Winter in Berlin, by Ian R Mitchell

winterI recently reviewed Winter in Berlin by Ian R Mitchell for TripFiction, one of my favourite sites (as it should be for anyone who loves both to travel and to read, and thinks the two can be fruitfully combined). I liked the book very much. You can read why here.

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Update, and news of a giveaway

zero proofsI’m sorry to have been away from here so long – I’ve been horribly busy with writing and non-writing stuff these past few months -, but I’m back with news that I hope will make up for my absence. The first is that the proofs of With a Zero at its Heart are finally back from the printers – copies are flying my way as I write – and I couldn’t be happier. The cover, specially designed by Vaughan Oliver, is graced with an endorsement by the very special Caroline Smailes and the whole package is a thing of beauty. I’ll be testing its effect on an audience next week, on Wednesday 19 March, at the British Institute in Florence, where I’ll be doing a reading with one of my favourite writers, Matthew Licht. We’ll be reading our own, and each other’s work, and there will be wine, I’ve been told. The Institute is located in Harold Acton’s palazzo on Lungarno Guicciardini 9, so there’s another good reason for dropping by if you’re in Florence. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until 22 May, when the book comes out as a lavishly produced physical object or an e-book. The choice is yours. I hope to be doing a few more readings in various places in early summer, in the UK and Italy (and anywhere else that will have me), so watch this space.

TheViewFromTheTower-72dpiIn the meantime, after its Rome launch in February at the Almost Corner Bookshop in Trastevere, The View from the Tower has been gathering some great reviews, including one from Mystery Scene, which concludes: “The View From the Tower echoes 1984, and, like that classic, is a superb, deeply thought-out book written by an author who recognizes the darkness of the human heart” For Scott Pack, the novel is “a slow reveal, beautifully weighted and judged”, while Trip Fiction comments: “When you read Charles’s work, you just KNOW you are in Italy!” If you can’t make it to Italy, but would like to read the book and pretend, Goodreads is currently running a giveaway until 10 April. Click here to take part. You might be one of the lucky ones.

Finally, I’ve written a few reviews, and a couple of short stories destined for anthologies, but I can’t talk about these yet. I’ve also read – and been thrilled by – the first two chapters of the Italian translation of The View from the Tower (titled Occasioni di Morte), translated by Isabella Zani and due to be published by Voland later this year. It will be strange, and exciting, to see how Italian readers react to an Englishman’s version of the world they live in. I’m now waiting to edit the sequel to The View from the Tower and Any Human Face, entitled The Folding World, set in present-day Rome and due out in October. And I’ve been working on the final draft of my latest novel, set in Paris, Greece and Whitstable. But more more news of that later.

wssp 2014And finally, I had a great time judging the 2014 Willesden Short Story Prize. Stiff competition, but an immensely gratifying task. I’ll be announcing the winners on 16 April at BAR Gallery, Unit 4-5, 1-12 Queens Parade, Walm Lane London at 7 pm.

So I haven’t just been sitting around and, as they say in Italy, combing my dolls’ hair…

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Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

kentI recently reviewed this book for Trip Fiction. The review begins: “Fiction can provide us with the chance to travel in time as well as in space, on a double trip as it were, and Hannah Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, the story of a serving woman condemned to death following a double murder, is a good example of this. It’s set in 19th century Iceland, on an isolated farm in rural Kornsa…”

I was less impressed than most people seem to have been. You can see what I thought about the book here.

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Books, by Charlie Hill, and Curtains, by Victor Olliver

Charlie Hill’s Books - at least in part – is set among the shabby shelves of the kind of independent bookshop all too rarely found these days in provincial England: in this case, Birmingham. Its hero, Richard Anger – Hill’s explicit use of names is unashamedly Bunyanesque – is a bookseller, borderline alcoholic, experimental writer – come on, you know the type – whose path, on holiday in Corfu, crosses with that of an academic, Lauren Furrows (as in plough, or possibly rut…) when they both see someone die of a mysterious illness, an illness that will bring the two of them together to form as unlikely an investigative term as you’re likely to have come across since Hawthorn and Child. There seems to be a link between this death, and other deaths, and the work of a popular novelist, Gary Sayles – think, ungenerously, Tony Parsons, although the character morphs into a sort of David Icke figure as the novel progresses. But that’s enough summary, because one of the many pleasure the book offers is provided by the plot as it twists and turns, bringing into its orbit a couple of post-post-modernist artists, Pippa and Zeke, without whom, these days, no show would be complete. The novel is a delight as it sets up its target – the mediocrity of commercialised popular culture – and then throws every ball in the shy to knock it down. It’s sharp, caustic, intelligent, often hilarious and, yes, ultimately serious, as decent satire should be, as well as providing a handy check-list for movements in modern art and literature, and a hard look at the way these are commodified. What’s interesting is that both Anger and Sayles – in their different, indeed diametrically opposed, ways – are convinced that art and language can change lives. By the end of the novel, although there’s certainly no sympathy for the bombastic, vainglorious purveyor of banality, Sayles, the only people who seem to deny the centrality of art as a bearer of value are the artists, Pippa and Zeke. Which should put them in pole position for the next Turner Prize.  

Much of Victor Olliver’s Curtains takes place in Raven’s Towers, the corporate headquarters of a lifestyle-cum-fashion Conde Nast-type glossy in the heart of the capital, although, here too, a significant part of the action ventures out into the dim provincial greyness surrounding London, in this case, a seaside town called Brightworth, famous for its pier and not much else, although fame, as the novel teasingly points out, is as up for manipulation as anything else. Following an explosion on said pier, Vicki Cochrane, editor of a high-end life style magazine, finds herself trapped between life and death in an astral waiting room, with the chance to virtually relive her last few hours and see what sense might be made of them. Olliver has enormous fun with the eavesdropping possibilities this offers, as Vicki enters and exits (in spirit form, naturally) not only herself, but some of the other appalling creatures that populate the world of fashion journalism. Think Ugly Betty with every opportunity for sentimentality surgically extracted and you’ll have some idea of the ambiance, and bitchiness quotient. At the heart of this wickedly perverse morality tale stalks Vicki the evil queen, a literary Wilhelmina (UB fans will know what I mean), but without the kittenish side. The setting, late 80s, adds to the fun and general campiness, as Vicki slots cassettes into her astral VCR, but the satire, relentless wit and narrative poise, are bang on today’s money. And like Charlie Hill’s novel, what sets out to make a point, as any good satire should, turns out to have not just claws but also, in the unlikeliest of breasts, a heart.

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The View from the Tower

TheViewFromTheTower-72dpiThe View from the Tower is now available for pre-order on Amazon UK and US, and should soon be arriving, I hope, at a bookseller’s near you. (If it isn’t, make a fuss!) It’s always odd, and exciting, to see a book up for sale, with cover and blurb in place, after the usual months of post-contractual waiting (and the years of writing, rewriting, tinkering …). In its very different way, I imagine it must be like seeing the first scan of a child-to-be, and having to decide whether or not one wants to know what sex it is. Although, clearly, that’s not the case with a novel, not even metaphorically; by the time the scan arrives, for better or worse, the decisions have all been made.

Anyway, enough of this. The first review of the novel has just been posted, and it’s a good one. Among other things, it calls the book ‘a literary and psychologically charged murder mystery that slowly cuts deep to the bone’, which seems to me get the feel of it, as I intended it, down to a tee. If anyone else would like to review the book, get in touch with NetGalley.  And for those of you who don’t already know, The View from the Tower, is a prequel to my last novel, Any Human Face (also available, etc., etc…), so if you’d like to catch up with some old acquaintances, this is your chance.

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A few days in Prague

IMG_2789The woods around Prague are in full autumn splendour right now, the whole range of colours from rose madder to white-gold. The taxi whips us past them; when the tree-cover breaks, we catch glimpses of the city in the distance, coming in from the castle side of the river. Prague is a place I’ve never seen, although I must have been shown it a hundred times in films, where it’s played both itself and a dozen other eastern (and non-Eastern) European cities. I was convinced until a few moments ago that Woody Allen had filmed Shadows and Fog there, but apparently not, although he did intend the film as a homage to, among others, Franz Kafka, the city’s most famous son (for me, anyway). According to Wikipedia, it was made on the largest film set ever built in New York (26,000 sq ft). Still, that’s what I had in mind when I thought of Prague. Angles, shadow, alleys; something dark and jagged and elusive. Oh yes, and beer.

IMG_2899Cities are what they are and what we bring to them, of course, and the shorter the visit, the less chance the place has of wriggling out from under the weight of one’s expectations. Given that my expectations were coloured by NY faux expressionism and perhaps the 20th century’s most disturbing writer (and beer), it may not have been a brilliant idea to book into a hotel that had once been a convent occupied by (and built for) the Grey Sisters of St Francis. I’d imagined something medieval, characteristic. It hadn’t crossed my mind that the convent might have been built in the 1930s in a style known as (and I quote from the brochure) Prague’s constructivism. Its first use was as a hostel for homeless girls, who were rescued from the streets and set to work as rosary-makers for Latin America, or co-opted into the Order. In 1950, the building was taken over by the Communist police and, following the Velvet Revolution, by the regular police department of central Prague. The mood of the place, which must have seen more than its fair share of human misery and interrogation, both spiritual and otherwise, in the past 80 years, has been lightened a little by a beige and maroon colour scheme, and some rather modest pastels on the stairs. It’s now an entirely adequate three star hotel, but its greatest asset is its position, roughly equidistant from Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square (and no more than ten minutes’ brisk walk from the Prague Beer Museum). It’s also a spit away from the Bethlehem Chapel, where a woman who might have been trained in one of the earlier manifestations of the hotel spots us hovering outside the building, orders us to buy tickets and marches us into the chapel itself. Jan Hus used to preach here, we’re told in two languages, and we’re directed towards a fresco that illustrates his fiery end, but is otherwise undistinguished. Severe middle-aged female custodians, it turns out, are a feature of Prague’s cultural venues.

IMG_3042Our first evening we eat in a place called Lokal, a long narrowish dining hall, cadenced by arches, with wooden tables along each side. It has a slightly industrial air to it, enhanced by enormous metal beer casks lying supine beneath a glass-walled bar counter. It’s packed and we’re lucky to get a table. Beer arrives, and then arrives again, carried by a hawk-eyed waiter bearing an ever-replenished tray of half-litre glasses, who scouts the hall with a kind of frenzied zeal. We eat sausages of various kinds, Prague ham, goulash, pork neck, sauerkraut, all of it excellent; Giuseppe discovers that sufficient quantities of horseradish have a similar effect on him to a certain type of chilli pepper and very good grass: unpredictable hilarity. I realise after a while that part of the atmosphere of the place is due to the presence of cigarette smoke, and then, to my surprise, that it’s an element I’ve come to miss. Beer halls just aren’t the same without it. It also makes a nice change to be able to eat inside; one of the penalties of travelling with a smoker is that any temperature above zero is tolerable if it comes with an ashtray. Although I notice that here, as in Berlin, blankets are thoughtfully draped over the back of most alfresco chairs. Walking past Lokal a couple of nights later, we see a light show and some ghostly illuminated figures strung up high above the street. As usual, when surprised, I wish I lived in a city where this kind of thing happened on a regular basis, without the intervention of some local saint.

IMG_3185Music is everywhere in Prague, and a startling amount of it is good. Charles Bridge is full of musicians, a reminder of just how European a music jazz has become. Bars employ singers with guitars and a thorough knowledge of the Bob Dylan songbook, which can be rather karaoke, although here too there are surprises, such as the talented singer/guitarist at Motto Bar in Franz Kafka Square. But the star has to be the man in the photograph. His name is Jiří Wehle and he’s been performing for many years now, alone or in a series of bands. He used to play on Charles Bridge, but appears to have had problems with the people who run it, who banished him some years ago. He’s now in Old Town Square, or was this week. The instrument he’s holding is a hurdy gurdy and the music it makes feels almost as old as the human voice, and as heart-wrenching. You can buy his CD, as I did. His repertoire ranges from Goethe to Tolkien to traditional folk music from all over Europe. He sings in Czech, and he’s special. (If you visit his site, and you really should, stay with the Czech version; the English one, for some reason, doesn’t have audio or video links.)

IMG_2954The best bits of a holiday are the places you stumble on, restaurants that aren’t in the guidebooks, street markets with cackling festive witches on strings, gardens that, inexplicably, not even Lonely Planet sees fit to mention. The photograph to the left is a view from inside the Vrtba Garden (this is the Anglicized version of the name, by the way; you don’t even want to see the Czech word), an extraordinary Baroque garden in Mala Strana. We found it because I can’t walk past a door opening onto a courtyard without walking through it. It’s a UNESCO site, but the only people there, apart from us, were two or three other gay couples. In passing, I should say that this was the only moment I felt that Prague was, well, gay-friendly; the rest of the city was indifferent, which is fine but somehow needs testing; we were offered free entry to a number of strip clubs, which suggests a certain, possibly wilful, cultural blindness. But back to the garden. It’s a lavishly tiered affair, with all the topiary a boy could want, and this must be the best time of year to see it, as Virginia creeper dyes the surrounding walls a shocking deep red. From the top layer, you can look down into the heart of the garden or out across the city, from St Vitus and the dome of St Nicholas to the impressively ugly Žižkov Television Tower. It’s a skyline and a half, with Gothic, Baroque and Russian onion domes jostling for space. And Gothic doesn’t even begin to describe the sheer Disney-like spiky weirdness of some spires, notably those of Our Lady in front of Týn, as though someone had asked Tim Burton to design a church and then actually allowed it to be built. It’s hard not to breathe a sigh of relief, though, when you pass through the Baroque façade of St George’s basilica inside the Castle and find yourself in a stripped-bare Romanesque nave, without a single gilded cherub in sight.

IMG_3157Kafka. It’s hard to avoid him in Prague (or maybe not; a gang of teenage kilted revellers didn’t seem particularly aware of the writer’s presence, although I was certainly aware of theirs). So let’s start with a place called Café Franz Kafka, possibly the worst bar in Prague, and beyond. You can read what I thought about it here. The building that houses it was Kafka’s birthplace, although his family later moved to the second floor of the extraordinary House at the Minute, a hundred yards away on the other side of Old Town Square. Kafka pilgrimages are easy because they coincide with the places you would probably visit in any case. He lived much of his life within a mile of his birthplace; this included a spell in Golden Lane, in a tiny blue-painted house that belonged to his sister and that can be described as both cute and oppressive, according to one’s mood. Golden Lane is now mostly shops, from one of which I bought a small jointed metal Golem, another of Prague’s famous sons. The woman I bought it from said, ‘Always men buy Golem, never women buy Golem,’ which was interesting. Maybe women know how unreliable home-helps can be. Kafka would have used, although not assiduously, the Old-New Synagogue, where the Golem is reputedly still stored in the attic, a building the Nazis had planned, with their usual thoroughness, to transform as part of a museum in commemoration of an extinct race.  

IMG_3167Our last morning, we visit the old Jewish cemetery. I’d thought Kafka’s grave might be here, but he was buried in the new Jewish cemetery, outside Josefov. To reach the cemetery we pass through the Pinkas Synagogue, the walls of which bear the names, along with their dates of birth and death, of those people from Prague who died in concentration camps. It’s an epitaph that occupies rooms spread over two floors, and it’s a work of harrowing dedication, both intimate – because how can one not begin to calculate the age of this person or that person, and to say their names to oneself, and to wonder how that life might have been? – and enveloping, annihilating. In some ways it does the work an ordinary cemetery might, except that an ordinary cemetery commemorates the  awful, but entirely natural, work of death, while these rooms, light-filled, shocked into silence, are a monument to the human will-to-power at its worst. The actual cemetery offers, in an odd and unexpected way, a sort of relief from the evil the synagogue is witness to; it’s a jumble of stones, lop-sided, sloping, stacked against one another that brings to my mind at least, if this isn’t too belittling a comparison, Anthony Gormley’s Fields. There’s a sense of crush, of proximity, of promiscuity even, but also of variety, and improvisation, and making do. The work here is also human, but it’s a work of acceptance, a work that takes annihilation to its heart and finds that there is more, after all, than that; that the deaths remembered here occurred, for the most part, as most of our deaths do if we’re lucky, in their own good time. It’s an antidote, in its way, to the rooms filled with names and dates, and I leave it with a sense of completeness I hadn’t expected, glad that I’d been to both. As Kafka once said: “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

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Black Country, by Joel Lane, and Marionettes, by Claire Massey

Among my more vivid memories of television as a child was the story of a young man who meets an attractive older woman in Venice and is lured back to her room. They’re already in bed when he realises the light is still on. He’s about to get up, but the woman stops him. Don’t worry, she says, I’ll turn it off. And the young man watches, in horrified fascination, as the woman’s arm slowly extends, insinuating as a snake, until it reaches the light switch on the other side of the room… I can still see the hand of the woman, who might have been Nyree Dawn Porter, as it weaves its way towards the switch, and the horror on the face of the man, who might have been Ian Ogilvy, as the light is about to be extinguished. I can still hear the music, that jangling crescendo so beloved to the makers of classic TV horror on both sides of the Atlantic. But this story, I’m sure, was British. Was it an episode of Mystery and Imagination? Can anyone out there help me identify it? They don’t make them like that any more, whatever it was. And don’t get me started on the frosted glass in Lost Hearts. I’m still chilled.

It’s good to know, though, that the spirit of those days is still alive in the form of Nightjar Press chapbooks. I’ve recently read two of them, Black Country, by Joel Lane, and Marionettes, by Claire Massey, and very fine reads they are, intelligent, assured and, yes, oh yes, creepy. Like my never-to-be-forgotten episode from the 1960s, Marionettes takes its readers out of their comfort zone into somewhere else. Somewhere else is unpredictable on the surface because those who venture there don’t know the rules; half the time, they don’t even know they’re there. And the only way to learn the rules is to play the game. Because every game has its own predictability, and its own pitfalls, and there is no acceptable way out except to go farther in. Venice lends itself to somewhere-elseness, and Daphne Du Maurier wasn’t the first to recognise this, but the world offers other contenders and perhaps nowhere in Old Europe is more elsewhere than Prague, the setting for Massey’s story. The story starts with the classic creepy tales trope of recognising, and not recognising, a place, a trope exploited at length, and to great effect, by Andrés Neuman in Traveller of the Century (see my review here). In Marionettes, a couple of English tourists – Karl and his (unnamed) partner – return to the city after seven years. They’ve been together for at least that time, they have children old enough to be left at home, their relationship appears to have hit a rough patch, any fascination Karl may once have exerted on his partner has receded with his hairline. Waking up their first morning, she leaves Karl in bed with a hangover, thrilled by ‘the thought of wandering the city alone’. She finds herself for the second time since their arrival outside a shop selling marionettes, a shop she remembers – and Karl doesn’t – from their previous visit. She sees two figures, with ‘pale faces and dispirited eyes’, dangling in the window, and recognises them immediately. It’s no surprise that ‘his marionette had hold of the strings just above her marionette’s head.’ Only eight pages long, Marionettes is a powerful story about identity and the loss of it, about need and the gradual, almost unnoticed attrition of love. The ending is chilling and inevitable, as endings must be in stories like this.

Joel Lane’s story travels as well, this time into the different country of the past. It’s particularly poignant for me because, as the title – Black Country – suggests, it’s set in the post-industrial Midlands, where I spent a significant part of my childhood, as well as periods in later life. The landscape of the story is a landscape I recognise, of derelict swimming pools and tower blocks, of chain-link fences and industrial estates. Now living in Walsall, the (once again unnamed) narrator has been called in to investigate what appears to be a series of acts of violence involving children in a part of Dudley once known as Clayheath, where he grew up. These acts, trivial in themselves, are followed by pilfering from local shops, apparently random acts of vandalism, a dead cat with Monopoly tokens found in its throat: ‘a car, a boot, an iron and a dog.’ The pervasive sense of tension – even the local DS is ‘vaguely ill at ease’ – is mirrored in the narrator’s own memories, as the hotel room in which he’s staying segues into the room with the ‘narrow bed’ he slept in as a child while his parents’ marriage fell apart. There’s an undercurrent of violence, both actual and potential, and a feeling that its source is nowhere and everywhere, specific and legion. One of the girls attacked, when asked to draw her attacker, ‘had gone on drawing one face over another until the image was impossible to make out.’ All of them in one. Later, a school caretaker claims to have seen ‘a “scraggy looking” child of nine or so, moving so fast his face was a blur.’ The idea of child as victim and perpetrator is central to the story; the highlight of the blues night in which the narrator takes part is, appropriately enough, ‘when a young woman with red hair sang “God Bless the Child”.’ By this point, the police investigation has been subsumed into something more personal, a private world in which the adjective of the title is more than a merely geographical reference. Lane’s story, when compared with Massey’s, is more mundane in its setting, and – maybe – more elemental in its final image. Both stories, though, in their different ways draw on deep fears: of loss of self, and of how that self is made, and unmade, by the world around it.

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