Philip Larkin?

Larkin, Larkin. The most poetic name for a poet? It beats Betjeman, although I sympathise with John’s annoyance at the confusion of his readers. Was he German? Jewish? Nein, Dutsch. I mean, Dutch. But Larkin. Surely nobody more English?

English, yes. But my interest in Larkin is the Hull angle. Our English teacher, the late Miss Wilson, perpetually pushed “our friend John Betjeman” as though she had a virulent spinsterish crush on him. I’m certain that she did, but nobody else shared it. She didn’t, to my memory, ever push Larkin. But he pushed himself. Here was a man, a librarian no less, pushing Hull. In the 1980s, nobody ever did that. I only became aware of the Wilsons of Tranby Croft (no relation) and the Baccarat scandal decades later. No, in Hull, the form was to slag it off relentlessly so that you could beat the other person to it.

Imagine, if you can, a northern Slough and take a shit on it. That’s Hull.

But it’s not my Hull, and it’s not Larkin’s.

My Hull is superior to Manchester and Leeds. Not as big, not as noisy. It has just as much character as York, if you know where to look. Just because a place hides its modesty under a merkin is no reason to presume it conceals no delights. Dean Wilson is perhaps the new Larkin. He has the right name. He makes Withernsea seem exotic. And that, let me be honest, is a trick.

I digress. The reason for this piece is Clive James and David Lynch. Clive points out that Larkin is no pessimist. Nobody reading his Jazz criticism, argues Clive, could believe that Larkin was a cynic either. And that is the leap that took me back to something that David Lynch told me earlier this year. Not in person, but his recorded voice.

David Lynch argues successfully that it is possible, or even preferable, to throw your personal darkness into your art to keep your real self happy. He seems to be arguing that a happy, light soul can create appalling dark imagery on the page. In his photographs even more than in his television work, Lynch unveils the horror that lurks in all of us. Yet he is mild-mannered, kind and patient. Partly the nicotine, yes, but not only that.

I have the same feeling about Larkin. Did he honestly believe that his parents effed him up? Maybe. Perhaps one day, the day he wrote the poem. He even revisited his view of work as the Toad. Better a job you hate than to become the flasher in the park in the plastic coat fiddling for tab ends in a piss-soaked bin.

Yes, which is to say, no. Larkin was no pessimist. He shunned television and the fame of Betjeman, but Larkin was the greater poet. Larkin will live longer in the memory. And therefore, so will Hull.

The Art Life

Recent events have made it even more clear than it was before. I’m not like they are. They are the corporate machine, and I’m not. Most of them have got where they’re going, and where I’m going is a different planet altogether. Does this sound healthy?

The “In The Pink” podcast recently featured a minor hero of mine, Chemmy Alcott. Posher than a princess, but technically only middle class, Chemmy is one of the hardest and most motivated grafters there is. Inspired by her brother, she became Britain’s fastest woman ski racer by a mile. She became better known, and probably even faster, than the Bell brothers. She said something along these lines: that she had buried her competitive sporty persona when she became a mother, and had only recently revived it. Chemmy the ski racer took a break, and Chemmy’s outlook and bubbly personality took a hit. Could it be that such repression is bad for us, even when it is for the entirely human urge to procreate?

It made me think about my professional career. A career, let’s be clear, of deep troughs as well as high peaks. It started well enough, and that lasted almost six months. But I had picked one of the most demanding office jobs there is. Nowhere near as demanding as any of the so-called vocational roles, but tough for an office. I travelled up and down the country, 5am starts every Monday and 7pm finishes every Friday. Too tired to see my friends at the weekend, I spent most of Saturday and Sunday on or near the bed. Having a small flat made the winters very long indeed. Six months of that and I was tearing out my hair. One of those evenings was the Admiral Duncan, then the worst of recent terror attacks in London. It was the early days of rolling news.

Now, I’m much older and wiser, and I can see that my problems started when university and school ended. No more dreaming time, no time to write. No energy to do much other than work at a job which wasn’t half as interesting as I had been promised. Losing patience with programming computers, I turned in my second year of university to finally finishing a novel. From Beyond Belief, later known simply as The Playground, was so heavily indebted to the X-Files that its pockets bulged. My guy was more Mandy Patinkin than Fox Mulder, but his wife was Gillian Anderson.

The Playground was a runaway success in my mind. HarperCollins were falling all over themselves to figure out how to tell me that after eight months of pondering, the answer was a firm no. Their pondering took almost as long as it took me to write a novel, and Kicking Tin was well on the way. I should have realised that this was not the fast track to riches promised by Jeffrey Archer and Michael Ridpath and anyway, Archer was now in prison.

So all that went back in the cupboard for four years until I had the idea of shoving out From Beyond Belief as an ebook in the days when absolutely nobody knew what one was. It was great fun and of course, nobody read it. Later still, when print-on-demand became affordable, it became a paperback. Again I waited in vain for the money to roll in.

Meanwhile I had left my first job, and sought another after a suitable time off. I turned to short-term contracts to maximise my hourly rate while minimising the effort required to earn it. Again, the money flooded in. For a writer working two hundred miles from home with only his dog for company in the student-quality bedsit, I was rich. But I was not happy.

Every two to three years, the pretence of office life demanded too heavy a price on my delicate intellectual constitution. This cycle of torment has grown easier to bear, but it still surprises people around me. The only surprise is that they don’t find it both obvious and predictable, as I do.

The corporate world, the drudgery of the office, is just not compatible with the dreaming mind. Even worse, having done it for so long, I have accrued long-term expenses that cannot be divested. The mortgage, the child. All of these require endless wads of dosh. More wads than even the most famous novelists earn, to be sure. As Jeffrey Archer once said, or something like it: the top thousand bankers are all millionaires; but only the top fifty writers are. And whilst all the unknown bankers take home truck loads of cash, the other writers earn bugger all.

And so, following the advice of David Lynch, I throw myself wholeheartedly into the writing whenever I have the energy. While at work I pretend to be the most average and middle of the road model citizen. Try too hard and you risk promotion, which always comes with more pressure and commitment than it does money. Try too little and you’re out. Blending in, for a writer, requires reserves of energy that most of us do not possess.

And so I arrive at another similar fork in the road: do I try a new job for a bit, until in two years it grows dull, or do I throw myself on the mercy of my small band of readers? There is only one sensible course of action. It is the one pursued by Larkin. It might pay off but if it does, will I be too old and jaded to appreciate it?

Never Run On Fear

Some companies I worked at in the past used fear like it was petrol for a car. David Lynch says: people who run a business on fear are stupid. We agree.

Fear leads to burn out and either premature death or the individuals quit and the business fails. Lynch tells us that even the darkest horror movie set can be a happy family, like Eraserhead. If you want to know whether a set was happy, watch the promo interviews during marketing of a film. Watch Guru-Murthy interview Downey Junior. Man alive!

The writer can put the darkness of the real world out onto the page. A dark story can come from a happy soul. Stephen King is fundamentally happy, but his stories are usually full of darkness.

If you work in the real world instead of the movie world, you can apply the same attitude. Keep your team happy and you can sleep soundly. Run them on fear and you’re dead.

The Death of Celebrity

On Saturday evening, I found myself catching a glimpse of the television. On one screen in the bar was the football. On the other telly was the news. Sometimes the TV news can still tell us something. On Saturday it told me what I already felt in my bones.

It was 18th December 2000. I was driving back to the hotel from the office in Glasgow, looking forwards to Christmas, trying to get out of a project I had no interest in. The hotel was my kind of place: Rab’s in the Merchant City. They looked after you there, and I hope they still do. The radio was on in the car. It was Christmas, so the Fairytale of New York was not far from my mind. Glasgow itself is a kind of fairytale, especially at Christmas, and especially at Rab’s. But something happened that day, on the other side of the world, that has left a small mark in my mind that will never be erased.

Bank Holiday Sunday, 1994. Imola. The San Marino Grand Prix. 1986. Paul Ricard, France. I do not look these dates up. They are in the memory. Malaysia, Sepang. The year is probably 2011.

I don’t remember when Lennon died, but Susanna Hoffs told me it was 8th December 1980. She captured my mood perfectly for last Saturday night.

Death happens. That’s life.

Just occasionally, and not more than once a year, someone dies and they change the fabric of the universe. Just a little bit. I now know who that person was for 2020. My bones told me last December. The sadness will pass. But the memory will not.

Cell Mates @ Hampstead Theatre

It was the play that went wrong, before The Play That Went Wrong. Even in 1995, Stephen Fry was a huge star, riding the crest of a career wave that saw him popping up in all kinds of roles, in all kinds of places. His appearance as the Russian mole, George Blake, in Simon Gray’s Cell Mates, was the final straw. He wrote a note to Simon Gray expressing his despair at his poor acting abilities (amazingly to everyone else) and fled London for France. Old friend Hugh Laurie attempted to make contact, and John le Carré wrote Fry a letter commiserating about the unintended consequences of fame and fortune. The play has not been seen again since. Until now.


Last night we were treated to a strong, experienced cast led by Geoffrey Streatfeild as George Blake. Blake is famous for all the wrong reasons: never one of the official Cambridge spy ring that included Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, he was the only one sent to prison. People say his Dutch heritage and unclear background allowed the authorities to punish Blake for all the crimes of the others. He received Britain’s longest ever prison sentence of 42 years, although the play and its accompanying programme confuse the exact length of his stay. His most notorious achievement on behalf of the KGB was to expose the plans for a so-called ‘audio’ tunnel into East Berlin. Yes, the Allies did build a tunnel to monitor electronic communications between the Russians, but the KGB knew about the tunnel before the first shovel hit the ground. Everything the Allies learned in the tunnel was misinformation, for which they had Blake to thank.

What Blake came to realise is that he would be in Wormwood Scrubs for at least 20 years, and that was if he kept out of trouble and behaved well throughout. By now of course, whatever the outcome, he would have been able to live as a free man in the UK, seeing his former British wife and children whenever they would let him. Instead, he remains to this day in Russia, having never returned to Britain. Blake had been a prisoner of war for 3 years in Korea, an episode that radicalised him and set him on his path towards Marxist socialism. He could not face 20 years of that.

Blake therefore enlisted the help of an intelligent Irishman, Sean Bourke, who had literary aspirations and, crucially, was due to be released soon. With Bourke on the outside, and some help from his Irish friends, Blake decided this was the man to spring him from The Scrubs. In an unintended consequence of his ludicrously long 42-year sentence, Blake won sympathy among the other inmates. They felt, as Blake did, that he had been unfairly treated.

George Blake’s memoirs, a heavily one-sided and turgid account of his life, written with KGB approval in Moscow, incensed the play’s author, the late Simon Gray. The play therefore relies more heavily on Sean Bourke’s account of his adventures with Blake from their meeting in the Scrubs to their incredible escape to Russia.

Last night’s performance really captured the tension and turbulent relationship between Blake and Bourke. Why did Bourke risk so much to help a man proven to be a traitor? He was already free when he sprung Blake over the wall with a makeshift ladder and spirited him away from the London police into the hands of the KGB in Moscow. The answer might lie in his book. Both men were writing competing and, it turned out, contradictory accounts of their relationship. There are rumours that Blake has recently recorded video interviews, in his native Dutch, for release after his death. Perhaps this final time, he will come clean. Few seem to expect that.

The Q&A with producer Greg Ripley-Duggan, Streatfeild and Philip Bird who plays both a KGB officer and a London landlord, was fascinating. Aimed at those very deeply interested in the Blake story, and also in the process of theatre, we learned that the latest dilemma to face the team is the absence of a Cyrillic font in the system they use to sur-title plays. Their performance next week needs to decide how to represent the words spoken in Russian. As most of the London audience don’t know Russian, they found themselves in Bourke’s shoes as Blake and his KGB handlers, and the excellent housekeeper played by Cara Horgan, rattled away in convincing Russian. So, what to put in the captions? An English translation would change the dynamic. It is an obstacle that nobody in the audience would have considered.

The producers and cast were coy about the involvement of Blake and his family this time around. There were hints, and some confidences which your correspondent is not prepared to break, as this was not a press Q&A but a private one for patrons of the theatre. Suffice to say that they are, at the very least, aware of this new production.

A more interesting observation that seemed lost on everyone present was that the stage surround had a very faint outline of the name Lenin across the top. It turns out that the entire play takes place, metaphorically, inside Lenin’s tomb. Which gives a twist on Blake’s closing speech: he tries to convince his tape recorder, and himself, that he is in the country of the future, that socialism is the answer to all the world’s ills. This speech, coming years after the demise of Lenin and Stalin and what they represented, must have felt hollow even as he spoke the words. Anthony Blunt and his friends were famously shocked by the hypocrisy and decay they found in Russia in the 1930s. Anyone living there, as Blake was forced to do from 1966, would have seen through the mirage almost immediately. It must have been a profound and depressing jolt.

What we are left with, as with all good spy stories, are a few known facts, and even more supposition. The play should not be viewed as a documentary. It changes some unimportant facts. For example, Simon Gray’s George Blake hurts his head during the prison escape but does not break his wrist, as the real Blake did. However, this is first an entertaining, amusing and tense play that is finally reinstated, bringing it to a new audience for whom tensions between Russia and the West feel new. Cell Mates communicates to a younger audience that there is nothing new here at all, and the Cold War didn’t stop when we were told it did.

National Theatre: Network

Network, the motion picture, won an Oscar for best screenplay in 1976. Most of those involved have been forgotten by all but the keenest film buff, except for Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. Dunaway also won best female actor and Beatrice Straight won best supporting female actor. The lead actor, news anchorman Howard Beale around whom the entire film is based, was played by Peter Finch: an Australian who won the best actor Oscar posthumously. The film has now been revived as a play at London’s National Theatre, filled with technical wizardry and anchored by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston.

If it is remembered at all, Network’s abiding contribution to Western culture is Howard Beale’s angry catchphrase: I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.

This revival is an angry production too. It documents the breakdown and mental anguish suffered by the middle-aged, disillusioned career newsman. He knew Edward R. Murrow for chrissakes! He’s worked at the top of his game for decades and now, finding himself out of touch, a little too old, a little dull, all those usual reasons given for redundancy that are really code for saving money, have caught up with him.

Howard is sacked by his lifelong friend Max Schumacher. It isn’t long before Schumacher is then sacked, and the two find themselves facing an uncertain but certainly bleak future. In the bar, Howard jokes that he might have to kill himself. Everyone laughs, which proves to be a mistake. It emboldens Howard. He announces that he is going to shoot himself live on air one week later, during his final appearance.

Of course, nobody in the control booth hears him, they’re all too busy. Once the grim reality sinks in, several of the crew try to cut Howard short. A fracas ensues, and the last thing we see before the screen goes dark is an executive, foaming at the mouth, shouting profanities, and Howard grimly clinging to his desk by his finger nails. Of course, the image is broadcast around the world.


This being a movie and one set in a TV newsroom, it’s important that the stage production has retained the key components. There are big screens all over the stage, and camera operators are part of the cast. Perhaps surprisingly, and not entirely logically, the right-hand third of the stage is set as a restaurant. Tables were booked by paying guests, not actors, which given the violence and anger that runs through the play made a few points even more dramatic than they would have been.

For example, Dunaway’s character is the strikingly attractive and terminally ambitious Diana Christensen. In London, this part is played by the brilliant Michelle Dockery. Schumacher and Christensen begin one scene outside the theatre by the Thames, broadcast into the auditorium by cameras. As they walk, it becomes clear that they are moving towards the stage. Unbroken and uncut, talking all the time, Christensen then seduces Schumacher and, still talking about her plans for the Howard Beale show, has sex with him in the restaurant in amongst the other diners. The gunman who brings the show to a close likewise involves the diners, waving his weapon in their direction. One can only hope they had all seen the film first.

The plot trick at the heart of Network is of course that Howard Beale’s suicide stunt dramatically improves his ratings. As his own health and well-being plummet, his TV show becomes yet more popular. He is by turns an exhibitionist, a curmudgeon and eventually reinvents himself as a messianic godhead, a prophet for the modern age. The surprise, and surely the reason this story has been revived now, is that much of what Howard predicts has actually happened since 1976. Yes, it does feel like IBM (or its modern analogues, Google and Apple) rule the government. It does feel like big oil is too influential. But just as these predictions were premature in 1976, they are premature again. The extremes predicted by Beale have never quite come to pass. True, there is a lot to be angry about, there always has been, but the very worst excesses have not materialised. It might not sound very bold, but things could very definitely be very much worse than they are now. Not a happy thought, but one that is less chaotic than the worldview put forward by Howard.

The last word went to the audience. As we walked out, we were treated to footage of various US Presidential inaugurations. It seems likely that a lot of the audience didn’t remember Reagan. It wasn’t until Obama that there were supportive cheers, and Trump predictably caused boos. Someone even shouted Howard Beale’s Mad As Hell catchphrase, and someone else was profane. It caused spontaneous laughter around the theatre, and we all left feeling optimistic because we were the few that left our TVs at home for the night.

The cast were magnificent. Bryan Cranston was equal to the script and every bit as good as Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning performance. He looks like an actor who has spent his whole life on stage, rather than the surprise star of an early boxed set success. The technical complexity of the live broadcast equipment and the on-stage kitchen (it’s not only the diners who sit on the stage) are a monumental achievement that sets a high bar for future productions. Theatre has a lot more competition for our wallets than it ever had, and it’s heartening to see such a big cast and backstage crew working together to such grand effect. We look forwards to what director Ivo van Hove does next.

Five Questions with Writer Sam Jordison

Sam Jordison keeps a low profile, but he’s something of a renaissance man. A highly regarded journalist and literary book publisher, he also turns his hand to writing. From writing about Crap Towns, to contributing to an adult spoof version of the famous I-Spy series, he is also an H. G. Wells aficionado. We forcibly stopped his bicycle to ask him about his latest book, Enemies of the People. And no, we don’t have any links to Amazon, which is relevant later on.

As one of the founders of Galley Beggar Press in Norwich, he has had amazing success bringing new voices to the British literary world. We door-stepped Sam in-between his three jobs. And no, we couldn’t resist mentioning that half-formed girl.

Q: Hi Sam. We’re here to talk about your latest book, Enemies of the People. Why did you write it?

Sam: I think, like many people, I felt angry and hopeless in the face of world events. I felt things weren’t making sense, that the truth wasn’t being told and that my voice wasn’t being heard. At all. I’d spent a lot of time feeling like I was screaming into the void… And so when the chance came along to write this book, I jumped on it. It was an opportunity to try to make sense of what’s been happening (if ‘sense’ is the right word…), to try to work out where all the crazy came from… Also to right a few wrongs. To try to help other people understand that – for instance – the extreme free market economics we’ve all been subjected to isn’t necessarily the natural way of things. That in fact it’s largely based on crazy economic theories from people like Milton Friedman who had no good evidence for changing the world in the way they did – and who did not have good motives… I’m going off on one already, aren’t I? But that’s the other thing about writing this book. It was cathartic. It helped me release some tensions – and my hope is that does a similar job for its readers.

Q: Of those enemies you have highlighted, who is the most dangerous one?

Sam: Oh my. Where to start? I guess it depends on how you define danger. Chairman Mao is in there, for instance, and Hitler and you don’t need me to spell out the kind of evils they rained down on the world. But there are also people who are dangerous even though they’re less overtly threatening. People who approach you with a smile, but still kick you in the balls. The chapter that probably made me feel most like I was crawling through a sewer when I wrote it was actually Boris Johnson. He was someone I’ve been charmed by in the past. I’ve laughed at his jokes. But as I came to understand the extent of his lies about the EU (and how long he’s been inventing nonsense about bendy bananas and similar), and also to understand the viciousness in his character, I really began to feel queasy. If you want to have an unpleasant five minutes, Google Boris Johnson’s Guppy tape (link below) and listen to the UK Foreign Secretary help his friend arrange to get someone beaten up. It’s personal and it’s horrible.

Q: As someone who makes a living out of the written word, is Jeff Bezos the saviour of reading and newspapers or an enemy of the people?

Sam: I should preface this by saying The Washington Post has been doing some tremendous work since Bezos took over. He’s also – unlike many of the people in the book – a fantastically intelligent man who has done some brilliant and creative things. But that makes it all the sadder that he has been such a scourge for writers, publishers, and ultimately readers. He seems to enjoy crushing competitors for sport – and has undoubtedly made things much worse for the book industry worldwide, as well as building up dangerous monopolistic powers and undermining the social fabric of our world by failing to pay a fair share of taxes and failing to treat workers with basic respect. I wish he had used his considerable powers for good rather than not… But, alas…

Q: Are you a writer who does a bit of publishing or a publisher who does a bit of writing, and is that actually a choice or can someone do both, like T. S. Eliot?

Sam: What am I?! I sometimes feel like I’m straddling three failing industries. I’m a writer/journalist, a publisher and also I teach in a Higher Education sector, which is looking increasingly precarious post-Brexit… But I also feel tremendously lucky. I’ve been able to follow my passions in three different and tremendously fulfilling ways. So, to come back to the question, I think comparing myself to TS Eliot would be obscene… But I do at least think you can both be a publisher and a writer. It’s not either/or and the different jobs are complementary. I hope I’m a better publisher because I understand the (often painful!) process of bringing a book to completion and the compromises you have to make on the way. I also kind of hope that exposure to the geniuses I’ve worked with at Galley Beggar Press might one day rub off on my own writing. I guess, ultimately, I’ll be remembered as someone who associated with writers like Alex Pheby and Preti Taneja… But who knows? Maybe future historians will stumble across my tirades against Jeff Bezos as a result of my illustrious friends, and have a few extra laughs…

Q: Although we’re talking about Sam the writer today, you first came to my attention as the publisher of Eimear McBride’s incredible debut, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. How did it feel to have one of your first books win all those prizes?

Sam: It felt great! Hahaha! It was tremendously fortunate for us that one of our first books did so well. It felt like justice was being done. Eimear’s book was amazing, after all. But still. It was wonderful to have our belief validated and to have all the work pay off. My co-director Elly (who worked especially hard) and I threw everything into bringing it to publication. We sweated bullets over that book, we sank a lot of our own money into it and we loved it. So seeing it shine like that was a very special thing. Obviously, at the time, we were also caught up in the nitty gritty of riding a wave that had grown suddenly huge. But still, it was marvellous – and it’s helped us go on to publish many other superb books. I’ll always be glad.

Sam Jordison was talking about Enemies of the People, available from all the usual.

Steve Ferrone, Drummer

The best drummers, the very, very best, are the ones you have not heard of. I first heard the name Steve Ferrone in the Tom Petty documentary of 2007 by director Peter Bogdanovich. He replaced the claustrophobic Stan Lynch in 1994, the year Petty put out one of his most timeless and engaging albums, Wildflowers.

As a lifelong Heartbreakers fan, I had still only heard of Benmont, Mike and Tom. Benmont I knew as he had played with Stevie Nicks and was the (reluctant) subject of Maria McKee’s smash single, A Good Heart, sung by Feargal Sharkey and produced by the Eurythmic Dave Stewart. Mike and Tom were the double act, the engine room of the Heartbreakers. But as the documentary shows, this is a true band. Everyone is larger than life and, when Stan got too big for his boots behind the kit, Ferrone walked on.

It is important to the Ferrone legend to realise that he was already a big star in the business. By 1994, he had worked with Cash, Clapton and Harrison, and been the resident drummer in the US on Saturday Night Live for a while, starting in 1985. The reason I added ‘in the US’ is that Ferrone, incredibly, is English. Born in Brighton, England in April 1950, he was, as Tom Petty memorably claims, “the only black baby in Brighton.” In 1950, he probably was.

Only last night, he played the drums while we ate dinner. My wife had finally persuaded me to copy all her albums onto her iPhone. It was a painful process that needed patience and a skilled hand. One of the first albums she lined up was Steve Winwood’s 1986 stunner, Back In The High Life. Of course, it is my album. I bought it after hearing Warren Zevon’s version of the title track. Warren’s is far, far better, but also more recent. The album suffers from mid-1980s synth and treble overload. As Zevon found, though, there are hidden gems. Did you know you would also find Chaka Khan and Nile Rodgers on the disc?

My wife commented that track three sounded a lot like a Zevon band kind of sound. Ferrone crops up on just one track. Yes, number three, Freedom Overspill. Zevon himself had used none other than Mick Fleetwood on his most famous (and only?) hit, Werewolves of London. That vibe, call it a west coast thing, crops up again and again in Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, the Heartbreakers and all those other 1970s behemoths. It is no surprise that Ferrone, having moved in George Harrison’s circle, would eventually end up with fellow Wilbury, Tom Petty.

So there you have it. One of rock’s most understated, quiet and yet gigantic drummers, Brighton’s Steve Ferrone.

Why I Hate Simon Pegg

Oh, they said. Isn’t Simon Pegg wonderful? No, I said. I hate him with every cell. Silence. The line was down, again. Or, for once, they were speechless. You don’t like his films? Oh no, I said. I like his films. I just hate the man. Oh, they said, eventually. Did you know his name means shagging someone up the bottom with a fake penis? What they actually said was slightly different, but meant the same thing. No, I said. In Britain, it means hanging out the washing.

As you might expect, my research immediately failed. Not only is Simon Pegg a made up name, adding weight to my hatred, but he has done even more great movies than I had realised. I know him from Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and World’s End. I enjoyed the latter mostly because it is set, and was shot, very close to where I live. They call it the Hollywood of Britain, it being close to the holy trinity of Pinewood, Elstree, and Shepperton and, yes, Hammer Horror’s Bray. Four doth not a trinity make, but who cares? Denham was once a film studio before it became a block of flats, also close by.

I believe in fate. Last night, sprawled on the sofa after another gripping edition of The Sweet Makers about Victorian confectionery on the BBC, we accidentally forgot to switch over to another program. And now, said the announcer, a little film called Man Up. This sounds shit, I replied. Starring Simon Pegg…

Even my American colleagues, all fans of the Pegg, had not heard of Man Up. And no wonder. There are no ghouls or gremlins. No people in uniforms. No easily described setup. No Nick Frost. None of the usual crew at all. There’s a girl, Nancy, a total loser, lost in London, bossed around by her middle-aged married sister. I enjoyed spotting some of the landmarks for a bit, but somehow forgot to switch it all off. It turned out that, once you got to know her, Nancy was not only very funny and interesting but red hot. I started to Google. She’s played by the improbably named Lake Bell. I know! An American! I only just realised she was from New York City. She has a perfect English accent, which I doubt she used in Boston Legal.

Man Up grows on you until, by the last glorious half hour, you are right in there rooting for Lake and Simon. They’re perfect for each other. Never mind that I hate rom coms. I desperately want these two to sort it all out. Not even Pegg, staggering through Surrey to Whitesnake on full blast, followed by a mob of drunken drug-addled teenagers, can put me off. It is a very, very good movie. And Pegg is very, very good in it. Even still, Lake Bell steals the show.

As if to prove that Simon Pegg knows I hate him, shortly before Man Up he made an odd number called Paul. I have watched Paul, but only because a good friend of mine has a little cameo in it if you look closely. I watched it under duress, because I hate Simon Pegg. This is entirely personal. All his movies are fabulous.

I so very rarely have strong reactions to anyone in the public eye, that it always makes me stop and think when I do. You, me, everybody, only sees the side of someone that they themselves choose to put out there. Some traits, some personalities work well at a party, for an hour. But if you had to live with that persona, well that would be something else. For quite a long time, I hated Ricky Gervais. He also lives nearby. So do ten million others. Ricky I hated for a long time, until I saw through him. I am naturally suspicious of someone who actively promotes their least likeable traits in public. Why would anyone do that? For money? For love? The thing is, if Ricky Gervais had not put his least desirable traits front and centre, he wouldn’t have been successful. Before I hated Ricky I hated Steve Coogan. Same reason. Here is a really nice northern bloke, who is very funny indeed, choosing to put himself about like a bitter old twat. His phone hacking mock shock is transparent too. But I no longer hate him, or Gervais. I see that their public personas are just part of the act.

This, friends, his high performance art. If you have to pretend to be someone all day for work, then surely it’s easier just to keep being that person at home too? Until it is no longer work. Until, perhaps, you turn into the caricature.

Pegg is different, I think. He is not a natural performer. Perhaps more of a Stephen Merchant character, he seems like he would be more relaxed writing and producing than acting. Don’t some of his performances on screen seem a little strained?

Is Pegg a few years behind the legend Coogan? Is he still trying to look relaxed as the flashy twat nobody really likes? He doesn’t pull it off. I can see through you, Simon. I can see who you really are. And I know that if you really were that person on camera and in interviews, which are the only time I get to see you, it wouldn’t make you look so uneasy. I know you are still learning the part, but you don’t need to try so hard. You made it, Simon. You did what you set out to achieve. Time to leave the beery twat in the pub. Show us the real you.

Review: Lindsey Buckingham / Christine McVie

When we first heard about popular music’s most unlikely collaboration album, it is true that we fell off our chair. But that was months ago. It is actually happening, and is out tomorrow. What we can say is that, after 40 plus years in the business, 4 out of 5 members of the Rumo(u)rs-era Fleetwood Mac have successfully recreated themselves yet again.

The only person not involved, Stevie Nicks, has jabbed a few elbows out in recent interviews. Quotes such as “what’s their, like, narrative?” puzzled us. She has vowed never to do another Mac studio album as there’s “no point spending a year on music that nobody will listen to.”

Well, if you think like that… Whether anyone listens to this or not, it is not a Fleetwood Mac album. Which is what we had assumed they were giving us. Some people even said as much: The Mac Without Nicks was basically what we expected. Nor is this just a Lindsey album plus Christine McVie. No sir.


We were nonplussed by the first single, called, In My World. It seemed a tame offering, and basically a Lindsey song. The rest of the album is far, far, better, and somewhat new in sound. Even though John and Mick can be clearly heard in the background, this is completely new. Strangely, In My World is the track Rolling Stone prefers. We disagree.

The only non-Mac personnel are Mitchell Froom on keys, and long-time Buckingham producer/collaborator Mark Needham. It is a Mac album in staff if not in sound. And true, Sleeping Around The Corner has been seen before on a prior Buckingham album. But everything still feels new and sharp.

It has been pushed as a duet album, and that is accurate. But this is not the model of Fleetwood Mac, which basically has each songwriter singing their own songs with the rest on backing. These are proper duets, in the main. Red Sun and Feel About You stood out particularly to us as being quite poppy and fresh. The album is unlikely to shift huge numbers, but it is very enjoyable, and essential listening for true fans. The supporting US tour will likely do very well, even if we are not likely to see this material live in the UK any time soon.

This article first appeared in The Z Review in 2017.

Why Don’t Writers Retire?

In January 2002, a very sad announcement was made. Stephen King, author of The Shining, would write no more. In 2013 he released Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining and one of his best works. It is to be made into a film. In April 2013, Stephen King retired. In June 2013 he released Mr Mercedes, the first of a trilogy which he completed in 2016. A collaboration with his son will come out in 2017. What is going on?

In his afterword to The Secret Pilgrim, written in a Penguin paperback of 2001, John le Carré confirms, 11 years after it was first published, that this is the end of George Smiley. I had, he writes and I paraphrase, found a need to finish Smiley’s life story. The themes of le Carré’s life had not been tied off to his satisfaction. All that stuff about moles, traitors and slip-ups. On 5th September 2017, we will see another George Smiley novel. What is going on?

Let me tell you what is going on. Writers do not like writing. They like promoting their writing even less than they like writing it. Writing is bloody hard work, thankless work, and for most of us the pay is awful. We write because we must.

Once you understand that writers only write because they must, you will realise that they cannot simply retire. Look at John Mortimer. He lived to 85, leaving us in 2009. In 2007 he had written his last book. He did retire, but not from writing. He left his legal career in 1984. He had created Rumpole for BBC Radio in 1975. Much like John le Carré before him, he had nurtured a double life as a writer and ditched his day job at the earliest opportunity.

And that is the real truth. To a writer, nothing else really matters. And worse, for you, the fans, family and friends, everything is material. Nothing is sacrosanct. But it’s all fiction. No harm done, dear thing.

So never believe a writer who tells you he is finished. Believe me, nothing is ever finished. Until the bitter end. And after that, your children will bank your royalties for another 70 years. Triples all round!

John le CarréJohn le Carré

John le Carré