A Chat with Simon Conway

Recently, I wrote a review of Simon Conway’s latest novel, ‘The Stranger‘. I was so impressed with the book, I tracked Mr Conway down and asked him for some further information. He graciously agreed.

The Stranger

PAJNewman (PAJ): Jude Lyon is a brilliant character. I notice from my research that there might be some similarity between yourself and Jude in terms of military history and well-travelled childhood. Was this biographical echoing the starting point for the book or was it the themes and issues which drew you to this particular story?

Simon Conway (SC): I’m glad you like Jude. I’m fond of him too. I wouldn’t say he was the starting point though. My characters tend to grow and morph in the telling. They definitely get more autonomous with every draft. Both main characters have a military background and I think that neither of them was an easy fit in the army just as I wasn’t. In Jude I have channelled my principled side but in Guy Fowle I’ve unleashed my inner psychopath. 

PAJ: How do you feel that this novel stacks up against your previous work? Are you pleased with it?

SC: I’m satisfied and I’ve been gratified by the very positive response from early readers. I’d say that there has been a gradual improvement in my writing with more show and less tell. I’ve been trying to adhere to George Orwell’s six tips for writing from his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” – never use a long word where a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, which you are used to seeing in print, etc. That’s a good discipline for writing.

PAJ: How long did the book take from beginning to end to write?

SC: It was about eighteen months from beginning to end and then some tinkering at the copy edit stage. And then a delay in publication die to the pandemic. I’m glad to have reached this moment…

PAJ: The Iraq invasion obviously casts a long shadow over this novel, do you feel this is going to be an issue which we ever resolve as a democracy? Do you feel it still plays into our relationship with terrorism in the UK today?

SC: I think that if we are going to occupy countries in the name of protecting their populace or delivering democracy and freedom, we need to get a hell of a lot better at it and we need to recognise that it is a long-term commitment that lasts for decades.

There is no easy exit strategy. The shadow of the Iraq war is a long one: the chaos that it created fatally poisoned the New Labour project and it has a de-stabilising effect across the region, spurring the growth of Islamic State and allowing Iran to extend its influence.

The images from Abu Ghraib and the illegal rendition programme radicalised a generation of young Muslims. The collapse of Syria has led to one of the largest refugee crises ever. We bear some responsibility and we have to own up to that. 

PAJ: At the moment, do you think The Stranger is going to be a standalone or do you envisage this as the beginning of a new series?

SC: You’ll definitely be reading more about Jude Lyon. There’s plenty still to be revealed.

Personal

PAJ: Who are your biggest influences as a writer?

SC: I read widely and across genres. I’ve certainly been influenced by some of the big beasts of modern American literature – Norman Mailer, Robert Stone, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Pynchon. Contemporary writers that I enjoy include Nick Harkaway, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Chris Beckett, Paul McAulay and Louise Welsh. 

In my own genre, John Le Carré, Martin Cruz Smith and Graham Greene are heroes. For the Stranger, I wanted to write a classic thriller and Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal was a significant influence in that in that it builds towards a single attack and you have the juxtaposition of the increasingly desperate manhunt and the villain’s methodical preparations. 

PAJ: What inspired your move into the military after you finished your degree at Edinburgh?

SC: After I left university, I was working in a night club in New York and trying to write a novel.  I wrote 28 pages in a year which is pretty poor. I needed discipline. Many of the writers that I respected had served in the military or seen conflict. So, on a whim, I shaved my head and joined the army. One thing that surprised me was the number of other soldiers I met who also had a problem with authority. 

I was living in Lebanon as a child a particularly formative experience that resonates through this novel? I can’t help feeling like the Middle East is represented in an affectionate and nuanced way in the novel.

I am very fond of the Middle East. It has so many intelligent and articulate people let down by bad government and lousy politicians. Some of my earliest memories are of Syria and Lebanon and it is a tragedy what has happened to those places. In 1976 I was on holiday with my parents in Syria. I persuaded them to buy me a Syrian army uniform and I wore it as we crossed back into Lebanon. The Syrian army invaded Lebanon a few hours later. I was the first across the line! 

I’ve been back to both countries, to Lebanon in 2006 after the south was pummelled with several million cluster munitions and to Syria in 2015 after Islamic State left behind huge quantities of improvised explosive devices across the north east. 

PAJ: Was the war in Syria at the forefront of your move into working with Article 36?


SC: My position on the board of the weapons control organisation Article 36 grew out of my part in the campaign to ban cluster munitions. Article 36 of the Geneva conventions, which the organisation was named for, require states to consider the impact on civilians of their weapons before they use them. When you look at the devastated cities of a country like Syria you can see that its rulers either don’t care about the effect of their weapons on ordinary people or are deliberately, maliciously targeting them. 

PAJ: Would you like to speak about your work with HALO? Where are we as a nation with regard to refugees and the fall out from the conflict in Syria in your opinion? What can people who want to help do? What is the best link or course of action which people could access?

SC: My role within The HALO Trust is to start projects in new countries which means I am usually the first person on the ground, getting to know the power brokers on the ground and negotiating access. Since 2015, the focus of my efforts has been clearing the debris of war in the Middle East and I have established new projects in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The devastation in urban areas and the industrial-scale use of improvised explosive devices by Islamic State and other armed groups pose particular risks to clearance operators.

Once the projects are set up and running, I hand them off to my colleagues to run. Currently I still retain command of our Libya programme, where we have an in-country team who are having to deal with an ongoing conflict with rapidly shifting front lines and multiple outside actors including Turkey, Russia, UAE and Egypt. The team are currently surveying booby-trapped front lines in the south of the capital Tripoli which were abandoned by Russian mercenaries from the private military company Wagner Group. 

We are doing a lot to help. The taxpayers of western nations are incredibly generous through the aid and assistance that they provide. The UK is world leader in the delivery of aid and we should be proud of that. People need to recognise that helping to create stability abroad is a vital investment that helps keeps us safe at home.

Keeping pressure on the politicians to use our aid money wisely and strategically is of course vital and I think we should be directing more of it towards resolving conflict. I also think we need to do close the tax havens which allow corrupt rulers to steal and stash away the wealth of developing nations. There’s no point giving with one hand if we’re accepting dirty money with the other. 

PAJ: What is the question you wish interviewers and readers would ask but never do?

SC: Is it possible to both entertain and inform? I think so, if it’s deftly done without ramming the information down the reader’s throat. I hope that readers enjoy The Stranger but also come away with a greater understanding of some of the more lawless corners of the world.

Thanks so much to Simon for speaking to me. ‘The Stranger’ is available here and at all good bookshops (and, presumably, some average ones too). Simon’s website is here. Simon can be found on Twitter here and you can hear more from the man himself from our friends over at Spybrary here.

Consistency is Key – A Guide to Failing at Comedy Writing

I believe I am funny.

Probably more so than is entirely sane. In fact, looking back I feel as though most of my ways of thinking about the world may well be derived from sitcoms. As for my twenties, in hindsight, they begin to look like some form of experimental absurdist comedy where I was trying the most pretentious form of Brechtian theatre of alienation imaginable. I’m not sure whether there is any other explanation for having a student hoodie in Scotland, with the nickname “English Cunt” on the back other than advanced comedic stylings.

Or because it’s true. Whatever.

After far too many podcast episodes of Stuart Goldsmith’s ComCom Pod, I would love to try stand up but for various reasons (geography, cowardice, him telling us not to, geography, cowardice to name a few) that was non-starter really.

But, my novel was finished and sitting waiting to go out to agents while I gather courage (see above as to my level of bravery when taking on the world) and I needed a project.

Enter Sitcom Geeks. Another podcast, this time run by James Carey and Dave Cohen, crammed full of helpful writing tips and how to break in. And, basically, their main advice was Newsjack.

OK, heard of Newsjack – that’s a start.

Even listened to the show before – tick.

Listened to all the podcast episodes dealing with submitting to Newsjack and the people who make the decisions – tick.

Inflated sense of entitlement and unverified belief in sense of humour – tick, for sure.

Okay, more “research” (“Hey is research another word for procrastination?” “Shut up, Inner Monologue.”)

A bit of googling and I discover the work of Chris Douch and his work at the Comedy Loser blog. And he’s great. He has some really insightful tips on writing for Newsjack and the submissions process.

I contact a friend who I know has had stuff on before. I ask if she would like to team up for this series. She does not seem enthusiastic. In fact, I’m not sure she is talking to me any longer, which is a shame because she’s really nice, I’ve known her for years and now I appear to have infringed some societal contract which I don’t understand so… that’s not a great start.

Upside, from Chris, I enter a Twitter rabbit hole and learn: there are loads of us! All wanting to write comedy, all sharing failures and, weirdly, all being really open and friendly. I am suspicious – after all I’ve just lost a friend over a clumsily worded approach but, here we are, sharing our jokes which have been rejected, encouraging and supporting. It’s really nice, a little writing community.

From Newsjack to Breaking the News.

I am consistent.

I am consistent in failing to get anything on any of the shows.

But I consist. I file my wee one liners every week. I only submit one sketch. My brain doesn’t seem to work like that and I’m learning still but, every week (bar one) I send off my jokes. I get nowhere.

So, what have I learnt?

I’ve learnt I may not be as funny as I thought (you did not see that coming, did you?)

I’ve learnt that there is a comedy writing community of aspiring writers who are really nice and supportive.

I’ve learnt I am terrible at trying to recruit my friend to collaborate and I worry too much about the offence I accidentally caused.

I’ve learnt that this was good writing gym regime and I’m going to be back next season, plugging away and probably failing.

But failing consistently. And that is the key.

A Film Education

It started with the Care Bears, (said nobody ever.)

But, for me, it really did start with Care Bears: The Movie. I was 4 and this was 1985 and my parents took me, along with some friends from play school, to the local cinema for the first time. img_1502

I remember nothing. One of the friends may have been celebrating a birthday. She may have had a sister. I’m guessing that may explain the choice of movie.

Subsequently, I’ve done some research. Cinematic golden age problem child Mickey Rooney was in it. The writer, Peter Sauder, had written on such top notch fare as Inspector Gadget, Star Wars: Droids (that’s the cartoon which Disney are still trying to resolve the issue of its place in the cannon 30 years later) and went on to the glories of Barbar, Rupert and the Beetlejuice cartoon.

Mickey. Rooney: cinematic legend – Care Bear extraordinaire

But I knew none of this. What I remember is my mum tapping me on the shoulder – was it a minute? An hour? A day into the movie? I had no idea. I had disappeared. She learnt across and said, “Were you in the film?”

When I finally came to, I had to just nod and grin. All I knew was that I was in the screen. There was a ringing in my ears. I’d forgotten where I was. I’d forgotten that there was a here I’d forgotten about. Far as I knew, there was only Care Bears world now.

Total immersion is tough to describe. Bognor Regis’ Picturedrome dates back to the 1880s and, these days, appears to have been rejuvenated. In the 80s, when the average cost of a cinema ticket I’m reliably informed was a whole £1.70 for an adult, it was known unaffectionately as the “flea pit”. Salubrious it was not. I loved it.

The Bognor Picturedrome: previously known as “the Fleapit”. Quite nice now.

My next love was TV and Granada classic, The Professionals. I mean, due to a speech impediment, I couldn’t actually say that. So, in fact, my next love was The Procesionals, much to my parents’ delight and amusement but for me there was nothing like two U.K. Starsky and Hutch rip offs sliding across the bonnet of a pair of Ford Capris under the disapproving eye of that bloke from Upstairs Downstairs to excite my pre-school heart.

The addiction grew. But the world was very different then, even though it’s not that long ago* (*It may, in fact, now be quite a long time ago). My parents couldn’t afford a video recorder so we didn’t get one till at least 1989.

By the time I went way to boarding school in the early 90s, I was sat in the phone booth whilst my poor father had to go to the shop on a Thursday to get both the Radio Times (BBC1&2) and the TV Times (ITV/Channel 4) and then my mother had to spend her telephone bill reading out to me which movies were on that week so she knew which ones to VHS for me to watch when I got home at the end of term. No parents are perfect, but the fact they didn’t excommunicate me or leave at boarding school does speak very highly of this particular pairs’ good humour and tolerance.

I watched Barry Norman and Film Insert-Whichever-Year-Here like other people went to church. I was easy to buy for at Christmas – the latest Halliwells Film Guide would keep me occupied for hours. In fact, I’d read them so thoroughly that kids used to test me by asking me to the name the year, main actors and synopsis of any film in the book. I usually did ok too.

Last week, I began work on a script with a guy I’ve known forever and who is a successful film maker of many years’ standing. He’s thrown me an invite because he’s very kind and because… I don’t know, he took pity on me? Who knows. All I know is ill forever be grateful for the opportunity.

I hope the script gets finished.

I hope it’s good.

I hope we can get it made.

But mainly, I hope that it has the power and emotional resonance of Care Bears: The Movie.

Adieu Roi Soleil

Author Peter Mayle, 78, passed away on Thursday, 18th January 2018 after a brief illness. The news was discreetly put out by his publisher Alfred A Knopf, a short statement appearing on his Facebook page. And that was that.

peter mayle

Author Peter Mayle, who has died aged 78

In the UK, Mayle’s passing was noted in obituaries on the BBC and in a number of newspapers: The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail all carrying mentions (even The New York Times further afield).

However, considering the impact that Mayle had on the British middle classes in the latter part of the 20th century, I am staggered by how muted the marking of his passing was.

A Year in Provence will be his legacy. The Telegraph cites six million copies sold after an initial print run of just 3,000. The Daily Mail has a charming story of a pilot reading the book during the first Gulf War reading a copy whilst waiting for order to fly into battle.

They’re cute anecdotes. But their real value is as the symbol of the man who invented the modern British middle class dream. Before that period in the late 1980s, there was little talk of “foreign” food and property abroad.

year in provence

The only people wanting homes in foreign fields were bank robbers and Ronnie Biggs. Mayle changed all that.

Before long, anyone with a property to mortgage and grown dependents were indulging their taste for property speculation and moaning about foreign building regulations. There’s not been a conquest as sudden or all-encompassing since the Normans sharpened their arrows.

Later, he suffered from the Law of Unintended Consequences. His picturesque descriptions of truculent natives and long, lazy lunches in bucolic settings famously invited visitors; fans of the work pitching up to say hello and becoming so intrusive that he and his wife were forced him to leave Provence. Initially they relocated to America and Amagansett on Long Island; later returning to his beloved southern France – although this time not being quite so free with his location descriptions that people could actually hunt him down.

Latterly, Mayle’s novels seemed to want to cater to an American audience. His old eye for the market, formed in his advertising days meant that, in such fare as his Sam Levitt triology The Marseille Caper , The Vintage Caper and The Corsican Caper, he drew characters from both Britain and America.

corsican caper

These light as a soufflé romp almost always included beautiful French locations, women whose beauty was echoed in the vistas, clumsy Hugh Grant-lite Englishmen and villains redeemed by chicanery and the power of a decent lunch. Capers were apt descriptions.

Unsurprisingly, he was ill-served by the English language literati who paid little mind to his work. This is reflected in the paucity of his output available on Audible and the seemingly extraordinary lengths one had to go to obtain copies of these novels online. The fact that France gave him the Legion d’Honneur in 2002 is a testament to their generosity when you consider how many Brits of dubious use to the French state followed him.

Personally, I enjoyed his novels. He had a talent for plot and kept the stories whipping along and always ending happily – with sun. And lunch. And wine. Or dinner. Or lunch with sun and wine stretching through to dinner. With wine. Bliss.

It is sad to think that there is no more of his work to come. Maybe I am the right age, the right demographic to have enjoyed his work. But I did. I’ll miss tracking the new book down. Luckily, his back catalogue remains.

Farewell to the Sun King.

 

Mister Brunetti and the things that he is not

Is it really 23 years since first we  met? Who could not love Commisario Guido Brunetti and his loveable collection of family and colleagues?

Venice – it is traditional at this point to say that the city is as much a character in the novels as the humans,  – the city Brunetti navigates with as much detached san froid as he can muster as the murky world of Italian police work intrudes on his homelife.

Falling in love

Donna Leon’s 24th addition to the Brunetti series is Falling in Love

There are many theories as to why people read crime fiction – catharsis born of frustration at their own lives, vicarious wish-fulfillment to name but two – but there’s no doubt that Donna Leon’s characters buck the trend of the standard tropes found in the genre.

So much so, that to define the character of Brunetti, it may be easier to say what he is not.

Brunetti is not divorced. Married to a wonderful professor of literature, Paola. She may have been born into the Venetian nobility, but this rebellious left wing academic with a burning – necessarily unrequited – love of Henry James is mother to his children and always on hand to tease him, gently chide or act as a moral arbiter for Guido if he begins to stray too far from the path of righteousness. Paola can cause him problems, such as when, in fury at the authority’s lack of power to counter a sex tourism travel agency, she was driven to smashing the firm’s window with a brick, but she is almost always on hand to provide a sumptuous home cooked lunch or dinner.

Brunetti is not an alcoholic. Although, he is partial to a little tipple on his terrace at the end of a long day. Or lunch time. Or whenever the Veneziano weather will allow.

Brunetti is not fetishistic about the law.  As a Commisario of the Italian police, Brunetti is most often found examining his cases in terms of real politik – can something be done? If so, at what cost? And, how many favours will it cost a good man? If the answer to any of these is too much; then he may well let things slide. But never too far – after all, he still has to face Paola at the end of the day.

Brunetti is not estranged from his family. He has too children, Raffi and Chiara. They have not aged a great deal over the preceding near-quarter of a century, Raffi is a perpetual teen at university and still coming home to Mama, whilst Chiara has inherited his mother’s social conscience, but both children will still do the washing up after a family meal – even with a little grumbling.

Brunetti is not a lone wolf, or vigilante against the world. Guido relies heavily on a support network of colleagues, most notably his sergeant (later Ispettore) and friend Vianello, who plays Horatio to his Hamlet.

His greatest asset in his work – at least in terms of getting results – is the mysterious Signorina Elettra. His boss Vice-Questore Patta’s secretary, well connected and with a varied dating history, she spends the finances of the Questura on flowers to brighten her day and spends the rest of the time frightening Patta with her intelligence and Brunetti with her ability to circumnavigate the computer systems of the Italian state. Oh and the law, but she never seems to worry too much about that.

Brunetti

Some of the Brunetti books were adapted fro German television, apparently to Leon’s displeasure.

On the other hand, Brunetti is in conflict with his boss. One trope of the genre Guido does fit is his dislike of his boss. Vice-Questore Patta is vain, lazy and southern. Not a great combination in Brunetti’s opinion. He is joined by his subordinate brought along from Naples in the unlovely form of Lieutenant Scarpa who, over the course of the novels, has done nothing but snarl and act as a counter-weight to Brunetti and Vianello’s innate goodness.

Across a series this long, there is some variation in quality, for sure. The earliest novel, Death La Fenice was a promising start, but the series really hit its stride with a run that took Brunetti from a military academy in Uniform Justice to the famous glass works on Murano in Through a Glass Darkly.

Latterly, the novels feel like they have fallen into a comfy rhythm that pleases rather than pulsates on the reader’s palate. The latest novel, Falling in Love, is the 24th in the series and brings us back full circle to the opening opera-themed novel. And it’s fine. Not the best, not the worst.

But, if you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the Brunettis, dip in. You’ll not be sorry.

Falling in Love is available from Amazon.co.uk

Farewell Jackie C…

Revisiting…Jackie C

Jackie Collins' Chances

Jackie Collins’ Chances

Yesterday (Sunday 19th September) I had an unusual experience. I found out that a writer I had loved and read voraciously had died. Nothing especially odd in that, I hear Enid Blyton isn’t exactly going strong these days. Except that, it was a writer from so long in the mists of my own reading life, that I had forgotten I ever read her, enjoyed her, been influenced by her.

I can’t really pinpoint when I first discovered the Jackie Collins canon, but I know I was in primary school, probably about 10 years of age. I also can’t remember how I came across a doorstop-sized bonkbuster aimed at grown women, suffice to say that I have a dim memory of being into gangster films around this time and being attracted to what, I now know to be, the first of her books about Lucky Santangelo, Chances.

But I do remember reading and re-reading that book. I do remember the yellowed pages, the smell of cheap paperback glue disintegrating and the pencil written 25p jumble sale price tag.

Oh, and the sex. I remember the sex as only a little boy in a pre-internet age could. Jackie Collins taught me anatomical details hitherto unmentioned in south coast Church of England primary school education and hinted towards untold riches for the gainfully exploratory. A lesson stored for the (all too distant) future, I remember thinking even then…

I remember action, gangster stories told with brisk clarity and swift violence. This was The Godfather but with more sex. A heady brew for the time. So much so, that I went on to read Lucky, the sequel, and – memorably startling the wee Reading Assistant who came into hear the year 6s read – Lady Boss the third instalment.

It occurs to me now, I was probably quite an odd child. But, no one really seemed concerned in the late 80s that what I was reading was probably vastly inappropriate. They just liked that I was reading at all.

I drifted away from Jackie. I dipped back in during my mid-teens but I never really took up the habit again – like smoking in reverse. I remember seeing her face on the back of the novels and being a bit alarmed (I don’t know what her stance on plastic surgery was, but all I can say for decorum sake is I found her disturbing).

Anyway, as I said, I drifted away from Jackie. But in her genre she could write. Effectively, efficiently and – I know realise – she did things for women readers (and, clearly, some men too) that stuffier ‘artsy’ writers couldn’t.

So, I’m sorry she went out of my mind for all this time. She deserved better. Now, I wonder if I can get hold of her back numbers on my i-pad…

If you are interested, you can find her work here:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jackie-Collins/e/B000APZA96/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1442865014&sr=8-2-ent

And there’s a lovely obituary here:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/20/jackie-collins

The Corsican Caper

Peter Mayle's latest south of France delight

Peter Mayle’s latest south of France delight

The Corsican Caper In the UK, Peter Mayle is still best known for his non-fiction account of life in France, A Year in Provence. Nearly 30 years old, the book recounted Mayle and his wife’s move to a broken down house in the countryside and his struggles to work with the builders and locals.

In terms of epoch-defining work, this was definitely an under-the-radar success but the result was an glut of Brits shelving the rat race and heading to the sun at the earliest opportunity. The book also created an entire new genre of works by a range of authors with similar stories to tell. Some are excellent – Chris Stewart and Driving Over Lemons – some are rot.

But, what people are perhaps less aware of, is Mayle’s latter career as a novelist. He has been turning out a range of work – both fiction and non-fiction – since his big successes of the early 90s and the novels are of an infinite lightness and charm.

I’m never really comfortable with work being described in the ‘guilty pleasure’ category. Either you like the work or you don’t and Mayle, I’m sure, pours all his efforts into producing the work. They have a formula – charming, handsome English male with enough money to do what he pleases gets sucked into solving crime in the south of France, whilst dalliancing with a beautiful local girl and stopping for lashings of Provencal cuisine and gallons of rose wine.

So far, so parfait. However, over the last few novels, there appears to have been an evolution in the formula. The lead characters are now American and there is definitely a move to try and tap into a wider international market.

The Corsican Caper is the third in a series – preceded by The Vintage Caper and The Marsaille Caper and the first time Mayle has tackled a series of fiction titles – and is centred around the character of Sam Levitt, a former criminal turned adventurer for hire, who has, over the course of the books, been involved in wine heists, kidnapping and art theft. The gorgeous Elena Morales and his billionaire chum Francis Reboul, owner of a sumptuous Gatsby-esque mansion overlooking the Mediterranean near Marsaille, join Sam in his quest for a profitable life.

This latest novel actually centres around the house itself, when an unscrupulous Russian business man – Oleg Vronsky – who, when not indulging in standard Russian oligarch behaviour as prescribed by Mayle, such as purchasing a football club, tries to acquire the luxurious property by a series of increasingly desperate methods. This, inevitably, involves kidnapping, assassination attempts, the Corsican mafia and Sam saving the day. And lunch. Lots of lunches.

The charm of the novels is in the descriptions of the food and the wine. I’m guessing that Peter Mayle has had to dredge out his old thesaurus across the span of his writing for new ways of describing rose wine – but that’s OK because I like the vicarious experience of eating and drinking in sunny climes, especially when I’m stuck in a wintry Highlands.

The Corsican Caper is not high art. It’s not going to lecture you on the human condition or tell you anything about human nature which had slipped your attention previously. But, the novel nips along, the plot twists and turns without apparent effort on Mayle’s part and the man can write about wealthy people, enjoying the good life, like few others.

I can only offer a wholehearted recommendation for this as a first class beach book.

The Corsican Caper in Five Words: Crime and Wine in paradise

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Corsican-Caper-Peter-Mayle/dp/0345804562/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1433683461&sr=8-1&keywords=the+corsican+caper

Reposting: The Politics of ‘Poldark’

poldark

The smouldering cast of 2015’s BBC adaptation of ‘Poldark’

This post about the Politics of Poldark has proved consistently popular. Please note, this was originally written and posted in May 2015 after Season One and doesn’t deal with any later events in the show 

As with a great many of these sorts of things, I came to the 2015 adaptation of Winston Graham’s ‘Poldark’ novels late (i.e. after they had finished airing and we got them on DVD). I was not keen at first. “Oh good – another BBC costume drama about poncey aristos doing their best Colin Firth-impression” is not a phrase I’m likely to utter. However, I was delighted to be proved wrong. From early in the first episode, I was entranced. Not – in the way that apparently the middle aged cohort of Sunday night fantasists obsessed with Aidan Turner’s pecs are – but by the choice of subject at this particular juncture in political history. Brave does not begin to cover it. We’ve all heard the BBC criticised for bias – in Scotland for a pro-union stance, in England for its slavish adherence to Tory policy or for being the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’. I’ve always taken a neutral stance on this alleged bias – firstly, I’m sceptical that an organisation as Byzantine and disparate as the BBC is capable of maintaining a coherent party line (I struggle with believing in organisations to be that organised.) And, also, because I think if you’re being attacked for bias from all sides, then you’re probably on the right lines. But make no mistake – ‘Poldark’ is brave. In an age of austerity, with food bank usage topping 1 million people, (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/22/food-bank-users-uk-low-paid-workers-poverty) for the nation’s broadcaster to produce an adaptation centred on a man of noble birth concerned with the survival of his workers to the extent that he will take on starving miners as farm hands and use his societal position to raise capital to put his people back to work is pretty ballsy.

Ross Poldark and serving wench Demelza

Ross Poldark and serving wench Demelza

The point of business is not just to make money is like a refrain for Ross Poldark and he outrages his contemporaries with this standpoint. He stands up for poachers and petitions not only the court for clemency, but also the owner of the pheasants, because of the context of the boy poacher’s circumstances. He is acutely aware of the hardships of subsistence living in his period for normal people. Poldark even tries to form what amounts to a Fairtrade workers’ collective to gain a fair price for the tin mined in the region. “I’m disgusted by my class,” he tells the lovely Demelza (another waif saved from a poor home life by Poldark at a time he can ill-afford to pay for another mouth to feed), “not all of them, but most.” In short, the character of Poldark is like a socialist hero of another age – one who actually believes that by working together we can all get richer. At a time when the top 1% are stretching away from the other 99% across the developed world, I can scarcely think of a more suitable hero than a man who is willing to see poverty and hardship as the result of circumstance rather than sloth and ingratitude and well done to the BBC (and Mammoth Screen who have undertaken the lavish production) for daring to offer the nation a compassionate hero – even if he does spends too long topless scything and staring out of the window in moody contemplation.

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark - a socialist hero?

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark – a socialist hero?