Sunday, 15 March 2020

My review of Anne Glenconner's Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown.

Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the CrownLady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown by Anne Glenconner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lady Glenconner's life could arguably not have failed to make unputdownable reading. One might think it impossible for any aristocratic wife of the owner of the island of Mustique, and royal Lady-in-Waiting, to get this wrong, considering readership thirst. Yet being a prominent peeress and socialite does not always a fine author make. Some other daughter of an earl may not have been blessed with this one's magnetic persona or storytelling prowess. Whilst she humbly acknowledges the publisher's support, this articulate and amusing woman is a born raconteuse.

Her words glow with the impish charm and wry wit reminiscent of the late great Nancy Mitford, another highborn Mistress of Anecdote whose work became an industry. Literary critic Raymond Mortimer wrote that Mitford's Madame de Pompadour "reads as if an enchantingly clever woman was pouring out the story to me on the telephone." In Glenconner's Lady in Waiting we find a similar flair. As with Mitford's globally loved works, Lady Anne's narrative makes no stab at literary greatness, instead riding on candour and authenticity guaranteed to entertain.

Her breathtakingly privileged status never once becomes the storytelling liability it could have, in connecting with everyday people. Her frankness and humility win us onside, without an ounce of the pomposity that has been the undoing of some biographers of her rank.

That we can't help but empathise over some of the awfulness life has thrown at her, is testimony to the balance of this piece. Her starchy aristocratic father Thomas Coke, 5th Earl of Leicester, her impossible but fabulous husband Colin Tennant, 3rd Baron Glennconner, her adored yet tragic two sons the Hon. Henry and Charles Tennant, were never going to make Lady Anne's life a walk in the park. But fabulous times she has enjoyed and she shares these generously with her readers, taking us on the ride of our lives.

Having anticipated this finely polished biography for a year, I drank it up in four nights and was saddened to close the last page.

A classy and delicious read. More please, Lady G.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Memories Distorted

Memory pertaining to our earliest years is deceptive. I vividly recall an evening in my paternal grandparents' parlour, where my parents and I lived until I was nearly four, watching Cilla Black perform Alfie and You're My World. I see the scene, long before I started school and saw other kids, as clearly as if yesterday: the grey sofa my legs dangled from, chintz curtains at the side window behind the TV, my mother's mauve button-front dress, my father's rolled white shirt sleeves and the clean but natural scent of his armpits. The pierced tin flagon of Double Diamond beer they shared in two dimpled half-pint tankard glasses, each occupying in an armchair by the coal fire. The late 1950s pastel oblong patterned wallpaper behind which my grandparents watched their own TV in their adjacent living room. I see Cilla's face on the black and white screen, hear her piercing tones, her heart wrenching words. Did grownups really feel what she sang of? It's the music that cements the scene. Yet history shows those two records not being released until the two years following our move across town to our own house, me in my first years at school.

Scholars argue that early childhood memories are the stuff of fluffy fiction, technically impossible, our cerebral formation at such early development. Cherished flash backs from POV's of prams and cots are false, formed from fragmented tales overheard from elders, jumbled with glimpses of other events featuring the same people or places (sometimes even dreams mistaken for reality).

Yet beyond infancy we encounter the same. I distinctly see a pre-pubescent night with my father in our front room, my mother out working, he and I enjoying a satirical new TV show, That's Life! Its main presenter, a little known blonde called Esther Ransome, triggered an alien twinkle in my father's eye. Her quirky offsiders included wry-faced veteran comic Cyril Fletcher. I feel the rarity of this pleasant evening at home with my father, usually the one working nights rather than my mother (both had these passing second jobs in various licensed venues) in the comparative luxury of our front room, normally reserved for visitors or special occasions. The sense of reluctantly touching and sitting on the good furniture, as Esther and Cyril chatted and mused. Yet records show That's Life! not starting until two years after my parents' divorce: our house sold, me hopping between my mother and stepfather's first make do abodes and my grandparents' house, where my father again lived for the five or so years before his second marriage.

Such memories feel so authentic, solid and dependable. History confirms that scholars can be wrong in the absence of future knowledge, records inaccurate from human error. The temptation to trust instinct over academic theory is often irresistible.

But to my ultimate point on all this as a writer of many memoir-style prose pieces, from full-length to novelette to short story to vignette:

Once upon a year, long before we had Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and its many competitor platforms who have collectively forever reshaped publishing ... to submit one of my (and many modern classic authors from Jean Rhys to whoever) stories to a publisher, it was considered neither 'Fiction' nor 'Non-fiction', as is increasingly becoming a standard submission criterion on almost all traditional literary platforms. Rather, it was in that long past age, a piece of 'Literary Prose'.

Jean Rhys' short stories and novels, for which she received an OBE, are mostly written first person and indeed draw from various periods of her real life, but they are unmistakably 'fictionalised' – fictionalised far beyond changing names of characters based on real people. Her anthologies include first person stories recalling episodes of her real life narrated by all kinds of tellers who couldn't possibly be her: from pre-toddlers who could have no cerebral recall of the events they describe around them, to ghosts visiting places their living counterparts lived in – but they're all really Jean Rhys drawing from her own life.

And Rhys was no minority in the age of great 'Modernist'/'Stream of Consciousness' authors.

It was in that bygone age a 'thing' to categorise one's prose: 'Autobiographical Fiction'. Yet on examining the vast majority of today's online Submission Guidelines (endless of them sit on the platform 'Submittable' )one invariably encounters requirement to place such work in 'Non-fiction' or 'Fiction'. How, if we're to show any measure of integrity?

A quick Google search will confirm the vigorous assertion from all self-proclaimed 'authorities' on the topic that: Memoir = Non-Fiction. Yet if you reread my first paragraphs in this piece you'll recall that so many of the 'memories' forming the basis of such prose are more often than not entirely imaginary, or at least halfway so.This odd logic defies the assumption of online submission platforms representing signs of 'progress' (a progressive approach to traditional ways). Rather, it demonstrates a wide scale shrinkage of the 'progressive' publishing scene's definitive creative ability to think outside the square – as in 'the abstract nature of art'. Writing is our art, yet we are required to take a less and less abstract framing in this way. Pigeonholing has become more the order of the day than ever before.

Such is the dichotomy I frequently notice myself pondering and which increasingly deters me from submitting any first-person POV literary prose.

I feel compelled to conclude with a link to this insightful and blood pressure raising 13-year-old Guardian piece on this thorny subject, by Laura Dietz, which reads like the death knoll of writerly flexibility:

You can Google a hundred more like it written since, confirming the cut and dried anti-creative trajectory of 'progressive publishing'.

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Eulogy to Friend

In Memoriam Peter Francey Draffin (25 March 1947 - 2 December 2019)

I met Peter nearly half my life ago in a breakfast group at The Rocks. They were a mixed bunch and, as an ex-theatrical with sibilant S's, I shied from some, leaning towards those from the arts – actors, musicians, painters ...

Peter and I were the only writers, he the old hand, I the fledgling: two long haired, chain smoking, coffee swilling wordsmiths. 

We'd both lived in London about 8 years apart, he the Kings Road hippy, I the disco queen.

It seemed we knew each other instantly.

Peter's rare civility and incisive mind set him apart. His eloquence and greatness of spirit, at odds with his thrown on clothes and gruff humour, were grounding in times of unrest, inspiring in times of ennui.

His listening ear, humility and colossal soul were reminders that special people existed in an often harsh world. 

He was a raconteur, a philosopher and a dissenter, with an encyclopaedic repertoire of Bob Dylan quotes which he routinely recited.

I'd smile patiently, mindful that this old hippy was better than no old hippy; that here was a fellow individualist, and one of the most intelligent people I ever knew.

In some ways we were opposites – he with his proper upbringing, boarding school youth and erudite mind, in contrast to my British wild child roots.

He was a blokey reader of Raymond Chandler, I a girly one of Nancy Mitford. 

His home workspace was a cluttered shambles, mine a study of stark minimalism.

He clacked on typewriters, I tapped on laptops.

Yet we found our similarities stronger than our differences:

We'd both had lonesome boyhoods, tasted the good life, known tragedy, loss and grief, drowned our demons and were on the road to repair, steadying each other as we went. 

We agonised over our writing, which we agreed was a confection of lies about people who never existed in places they never inhabited.

We kept up our coffee dates for decades, sitting week after week, reflecting, chewing the fat, lending an ear.

We met at sidewalk cafes, including here and across the road, he in a cloud of tobacco smoke rattling off Dylanisms, me checking my hair and text messages. And we chatted on the phone.

For years I urged him to get a laptop, a smartphone, an Opal card, a TV even with his old analogue set obsolete. But Peter, ever the dissenter, knew these newfangled gizmos were "just passing crazes," so pushed on without them.

There's a gap where Peter Draffin sat in my world. He was the big brother I never had, a surrogate uncle or dad, a mate and voice of reason. 

One whose mark on the world remains on the printed page and embossed on our hearts, but whose time had to come in that great dropping off of the perches. 

When last we met up, we finished our coffee and off I walked to my scooter, he the other way down Broadway. He looked weary but not ailing, his cheeks rosy, eyes bright, and said nothing of ill-health.

A week or so later, when I sat by his hospital bed, there was peace in his slumber and I felt him sense my presence, chatting with his daughter. I lay awake that night, sure I'd never hear his magnificent voice again. I won't, but it's indelible.

I'll maybe always wonder what Peter would say about ... such and such? He'd perhaps now be addressing my shock at his sudden end, by quoting Dylan, who said:

"Death means nothing to me as long as I can die fast."

And perhaps I'd quote back at him:
How many deaths will it take till we know
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friends, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

I'll forever remember you Peter Draffin, the purest of the pure, the rarest of the rare. Thank you, my friend, so long, adieu, adios, arrivederci, shalom and goodnight.

  1. Peter Draffin's education began at Tudor House School in Moss Vale, NSW. He later attended Cranbrook School, Sydney. He studied literature at the University of Sydney.
  2. His most acclaimed novel, Pop (1967), was illustrated by Martin Sharp and Published by Scripts Pty Ltd (London and Melbourne.
  3. His obituary was published was published in the Sydney Morning Herald. 

My review of Cats the movie

Well I saw it and didn't mind it, so there! Rubishers of the new Cats movie should research the history of stage-musical-to-screen adaptations. Whilst some have made spectacular screen incarnations (The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, The King and I, Show Boat, South Pacific, Irma la Douce, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Oliver, Funny Girl, Cabaret), more have disappointed. This is due to so many factors, but basically when any piece is so close to someone's heart (e.g. diehard fans who watched it a hundred times onstage, or those who worked on it eight times a week for years in theatre, as with myself, only to then encounter celluloid letdowns like, say, A Chorus Line or Chicago, once such major parts of one's daily life for so long), grating diversions from what we lived and breathed on such a scale are hard to swallow.
Some musicals were so intrinsically theatrical, the screen transition was impossible or incomparable РLes Mis̩rables springs to mind (despite Anne Hathaway's breathtaking performance, but interestingly by the same director as Cats, Tom Hooper), and Sweeney Todd, despite the wondrous Helena Bonham Carter; and the awful Camelot, despite acting greats Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave; not to mention Mame, despite legend Lucille Ball.
As Cats was another major musical I worked on in its first months in 1981, and having seen the huge changes it underwent over the early years, I had limited expectations of the movie. It's another piece of theatre magic that was never going to please all on screen. Elements of it won me over quite unexpectedly, though I'm perplexed at media censure of the cats being human – no one had that gripe with the show! Same with the 'threadbare plot' receiving such denigration – the equally plotless show ran for 21 years in London. Most of the cast I felt excelled, albeit with a far easier task with limitless camera takes, special FX and sound recording, than having to perform it live eight times a week for months or years.
OK, on the downside I thought Jennifer Hudson's vocal interpretation of Memory a waste of a magnificent voice and a stellar number – but she's otherwise faultless as Grizabella, heartbreakingly acted. I also can't stand Rebel Wilson (Jennyanydots) in anything, so not in Cats either: this musical necessitates great talents, so casting comedians-made-good like her and even James Corden (Bustopher Jones), rather than actors/dancers/singers, just ain't good enough IMHO. And though I've always found director Tom Hooper's straight dramas brilliant – Love in a Cold Climate, The King's Speech, Elizabeth I, The Danish Girl etc – I puzzle over his rare transgressions into musicals, which don't seem to be his genre.
I nevertheless felt Cats delivered more pleasant surprises than bad ones. I didn't mind the contentious CGIing, thought the 'scary' sets and costumes superb and loved Judi Dench in her much-slated traditionally male-cast role of Old Deutoronomy (I reject the dumb tabloid media conjecture that she plays it transgender). Ian McKellen is the ideal Gus the Theatre Cat, alongside fellow fab actors Ray Winstone as Growltiger and Idris Elba as Macavity, with younger actor Laurie Davidson a fine Mr. Mistoffelees (if originally more a dance role, created by ballet legend Wayne Sleep).
Taylor Swift is great as Bomballurina, if only onscreen for five or ten minutes. 'Proper dancer' Francesca Hayward is exquisite as Victoria, as are fellow hoofers Steven McRea an excellent Skimbleshanks, Robert Fairchild a perfect Munkustrap and Eric Underwood a lovabable Admetus.
Jason Derulo is a terrific Rum Tum Tugger, as are Les Twins as Plato and Socrates.
More background roles are all well filled by fine talent, e.g. Danny Collins as Mungojerrie and Naoimh Morgan as Rumpleteazer; Jonadette Carpio as Jemima; Daniela Norman as Demeter; Freya Rowley as Jellylorum; Ida Saki as Electra; Zizi Strallen as Tantomil; Mette Towley as Cassandra; Bluey Robinson as Alonzo; Zizi Strallen as Tantomil and Jaih Betote as Coricopat.
So yep, I disagree with the negative critics at large, they know nothing. Go see!

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Sydney Morning Herald review of my novel Or Forever Be Damned

"... astute characterisation and detailed evocation of the theatre world ... an impressive debut novel, written with great energy, featuring a good family-saga plot."

Or Forever Be Damned by C.S. Burrough | Review | Historical Novels Review

So grateful for the prestigious Historical Novel Society's great review of my novel Or Forever Be Damned:

"Once, not so long ago, a little island nation ruled over an empire on which the sun never set. This is a simple statement of fact, but a mighty one. The age of empire building is the backdrop to the beginning of Burrough’s generational saga, which follows the height of British power through its collapse. It is against this backdrop that Burrough frames his narrative and through which the enormity of change that occurred during the 20th century is illuminated.
The narrative is framed around the lives and the families of two very different women who both escape the slums of Salford, England. Salford, a city which tried to match the success of nearby Manchester and failed miserably, was at its lowest point in the 1930s, and both women are scarred by their years spent there. Mona is a factory worker who yearns for a life on stage and is frustrated by her younger, favored and more talented brother, Ambrose. Mona resolves to outshine him. She meets Kat, a veteran child actor, who yearns to escape the theatre life, as much as Mona dreams of having one. The two seem destined to be at odds from the beginning.
Or Forever be Damned is more than a novel; it is also just as much an enlightening commentary on the vast change time brings to society and how attitudes, values, formalities, expectations and conventions break down, to the great joy of some and the great heartbreak of others. It is certainly painstakingly researched and meticulous in its detail, and the characters are so wonderfully and richly crafted that one wonders if they correspond to people who once lived extraordinary but unknown lives. A highly recommended example of historical fiction at its finest." 

Or Forever Be Damned by C.S. Burrough | Review | Historical Novels Review

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Or Forever Be Damned paperback giveaway on Goodreads

To celebrate the release of my historical saga Or Forever Be Damned's paperback edition, I've scheduled a giveaway. Goodreads will select 5 entrants to each receive a paperback copy. This will be open for entries from midnight on Saturday, November 1 through midnight on Friday, November 14. The offer is open to Goodreads members in United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia.
[*This was a huge success, thanks to the 903 people who participated]

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Or Forever Be Damned by C.S. Burrough

Or Forever Be Damned

by C.S. Burrough

Giveaway ends November 14, 2014.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win