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Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize?

FictionPosted by Jack d'Argus Fri, September 01, 2017 17:06:49

Listen as you read. Narrator read by Gilly Anderson; Wye, Zob and Snell read by Peter Cowlam:

Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is a satire on literary celebrity, set in the relatively safe remove of early 1990s literary London. There are three main characters. The first is Marshall Zob, whose father, of eastern European origin, has previously changed his family name from Zoblinski, or Zobilinsk, or something like that. Zob Junior is a literary celebrity, whose social ascent has taken him to London’s literary heights, through a network of media and literati contacts. Zob can and does delude himself that his success really is down to his genius. All that’s missing from his CV is the Booker Prize, which he feels he should have won, but hasn’t.

The second of the three main characters is Alistair Wye, a computer science graduate who by some monumental fluke has been hired as Zob’s amanuensis or assistant. Wye’s job prior to this was as overseer of a computerised database, one designed by him for a theatrical properties firm as a means of keeping track of its stock, its orders, and its clients. The entire book is supposedly Wye’s personal diary, recording his reactions to life in proximity to a literary celebrity.

The third main character is the hapless Andrew Glaze, one-time Professor of English Literature at Exe University. Glaze is already dead before the action of the novel starts. As Wye notes in the foreword to his diary, news of his death was ‘a passing that hardly caused me to put down my coffee cup, or extinguish my cigarette’. It’s a passing that’s important to Zob, since back in the 1970s he was not only Glaze’s student, he was his star student, or as Wye puts it, also in his foreword,

Marshall Zob, should you not already know, is the perfection of the dead Andrew Glaze, PhD, whose brightest student he was. This was back in the early 1970s, in the cloisters of Modern College, Exe University, where the writer and academic, and Blagueur Prize-winner (twice), the witty Zob Senior [that’s to say Marshall’s father], had passed before him. [Incidentally, Zob Senior was also Glaze’s friend and colleague. I am not meaning to suggest by this any hint of nepotism, which Glaze himself has remarked the English are so touchy about.]

Glaze’s personal life hasn’t been a great success. Prior to the novel’s opening, his marriage has collapsed and his wife Samantha has fled to New York. After the divorce, she intends to marry one of New York’s wealthiest bankers. All of this is chronicled in a series of letters, postcards etc. languishing in Zob’s archive.

Zob has been careless about filing these letters, and keeps them dotted around in no particular order. Furthermore his replies to his friend Glaze have all been made on an ancient IBM-compatible using word-processor software he never quite understood. That correspondence does still exist, somewhere on disc, but when that ancient PC refuses to boot up it is Wye’s job to find a solution and retrieve it all. In fact this becomes vital to Zob since, as an important academic, Glaze’s life and work is about to be commemorated publicly. For Zob there are also commercial opportunities in reproducing and annotating his long exchange with Glaze. Wye does manage to restore that creaking PC, and what he finds there, and what he finds in Zob’s paper archive, forms much of the material that ends up in his diary – which could be summed up as a ruthless exposé of the life of a literary superstar.

He is amused to find, in Zob’s letter to Glaze dated the 30th of May, reference to himself, on the subject of his appointment, which reads as follows:

Most recent interview took place in my pool hall. I go there a lot – it helps me to think, and relax. I couldn’t make it – or rather him – out. A native of Manchester, yet talked like colonial Tunbridge Wellian. His name’s Alistair, though he didn’t hint at a Scottish connection. He seemed – which is perhaps the operative word – seemed (stress) well informed generally. He assumes I am of the Left, because he’s seen my byline in The Observer, and told me he’d read and liked my lampoon on the decent, genteel exterior of former Tory prime ministers. I didn’t say hear hear…

For all this his degree’s in computer science, though the man was evasive about his university – a sleight of hand I thought these boffins weren’t capable of, having no intelligence outside that realm of the microchip. He could be very useful, as I wouldn’t mind all that hardware paraphernalia – though God knows I can make nor head nor tail of the box of tricks I have got. He works, he says, for a theatrical properties company in Mortimer Street, for whom he designed, wrote and installed a stock-and-order system. He reads a great many science books, and for that reason thinks he can talk down to me. I showed him a thing or two on the pool table.

Wye remembers that interview differently. This is from his diary entry of July the 4th:

The conversation we had in his pool hall was over a best of three games, which did, it is true, end on the final black. This, naïvely, he potted. The light from the canopy above, parcelled its tiny quanta in a varied dilution of yellow. Here perfectly was Zob’s imperfect illumination, in whose glaze I remarked on the soiled nap of the table. ‘Successive smokers,’ I said, and chalked my cue. Together we bent to those grey-green archipelagos, those swipes of ground ash. ‘I am interested in music,’ I said, in reply to his question what existed other than the written word. When he talked about literary prostitution this was, he said, merely a term in a very long series. According to him, we who worked prostituted ourselves in one way or another. In a glum status quo few authors had the courage to challenge anything. Did this, I asked, not leave your fellow pool players intellectually in vacuo? And to talk of society’s imbalance, wasn’t that merely society’s impregnability? That was more or less it, he said, never having claimed that the elevated tribes and scribes to whom he belonged really did have a social conscience.

He potted a first yellow, calmly: wasn’t he after all on the comic side of fiction, and therefore exempt? Then, he imagined, he snookered me.

‘Let me show you,’ I said, ‘how to bend a ball….’ Awkward, of course, to cue, just as our human quarks or men of conscience can’t with certainty cast their vote. To the massé nevertheless. My stolid white dragged its heels round an interposing yellow. It struck a side cushion and my object ball simultaneously. Result: Not the pot he’d expected. I allowed him, O ye dumb angels, bearing the professor’s footstool, just one more visit to the table. I took that first game, it has to be said without much effort. The second I gave him, only because he bought lunch, which consisted of egg, cress, warm mayonnaise, sandwiched with expert inattention in two squares of foam.

Now, as for those levitating letters tailing my surname, I cannot legitimate the embossed sheen of a doctorate, the gold plate of an MSc, nor even the albata filigree of a lowly MA. As a short-trousered first-former, and I agree a touch Romantic, I took Browning – with his ‘Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!’ – and that ricochet off the book of Ecclesiastes – ‘…all is vanity’ – somewhat to heart. What after all is ‘education’ but the remorseless hum of commerce? At seventeen I wrote a one-page constitution, governing the life, aim and ideals of Wye’s pantisocracy. The project was doomed, naturally, depending for sovereignty on a deserted, disintegrating cottage just outside a tiny settlement called Capel, where I was known and loved. That wider kingdom sent in its head-shaking yeomanry, blued in look and uniform, with arguments against my scheme. Their central thrust was the minor matter of ownership. Our adopted country or cottage belonged to a Medway vicar, while the ‘discovery’ of marijuana also helped break up our experiment. This was one smoke-filled, winter afternoon, when the sky was a blossom pink (as I looked out and up, through a weald of elms).

I told Zob my qualification was as a computer scientist, though I have only a BSc, so in terms of the actuality that wasn’t entirely untrue. I watched him on that final black, which he’d failed to spot was equidistant from two corner pockets, making predictable the white as it holed itself too. Lucky we didn’t bet, eh, Marsy? Amazingly our second interview took place in a grimy café not far from his snooker club, and for a third he sent me to see his agent Cornelius.

Meanwhile Zob, in his political infighting in the brutish world of publishing, shows us his weakness for public accolades. He attempts, aided by his agent, to bribe his way into winning that prize of all prizes. That prize Wye can dismiss as a typically English parochial thing, but important internationally (apparently). Here Zob eventually comes unstuck, when a new and even more mediocre novelist, Justin Simms, appears on the scene just as it seems certain Zob will win. Simms has friends as powerful as Zob’s, and at the last moment is poised to snatch the prize from under Zob’s nose. Wye describes him thus, in his diary entry of April the 20th:

He was – and didn’t blush to hear it – of gentle birth. Throughout his boyhood he tinkered with a red Bugatti, which even before he was licensed he drove direct to Vire. He drove circuitously back, upsetting the gendarmerie. His first efforts in creative writing were naturally quite brilliant, winning him a prize. In researching his debut novel Simms wanted to know what was all the fuss about in post-industrial Britain? He lacerated his yachting pumps, which had cost hundreds. He fished out his striped rugby socks, his school wars fondly remembered. Some dungarees he had sprayed the Bugatti in served as principal garment, all enhanced authentically by a few days minus shaving tackle. The hair, bleached by a long weekend in Key Largo – where he was best man at an old chum’s wedding – well, those strands would just have to grow themselves out. So apparelled Simms set a course into the disintegrating streets of his and your metropolis. North of Oxford Street he sang – this was outside the Cambridge, with its early-evening throngs, where people pressed coins into his open palm. He moved on to the Blue Posts, offering a fabricated life story to its drinkers, or, he corrected, its drinkers outside under parasols – who urged him away with cash. For his nights he acquired a polythene wrap, into which he mummified himself, mostly in a doorway off the Strand. From that he graduated to a cardboard coffin in the precincts of Charing Cross. So on for a long three months, where his street life gave him – a realism actually lived through – the germ of his ‘powerful’ first novel. For most the palm was already his, that thing so close to Zob’s own heart.

Agent Cornelius, now faced with having to earn his commission, devises a five-to-six-point plan as to the problem of a dangerous rival.

1 A declaration of ‘war’ is inadvisable, as that could put you in a vulnerable light.

2 Conciliation is a best first step, with a public laudation, such as ‘Welcome, colleague’.

3 Open camaraderie between you and the new boy. By that we mean friendly, professional rivalry. This is the surest way to undermine the Crouch link. [Geraldine Crouch chairs the prize committee].

4 Remember! Crouch is a raging suffragette, and as yet no one has sounded out Simms on that score. Ideally he’ll be unsympathetic.

5 Finally Simms was born with money, and is bound to get bored with work. If so you might lead the rest of us in regretting his premature retirement.

PS 6 Have a party. Invite Simms, and Crouch. And me!

Preparations for that party are finalised by Wye, who is co-opted to serve as wine waiter. The invitation list is a ragbag of important, opinionated arts correspondents, commentators, reviewing hacks, book editors, journalists, devotees, and a low-budget filmmaker with options on Zob’s novels. Wye navigates his way through the gossip, the backstabbing, the career talk, the clash of egos, and has finally had enough when Shayle, the filmmaker, a dejected-looking man, regales those gathered around him with a tale of professional woes. Wye describes it as follows, in his entry of June the 25th:

The sullen Shayle took one of three last glasses on my salver. Symbolically Zob turned up then apologetically turned down the central chandelier, via the dimmer switch. An escaping cramped ellipse of light from a table lamp, in a burnt hue of burnt sugar, illuminated an eye, a sallow cheek, an ear lobe, as Shayle began to speak. He’d had a problem with extras – this on a shoot in Exeter. I don’t propose to make doubly clear that his job is largely low-grade entertainment, and that his lode is a TV production house I have the foresight not to name. ‘It’s what you get,’ I said, ‘for falling short of Equity rates’ – because, brothers and sisters in servitude, picture the scene:

Director circles that particular section of supremely pointless script where hero, an Italianate youth, whom ignorant author has named Sancerre, enters private casino. Silence. Action. There are six extras seated at each of three round tables, above which gaffer has suspended lights from makeshift gantry. Dealers deal cards onto green baize. This is draw poker, the rules of which are not entirely grasped by all eighteen. Other props are: a Churchillian cigar, numerous cigarettes, cold tea in whisky glasses, water for gin, where only the lemon is genuine, and low-alcohol lager. None is to be drunk, as no top-ups between takes. There is an imitation haze, and several thousand pounds in sterling, all in bank notes (and there, gentlemen, is the rub). There is one camera only, and this means an interesting interplay of angles is, well, frankly troublesome, and in the end a little nicety Shayle – already over budget – decides to abandon. Sancerre strides to table where he sees his great rival Anjou, and because the scriptwriter has no grounding whatsoever in mathematical probability theory fleeces his opponent, first with a full house, then a straight flush, finally four of a kind. This – as I yawn – does not conclude the story. The casino is folded up and put away. The players break up for coffee. Those bank notes are counted. They are recounted. Then they are endlessly recounted. Here we arrive at the brink of an accusation, though directed at which of those eighteen? Or perhaps the star Sancerre himself is underpaid…. Here I turn to the liver surgeon, whose surprised left eye socket seems momentarily monocled. ‘Do please have this last glass,’ I say.

Wye, utterly bored, and irked at officiating all night as Zob’s wine waiter, retreats from centre stage once most of the guests are drunk and past caring. With Snell’s assistant Merle, who is in the process of forming a breakaway agency, and is instrumental in bringing his diary to publication, Wye and two other guests decamp to the laundry room for a game of cards. He sums that up as follows:

How shall I wrap up this dismal scene? My departing Muse, in a lightness of tread, and with that cool air of exile she fans to my brow, has preached detachment. Gloria finished my bottle. Giles – who stumbled on my semi-hidden stocks – suddenly usurped my promotion to major-domo, at least insofar as Orphic revels needed to be supervised. Ms Crouch and Miss Bloge processed through the buffet lounge, where the former delivered her new tractate, Women and the Priesthood. Here I cannot take issue – without, that is, looking stupidly solemn – when that whole charade was essentially fun and games for the male of the species, a ‘poor chap’ who sought to dignify his workhorse status with the magic rain of mysticism (there I go: solemn). Flude, Snell and the impeccable Simms picked at a raspberry-coloured pâté, and were otherwise in conclave. Merle – star of my studded heaven – had got Isabelle and Blandford into the laundry room, and needed only the unsuspecting me for a hand of solo. Merle, my precious Merle! How could I disagree with your abondance (or agree with your misère)? It’s no matter. By two a.m. I had had enough, therefore dissolve, I say, inebriate sprite! The smiling Wye could find no right bid…

…for a twenty of diamonds…a duopoly of spade queens…a quartet of black twos…

…and was it you, was it you who put me to bed, shoes by the door, beige pantaloons overhanging my chair, shirt on a hanger?

Merle!

The book plunges on through its rivalries, its artistic and academic failures, its family feuds, through its master-slave relationships, but does end on a bright note, when Wye is asked to pen his conclusions. ‘Well now, let me think,’ he says. ‘In my memoir of social decay, which has been after all the catalyst of artistic regeneration, I shall start I suppose with a fatality. The corpse, Glaze’s, is symbolic. Some time hence its transmogrified mulch is the moving ground that the grandeur of a renascent literature flourishes in. It shan’t be compacted – not by those clumsy hobnails our many Marshall Zobs tramp in our world of printed pages in.’ And abetted by Merle, off Wye goes to publish his diary.



Prologue, The Vagabond Lover, by Garry O'Connor

AutobiographyPosted by Jack d'Argus Thu, June 01, 2017 09:22:48




The Past is Bourgeois Propaganda

‘The past is bourgeois propaganda,’ booms a deep voice in French from the stage of Paris’s Odéon Theatre. I am participating after a fashion in the May uprising of 1968. I have lived for some months in a tiny maid’s room, eight flights up on the Île Saint-Louis, happily exiled, insulated from reality, smiled upon by fate, blessed and at the same time deprived. Most days I eat chicken necks and gizzards served with rice at a corner café – and eye the glittering and sexy world of Paris without taking much part.

My English friends, Kate and her husband Robert, found it rather curious I should be living all alone, doing a minimal amount of work, a bit of teaching, a bit of translating, maybe one or two articles for a newspaper, to get by, but they couldn’t see what I was carrying. Nor could I, perhaps. I was an inner darkness, even to myself. I had no why and wherefore, even about who I was. I was, in the words of one of Dad’s songs, ‘wandering on life’s highway’, or perhaps just desperately trying to avoid the past, with its mighty sucking action.

What my friends saw was the ostensibly self-sufficient outsider spreading himself with all the comfort of a pasha in their smart rue Washington flat. I defended the conditions of my life with the fervour of a recluse, concealing even from myself that I was not built to withstand solitude.

Often when they teased me and I was walking across Paris, having refused the offer of a lift back, I wondered why I was so forgiving of the tiny, poky room in the Boulevard Henri IV. All the windows were smashed along the corridor, and apart from the blast of air drying my wet hands and face when my towel became too grimy, it had the abominable trick of giving me vertigo when I passed gingerly along. I had no head for heights, and even the vision of the opulent Tour d’Argent on the bank nearby did not steady me. No doubt about it, the room was a rat hole, with the bed sandwiched under the sloping roof. The really intolerable factor was the loneliness. I had not the simplicity to be truly alone.

It was not so much the streets I dreaded, for there were always people about, if only tramps, or police, or lovers. In the streets you could always find detail, incident, while even the clochards swigging from their starred bottles, drinking life’s bitterness to the dregs, even they had the solace of the unceasing river, beside whose primeval flow they pirouetted in grotesque capers. Even they, unconsciously, by offsetting beauty, created art.

It was the nights, sitting at that small rickety table in my room, or lying on my back on the bed, watching the indigo cloud piling up and deepening to black over the glittering Tour d’Argent, that I really feared. I bought a second-hand book on cloud structures, for cloud observation was about the only positive use to which my room could be put, and tried to ward off despair, or wrote out epigraphs in bold, heartening letters.

I was intent on growing a thread, or filament, from some new tissue, circumventing some obstacle, shaping some capacity as yet only dimly glimpsed. What was it all about? And why? I didn’t know. And all this while I was possessed by the image of Kate, with her interminably deep blue eyes, her lovely and volatile nature. Even had she been free, which she was not, she moved in a different orbit, a glorious flaming sun, I being the burnt-out cinder of a planet, a curled-up piece of toast caught in the grill.

Then came the Odéon occupation. And I was there. The student leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, popped up, red-headed, round and jovial, a jack-in-the-box, or devil in a morality play, a Daniel Quilp. He knew what to say, dwarfing the mellowed bust of Pascal, of La Rochefoucauld. This was not the Sorbonne, where the uprising had started, but the Théâtre de l’Odéon, which had been thrown like a dog’s bone to the insurgents. Thousands of protesters crammed the auditorium and the loges. The stage was so jammed it was a wonder the worn and creaking boards stood the weight.

Everyone talked at once. It was forbidden to forbid. Everything was equal. They were screaming at a middle-aged professor that he was a ‘sélectioniste’ – he favoured selecting students to follow a university course. Shouting that his other crime was of not being working-class, they started to threaten him with blows.

‘Let the professor explain himself, and if we think he’s a bastard we’ll tell him “Monsieur Blanc, you are a bastard!”’

Monsieur Blanc spoke at length but no one bothered with what he said, and soon a murmur grew and it silenced him. By now it was so stuffy I thought I would faint. People left for fear of suffocating. I explored backstage. At the back was an eerie, dark little passage leading down one side of the stage to the other. Underneath was hollow. Perhaps the floor really would not hold! What if three or four hundred people went crashing down into the chasm? I came back. Everyone now talked at once. Order does not exist; licence was without licence: there were not two sides to any question but twenty – fifty, a hundred. There was no person in the chair – no master or mistress of ceremonies – it would be a symbol of hierarchy, of oppression. Every blade of grass had a tongue. Everything was equal. Everyone had a right to the truth, and to voice an opinion. Was this a foretaste of the twenty-first century, with its Twitter and Facebook rule, with its faction-ridden societies and nations?

Actors tried to speak – neat, well-shaven, ordinary men and women; musicians, artists – the latter with the beards of anarchists. Over and over again they told each other that bourgeois culture was dead.

The Odéon – a symbol of repression – had been seized. They were delirious. Now it, too, was dead. Henceforth it would be a political forum. Malraux, Barrault, Renaud, Claudel, Messiaen, Boulez, these great names of French culture – they no longer existed. ‘One doesn’t compose with a society in decomposition.’ ‘Long live communication. Down with telecommunication.’ Maybe this really was a new beginning. What had André Malraux, Minister of Culture, once said? ‘Christ: an anarchist who succeeded. That’s all!’ What did he say about the twenty-first century, that it would either be ‘a century of religion, or not at all’.

During the next hours of night and day while discussions raged on I visited other parts. Dressing rooms had been turned into kitchens or dormitories. I tiptoed from room to room sometimes fearful that I might provoke the numerous and naked two-backed beasts copulating over or under blankets. No one seemed much bothered that I was there to see them. Shame? They had abolished that. Others pounded tall typewriters, issuing slogans, directives. Grim-faced militants in rimless spectacles, bald, bearded men under banners mesmerised me. ‘the more i make revolution the more i make love.’ Next day I was still there and I couldn’t leave.

The real beneficiaries of revolt appeared. ‘You’ll get the plague if you stay,’ Katie warned before she left, for she had been there to begin with, begging me not to stay. ‘All that filth. There’ll be rats. You’ll see….’

I laughed in disbelief, but then they appeared. Great brown things, their bodies could be seen bobbling among the filth accumulating under the stage. Above, and in the auditorium, the great debates on class, on Marxism, on poverty, on the great new future, continued without halt. Backstage the dressing rooms overflowed with stench. First used for rutting, they became a cesspit. Vandalism was rife, obscenities scrawled everywhere, light fixtures broken, mirrors cracked, costumes and make-up strewn over everything. In the costume stores there was even worse havoc. At first these had stayed locked – until broken into from the skylights above. The theatre’s director, Jean-Louis Barrault, France’s greatest actor, looked in to see what was happening, made a speech supporting the students, and then left weeping. Half the seats had been torn up. Later, for having shown sympathy, he was relieved of his post.

Then walking down a corridor, I found myself seized from behind.

My assailants were two blond men, naked to the waist, scarves tied round their necks and army fatigue caps on their heads. Their grip was like steel and it was useless to resist. Anyway they had a purpose so they propelled me in a certain direction.

‘Where the hell are you taking me?’

They didn’t answer but pushed open doors ahead with their feet. They looked older than the students, and were military professionals. Breathless with fear and exertion, ‘I work for an English paper’ was about all I managed to say. I freelanced for the Financial Times. ‘Who cares?’ said one of them. ‘We were told.’

A room where hundreds of seventeenth-century costumes for Molière and Racine lay scattered had become a parlour for clochards. ‘Parlez-moi d’amour…. Je vois la vie en rose….’ they quavered and warbled. The brutal-looking, gap-toothed men from the Île Saint-Louis and old women who pushed prams from which dangled brown stockings of uneven length, laughed and waved. Godot had arrived. Estragon and Vladimir had infiltrated the headquarters of Phèdre and Harpagon.

The next store was a ‘medical centre’ – so one captor told me: on duty there was a motley collection of half a dozen lunatics in white coats. They seemed more like junkies or members of the Living Theatre who toured with a cast running naked up and down the aisles. In the middle of the largest of costumes stores was an odd assortment of weapons. Crowbars, axes – the theatre fire axes – cudgels, chains, chunks of masonry, and what I took to be Molotov cocktails. We had reached the inner sanctum. The arsenal. My first inclination was to laugh – more from nerves than anything else.

‘Who are you?’ I asked.

There were between twenty and twenty-five of them. The leader was dark-haired, his hair close-cropped and thinning, cut to give an appearance of firmness. His forehead was lined – not by thought, I guessed, but by screwing his eyes up in extreme heat and glare. He was a big fellow, over six foot, and looked fit. He had narrow, small eyes, darting with the threat that he could be very nasty if crossed.

‘You must be the Katangais,’ I said. I had heard of them. They were mercenaries, now on leave, and with no employer. They got their name from the fact that some of them had been in Katanga – but others fought in Korea, Algeria, and Indo-China. Wherever a dirty war needed to be fought, they fought it, the dirtier the better.

‘We heard the call of the students,’ the leader answered slowly, chewing over his words. He spoke mildly enough – as if playing down the violent side. ‘As we haven’t any education, we decided to join in and place our physical strength at the service of the revolution.’

‘The pay here can’t be very good.’

I regretted saying this: it slipped out without my meaning it. But I had cast a slur on their altruism, and I would be beaten for it, so I braced myself for blows. Surprisingly, they did not seem to mind.

‘There isn’t much work around for us at the moment,’ grumbled one.

‘So how do you envisage your role in the revolution?’ I asked somewhat more cautiously now – although they seemed ready enough to chat.

‘We have founded the CIR,’ says their leader. The CIR, he explained, was the ‘Committee of Rapid Intervention’.

‘But why do you come here, to the theatre?’

At this they went silent, and appeared to rumble with bellicose intention. I had better not press the question.

‘Please, what do you want with me?’ I asked.

‘You must stay with us,’ he answered,’ In case there is trouble.’

His purpose was plain. I was a hostage.

They brought food – a baguette that was slightly stale and tasted rubbery – and some cheese – and poured out wine. The enormity of my trap grew on me, for the siege might go on forever. Yes, the government had thrown the dog a bone and were waiting till he grew tired of it.

The nights were worst because I couldn’t sleep. I rocked myself backwards and forwards on the mound of costumes that was my bed, but it did no good. The dark had captured my brain. What if I myself dissolved in the dark?

I fought against the darkness. I listened to the sounds outside – and inside my head. Sometimes the rain outside was fierce. I closed my eyes. Several times my nervous condition dominated. So it went on – and then I fell asleep and had this dream.

I’m waiting for my dad to come on stage. I’m about six years old – the wide-eyed boy. And I’m sitting in the front seats of the dingy brown, upholstered stalls of the Metropolitan Theatre, Edgware Road, about to watch Mum’s powerful lover – the embodiment of every woman’s dreams. You – the Vagabond Lover – are about to stride out to bask in the glow of ambers and reds, and capture the hearts of a thousand attentive watchers and listeners.

I wriggle a bit but am rapt. But I have butterflies in my stomach. Jerry is still, where he can, bombing the hell out of provincial cities and ports – and sometimes London too. Air-raid sirens have warned earlier as Heinkels and Dorniers pass over the suburbs. Maybe they’ll be back.

Arms linked, legs kicking, tits thrusting out, the dance duo before yours comes wheeling, gasping and clattering off, like some monster gone half mad and out of control.

It’s your turn. Top of the bill. The act everyone’s been waiting for. The big star. Beside me Mum sharply takes in breath, her eyes shining and full of happiness as she composes herself with pleasure.

Ever since I can remember Mum would say, ‘Come on, you’ve got to watch your father’ (she, from a different class than his, always called him ‘your father’).

So I’d seen your act a hundred times – if not more. But I’m not just sitting here, watching you; without me knowing you’ve become so much a part of me, the deepest part. My dad. So I’m here, not only out front, but with you in the wings, ready to go on before you do – inside you, as you’re about to stride out into the lights….

The pit band plays a chorus of your signature tune, ‘I’m only a strolling Vagabond’ – a big cheer of recognition – and then out you stride onto the stage looking as if nothing mattered to you, throwing half a smile up to the circle as if you’ve spotted some old friend there, and this has caught your attention far more than the other thousand-odd members of the house.

By many such little tricks, I knew and could see later, they’d be captured by you and listen. If you can get them sufficiently at ease with themselves, they’ll let go and float easily off into the dreamy fabric of your songs—

I’m bound for the hills and the valleys beyond

So good night pretty maiden, goodnight.

I follow Fortune that beckons me on

I catch at her skirts and the lady is gone

But that’s just my lot, if so right….

Your clothes help the informality. The Strolling Vagabond against a backcloth of lanes and trees in the far distance, farm horses and hills, a blue sky, endless peace. A wooden stile for you to lean against and place your foot upon. A tree trunk as a seat.

You finish the chorus of your song. We all clap. Violent and sustained applause. I wave at you, Dad, and you smile, motion for the audience to be silent. ‘Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,’ you declare in your lilting, stage-Irish voice.

‘And now if I may I’d like to sing you an old favourite by that most illustrious of song writers, Irving Berlin – “When I Leave the World Behind”.’

Cheers. Applause again. The song was well known. Effortlessly your voice glides and coasts over the colourful orchestrations.

I’m not a millionaire

Who’s burdened down with care

Somehow that’s passed me by….

But Dad, you are – in my and everyone’s estimation! A millionaire! Suddenly I’m frightened. What if the Heinkels and Dorniers on their way back to Germany swarm over North London again? And what if searchlights stab the darkness, outlining hundreds of gleaming insect structures packed under the roof of the sky, and guns lick out red tongues at the night? What if the Germans drop their bombs on us?

Would you pack it in? If a stick of bombs made a direct hit on or near the Met, with the air-raid sirens caught unawares and no warning given, would you stop singing? Never. You would go on singing regardless.

But what of the little boy sitting there, watching you? Would the song go on for him – and forever?

I woke up. The vast inside of the Odéon lay empty, desecrated, battered – like some fetid, yawning mouth. It seemed irredeemably fouled: the exhaust gases of idealism and spontaneous expression. The theatre’s ghosts had suffered wholesale extermination.

The CRS and gendarmes had surrounded the theatre; they were helmeted and armed with teargas grenades. The word had gone round that the Odéon would be reoccupied by the authorities.

‘What will happen?’ I asked one of my guards.

He sighed. He was unmoved. ‘Negotiations….’

‘No fighting? No last-ditch stand? What’s happened to the spirit of Katanga?’

‘Jackie’s not negotiating with the police,’ he answered tetchily, ‘he’s negotiating with the television and film people. Americans are offering a big fee.’

‘But how much would you ask – to put up some resistance to the police?’

The other dropped his usual air of lassitude. ‘Why? Can you pay?’

Once a mercenary, always a mercenary. He was about to go and fetch the others.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m penniless. It’s purely an academic question.’

The guard shrugged.

A voice we could just about hear floated up from a loudhailer outside. ‘Let those who want come out, do it now! You will be free if you leave without weapons, and without any bellicose intentions.’

I looked at my captors.

‘Where does that leave me?’

‘Shut up! I told you we have to await the results of negotiations. Jackie’s down there now.’

Another Katangais put his head round the door.

‘Come on: the order has come through. We’re going!’

‘What about him?’ asked my guard, meaning me.

‘He’s nothing to do with us now.’

I beat the Katangais to the exit, and hid by the pillar of an arch to watch. They emerged clean, well-shaven, their clothes crisp and pressed. They walked upright, without looking at anyone. In the street quite a crowd had collected. The Katangais presented their papers to the police control and marched off without a word.

In the square, top police brass had assembled: prefects, sub-prefects, stood to attention as everyone left. The mayor complimented the police on the ‘cleansing of the public building’. Then an officer in plain clothes climbed out on the roof of the Odéon and removed the red and black flags. The French tricolour soon fluttered again over the weather vane, but there had been no time to erase the ‘Ex’ prefixed to the ‘Théâtre de France’ on the entablature.

In the rue Casimir Delavigne a young man opened a window on the second floor, and started jeering and shouting: it needed all his father’s strength to grab him and haul him back inside.

What was the significance of my dream? Was the contrast of it with the stinking theatre pointing to a path I would have to follow in the future? Was this what destiny had in store?

Dad was after me, had pursued me even to Paris. And he would continue to be after me, relentlessly, until I turned to confront him. Would I have the courage to investigate his life, find out all I could about him, all there was to know? Had I resources enough to tackle the central part of the mystery? And could I present him as he was, expose him to the world?

A line from a poem drifted into my head. ‘O maison, où donc est ton maître?’





The Vagabond Lover, by Garry O'Connor

AutobiographyPosted by Jack d'Argus Mon, March 20, 2017 14:40:33

Publication date 3 April 2017. A racy, opinionated and highly entertaining account of life, loves and gossip in the English theatre since the 1960s, centred on and contrasted with a moving account of the writer’s famous and very much more strait-laced father, the Variety singer Cavan O’Connor.

‘The backstage story of one of Britain’s most popular entertainers told by the son who made his own way in a world his father never knew. Cavan O’Connor’s boy has written an enthralling family biography, full of gossip, wise insights and fascinating revelations.’ Sir Ian McKellen

The Vagabond Lover incorporates eight pages of photographs of the Cavan O'Connor era and milieu. Click here to view.







Across the Rebel Network, by Peter Cowlam

FictionPosted by Jack d'Argus Wed, December 14, 2016 12:00:27

Anno centres a federated Europe in an uncertain, and not-too-distant digital future, when politics, the media and mass communications have fused into one amorphous whole.


He works for the Bureau of Data Protection (BDP), a federal government department responsible for monitoring the full range of material, in all media, posted into cyberspace. The BDP is forced to do this when rebel states are seceding, small satellites once of the federation but now at a remove from it, economically and socially. A handful of organised outsiders threatens to undermine the central state through a concerted propaganda war, using the federation’s own digital infrastructure. It is this climate of mutual suspicion that to Anno makes inevitable decades of digital guerrilla warfare. While his department takes steps to prevent this, he doesn’t reckon on the intervention of his old college sparring partner, Craig Diamond, who is now a powerful media mogul. The two engage in combat conducted through cyberspace, in a rare concoction of literary sci-fi.

Across the Rebel Network is published by CentreHouse Press and is available in print format. Retails at all the usual places, including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Word Power Books, Barnes and Noble.





Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize? by Peter Cowlam

FictionPosted by Jack d'Argus Wed, December 14, 2016 11:52:02

Winner of the 2015 Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction. For Alistair Wye, assistant to ‘top’ novelist Marshall Zob, Zob makes just two mistakes. First, he plans a commemorative book celebrating the life and work of his dead mentor, John Andrew Glaze, whose theory of ‘literary time’ is of dubious philosophical pedigree. Second, Zob turns the whole literary world on its head through the size of advance he instructs his agent to negotiate for his latest, and most mediocre novel to date.


Secretly Wye keeps a diary of Zob’s professional and private life. Comic, resolute, Wye stalks through its every page, scattering his pearls with an imperious hand, while an unsuspecting Zob ensures perfect conditions for the chronicles satire.

Set in the relatively safe remove of London’s beau monde in the early 1990s, Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? unremittingly debunks the phenomenon of literary celebrity.

The plot revolves round a researcher working through an archive of computer discs, emails and faxes, and his own diary recording his reactions to life in proximity of bookish heavyweight Marshall Zob. It’s a roaring satire, in the best English comedic tradition.

Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is published by CentreHouse Press and is available in print format. Retails at all the usual places, including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Word Power Books, Barnes and Noble.





Debussy Was My Grandfather, by Garry O'Connor

Dramatic WritingPosted by Jack d'Argus Tue, December 13, 2016 12:34:58

Under the one title are brought together two plays by the critically acclaimed Garry O’Connor, Debussy Was My Grandfather and The Madness of Vivien Leigh.

A theme common to both is the emotional and psychological turmoil underneath the veil of public careers, with an uncompromising look at the undercurrents: the dysfunction of domestic/family life, in all its anguish and floridity. There’s a nicely judged balance between art in its moments of transcendence, and the reality underpinning it, with a flawed humanity put to the service of art. It’s a theme O’Connor has explored in a substantial body of work as novelist, biographer and playwright…

Praise for The Madness of Vivien Leigh:

‘The mythology of one of the century’s most celebrated marriages…a brilliantly perceptive portrait.’ The Observer

‘With real insight O’Connor gets plausibly close to what made Olivier and wife tick as artists…a penetrating, utterly objective mind at work. Irish Times

‘Compulsive…the pair who were Charles and Di, Torville and Dean, Tragedy and Comedy, Scylla and Charybdis all rolled into one.’ Vogue

Debussy Was My Grandfather is published by CentreHouse Press and is available in print format. Retails at all the usual places, including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Word Power Books, Barnes and Noble.



Naked Woman, by Garry O'Connor

Dramatic WritingPosted by Jack d'Argus Tue, December 13, 2016 11:28:43

Under the one title Naked Woman are brought together two plays by the critically acclaimed Garry O’Connor. The first, Semmelweis, is a victim play in the Tennessee Williams tradition, and the second, De Raptu Meo, is a theatrical re-creation of English poet Geoffrey Chaucer and his times.


Semmelweis is from the start in a trap set by his own character and his overriding passion for truth. But his is a story of crushing disappointment, having parallels today, especially in medicine. To see flaws in the system, and to speak out against cover-ups and vested interest, invites pariah status and a ruthless sweeping aside in the relentless drive for conformity and profit.

De Raptu Meo, as Libby Purves pointed out in her review, exposes the relativity of truth we find in contemporary culture, which she has contrasted with events surrounding English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who faced, in Richard II’s reign, the accusation of rape. Present society is awash with stories of sexual abuse as no other age has been. Here is a take on that subject, with the audience asked to participate in Chaucer’s trial as if the jury, and at the end give a verdict as to whether or not he was guilty of the crime.

Semmelweis was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and De Raptu Meo had its first reading in Inner Temple, with Derek Jacobi in the part of Geoffrey Chaucer, and its first full performance in the same venue with Ian Hogg in the lead role.

Naked Woman is published by CentreHouse Press and is available in print format. Retails at all the usual places, including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Word Power Books, Barnes and Noble.



Wrestling With the Angel, by Jon Elsby

AutobiographyPosted by Jack d'Argus Thu, August 04, 2016 14:51:03
Jon Elsby's account of his conversion to Roman Catholicism is subtitled A Convert's Tale, and is offered in some thoroughness. Hard-won belief is presented as an act of rationality, and as an attitude not only of trust but of eschatological hope.


He shows, using his own as a case study, that what gives rise to that trust and hope is the result of logical steps. It is simply not possible to make sense of ‘the good’ as purely subjective, and of ‘values’ as belonging to purely private judgement. He points out that the human mind is more than capable, when it suits its purposes, of simultaneously holding to two or more contradictory opinions, the will stubbornly refusing to assent to what the intellect understands to be the case. How, he asks, can we cleave to the view that the existence of the universe is accidental, yet insist that human life has intrinsic value, or that anything matters? To countenance these contradictions is to compartmentalise the mind, where one facet holds to the truth, another to values, and so on. For the believer truth and goodness are intimately bound, whereas a system of beliefs that requires its adherents to separate views about truth and value is irrational. Altogether, a thought-provoking look at what it is to believe in the truth of Christianity. Jack d’Argus

Wrestling With the Angel is published by CentreHouse Press and is available in print format. Retails at all the usual places, including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Word Power Books, Barnes & Noble.






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