Erdem SS15 Show at London Fashion Week

Erdem Spring/Summer 2015 Show
Erdem Spring/Summer 2015 Show
We’re running a ‘Future Fashions’ theme at Litro this month so I was sent off to write a piece about the Erdem Spring/Summer 2015 Show at London Fashion Week 2014.


The palette was subdued, with lots of dark green, ochre and brown, maybe to match the mood of the outside world.  Sleeveless tweed made an appearance  with a deconstructed jacket and an elegant dress. The botanical theme was repeated on dresses appliquéd with dark green flowers and leaves. Floaty silk was printed with splashes of ochre on cream. Most stunning was a jacket made with lustrous black feathers, followed by a matching dress. Both made the models look like wild birds poised to fly back into the shelter of the woods.

The fashion theme is running all this month so do submit your pieces for the non-fiction section I edit at Litro online.






Pic.RiverA piece about about a young man’s experience of parkour in 2003:

My Personal Cult – Parkour

“When I ask Christophe about the urban acrobatics group he used to be part of, he shrugs. He takes a drag from his cigarette, exhales, squints behind the smoke. He catches me still staring, waiting for an answer. He shrugs again. “I don’t know,” he says. “We just met and did our stuff.” He drums on the table, eyes in the distance again. Conversation over. This is going to be tough.”


Book Reviews, Fiction in Translation, Reviewing

Fin de Fiesta by Juan Goytisolo|Thresholds

Juan Goytisolo, photo by Manel Armengol (Copied from Flickr)
Juan Goytisolo, photo by Manel Armengol (Copied from Flickr)

Piece about Juan Goytisolo’s book of four short stories, Fin de Fiesta, for the Thresholds Short Story Forum: Love and Ageing in the Stories of Juan Goytisolo.


“The cover of the 1966 Panther edition of Juan Goytisolo’s The Party’s Over, has a woman lying on the sand, eyelashes spiky with mascara, her head resting on a naked man’s chest. I wonder how successful the publisher’s attempt to pass Goytisolo’s collection of four stories as a steamy summer read was. The book, subtitled Four Attempts to Define a Love Story, is far subtler than the cover infers. I read it in Spanish when I was a teenager, having discovered Goytisolo through his novel Duelo en el Paraiso, set during the Spanish civil war.(…)”

“Because of the subtitle, we read the book with love in mind, yet it proves elusive. The question, for the characters and for the reader, might be: what love is possible in these conditions? We are left with the sense that it is ethereal. These four variations on the theme manage to draw its outline, nothing more. It is striking that the ingredients of lust are ever present, seemingly fulfilling the promise of the garish book cover. Lust permeates the book: it’s in Loles’s young body, in the muscular arms of a fisherman, in the low-cut blouse of a Portuguese tourist. But it is a hopeless lust; those who satiate it end up discontented. It does not signal love, nor does love grow from it. When the characters were twenty, their mutual attraction might have been the start of something, but now they know better.(…)”




Book Reviews, Fiction in Translation, Reviewing

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas



Never Any End to ParisNever Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, just reviewed for TheBookbag.


There is never any end to Paris. The sentence pops up, hypnotic, through most of the book. At times ironic, thoughtful or questioning, it is a quote from Hemingway’s novel, A Moveable Feast, in which the American author looked back at his days in Paris, where he was ‘very poor and very happy.’ The narrator of Never Any End to Paris tells us that when he lived in Paris, he was ‘very poor and very unhappy.’

The narrator is based on Enrique Vila-Matas and he presents the book as a three-day lecture on Irony. Irony, indeed, is the book’s central theme. The narrator quotes other writers on the subject. Sometimes the definitions contradict one another. Or rather, each one illuminates a new facet of irony. Often, it seems to be used as a way of trying to apprehend reality. The narrator’s own definition, in the context of a book that goes through so much, is vivid: he prefers irony ‘that vacillates between desperation and hope.’

Vila-Matas has described Never Any End to Paris as a parody of a bildungsroman. The narrator sounds a lot like Vila-Matas – the title of the novel he’s writing is ‘The Lettered Assassin (Vila-Matas’ novel La asesina ilustrada, is in fact his second novel but was written in Paris). The Paris he describes is a hyper-charged concentrated extract of literary life. The narrator is friendly with exiles, transvestites, writers and poets. He hangs around at the Café de Flore and prestigious literary figures are never far away. One day, when he’s walking in the street, a car screeches to a halt. In it, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers and Marcelin Pleynet on their way to China. At a party, the narrator meets the beautiful actress Isabelle Adjani. He will use her eyes, turned towards him in murderous disdain, as those of the killer in his first novel.

The book that he’s writing progresses and matches the novel’s narrative arc. The narrator has decided to write a book that will kill those who read it and his apprenticeship is keenly portrayed. The narrator’s younger self, a pretentious young man who smokes a pipe and likes to be seen at café terraces pretending to read profound books, is certain that he wants to be a writer. As he has no idea how to go about it, he goes around collecting advice. He acquires a sense of irony and tentatively builds up experience as he writes, often lonely and desperately poor in the garret he rents from Marguerite Duras.

Although the books proffers to be a lecture and ambles off in different directions, much like a man reminiscing about his past then remembering to pick up the threads of the lecture about irony, Paris and Hemingway, it seems to be built according to a remarkable structure. Like in a piece of contemporary music, the repeated use of similar sentences creates different tunes. At one point, each paragraph begins with ‘I went to the cinema a lot,’ expanding on the idea until it has been explored in full. It is rhythmic and riveting. Then the narrator jumps to Hemingway’s liberation of the bar of the Ritz hotel, then to Franco’s death.

Never Any End to Paris is a delightful novel, both a homage to Hemingway and the lively tale of a literary apprenticeship in what was, in the 1970s, the centre of the literary world.




Book Reviews, Fiction Reviews, Memoirs, Reviewing

Wasafiri – Writing the Balkans



WasafiriThe latest issue of Wasafiri is out and it’s all about the Balkans…It’s full of interesting fiction, interviews and articles, and includes my review of Tadeusz Różewicz’s Mother Departs and Adnan Mahmutović’s short story collection, How to Fare Well and Stay Fair.


Adnan’s Mahmutović’s How to Fare Well and Stay Fair and Tadeusz Różewicz’s Mother Departs are books by two Eastern European writers at opposite ends of their careers.

Mahmutović is a young writer, born in 1974, who moved to Sweden in 1993 as a refugee from the Bosnian war. His short story collection is predominantly concerned with home, or rather the homelessness of refugees and their unsettled identity. This concept permeates the collection yet is treated with level-headed subtlety. Mahmutović excels at getting his ideas across by involving the reader in the daily lives of his characters.

The title story gives us a darkly ironic overview of the experiences of a refugee. Set like a ‘how to’ guide, it takes us through the lives of people who fled Bosnia. It covers everything from the horrible to the routine. (…)



Book Reviews, Fiction Reviews, Reviewing

Summer Half by Angela Thirkell



Summer Half by Angela ThirkellSummer Half by Angela Thirkell reviewed for TheBookbag. Virago have been reprinting Thirkell’s books for their Virago Modern Classics list.


If one didn’t know of Angela Thirkell’s distinguished background as a granddaughter of Sir Edward Burne-Jones and daughter of a classicist, it would be tempting to describe her as a kind of country cousin of P.G. Wodehouse’s. An unaffected and intelligent one, whose humour is less sophisticated but bubbles over with just as much glee. The middle-class world she has created, where young men come from families that are comfortably wealthy rather than outrageously so, offers a counterpoint to the Mitford or Wodehouse worlds with their aristocratic characters who travel the world and mingle with more louche, bohemian ones.

There is no bohemia in ‘Summer Half. It tells of Colin Keith, a university graduate who is supposed to be training for the bar but decides to take a teaching job at Southbridge school instead. He’s spurred on by a sense that at his age, he should be earning his keep. He feels both heroic and dejected by his decision; how will he fare, faced with a classroom full of bright, sarcastic boys? The adventures that follow make for an excellent comic novel inhabited by teachers, pupils and Colin’s family members.

The environment is typical middle England, with a gentle suspicion of anyone who stands out too much. Two men are described as having ‘middle’ political opinions. Indeed, throughout the book, the characters who come out best are the commonsensical ones who hold no extremes of political or personal views. The atmosphere brings to mind the Twins at St Clare’s series by Enid Blyton, in which people are good sports, where vanity and affectation are relentlessly bulldozed over by timely doses of ridicule.

For instance Rose Birkett, the vain and feather-headed daughter of the headmaster, is far too pretty; such prettiness is suspicious and comes out a loser when compared to the unselfconscious sartorial disorder of Colin’s young sister Lydia. Thirkell opposes Rose, a delightful apparition in ‘pale pink organdie,’ to Lydia, who was sitting on the ground, her feet straight out in front of her, her face, neck, arms and legs bright red, and her hair tied back with an old tie of Swan’s that she had borrowed.

Less suspect than beautiful Rose is Kate, Colin’s other sister, a practical young woman. Thirkell pokes kindly at her obsession with sewing people’s buttons on for them, darning socks or and worrying about navy thread having been used instead of black.

In one funny passage, well-bred Kate tries to make polite conversation with Philip Winter, a communist teacher who is in a bad mood because he’s in love with flirtatious Rose. He replies with sour rejoinders about poor people ‘in the depressed areas’ and the evils of fascism, much to Kate’s bewilderment. A general conversation ensues; other people butt in, good old common sense wins out and Philip is made to look pretentious.

In such scenes, Thirkell’s exquisite observations skills are apparent. Out of a deceptively simple mix of people she creates conflict to great comic effect. The characters are multi-layered and yanked in different directions by their moods and internal worries, just as people are in real life. And Thirkell displays subtlety in the development of her characters; they evolve realistically, learn from each other and avoid becoming caricatures.

The setting of a school, its rituals and daily life, is entertaining and informative to a contemporary reader. Teachers and pupils alike show a deep passion for literature. Their lively discussions offer a respite from the intrigues and crossed lovers’ quid pro quos . As young Colin hesitates between his law studies and his school-teaching job, we get an insight into what the two different careers would mean, both socially and intellectually.

This portrait of parochial England in the 1930s is enlightening and charming. It is striking to be reminded of the impending war (the book was first published in 1937). When Rose comes back from an outing with two admirers, they describe the man in a black shirt they saw outside the cinema. Fairweather Junior says: It was a man selling little books. One of those blackshirt fellows, you know, like Puss in Boots in a polo jersey. I don’t know why, but it was awfully funny. Lord! It was funny!

The blackshirts are treated with derision. Lydia adds that no one knows who they are; they are ‘seedy’ whereas the communists, like Philip, are people you meet having tea at people’s houses:

I’ll tell you another funny thing about these blackshirts, said Lydia. No one knows who they are, or where they go. I mean, have you ever seen one, except standing on the pavement in waders, looking a bit seedy?

Such historical nuggets add to the interest of Summer Half. Virago is reprinting Thirkell’s books, with three coming out this May, for which readers will be thankful. The writer’s ability to create a fully formed world peopled with attaching characters should ensure her success lives on.



Shakespeare in the Hands of Thomas Decker


Photo by George Tregson Roberts.
Photo by George Tregson Roberts.

I was delighted when George Tregson Roberts accepted to write a piece for Litro’s Shakespeare theme about how Sierra Leonean dramatist Thomas Decker translated Julius Caesar into Krio. I’d enjoyed an article by George Tregson Roberts in Wasafiri, in which he looked at Graham Greene’s relationship with Freetown, where The Heart of the Matter is set.

The piece that Roberts wrote for us,  A Tropical Bard and The Bard of Avon: Shakespeare in the Hands of Thomas Decker, A Sierra Leonean Dramatist,  is just as enlightening. It looks in particular at how Decker wanted to ensure that Sierra Leoneans stopped seeing Krio as an inferior language and understood that it could be used to express complex ideas.

“Stoop then, and wash. How many ages hence this our lofty scene be acted o’er.

In States unborn and accents yet unknown!” [Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene I].

Shakespeare, in all his creative genius could not possibly have imagined that those words he wrote for Cassius would prove so prophetic. For, eighteen or twenty generations later, the words were being recited on a stage in an accent that Shakespeare could not have dreamt of, and in a setting that, ironically, was commemorating the closing chapters of an Empire that had given him voice. Another irony was that the language of the Sierra Leonean writer, Thomas Decker, in which Julius Caesar was being re-staged may well have had as long a history as that of the playwright‘s himself.



Book Reviews, Letters, Reviewing

Here and Now: Letters by J M Coetzee and Paul Auster

Here & Now

 Here and Now: Letters by J M Coetzee and Paul Auster – TheBookbag.co.uk book review.


Reading letters by writers affords a particular pleasure. They give us access to the functioning of a writer’s mind when it’s somewhere between work and rest. Sometimes they reveal secrets, offer startling revelations about their writers and insights about the times they lived in. Here and Now, an exchange of letters between J M Coetzee and Paul Auster between 2008 and 2011, describes itself as ‘an epistolary dialogue between two great writers who became great friends.’

Accordingly, the theme of friendship runs through the book. It is at first theoretical as Coetzee, in his first letter, reflects on its enigmatic nature. As the correspondence goes on, the men’s friendship cements, helped along by face-to-face meetings all over the world.

The book is understated and thoughtful, led by Coetzee’s observations and questions and Auster’s attempts to answer them. The exchanges show us two curious people intent on understanding things as varied as sport on TV and the 2008 financial crash.

There are interesting insights. Auster is bewildered by a set of coincidences. Coetzee shows exquisite self-awareness when he tells of his inability to remember anything distinct about his travels, wondering why all he picks up are signs that tell me that life is the same everywhere in the world, rather than signs of the distinctiveness of every tiny part of creation?

As the book progresses and the reader gets attuned to the writers’ voices, it takes on a hypnotic rhythm, with references to sports becoming a friendly leitmotiv. By the end of it you feel like you’ve spent time with two intelligent friends.

However, these letters, riveting as they are, seem to be the result of an experiment rather than respond to a need. Now that letters are an optional mode of communication, they have lost their vital nature. When you hear about letter-writing nowadays, it is often preceded by the words ‘death of.’ This means that such an exchange can seem contrived, especially as the letters are devoid of personal revelations or strong opinions about contemporary writers. The writers remain composed throughout and the enjoyment in reading these letters comes from the intellectual exchanges.

Of course, the loss of letter writing is to be lamented and in a way this collection reminds us of what we have lost. It shows us just how important writing was in building a rapport between two people. Letters used to be the only way in which friends living far away from each other could communicate. Everyone got a chance to experience the particular alchemy that happens when you express a thought or describe an event, however minute, in writing. As Paul Auster says, soldiers from the American Civil War used to write better letters than many English professors do now.

So yes, a delightful journey in the company of Coetzee and Auster, but a peaceful rather than a startling one. The tone is never urgent. When the writers discuss the financial crisis or foreign affairs, it is not with an ardent desire to solve these things. Does this stem from the place of the writer in our society, no longer as ‘engagé,’ or from the fact that the two men have reached a placid stage in their life and writing? They are after all established writers, approaching the third stage of a life in art brilliantly described by Coetzee in one of his letters.




Book Reviews, Reviewing, Thrillers

No Regrets, Coyote by John Dufresne

RNo Regrets, Coyoteeview of a ‘Florida Noir’ thriller for thebookbag. No Regrets, Coyote, published by Serpent’s Tail.


You may or may not be aware that there is a style known as the South Florida Noir. The action tends to take place in daylight, in the glare of the Florida sun rather than in nightclubs or dark alleyways. If you’re not familiar with South Florida Noir, No Regrets, Coyote is a good place to start. And if you are, well, be assured that it is a perfectly crafted example of the genre.

Wylie ‘Coyote’ Melville, the hero of the book, is not your usual cop or private eye. He’s a therapist and has his own practice where he sees dysfunctional patients. He even has certain days reserved for couple counselling. The therapy sessions are both dark and funny; we get to quite a selection of strange characters, such as a porn-obsessed shelf-stacker. Coyote also volunteers as a forensic consultant with the Eden police force.

When the action starts, on Christmas Eve, the police call him to request his services. When he turns up, a scene of carnage awaits him. A man, Chaffin Halliday, has apparently murdered his wife and three children before turning the gun on himself. Murder-suicide, or something else? That’s what Coyote wants to find out. From then on, the case obsesses him. He keeps remembering all the small things that didn’t make sense and starts digging for more information.

The brilliant thing is that we sometimes wish he’d stop, drop the case and get on with his life. Do normal things, look for a girlfriend and above all keep safe. Because we fear for our hero. He’s faced with brutal enemies and doesn’t seem to know it. The reader realises the dangers Coyote is in, but he himself seems unable to understand how nasty people can be.

He’s genuinely nice, a guy who analyses his own dreams and shows endless compassion to those around him. He’s the opposite of macho. When he catches his friend, tough cop Carlos, staring into space over his breakfast sandwich, he asks him, ‘where did you just go?’

Coyote uses his keen observation skills and his understanding of what makes people tick to get himself out of sticky situations. And how sticky they are! We tremble for him as his honesty makes him enemies so ruthless that they seem to be just about to kill him or at the very least set him up for a life in prison.

But he goes on, delves deeper into the investigation. He finds out that Halliday owed gambling boats and that his wife may have had a mysterious past. He’s determined to get to the truth. Coyote is clinging to his own sense of order and this drive is a recurring theme. He wants to believe that justice will win out in the end. The tough guys tell him that his reality doesn’t exist. They are convincing – the bullies do seem to be in control in the corrupt little town of Eden, Fl.

But Coyote, soft though he looks never deviates from his sense of what is right. Luckily, his friend Bay Lettique, a professional poker player with useful links to the underground, is on hand to assist him. Bay, a charismatic character, always turns up just when things are getting desperate.

Apart from Bay, Coyote is surrounded by a little network of dysfunctional people. His family, an obese sister and father with Alzheimer’s, is needy. His adorable cat Django relies on him for survival. He befriends a homeless man and his cleaner is a schizophrenic patient of his. Coyote is generous and kind to them. These qualities are unusual in a sleuth and make him easy to relate to.

The novel has it all – suspense, psycho killers, sleaze and corruption, gangsters and explosions. Dufresne’s style is clear as glass, polished as steel, with beautiful sentences bubbling up here and there. The action is taut and thrilling and the denouement satisfyingly unexpected. Above all, No Regrets, Coyote has an original voice. It’s a high definition mix of magic, humour and menace under the unrelenting Florida sunshine.








Book Reviews, Reviewing

A. Gennevraye or the Allure of the Pseudonym


 L’Ombra is a novella from 1881 about a young woman who uses a pseudonym to be able to perform as an opera singer. It was written by a woman using a nom de plume.

She was born Émilie Adèle Monden-Gennevraye but married twice so is known by at least two other names, Mme Janvier and Mme Perrot. Dumas fils knew her as Adele Janvier. Flaubert mentions her in her letters as Mme Perrot. (source: Claude Schopp from the Université de Rouen)

As a child, I read the first part of l’Ombra in an issue of 1881 literary magazine ‘La Revue des Deux Mondes,’ that I’d found in an abandoned house. I yearned to find out how the story ended – it had melodramatic cliff hanger – but had no idea how to get the next issue of a magazine published over 100 years before. Thanks to the internet, I have the complete story at last. And I’m preparing a piece about its mysterious author…












Romany Gypsies


An essay about the Romany Gypsies and their current situation in Europe, here on Litro.



Photo by Ronan Duffaud
Photo by Ronan Duffaud

“The Santacon will be treated the next day with indulgence by the British press as a celebration of Christmas cheer. A few clashes with the police and their habit of relieving themselves all over central London are apparently forgiven. Not so with the Gypsies, who will probably wake to yet another police check.

There is something grand in the way this group of Romany Gypsies settled their makeshift camp in Park Lane. They chose one of the best London postcodes, something the Daily Mail was quick to point out, as though they were depriving someone else of the privilege. A group of purely English squatters, maybe, that was ogling the same spot? The press reported that Westminster Council was unable to evict the rough sleepers as they were generally not breaking immigration laws – Romanian nationals are allowed three-month visas to the UK. Much was made of the Gypsies’ unhygienic lifestyle, as though this was a symbol of their culture polluting the fragrant streets of Park Lane. (…)”







Dystopia: In The Eye Of The Shaman



Learn all about shady alternative cults in:

Dystopia: In the Eye of the Shaman

Written for Litro’s current theme: Dystopia.


Photo by Ronan Duffaud
Photo by Ronan Duffaud

“Those are ideal conditions for prophets of doom. They used to have to stand with loudspeakers in the middle of busy streets but are now using the internet to its full potential to attract gullible followers. A few clicks of the mouse and I am on a shaman’s portal. This particular shaman has a whole blog devoted to the fact that our world is in danger. He updates it according to the news. The recent cyclone in the Philippines is gold to him; just another proof that the Earth is soon to be extinct, and that the best people can do is flock to him for salvation. Other pages gleefully remind us of catastrophes like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Gurus from Wales with names like ‘pensive eagle’ have Facebook pages filled with angels (little blonde girls with white wings), stone statues and lots and lots of rays of sunshine alongside warnings of imminent wars.”





Reviewing, Theatre Reviews

Lured Into Enjoyment: The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic | Litro



Lured Into Enjoyment: The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic | Litro.


“The Scottsboro Boys gives an unsentimental account of a tragic event that destroyed nine lives. It is also a reminder of an important period in history – the case influenced the burgeoning US civil rights movement. It is only in April this year that the Scottsboro nine were posthumously pardoned by the state of Alabama. On a video on the Young Vic website, Dante-White expresses the hope that the musical will encourage audiences to think about the events and look for information about them. The Scottsboro Boys manages this successfully, as well as – or, rather, because of – providing breath-taking entertainment.”




Gladstone’s Library Mystery Lady Fiction Competition Results

Results:   The Mystery Lady of Gladstone's Library

Short Fiction Category (3,600 words and under):

Winner: ‘Looking the Other Way’ by Fiona Knowles-Holland

Runner-Up: ‘The Lemon Tree’ by Alice Curham

Highly Commended: ‘The Eyes of Reason’ by Bella Reid (Patricia Duffaud)


Flash Fiction Category (360 words and under):

Winner: ‘Naranjito’s Daughter’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Runner-Up: ‘If Only…’ by Barbara Oldham


Gladstone’s Library Fiction Competition Results


“The short fiction category was judged by Cathy Galvin, creator of The Word Factory as well as founder and director of The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Fiction Award and editor of Red: The Waterstones Anthology; Francesca Haig, poet and author of Bodies of Water whose writing has appeared in journals and anthologies in both Australia and the UK, including Motherlode: Australian Women’s Poetry 1986-2008; and Richard Beard, author of Lazarus is Dead and Director of the National Academy of Writing.”







Ecological Activism

Cloudy SkyEcological activist Kevin Lister told me about his campaigns. Written for Litro’s transgression theme: The politics of transgression

“Fields, cows, helicopters. Naked breasts, policemen, tractors and mud. The latest video on the Plane Stupid website is infused with a continental vibe from Nantes, in North West France, where farmers and activists have been protesting for months against the building of a new airport. Plane Stupid, a UK network that protests against aviation expansion, is linking successfully with ecological movements around the world. Some of its stunts, such as a rooftop protest on the Houses of Parliament, have been media coups. Its tagline is “bringing the aviation industry back down to earth.”
What of the people behind the struggle, whose lives are devoted to a constant fight? Transgressing for ideological reasons has long been seen as heroic, pardonable. In literature, political transgressors intrigue and fascinate. Sartre illustrated the dilemma in his trilogy Roads to Freedom. His anguished protagonist, philosophy professor Mathieu, struggles against indecision. He longs to act, to make a choice, to believe in something. His opposite is Brunet, a communist, a man of action, certain of being right, whom Mathieu describes as “very real.””






Flash Fiction in The Puffin Review


Southern Comfort, flash fiction just published in issue 2 of the Puffin Review.


“It did well, that bottle, lasting as it did until 2am. The widow went to bed so it was just you and your husband and the two teenagers, and the drink hit them fast. At the start, you probably meant to be supportive as you questioned the drunken orphans. But as anecdotes poured out your eyes narrowed and gleamed.”






Sex Secrets of Londoners

For Litro’s Sex theme, I spoke to Londoners to find out about their attitudes to casual sex.


Marco is just the start. The more people I talk to, the more I hear it: a dark, subterranean theme popping up with enough consistency to make me wonder. A mysterious being keeps being alluded to. Not partner, not lover, but a hybrid creature, kept around solely for sex.