So, who is the best actor to play Lemmy in a biopic?

I often cast films in my imagination. If I read about a character in a book, an actor will come to mind and I think ‘he or she would be perfect for that role.’ Many times, I’ve considered actors who might be in films of my own novels: Brendan Gleeson and Julie Walters feature a lot when I’m hypothetically casting one of my books in my head, as do Colin Farrell, Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton. So, when I heard there was going to be a film about the late, great Lemmy Kilminster’s life, I immediately started wondering about who’d be the best actor to play the role of that incredible man.

I saw Lemmy performing with Motörhead in London not long before he passed away; he was quite static on stage but his indomitable spirit, his energy, his love of music that was so loud it made your eardrums buzz and his devil-may-care attitude were tangible. The actor who would play Lemmy on screen would need to do him justice; it would need to be someone who could embody his intelligence, his iconoclasm, his mischief and his rebellious streak. He would need to be magnetic, full of charisma.

I’m quite open-minded about actors who are cast as rock stars: they are actors first, so imitation and interpretation are everything – they don’t need to look exactly like the character they are playing.  Val Kilmer embodied Jim Morrison so well in The Doors. Rami Malek looked nothing like Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody but he managed to portray him with such panache and skill that the character was utterly credible. Taron Egerton was inspired in his performance in Rocket Man: I even conceded that I liked the music, although I’m no Elton John fan. So, for me, the actor who plays Lemmy doesn’t necessarily have to be a look-alike or a predictable choice as their talent comes first. So, here are some of my choices for the role of Lemmy.

The obvious ones:

Johnny Depp is a reasonably good choice to play Lemmy. He’s a musician, a rock star, an experienced actor; by his own admission, he understands the ravaging effects of an alcohol and drug-fuelled lifestyle. He’s a middle-aged sex symbol who can act. He could probably use a good role right now at this point in his career. It seems he ticks all the boxes to play Lemmy.

Robert Downey Junior. As above, probably.

Tom Hardy. He is possibly one of the most gifted actors on screen. He pulled off the roles of both Kray twins in one film; he rescued Venom from the depths of banality and he took the role of Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders to such heights that he managed to get away with a character that, in other circumstances, might have been perceived as a bit risky to say the least. He played Heathcliff with such passion that he achieved empathy where the character deserved no sympathy. He is a genius. Just imagine how he’d play Lemmy.

The less-obvious ones.

Benedict Cumberbatch. Not remotely like Lemmy, not in your wildest dreams. But he’s played everything from Hamlet to Dominic Cummings, so I wonder what he’d make of Motörhead’s front man? He could do it, certainly.

Russell Brand. Russell may be some people’s choice; he has the patter, the charisma, the confidence, the bravado to play Lemmy but he lacks Lemmy’s rawness and natural charm. Not for me.

Orlando Bloom. I was really surprised that, as the initial idea of Orlando Bloom as Lemmy made me burst out laughing, the choice really grew on me. Orlando has served his time playing undemanding roles of young, well-meaning fresh-faced heroes such as Legolas in Lord of the Rings, Paris in Troy and Will in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. It would be a challenge for him to take on the gritty role of Lemmy and I think he’d do it justice. I can imagine Mr. Kilminster chuckling over his bottle of Jack Daniels to think that he’d been portrayed by a man who once played the love interest of Keira Knightley, and an elf.

Jason Momoa. He’d be ‘superhero Lemmy’ in the animated version. A hilarious thought!

Joaquin Phoenix. After an incredible physical performance in Joker, Joaquin can do anything in my opinion. He’d make Lemmy leap from the screen.

Jared Leto. He is possibly my first choice to play Lemmy. Jared Leto is an incredibly versatile actor who would be able to show Lemmy’s progress from his early days in Hawkwind where he became a member because the bass player didn’t show up for a gig to his arrest for drug possession on the Canadian border, creating an empathic staging of Lemmy’s final days as Motörhead’s anarchist bassist and well-loved antihero.

Of course, it depends on the demands of the screenplay: will the film be a linear story of Lemmy’s life, or a glossy romanticised depiction of his early days as a young man whose youthful experiences were steeped in sex and drugs and rock and roll, or will we see the wistful older Lemmy reminiscing on his life as the speakers blast out the strains of such famous songs as No Remorse and Built for Speed.

Whoever is chosen for the role, I’d certainly watch the film. It will be very interesting to see how the director portrays Lemmy and I hope the film goes some way to do justice to a fascinating and unique musician who remains widely admired by so many people.

This leads me to reflect on similar films to come. We’ve had biopics about Freddie Mercury, Sid Vicious, Ray Charles, Billie Holliday, Edith Piaf. Now I’ve heard there will be a film about David Bowie’s life: I wonder who they’ll pick to play that role. And who would be a good choice to play Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Tom Petty, Marc Bolan, Kurt Cobain or Dolores O’Riordan? Are there roles here for established actors or could someone new cut their teeth on such a huge part? It is fascinating to speculate on casting and to look beyond the obvious choices.

How can we deal with the whispering voices of doubt?

‘You’re doing fine. Keep going. You’re nearly there. You’ve got this.’

I remember repeating this to myself on a long walk in the Lake District a few years ago: having climbed Scafell Pike and Great Gable, I ran out of energy on the descent with three miles to go. It took sheer willpower to drag myself back to the carpark.

Developing a supportive voice inside your head, imitating the soothing, coaxing tones of a parent or a best friend, is something perhaps we all need to do from time to time to keep ourselves balanced. Often, the face we present to our friends, the confident one with the positive thoughts and attitudes, is not the same face as that of the anxious individual who sometimes doubts his or her own potential. It’s no surprise that we often hear how people who show a self-assured, cheery exterior are, in reality, quite vulnerable and alone in their darker moments. Think Robin Williams, the most ebullient and talented of comedians. Apparently, even Lady Gaga suffers from low self-esteem.

It is interesting that, often, when other people appear so assured, they have all the answers, they seem to understand the world, say the right things, make all the right moves, it’s no wonder that we sometimes feel isolated, exposed and less capable of doing what is expected of us. The inner voice, less welcoming and supportive, tells us we will mess up, we don’t deserve success: it’s the voice that says we are impostors, we have taken a place we don’t merit and soon we will be found out as frauds, with embarrassing consequences.

I only heard the term ‘impostor syndrome’ relatively recently and, on hearing it, I had one of those moments when things seemed to click into place. It explained exactly what I’d felt on several occasions and, all of a sudden, there was a name for it.

As a child in the playground, joining in with all the others, I knew my family were ‘different’. At grammar school and beyond, surrounded by many lovely people, most of whom were very privileged, I often felt that I had no right to be there, I didn’t really belong and, at some point, someone would jump out from behind a curtain and explain that to everyone.

As a teacher of theatre, my central impetus was for every student to achieve their best, more, if possible, and I was always aware of the injustices that might hold the less privileged kid back. It was something I sought to identify and change.

Now as I writer, I’m still occasionally revisited by the familiar voice that asks me what I’m doing here. I have a smart and brilliant agent; my publishers are wonderful; the editors are kind, astute, cool people who are so self-assured. Everyone is glamorous, talented, warm and friendly and they all have every right to be where they are, bathing in the soft light of well-deserved success. The negative voice whispers in my ear that I must be an impostor.

Of course, the friendly voice in my head takes over at this point. I’m not out of place; I work hard; I can write and my books are selling well. I’ll be ok if I just keep going.

Then realism kicks in; these beautiful, talented writers who publish brilliant books that drip from their fingertips like magic spells are really just like the rest of us:  they sit at the laptop into the early hours of the morning, writing and editing and searching inside their heads for the right phrase, the clever ending, the smart plot points. They wake up in the morning with a head full of stories and they lurch for the black coffee before stumbling towards the laptop, not even having brushed their hair. They have moments of self-doubt which happen on the day before their new novel is released, wondering what will happen if no-one likes it; what will happen if this is the one where everyone thinks ‘Why is she even here?’ Then the sweet voice whispers to be calm:  all this anxiety is completely normal and will fade away soon.

Nowadays, I’m so much better at positivity. Equality, inclusion and fairness are my priorities and I’ll go out of my way to encourage and support others. If I’ve ever experienced impostor syndrome, then other people will have experienced it too. Moreover, there are so many talented people who don’t know or believe in their own potential or have something holding them back, so others should be more often  the focus of my energies.

Of course, self-doubt is normal; we’re all vulnerable, flawed, imperfect, human. That’s what makes us ultimately better at what we do. It’s the very nature of being human that makes us want to Improve our own skills and, at the same time, to reach out, to support and encourage others, to remind others that we deserve to be where we are, that we can aspire beyond the present moment. And, I have to say, my agent, publisher, editors, fellow-writers are all blessed with the ability to inspire and reassure: I couldn’t be luckier.

So, back to the voice in our heads, the one that soothes and cajoles, the one we should listen to more often, and the other voice, the one that criticizes and says that we are impostors who have no right to be here, the voice we should mostly ignore: I have developed the ability to switch them on and off. I know which one to listen to and believe, and which one to discount, to use as the voice of criticism which is there simply to keep me on my toes.

When I sit at my laptop and begin a new novel, the voices are quiet: I’m utterly consumed with a brand-new idea. I can hear conversations between characters; I can imagine settings, feel emotions. I’m off and away when I’m writing. There’s no time to stop and doubt what I can achieve. Hard work and rampant enthusiasm are brave companions.

But it is the quiet time, the time alone, the moments of emotional vulnerability when things are not going as well as they might or the biorhythms have taken an almighty dip that I have to be vigilant. It’s then that the doubt can arrive, the underlying feelings of being an impostor. We are all the same: we all feel similar emotions and suffer similar insecurities. Everyone understands both the feeling of strength and surging confidence and the opposing feeling of self-doubt.

We need to remember that whatever it takes, with the help of friends, family or our own sheer bloody willpower, we can reach our goals. Let’s replace the ‘impostor’ with ‘I deserve to be here.’ Let’s change the sense of being out of place with a sense of equal entitlement. Solidarity is so important. As we join hands and support each other, we realise that together we are stronger, whatever the journey. Let the voices of doubt whisper what they will, we can shout louder. We’ve got this.

 

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Whatever music you need, Escapades hits the right note.

I know some people like to work in silence: writing a novel, a dissertation or doing homework means that concentration must continue uninterrupted and they prefer no noise at all. Others like the buzz of a radio playing music in the background, or the friendly hum of a voice on Radio Four.

I like the pace, the ambiance and the motivating mood of loud music.

I wrote an entire novel while listening to Rory Gallagher playing the blues. Another novel was written with Planet Rock constantly bustling in the background. Once, I changed the music I was listening to as I changed the mood from chapter to chapter; Gogol Bordello for the lively moments, Nina Simone for the tender moments, the scenes of pathos.

At the moment I have started a novel set against the backdrop of the Scottish lochs and that’s where Jack Gardiner’s Escapades comes in. I’ve discovered his album and it’s perfect for when I’m writing.

Jack is from Liverpool, only twenty-six years old, but he’s been playing guitar since he could sit up in his cot. A consummate musician, composer and technically-brilliant teacher, he cut his teeth playing guitar with China Crisis and he has toured with many more maestros in his short but productive time.

Now he’s made a solo album and it is heaven to write novels to. Jack has fingers that spider across the frets at a speed you wouldn’t believe, producing spiky atmospheric sounds, ideal for me when I’m imagining dawn over Loch Ness or the winding roads of Skye. But there’s so much more to Jack’s music than that.

From a musical family, (Jack’s father is a consummate bass guitarist, his brother plays a mean bass and drums and his mother has published articles as a music journalist,) Jack was always destined to perform. The track, 1993, which I guess is named after the year of his birth, is rhythmic, celebratory, with a spacy atmosphere, the guitar playing of a virtuoso. But Jack is no flash-in-the pan exhibitionist; his music comes from astute intelligence and empathy. There is a melodic, echoing tenderness in track 6, Until Next Time; track 4 Lark Lane, is mischievous and funky while track five, Cereal Killer, is more heavily percussive.

Jack is a huge talent. He wouldn’t be out of place playing in any band, and he has the potential to become a big name alongside Bonamassa and Page. He would wow in a traditional rock band with bass, guitar and vocalist – he has done this many times before – and he has the skill to stun in a duet with another musician or a singer, but it is this solo album that currently steals the show, that surprises in its confidence, a maturity beyond his years, credibility and the sheer impact of one man and his guitar creating a range of skilfully-played and produced tracks.

Escapades is great for me as a writer; it bubbles in the background like a lively stream as I match the pace and mood with my own ideas and words. But the album offers so much more. I’d listen to Escapades with the lights on low, lying on soft cushions; I’d fall asleep and wake up to it; I’d serve the music up with a meal for my best friends; I’d use it to cheer people up and to soothe the troubled soul.

It is an album that satisfies, that draws the listener in and that impresses. Jack is a young man who will go far; I believe one day his name will spring to the lips as quickly as Clapton’s or Gilmour’s when people are discussing great virtuoso guitarists. And this new album is a gem. Listen to it for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

Listen to Jack’s album Escapades on Spotify or buy it here: Jack Gardiner Official Bandcamp

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Six books that inspire me to be a better writer

I spend a great deal of my time writing.  My latest novel is out! The Old Girls’ Network was released several days ago and I’ve started to edit the next one, which is very exciting. I’ve also just finished writing another – the life of a novelist is all go! – and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. But in the middle of coming up with a new idea, writing it down, editing it, tweeting about it, and talking to radio hosts, I must still make time to read. 

It’s so important to read widely, not just in order to stay constantly familiar with good writing and good ideas, but also for inspiration. I’ve read a few books by some brilliant fellow Boldwood writers. I’m so impressed with the quality of current novels by Fay Keenan, Jina Bacarr, Shari Low, Emma Murray, Gemma Rogers, Jennie Bohnet, Ross Greenwood, Mary Grand, Beth Moran, Frances Evesham and Jessica Redland, just to name a few (and there are many, many more).

But I’ve selected six books I’ve recently read, below. They each have a specific reason for being inspirational and helpful to writers, offering their own unique skills: they demonstrate how to create character, style, storyline, effective writing. It’s all here, a masterclass for authors to read, reflect and learn.

The Wheelwright’s Daughter by Eleanor Porter

This novel uses language so well to evoke place, time and character. It’s the story of Martha, who is accused of being a witch because she is adept with herbs and remedies and, when a landslide occurs, she is blamed.

The opening is incredibly gripping in its clever use of language to evoke time and place and the whole story is a perfect example of how to sustain tension and hold a reader’s interest through the quality of the writing. Characters and tension are superbly handled; it’s a well-written, well-shaped novel about a woman who is outspoken and strong in a community where small-mindedness prevails and small-minded people are eager to judge.

Twopence to Cross the Mersey by Helen Forrester

Helen’s story is autobiographical; born in 1919, she came from a middle-class Birkenhead family, used to privilege, who fell on hard times in the 1930s and lived in poverty in Liverpool. It’s a brilliantly told riches-to-rags tale, compassionate, humorous and without self-pity, in a style that is firmly rooted in days gone by but it still feels pertinent. The author’s voice is authentic: the use of language is, in fact, fascinating, as Helen uses many phrases and words now seldom used, and the world she creates is one we’d never be able to access without the primary evidence and the powerful way she evokes her story. It’s a very lucid account that reveals so much about the early twentieth century and social change, but the novel is in fact far more than that.

I know  Liverpool well and I thought I understood a little about its poverty in past generations, but the world and the lives Helen Forrester evokes in her novel are a real lesson to us all: the story she tells is very moving. Poverty has always been a part of society and it is heartbreaking to read Helen’s experience and to remember that, although times have greatly changed,so many vulnerable people continue to be let down and children still go hungry today. It’s an important and well-written series of stories about the past that still resonate loudly.

Milkman by Anna Burns

I love this book because it’s so brave, challenging and fresh. Set in an unspecified time and place, the community that unfolds as the story develops is both credible and terrifying. The writer has taken a chance with this book and it has worked so well. It won’t be everyone’s idea of a good read: it is a story of tribalism, patriarchy, religion and conformism and the Milkman himself is an incredibly scary character. 

It’s a gripping tale that is an excellent example of the writer taking its readers outside their comfort zone and making the story sing so loudly that it resonates a shocking truth about our own lives and our futures. I imagine the style and the concept won’t be for everyone but it’s the sort of book that will make many readers sit up and reflect.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

This novel is successful because of its style, panache, protagonist and its political energy. The writer is not afraid to be a little subversive and it is the strength and courage of Queenie that shines through. It is about race, straddling cultures and the experiences of a twenty five year old Jamaican-British woman, told in a breezy and humorous style. This story pulls no punches, though, as it deals with the title character’s journey as she splits up with her white boyfriend and attempts to navigate the modern world and all the prejudices and difficulties that it brings in terms of relationships, experiences and self-worth. It is strong, moving and superbly written from the first page to the last.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Not only is this book excellently researched, but it is also a strong cleverly-told tale about a character who defies others’ restrictions and expectations. This is a beautifully constructed and written story, which evokes character and place so well and is powerful in its ability to draw the reader in and to create empathy. Circe is a nymph, she is immortal but she is a woman who is scorned and isolated because she does not fit the mould others dictate for her. She learns to become a witch – it doesn’t happen by magic – and she develops power, strength and independence, which makes her a force to be reckoned with. A cleverly written story which is gripping and inspirational in so many ways.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

I had to include this book. It’s an interesting read for its wisdom, its logical arguments and clarity. As writers, we are always trying to make what we write accessible and meaningful to readers, and not to overcomplicate what we are saying, but to explain thoroughly and accurately. This book is very well-written, but it is so much more. In a time when a ‘white lives’ banner is flown over a football stadium and some Facebook posts demonstrate that there are people who don’t understand the issues at stake, Eddo-Lodge explains her perspective perfectly: it’s not just about discrimination and prejudice, it’s also about power and institutions and the meaning of privilege. This is an important, powerful and relevant book, and it offers a necessary dialogue to be continued so that we can thrash out the best way to end racism.

Football is Back!

I feel like I’ve been waiting for ages for the football calendar to resume, although it was only back in the middle of March that the decision was made to suspend the football season due to COVID-19. But now, this week, as I’m sure you will have noticed, football is back on TV again! And the excitement and anticipation in our house is incredible.

The first game of the resumed season was a neutral one for me: Aston Villa up against Sheffield United. But my family and I gathered around the TV, plates of lovely, hot poutine on our knees (see the pictutre below), celebrating an indulgent opportunity to ‘veg out’ in front of a game, and we were treated to a steady but intriguing match that resulted in a 0-0 draw.

Binge watching for the evening, we then sat quietly through Man City vs. Arsenal, expecting both teams to be raring to go: two Premier League giants ready for a big face-off. The 3-0 result went some way to suggest how unimaginative and out of practice Arsenal were. Man City were the better team, and it was clear that several weeks without a game had left all the players far from being match-sharp.

The return of top-flight football was marked with support for the Black Lives Matter movement, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Players have had ‘Black Lives Matter’ emblazoned on the backs of their jerseys and everyone on the pitch took a knee in solidarity with the movement and to highlight the importance of this message.

There is no doubting the power and meaning attached to these gestures, nor the impressiveness of many of the young men acting as terrific role models combating the racial prejudice and injustice which is still prevalent in football, across our society, and in many others around the globe. I hope these powerful gestures and eloquent footballers will be heeded, but more importantly that their words will be followed up by action by those with power that makes sport and society more inclusive and more just.

On Sunday, Father’s Day, we made a special dinner, a brazil nut and sage roast and all the trimmings, a bottle of wine, beer, and we gathered around the set for the much-awaited derby game. We expected our team to win: the presenters suggested that Liverpool would beat Everton easily, even though our main man Mo Salah was on the bench. When pundits make comments like that, I always expect things to go wrong.

It was a slow game and it might be fair to say that the 0-0 draw reflected the lack of end-to-end excitement and the match would have been much improved by the excited singing and baying of the crowd. However eerie it is to watch a live game with no supporters, safety comes first.

Everton might even have deserved to win the match. Tom Davies hit the crossbar; Seamus Coleman and Mason Holgate both had a strong game and they very effectively nullified Liverpool’s attacking intent. The only consolation was that we are another point closer to achieving the title, but understandably, after such a long lay-off, and having no crowd presence to raise the players’ game, the tension and excitement of football isn’t quite what it used to be.

Our next games are Crystal Palace, who appear to be in fighting form having handily dispatched relegation-threatened Bournemouth in their first game back, and then Man City who hammered Burnley last night. There will be some twists and turns in the Premier League before this season is over and before we can finally celebrate that long-awaited title. But football is back and we have everything to play for. Bring it on!

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The launch party for my new novel, The Old Girls’ Network is virtually perfect!

Lockdown has affected everyone’s life in so many different ways. I have been lucky: I’ve been able to work from home and go outside. It has been a real privilege to be able to spend time with my family while they’ve been home, and that’s what I’ve focused on. These are interesting and unusual times and, while it would be easy to focus on the negatives, it’s a great opportunity to spend quality time together.

I’ve written another novel in lockdown, but it’s not about lockdown, it’s about the opposite. It’s about being outside, being able to travel, to experience life. I love being able to write about being outdoors, exploring the world, making changes happen, growing. A good friend of mine recently described his experience of lockdown as ‘dull,’ another friend said he was ‘lonely’ and, although I believe I could write a lively lockdown story that celebrates the things I hold dear, it’s nice to step outside of current restrictions and rejoice in freedom and fun. Enter The Old Girls’ Network.

My new novel focuses on the intertwined lives of three characters: two are sisters, Barbara and Pauline. They are very different and lead different lives. Barbara is difficult to warm to at first; she seems  starchy and aloof. Life has made her that way and she uses her bluntness as a coping mechanism to keep her safe from being emotionally bruised. Pauline is the opposite: warm and good-natured, but strong. At first the sisters clash over their differences, then the enigmatic Bisto Mulligan arrives on the scene as a house guest and the three characters’ adventures in the Somerset village of Winsley Green lead to them being able to develop, to learn and to grow.

Winsley Green is the setting for the novel and in many ways the story is a perfect antidote to the negative side of lockdown. Much of the action takes place outdoors: there are antics on the village green, a cricket match, a Shakespeare play, Morris dancing, welly-wanging, a local fête – all sorts of colourful activities. I’ve also included a bright array of local characters who interact with Pauline and Barbara and who befriend Bisto, from whom much of the mischief, mayhem and mirth comes.

I’m hoping readers will find the book fun and enjoy it as a celebration of life. It’s a mixture of comedy and contemplation, and a validation of human nature as each character strives to develop their horizons, to be happy, and to be the best person they can be.

But, in a time of lockdown, I can’t have a physical launch party for my new novel. I usually enjoy some sort of get together with friends and family – I’ll take any opportunity to celebrate. It’s fascinating to try to find ways around the restrictions we’ve come to rely on for safety, and one way of launching The Old Girls’ Network will be to toast the novel’s journey individually and at a distance, either to meet on zoom or to send photos of each person celebrating the novel. Boldwood Books are kindly willing to put photos on their website, people holding copies of the book, or kindle downloads, lifting a glass of something, dressed in ‘country-style clothing,’ whatever that might mean. I’d welcome photos – please upload your contributions to Twitter and tag me in, @JudyLeighWriter

Today, Tuesday 16th June, is the release date for The Old Girls’ Network, and I hope you will all have as much fun reading it as I had writing it, which was a great deal of fun indeed. Please do raise a glass and, if you wish, send me a nice picture of yourself celebrating. Lockdown won’t last forever and I hope we will emerge healthy and happy, wiser, better educated and with a firmer grasp of our priorities as a society, and ready to party again.

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Time to watch a series on TV?

I’m not someone who watches much television. I’m quite boring in that respect: whenever friends enthuse about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, I’ve no idea what they are talking about. Watching a popular series on TV is a great opening to conversation and I’m aware that sometimes I’m missing out on it. I tend to be too busy to sit in front of the gogglebox as I spend a lot of time by myself working in the evenings: besides, the cats and I have quickly realised the danger of tuning into programmes like Luther when we are by ourselves. How many nights have I checked under the bed and hoped no-one will pop down from the attic via a hole in  the ceiling?

But since my son arrived back from South America and came to stay with me during lockdown, (and since there has been no football to watch for several months,) we have spent more time in front of the TV beside a warm fire with a glass of something nice. Firstly, we binge-watched all five series of Peaky Blinders, which I really thought were excellent. I enjoyed it for so many reasons that I’d have to write a blog about it separately, but one of the greatest highlights was Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Alfie Solomons. Absolutely inspired timing and characterisation- no-one else could have got away with it!

Then we sat through a whole series of Life on Mars, which was ok. Conceptually, it wasn’t for me but my theatre background has made it quite easy for me to separate a programme into the various compartments to analyse, and although I wasn’t keen on the story line or crazy about some of the characters, I enjoyed the acting, particularly the hilarious role of Philip Glenister. 

Then my son suggested that we watch all three series of  Hannibal and I agreed we’d try that. Of course, I should’ve known – as a vegan, I’m hardly a prime target audience to enjoy a suspenseful bloodthirsty cookery programme in which human flesh is prepared with elegance and relish. But I thought I’d give it a go. The cast was impressive and the series came recommended by someone whose opinion I value.

I love the opportunity to watch something and be surprised by my own reaction. Of course, I need to qualify what I mean by ‘watch something’: I spent most of the first two series on the floor with my hands over my eyes calling out ‘Can I look yet?’ While I enjoyed the powerful acting, the brilliant script, the clever photography, the symbolism, I couldn’t watch most of the gore, and there was a lot of it. It was too shocking for someone as easily horrified as I am.

The third series was a little less gory and more psychologically-tense and I preferred it, but only for that reason. Hannibal is not a series I’d naturally gravitate towards, and that’s why I’m so keen to blog about it. As a group performance, the acting is sensational, particularly Mads Mikklesen as Hannibal. The photography is excellent, the scripting is incredible and the way the characters develop and blend in a tense unfolding of a complex and well-contrived story is really good. 

It’s an intelligently written and directed series that invites the viewer to think, to work things out: nothing is quite as it seems; the use of symbolism and semiotic or suggestion is impressive and, all together, I really enjoyed it. Well, not enjoyed. It’s not enjoyable because it is distasteful, uncomfortable and often simply revolting. But it’s clever, well put together and thoroughly satisfying intellectually and aesthetically.

I can’t quite believe how much I did enjoy it while, at the same time, I regularly almost stopped watching it because the violence was unbearable. But I persisted. Both compulsive and horrific, Hannibal wouldn’t be suitable for anyone unless they were sure they weren’t prone to nightmares. I had plenty of awful dreams as a result, but the programme was utterly powerful, and I (almost) watched it all. A great series for all the right reasons. Dreadful for one reason alone – it is really nauseating. But I’m so glad I sat through it to the end. I wish there had been a series four.

Now what’s next on my list of things I don’t usually watch?CSC_0561

Appreciating ‘Dappl’d Things’ during lockdown

During the difficult lockdown moments when the sun isn’t shining and the world looks quite bleak, when people no longer have a reliable source of income and they can’t buy some foods or they have to queue at a distance to get them; when we all miss the simple things like going out for a coffee with a friend or watching the sport on TV, I find one of the best answers is to try to engage in some positive thinking.

I’ve always thought it was a good thing to make a list of positives when we feel a bit low, and there are some definite positives at the moment, one of which has to be the glorious weather we have been enjoying these past few weeks. I’m also enjoying reading wonderful books and watching a serial on TV I’ve never had time for in the past. I’m getting lots of writing done and there is time to tend to the garden, to listen to music, to go for long walks and to stop and think about and discuss the fascinating issues our communities are faced with right now.

Two of the many things I love and am most grateful for are words and nature. I’ve always been fascinated by words and languages and I enjoy reading and writing poems, blogs, songs and articles where I try to choose the right words for the right effect. Being able to walk outdoors in nearby woodlands gives me time to think and often words and ideas come to me and start to gel into some sort of plan. 

Yesterday, I was walking in my favourite stretch of woodland when I came across a dappled area, where the trees were filtering the sunlight on the grass and I began to think about how much I love dappled things. It’s the idea that something isn’t just one colour: everything is marked with darker spots or rounded patches, dark against light. I began to think of other dappled things that are beautiful: horses, cows, cats. Shakespeare uses the word ‘brinded’ to mean dappled, patterned or tabby, as in the witch’s line ‘thrice the brinded cat hath mewed’ in Macbeth. It’s that shade again, light on darker brown, a mottled effect.

Then as I trudged through the dappled glade, I thought of my favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote Pied Beauty, a lyric poem or curtal sonnet praising God for creating beautiful variegated things. His poem implies that the world is transitory; he suggests that  everything in the universe is destined to end or alter apart from the unchangeable beauty of God. It struck me that, whatever our religious beliefs, the poem is apt. We live in uncertain times and yet nature is always there for us and, of course, we need to take good care of it in return.

What I love most about Hopkins is his striking choice of language and the ‘sprung rhythm’ he uses when he writes, a clever use of stressed and unstressed syllables. For great examples of this, look at the poems The Windhover and God’s Grandeur by Hopkins. I love the way he uses powerful words that have visual impact; he uses language cleverly, selecting evocative words and choosing effective repetition such as alliteration, assonance and rhyme. 

A Victorian poet, Hopkins’ life was tragic. He went to Balliol, Oxford, a promising academic. He became a Jesuit priest; he was probably bipolar and never published his poems in order to subdue any feelings of egotism. He was forty four years old when he died of typhoid in Dublin. Despite bouts of severe loneliness and melancholy throughout his life, his reported last words were: ‘I am so happy, I am so happy, I loved my life.’

Against this background of sadness and self-denial, Hopkins’ love of nature and his religious fervour, which is often written so powerfully that it seen akin to physical or erotic love, is astonishing. The Windhover, for example, parallels the flight of a bird of prey and the glory of Jesus’ life and crucifixion: it is a poem rich in symbolism: the bird buffeted in the wind is a metaphor for Christ’s divine revelation to mankind.

I digress: this blog post is about a walk in the woods, thinking about words and looking at pretty colours from the sun as it filters through the trees to the shadows on the grass. Dappled things are wonderful to look at and, during these times when pasta and rye flour may be in short supply, you will find me down in the woodlands walking in a glade where the sunlight falls onto the ground in attractive blotches. 

The poem below will explain it much better than I can and I hope you will enjoy Hopkins’ choice of language as much as I do. Whether the reader is religious or whether he or she just likes a good walk outdoors and enjoys the feeling of being immersed in nature, it is a poem that might bring inspiration or even comfort in these troubled times.  

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things 

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced –

fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

 

Dappled 2

The ultimate and best (plant-based) Sunday roast ever

I make roast dinners for large numbers of people quite a lot: nut roasts, nut wellingtons, nut parcels, steamed puddings, vital wheat gluten roasts, all sorts of centrepieces find themselves alongside crispy pototoes. zingy vegetables, gravy, delicious yorkshire puddings, but this one is my favourite roast dish to date. It features chestnuts at the heart of the meal, although you could substitute walnuts or a mixture of nuts and seeds if you prefer, but this works so well with pre-cooked chestnuts. It’s a great meal for a celebration, for Christmas, for Thanksgiving, or just for that special time when families get together and you want to push the gravy boat out.

Preparation

Parboil enough peeled and chunked  potatoes (Maris Pipers work well)) for everyone sharing the meal. Drain the potatoes. Put them in a big bowl with a few chunks of sweet potatoes. Add olive oil, salt, black pepper, lemon juice and leave to marinade.

Make the roast: blitz a packet or tin of drained (cooked) chestnuts, two slices of brown bread, herbs of your choice (thyme, sage, parsley), a little water, a little oil (a tbsp), a shake of soy sauce, a couple of tbsp of brandy, black pepper and then stir in some sauteed onions, garlic, celery and chopped mushrooms. Mix together and put it in some greased individual pudding dishes, one for each person. This should feed four with one individual roast each but I know some people may want to make twice as much. The individual roasts go in a bain marie, a tin containing water, to cook later.

Prepare the gravy. Make a roux out of plant-based margarine and flour or, if you prefer, use a heaped tbsp of cornflour in water to thicken the gravy. Saute onions, garlic, mushrooms and celery; add a little water and a tbsp marmite. Blitz the lot (or most of it if you like bits in your gravy, as I do) then add a little more water, the thickener (roux or cornflour/water mix) and cook gently until the gravy thickens, darkens and bubbles. (I always add a glug of either marsala or, if I can’t get any, blackcurrant or blackberry liqueur to my gravy. Don’t ask why, but it really works well!)

Prepare your veg: broccoli, kale, carrots, beans, peas, whatever you like, in a steamer ready to go.

Prepare the yorkshires – blitz 2 cups self-raising flour, two cups plant milk (I use oat…) and a pinch of salt and pepper. Pour a little oil in each ‘pudding hole’ of a yorkshire pudding tray.

Forty/ fifty minutes before you want to eat.

Put the potatoes, covered in a little oil, on a tray into the top of the oven on 190. NO need to pre-heat.

Put the bain-marie containing the individual chestnut roasts in the middle of the oven.

25-30 minutes before you want to eat.

Shake the potatoes in the tin so that all sides will roast evenly. Move them down the oven to the centre shelf – I put them on top of the individual chestnut roasts to stop the tops of the roasts burning. Put the Yorkshire pudding tray with oil on the top shelf of the oven. 

Eighteen minutes before you want to eat.

Take out the yorkshire pudding tray. Pour the yorkshire pudding mix into the sizzling fat. Put the tray back on the top shelf. The mixture makes between 9-12 yorkshires, depending on the size of the tin. Turn the oven up to 200. Check the potatoes and give them a vigorous shake.

Ten minutes before you want to eat.

Steam the veggies. Season. Add some fresh herbs to the potatoes if you wish. Check the chestnut roast is almost done – firm to the touch or you can insert a tooth pick (but do remember to take it out again!)

Five minutes before you want to eat.

Reheat the gravy. Check the food in the oven is almost ready. Depending on your oven, you’ll be ready bang on time or you may want to cook for another five to eight minutes. The yorkshires will be crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle. The veg needs to be just cooked. Drain them and add a pinch of seasoning if it needs it and some lemon juice, then cover and  leave them until you plate up.

To serve

Invert the chestnut roasts and put the potatoes and veggies on plates.  Add the yorkshires. Smother the lot with gravy, just how you prefer it: a lot, a little, everywhere, just on the chestnut roast. A bottle of red goes down very well with this meal.
wine

Infiltrating The Old Girls’ Network 

My next novel, The Old Girls’ Network, is out on 16th June. I always experience a special feeling when a book is released into the world. Of course, I’ve been working on it for some time, from the moment I had the first scratchings of an idea to the moment I sent off my final edit. A book travels a long distance and meets a lot of people before you finally see the finished novel.

Most of my stories are about older people taking journeys of some kind; in the case of the first three books, my central characters travelled both abroad and within the UK. In The Old Girls’ Network, my fourth novel, Barbara, who is in her seventies, leaves her hometown, Cambridge, to stay with her sister Pauline in Somerset in order to convalesce. There they meet Bisto Mulligan, who has recently left Dublin to go to France where he claims he owns a chateau. The three characters meet in the middle, in Pauline’s home village of Winsley Green, and their journeys begin there; although they do not travel very far physically, by the end of the book they have all come a long way.

Barbara and Pauline have little in common; one is a spinster who is self-sufficient but a little crotchety; the other is a widow, warm-hearted but certainly no pushover. The action of the novel comes from the sisters’ relationship with each other and with Bisto, who has fallen on hard times. It also comes from village life, the usually peaceful setting, the cast of characters who live there and the village activities that unfold during the summer, from May Day Morris dancing to a Shakespeare performance on the green.

Barbara is initially an unwilling participant in village life but she soon finds herself drawn into the neighbourhood’s caring world of gossip, love affairs, feuds and fancies. Her relationships with Pauline, Bisto, many of the other characters and even with herself will change greatly by the last pages of the novel.

As with my other novels, The Old Girls’ Network is a romantic comedy, but it also asks some serious questions about friendship, relationships and life. I had some interesting decisions to make about my characters’ journeys by the end of the novel,not least whether they should finally find love or not.

I always consult real life for the answers: in A Grand Old Time, Evie finds love and loses it, then finds it again in herself. In The Age of Misadventure; Georgie meets a man, Bonnie loses one and Nanny finds happiness within her family. In Five French Hens, the women make their own decisions at the end of the novel, some not needing romance in their life; some finding passion and excitement in other unexpected areas. In The Old Girls’ Network, I wanted to see my characters happy: at the beginning of the novel, they all face different demons and they each have to learn to leave them behind.

I usually write two novels a year and the next two stories I’m currently working on deal very differently with the idea of whether a character should end up with a significant other or not. As one character says in a book I’m writing, being single is not the opposite of being happy. Rest assured though, my characters won’t all find true love and some who find it may not always keep it. Some will, though.

There are a variety of happy endings to be enjoyed, including boy meets girl, but that ending is not always a necessary or foregone conclusion. I’m more interested in reflecting real-life issues than tying the final lines up neatly for a happily-ever-after as the curtains close. I can understand the need for books that take the reader to a good place on the last page, but that’s not something I’ll promise to achieve for every character every time.

However, The Old Girls’ Network is an uplifting book about family and friends, about village life, loves and mischief: it’s about two very different sisters, a mysterious badly-behaved outsider, two feuding neighbours in their nineties, two terrible cats, a handsome window-cleaner, a kind-hearted farmer with a crush, a zany hairdresser, the dashing young man at the manor house… I’ll stop there – no more spoilers.

It is a positive novel, one that will hopefully make people smile. The Old Girls’ Network invites everyone to participate in the fun and frolics of a Somerset village summer. In these lockdown times, the opportunity to sit with the ladies on a village green and sip Pimms is the very best I can offer.  

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