Poverty, publicity-seekers and booze: an alternative history of London’s art scene

When I moved back to London in 2010 after 10 years away, I found an art world transformed. The scene in the 90s had been polarised. In Mayfair were forbidding galleries with willowy beauties at the front desks and pinstripe-suited smoothies in the back offices. In the East End, penniless galleries and studios peppered the upper floors of flaking, soot-stained ex-industrial blocks, and young crowds mustered on the streets drinking Beck’s beer before decamping to a nearby pub.

Tate Modern opened in 2000. Like a pheromone-laden moth, it seemed to mark the route for the art invasion that was to follow. Within a few years the icy cool art magazine Frieze launched the first edition of its art fair in Regent’s Park. International buyers started to see the city as an important stop off. Galleries followed them.

By 2010, a new art infrastructure had sprouted, twining throughout the city, supported by and nurturing a global mania for contemporary art. Slick glass-fronted spaces appeared in streets that had, a few years before, exhibited little more than discarded takeaway containers and single shoes. Hopeful young galleries were picking their way through the city’s remaining affordable postcodes. Meanwhile in Mayfair and St James’s, the old-school pinstripe suits had given way to a new generation of internationally savvy dealers whose calendars took in the carousel of art fairs in Basel, Hong Kong, New York, Paris and Miami.

At the periphery appeared a host of new entities – foundations, incubators, associations, not-for-profits, collectives. What were all these things? Where had they come from? Were they any good? And, most importantly, was I allowed to visit them?

i's chief art critic Hettie Judah has written a book about London's art scene. Photo: © Alex Schneideman
i’s chief art critic Hettie Judah has written a guide to London’s best art (Photo: Alex Schneideman)

On one level, my new book Art London is the primer I wish I’d had back then, when I was trying to make sense of London’s new art landscape. Neighbourhood by neighbourhood it leads you to spaces all over London where you can see art, most of them free. Not all the action is happening in Mayfair – some of the best public galleries in the city can now be found in New Cross, Mile End, Camden and Camberwell.

The commercial galleries are spread all over too, and they are open to all. You may not have the wherewithal to buy the art they are showing, but it is important to visit these spaces and see art before it is sold and disappears from view.

‘Artists have been drunk and disreputable in London for centuries. The gallons consumed by some of Hogarth’s contemporaries would have put the YBAs to shame’

Art London is a history of art in the city, as scattered and fragmented as the scenes that it draws on. Rather than trying to plot a single unified story, this is a history that celebrates the plurality of London’s art histories. Here Hogarth, Turner and Constable share the page with the 17th-century portraitist Mary Beale, Marie Spartali who transcended her role as a Pre-Raphaelite “stunner” to support her family as a painter, and photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron.

Piecing together London’s art histories, patterns start to emerge. Alcohol is one – artists have been drunk and disreputable in London for centuries. The gallons consumed by some of Hogarth’s contemporaries would have put the YBAs to shame. Poverty is another – art is a difficult way to make a living. Many, like Francis Newton Souza who moved to London from Goa in the late 40s, spent years penniless before their works were shown.

Visitors at the Whitechapel Gallery's Is This Tomorrow? exhibition in 2019. Photo: Alex Schneideman/ Art London
Visitors at the Whitechapel Gallery’s Is This Tomorrow? exhibition in 2019 (Photo: Alex Schneideman/ Art London/ ACC Books)

There have also always been artists who knew how to promote themselves. Damien Hirst was far from London’s first market-savvy artist: Hogarth and Turner both took a business-like approach, churning out popular prints for the growing middle-class market.

Alcohol, poverty, self-promotion: these traits are common to artists the world over. What characterises London, above all, was and continues to be its cosmopolitanism. Before the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, London had no significant training institution for artists. Painters to the Royal Court in the 16th and 17th centuries were overwhelmingly from continental Europe: often Flemish refugees fleeing religious persecution. They were gifted, well-schooled in their craft, and London needed them: there were no English artists at the time that could compete.

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Hans Holbein the Younger, King’s painter to Henry VIII, was German. Our voluptuous, florid vision of the court of Charles I – all tassels, sculpted beards and clouds of silk – came from the hand of Anthony van Dyck (Flemish) who was succeeded by Peter Lely (Dutch).

The 34 founding members of the Royal Academy were likewise a pan-European bunch. The so called London School – figurative painters who dominate our view of the second half of the 20th century – include the US-born artist and critic RB Kitaj, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach (both born in Germany) and Francis Bacon (born in Ireland.)

Art London by Hettie Judah

In London, all these stories build up layer on layer – some are known, others less so. There is something intoxicating about standing outside White Cube gallery on Mason’s Yard in St James’s and knowing that Indica once held an exhibition by a young artist called Yoko Ono in the same square: there she handed a card to a bespectacled musician from Liverpool that
read “Breathe”.

Did you know that Jean Cocteau’s paintings were apprehended at Croydon Airport in 1938 for their obscene suggestion of pubic hair? Or that he returned in 1959 to paint the inside of the Lady Chapel at Notre Dame de France, just off Leicester Square?

There are so many good stories, if you know where to find them.

‘Art London’ is published by ACC Art Books (£15)

Secrets of London’s art neighbourhoods

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Chelsea Boy: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty)


When Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal died in 1862, the distraught artist buried the only complete manuscript of his poems with her. (They were exhumed seven years later.) A flamboyant and recognisable figure – the archetypal bohemian – Rossetti moved to 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea which he shared with a menagerie including deer, exotic birds and Top, his beloved wombat, a species he considered “the most beautiful of all God’s creatures”.

Covent Garden

In 1971, Bruce McLean cofounded Nice Style: The World’s First Pose Band, a glam rock band reimagined as sculpture. The title and works echoed the aspirational advertising language of the time (“British Airways: the world’s favourite airline.”) Reintroducing the human figure to sculpture in a period dominated by abstraction, Nice Style was an exploration of advertising, pose and surface. Renting an office off The Strand, they publicised performances like consumer products.

Maida Vale

Over four decades Jo Brocklehurst painted the nocturnal life of London in all its peacock finery: cabaret artists, bohemians, New Romantics, punks, drag queens and fetish fans. At the dawn of the 80s she befriended the punk Puppy Collective who had squatted a building near her studio in Maida Vale. Brocklehurst persuaded them to sit for her: singly, in pairs, and in various states of undress, among them Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol.

Camden Town

Discovering the council planned to erect bollards on Agar Grove near his house in Camden, sculptor Barry Flanagan drove a truck armed with a cement mixer, industrial sewing machine and wheelbarrow up by night and stitched together large blue canvas sacks which were filled with sand and cement, placed them around the street and fixed to the spot with length of rebar. Camden forgave him: in 80 they commissioned the public sculpture Camdonian, now installed on Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

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Robert Harris: ‘We’ve become extremely tribal. We no longer have debate where minds are changed’

An early reader of Robert Harris’s new novel was quick to complain about historical inaccuracies. “They got to about page 30 and emailed the publisher to say it was a ridiculous book because there was no tobacco available in 15th-century England,” Harris tells me, laughing. I laugh along, albeit awkwardly, as I was confused at first too.

According to the jacket copy, The Second Sleep is set in 1468 – yet Christopher Fairfax, the young priest who travels to a West Country village to investigate the death of a colleague, refers several times to plastic.

It seems unlikely that “the master of the intelligent thriller”, as Harris has been hailed, would make rudimentary errors. So what is going on?

The setting, it transpires, is a dystopian future dating from the apocalypse of 2025 AD. England has been reduced to a pre-industrial theocracy where the food is disgusting and you can be executed for heresy. Rumours abound of “ancients” who “with all their comforts had been able to exist without faith” and communicated “using their strange devices with the symbol of the bitten apple”. How did the idea come about? “When the Romans pulled out of Ancient Britain in the first century, the infrastructure decayed and the civilisation vanished,” says Harris. “Then it began to be rediscovered. I wanted to tell the story of antiquarians who appear to be living in the past, but it turns out the ruined civilisation they’re discovering is ours.”

It is an ingenious premise executed smartly, with Fairfax uncovering the village’s sinister mysteries and making discoveries about the fate of the ancients that lead him to question his faith.

“Generally, when I start writing, I have a plan,” says Harris. “But this time I simply had the image of a man on horseback riding to a remote village. The story assembled itself as I wrote. It’s my most purely imaginative novel. The style is a sort of mash-up of 18th-century, Thomas Hardy homage and English pastoral. Once again, power is my subject, because I’m writing about a world where religious fundamentalism is returned to this country, as I think it would be if our technological society collapsed.”

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Nearly 30 years ago, writing his first novel, Fatherland (1992), was a revelatory experience for Harris: “I was astonished by the extraordinary possibility of fiction,” says the 62-year-old. “I lay down after writing the first page and thought: ‘My god, I can invent anything.’”

Its success meant Harris could give up working as a political journalist. Today, 12 best-selling novels on, “composition has become a drug to me”. But do current events make him wish he were back in the fray of his old job?

“They make me glad I’m no longer in it,” he says. “We’ve become extremely tribal. There’s a huge amount of chatter, but we no longer have debate where minds are changed. Once you get to that stage in a democracy, something has gone seriously wrong.”

Robert Harris says: 'There’s a huge amount of chatter, but we no longer have debate where minds are changed'
Robert Harris says: ‘There’s a huge amount of chatter, but we no longer have debate where minds are changed’ (Photo: NORBERT MILLAUER/AFP/Getty)

The Second Sleep is chilling to read at a moment of climate crisis, political chaos and creeping authoritarianism. The ancient catastrophe that is investigated by Fairfax happens just six years from now. Are we at a desperate juncture?

“Our vulnerabilities, our dependence on the digital realm, are becoming obvious,” says Harris.

“If you want an historical analogy, I’d say the period before the First World War. You often have two generations of peace and relative prosperity before a revolutionary period. I’m both pessimistic, because I think things are going to get much more turbulent, and optimistic because I think we live through periods of cataclysm and come out the other side. All civilisations believe they’re the last word, but history shows that’s not the way it works.”

‘The Second Sleep’ by Robert Harris is published by Hutchinson at £20

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From left to right, must-read political memoirs from across the spectrum

Politicians are notorious for not giving straight answers. During the height of their career, they tend to be more interested in optics and spin than giving the public the full picture.

But once they are out of office, all can change. Political memoir is a genre that can be illuminating, funny and surprising.

There is hope in Westminster that David Cameron’s memoir, For the Record, out on Thursday, will be all three. Written from his shepherd’s hut after he quit as prime minister and an MP in the wake of the EU referendum result, the tome is expected to lift the lid on his regrets from his time in office – there are rumours that he will find time to name colleagues who let him down over Brexit, with both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove tipped to be in the firing line.

Political memoirs have a rich history. Reflecting the fact that this sphere has traditionally been male-heavy, the bulk are by men – but expect that to change in a few years’ time as women who have had frontline politics careers put pen to paper.

Here is a look at 20 that have stood out over the years, from across the spectrum.

Alan Clark Diaries

Perhaps the most honest account of the highs and – in this case – many lows of life as a mid-ranking government minister. This instalment of Alan Clark’s diaries gives readers a front-row seat behind the scenes of the Thatcher years, up to her ousting in a coup. The reason the diaries have become a classic of the genre is Clark’s style, marked out by his numerous character flaws. His frequent laments on his lack of promotion, bouts of snobbery and womanising ways make this an entertaining read, even if you wouldn’t want him on your dream dinner party guestlist.

Damian McBride Power Trip

The first rule for any good spin doctor is not to become the story. But when Gordon Brown’s spinner, Damian McBride, had to resign from No 10 in disgrace over a plot to smear top Tories, he responded by producing one of the most eye-opening accounts of life in politics. Opening with McBride clambering out of a window and jumping into a car boot to escape the media, he offers an account of his career from civil servant to one of the most despised men in politics.

Harriet Harman A Woman’s Work

Before writing this book, Harriet Harman had viewed political memoirs as “vanity projects”. But after she clocked the number of tomes being penned by men she’d shared the front bench with in the New Labour years, the first ever minister for women decided to fill a gap in the market. Rather than opt for Westminster titbits, this frank and reflective memoir focuses on the progress made for women in politics since Harman entered parliament in 1982. She documents her campaigning on childcare, domestic violence and increasing the number of female MPs.

William Waldegrave A Different Kind of Weather

The man behind the poll tax, who served under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major, writes of a privileged life in which he never quite managed to break through as he had first imagined. As a pupil at Eton, he had written of his ambitions to be foreign secretary and then prime minister. It never was to be. Waldegrave comes across as likeable, taking readers with him as he gets to grips with the fact that he might not have been cut out to be top dog after all.

Harold Macmillan The Macmillan Diaries Vol II

Alongside the day job of being prime minister, Harold Macmillan also found time to write a regular diary. His witty and vivid prose means readers get unmatchable insight into events that took place under his watch during a seismic period for the UK – from the Cuban missile crisis to the Profumo affair. We are given an insight into the drain of his premiership as it goes on, but there are also lighter moments such as Macmillan’s amusement at an incident involving an Alsatian and a Daily Mail hack.

Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years

Margaret Thatcher’s memoir chronicling her 11 years as prime minister – from 1979 to 1990 – was the subject of much hype when it was first conceived. Her son, Mark, found himself accused of asking for too high a price and Thatcher eventually agreed a £3.5m deal for two books – equivalent to more than £9m today. At 862 pages, the first is no light read. Britain’s first female prime minister looks back on the Falklands War, the miners’ strike and the Brighton bomb attack. Critics say it has less personal reflection than traditional of the genre. However, there are amusing asides on various colleagues and statesmen.

Tony Blair  A Journey

Michael Gove was so taken by this memoir – in which Tony Blair looks back on his political career and 10 years in No 10 – that he keeps it by his bedside. Released in 2010, three years after Blair had left office, it lacks the candidness of some memoirs, instead focusing on the former PM pushing how he wants to be remembered. The sections on the Iraq War are particularly “on message”. However, there are parts that amuse and enlighten, from praise for Silvio Berlusconi to his own vulnerability, as he talks about the stilting effects of personal fear at the beginning of his premiership.

Edwina Currie Diaries 1987–1992

Edwina Currie’s diaries are best known not for their quality of prose but for revealing her four-year affair with John Major (1984-1988). After the book’s publication in 2002, John Major released a statement voicing his shame. The book itself shows the one-time junior health minister write of her unhappy marriage and her affair with Major – of whom she writes movingly. However, the part less discovered is of her political career – not least having to quit over a salmonella row – and how she stood out in her party at the time.

Hillary Clinton What Happened

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
book cover

‘“Deep breath. Feel the air fill my lungs. This is the right thing to do. The country needs to see that our democracy still works, no matter how painful this is. Breathe out. Scream later.” This is Hillary Clinton’s pep talk to herself at Donald Trump’s inauguration as the President of the United States. After losing the 2016 US presidential election in a surprise result, the first ever female presidential candidate from a major party’s account of the campaign asks: what happened? Particularly striking is Clinton’s account of the days immediately after her defeat, as she tries to come to terms with failing so publicly – friends suggest Xanax. However, the book suffers from the fact that Clinton (below) seems happier blaming others than examining her own role.

Peter Mandelson The Third Man

Of all the memoirs that emerged from the New Labour government, Peter Mandelson’s stands out for its mischievousness. During his time in power, Mandelson earned the nickname the Prince of Darkness for his Machiavellian ways. In this memoir, he sets the tone immediately – beginning by stating that he “once embodied New Labour’s reputation for spin and control freakery”. Tony Blair was said to be left livid by some of the disclosures of his feuding with his chancellor, Gordon Brown.

John Major The Autobiography

Autobiographies by former prime ministers can be hit and miss – revelations but bad prose or vice versa. This is an exception to the rule. Major is candid, frank and self-reflective in this look back at the Conservative Party in the 1990s. Unlike Tony Blair, he appears less conscious of crafting a media-friendly image. He writes of hitting the fast track as one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourites – appointed foreign secretary then chancellor – his against-the-odds election victory in 1992 and the (ongoing) Tory civil war over Europe.

Bill Clinton My Life

Publishing three years after he left office, the former American President recounts his life and political journey, from his youth in Arkansas through to his time in the White House – including reference to the Monica Lewisnksy affair and looming impeachment. It’s a conversational style – even if it is 957 pages. While Clinton is candid at points, self-reflection is often drowned out by self-justification.

Christine Keeler The Truth at Last

The Profumo affair defined politics in the 1960s and led to the downfall of Harold Macmillan’s government. At the centre of it all was 19-year-old Christine Keeler – a showgirl who became involved with John Profumo, the minister of war, and a Soviet diplomat. Her affairs were deemed a potential threat to national security. Keeler has written various accounts of the affair, but this book is her final word on the matter. Her claims are unverifiable for now – though the official papers ought to be released in 2046.

Chris Mullin  A View from the Foothills

“It is said that failed politicians make the best diarists,” writes Chris Mullins. “In which case I am in with a chance.” The long-serving Labour MP – who has held a handful of junior government roles – offers an amusing, insightful and revealing account of politics and government in his diary of the Blair years. His distance from the top levers of government allows Mullin to add insight and wry humour as he casts a cynical eye on the lows of junior office, taxpayer funds misspent and New Labour buzzwords.

Dalai Lama Freedom in Exile

The second memoir of the 14th Dalai Lama was published just after the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 and is as political book as it is religious – on the freedom that Tibet offers to him away from Chinese communism. It came about from taped conversations the Dalai Lama had with Alexander Norman, an Oxford-trained scholar of the history of Tibet, in the 1980s. The book was written from the transcripts.

Leon Trotsky My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography

Leon Trotsky was assassinated in 1940 by a Stalin-issued agent with an ice axe. However, the Russian revolutionary and his brand of Marxism lives on in part through his memoir, penned in the first year of his exile in Turkey and published in 1930. Trotsky writes of his political journey through therevolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the Russian civil war. He also examines his struggle with Stalinism – writing of his disillusionment of the regime which followed Lenin.

Gina Miller Rise

Given that memoirs are traditionally written once a political career is over or an event is in the past, there are very few covering the period that is Brexit. Gina Miller’s is an exception. The philanthropist rose to notoriety when she challenged the British Government over its authority to implement Brexit without Parliamentary approval. In this book, she documents the abuse she received as a result of that decision – and also writes of her personal life, including having a child with learning difficulties.

Elizabeth Warren  A Fighting Chance

Elizabeth Warren is in the running to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in the 2020 US election. Here, she mixes memoir with policy – using the story of her small-town upbringing in Oklahoma to explain how she came to see the world and the best ways to use politics. She uses the story of her parent’s financial struggles and her family’s future to advance her personal politics of fighting a rigged system and financial institutions holding normal people back.

Bernard Donoughue Downing Street Diary With Harold Wilson in No 10

Bernard Donoughue worked for Harold Wilson in the 1970s, running the policy unit at No 10. He was privy to the so-called “Kitchen Cabinet” of advisers who made up Wilson’s inner circle, including the influential Marcia Williams. Donoughue had a front row seat through Wilson’s final premiership and offers intricate details of the leader’s struggle to unite his party, his drinking and his paranoia.

Alastair Campbell The Blair Years

As Tony Blair’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell earnt a reputation for being potty-mouthed, aggressive and meticulous in his media operation. For all of New Labour’s success, its slickness eventually came to be seen as a negative. In published extracts from Campbell’s diaries during the government years, Campbell records his personal anxiety and down days as he executed this strategy. The main drawback is that the extracts don’t tell the full story – Campbell admitted that he left out entries that he thought could be used to help Labour’s opponents.

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6 best films from Roald Dahl books, and how you can watch them

Today is Roald Dahl day, when literature fans come together to celebrate the prolific – if problematic – children’s writer’s stories.

From Matilda to The Twits, Esio Trot to The Witches, Dahl produced some genuine classics over his lifetime.

But what if you’re strapped for free time and can only afford to watch the film versions of his beloved tales?

We’ve rounded up the best movie based on Dahl’s books and where you can stream or rent them today.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

(Image: 20th Century Fox)

What is it? Arguably the best Dahl adaptation going (though older viewers fond of the films that preceded it might disagree), Wes Anderson’s take on the plucky fox who outwits the local farmers to steal food from right under their noses is a mash-up of two creative minds.

How can I watch it? Fantastic Mr. Fox is available to stream through Amazon Prime Video.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

(Photo: Warner Bros.)

What is it? This musical take on the confectionery classic remains an engaging, slightly surreal visualisation of Dahl’s mind, complete with chocolate rivers, Violet Beauregarde’s blueberry inflation, and a forward-thinking rumination on ‘teleportation’.

How can I watch it? Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is available to rent through Amazon Video, Google Play Movies, Apple iTunes, Sky Store, and YouTube for £3.49.

The Witches

(Photo: Warner Bros.)

What is it? How The Witches hasn’t been re-evaluated to a rating higher than its current PG is beyond us – the film traumatised children with the reveal of the “true” face of Angelica Huston’s hideous Grand High Witch – and the 1990 adaptation remains one of the more terrifying adaptation’s of Dahl’s oeuvre.

How can I watch it? The Witches is available to stream through Netflix.


(Photo: TriStar Pictures)

What is it? Another fine example of Dahl’s stories shining on the big screen, Matilda is a revenge story of sorts about a young genius who develops psychokinetic abilities and uses them to deal with her disreputable family and the tyrannical principal of Crunchem Hall Elementary School. An inspiration for brainy kids everywhere.

How can I watch it? Matilda is available to stream through Netflix, Now TV, Amazon Prime, and Sky Go.

James and the Giant Peach

(Photo: Walt Disney Studios)

What is it? This charming 1996 animation features Susan Sarandon, the late Pete Postlethwaite, and Simon Callow among its voice cast, and retells Dahl’s story of a young orphan who enters a gigantic, magical peach, and has a surreal cross-world adventure with the garden bugs he meets.

How can I watch it? James and the Giant Peach is available to rent through Amazon Video, Google Play Movies, Apple iTunes, and YouTube for £3.49.


(Image: Disney)

What is it? Steven Spielberg’s visually stunning adaptation of the story of the Big Friendly Giant unfortunately under performed at the box office, despite critical success. Don’t let that put you off though; the film’s motion capture effects make for a good-natured, must-see family-friendly adventure.

How can I watch it? The BFG is available to rent through Amazon Video, Apple iTunes and Sky Store.

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Lie With Me, by Philippe Besson, translated by Molly Ringwald, review: a precocious exploration of gay first love

Don’t be fooled by the fact that this book, about a 1980s high-school romance, has been translated from French by Molly Ringwald, star of The Breakfast Club. Dubbed the French Brokeback Mountain, Philippe Besson’s best-seller Lie With Me, about gay first love, remains a very French book. It is light on laughs and dialogue, heavy on precocious introspection.

An awkward 17-year-old in a tiny French village, fresh out of a two-hour philosophy class, lusts after a cool, seemingly oblivious classmate with shaggy hair and a surly manner. A surprise invitation for coffee turns into rough, secret sex, and hidden passion slowly morphs into a kind of unspoken love.

It is a love that we know won’t last. We first meet “Philippe” in a prologue, as a famous writer in his forties who thinks he has spotted his long-lost old lover in a café. Casting his mind back to their first meeting, Philippe remembers Thomas told him: “You will leave and we will stay.”

Philippe, a bookish ingénu, is indeed destined to get good grades and move on; Thomas, stuck on his family’s farm, knows there is nothing much out there for him, and this lends their affair a terrible sadness. High-school jocks like Thomas, stuck in provincial 1984 France, just don’t get to be gay. Later, Philippe will ruminate on the friends he lost to Aids, but Thomas’s future is a kind of death, too.

Lie With Me Philippe Besson

The wretchedness of Thomas’s situation makes him, oddly, the more likeable of the two. At first, Philippe is the thoughtful nerd, Thomas the insensitive popular kid. But Philippe’s opining gradually becomes unbearable. “Everything reeked of savings… not poverty so much as mediocrity, which struck me as less forgiveable,” he whinges of some poor cousin’s wedding.

Is this fiction? Autofiction? It claims it is a novel, but is dedicated to “Thomas Andrieu”, and the character Philippe comes from Barbezieux, the real village where Besson grew up. Besson toys with us, enjoying, it seems, that question most authors hate: how much of this character is you?

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The translation feels patchy. Ringwald, who is apparently an avid Francophile, has said in interviews that she wanted to retain the “foreignness” of the text and her work isn’t all bad: there are delicate moments. But awkward phrases such as “it was said the landscape undulated” just don’t sit right.

I wanted to like this book, curious as it is about the intensity of first love. Sadly, it reads like the self-aggrandising diary of a 17-year-old, a heavy-handed pseudo-memoir masquerading as a nuanced meditation on regret.

As for celebrity translations? I don’t think they’re going to be a thing.

Lie with Me’, by Philippe Besson, translated by Molly Ringwald is published by Penguin (£8.99)

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The best characters from Roald Dahl books, and why they are our favourites

They made us laugh, grimace and even fearful. Roald Dahl’s inventive characters have stayed with us long after the first time we read one of his best-selling books.

To mark Roald Dahl Day on 13 September, a day to celebrate his dark yet comic children’s books, we have rounded up our favourite characters from his stories.

Tell us who your favourite Roald Dahl character is. Email serina.sandhu@inews.co.uk

Mr Twit

Daisy Wyatt

“Every young girl dreams of being Matilda, but the Roald Dahl character that has stayed with me most into adulthood is Mr Twit. Yes, he is nasty, hides frogs in his wife’s bed and beats her with a cane. But the image of him picking Cornflakes out of his beard is one that has stayed in my mind ever since I was seven.

“It’s the first thing I think of whenever I meet a man with a particularly bushy beard (and nowadays, there are quite a lot of them around).”


Hanna Tavner

“My favourite has to be Muggle-Wump in The Twits. Mr and Mrs Twit were the first ‘naughty’ characters I’d come across in a book as a child and I was fascinated by them (particularly as my brother and I were also prone to playing tricks on each other at the time – although not quite as vile!).

“I remember being so relieved when Muggle-Wump turned the tables on this nasty pair and came up with this genius plan to teach them a lesson.”

Mrs Twit

Joseph Charlton

“‘At 50, everyone has the face they deserve.’ This formulation, proposed by George Orwell shortly before his death in 1949, is the blueprint for the story of Mrs Twit. Mrs Twit – first name unknown – has a ‘fearful ugliness’. Her ugliness has not, however, been conferred on her by genes, but by thinking ugly thoughts ‘every day, every week, every year’ – a physical manifestation of her interior hideousness. ‘Nothing shone out of Mrs Twit’s face,’ Dahl says, definitively.

“One of of Mrs Twit’s most celebrated tricks is fooling her husband into eating spaghetti made of worms (‘I find it rather bitter,’ he complains). But Mrs Twit should also be remembered for beating a team of monkeys with her cane, and planting her glass eye-ball at the bottom of her husband’s beer glass. Inventive domestic abuse par excellence.”

The Twits
The Twits was first published in 1980

The Grand High Witch

Alice Jones

“I suppose you’re meant to say your favourite Roald Dahl character is one of the heroes, like poor old Charlie Bucket or nice old The BFG or poor old clever Matilda. But no character has stuck with me like The Grand High Witch, arch-villainess of Dahl’s finest book, The Witches.

“The long black dress, the long black gloves, the pretty face that literally unhooks from her ears to reveal a worm-eaten phizog with snakey eyes. There is no greater, more spine-shivering scene in children’s literature than the ballroom convention at Bournemouth’s Hotel Magnificent. ‘You may rrree-moof your shoes!’ ‘You may rree-moof your vigs!’

“I can still picture it in my head – a tiny wizened evil creature with blue phlegm presiding over a sea of bald, square-footed women. Brr, terrifying. Tarantino couldn’t better it.

And another vote for the Witch:

David Hughes

“Roald Dahl’s books are all terrifying in some way, but none is more harrowing than The Witches. Yet even through the blind horror, I maintained a perverse desire for my comparatively dreary British seaside holidays to be livened up by encountering a coven of oddly alluring child-torturing demons.

“Most beguiling of all was the Grand High Witch – a glamorous (until she takes her face off), unpredictable and mysterious foreigner who goes about her evil day-to-day business with real aplomb. Not only does she concoct some sort of mad potion which turns children into mice (classic), but at one point she uses her eye flames to incinerate a witch who politely disagrees with her… all while mocking her in apparently improvised verse.

“A key life lesson about the importance of respecting and asserting authority learned by my eight-year-old self. That to go with a new-found tolerance of mice, which my childhood home was infested with but I now realised could be former human children, and a frankly confusing life-long crush on Anjelica Huston.”

The Witches was published in 1983

Bruce Bogtrotter

Oly Duff

“Many of Roald Dahl’s greatest characters are children who defy the idiotic and villainous adults in their lives. None, perhaps, is more heroic than Bruce Bogtrotter. Greedy, yes, but Brucey, 11, is a champion.

“His crime? Stealing a slice of chocolate cake from Matilda’s evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull. For Bruce, there is no banishment to the Chokey this time. Instead, she forces him to eat a whole cake in front of the school as punishment.

“Bruce happily tucks away most of the ‘treat’, enraging Trunchbull. But then, as he approaches the finish line, he falters, his shirt buttons bursting, and begs: ‘I don’t want another slice.’

“What happens next is like the last corner of the London Marathon, runners picking themselves up to struggle defiantly along the Mall. Bruce’s classmates cheer him on to finish the cake – roaring their applause as he swallows the final crumb.

“Bogtrotter: glutton, rascal, conqueror.”


Mark Butler

“Being a fellow bookworm at the time, I could relate to her desire to sink herself into imaginary worlds and escape hum-drum reality. But there was also something wonderful about the way she was continually able to outsmart and stand-up to the unjust adults around her – from her hideous parents to the tyrannical Trunchbull.

“Plus, having telekinetic powers, and using them to thwart evil, Matilda had a bit of a superhero quality to her. She’d have fit very well into The X-Men I think.”

Matilda was published in 1988
Matilda was published in 1988


Serina Sandhu

“I remember being in awe of George’s imagination in George’s Marvellous Medicine. Throwing together shampoos, sauces and paints and mixing them together as dreadful pay back to wrongdoing adults was so gutsy in my young eyes. I admired his plucky and daring character – qualities I definitely didn’t possess.

“I tried to make my own concoction inspired by George one bored summer’s day. The dominant ingredient was Worcester Sauce. Oh the smell.

“It wasn’t a potion of revenge (or was it?). Anyway, I couldn’t get any adult to try it.”

Katie Grant

“George is so naughty and malevolent yet enterprising and proactive about seeking vengeance on his nasty grandmother.

“I used to listen to the audio book on cassette over and over, following along with the book as best as I could.

“My favourite book overall is Esio Trot (tortoise backwards). The tortoises are my favourite characters, I love tortoises and I really wanted to own one.”

George's Marvellous Medicine was published in 1981
George’s Marvellous Medicine was published in 1981

Willy Wonka

Heather Chinn

“As a child my favourite Dahl character was undoubtedly the anarchic Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A lord of Misrule living in a self-created Wonderland with limitless supplies of delightful sweet stuff (a rare treat in my 70s childhood), and unbounded and unchecked capacity for wreaking havoc. How could one not hug oneself with glee as the ghastly Augustus, Veruca, Violet and Mike met their various, self-inflicted and richly deserved comeuppances?!

“But, as an adult, for the sheer fun of revelling in over-the-top villainy while reading aloud at bedtime I’d have to plump for the Grand High Witch of The Witches. I have such fond memories of pyjama-clad offspring sitting rapt and bug-eyed while I hammed it up outrageously shrieking the wonderfully gruesome ‘Down vith children! Do them in!’ speech. To this day both of them will shout back instantly: ‘Boil their bones and fry their skin! Bish them, sqvish them, bash them, mash them!’To think Anjelica Huston got paid to act that part!”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964

The author himself

Cahal Milmo

“Much as I love his fiction, my favourite Roald Dahl character is the man himself.

“He wrote two autobiographies about his early life and the second – Going Solo – is a brilliant account of the adventures (and traumas) of a young man before and during the Second World War.

“The popular image we have of Dahl – a benign, grandfatherly figure, slightly bent over his writing desk – tends to obscure the extraordinary life he recounts in the book.

“He artfully paints many memorable moments – a colonial administrator jogging naked on the steam ship taking him to Africa; the woman who evades being eaten by a lion by playing dead in its jaws; the Scottish snake catcher with leather gloves and a cleft stick who does battle with a dog-killing green mamba; Dahl’s bravery as a fighter pilot trying to stave off inevitable defeat in the German invasion of Greece.

“What shines through is Dahl’s great delight in and fascination with people and the events that make up their lives. It’s of course what makes his fiction so lingeringly brilliant.”

Going Solo was published in 1986
Going Solo was published in 1986

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11 best Roald Dahl quotes about life, from his beloved children’s books

It’s Roald Dahl day – an annual, global celebration of one of the world’s best storytellers.

The date, 13 September, was chosen to coincide with Dahl’s birthday.

The very first Roald Dahl day took place on what would have been his ninetieth birthday in 2006. It was celebrated all over the world from Africa to Latin America.

In celebration of the big day, we have compiled a list of some of Dahl’s most insightful and witty lines throughout his works.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) was a film adaptation of Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Youtube still)
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) was a film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Youtube still)

Roald Dahl’s best quotes from his books

On being a good person

“A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” (The Twits)

On being open to opportunities

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” (The Minpins)

On being silly

“A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men.” (Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator)

While staying at a hotel in England with his grandmother, a boy inadvertently spies on a convention of witches in The Witches. (Youtube still)
A boy inadvertently spies on a convention of witches in The Witches. (Youtube still)

On enthusiasm

“I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it, and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.” (My Uncle Oswald)

On daring to dream

“Well, maybe it started that way. As a dream, but doesn’t everything. Those buildings. These lights. This whole city. Somebody had to dream about it first. And maybe that is what I did. I dreamed about coming here, but then I did it.” (James and the Giant Peach)

On love

“It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, so long as somebody loves you.” (The Witches)

On daring to wonder

“There are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t even started wondering about yet.” (James and the Giant Peach)

Matilda tells the story of a gifted girl with special powers. (Youtube still)
Matilda tells the story of a gifted girl with special powers. (Youtube still)

On being empowered

“Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world” (Matilda)

On our hopes

Mr. Wonka: “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted.”
Charlie Bucket: “What happened?”
Mr. Wonka: “He lived happily ever after.” (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

On the naysayers

“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” (The Minipins)

On staying optimistic

“It’s impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you aren’t feeling twinkly yourself.” (Danny, the Champion of the World)

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Period by Emma Barnett: A self-help guide, not a manifesto

Periods are an awkward thing to categorise. They might be annoying or even debilitating. They might not bother you, or you might see them as a joyful connection to the natural world (the poet Sharon Olds described hers as a “delicate show” of “falling stars”) . They might last a couple of days or two weeks.

Woman’s Hour and Newsnight presenter Emma Barnett experienced them first as a painful symptom of what she would later find out was endometriosis; and later as a crushing monthly confirmation that she was struggling to get pregnant.

Her new book is intended as a “period manifesto”, which is no easy task given the range of experiences. Her first tenet is simply that they should be spoken about more. Periods are rarely discussed except between women, the other exception being when they are “celebrated” in pad and tampon advertising that shows women exercising or edging along a row of seats at a cinema, applauded by the advert for achieving these things while – as it’s implied, but never spelt out – bleeding.

The effects of this silence include a lack of investment and interest in new products; period poverty; cultural and religious myths about being unclean or shameful; a lack of workplace policies allowing women to be honest about and take time off for difficult periods; and a reluctance among women themselves to report related health issues to doctors.

The journalist Emma Barnett has examined women's attitudes to menstruation in her book, 'Period' (Photo: HQ)
The journalist Emma Barnett has examined women’s attitudes to menstruation in her book, ‘Period’ (Image: HQ)

Then, of course, there are the smaller, embarrassing situations that almost anyone who has had a period will have lived through. Barnett includes one extreme example in which a young woman in New York, Jillian, had sex on her period, then was so embarrassed that she stole her date’s bloodstained sheets – and was nearly arrested when police conducted a random bag search on her.

The shame and silence around periods stems, unquestionably, from sexism – we are squeamish about other bodily fluids, but not to the same degree. Barnett is clear about this, but her focus on “speaking out” runs the risk of forcing women to fix a problem they didn’t create. “It’s time to perfect your period patter and swagger with pride,” she writes. “I’m sorry to give women more jobs but it’s up to us to set the tone as men simply won’t. Why should they? There’s no reason or incentive to do so.”

(Image: HQ)

If I talked more openly about my period, I might feel more comfortable with it, but depending on my situation I also might be laughed at, disciplined at work, or, if I was part of some religions or communities, cut off by my family or friends. “No more lying about periods” and “no more listening to period bullshit” are empowering messages, but they won’t end stigma and inequality on their own.

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Emma Barnett on the best first-sex story she’s ever heard – and what it says about women’s period shame

As Barnett observes, the Government has taken some steps to tackle period poverty, but there is a long way to go. The NHS should be training doctors to spot symptoms relating to periods (and thereby cut the average seven-year wait for an endometriosis diagnosis) and investing in more research around gynaecological health.

In this context, it is hard to agree, as Barnett writes, that women are our own “worst enemy” when it comes to periods – just as we weren’t our own worst enemy when it came to not having the vote or being paid less than men.
As a primer on periods, Period does a good job, taking on the subject from all angles and in an inclusive way. But as a manifesto, it could work a lot harder.

‘Period’ by Emma Barnett is published by HQ (£12.99)

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Margaret Atwood: The Testaments author says she ‘never expected to be a literary rock star’

With her 80th birthday just days away, Margaret Atwood admits she never expected to find herself hailed as a “fully-fledged literary rock n’roll star.” But as fans around the world snapped up copies of The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, the author embraced her new status and said she hoped the novel would inspire hope among its readers.

Published 34 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian classic given fresh currency by renewed threats to women’s reproductive rights from US legislatures, The Testaments was given a launch more akin to a Harry Potter novel. A midnight reading at Waterstones in Piccadilly was attended by 400 book lovers whilst an audience with the Canadian author at the National Theatre was beamed live to 1,300 cinemas. A “phishing” attempt to steal the manuscript was thwarted.

Asked about her “rock star” status at a London press conference, the author said she was surprised “given the lives that rock stars lead. I haven’t yet died of an opiate overdose.”

Sympathising with rock stars whose best work is behind them at age 35, she said: “Where do you go from there?. I’m very grateful for the readers who’ve stuck by me over all these years.”

Margaret Atwood answers questions about The Testaments at the British Library
Margaret Atwood answers questions about The Testaments at the British Library

The Testaments is set 15 years after the events of its predecessor, with the theocratic republic of Gilead beginning to rot, whilst still forcing women to serve as concubines and surrogate mothers.

Could there be a third and final return to the story? “I never say never to anything,” said Atwood whose policy is “not to tell anybody what I may or may not do” to avoid speculation.

Margaret Atwood biography

The author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays, The Testaments marks fifty years since the Canadian’s debut novel, The Edible Woman.

A cartoonist, illustrator, librettist, playwright and puppeteer, Atwood’s writing ranges from poetry about sex between snails, to Victorian women and essays on the history of debt.

Born in 1939 and growing up in Canada’s northern wilderness, Atwood found salvation in books, deciding at high school that writing would be her career. The Edible Woman anticipated feminist themes that would become mainstream in the 70s.

Published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a future US totalitarian society, was inspired by her Harvard studies of early American Puritans, allied to her observations of contemporary Communist-controlled states. It has now sold 8 million copies, returning to the best-seller lists with the election of Donald Trump.

Made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to literature, her other successes include Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace and the Booker Prize-winning, The Blind Assassin.

A “competent seamstress” with a keen interest in clothes,  Atwood this week revealed that she could have enjoyed an alternative career as a fashion designer.

Not ‘dumbed down’

She did not consciously write The Testaments, shortlisted for The Booker Prize, in a more accessible style than The Handmaid’s Tale for that novel’s new Netflix TV audience.

“I don’t think that I was intending to have it ‘more accessible’. I always try to write in a way that’s clear.”

“I try not to do really confusing things, I’ve never written a book in which the goal is to write a book minus the letter ‘a’. It has been done…The choices have entirely to do with the realities of the world and the realities of the characters.”

Offred struggles to survive as a reproductive surrogate for a powerful Commander and his resentful wife in 'The Handmaid's Tale' (Photo: Channel 4)
Offred struggles to survive as a reproductive surrogate for a powerful Commander and his resentful wife in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (Photo: Channel 4)

Robed protests

Atwood hopes The Testaments will continue to inspire protests against attempts to restrict abortion rights.

Women, dressed in the red robes and white bonnets made famous by the Handmaid’s Tale adaptation, have become a regular feature outside legislatures across the world.

“Writing is always an act of hope because it presumes a reader in the future,” said Atwood, who suggested that “if government really was by consent of the governed, then if everything was fair and equitable, only potentially pregnant women would be able to vote in these (reproductive) matters.”

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Forcing women to have babies, by restricting abortion rights, was a form of “cheap labour”, akin to conscription in the US military, which the government should pay women compensation for, argued Atwood.

The author said she had “influence but no power” over the Netflix series – but she did instruct the screenwriters not to kill one character, baby Nicole born to a Gilead handmaiden, so that her role could be fleshed out in The Testaments. 

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From sex to stereotypes, toxic masculinity to mental health, how to talk to boys about tricky topics

Glimpsing a wooden penis next to the key rings in a holiday souvenir shop might not strike every parent as the ideal cue to launch into a discussion about the objectification of private body parts with a pre-teen son but that, thinks Collett Smart, is missing a trick.

The Australian psychologist, teacher, writer and mother-of-three is on a mission to help parents tackle uncomfortable topics with their children in an attempt to counter the wake of #metoo and raising children in the midst of a porn crisis. For her there is never a bad time to bring up a potentially awkward topic.

On a family trip this summer to Europe her 11-year-old son was struck by some of the displays in a Greek tourist shop. “Hanging next to the key rings were packets of condoms. That sparked some conversations! They came out because it was there in our face. We couldn’t pretend otherwise or he’d learn that that topic is taboo,” she says by phone from her home in the outskirts of Sydney.

Ever practical, she suggests seizing any opportunity. “Say to them, ‘You saw those wooden penises. What do you think?’” (She also favours calling private body parts by their actual names, not nicknames.)

Conversations to help your child

Her new book, They’ll Be Okay, 15 conversations to help your child through troubled times, is packed with tips about broaching tricky subjects from sex education to pornography.

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We’d all be better off if we talked to boys about periods too, not just girls

The key is being open and discarding our own mental baggage. “We need to go where it’s uncomfortable for us as adults. We need to be more creative, especially about how to talk to boys given what we know about social media, mental health and male suicide statistics.”
Smart, who has two sons, worries that boys suffer because parents don’t expect them to open up emotionally. “The stereotype that it’s harder to talk to boys than girls means we don’t talk to boys as much as we could. But it’s parents who are holding back, which is what makes it difficult. [Teenage boys] think we don’t want to talk about difficult topics so they hold back.”

Collett Smart is a psychologist, teacher, writer and mother-of-three and the author of They'll Be Okay
Collett Smart is a psychologist, teacher, writer and mother-of-three and the author of They’ll Be Okay

Starting young helps, she says, because children usually know far more about so-called adult topics than their parents might assume. I’m curious how you tread the line between being open and busting any lingering childhood innocence, given that my eldest is 11 and insists he hasn’t seen anything untoward on anyone’s phone – yet.

“As parents we lead the discussions, but we go as far as our children’s language takes us. We ask lots of questions about what our children know before we jump ahead and broach topics that they don’t know about,” Smart says.

‘Young people ask me porn-themed questions’

“But in my sex education classes with 11-year-olds, I’m getting a lot of porn-themed questions. I’m teaching the basics – how are babies made, where do they come from – and I’m getting asked about anal sex and multiple partners. If young people are brave enough to ask me questions in the class, that means those topics are being discussed in the playground.”

Then there is toxic masculinity. Smart is particularly worried about the impact this version of masculinity is having on boys growing up today. “Just because my sons are male doesn’t make them toxic. But toxic masculinity is toxic to them, to their mental health, and to their relationships with with women and girls,” she says, adding that many men are extremely lonely, lacking someone with whom to connect emotionally.

Helping boys channel their emotions

Parents should call out excess banter, which can prevent boys from developing emotionally. They should help boys channel their emotions through words rather than reacting with violence. “Angry, aggressive men were once little boys taught that power and dominance are the key ingredients to ‘success’….If they make it, they continue to laud it over others through emotional, physical or psychological means, all the while hiding their insecurities,” Smart writes.

She also warns against the “belittling dumb dad” narrative or using loaded language such as telling boys to man up or that they throw like a girl. “These phrases teach boys what it means to be a man – that a man always has to be strong and shouldn’t show his emotion or admit when he’s in pain or hurting or worried. They’re also loaded messages about what we feel about girls as a society.”

Boys need to be able to cry if they feel like it, she adds, pointing to new research about the benefit of tears. “Chemically and hormonally there are scientific reasons why crying is beneficial.”

If at first you don’t succeed, persevere

If this all sounds well and good but you’re still worried about broaching some of these subjects, the secret is little and often. As a parent you have to persevere, even if your kids would rather you didn’t, Smart adds, speaking from experience.

Tips for talking to teens

Allow expression
Don’t dismiss a topic that is important to your teen as trivial. If it is important to them, it should be important to you.

Reflective listening is often most effective at this state and involves repeating back what your teen has told you. This helps your teen to feel heard and encourages them to begin figuring something out on their own. Try not to sound judgmental of their ideas all the time.

Adolescents do better with open-ended questions about what they are feeling about a specific topic. Try asking, “How do you feel about X?” Or “What do you feel about Y?” Or “What is it that makes Z your favourite movie?” Some teens also do better when asked what their friends may feel about a certain issue.

Calling out discomfort

“One of my children would try to shut me down but you just call out the discomfort. You say, ‘I’m not going to push you today but I love you and my job is to be your mum or dad.’ You tell them, ‘I want you to hear the truth from me rather than your friend or via the media. We don’t have to do it today but we might chat about it again in a few days.’ Sometimes you have to drip feed them.”

Picking the right time can also help. “In my own family it often works [to have difficult conversations] when there is no eye contact such as when we’re out walking. Walking down the street in Europe with my 11-year-old was often a good way to chat. Or try in the car on the way back from playing sports or lying in bed after dark. Late at night is a good time for teenagers. A lot comes out when they are relaxed.”

And after reading Smart’s book, you’ll never look at a souvenir shop the same way again.

They'll Be Okay by Collett Smart Image from Jess Gulliver
They’ll Be Okay by Collett Smart

‘They’ll Be Okay: 15 conversations to help your child through troubled times’ (Piatkus, £14.99) is out now

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John Waters: ‘I spent eight months sourcing acid to take when I was 70. It was good acid’

There can be precious few Hollywood memoirs that feature, as a casual aside, precisely what the activity of “felching” comprises, or, for that matter, several paragraphs on the under-appreciated art of “tea-bagging” (both of which are reliably NSFW), but then John Waters was never going to write a typical Hollywood memoir, was he?

The gleefully infamous director of 1972’s Pink Flamingos, in which lead actor Divine was required to eat a dog turd (and did so with great enthusiasm), and 1988’s Hairspray, (which if anything shocked even more people for the simple fact that America’s so-called “Prince of Puke” had turned in a charming family comedy) has just published Mr Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.

Such “wisdom” divides into two halves: part wander down memory lane, part collection of essays. The essays, which we’ll come to, are wildly discursive and frequently funny, but the film bits are surprisingly guarded for such an outspoken individual, polite even, and hardly what one might have expected from the director of Mondo Trasho and Pecker. One doesn’t get to make films like these without locking an awful lot of horns, surely?

“Hey, all the people that may have given me grief, I don’t name,” he says from his home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “Why? Because they were just doing their job. The more money they pay you, the more grief you get. But I always got to make the films I wanted to in the end, so I really don’t have very much to complain about.”

‘Someone once said that I’m either an American institution, or that I belong in an institution. I like that’

His crowning glory remains Hairspray. It became a cult classic, was remade with John Travolta and Michele Pfeiffer in 2007, and went on to have a third life as a stage musical. Its wild success made him rich and, eventually, transformed this former wayward maverick into something of a national treasure.

“Someone once said that I’m either an American institution, or that I belong in an institution,” he says. “I like that.”

Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad in John Waters' 1988 film Hairspray
Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad in John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray

For the past five decades, John Waters – thin as an exclamation mark, but not quite as emaciated as the pencilled-on moustache that has sat on his top lip for the same amount of time – has tickled America’s darker side, and each of his films have dallied, to some extent, with aspects of depravity.

But the man has been silenced, in film at least, since 2004’s A Dirty Shame (huge breasts, sex addicts, indecent exposure), which bombed at the box office, and led producers to no longer fund his bonkers, cockamamie projects.

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He didn’t stop writing, of course, but more recent screenplays submitted to the likes of Amazon and Netflix were cursorily turned down, and Waters suggests he would never stoop so low as to attempt to crowdfund a movie project. His filmmaking days, then, might just be over.

No matter, he suggests. He writes books these days instead. “I’ve always been a storyteller, and the book world is far classier than the movie world, right?”

Mr Know-It-All John Waters

Like fellow US memoirist David Sedaris, Waters invariably takes a starring role in everything he writes. In Mr Know-It-All’s essays, he muses on subjects as far-reaching as monkey art, brutalist architecture and the kind of restaurant he might like to open, where the menu would include domestic cats which, he promises, “taste a little like rabbits mixed with rodent tartare [and are] not hard to eat. You don’t even notice the eyeballs.”

But this is fairly tame, nonsensical stuff, and he knows well that his audience demand far more titillation from him. Hence chapters on gay sex etiquette (on entering a particular club: “It was a leap of faith to stick your dick through the hole because you couldn’t know what was on the other side”), and how he took LSD at the age of 70, for the first time in half a century.
“I spent eight months sourcing it,” he says. “It was very good acid.”

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Now 73, the man’s work ethic remains robust. Currently completing his first novel, Wiremouth, about a woman who steals suitcases from airports, he is already casting around for other non-fiction subjects that he might conceivably turn into more pseudo-memoirs.

“Hmm, what can I write about next?” he ponders. “Turning heterosexual, perhaps?”

‘Mr Know-It-All’ by John Waters is published by Corsair (£20)

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Semicolon by Cecelia Watson shows how punctuation can be a matter of life or death

In a world of textspeak, emojis and Donald Trump tweets, it can be tempting to ask what the point of punctuation is. Some may say that if your meaning is clear, it doesn’t matter.

Fortunately, there are people who disagree – i readers among them. And Cecelia Watson. Her witty and fascinating book uses the example of the semicolon, a much-maligned (by Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell, to name but two) but incredibly useful mark, to illustrate how punctuation can sometimes be a matter of life and death where meaning is ambiguous – and often a vital part of a great literary work.

Even its dry OED definition gives a sense of the possibilities: “A punctuation mark indicating a pause, typically between two main clauses, that is more pronounced than that indicated by a comma”. That “pause” could be a rhetorical flourish; a pointed aside; or a catch in the breath before the point of the argument is delivered. It is a roving storyteller of a mark.

It began its journey in 15th-century Italy, where humanist scholars started to retranscribe classic Greek and Roman texts. It was one of a growing number of printers’ marks which could help indicate the rhythm and flow of texts designed to be read aloud.

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Cecelia Watson: Is the semicolon the most hated punctuation mark? 

As Watson, a historian, philosopher of science and writing teacher, also points out, its presence or absence in legal rulings has often been crucial. The jury’s verdict in a 1927 New Jersey murder trial was written: “We find the defendant, Salvatore Merra, guilty of murder in the first degree, and the defendant Salvatore Rannelli guilty of murder in the first degree and recommend life imprisonment.”

Semicolon Cecelia Watson

The judge ruled that this exempted Rannelli from the statutory death sentence but not Merra. Appeal lawyers argued that the lack of a semicolon after the Merra verdict meant the jury was asking mercy for both. The case went to the Supreme Court but the judge’s ruling was upheld; Merra went to the electric chair.

Perhaps its overuse in a finicky way explains Vonnegut’s hostility; he believed that “all they do is show you’ve been to college”.

Read more:

Susie Dent: Even AI spellcheckers are no match for English’s quirks and eccentricities

The chief joy of Watson’s book is the myriad examples she uses to show how wrong this belief is. Herman Melville deploys 4,000 in Moby-Dick; like the gradations on a ship’s instrument, they chart the degrees by which his gloriously digressive sentences veer from their main point.

The most powerful example is Martin Luther King Jr’s letter from jail to Southern clergymen counselling a more moderate approach to the civil rights struggle. It recites a litany of injustice: “…when you are humiliated day in, day out, by signs reading ‘white’ and ‘coloured’; when your first name becomes ‘n****r’…”.

Watson has reclaimed the semicolon from dismissal as a mark of pedantry to celebrate its greater function; helping a reader to hear the power and cadence of the English language as they follow words on a page.

‘Semicolon’ by Cecelia Watson is published by Fourth Estate (£10)

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The Offing by Benjamin Myers: a tight, lyrical and painfully truthful novel

Benjamin Myers’ latest novel begins with a 16-year-old boy setting out one summer morning after the Second World War to walk the Durham countryside in which he lives. It’s a last journey before he heads towards a mining job he is not sure he wants.

“At home I exhausted all the possibilities… I wanted to experience so much more of what was happening out there, beyond the confines of the rural colliery village… I wanted to be surprised.” Reading those early passages, it’s impossible not to think of Laurie Lee’s classic, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, in which the author looked back over a pre-war walk from his Slad Valley home to London, Spain and ultimately a civil war.

The Offing, similarly, is written from a position of old age, as Robert Appleyard, now an elderly writer, records the transformative summer of his life.

Myers, the winner of last year’s Walter Scott prize for the dark and gory The Gallows Pole, has a different inspiration in mind: The Offing begins with a quote from the 19th-century poet John Clare’s “The Flitting”, which similarly celebrates and mourns the ghosts of countryside past.

Myers, too, is concerned with a changing world – and his sparse, beautifully written book captures it. Robert has spent the “larger part of my young years… staring out of classroom windows longing for a life lived outside”. It is an observation made doubly poignant by the knowledge that it is a life lived largely underground that awaits.

Or does it? For The Offing is also a coming-of-age novel, and thus alive to the glorious possibility of change. As Robert walks on, so he reaches the former smuggling village of Robin Hood’s Bay in the North York Moors, where, in a ramshackle cottage, he meets Dulcie Piper, an eccentric elderly woman who lives alone with her German shepherd, and the secrets she wishes she couldn’t recall.

Shot through with melancholy, desire and a fierce longing for the countryside

Dulcie and Robert’s late-night conversations, in which she opens up a world of writing, song and wonderfully cooked food – suggesting there is another way of life – form the centrepiece of an increasingly emotional story.

In less astute hands, their relationship would echo any number of TV shows and films, but Myers takes his time in depicting both their blossoming friendship and revealing Dulcie’s past. Gradually, The Offing takes on a pull as great as that of the turbulent sea which drew Dulcie’s former lover, a young German poet called Romy Landau, repeatedly to its shores.

Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire (Photo:Tony Bartholomew)

There are hints of JL Carr’s A Month in the Country and the early works of DH Lawrence, whose relationship with Jessie Chambers, while very different, provided a similar opportunity for escape. Myers, whose seven previous novels have covered topics from the disappearance of Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards to bleak but brilliant crime fiction, wears his influences lightly.

Read more:

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, review: a terrific tale of hope and hate

The book’s title refers to “the distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge” – an image used to conjure up both the almost invisible transition that Robert is making from adolescence to adulthood, and the yearning that Dulcie feels for her lost romance.

The result is a tight, lyrical and almost painfully truthful novel shot through with melancholy, desire and a fierce longing for the countryside through which Robert tramps. A meditation on an England long gone and a lament for the countryside we fail to notice now, it confirms Myers’ place as one of the best writers of nature at work today.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, review: a terrific tale of hope and hate

The Testaments
By Margaret Atwood

The power of words and storytelling to get under the skin and to change hearts and minds is a theme in all of Margaret Atwood’s books, and palpably so in her powerful new novel The Testaments, a terrifically wrought tale of horror and hope

In the opening chapter, Aunt Lydia comments: “writing can be dangerous”.  The brutal and beautiful sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale – in which handmaids are forbidden from writing or reading books – shows how telling stories is itself an act of resistance.

Testament to Atwood’s own power as a writer, rarely has a book been so anticipated as this sequel. First published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale has enjoyed a boom in readers since Donald Trump’s election, who have found stark resonances in its dystopian vision – one of his first acts as President was reinstating the Global Gag Rule, which blocks US foreign aid for abortion groups.

The book seems to increase in chilling prescience daily, echoing inequities both in the US and elsewhere, including here in the UK. The Hulu television adaptation catapulted the book to number one bestseller status again.

Margaret Atwood wrote The Testaments in response to the question, how did Gilead fall? Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty
Margaret Atwood wrote The Testaments in response to the question, how did Gilead fall? Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty

The Testaments is set 15 years after the events of the original, as Gilead begins to crumble.  Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale was told from the perspective of Offred, in its sequel we gain differing perspectives as the book oscillates between the first-person narratives of three women: Aunt Lydia, and Offred’s two teenage daughters – Agnes who grew up in Gilead, and Daisy who grew up with adoptive parents in Canada.

One of the core functions of language, this novel shows us, is to bear witness to brutality. The storyline is interspersed with ‘Transcript of Witness Testimony’ chapters – a clever device which lays bare the challenges involved in bearing witness, from shaping pain into a narrative to the slipperiness of memory (“It’s hard to remember calendar dates, especially as we did not have calendars”, explains Agnes).

Some of the most moving passages in these testimonies show Agnes grieving for her mother (“Tabitha loved me without question, and now she was gone, and everything around me felt wavering and uncertain”).  Both parts of the book create stories of seemingly unbearable pain.

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There’s an upside to the Amazon leak of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments

Atwood has said that she wrote The Testaments in many places – from a train to a forest to hotel rooms and on napkins. The most compelling location in the novel, though, is the psyche of the inhabitants of Gilead.

Aunt Lydia, for example, wrestles with her inner turmoil: “I’ve become swollen with power, true, but also nebulous with it – formless, shape-shifting… How can I regain myself?” Atwood subtly examines the psychological and emotional effects of dictatorship for both the powerful and powerless.

Aunt Lydia (played by Ann Dowd in the Hulu TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale) is one of three narrators of The Testaments
Aunt Lydia (played by Ann Dowd in the Hulu TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale) is one of three narrators of The Testaments

“One question about The Handmaid’s Tale that came up repeatedly is: How did Gilead fall? The Testaments was written in response to this question”, explains Atwood in the Acknowledgements. The Testaments explores how a totalitarian regime crumbles from both internal and external pressures.  Most fascinating is how the growing desire for freedom plays a role.

Atwood quotes Ursula K Le Guin in an epigraph: freedom “is not a gift given, but a choice made”. The narrative explores why characters make the choice to fight for physical and psychological freedom. While unflinching in depicting horror and showing how complicity enables the collapse of compassion, The Testaments is also a clarion call to hope, resistance and activism.

While unflinching in depicting horror, The Testaments is also a clarion call to hope, resistance and activism

Like many Atwood novels, The Testaments is a profound exploration of readership; some of the most haunting sections imagine a future reader. “Who are you, my reader? And when are you? Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps fifty years from now, perhaps never” – wonders Aunt Lydia as she herself rebels by telling her tale, writing her account n her private sanctum at one of the few libraries that remain after the book burnings.  The Testaments is a formidable achievement that will doubtless be read in decades to come.

‘The Testaments’ is published on Tuesday 10 September (Chatto & Windus, £20)

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There’s an upside to the Amazon leak of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments has (finally) arrived on my desk, with a neon-green thunk. This is the sequel, 34 years on, to The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian masterpiece, Booker Prize-winner, school curriculum staple and, latterly, inspiration for the hit television series. It is, in publishing terms, a very big deal. 

The novel, which picks up the action in Gilead 15 years after the end of the original, is not published until Tuesday 10 September. But the week leading up to its release has been fraught with the kind of hype and drama usually reserved for boy wizards. 

First, on Tuesday, The Testaments was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, which must be a very nice way of calming one’s pre-publication nerves, if the famously doughty Atwood suffers from such things.

In interviews, the panel of judges revealed the lengths they had to go to simply to read it pre-publication. Each judge had to sign a non disclosure agreement and was hand-delivered a watermarked copy – in the case of Xiaolu Guo, she got her copy late because she was out and the courier refused to hand it to her brother who was staying with her at the time while Peter Florence, the chair of the judges, boasted that it took a courier a full day to get to his home up in the Welsh mountains. The copy of The Testaments featured in the traditional photographs of the stack of shortlisted novels was a dummy, lest anyone had the notion to steal it at the press launch. Taylor Swift would kill for this kind of drama.

‘Genuine mistake or not, it is another example of Amazon swallowing everything that comes before it, in terms of the book trade’

Then on Wednesday, people started posting pictures of the distinctive navy and neon green cover on social media. It turned out, due to a “retailer error”, Amazon had posted out a number of copies of The Testaments – thought to be around 800 – a week early to customers who had pre-ordered it. 

Bookshops fumed. Journalists (and their editors), who had been expecting their review copy on Friday, panicked. The Atwood was out of the bag – a full week before the global publication date; before Waterstones Piccadilly’s sold-out midnight opening, with readings by Atwood and a panel discussion featuring illustrious guests; before the live event at the National Theatre with Atwood and Lily James that is due to be screened in 1,300 cinemas worldwide on publication day. 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

“Retailer error” or not, here is another example of Amazon swallowing everything that comes before it in terms of the book trade. It broke the rules and the rules were very clear. The owner of the independent Astoria Bookshop in New York tweeted that she had been told to “ensure [The Testaments] is stored in a monitored and locked, secured area, and not placed on the selling floor prior to the on-sale date”.

Anyone found to be in breach of the rules would be punished, she explained, in the normal way, with delays of shipments of future releases, “preventing them from capturing first day sales. This is the only kind of punishment available, the goal being a level(ish) playing field for all the publisher’s customers.

In this case, Penguin Random House can’t afford to lose Amazon as a retailer so there will be likely be zero consequences. But for smaller bookshops (and all bookshops are smaller than Amazon), first-day sales, let alone the launch parties, are already decimated. Worse, book-buyers may now reject traditional booksellers even more than they already do if they think they can get their copy earlier by ordering online. 

So, a bad week for booksellers. Or is it? If there’s a chink of light in this grim capitalist fable, it’s that a book still has the power to make waves. Now, to read it.  

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Tastes of Honey by Selina Todd: a breezy, readable biography of Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney’s debut play, A Taste of Honey, is a modern classic. When first staged by Joan Littlewood in 1958 – when Delaney was just 19 – it added a much-needed female voice to the wave of kitchen sink dramas, novels and films then gripping and galvanising Britain. And horrifying parts of it: some commentators were aghast at such blackly comic gritty realism.

If Look Back in Anger or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning shocked cultural gatekeepers, then a young working-class woman from Salford writing about dissatisfied working-class women in Salford unsurprisingly prompted sniffy condescension.

But as Selina Todd shows in her breezy, readable new biography, the fetishisation of the working-class voice was a double-edged sword – one Delaney herself used to cut both ways. Raw, authentic narratives were as fêted in some liberal quarters as they were derided in others.

So when Delaney sent her manuscript to Littlewood, she pitched herself as “quite unqualified for anything like this”, claiming that until a fortnight previously, she had never been to the theatre. Actually, Delaney had seen Shakespeare and Miller, and read Chekhov and Brecht.

A Taste of Honey was an instant hit, transferring from Theatre Royal Stratford East to the West End and then Broadway, before being turned into a film, spawning the pop song of the same name along the way. It turned Delaney into “the most famous teenager in Britain”, Todd claims. The press was pruriently fascinated by her; she was hounded when she had a baby while unmarried in 1964.

Tastes of Honey Selina Todd

Today, the play is canonical: taught in schools and universities, it has influenced everything from Coronation Street to The Smiths. But Todd argues it was no one-off: this book is also generous in its estimation of Delaney’s (rarely staged) play The Lion in Love, her scripts for Z Cars, Charlie Bubbles and Dance With a Stranger, as well as her late radio plays.

It is bizarre, really, that there has not been a major biography of her before. Not that Delaney, who died in 2011, is necessarily the easiest subject: she had a habit of destroying her papers. But Todd’s portrait is enlivened by anecdotes from friends and family, which paint a picture of a determined artist who was also prone to laziness; a single mother powerfully committed to her own independence, but also rather a romantic.

Todd also presents Delaney within her historical, political moment – the biography is as much about changes in popular culture, representations of the working class, and women in postwar Britain as it is about a playwright.

Todd is professor of modern history at Oxford, so it’s unsurprising that she uses a polyphonic approach to capture these changes, including many examples from other ordinary women’s adjacent experiences. Most are informative, shading in the cultural landscape; some are distracting, telling us little about Delaney or relying on stretched assumptions.

She also ends on an off-note, suggesting we still “have very few women dramatists, let alone from working-class backgrounds”. The second point is depressingly valid, but the first is simply untrue. Within weeks of its publication, audiences can watch new work on stage by Lucy Prebble, Caryl Churchill, Cordelia Lynn, Laura Wade, Sabrina Mahfouz and Alice Birch. Many of whom, no doubt, are making new strides down a path first trodden by Delaney.

‘Tastes of Honey’ by Selina Todd is published by Chatto & Windus (£18.99)

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Margaret Atwood’s new novel The Testaments leaks ahead of release as Amazon accidentally sends out ‘hundreds’ of copies

Hundreds of readers in the US received early copies of Margaret Atwood’s highly anticipated book The Testaments after they were accidentally sent out by Amazon.

The novel – which has been shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize – was meant to be being kept under lock and key until its official release next week on 10 September.

It is understood to have been sent to around 800 people in total but only in the US, according to The Guardian.

Early arrivals

A number of customers who received their copies early shared pictures of their deliveries on social media, with one saying on Twitter that it felt like they had “won the lottery”.

The book serves as a sequel to Atwood’s 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel set in the totalitarian state of Gilead following a coup by a religious political party called the Sons of Jacob.

Its story of Offred – a woman forced to take on the child-bearing role of a “handmaid” – has since been transformed into an award-winning television series of the same name.

News of the leak was met with an angry response from independent retailers, who have to adhere to strict rules until the book’s official release.

The American Booksellers Association said it had been in contact with the novel’s publishers, Penguin Random House, to express its “strong disappointment regarding this flagrant violation of the agreed protocol in releasing this book to the public”.

‘Retailer error’

A spokesman for Penguin Random House is reported to have said the copies were distributed early “due to a retailer error” which had since been rectified.

“We appreciate that readers have been waiting patiently, in some cases for more than 30 years, for the much-anticipated sequel to the bestselling The Handmaid’s Tale,” they added.

“In order to ensure our readers around the world receive their copies on the same day, our global publication date remains Tuesday 10 September.”

Details released ahead of The Testaments’ launch have revealed it will be set 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale and will feature insights from three female narrators.

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in the television adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale. (Photo: Elly Dassas/Hulu).
Elisabeth Moss as Offred in the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. (Photo: Elly Dassas/Hulu).

The novel’s arrival is so eagerly awaited that a midnight launch party – now sold out – is being held at Waterstones’ flagship London Piccadilly store, with Atwood herself set to make an appearance to read an extract.

Hulu, the firm behind the television version of The Handmaid’s Tale, has confirmed it is planning to adapt the new material.

An Amazon spokesman said: “Due to a technical error a small number of customers were inadvertently sent copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.

“We apologise for this error. We value our relationship with authors, agents, and publishers and regret the difficulties this has caused them and our fellow booksellers.”

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Michael Owen on Newcastle, Liverpool and feuding with Alan Shearer – the 5 juiciest revelations from his new book

Michael Owen has got into a Twitter spat with former England and Newcastle team-mate Alan Shearer, after revealing he regrets ever joining the Magpies.

In an excerpt from his new book, published by The Mirror, Owen also criticised Newcastle fans, and said he was miserable during his time at the club.

Shearer, who also managed Owen for eight games at Newcastle, responded by tweeting a video of Owen saying he “couldn’t wait to retire” throughout the last seven or eight years of his career, and commenting: “Yes Michael, we thought that also, whilst on £120k a week…”

Owen was quick to hit back at Shearer. He wrote: “Not sure you are as loyal to Newcastle as you make out mate. I distinctly remember you being inches away from signing for Liverpool after Sir Bobby Robson put you on the bench. You tried everything to get out.”

He later tweeted: “My new book has made plenty of headlines this morning but they need to be put into context. I’ve stayed quiet for years whilst receiving plenty of criticism but there are two sides to every story. Once you’ve read the book you’ll make your own decision…”

Here are the five juiciest revelations to be revealed in Owen’s book so far…

1. He never wanted to join Newcastle

Owen has said he regrets ever joining Newcastle (Photo: Getty)

Owen has called his £16million transfer from Real Madrid to Newcastle the only one he really regrets, revealing he wishes he’d been able to return to Liverpool instead.

Read more: Michael Owen, Alan Shearer and 6 other footballing teammates who hated the sight of each other

He writes: “Right at the beginning of the 2005-06 season in Madrid the President, Florentino Pérez, said: ‘Newcastle has made a bid in the region of sixteen million pounds. If you want to go, then you can go. If you want to stay, you can stay.’

“‘But I want to go to Liverpool,’ I told him. ‘That’s not possible unless they match Newcastle’s offer,’ he said.

“At the time, that statement was a dagger in the heart. I was being presented with two options – neither of which I particularly fancied.”

2. Graeme Souness called him every two weeks while he was in Madrid

“Newcastle manager Graeme Souness called me roughly every two weeks for almost the entire year I was in Spain and I can’t deny I liked the attention,” Owen reveals.

Owen adds that he wishes he handed their initial phone call better, and told Souness he was only interested in returning to the Premier League with Liverpool, rather than saying he was open to a move.

“If I have any regrets in my career, declaring this stance at that moment would be one of the major ones,” he says.

3. Newcastle fans are ‘deluded’

Owen takes aim at Newcastle’s fans in his books, saying they turned on him after he was knocked out while playing against Watford, and sung “what a waste of money” as he was carted from the pitch.

Newcastle fans
Owen called Newcastle fans ‘deluded’ (Photo: Getty)

Owen never forgave them. “I can’t deny their actions that day changed things for me,” he says. “No longer was I even going to attempt to ingratiate myself with the fans. Instead, I flipped it in a slightly more resentful way thinking, I don’t need to justify myself to fucking Newcastle fans.”

He went on to accuse both the late Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd and Newcastle’s fans of “blind delusion”. Owen said Newcastle “is only a big club in the sense that it has a lot of fans and a big stadium,” adding: “They’re historically not successful off the pitch, in fact quite the opposite mostly. And they’ve never really won much on it in recent times.”

4. The truth behind his feud with Shearer

Owen says he and Shearer used to be “good mates”, but admits their feud still rumbles on to this day.

He has accused Shearer of blaming him for his own shortcomings as Newcastle were relegated in the 2008-09 season.

But says the animosity really started ahead of the final game of the season against Aston Villa, from which the Magpies needed a point to stay up.

Owen and Shearer
Owen says he and Alan Shearer were once good friends (Photo: Getty)

Owen claims he wasn’t fully fit but told Shearer he was prepared to play. “As I left his office that day, he made an insinuation that led me to believe he thought I had half an eye on my next contract. I’m not stupid – we both knew I was out of contract in a few weeks,” he writes.

“It wasn’t until three months later, I discovered that Alan Shearer was apparently seething with me. Not only that, it transpired that he was telling anyone who’d listen what he thought of me.”

5. Kieron Dyer’s soft side

Owen has also used his book to tell more positive stories about his former team-mates, including one about Kieron Dyer, often regarded as a “bad boy”, especially earlier in his career, going out of his way to help a young disabled fan.

Owen says: “One day I was doing some exercises in the gym and this fella approached me.

“‘Can I just tell you one thing?’ he said. ‘My disabled son was getting lowered into the swimming pool and Kieron saw us.

Owen and Dyer
Kieron Dyer and Michael Owen at England training together in 2007 (Photo: Getty)

“‘He came over and talked to us. He was genuinely interested in us and how we coped with my son’s condition.

“Then, the next day, he came in with a chequebook in his hand and wrote us out a cheque for twenty grand. ‘I want you to take your son to Disneyland,’ he then said. ‘But I don’t want you to tell anyone about it’.

“Kieron never once told me about this. I consider this to be a great quality. People shouldn’t have to brag about charitable work or going the extra mile for somebody.”

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Booker Prize shortlist 2019: Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie in the running to win prize for a second time

Sir Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood are in the running to win the prestigious Booker Prize for the second time after both authors made it to the final six.

They will be vying for the coveted annual literary honour alongside Lucy Ellmann for Ducks, Newburyport, Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other, Chigozie Obioma for An Orchestra of Minorities and Elif Shafak for 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

Sir Salman, a British Indian writer, won the Booker Prize in 1981 for Midnight’s Children, a novel about Indian independence and partition. He has been shortlisted this year for his newly released novel Quichotte, which is inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’s classic Don Quixote.

Booker chairman Peter Florence said of the author’s ambitious take: “You better push the boundaries of fiction. You better have something to say about the contemporary world. Rushdie is tilting at Cervantes.”

NDAs for Atwood’s book

Canadian author Atwood has been shortlisted for The Testaments, a sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, that will be published next week.

Mr Florence, founder of the Hay Festival book event, said the novel resulted in an “extraordinarily complex” process of non-disclosure agreements in order for the judging panel to be able to read it.

They were forced to keep their watermarked copies in safe spaces to ensure details were not leaked before the publication date.

“The fact there is a book that generates this extraordinary amount of care in the reading world is something to be treasured,” said Mr Florence.

Atwood won the Booker Prize in 2001 for The Blind Assassin. The writer also made the shortlist with The Handmaid’s Tale in 1986.

 Honoree Margaret Atwood speaks onstage during Equality Now's Make Equality Reality Gala 2018
Margaret Atwood’s book The Testaments has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Photo: Getty)

Long-list of 13

As the shortlist was revealed on Tuesday at the British Library in London, Mr Florence said: “There are strong cases to be made for all of these books. I would be happy to announce any of these the winner. They all have novelty, they are genuinely novel.”

But the announcement was not without controversy. Organisers of the prize were forced to deny nepotism played a part in the selection of the final six books after concerns were raised about the presence of a publisher on the judging panel who had worked with some of the shortlisted authors.

Liz Calder previously worked with Sir Salman and Atwood.

Booker literary director Gaby Wood responded to concerns about impartiality, saying: “I want to reassure you about the ethics of the process. Nepotism, favouritism, is absolutely not on.”

The final six was cut down from a long-list of 13 novels, which included The Man Who Saw Everything and My Sister, The Serial Killer. 

Booker Prize long-list

Margaret Atwood (Canada), The Testaments
Kevin Barry (Ireland), Night Boat to Tangier 
Oyinkan Braithwaite (UK/Nigeria), My Sister, The Serial Killer 
Lucy Ellmann (USA/UK), Ducks, Newburyport 
Bernardine Evaristo (UK), Girl, Woman, Other
John Lanchester (UK), The Wall
Deborah Levy (UK), The Man Who Saw Everything
Valeria Luiselli (Mexico/Italy), Lost Children Archive
Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), An Orchestra of Minorities
Max Porter (UK), Lanny
Salman Rushdie (UK/India), Quichotte
Elif Shafak (UK/Turkey), 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World
Jeanette Winterson (UK), Frankissstein 

The winner of the Booker, which will be chosen by a panel including Ms Calder, novelist and film-maker Xiaolu Guo, writer and former barrister Afua Hirsch, and composer Joanna MacGregor, will be announced on 14 October.

What is the Booker Prize?

The Booker Prize for Fiction was known as the Booker–McConnell Prize between 1969 and 2001. It then became known as the Man Booker Prize until earlier this year.

Every year the literary prize is awarded for the best original novel written in the English language and published in the UK.

In 2018, Anna Burns became the first Northern Irish winner of the Booker for her work on societal coercion of women, Milkman.

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A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals: Beautiful images of endangered animals

Not all bumblebees are team players.

The Suckley cuckoo bumblebee is happy to sit back and let someone else do all the hard work.

Why bother to build a nest when you can steal someone else’s? Why rear your own young when, somewhere, there’s a colony of willing babysitters?

Here is what they have to offer.

Female bee’s colony

First, the female bee must choose her colony wisely: big enough to supply ample babysitters but not so big the worker bees might overpower and defeat her.

She scopes out her target, taking on its scent to help her infiltrate the hive. Moving in, she quickly finds the queen, who she closely resembles.

Then she kills or subdues the queen and sets about laying her own eggs, to be raised by the unsuspecting worker bees.

Cheats they may be, but the cuckoo bees are also pollinators. In a world that depends on the pollination of plants for food, every pollinator counts.


In the grasslands of south-east Asia, a strange creature the size of a domestic cat emerges from a deep burrow in search of its supper.

Covered in hard scales but with a soft pink underbelly and a strong, thick tail, it has a sticky tongue as long as its body, to slurp up ants and termites.

The Pangolin (Illustration: Millie Marotta)
The Pangolin (Illustration: Millie Marotta)

The Chinese pangolin looks like a walking pine cone. Females give birth only once a year, to just one baby at a time, known as a pangopup.

There are eight species of pangolin and all of them are under threat. They are the world’s only scaly mammal, and the most illegally trafficked animal on Earth: more than 100,000 pangolins are caught by poachers every year across Asia and Africa.

Sadly, the pangolin’s defence is also its downfall. It curls up into a tight, scaly ball to protect itself, but this simply makes it easier for a poacher to scoop them up.

Humphead Wrasse

Among the coral reefs of the Red Sea, a young female humphead wrasse leaves her deep-water cave to feed. She hoovers up molluscs, crabs, lobsters, sea cucumbers – you name it – but she is also one of a few species that will tuck into the toxic crown-of-thorns starfish.

The Humphead Wrasse (Illustration: Millie Marotta
The Humphead Wrasse (Illustration: Millie Marotta)

This starfish eats growing corals, so in eating them the humphead wrasse is preserving her own habitat, which is already damaged by fishing methods involving dynamite and cyanide. As she hunts, she must keep an eye out for poachers: as one of the most expensive fish in Southeast Asia, she is vulnerable.

By nine years old, she has grown bigger than most females her age, and as she keeps growing her skin changes colour, from rusty red-orange to a vibrant greenish-blue, and she loses her ovaries and develops testes. Incredibly, she changes sex and becomes a super-male. He is a giant among his species – up to 2m long and 190kg in weight. Only the very largest of females have a chance to become super-males and mate – and they will stay male for ever.

About the artist

The illustrator Millie Marotta grew up on a smallholding in Wales, “surrounded by nature in all its glorious forms”, and says she became obsessed with animals at an early age.

“That attraction to wildlife and our natural surroundings is a very inherent thing for me and so I never really have to think too much about where to find inspiration,” she says.

She is best known for her wildlife-based colouring books – for adults as well as children.

Her colouring books for adults have become bestsellers in the past few years and cemented a market that was previously almost non-existent. All her books are based on the natural world, which she says never ceases to inspire her.

Marotta studied wildlife illustration at Carmarthen College (now Carmarthen School of Art) and went on to work as an art teacher before becoming an illustrator full time. She still lives in Wales, working from a studio by the sea.

This is an edited excerpt from ‘A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals’ by Millie Marotta (£20, Particular Books), out now

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Salman Rushdie: ‘The world as I knew it seems to be coming to an end’

In 1981, flushed with the success of his second novel Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie spent a weekend with the American author Kurt Vonnegut. “Are you serious about this writing business?” Vonnegut asked at one point. Rushdie, at last a viable novelist after a decade in advertising, said that he was.

Vonnegut, who was then 58, gave him a dire warning: “The day is going to come when you don’t have a book to write and you’re still going to have to write a book.” Now 72, Rushdie is happy to report that that day hasn’t arrived. “I’m not there yet,” he says, sitting in the boardroom of his publisher’s London offices on a broilingly hot day. Autumnal melancholy is not his style. He is expansive and self-assured with a spry sense of humour and a natural storyteller’s love of anecdote. “So far the books keep showing up,” he says.

Indeed they do, and faster than ever. Quichotte, Rushdie’s 14th novel, is his third in five years, completing a kind of trilogy about “the present moment”. It is richly furnished with topical references including the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, Lana Del Rey, FaceTime, opioids, Law and Order: SVU (“my personal addiction”) and a tech maverick in the Elon Musk mould. ]

“This is kind of an encyclopaedic book,” he says. “It tries to take in very large swathes of the world.”

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie’s encyclopaedic mode is not universally beloved — the critic Leo Robson dismissed 2017’s Golden House as “an attempt to sell the listicle as literature” — but Quichotte has been warmly reviewed and longlisted for the Booker. Although Midnight’s Children has twice been voted the “Booker of Bookers”, Rushdie has not always been so fortunate.

“I think it would be dishonest to say it doesn’t make any difference,” he says. “The person for whom it really didn’t matter at all was Doris Lessing. Doris didn’t give a flying f*** what people thought about her books.”

He sounds rather envious. “Look, I like it when people like the stuff and I don’t like it when they don’t, but it doesn’t really change my mind. There’s a point in your life when you know the road you’re going down.”

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Roads figure strongly in Quichotte, a genre-hopping, cross-country picaresque which rips along with a great deal of wit, verve and empathy. Quichotte is an Indian-American former opioid salesman who embarks on a Quixote-like quest, accompanied by his imaginary son Sancho, to win the heart of the glamorous celebrity Salma R. This story-within-a-story is the work of a middling spy novelist, Brother, whose own mission is to repair his mutilated relationship with Sister.

Rushdie uses a range of styles — science fiction, spy thriller, absurdist parable — to dramatise the era of “Anything-Can-Happen”. He considered a research road trip with his youngest son Milan, 22, but ultimately decided not to let reality obstruct his abundant imagination. “There is no town in New Jersey called Berenger where people turn into mastodons,” he clarifies helpfully. “Not yet.”

Quichotte, Rushdie’s 14th novel, is his third in five years, completing a kind of trilogy about 'the present moment'
Quichotte, Rushdie’s 14th novel, is his third in five years, completing a kind of trilogy about ‘the present moment’ (Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty)

The narratives of author and character gradually converge, just in time for the end of the world. “I want to write about the end of a world,” Rushdie explains.

Born in Bombay, Rushdie moved to England when he was 13 and then to New York in 2000, becoming an American citizen four years ago. “In all these three countries that I’ve cared about and written about, the world as I knew it seems to be coming to an end, or undergoing a change so radical that some other kind of world is going to follow it.”

I mention Philip Roth’s famous quote from the 1970s — “You can’t write good satirical fiction in America because reality will quickly outdo anything you might invent” — and Rushdie nods. “I remember thinking when I read The Plot Against America, I don’t buy it. It can’t happen here. Then you read it now and that’s not at all the reaction you have.

‘I had to live in a way that showed people that they didn’t need to be frightened anymore’

“He saw something that the rest of us didn’t see. Trump wanting to buy Greenland and attack hurricanes with nuclear bombs, literally you can’t make it up.” Rushdie is careful with his words, so when he says “literally” he literally means literally.

Rushdie has famously paid a heavy price for satire. This year is the 30th anniversary of his annus horribilis, when growing protests about his allegedly blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses led to Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a death sentence, commonly known as the fatwa. Rushdie spent the next decade under police protection, a period he documented in his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton, but he has worked hard, on and off the page, not to be defined by his life’s central rupture.

“My life is pretty normal now,” he insists. “I had to live in a way that showed people that they didn’t need to be frightened anymore. Truthfully, it’s been so long now that I don’t think about it.”

Young girls demonstrating against Salman Rushdie in February 1989. Photo: Nabil Ismail/ AFP
Young pro-Iranian girls demonstrating against Salman Rushdie in February 1989 (Photo: Nabil Ismail/ AFP)

And yet, it seems, his characters do. Quichotte’s sister describes a terrifying backlash to an op-ed she wrote about misogyny in South Asia: “What saved me was the date. Let’s just say, BG, which is to say, Before Google… Old technology saved my business and my life.” That sounds like a personal insight to me.

“I really would urge you not to look for autobiography in everything,” Rushdie scolds gently, and for a moment I feel like a disappointing first-year undergraduate. He enjoys playing games with autobiography-hunters (hello, Salma R) but still, I protest, surely that’s the voice of experience?

“It is true that the world was changed by the arrival of social media,” he concedes. “The way in which a story would spread was slower and much more partial. It wasn’t everywhere at once. I certainly think that in my case the absence of those media was helpful. I think it would have been more dangerous.”

‘I don’t know whether I changed or Twitter changed but I began to think that if I was in a room with these people, I would want to leave the room’

Once a lively tweeter, Rushdie quit in 2016 and has only returned temporarily to promote the new book. “I don’t know whether I changed or it changed but I began to think that if I was in a room with these people, I would want to leave the room.”

Quichotte’s fascination with the question of “unforgivable things” reminds me of Rushdie’s ruthlessly clear memory, in Joseph Anton, of who stood by him during the fatwa years and who did not. Old arguments about free speech and offence were reignited in 2015 when PEN America decided to honour Charlie Hebdo after eight staff members were murdered by Islamist gunmen.

Françoise Mouly, Jeremy Spiegelman, Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gerard Biard, The New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff, Charlie Hebdo film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret and Salman Rushdie at the PEN Literary Gala in 2015. Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty
Françoise Mouly, Jeremy Spiegelman, Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gerard Biard, The New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff, Charlie Hebdo film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret and Salman Rushdie at the PEN Literary Gala in 2015 (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty)

When six prominent authors, including old friends Peter Carey and Michael Ondaatje, initiated a boycott of the ceremony over the magazine’s alleged racism and Islamophobia, Rushdie criticised them as “Six Authors in Search of a Bit of Character.”

“If PEN as a free-speech organisation can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name,” he said at the time. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

“That was very upsetting what happened there,” he says now. “It did rupture friendships. It was a radical disagreement about something very serious. There’s one or two people that I don’t particularly feel forgiving towards but I’m going to leave it to your imagination.”

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Rushdie’s experience with The Satanic Verses gave his intervention unusual authority. It also made him that rare literary novelist whose fame extends beyond his readers: he has collaborated with U2, cameoed in Bridget Jones’s Diary, and, most recently, played himself in a Curb Your Enthusiasm plotline about Larry David receiving a fatwa.

When David first rang, Rushdie hesitated. “But as he was talking I thought, OK, quite clearly there was a point in my life when it would not have been funny and I wouldn’t have done it so if we’ve now reached the point where one can poke fun at this, then that feels good.” He arches an eyebrow. “I had no idea that in the end I would be played [in ‘Fatwa! The Musical’] by Lin-Manuel Miranda.”

Television looms large in Quichotte: Salma R finds fame as the star of hit spy drama ‘Five Eyes’ before becoming an Oprah-style talk-show host. Rushdie himself tends to lose patience with long-running dramas like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones: “I think, OK, I get it. I see what it’s doing. There’s no need for me to go on watching for years.”

Several years ago, he wrote a pilot for his own sci-fi show, The Next People, which was dropped by Showtime but whose parallel-world theme fruitfully resurfaces in Quichotte. A Netflix adaptation of Midnight’s Children (previously a disappointing 2012 movie) is currently in “some mysterious stage of development that I don’t fully understand”. Writing novels, I suggest, must be straightforward by comparison.

‘I’ve never written a stage play and only one film. I think the real reason is that, temperamentally, I like doing it by myself’

“Yes,” he says. “When I was at Cambridge I spent my spare time involved in student theatre or in the movie theatre so it’s interesting to me that I’ve never written a stage play and only one film. I think the real reason is that, temperamentally, I like doing it by myself. I like being in a room and making something and when I’ve finished making it, it’s made. It doesn’t need a production or a budget. There it is.”

What he really dislikes is reality television. “It’s not reality. It’s actually enormously falsified: retrospectively reconstructed, timelines fooled around with, plotlines suggested to the participants. It’s the opposite of reality and yet it masquerades as reality and therefore… what do you believe?

“And that’s become such a big question in a world in which we’re surrounded by lies and one man’s truth is another man’s lie. It has helped create a confusion about reality. That blurring of the line is a very big problem now.”

The 2012 film adaptation of Midnight's Children; a Netflix series is still in development
The 2012 film adaptation of Midnight’s Children; a Netflix series is still in development

Of course, blurring that line is great fun for a novelist… “But terrifying in real life,” he finishes.

“Keep it in the book! Maybe this idea that has been very prevalent in the modern novel, including mine, that this contest of realities is the new reality, is part of the problem. Maybe we actually need to start saying that this is true and that is not true.”

A project for his next novel? “Truthfully I can’t tell you because I have absolutely no idea what the next one will be,” he says cheerfully. “The tank is empty.” He doesn’t seem worried. Something will show up.

‘Quichotte’ is published on 3 September (Jonathan Cape, £20)

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Hundreds of Harry Potter fans descend on King’s Cross station for Back To Hogwarts Day

Scores of Harry Potter fans descended on King’s Cross station in London on Sunday to mark the fictional beginning of term.

In JK Rowling’s bestselling novels, the first day back at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry takes place each year on 1 September.

The date is celebrated annually by fans of the franchise with Back To Hogwarts Day.

Harry Potter fans gather to watch as the Hogwarts Express appears on the departure board at London King's Cross
Harry Potter fans gather to watch as the Hogwarts Express appears on the departure board at London King’s Cross (Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire)

As part of the celebrations, people gather each year at the busy transport hub to recreate the scene of students pushing through a wall to the hidden Platform 9 and 3/4 where the Hogwarts Express train awaits them.

‘Bond with the story’

Wachirun Terakosolphan was one of hundreds of fans at the station for the communal countdown to the famous locomotive’s 11am departure, which was marked Edinburgh via Hogsmeade on the departures board above the concourse to represent the village where the fictional school is based.

The Hogwarts Express is shown on the information board at London Kings Cross Station
The Hogwarts Express is shown on the information board at London King’s Cross Station (Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire)

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“I felt I turned back to be a young boy again when being surrounded by a group of Potterheads who are so much into in the same thing,” the 30-year-old, originally from Thailand said.

“I grew up with this magical story, so did they… It’s a bond between this story, characters, casts and the fans.”

Ellie Hayward, Alex Ariani and Jack Poretsis alongside a LEGO's life-size brick-built Ford Anglia at London Kings Cross Station
Ellie Hayward, Alex Ariani and Jack Poretsis alongside a LEGO’s life-size brick-built Ford Anglia at London King’s Cross Station (Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire)

Mr Terakosolphan said it was his first Back to Hogwarts Day, which this year included a dance performance from the cast of the West End musical Harry Potter And The Cursed Child.

Journalist Stefanie Gerdes was also at the King’s Cross event, which she estimated was attended by more than 300 fans, with many dressed as their favourite characters from the books, films and stage franchise.

‘Often laughed at’

“Harry Potter has been such a big part of my life growing up, so doing this feels a little bit like fiction coming true,” she said.

Angel Greech and George Wells by the Floating Sorting Hat installation that celebrates the upcoming release of the new Wizarding World App
Angel Greech and George Wells by the Floating Sorting Hat installation that celebrates the upcoming release of the new Wizarding World App (Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire)

“It’s also nice to have such a big, public celebration of fandom itself – something that’s so frequently a thing where young people find home and a community to express themselves, but which is often shamed and laughed at.”

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Last year the 1 September celebration was attended by actors Eddie Redmayne and Jude Law, who surprised fans ahead of the release of the latest in the Harry Potter spin-off film franchise Fantastic Beasts.

Harry Potter fans George Wells, Rodney Zieseniss and Colin Gilby gather at Platform nine-and-three-quarters
Harry Potter fans George Wells, Rodney Zieseniss and Colin Gilby gather at Platform nine-and-three-quarters (Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire)

As of 2018, the Harry Potter franchise was the best-selling book series in history having sold more than 500 million copies worldwide. In 2016, the total value of the Harry Potter franchise was estimated at $25 billion.

Cast members from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child perform at London King's Cross Station
Cast members from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child perform at London King’s Cross Station (Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire)

Additional reporting from the Press Association

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Louise Doughty on Platform Seven: ‘We’re more comfortable with the idea of abusers as evil people’

Louise Doughty can’t help taking risks. At 55, the author of eight novels – each completely different from the last – and one non-fiction work, the entertaining and helpful How to Write a Novel in a Year, remains impossible to pigeonhole.

Her books include everything from hefty historical fiction (Fires in the Dark) to slim thrillers (Apple Tree Yard), taking in office politics (Crazy Paving), murder (Honey-Dew) and genocide (Black Water) along the way.

Her ninth, Platform Seven, is her most intriguing yet. The involving story of Lisa Evans, who is dead when we meet her and haunting the unlikely environs of Peterborough station, Platform Seven is far from your average ghost story. Instead, Doughty uses Lisa to examine the effects of coercive control on an outgoing and successful young woman.

“I was interested in exploring a coercive relationship with no actual violence,” Doughty says.

“We’re more comfortable with the idea of abusers as evil people, but there are a lot of men who are decent in other areas but who manipulate and control their partners. I think that’s more discomforting.”

Ben Chaplin and Emily Watson in 'Apple Tree Yard', a BBC drama centred on a sexual assault and court case Photograph: BBC
Ben Chaplin and Emily Watson in ‘Apple Tree Yard’, a BBC drama centred on a sexual assault and court case Photograph: BBC

She set it in Peterborough station because “it’s played such a major part in my life. I used to joke that if I’d ever been bad, I’d find myself trapped there for purgatory…”. From that casual joke sprang a haunting, powerful novel. “It’s a ghost story but it’s also an exploration of love and loss,” she says. “It’s really a novel about how we tend to give disproportionate amounts of time to romantic love over other connections, such as friends or human kindness.”

The huge success of her seventh novel, Apple Tree Yard, which was adapted for TV, has allowed Doughty to be “more playful” in her work. “I think people who liked Apple Tree Yard will like Platform Seven because there’s a similar tone – and they’re both novels which are attempting to find the truth of women’s contemporary lives.”

‘For many decades, prize culture gave male writers a gravitas that it wouldn’t extend to women’

While she describes herself as “very lucky not to have had a mid-career period in the wilderness” she is also keen to highlight how many authors “fall through the cracks”.

“There is still a lot of sexism. For many decades, prize culture gave male writers a gravitas that it wouldn’t extend to women. Look for example at a writer such as Amanda Craig – she writes the kind of big state-of-the-nation novels that should see her up there with the likes of Sebastian Faulks but she hasn’t been promoted that way.”

She is similarly outspoken about the publishing industry, having crowdfunded in 2017 to raise money for three BAME scholarships on the University of East Anglia’s creative writing MA programme. “The publishing world still has a long way to go. It needs more progressive voices.”

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Given the success of Apple Tree Yard, would she allow her other novels to be adapted for the screen? “Yes, although I wouldn’t adapt my own work – there should be a law against writers doing that,” she says, laughing. “I do have various TV irons in the fire though. But while I find that stuff fun, novels are still my great love.”

With that in mind she is already thinking about her 10th. “It is brewing. I’ve written a few thousand words already and I can feel my impatience to get on with it.”

‘Platform Seven’ by Louise Doughty is published by Faber & Faber, £14.99 

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What Happens Now? by Sophia Money-Coutts, book review: ‘good fun and delightfully touching’

The last time I reviewed a book by Sophia Money-Coutts (inset), I described it as “a marvellous romp”. I recently spotted a guide to “blurb speak” – a glossary of the words found on the back of books. After “hilarious”, which translates as “mildly funny”, and “amusing” – “not funny” – is “romp”. This, according to the guide’s author, KJ Charles, means “not funny, but with sex”. It is my duty to inform you that Money-Coutts’s second novel, What Happens Now?, is most definitely another romping read, containing both sex and humour, and quite a lot of both.

Money-Coutts’s first book, The Plus One, which was published last summer, followed the life of Polly Spencer, a journalist at Posh! magazine who falls for aristo playboy Jasper, Marquess of Milton. It was partly inspired by the author’s own former employment at Tatler, and was very enjoyable.

When a copy of What Happens Now? plopped on my desk, I hoped it would be the sequel. But this is a new story altogether, though there is still an “absurdly handsome” posh man, this time by the name of Max, and his father is, yes, a Lord – Viscount Rushbrooke.

It’s a scream. The story follows Lil, a prep-school teacher in Chelsea, on her first date with Max, whom she meets on a dating app, and through the aftermath, which – spoiler alert – does contain some of the aforementioned sex. There is quite a bit of this, in various forms: sex dreams, too, and Lil’s vibrator makes a few appearances, as do more safe-for-work retellings of relatable WhatsApp read-receipt stalking.

Book cover of What Happens Now? by Sophia Money-Coutts, published by Harper Collins HQ.

Of the dramatis personae beyond the leading pair, there is Jess, her artist best friend, and her brother Clem, a “terrible musician” who wears “shirts fastened with the wrong buttons”. And then there are the parents at Lil’s school – the Russian steel magnate with “the menacing air of a man who ate his victims for breakfast” among them – and Fergus, the hapless nephew of Lil’s boss, Miss Montague, whom she is tasked with supervising.

I raced through What Happens Now?, bundling it into my bag for my commute and scooping it up again like an addict at lunchtime. It is one of those delicious books that you can’t and don’t want to put down. It is delightfully touching in parts, too – anything involving Lil’s mother’s partner, Dennis, in particular. And it is essential that you find out what happens to Lil and Max – which, obviously, is not disappointing.
This is not Margaret Atwood, but it is not supposed to be: it is supposed to be good fun, a charming read that will do you nicely on the train, as well as on the beach.

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Quichotte by Salman Rushdie, review: a wildly entertaining return to form

Already longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Salman Rushdie’s sparkling new novel Quichotte – an updating of Cervantes’ 17th-century classic Don Quixote – represents a significant return to form.

After the ponderous satire of The Golden House (2017), Quichotte is alive with metafictional daring and Rushdie’s characteristic humour; qualities missing since the days of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. It is also teeming with ideas about the unstable reality of modern life, often presented in wildly entertaining riffs on topics from fake news to exoplanets.

Rushdie’s lovelorn knight is not a hidalgo turned mad by reading too many chivalric romances, but an Indian pharmaceutical travelling salesman addled by motels and “mindless television”. Blessed with the “charming manner of a gentleman of the old school”, Quichotte embodies “the Galahad quester, the seeker for the grail of love”.

His Dulcinea is Salma, a Fentanyl-addicted Bollywood star who has fled to Hollywood and who now hosts her own TV show. His Sancho is a son conjured from his own imagination, a “magic child” who appears on the passenger seat of his car, “a visitor from the future” with Salma. Together, they embark on a road-trip quest to woo Sancho’s mother, during which there is rather more tilting at diners than windmills.

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

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Quichotte’s story, we discover, is the creation of Brother, a writer of “fifth-rate” spy thrillers under the pen name Sam DuChamp. Quichotte is Brother’s “shadow-self”, their lives “yoked together by race, place, generation and circumstance”. Rushdie uses this parallel narrative to explore the shifting relationship between life and art, until “the one created and the one creating” eventually merge in a metafictional coup de grace: Quichotte passes through the veil of Maya, or illusion, in an episode involving phantasmagoria including a talking statue of Hans Christian Anderson and an equally loquacious machine gun.

If this all sounds a fabulist step too far, Rushdie grounds the action in the horror of America’s newly emboldened white supremacists. He takes on “all the enemies of contemporary reality” – the Holocaust deniers, the trolls and the President himself.

While Quichotte’s innocence and the antic magic realism sit uneasily beside this brutally depicted world, where two Indians in a bar are shot for looking like “Iranians”, Rushdie is doggedly determined – in the words of his fictional alter-ego, Brother – to “take on the destructive, mind-numbing junk culture of his time just as Cervantes had gone to war with the junk culture of his age”.

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The picaresque is the perfect medium for Rushdie’s hero’s peregrinations. As Brother explains to his son, the form “can contain many manners, high and low”, encompassing “the multiplicity of human life”. Though the perspective shifts erratically between Quichotte, Sancho, Brother, Salma and other minor characters, Rushdie keeps the whole crazy salad on the same plate.

Now in his eighth decade, it is clear he still possesses the linguistic energy, resourcefulness and sheer amplitude of a writer half his age – buoyant and life-enhancing qualities shared by his great Spanish predecessor.

‘Quichotte’ by Salman Rushdie is published on Tuesday 3 September (Jonathan Cape, £20). Jude Cook’s second novel, ‘Jacob’s Advice’, will be published by Unbound

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This is Not Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev, review: ‘Terrifying account from the frontline of the information wars’

In October 2014, a drug gang in the Mexican town of Reynosa was caught in a shoot-out and one of their men was badly hurt. They kidnapped some doctors to treat the man and discovered that one of them – a middle aged woman – was behind a Twitter account that had been attacking and exposing the gang. 

They blew her face off, took some pictures and posted a couple of final messages, including this: “I realised that I found death in exchange for nothing. They are closer to us than you think”.

Once upon a time, social media promised to right wrongs by shining light into dark corners. The truth would be a disinfectant. Information would set us free. In Reynosa, the free flow of information was staunched crudely and brutally.

Across the world, from the UK to the US, Russia to China, the Philippines to Syria, the truth – always a fragile concept at the best of times – is being drowned in information.

This world is the subject of Peter Pomerantsev’s second book, This Is Not Propaganda. It follows Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, the Soviet-born journalist and LSE fellow’s account of his life in Russia during the first decade of the century, which was concerned with the often surreal ways in which the Kremlin looks to distort and manipulate reality.

Peter Pomerantsev explores the information war in This is not Propaganda
Peter Pomerantsev explores the information wars in ‘This is not Propaganda’

In this new offering, Pomerantsev melds on-the-ground reporting with personal memoir – his parents were Soviet dissidents who ended up being forced to leave for the West – and philosophical investigation into a compelling account of how the internet is being used systematically by powerful actors to win elections, fight wars, destroy reputations and forge new realities.

In 2019, propaganda is not propaganda. Very often, there is no vision of the world being promoted. Instead, reality is undermined. Competing narratives are pumped into the atmosphere until you can’t be sure what is real and what is generated for the purposes of destabilisation.

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In Ukraine, the site of an ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists following the Maidan Uprising and the deposing of the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, Pomerantsev finds that war “used to be about capturing territory and planting flags, but something different was at play out here.” In the Donbass, a long-neglected region in the country’s east, neither Moscow nor Kiev seems to actually want to govern.

Instead, Pomerantsev writes, “What actually happened on the ground was almost irrelevant; the two governments just needed enough footage to back their respective stories… It would be like a heavily scripted reality-TV show if it weren’t for the very real deaths.” Or, as Vladimir Putin’s former spin-doctor Gleb Pavlovsky says of the Russian state’s cyber campaigns, “it’s all just theatre for a world audience.” 

This is Not Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev

Social media platforms are the perfect vehicle for such theatre and across the world it can be provided in industrial quantities. Pomerantsev’s reporting takes him to China, with its mass surveillance; the Philippines, and the city of trolls who put Rodrigo Duterte into power; and Mexico, where a campaigner who regularly receives death threats is told not to worry about it because they come from teenagers, who treat the online world as a game in which they can try on different personalities at will. 

We hear, too from some of the architects of Vote Leave’s information strategy, but if there is a weakness in this book it is that Pomerantsev ignores or glosses over the long history of propaganda produced in the name of “liberal democracy”, particularly in Britain and the United States. 

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A one-time fellow of the Legatum Institute, a free-market think tank beloved of Brexiteers, Pomerantsev is very good at exposing the campaigns of disinformation carried out in the name of authoritarian nationalism or Soviet communism, but he shies away somewhat from drawing the reader’s attention to the propaganda produced by large corporations (the repression of climate science by oil companies, for example) or capitalist democracies. 

What we have here is terrifying enough. It is carefully and compellingly reported and the passages on Pomerantsev’s parents, woven through the book, are elegant and moving. They dreamed once of a world in which everything was out in the open. It turns out, though, that once everything is out in the open, anything can be out in the open.  

This Is Not Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev is published by Faber (£14.99)

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Confessions of a Bookseller: ‘A young woman bought a copy of the Kama Sutra and offered to do a reading. I thought it best to decline’

The Bookshop in Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway, is Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop, with more than a mile of shelving, 100,000 books and several real log fires to keep browsers warm. Its owner is Shaun Bythell, the writer of the 2017 best-seller The Diary of a Bookseller.

In this exclusive extract from its sequel, Confessions of a Bookseller, which is published this week, he chronicles more of the ups, downs and myriad oddities of life in the book business.

Saturday, 3 January

Online orders: 10

On the news this morning was a story about four men who have been abducted from a bookshop in Hong Kong for disseminating literature critical of the Chinese regime. Bookselling can be a perilous business, but mercifully only financially so in Wigtown. My friend Mary, an antique dealer, brought in a box of fishing prints, and a stuffed badger, which I’ve put in the shop with a price tag of £100.

Callum and Petra appeared at lunchtime and asked if I was going to the whisky tasting at 4pm in Beltie Books. I told them that I would see how busy the shop was. At 3.30 the shop had been quiet for an hour, and just as I was considering closing early and going to Andrew’s whisky tasting, about a dozen people in their twenties and thirties came in. They all bought books.

Till total: £136.50
Customers: 10

The Bookshop, Wigtown is the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland
The Bookshop, Wigtown is the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland with more than a mile of shelving

Wednesday 14 January

Online orders: 1

The old man with the cowboy hat who huffs and puffs in the erotica section turned up at noon. He is about 6ft tall, wears black nylon trousers with an inbuilt crease, a husky jacket and – today – a flat cap in place of his beloved cowboy hat. He always makes the unconvincing pretence of being interested in the antiquarian books in front of the counter for the first 10 minutes of his visit, and inevitably ends up spending at least an hour in the erotica section.

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Every few seconds he punctuates the passage of time with a heavy exhalation, a grunt, a sniff or some tuneless whistling. He also drums his fingers on the covers of the books he picks up. He has a slightly arrogant disposition mixed with a false chumminess, which, when combined, gives the impression that he thinks I want to be his friend and am very lucky that he’s considering it. He asked for some paper so that he could write down one of the titles to take home with him, presumably to buy it online. He left without buying anything.

Telephone call at 2.15:

Caller: Have you any books concerning the First World War?

Me: Yes, we have a few hundred.

Caller: Are they a fair size?

Till total: £46.50
Customers: 5

Thursday, 12 March

Online orders: 2

More torrential rain. The buckets in the window are slowly filling up. A customer accosted me as I was tidying up the history section, and said: “I was in here two years ago and you had a book by Roger Penrose. Do you know what happened to it?”

There are 100,000 books in the shop, and we probably sell 20,000 books a year. Including rotated stock, books that customers dump on us and the books we’ve sold over the past 15 years, I estimate that I must have handled close to a million books. I don’t remember Roger Penrose’s book.

Till total: £155 Customers: 10

Saturday 14 March

Online orders: 2

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After lunch a customer – an elderly woman – was tutting loudly and complaining in the orange Penguin section of the shop, so I asked her if there was a problem. She embarked on a lengthy complaint about the fact that some of the titles on the spines read from bottom to top, and some from top to bottom, so she kept having to tilt her head in different directions, and told me that I should arrange them all so that the titles could be read from top to bottom. This would mean putting quite a few of them upside down, and since she’s the only person ever to have made this complaint, I told her that I wasn’t prepared to indulge her request.

As far as I’m aware, there is no convention in the world of publishing as to whether spine titles read in a particular direction. On the whole, they tend to read from top to bottom, with the publisher’s name or logo at the base of the spine, but plenty of them read the other way. The only convention seems to be that the publisher’s logo appears at the bottom.

Till total: £165.50
Customers: 12

Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Thursday 9 April

Online orders: 3

In today’s inbox was this from someone who is after some Penguin books:

“Hello, I’m getting married next month and we’re having a bit of a Penguin book theme. We’re going to have some Penguin books at the reception venue as decoration. We have managed to get hold of some orange books online, but need to get a few more, as well as some other colours – greens, blues, yellows, lilacs etc. We really want the iconic solid background with white/ cream horizontal stripe across the middle. Is this something you might be able to help with?

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“We’re not in Scotland so would need to arrange delivery. Ideally, we’d probably look at getting another five orange books, then 20-25 of other various colours. The internal condition of the books is unimportant and if they’re a bit battered on the outside, providing they’re in one piece and not too faded, would be fine. We’re prepared to pay 20-25 pence per book.”

It’s interesting to note that in this sort of situation, because they just see the books as place mats, or decoration, or whatever they’re going to use them for, people see the books as being relatively worthless. Why would I sell books that I can get £2.50 each for one tenth of that?

At 4.45pm a thin man with a wispy beard appeared and wandered about the shop, making the occasional grunting noise and seemed to be engaged in a wrestling contest with his cardigan. It wasn’t clear whether he was trying to put it on or remove it. He left twenty minutes later, empty-handed, with one arm in a sleeve and the other not.

Till total: £432.20
Customers: 16

Tuesday, 26 May

Online orders: 2

A man who looked exactly like Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army came to the counter and said: “I’m 89 and I live in Minnigaff. I’m moving house and I’ve got a lot of books to get rid of. Is there a market for second-hand books?”

Till total: £193.98
Customers: 16

Tuesday, 29 December

Online orders: 3

A customer came in at eleven o’clock and asked for “religious books”, so I pointed him at the theology section. After about a minute he returned to the counter and asked: “Do you have a list of your books, or do I just have to stare at them?”

A young woman bought a copy of the Kama Sutra and offered to do a reading from it for Facebook. I thought it best to decline.

Till total: £132.99
Customers: 13

‘Confessions of a Bookseller’ by Shaun Bythell is published on Thursday 29 August (Profile Books, £16.99)

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‘Reading shouldn’t be seen as a chore’: Coram Beanstalk volunteer opens up about difficulties learning how to read

He has only just finished his own school days but Jordan Boughey is already doing his bit to help the next generation of pupils. The teenager, from Stoke-on-Trent, is one of Coram Beanstalk’s youngest volunteers and is passionate about inspiring young children with a love of reading.

He is one of around 3,700 helpers that the charity sends into schools all over Britain to give pupils aged three to 13 extra support through one-on-one sessions.

But more help is needed, which is why Coram Beanstalk has teamed up with i in an effort to reach 4,000 volunteers by the end of the year.

Jordan, 18, said he knew first-hand the difference a little extra help could make after experiencing trouble of his own when learning to read. “I struggled with quite a lot of my reading as a child,” he said. “I did get a lot of one-to-one support from teaching assistants. Beanstalk is there to show that reading can be fun and that reading shouldn’t be seen as a chore.”

‘Rewards for all’

The charity supports children aged three to 13 with their reading. (Photo: Coram Beanstalk)
The charity supports children aged three to 13 with their reading (Photo: Coram Beanstalk)

Jordan has been volunteering for Coram Beanstalk for around six months after finding out about the charity through a college business management assignment to host a volunteer fair. It was a perfect fit.

Jordan already works as a carer for children with special needs and is also hoping to become a teaching assistant in the future. He is currently helping three children, aged 10 and 11, and said that he has enjoyed every moment of their twice-weekly sessions.

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“Me and the kids have clicked from day one and get on,” he said. “You have got to build up a rapport with the kids and you have to get their attention and trust for it to work. I saw a difference within a month of working with them.

“It’s a really good feeling because you are giving them the help that they can’t necessarily access within the classroom. The school I’m working in is in a deprived area so it’s good we can go in and do this sort of thing and give them the attention they are needing.”

Lending a hand

More than 170,000 children across the UK are estimated to have left primary school unable to read to the expected level.

Coram Beanstalk estimates that poor literacy skills cost the UK economy £81bn every year and that, if current trends continue, we will have left 1.5 million children behind by 2025.

For Jordan, figures like this highlight just how important it is to help. But it isn’t just the pupils who benefit – the volunteers do as well.

“It’s just seeing their faces when they get to the end of a book or they manage to break down a word that was hard that they couldn’t figure out before,” he said. “It’s very rewarding in that respect. I would definitely recommend getting involved.”

How to get involved

It is easy for i readers to become a Coram Beanstalk volunteer – and you do not need any previous experience, as the charity provides training.

How much time you commit to depends on which volunteer role you take.

Reading 321 helpers support three children, seeing each child for two 30-minute sessions a week in school. If you’re a Story Starter you support children aged between three and five in a local early years or nursery setting.

The charity provides starter packs of books for every school it supports and tries to match volunteers with a school or pre-school no more than five miles away from their home.

To apply, visit beanstalkcharity.org.uk/Pages/Category/become-a-reading-helper.

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Celebrity Masterchef winner Emma Kennedy says ‘For all the people thinking, ‘I wish I was famous,’ you bloody don’t’

TV’s Swiss army knife Emma Kennedy – actress, screenwriter, author, Twitter star, Celebrity Masterchef winner – is talking to me about her old beauty therapist. “I rang her three times, tried to make an appointment, didn’t hear anything. I got a call from her a year later. ‘Where you been, Adele?’ She’d been in prison. She’d been running a brothel and I didn’t have any idea. The beauty was a front.”

This story was too good not to put into Kennedy’s latest book, The Things We Left Unsaid, her second novel after a series of best-selling memoirs about her 70s upbringing. It appears at a funeral – Eleanor’s, a celebrated painter whose sudden death reveals secrets and confusion for her estranged daughter Rachel, who in turn is still raw from being left at the altar by her fiancé, and from the death of her father, Charlie.

“My own mother died five years ago and I was shocked at what a profound effect it had on me,” says Kennedy, 52, whose starting point for this book was wondering who her mother, Brenda Williams, had been before she was “Mum”. Brenda died of breast cancer, but was immortalised in her daughter’s sitcom The Kennedys, based on their adventures. Kennedy lives in Surrey with her wife Georgie Gibbon, and is conscious of the divide between families.

“Think about the conversations people have with their parents,” she says. “It’s ‘how are you?’ ‘What’s happening in the garden?’ What about, ‘what makes you happy?’ ‘Who were you before I came along?’ ‘What are your regrets?’ Their history is our history, and people don’t know what it is.” Rachel’s story runs alongside a parallel storyline set in the 60s that follows Eleanor’s move from the country to study art at Chelsea, where she is swept up into the London art scene by fellow student Jake.

The Things We Left Unsaid Emma Kennedy

Both the setting – Kennedy particularly adores the glamorous history of 60s Soho – and the women are drawn with an expert eye. In a story about a country mouse moving to the town, it’s a nice surprise that there are no “makeovers”.

“Women don’t require being made over in order to find happiness,” she says. “I think it’s quite important to have characters remain themselves. You can take a character on an emotional journey without having to fundamentally change who they are.”

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It’s what you carry with you that really matters here, and legacies weigh large. Kennedy drew from real life again when describing Rachel putting her own artistic dreams aside because how do you impress a parent you can never match up to?

“I know some very exceptional people with children in their late teens and twenties and you can actually see it in them. They look at their parents who are artists, pop stars, writer or actors, and think, ‘What do I do?’”

Fame on the scale Eleanor has achieved in the book is anathema to Kennedy. “I think it’s a dark and dangerous place. Your life is not your own until you’re inside your own house and you’ve shut the door. For all the people thinking, ‘I wish I was famous,’ you bloody don’t.”

What she wishes that her readers take from her funny, moving novel is more gentle. “I’d like people to look at their parents and think, ‘I’m going to get to know you’. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

The Things We Left Unsaid’ is published by Century, £12.99

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Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane, review: ‘a compelling, devastating exploration of parent-child relationships’

Love thy neighbour, the Book of Leviticus tells us. But in Mary Beth Keane’s compelling third novel, it is neighbourly conflict, not love, that drives this quietly devastating story.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are New York police officers – partners on the beat. Escaping the city for a life commuting from the suburbs, both men move with their new wives to the small town of Gillam. For Francis’s wife, Lena, Gillam “was nice enough, but lonely… It was the kind of place that if she were there on vacation she’d love for the first two days, and then by the third day she’d start looking forward to leaving”.

Lena tries to befriend Brian’s wife, Anne, but is swiftly rebuffed. While Lena gives birth to three daughters, Anne loses her first child before giving birth to a boy, Peter. Over subsequent years, Peter and Kate, Lena’s youngest, develop a deep friendship, beautifully observed by Keane: “Kate’s plan to meet Peter was like a warm stone she cupped in her hands.”

On the night of Peter and Kate’s first tender, teenage kiss, there is an act of adult violence between their parents that destroys their families and severs Peter and Kate’s burgeoning love affair.

As the story evolves over subsequent decades, Peter and Kate are inexorably drawn to one another, and Keane (inset) explores with sensitivity the ramifications of their relationship on those around them. While the Gleesons are supportive and tight-knit, the Stanhopes are fractured – both individually and collectively – leaving Peter dealing with the effects of parental alcoholism and mental health issues. And yet, in spite of the flaws in many of the novel’s characters, Keane treads a careful and nuanced line to avoid judgement: her characters are fully realised and sympathetic, providing scope for deep empathy.

‘The novel raises a series of profound questions: to what extent are we the product of our parents, for both good and ill?’

There are multiple twists in the novel, skilfully delivered. There is the shocking evening that ruptures relations between the two families, but there are other, more subtle and yet equally injurious revelations that shed light on characters’ behaviour and shift the prism though which we view them.

The novel raises a series of profound questions: to what extent are we the product of our parents, for both good and ill? Can we ever escape our genetic, emotional and psychological inheritance? Are traumatic events destined to define us? And is conflict inevitably debilitating, or can it ultimately lead to redemption?

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As an exploration of parent-child relationships, the novel is both thoughtful and powerful. Both Kate and Peter eventually understand and accept that their parents had an existence that pre-dates them, and in the novel’s tender and satisfying conclusion we learn that sometimes forgiveness is the most courageous act of all.

‘Ask Again, Yes’ by Mary Beth Keane is published by Michael Joseph (£14.99) 

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