This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Duchess of Grub St.
The artiste formerly known as Meghan Markle — now Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex — has written a children’s book, The Bench. This has been greeted with excitement (in America) and dismay (in Britain). Personally, I’m delighted that one of the world’s most controversial women has decided to take a well-earned break from causing controversy to embark on the more sedate pursuit of a literary career. A profession where, famously, it is impossible to wreak havoc.
I shall hope to run into her, swaying slightly as she sips lukewarm white wine, at the end of a bibulous party at Daunt’s on Marylebone High Street. Perhaps, in her refreshed state, she will be willing to spill revelatory titbits of gossip about her fellow royal authors.
Did Fergie really write Budgie the Little Helicopter herself, or was it ghosted by Will Self? Did Prince Charles base his protagonist The Old Man of Lochnagar on the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, or the comedian Max Wall? And are the rumours true that the Duke of York has spent his enforced leisure time writing a hard-hitting series of books featuring an uncompromising and much-misunderstood detective, Andrew Prince?
I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue
Meghan can, at least, expect to be recognised wherever she goes. This is in contrast to most writers’ experiences. We tend to redefine anonymity, sometimes even at our own book launches. I once ran into my first publisher at a party, who inevitably had no idea who I was. Stuck for anything to say I admitted “I’m writing you a book.” He seemed appalled at the thought but I persisted. “I think,” wanting to encourage the poor soul, “it’ll be good.” Taking care to finish what the obligatory warm white wine, he let our eyes briefly meet and said, “sales will be the test of that.” Then, much like the advance, he vanished without my realising how, why or where. Meghan, I have blows crueller still than any you have suffered yet to prepare you for.
The first thing I’m seeing at the reopened theatre will be Ralph Fiennes’s one-man show of Eliot’s Four Quartets. I’d pay to see him read the telephone directory, so this represents a considerable upgrade. But he remains perennially underrated, especially contrasted with his contemporary Daniel Day-Lewis.
Both of them played Hamlet on stage, accompanied by great personal drama. Day-Lewis deepened his mystique by walking off mid-production because he believed that he had seen his father’s ghost. Fiennes, meanwhile, attracted undesired tabloid attention by leaving his wife for Francesca Annis, the actress playing Gertrude.
It is hard to think of a contemporary British actor who has managed his career more assiduously. Leading roles and character cameos, dashing heroes to diabolical villains, film, stage and television all juggled with equal aplomb.
He gave the funniest screen performance since Richard E Grant’s Withnail as Monsieur Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and this year was understated and affecting in the Sutton Hoo drama The Dig. And yet he isn’t taken nearly as seriously as Day-Lewis. Though who is? Perhaps Fiennes should periodically retire, and give rare, gnomic interviews? Or alternatively he should simply become French. Then he would finally receive the acclaim and recognition he deserves.
I recently listened to the great survivor Marianne Faithfull’s latest album, She Walks In Beauty. A collection of Romantic poetry read by Faithfull to musical accompaniment by Warren Ellis, Nick Cave and Brian Eno, it is tasteful, intelligent and deeply dull. I can imagine it becoming a perennial soundtrack for waiting rooms in expensive psychologists’ practices.
The albums of poetry set to music that John Betjeman did in the Seventies with Jim Parker, Late Flowering Love and Banana Blush, were considerably livelier.
But if Faithfull’s LP is a success, it could set a precedent for further collaborations between actors, musicians and long-dead poets. I have a happy vision of Bill Nighy silkily reading Larkin while Bryan Ferry’s jazz group toots mournfully in the background, and a primal fear of Danny Dyer bellowing Kipling’s “If …” while Damon Albarn pounds away belligerently on honky-tonk piano.
Can’t we have a prize restricted to white, British, privately educated men?
It can go wider still and wider yet. Simon Armitage performs his poetry in an ‘ambient post-rock band’ called LYR, and Kae Tempest has mixed spoken word, music and agitrop throughout their career. Who’s to say that we shouldn’t repay the favour and allow rock stars to publish their own poetry?
As Paul McCartney prepares to release his collected lyrics, given the status of holy writ by reverent conversations with Paul Muldoon, this might well lead to a flood of earnest volumes. If there is any true attempt at justice in this world, Faber will publish my own favourite, Des’Ree’s timeless “Life”, with its lyrics “I don’t want to see a ghost/It’s a sight that I fear most/I’d rather have a piece of toast/And watch the evening news.”
Claps for chaps
The Women’s Prize for Fiction is announced on 7 July, with an impressive shortlist including Susanna Clarke, Claire Fuller and Patricia Lockwood. Its very existence has led to the usual complaints that there is no corresponding Men’s Prize for Fiction. Usually, this moaning is dismissed as misogynistic ranting, but surely some provocateur could fund such an award.
Its entry requirements should be deeply stringent. Its winner would have to be white, British, privately educated (but only at one of the nine establishments laid down by the Public Schools Act of 1868), an Oxbridge graduate (who had attended one of a specified number of “approved” colleges: no seventeenth century or later muck), aged over 30 (as youth does not beget experience) and under 60 (as age dulls the senses and appetite).
Its recipient would have to make a Munnings lambasting Picasso at the Royal Academy in ‘49-esque speech. These sallies could include (but are not limited to) children’s books written by celebrities, tiresome navel-gazing memoirs written by nobodies, unreadable “literary novels” from graduates of expensive creating writing courses, and anything that wallows in misery that make the Four Yorkshireman sound chipper.
It should be sold as a diversity exercise of course — “to bring men back to reading books”. Everyone would be happy, carefully curated craft ales would be drunk, and all would be as once it was.
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