Blazing Star – 3rd July, 2014

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 29, 2014 by alexlarman

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Hello, my poor neglected blog. First off, big and exciting changes are coming very soon indeed, so watch this – or a very similar, an alexanderlarman.com shaped – space. And secondly, I’m pleased to say that today I’ve had the first proofs of my Rochester biography, which now rejoices in the title above. 

If you are so moved, you can pre-order it from Amazon here, find out more about it and order the E-book over here or just keep visiting here for the latest updates, including the cover art, which I’ve had an early preview of and looks fantastic. 

As anyone who’s been reading this over the past few years knows, I’m incredibly excited about publishing this book with the superb Head Of Zeus – it’s only a few months away now, and I can’t wait to share it, and talk about it, with you all. Until then! 

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Ending 2013 and looking forward to a big 2014…

Posted in Uncategorized on December 17, 2013 by alexlarman

Apologies, anyone who still reads this, for the lack of updates this year. As hinted at in a previous post, I’ve been hard at working writing a biography of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl Of Rochester, for Head of Zeus books. I finished the book earlier this year but edits and introductions and what-have-you have taken their time. However, we now have a book that I’m extremely pleased with in every regard; it’s been a pleasure to write it, and I hope that it’s rather different both to earlier biographies of Rochester and some of the fustier works about Great Writers that throng the shelves. It’s due to be published in July 2014, and I look forward to keeping you updated about any activity taking place around its appearance.

I’m currently writing the follow-up, 1666, which is a shorter work that HofZ are going to be bringing out in 2015 as part of a series of ‘Year In England’ books, so if you wanted to find out what the cures for syphilis were, which jail was known as ‘Hell’ on account of its squalor or what Charles II’s favourite food was, all shall be revealed.

I shall see you all next year, with many surprises in store. Until then, one more Rochester anecdote:

Charles was, by and large, open-minded when it came to personal comments made about him. He regarded it as sport, one that he was as complicit in as his favourites, and he took pride in coming back with a well-timed riposte. One night, at dinner, Rochester was asked to provide an extempore poem about Charles, and he replied, perhaps after a glass of wine, with the following:

 ‘God bless our good and gracious King,

Whose promise none relies on;

Who never said a foolish thing,

Nor ever did a wise one.’

 Charles, taking the sally in good spirit, answered ‘That’s true; for my words are mine, while my actions are those of my ministers.’ 

David Bowie – The Next Day

Posted in Uncategorized on March 6, 2013 by alexlarman

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I’ve refrained from writing anything about David Bowie’s new album before now because I haven’t quite been sure what to say. As I wrote in my earlier blog about his comeback single ‘Where Are We Now?’, I can’t think of very much in music that’s made me happier than Bowie’s entirely unexpected and surprising return, and to some extent the fact that he’s producing new music and (as far as the photos and videos of him seem to suggest) well and happy is enough. Frankly, the quality of the album is near-immaterial. 

However, after repeated listenings, The Next Day seems to be a very fine album indeed. Of course, it isn’t up to his 70s peak, an era where he could apparently effortlessly produce classic song after classic song, but it’s a good deal better than the vast majority of what he’s produced since 1980. (And for the avoidance of doubt, I like much of what he’s done since then – any best of I compiled would have to have, for instance, Loving The Alien, Everyone Says Hi, Absolute Beginners, Slip Away, Never Get Old, New Killer Star, Hallo Spaceboy, Seven and many, many more on it…) 

Bowie has returned, and he’s come back in style. Musically, the album is a constant wonder. I’m not wild about the second single, ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’, and a return to experimental Earthling-era material in ‘If You Can See Me’ (I’m sure that’s a pun, but can’t figure out what at the moment) feels ever so slightly like your 66-year old grandfather trying to get down, y’know, with the hipster set. Everything else is peerless, musically and lyrically. Song after song sees Bowie look at his past with amused, jaded eyes and refer to it either directly (the Berlin of ‘Where Are We Now’, the ‘Five Years’ drumbeat at the end of the gorgeous, swooning ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’) or obliquely. Thus, ‘The Next Day’ itself recalls ‘Fashion’, just as the snarling chorus of ‘Here I am/Not quite dying’ seems a definitive two-fingered salute to all those who wrote off Bowie as a man on death’s door, and ‘Love Is Lost’ seems to take on the Coldplay/Arcade Fire style of organ-led homage to his 70s work, and then, almost casually, better it with ferocity and grace. 

Over and over again, he seems vastly more engaged than he did on his previous two albums, Heathen and Reality, both of which were stuffed full of good songs but lacked a certain something. I saw him live a few times as he performed an apparently never-ending tour between 2002-4, and it was something to behold, with Bowie in fine voice and full fettle. Now, with no tour or live dates planned and no interviews, he seems to have taken a step backwards from the limelight. We don’t know if he’ll ever perform again, give another public statement of any stature or record another album. But then we never expected a work as magnificent, as well-thought-out and surprising as this, and we should be grateful that if Bowie does decide to leave this as a swansong, that he’s still raging against the dying of the light. 

 

The return of David Bowie

Posted in Uncategorized on January 8, 2013 by alexlarman

Since I started writing this blog, I can’t think of very much that has given me more pleasure than learning that David Bowie – my musical, and indeed literary, spiritual, cultural and much more besides, idol – is releasing a new album, after a decade-long break. Rumours have circulated about ill health and retirement – but all I can say is thank you, Mr David Jones, for making me, and no doubt millions of others, very happy. It’s his 66th birthday today, and what a very fine way to mark it.

The video for the superb, elegiac comeback single, ‘Where Are We Now’, can be watched here. It’s especially good from about 3 minutes in:

Rochester, Elizabeth Longford and some glad tidings…

Posted in Uncategorized on December 22, 2012 by alexlarman

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Apologies to my regular readers, if any of you exist. 2012 seems to have gone by in a blur, mainly a happy one but I can’t believe it’s nearly Christmas – only the presence of a half-eaten turkey sandwich on my desk and a pile of poorly wrapped gifts (by me, naturellement) confirm this to be true. 

Anyway as I wrote in an earlier blog, I’ve spent most of the year writing my Rochester biography, which is now coming to the end of its first draft. I look forward to sharing much more information about it next year when it’s finished, but broadly speaking it’s all going very well. It’s been a pleasure to research and write it (in the highly simpatico surroundings of the London Library) and I am already slightly dreading the day I finish, although this is tempered by my excitement at being able to share it with others. 

Some excellent news reached me this morning – the wonderful Society of Authors decided to award me their Elizabeth Longford grant for the book, which is a massive morale and financial boost to the project, and has made my Christmas a very happy one indeed. I’d strongly advise anyone working on a historical biography to apply for a similar grant. 

Have a wonderful Christmas one and all, and I look forward to seeing you in the New Year, where I’ll be kicking off 2013 with a review of Quentin Tarantino’s mental but oddly magnificent Django Unchained. 

Skyfall

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , on October 22, 2012 by alexlarman

The first thing to say about Sam Mendes’ tremendous Skyfall is that it makes its predecessor in the James Bond series, Quantum Of Solace, look even worse. Whereas the first film of Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007, Casino Royale, was one of the very best Bond films, Quantum was dull, uninspired and gave every indication that Marc Forster didn’t have the first idea how to direct an action sequence or co-ordinate an interesting plot. With further havoc caused by the temporary cessation of MGM, who own the Bond rights, it looked for a while as if Craig’s excellent, engaged interpretation of Bond would, like Timothy Dalton’s, be left at two films, one good and one poor.

Thankfully, all was made right, and the resulting picture is an exhilaratingly brilliant romp that simultaneously furthers everything Casino Royale did right and cleverly redefines James Bond for the 21st century. The plot – a revenge saga, mainly set in London – is beautifully simple, containing no spaceships, world domination or plots to take over oil franchises. Instead, it contains a near laundry list of good things, from one of the best baddies in the series in the shape of Javier Bardem’s blonde, insinuating psychopath with a very personal grudge against Judi Dench’s stalwart but also fragile M, to Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography which makes this not just the best-looking Bond film ever, but also one of his finest works.

A fantastic cast, including everyone from MI6 mandarin Ralph Fiennes to gutsy field agent Naomi Harris, is given a very strong script to work with, which judges the fine line between seriousness and playfulness just right – it’s a good deal less intimidatingly sober than Craig’s previous two films. It isn’t perfect – the climax is somewhat underwhelming after the brilliance of many of the other set-pieces (including an Istanbul set-to and explosive destruction on the London Underground) and a scene in Macau casino involving giant lizards feels like it’s come out of another film – but it proves, inter alia, that a cerebral director like Mendes can make this sort of pulpy fun both serious and seriously entertaining. Expect it to be a massive, massive hit, and don’t bet against many of the same team returning for the next one.

 

At LFF 2012

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2012 by alexlarman

As I write, the London Film Festival is beginning to wind up. There are still a few big premieres to come, not least Mike Newell and David Nicholls’ new version of Great Expectations, but by and large it’s now possible to look at Clare Stewart’s first season as artistic director (taking over from the estimable Sandra Hebron) and make a few very general comments.

The festival is shorter this time around – 11 days rather than 14 or 15 – which means that the big premieres sometimes come two at a time. (One imagines some of the more committed autograph hunters heading inadvertently to the wrong cinema and being disappointed as a result.) The line-up, as in Hebron’s day, is less about world premieres and more about bringing much-lauded recent films to the masses. This leads to the odd surprising omission – unless either is a surprise film, no Cloud Atlas or The Master – but there is a plethora of good stuff to make up for it. Here were my favourites:

Argo

It now seems very strange to think of Ben Affleck as one half of the much-ridiculed ‘Bennifer’ and star of such rubbish films as Gigli and the aptly named Paycheck. With his third film, Argo, he proves himself one of the most talented directors working today, and a pretty decent actor to boot. Dealing with the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, the film explores the remarkably strange true story of how a fake film, Argo, was created by the CIA in a desperate attempt to flee six Americans who had sought refuge in the American ambassador’s house. Mixing edge-of-seat tension with Hollywood satire is a bold move, but rather surprisingly it works beautifully. The cast (Bryan Cranston, Alan Alda, John Goodman et al) are tremendous, and it builds to an exciting and satisfying climax.

Crossfire Hurricane

The Rolling Stones set the record straight in this new documentary. Sort of. Produced by the band, it’s definitely a step up from hagiography, but it soft-peddles a lot of well-known stories (there’s next to nothing about Jagger’s serial philandering, for instance) and finishes rather abruptly in 1981, apparently conceding that they are now less rock stars, and more members of The Rolling Stones PLC. Still, the music’s fantastic, the footage frequently gripping and the new interviews from the Stones off-camera produce some amusing nuances and moments.

Everyday

A new Michael Winterbottom film is an annual occurrence, but thankfully this one is one of his best. Filmed over 5 years, it follows the strained relationship between a husband and wife (John Simm and Shirley Henderson) as he goes through a lengthy prison sentence for an unspecified crime. Simm and Henderson both give nuanced, compelling performances, helped by the Kirk children as their sons and daughters, and it’s an especial pleasure to hear a new Michael Nyman score as well.

Lawrence of Arabia

You know this one’s good, but it’s an absolute pleasure to see the full restored version on the big screen, which genuinely transforms the whole experience. The dialogue is as iconic as ever – ‘Of course it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts’ – but it’s the performances and David Lean’s sweeping direction that make this one of the greatest films ever made.

Room 237

In which various scholars, film critics and interested parties discuss their theories of what Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is really about. Theories range from the quite sensible (a metaphor for the slaughter of Native Americans) to utterly barking (the entire film is Kubrick confessing to faking the moon landings), but it’s elegantly and intelligently staged and frequently funny.

Seven Psychopaths

Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to the brilliant In Bruges is a messier, more sprawling beast, which will probably need repeated viewings to tell whether it’s a work of near-genius or just an entertaining mess. Mixing elements from his plays The Lieutenant Of Inishmore and The Pillowman, it revolves around alcoholic Irish screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell), who finds himself embroiled in a bizarre dog-kidnapping scam run by Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, even as he tries to write the titular script. As with Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, things get very meta, very quickly. It’s stuffed full of good lines, great performances (especially a restrained but somehow still barking Walken) and nice ideas, but somehow the whole thing seems permanently on the edge of descending into complete incoherence; it bears the hallmarks of a script that McDonagh has revised over and over again, without ever truly finding the heart of it. Yet it has the same enjoyably profane sensibility that informed In Bruges and some hugely effective quieter moments, which give the film an elegiac quality at points.

On the basis of these, it’s fair to say that Stewart’s next season at the LFF will be that old canard, ‘eagerly awaited’.