Book Review: A Right Royal Face-Off

 

“A man wants his own face on the wall, not to remind himself how he looks – a looking-glass would serve just as well for that – but to tell the world that he is the kind of man who has his face painted, and his wife’s face, and his children’s. Once they are on the wall, he can rest in the knowledge that he is that sort of fellow, and the world knows it, and the world will also remember him and his wife and his children when their physical bodies are long departed.”

A Right Royal Face-Off, by Simon Edge, tells the story of an artistic feud between Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Both artists made their living painting portraits commissioned by those who could afford such vanities in the eighteenth century. Thus, despite humble origins, they mixed with the aristocracy. Viewed through the eyes of Gainsborough’s footman – a young man working in a household receiving esteemed visitors but employing few servants – the story offers a social history laced with humour.

Interspersed with the the goings on in Georgian times is a contemporary tale. A television production company is creating a series for daytime viewers’ consumption. Britain’s Got Treasures invites members of the public to bring their valuables for experts to assess. Budget constraints have affected both the quality of the presenters and the experts. When an elderly lady brings a grotesque and vandalised painting, claiming it is a Gainsborough, she is roundly mocked on camera.  Taking umbrage at her treatment she marches off set but not before someone with a little more knowledge starts to question if she could be correct.

The stories told are of ambition and pretentiousness. The behaviour of celebrities and their coteries across both timelines is gently mocked along with members of the public who are complicit in their willingness to offer the requisite attention. The role of a partisan media in whipping up interest is shown to be no modern invention.

In Gainsborough’s day members of the public would pay to view portraits and other paintings at The Royal Academy – a sort of celebrity magazine of its time. Unlike today such art was not regarded as a highbrow pursuit and the faces of actresses and mistresses were of as much interest as royalty. Artists submitted their best work for display to maintain their standing and thereby draw in further clientele. The annual exhibitions were critiqued in the newspapers, providing valuable publicity. Linked to these were stories of the sitters – the gossip and intrigues lapped up by all and sundry.

At one time in more recent history Gainsboroughs were the most highly valued paintings in the world. Nowadays they are not so sought after – the market has moved on. It is this fickle nature of value – people as well as things – that is expertly lampooned throughout the tale. Cultural snobbery and its capriciousness along with the fixation of the masses on anyone deemed famous is, it seems, ageless.

The writing is engaging once the first few chapters have established the structure employed to progress each thread. Alternating chapters offer in turn: a scene from Gainsborough’s home life; the latest letter from Gainsborough’s footman to the young man’s mother; an episode from the making of the TV series. I particularly enjoyed the footman’s droll letters as these provide a window into the life of ordinary people living outside of London in Georgian times as well as unadorned commentary on the private and public behaviour of Gainsborough and his contemporaries. The TV series thread illustrates how little has changed. It is refreshing that the artistic elements of the story may be appreciated without either obsequiousness or expertise.

An entertaining social history replete with candid observations and witticisms. A reminder of the commerce required if artists are expected to continue to create. A deft and exuberant satire that is pointed whilst avoiding cruelty – enjoyable and well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

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Book Review: The Carer

The Carer, by Deborah Moggach, is a bittersweet story of two sexagenarian siblings. It presents their personal travails as they navigate the murky waters of remaining independent whilst dealing with a frail elderly parent. Their eighty-five year old father, James, is a retired Professor of Particle Physics. He was married for sixty-four years to the equally intelligent but now dead Anna. Since breaking his hip, James cannot manage the stairs in his cottage so sleeps alone on a single bed at street level. His children, Robert and Phoebe, wish to continue with their own lives unencumbered by their father’s practical needs. They therefore hire a live-in carer to enable him to stay in his own home several hours drive from where they live.

Finding a carer willing to move to a sleepy Cotswold village and give James the attention he requires proves a challenge. After a couple of false starts they find Mandy, an overweight and garrulous fifty-two year old who arrives with impeccable references. The recently morose James is transformed under her care. Gone are the stimulating conversations and intellectual musings. In their place is an interest in village gossip, scratch cards, daytime TV and visits to shopping centres.

Robert and Phoebe retreat feeling both relieved and guilty. Robert is writing a novel in his garden shed in London, avoiding his beautiful and successful wife who goads him about his failures. Phoebe, an artist living in a small Welsh town where every second person harbours artistic tendencies, is indulging in an affair with a local woodsman. Both siblings feel frustrated at the direction their lives have taken, blaming parents they remember from childhood as neglectful.

Mandy berates Robert and Phoebe for still harbouring grudges against their parents. She has little time for such self-pity when they are farming out their father’s care. As her employers, the siblings do not appreciate being spoken to so plainly. Privately they worry that what Mandy is saying may be true.

Story chapters are told from key characters’ points of view. The reader learns the bare bones of the siblings’ backstories, their thwarted desires and concerns. As Robert and Phoebe go through their days, James and Mandy appear to be getting on well. There is, however, a growing suspicion that the affable carer is not trustworthy. Phoebe and Robert prevaricate over whether they are being paranoid or if they should be concerned. And yet, do the family want to lose a carer doing a job they are unwilling to take on themselves?

There is a gentle humour in the writing as key events unfold and threads are spun together. The author captures the pathos of aging, both the elderly James and his no longer young children. It is a nicely structured depiction of some of the challenges and risks inherent when bringing a stranger into intimate contact with a loved one. There are gently mocking observations to lighten any darkness in the tale.

The final third of the book adds an unexpected dimension. It offers an interesting exploration of familial secrets and their impact on relationships.

I found the pace somewhat slow in places but then this is not to be the sort of book I normally read. The topic is timely given our aging population. A complex issue wrapped within a wider, droll tale – easy but not empty entertainment.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press

Book Review: The 10 Worst of Everything

The 10 Worst of Everything: The Big Book of Bad, by Sam Jordison, is a compendium of lists that should spark plenty of conversation as readers randomly dip in. As such it is an ideal stocking filler or book to leave lying on your coffee table. With its unashamedly subjective judgements and authorial prejudices it offers amusement alongside verifiable nuggets to wonder over or squirm at, and wider opinions to debate. Some lists are taken from recorded data, many online so gathered post internet, while others are simply an ordering of the author’s choices on eclectic themes.

Divided into ten sections it opens with Bad Nature which may put you off leaving the safety of your home let alone travelling to far flung outposts of our apparently not so hospitable world. Offered for readers’ delectation are details on: deadly parasites, insects, scorpions, spiders, snakes. Killer plants and fungi are included. The deaths described are painful and not always swift.

The second section looks at various languages and how baffling and difficult they can be to learn. There are lists of: brutal Shakespearean insults, harsh reviews of respected writers, regrettable literary rejections.

Next up is a section on Unpopular Culture, which sparked much discussion in this house. The Ten Daftest Prog Rock Song Titles are, according to my aficionado husband, pretty much generic. We pondered if the author was, perhaps, a tad young for appreciation of progressive rock. Top spot, I was told, should have gone to Pink Floyd’s ‘Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict’.

The Ten Worst Films were taken from the website, Metacritic, and for us proved too obscure. We were surprised that the Ten Biggest Box Office Bombs didn’t include Waterworld, and this set off a search to see if it was true that part of the hugely expensive set used in this epic sank during filming and had to be rebuilt. Part of the fun of books like this is the tangential debates sparked.

Much like the Booker Prize it seems, the Ten Worst Winners of the Best Picture Oscar gave little credit for effortless entertainment, or even cinematography. We laughed at the list of Ten Worst Christmas Songs and felt our age at music lists populated by albums and tracks we hadn’t heard of. Our musical tastes appear to be looping the vinyl of passed decades.

Having enjoyed this section, the next, The State of Our Nations, once again made travelling appear unwise. Noise, pollution, transport issues and bedbugs all feature alongside the cost of a pint.

The Fun and Games section offers sporting facts, The Ten Worst Things To Do In A Public Swimming Pool, and notable failures at Olympics and world record attempts. Further foolish things that man will choose to do to himself are presented in the next section on Health and Wellbeing.

The focus then moves back to the good old days which were, of course, anything but. Given current circumstances it felt almost comforting to be reminded of the terrible leaders endured over centuries. Accepted facts that have since been disproved are listed along with bizarre treatments and medical procedures once commonly administered.

The section on Modern Life is a reminder that we still do dumb things, including buying stupid kitchen gadgets.

On a personal note again, I had to smile at the list: The Worst Car To Buy During Your Mid-Life Crisis. I have never owned a BMW but do enjoy travelling in our Audi TT.

The penultimate section on The Future amused with its lists of predictions that time has proved wrong. The End suggests ways the earth may end – I do hope it is only foolish man who extinguishes himself and that more deserving lifeforms survive.

The author has no qualms about questioning the intelligence of those who don’t agree with him on certain pet topics. Mostly though this is a fun reflection of his tastes, such as his apparent dislike of vegetables.

A book of lists that I enjoyed reading and will now be leaving out for visitors to peruse. It offered a welcome distraction from the bad things our media endlessly expounds on, and a reminder that we have somehow survived similar and worse.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Michael O’Mara Books. 

Book Review: Captain Pug

Captain Pug: The Dog Who Sailed the Seas, by Laura James (illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans) is the first in a series of humorous action adventure stories for children. Pug the dog is loyal friend and companion to Lady Miranda, a young girl who lives with her friendly attendants at No. 10, The Crescent. In this story she is invited to a birthday party at a boating lake. Excited by the prospect of a seafaring adventure she declares that she will make Pug a captain. Pug is unsure of his suitability for this role but determines to try his best.

Once at the lake things do not go to plan. Pug is distracted by a picnic basket while Miranda sends her footmen to fetch her a stranded pedalo. Before anyone realises what is happening Pug is being taken away!

With Miranda in hot pursuit the little dog makes some new friends. They take him to a river where he seeks opportunities to learn how to be a captain. Quite unexpectedly he discovers that he can be a useful coxswain, at least until he is distracted by ice cream. From here he travels by canal, sinking along the way, before ending up in the sea.

All ends well after a dramatic rescue. Pug is pleased to be safely home, but Miranda is already thinking of their next adventure.

  

The story is packed full of fun and frolics, the font and illustrations adding much detail and enjoyment.

A delightful story with its intrepid young girl and her ever hungry companion. The agency and horizons enjoyed by Lady Miranda are sure to ignite any modern young child’s wistful imagination.

Captain Pug is published by Bloomsbury. 

Book Review: Dear Mr Pop Star

For nearly ten years the author(s) going by the names Derek and Dave Philpott wrote letters to pop stars querying the lyrics of well known songs. They started to put these on a website that grew in popularity. Then the pop stars started writing back. This book is a compilation of their one hundred best missives. While many respondents appear incredulous at the points the Philpotts raise, they mostly answer in the spirit of the endeavour. The correspondence is pedantically bonkers but amusing.

As an example, Derek Philpott writes to Lindisfarne explaining in some detail why he must decline the invitation to have a pint or two, and pointing out that fog cannot belong to one person only. In response it is explained how ownership of airbourne precipitation in the Newcastle area has been claimed over the years. Should Derek wish to meet for a drink on a Friday night he is assured:

“Lindisfarne are advocates of responsible drinking, i.e. you have to get your round in”

Many of the letters reference the pop star’s other songs making the book an entertaining challenge for aficionados as they try to place track titles or lyrics.

There is an excellent culinary response from Mark Nevin for Fairground Attraction when Derek explains how a recent dinner party was a resounding success despite not being perfect.

Gerard Casale, founder of Devo, salutes Derek’s astute insight and then states:

“De-evolution is real and you are there on the frontline helping to prove it.”

The answers provided can be as bizarre as the questions asked. Some recipients appear perplexed, others serious if surreal. The Philpotts take the lyrics from bygone hits both personally and literally. Owen Paul is told, since he asked:

“My favourite waste of time in the 80s was standing on the terraces at Brentford, and in the 90s watching England in the Euros”

A precis of the reply would be that time enjoyed is never time wasted. The Philpotts do not state if the football alluded to provided any such pleasure, surely an omission requiring clarification.

Part of the pleasure of reading the letters is remembering the songs under scrutiny. I also enjoyed that the Philpotts ignored all the sexual innuendo and metaphor, demanding elucidation of scrutable meanings.

Several of the pop stars mention that the letter received was not the first. One requested:

“please lose my address”

This is a book that should be dipped into and perhaps shared. The format does not change so reading too much at once risks repetition. There are nuggets to be enjoyed from many well known names as well as a few perhaps forgotten despite their songs remaining familiar. Derek Philpott is ‘a character’, in all its meanings.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author(s).

Book Review: The Bespokist Society

The Bespokist Society: Guide to… London is a carefully curated guide to the dreamiest, most hipster, creative places to go in our historic yet vibrant capital city. It embraces the artisan, the carefully sourced, the importance of experiencing. It includes interviews and features that bring to the fore the values of the team behind this pocket sized cornucopia of well hidden delights. As co-author Nastya Petrov advises in her introduction,

“if you’re bored of London, you just need to spend more money”

The guide is handily divided into sections highlighting the best places to be found in Central, East, West, North and South London. Here I provide just a a soupçon, a flavour of those that the authors have deemed worthy of the attention of discerning readers. I pluck these tiny tasters from the BS pages.

For those wishing to cleanse their inner bodies, Fecal Matters has branches in Soho, Marylebone and Notting Hill. These fancy ‘bottom parlours’ offer a choice of bowel-stimulating music followed by judgement free, refreshingly honest fecal analysis. Afterwards clients are sure to step out with a spring in their step.

Why not work out by joining former child cyclist Ed Whitworth’s continuous cycling jamboree? Simply download the app, day or night, to discover where to join the pack.

For innovative culture, The Coventry Theatre is hosting See It, Say It, Sorted – The Musical. As with all the best creative dramas inspired by government messages, the results are both informative and hugely entertaining.

Nastya interviews Roland Kim who wishes to cause a little disruption to the traditional dining experience at his V-Gastro on Liverpool Street. Roland challenges critics to find any other top restaurant that can boast zero food wastage. Who needs to actually eat?

Over in Knightsbridge is the minimalist gallery of internationally renowned painter and plasterer Nina Saviceu, who is also a vociferous advocate of left-handed rights.

In South Kensington, luxury hoteliers Ritz-Carlton have teamed up with Armani and Greggs to provide a unique, collaborative hotel experience. Amidst the opulent surroundings, piping hot platters of warm bakes and pasties are available day or night.

Visitors to the city may wish to join the Icelandic community in Hangar Lane as they celebrate the local courgette harvest with a wild festival of juicing.

Sours and Sweets in Brixton offer a bewildering selection of international bitters, including a range matured in casks crafted from ancient Californian Redwood trees. The sharp tongued service at this venue is refreshingly contemptuous.

The Old Penge Picture House provide imbibers with a bargain basement all-Scottish wine list, ideal for a boozy night out.

Celebrities love London where they can pretend to be normal people. As Max Fairbrother said of his latest trip to the city from his home in LA,

“Throughout my visit, they kept up this incredible show of not noticing me”

My favourite interview was with Thomas Sahko, human historian and urban wordsmith. When asked what he loved most about London he eloquently replied

“Every morning, I sip a ruby grapefruit juice on my balcony while looking out over the Stanmore skyline. I think to myself that under these leaden clouds, nine million souls are bobbing about on an ocean of uncertainty, yet each one is holding onto his own individual truths like a life raft. That thought gives me the strength to get through my day.”

He goes on to advise a first time visitor to seek out an old man and demand that he tells you his story.

The pages of this little guide are packed with ideas to facilitate days of dining, culture and vivid new experiences. It *may* be a parody but as Londoners will know, there exist actual venues that could be slipped in seamlessly.

Witty and entertaining – the perfect gift for your basic hipster.

My copy of this book was generously provided by fellow book blogger Paul Cheney, who writes as Halfman, Halfbook.  

Book Review: Their Brilliant Careers

Their Brilliant Careers, by Ryan O’Neill, is a collection of sixteen short biographies of Australian writers you will never have heard of. This is because they don’t exist. Taking all the tropes and conceits of the highbrow literati, the author has constructed a literary world that is entirely believable. Many of the supporting characters are real whilst others are renamed but recognisable. This is a razor sharp satire but presented with dry wit and laugh out loud humour.

Such is the apparent authenticity of the presentation it is left to the reader to determine (or investigate – yes, I did) what is actually true. Did this book win the prizes or make the shortlists detailed on the cover? Is the author bio on the back flap authentic? As the author is a character, and his late wife (to whom the book is dedicated) one of the ‘extraordinary’ writers included, all is up for question. Even the index contains nuggets that should not be missed, for reasons that will become clear in the reading.

Given the often incestuous relationships between writers, editors, publishers and critics there are many overlaps between the biographies. Manuscripts accepted for publication, and those that are rejected, are too often selected by criteria that has little to do with what is contained within the pages. Names matter, especially when a serious tome is submitted bearing a female moniker. Misogyny is just one of the many prejudices ridiculed here.

Another is the pretentiousness of those who believe themselves arbiters of quality, especially within the sphere of the avant garde. I enjoyed the idea of an 800 page opus that stands out due to its exclusion of the letter e being seen as somehow worthy for that reason. As with several of the biographies, the cause of this author’s death provided a fitting punchline to his entry.

Literary magazines and their editors’ desire to find the next great writer are lampooned. There are numerous quotes from submissions, amongst them a poet whose nonsensical words are considered thus:

“Chapman’s nihilistic, ambiguous poems were unlike anything Berryman had come across […] opaque, allusive verse the work of a genius”

Another entry is for the daughter of an influential publisher who grows up considering herself a muse, insisting that every writer she meets include her in their books – or else. Another is for a writer who comes across the unpublished work of a nineteenth century author whose work appears to have inspired numerous classic novels. Plagiarism is explored as is the art of biography itself. The meta aspects of these entries add to the humour.

Tempted though I am to highlight the wit behind Sydney Steele’s entry, my favourite is that of Helen Harkaway. When Helen was told that her debut had become a runaway bestseller she baulked at the idea of fame and eschewed the usual promotional publicity. Instead she chose to live incognito at her remote estate. She feared that anyone straying onto her land could be a fan or reporter. Unable to countenance an increase in such activity, she instructed her publisher to hold her subsequent manuscripts until after her death. The run-ins with the public that she did experience merely exacerbated her concerns. Weaving Helen’s paranoia into the book’s real world was a fabulous play on certain celebrated writer’s conceits.

Rivalries and jealousies are satirised. Writers’ friendships are milked until they sour when glittering careers wane. The invented authors may be pastiches but their biographies could almost be authentic. They play on commonly mocked elements yet remain amusing rather than cruel.

An inspired concept written with deadpan humour that is throughout engaging and entertaining. For anyone with an interest in the rarified world of publishing, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.