She became features editor of Vogue, then married the writer Romain Gary who took her to Bulgaria and the US, where she wrote a cult book which pioneered a new approach to history writing. Now 101, she is writing a new volume of memoirs."

Rosie Thomas interview

The Guardian has an interview with Ms Thomas which is worth reading if you're interested in women's fiction.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Interesting men...Dr Thurley, Sir John Soane, Ptolemy Dean

An oasis of engrossing television in the desert of tripe dished out most evenings by the four TV channels we receive was Simon Thurley's Houses of Power from 7.35-9.05 on Channel 4 last Saturday night.

Dr Thurley, who is head of English Heritage, was comparing the history of No 10 Downing Street with that of the White House and the Kremlin. I particularly enjoyed the part where he examined one of the splendid drawings of Sir John Soane's plan for the reconstruction of Downing Street.

The Soane Museum at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields has long been one of my favourite places in London. It was there I discovered the beautiful drawings of Ptolemy Dean, now one of my favourite artists.

[See jacket of his book below the picture of the Soane Museum facade.]

"Soane was born in 1753, the son of a bricklayer, and died after a long and distinguished career, in 1837. Soane designed this house to live in, but also as a setting for his antiquities and his works of art. After the death of his wife (1815), he lived here alone, constantly adding to and rearranging his collections. Having been deeply disappointed by the conduct of his two sons, one of whom survived him, he determined to establish the house as a museum to which 'amateurs and students' should have access."

Getting back to Simon Thurley, he tells an amusing [for the reader] ]anecdote in a
My Hols
piece he wrote for The Times last summer.

"Wherever I go, I try to mix with the locals, assimilate myself. That can backfire, of course. My car got broken into in Tunisia, and the policeman was so chatty, he ended up inviting us to supper at his home. What a nice idea, I thought: but we arrived to find a really grim police barracks, where he was cooking up vile-looking goat stew over a Bunsen burner on the floor. My girlfriend was a doctor, and I could see she wasn’t going to eat this stuff, but I felt I had no choice. She knew I was going to be poisoned; I knew I was going to be poisoned; even the policeman knew, probably — and sure enough, I spent the rest of the trip delirious in bed with a temperature of 103 and my girlfriend shoving Valium suppositories up my bottom. That serves me right for a piece of typical English folly. I’d rather die — almost literally — than offend somebody by not eating their food."

I hadn't heard of Valium suppositories before. They sound a useful addition to the first aid kits of those of us who travel to places where the food can be dodgy.

Susan Hill's piece on the state of play for writers

On Friday May 4, author and publisher Susan Hill posted
a piece
about the difficulties currently facing writers. This seems to have cast some aspiring authors into deep gloom.

Ms Hill wrote : "But professional setback is occurring more and more to established writers who until the last year or so have enjoyed good, even extremely good, lifestyles, as a result of large book advances. They may not, as new and aspiring writers also may not be aware just how these have fallen. The public and indeed the Trade only hears about the 2 million pounds for a footballer, a politician, a z-list celeb. It assumes these amounts are normal. But even people in the writing business will be shocked when, based on their past reputation and ability to command a LOT of money in advance, they discover that the offer for their new book is below 10K. Foreign advances are even lower – Germany, France etc regularly pay 2/3,000 euros in advance.
It is even harder for a writer who changes genres. Supposing someone who has had great success as a popular novelist decides to write a biography, or a Science Fiction Big Name presents with a Literary Novel, a children`s book writer whose name is a byword for big sales in that genre, decides to turn to crime. Or let us suppose the writer had a big success and could command six figure advances fifteen or twenty years ago but is now re-emerging with a new book after a long gap. All of these are going to be shocked by the fall in advances. To be offered 5 or 10K – and 25 for world rights, is very very usual now but I have heard of many a writer calling the figures ‘an insult’ ‘a slap in the face.’ The fact is that these are now the NORM.
A top literary agent told me that if a novelist has had modest success – decent reviews, not bad sales but not HUGE sales – with three books, they are simply not going to find a publisher for a fourth. Many writers will find their careers over after two books unless something big happens."