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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. 

Lawless

Posted in Uncategorized on August 8, 2012 by alexlarman

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Not that many people saw John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s 2006 collaboration The Proposition, but those that did are never likely to forget it. A suffocating but frequently brilliant combination of poetic dialogue, arid Australian landscapes, gritty performances from the creme de la creme of English and Australian actors (and Danny Huston) and a memorably weird Cave-Warren Ellis score, it’s one of the most distinctive and unusual pieces of cinema released in the last few years.

Their subsequent collaboration (if we discount the Cormac McCarthy adaptation of The Road, which Cave merely co-scored) Lawless offers up a similar brew, albeit in a more accessible register. Again, the setting is an obscure location, here the backwaters of America in the Prohibition (cue Tommy guns and old-school cars), where the legendary Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and the ‘runt of the litter’ Jack (Shia LaBeouf) work in the thriving black-market industry of moonshine liquor production. This is tolerated by the complicit forces of law and order, until ‘Special Deputy’ Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a pressingly vicious sadist, arrives on the scene with the aim of making the Bondurants’ life very difficult. Matters soon escalate, bloodily. 

As with The Proposition, the level of violence here is impressively high for a mainstream film. No doubt Hillcoat and Cave, if questioned why, would shrug and say it represents a violent time. However, I can see this being an issue for many audiences, as, to a lesser extent, is the rather one-dimensional portrayal of the two main female characters, Jessica Chastain’s girl-with-a-past and Mia Wasikowska’s love interest for Jack. Set against these issues is a rip-roaringly exciting thriller, with superb performances by a fine cast (including Gary Oldman in a tasty cameo as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner) and superbly staged shoot-outs and confrontations. 

The two stand-out actors here are Hardy and Pearce. Hardy, consolidating what’s already been an excellent last 12 months with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Dark Knight Rises, is broodingly charismatic in a Brando-esque fashion as the leader of the brothers, a man whose strength and rumoured immortality are undercut with an unexpected delicacy, even sweetness. He’s up against one of the great screen grotesques in Pearce’s eyebrow-less Special Agent, a hilariously refined man who nevertheless takes enormous pleasure in inflicting pain. It’s tempting to assume that his character is the result of a close collaboration between actor, writer and director, so vividly is he realised. His first set-to with LaBeouf (never better) shows what lies ahead, and he’s a force to be reckoned with. 

So, all in all, this excellent film – complete with fine soundtrack by Cave, Ellis and various apposite covers of sometimes unlikely songs – is hugely enjoyable fare, provided that you can stomach it. And the ending is especially lovely, an unusual little coda that’s a wryly enjoyable reversal of the ‘happily ever after’ formula of so many of these films. 

The Dark Knight Rises

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on July 19, 2012 by alexlarman

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Undoubtedly the most anticipated film of 2012, or many other years for that matter, the third and final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman series opens, if not badly, certainly hesitantly. After the bang-bang-bang brilliance of The Dark Knight’s bank heist and emergence of The Joker, or the subversive time-hopping intelligence of Batman Begins, there’s a big action set-piece involving the liberation of Tom Hardy’s masked, richly (if sometimes muffled) voiced terrorist Bane that, while visually impressive, feels slightly like something out of mid-70s Bond. And not in the best of ways either. 

 Then, while Nolan sets his pieces on a chessboard, there’s 30-40 minutes of exposition and character introduction. In addition to the old favourites, such as Christian Bale’s now suffering and reduced Bruce Wayne, Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon and, especially, Michael Caine’s Alfred, we have a host of new faces. Some, such as Anne Hathaway’s slinky, sexy and morally conflicted Selina Kyle, are welcome from the outset. Some, such as Ben Mendelsohn’s slimy corporate raider and Juno Temple’s criminal-in-training, feel like uncertain and underwritten manifestations of the script’s big ideas. And others, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s upright cop John Blake and Marion Cotillard’s philanthropic Miranda Tate, might as well have ‘Big Twist or Red Herring’ written on their foreheads, so tangential might their parts otherwise seem to be.

 So, for a short time, there seems the very real possibility that Nolan, the most exciting director making films today, has turned in an acceptable, enjoyable but slightly flat final chapter in the most acclaimed mainstream blockbuster series ever. And then, as the first act comes to a close and the second act kicks in, the pace accelerates to that of a greased whippet on amphetamines. It would be churlish to spoil too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that Bane’s vision for Gotham is not one of peace and goodwill to all men, and that Bruce Wayne must once more adopt the mantle of Batman in order to avoid something foreshadowed as long ago as the first film.

 Nolan is an unusually cerebral and provocative filmmaker, and the big themes explored here – the nature of how society fares when law and order are abandoned; whether personal sacrifice can ever be less an act of altruism than a necessity; what the inevitable result of Occupy New York and its ilk must be – are immensely thought-provoking and fully realized stuff. (It should be noted that this is a deeply conservative film in its conclusions.) This is set against truly mind-blowing action set pieces, with the grandest of grand finales that bears close comparison to James Cameron’s best work, proving that Nolan, perhaps unexpectedly, has become one of Hollywood’s finest action directors as well as everything else. As ever, Wally Pfister’s cinematography (on what will apparently be his last film before he becomes a director) is top-notch, Hans Zimmer’s score gives the whole shebang urgency and grandeur in equal measure and the performances are all exemplary, as you’d expect from a cast seemingly mostly composed of award winners and nominees.

 But the talking point for many will be the ending. Not to spoil it, but early rumours of what eventually ensues for Bruce Wayne and Batman have proved to be both quite accurate and completely missing the point, ensuring that this very fine saga wraps up in an unusually emotional and moving fashion. By the very end, if you’re not even slightly moved when a character reads a particularly well-known, and very apt, passage from a novel that sets the thematic tone for the entire film, there’s something deeply wrong with you.

 As a character says at one point, ‘Boy, you’re in for a show tonight.’