Writing

Extract from The Snow Witch – description of the town

snow-witch-cover-22a-copyWith this section of The Snow Witch, I decided to write a potted history of the town with a level of dark style. Hope you like it:

*

Sleep.

The city sleeps, contracted in the cold to a singularity of stone. An island city, surrounded by tides flooding from the south, running up its eastern side, swelling the creek that orphans it from the mainland, swirling through its western harbour where it welcomes boats disgorging shivering holidaymakers and businesspeople and soldiers and home-comers and refugees.

A city just 5 miles long, with tight furrows in which were planted, in the last century and a half, rows of terraced housing hunched in lines, braced against the gushing sea gale. Long before they grew, to the south of the island, a few bleak, isolated cottages stood beside a long, muddy beach. Within a few decades, the health-giving sea attracted a rash of tall villas set back from the shore, separated from the ever-moving water by a desolate common. Upon it, from time to time, troops marshalled under white canvas bell tents between furze bushes near a small fortress garrisoned with redcoats. Later, as the salubrious saline’s effects grew fashionable, bathing machines rolled in, a pier, beach huts, ice-cream stands, and, in the by-now obsolete heart of the lonely fortress, a model village. Later too, the great morass where the island’s river waters pooled, was channelled into a manmade lake – and so the plastic swans were trucked in, to move upon the face of the water.

Beyond this southern leisure resort, the real business of the island unfolded in the west. How often had marshalled troops marched from the common in drilled ranks to the dockyard and embarked on ships? To this day, beyond the seaside resort and the old town that stretches along a spit of land to a tiny, hook-shaped harbour, ferries and freighters and warships wallow in giant docks, waiting to transport people, and goods, and death.

All that can be found on the city’s western edge: at the dockyard, at the container quay, at the ferryport.

An opening to a story – would you read on?

snow-witch-cover-22a-copy
This is a revised opening to a novel I wrote some time ago. What do you think?

The Snow Witch

The snow has eased off, and she looks up at the morning light. She’s sucking on a cigarette, her face a delta of narrow chin and wide set eyes, her skin white beneath her black hair and the dirty woollen hat she wears over it.

Well, she says to herself, looking at the shopping precinct buried in snow. Here I am. What now?

She won’t run in this weather. No, not when it’s this bad, she thinks, sniffing the air, as if she can smell more storm, an instinct she learned when she was a kid living on a mountain in a foreign country – her homeland. She hitched in to this English town last night and ran for shelter – the shop doorway offering the best she could find.

So, what will she do?

Stay long enough to buy food, get cash and, finally, a ticket. This is her plan, as far as it goes.

So, she begins.

She selects a pitch beside an empty shop, and with a gentle knock and click, unslings her case and opens it. A violin. The familiar weight and curve of the neck presses her palm as the city wakes around her: pale shopkeepers, fluorescent council men, early-morning shoppers, red-flushed kids excited by snowfall.

Daylight hardens. Now, she thinks. She rests her chin and launches magical sound from age-dark wood.

Fresh, bright, sad – a trill of sensual notes dipping and turning in the winter light. The melody: alien, rich in hidden history, conjuring foreign terrain, snowclad peaks, a stream, the fresh scent of mountain pines.

Two fat boys gawp from the far side of the precinct, their hearts lifting. A young man behind thick glasses stops to look, his mouth agape in the chill air. An elderly lady slides on the ice with a deftness that speaks the green delight she felt before the years embrittled her bones.

No flakes fall near the musician, as her case fills with coins. After a while, she scoops them and wolfs hot pastries and steaming coffee before resuming, playing on through the day. When she rests in the darkening afternoon, snow begins to fall around her, piling whiteness on whiteness, laying a carpet of crystal beneath her feet.

Before she hurries away, she glances once more over her shoulder. No-one is following her, she notes with relief.

Conan Doyle and his belief in ghosts – a talk

Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light, 1887 - 1920, by Matt Wingett

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is renowned primarily for one thing: the creation of the world’s first consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. Yet, there was far more to the man, including his prominence in later life as a leading Spiritualist.

For many who regard Holmes’s rational take on the world as a wonderful example of applied logic and empiricism, his belief in ghosts can be something of an unfortunate fact that doesn’t fit in with their view. Many rationalise that after the death of his son, Kingsley, in World War I, Sir Arthur turned to Spiritualism for comfort, and became increasingly obsessed with the belief.

This view is wrong. In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle first announced himself to be a Spiritualist in 1887 in a letter to the occult magazine “Light”. It was the very same year that his first novel starring Sherlock Holmes “A Study In Scarlet” was published.

Both of these events happened during a deeply influential period of his life in Southsea, where he was working as a GP at Bush Villas on Elm Grove.

How he came to be a devout Spiritualist, the twists and turns of his faith, and how he regarded his Spiritualism as for more important than his ficitional detective is a fascinating story. It involves ghost stories, poltergeist investigations, approaches from secret societies and a belief that science would one day prove the existence of the soul.

It’s this world that I explore in my book Conan Doyle and The Mysterious World of Light, 1887-1920, and which I elucidate in my talks on the matter.

I’m delighted when an audience finds out new things about this fascinating person. After all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was very, very much more than a teller of tall tales, as my talk on the matter reveals!

A Talk at The Temple of Spiritualism, Southsea 5th Aug 2016

02 Arthur_Conan_DoyleA lovely email from Sue Hayes at the Southsea Temple of Spiritualism, where I gave a talk about Conan Doyle’s faith on 5th August 2016:
 
Dear Matt
Thank you so much for your talk, knowledge and enthusiasm that you displayed in the Temple on Friday evening. As you were aware from the response, your talk was very much appreciated. I think you are a brilliant speaker – most engaging and inclusive. Thank you.
 
Richard was absolutely amazed that someone who is not a Spiritualist has such a knowledge of Spiritualism. There are very few people at present in SNU Spiritualism who would know as much as you do, and have such an objective and informed attitude. Thank you for that.
 
We would love you to come and speak again in the future, for you to share more of your knowledge and wisdom with us.
 
With very good wishes to you and Jackie
Sue Hayes
General Secretary/Officiant
Portsmouth Temple of Spiritualism

Henry Vaughan’s “World of Light” and Conan Doyle’s Ghosts

9780957241381I was looking at some poetry a few days ago and I found this wonderful poem by Welsh 17th Century poet Henry Vaughan, about life after death.

I was struck by the phrase “the world of light” – which is how he describes the afterlife.

I found it an interesting coincidence that I had come up with the same phrase for my book, “Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light“.

 

 

THEY ARE ALL GONE INTO THE WORLD OF LIGHT
by Henry Vaughan

They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.

It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
Or those faint beams in which this hill is drest,
After the sun’s remove.

I see them walking in an air of glory,
Whose light doth trample on my days:
My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
Mere glimmering and decays.

O holy Hope! and high Humility,
High as the heavens above!
These are your walks, and you have show’d them me
To kindle my cold love.

Dear, beauteous Death! the jewel of the just,
Shining nowhere, but in the dark;
What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust
Could man outlook that mark!

He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know
At first sight, if the bird be flown;
But what fair well or grove he sings in now,
That is to him unknown.

And yet as angels in some brighter dreams
Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:
So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes
And into glory peep.

If a star were confin’d into a tomb,
Her captive flames must needs burn there;
But when the hand that lock’d her up, gives room,
She’ll shine through all the sphere.

O Father of eternal life, and all
Created glories under thee!
Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall
Into true liberty.

Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill
My perspective still as they pass,
Or else remove me hence unto that hill,
Where I shall need no glass.

Real Writer’s Block – What it is, and what it is not.

DespairAdele Parks gave a great talk last night at Portsmouth Central Library as part of Portsmouth Bookfest 2016, talking about her writing life, and how she became one of the top sellers of chick lit over the last 16 years. From an effervescent and ebullient childhood in which her grandfather persuaded her to write comics for 10 pence each, through globe-trotting as an advertising executive, to her decision “not to go to my grave wishing I had written that book”, it was quite a journey, and heartening, too.

With her joyous smile, lightning-fast brain and keen intellect, Adele is one of those people one can’t help liking. Blessed with good quality hardware, you can’t help thinking she would have made it, whatever she did. I’ve seen the same in other writers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was similar – proud owner of a ferocious intellect coupled with a joyous imagination, he revelled in storytelling and much more besides. Like Doyle, Adele has energy. And lots of it.

Such traits make Adele supremely fitted to talk about the business of writing. But there is one thing she announced during that evening with which I disagreed profoundly, and it came when someone in the audience asked about writer’s block. This is one subject about which I have a brimful of firsthand experience. It is also something of which Adele clearly has none.

She started off this section by make a provocative point:

“There’s no such thing. You don’t get doctor’s block, or accountant’s block. So there’s no such thing as writer’s block.”

I’ve always wondered what people who dismiss writer’s block actually think it is. Today, at last, I heard it from someone at the top of her profession.

Adele equated writer’s block to lack of direction, or disorganisation. “If you sit down and you’re not able to write, it’s because you haven’t planned what you’re going to write,” she breezed. The solution was to plan your novel better, or perhaps have a change of scene. Go on holiday, go and write somewhere else. Meet new people. Go to an Elvis convention in Blackpool.

So there it was, writer’s block was a functional problem to do with not being properly directed. It was straightforward. It didn’t exist.

During a stay on the Isle of Arran in the 1990s, during Gulf War I, I spoke with the local female GP, an ex-military doctor, and mentioned PTSD to her. She furrowed her brow and said forcefully: “There is no such thing as PTSD”. She was adamant about it.

Everyone has a blindspot for something.

Here is what writer’s block is not. It is not sitting down to write one morning and finding that it takes 20 minutes to get in the mood. That is drinking a cup of tea. It is not worrying because your cat has taken ill and thus being put off for a day or two. That is anticipating a vet’s bill. It is not having a pile of papers that are out of order. That is bad filing.

How can I say this with such certainty? Because I lost the ability to write for thirteen years. Not being able to sit down and write during that period was not a matter of tea, cats or files. I had arranged my life so that I had all the time I needed. My despair, my utter, black despair came from something far deeper and far darker. If you’ve ever wondered what real writer’s block, is as opposed to feeling a bit uninspired or not quite knowing what to write about, let me tell you about my experience. Of course, others will have different experiences, but if you have no idea at all, perhaps this will shed a little bit of light – and explain to you why if you dismiss it out of hand you might get a furious response.

Writer’s block was the moment I realised the one thing I knew I could do really well had deserted me. It left me the day I had the final argument with a lover in which she criticised my work mercilessly, then walked out on me. Her criticism combined with that deeper emotional shock so that grief became the flavour of writing.

After her departure I limped on, writing scripts for The Bill. Her stinging criticisms came back as I wrestled plot lines, rang in my ears over and over again as I tried, stomach churning with panic, to string together stories and character motives. I criticised what I wrote, using her voice to do it. Not good enough, poor quality writing. Ugly writing. And so on.

There came a point at which I found myself unable to put one word after the other because I questioned if those two words worked together on the page. I couldn’t put together a satisfactory sentence, let alone a story. I wasn’t “feeling a bit uninspired of a morning”. I didn’t need to sit down and have a cup of tea to make it right. I had a central crisis of confidence in which I felt myself whirling into a blacker and blacker swirl of helplessness. I loved that woman. I wanted to impress her with my writing. She was gone. My writing was shit.

That was the sort of equation that was going on in my head. It usurped my emotions and took over my body. I wept at nights. month after month. The grief took control of my creative life. A deep, cold sense of bleakness. The blank page became unbearable. The stories I started to write and never finished were all tales of pain and suicide, of loss of faith in people, in God, in life itself. Sitting at my desk staring at the page, in the wordless spaces between each and every second, I sat and ruminated on how best I could die.

And still I was contracted to write 4 episodes of The Bill. A job that should have lasted six months took four grinding years to complete, until finally I was free of the show. Being trapped in a contract had compounded matters further. I was going through an existential crisis, whilst simultaneously being forced to turn out episodes of a cop show. I look back now, and that is darkly funny. At the time it was hell.

I eked out a living working in bars while the 6 months money I had been paid in advance dwindled out over 4 years, failing to fund my meagre existence. I began to associate poverty with writing. I hated myself, I hated the page, I hated everyone else – and most of all I hated the act of writing.

Sitting down to write meant pain. It meant loss of dignity. It meant humiliation. It meant having daily to inhabit that dark, lost spirit in the Hades of my soul who so wanted to come out into the light again but who was trapped.

I considered suicide.

In the end, I gave up trying to write, completely. I set up a series of businesses. I got into computer repairs, teaching English and bookdealing – the last of which gave me a steady income and such a rigid regime of work that for years I had no time to think about myself or my writing.

I did, eventually start to write again, but only after I got professional psychiatric help. I had a full thirteen years of writer’s block. Being told last night that, actually, that could have been solved with a trip to the local coffee bar (as if I didn’t try so many things) – that, I have to say, did not sit well in my soul.

The good news is that I did get out of that pit, and I want to tell you – if any of this seems remotely familiar – if you are another writer suffering in this way, and you’re sick of people who tell you to “buck yourself up” and “pull yourself together”, it’s okay to be sick of it. That person may be wise, they may be actually be bloody fantastic, but if that’s what they’re saying, then of the subject of writer’s block they know nothing.

Do know, however, that you are not alone and that there are ways back to the surface, to the sunlight. There are means of escape. There will come a time when you are no longer groping around in the dark and you will no longer feel destroyed. You will see yourself in a new way. You will be made afresh.

If you’ve got real writer’s block, most likely it won’t be a walk or a holiday that does it for you. If it does, then good luck to you. What you are feeling may be, in many ways, akin to PTSD. And just like with PTSD, seek help. There are professionals who understand the workings of the inside of your head.

Writer’s block is so much more than not feeling inspired. Writer’s block is feeling that your life is reaching its end because it is devoid of meaning. Be assured, however, it will go on. Writing, that little bright bird, she will fly back to you.

If you recognise any of this description and it makes sense to you, then seek help – and do it now. Don’t – like I did – take thirteen years to act. That’s thirteen years you won’t get back.

A Long Journey Left – an experiment in political awakening

(Below is the first time I have ever written autobiographically about the political beliefs instilled in me from early on. Not deliberately instilled, just taken for granted that they were right. It is part of a larger programme. But that whole story is a long way off.)

nelson_full_size

Picture the scene. A young boy of perhaps four years old standing in a grand old house in the Hampshire Downs, an elegant double staircase shining in the sunlight. Something is going on outside to do with sailors, the milling of people and the buzz of excitement. The day is magnificent.

Near the base of the stairs on the wall is a portrait that has drawn the young boy’s fascination. A man with white curly hair, pale, unsmiling and with pale blue eyes. The boy has an impression of golds and red and a dark background.

A man comes up behind the boy and puts his hand on his shoulder.

“Daddy, who is this?”

“That’s Nelson,” he says.

The boy is confused. Using one word for a name like that means you know him. But the boy doesn’t know him.

“Who is Nelson?”

“He was a great man,” says the man. “A sailor. A very great man.”

The boy considers for a moment. “He looks very small,” he says, unable to work out the scale of the portrait, which is not quite life size. He looks at it for a while longer then turns away.

Later, he sees his father shouting orders to a company of sailors marching up and down a parade ground, and there is a man with a lot of gold on his sleeves that his brother takes a photograph of with his new Polaroid camera. People speak about this man with his gold sleeves with reverence, and the boy hears with mild interest that this is the uncle to the Queen. The adults approve of this. All is right with the world. Far, far right.

Thus I was born into the fagbutt of empire. When I was a boy, I used to marvel at how many countries at the Olympic games would parade around the stadium with a Union Flag (dad was always clear about this, “it is only a Union Jack when flown from the Jack staff of a ship,” and I still can’t shake off the usage despite that not being the case), and swell with pride. Some time in our past, we had “won the war” (my schoolfriends would chant this sentiment inaccurately, controlled by the rhyme scheme: we won the war, in nineteen forty-four). We had also won the world. Great Britain did indeed live up to the adjective. Foreign countries and their people were owned by us.

Later in life, one of the habits I had to get out of was asking people with a brown skin where they were from. My dad and his generation did it all the time, and it wasn’t meant to be offensive. It was genuinely, I guess (what with him having stayed at various old colonial bases around the world), a question of “Oh, I might know your country”. It was friendly.

I kept up with the whole “where are you from” thing until the 1990s when I was in my 20s, when I began to notice how often people shrugged almost with desparation and said: “London,” curtly. This, in my enthusiasm, was not enough. “Oh, where are you parents from?” – this question followed on from my parents’ example. This follow-up question would get a more curt response. It was only after some reflection that I began to see that this was not necessarily friendly, in the way I intended, but equally could be deemed as: “You are not British. What are you really?”

After a while, I stopped asking that question. But it took some time. And that, I suppose is true of many another ingrained response from a period that is now history, and yet which still manages to make itself felt with its dead hand on the present by the many people who lived through it and didn’t question what it meant.

David Hare’s Skylight highlights how things have changed since he wrote it…

Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy on stage together – being able to watch two big names in Portsmouth, I mean, what’s not to like?

7545_poster_iphone

National Theatre Live at the Vue Cinema on 31st July gave us that. In fact, it’s better than being in the West End’s Wyndham Theatre from where it was broadcast. You can eat popcorn and icecream if you like in seats designed for a 21st Century frame. Though this was the “Encore” broadcast, a re-run of a play originally broadcast live on the 17th July, and starring two hugely accomplished actors, the experience really gives you the feel of the live event.

It does take some adjustment, seeing stage acting on screen. When Kyra (Carey Mulligan) enters with her shopping, her body language as she heavily plonks her bags on the table feels distastefully overdone. Her peculiar treatment of the text books she brings home from her work as a teacher jars the eye used to the nuanced performance of the big screen.

Just so with the arrival of 18-year-old Edward, walking into the flat on the sink housing estate where Mulligan lives because she left the door open. But then, this is hard to swallow for another reason. I mean, who leaves their door open on a snowy winter’s night in a clearly troubled housing estate? I mean really, who does that? It seemed strangely middle-classly cutesy, as if Hare had forgotten Kyra lived in the inner city, but in a little country cottage somewhere in the Home Counties.

Their initial interactions were what I had feared the whole play might be. At times unreal but with occasional moments of brilliance in the dialogue, something did not gel. Edward was clearly a 2D device used to set up what was to come later between Kyra and Tom (Bill Nighy). It was uncomfortably done. Edward’s flouncing out at the end of the scene with his “You’ve got to speak to him Kyra!” was straight out of Victorian melodrama.

Tom’s arrival was much better. The story unfolded. Businessman Tom and teacher Kyra had once been an item – having an affair while he ran his expanding chain of restaurants through the 1980s. Their affair had been discovered by Nighy’s wife and Mulligan (a nice middle class woman) had gone into teaching in East Ham.

Along the way, there were moments of comedy that highlighted the snobbery of the business classes and the idealism of liberal middle classes. Essentially the play was about the collision of two world views – the money-minded and the liberal left, interspersed with some cooking and a break in the middle for a shag, which thankfully happened in the interval.

As a writer, it was interesting to see how basic the play was. David Hare, one of Britain’s greatest living playwrights, used cookery to give the two actors something to do while they slugged it out with each other or came to understandings of each other’s views, or grew close, or grew apart. The cooking (I’m sure a symbol of consumerism, community and shared endeavour) alleviated the boredom of the pair standing and pontificating about how their particular views of the world were right.

Hare made a pretty good fist of making Nighy’s character likeable and sympathetic, but it was clear as the play went on that this wasn’t going to be one of those: “make your own mind up” types of plays. Carey Mulligan’s Kyra, the impassioned and idealistic middle class liberal who had given up everything to be a teacher was clearly the character with whom Hare most identified.

Towards the end , both characters ceased to be people at all. Mulligan’s Kyra especially became a mouthpiece for Hare’s opinion, with a long, tedious rant about how marvellous the public sector is and the platitude that “Wealth Creation” was not the truly important thing about life.

This was clearly intended as the highlight of the second half: a kind of super-eloquent Sixth Form Common Room rant, in which the Kyra rehearsed Hare’s particular political bugbears, and received spontaneous applause from the Wyndham’s sympathetic audience. He had pressed the right buttons for his audience, then.

By this time I genuinely had the feeling that Hare had written the play by tickbox. “Oh, okay, so I’ve now done the bit where he accuses her of being guilty. Now let’s do the bit where he accuses her of running away because she’s still in love with him. Okay, now we do the bit where she accuses him of cowardice. Okay, now selfishness…” and so on.

By the time you’d got to the end, just about every base was covered. The two characters were indeed symbols (something Hare himself highlighted in his script) who covered all the angles in the eternal battle between the private sector and public services, and between the unfaithful businessman and his young lover, picking up hypocrisies along the way.

But one really important angle was never approached.

Kyra mocked the idea of people involved in “Wealth Creation”, pointing instead to “real people” as if people involved in business are somehow “not real”. And that was the heart of the problem.

There was a much more profound discussion to be had here about that unhappy marriage, in which business and social enterprises are spliced together. Each is dependent on the other. Business is reliant on education to produce people with innovation and drive, self-belief and originality. As such, business cannot complain about taxation. It is reliant on the use of those resources to supply its employees and its consumers. The employees of business are also “real” people, prone to all the weaknesses of greed and stupidity and selfishness if that connection between business and the wider community is not nurtured.

At the same time, workers in State education (symbolising the public services) have trouble accepting the fact that without business they would not exist because no taxes would be taken to pay their wages. The fact that today there are fewer public sector wage packets than there were 6 years ago is a much bigger discussion about how the marriage works. What the covenant is between the public sector, the wider public and business was not even considered in this play.

That, I suspect, is partially because Hare is not interested in this more nuanced way of looking at the world. His writing comes straight out of the idealism of the 1960s. It’s also because Skylight was first performed in 1995, way before the Credit Crunch was a twinkle in Tony Blair’s eye. And to be frank, it showed.

Singing trio’s brand spanking wartime show tells Blitz’s biggest secret

Vocal vintage-style trio The Three Belles who formed in Portsmouth three years ago need your help.

The popular trio are heading to Edinburgh to launch London Life, a riotous comedy revue based on the little-known “specialist” magazine from the 1930s and 1940s.

"Dig for Victory!" (photo copyright (c) Beck Photographic www.beckphotographic.com
“Dig for Victory!”
(photo copyright (c) Beck Photographic www.beckphotographic.com

The normally reserved singers decided to put on the show after stumbling on a pile of London Life magazines in an antiques shop.

“We started reading the magazines and couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” explains Anneka Wass of The Three Belles. “Because this magazine, published in the middle of the war was dedicated to people with very particular fads – like wearing rubber or spanking.  It was in fact, a World War 2 fetish magazine.”

A cover from a 1941 issue of London Life
A cover from a 1941 issue of London Life

She goes on to say that after they picked their jaws up off the floor they began to see the comedy potential.

“Their stories are often funny, poignant and sometimes moving. They never spoke about it in public, but these people decided to seek fun in unconventional ways at a time when rubber, leather and clothing was strictly rationed.  It’s never rude, always in good taste – but extremely funny.”

True stories in the show include the woman who made herself a rubber dress from bath curtains only to nearly choke on rubber fumes after sitting in front of a fire, or the married couple who discovered a stiff-upper-lipped love of cross-dressing at a Christmas party.

“The background to their lives is danger,” says Sally Taylor, also of The Three Belles. “It’s tragi-comic. It’s never been told before.”

The Three Belles will be weaving 1940s songs into the show such as Gimme Some Skin, Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar, and the earlier Masculine Women, Femine Men.

In order to take the show to Edinburgh, the singers need to raise £10,000 to cover expenses.

“It’s not a cheap business going to the Fringe,” says third Belle Isabelle Moore. “We need help, and have launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo that runs until May 24th. Remember, your Belles Need You!”

London Life, The True Story of the Secret Kinks of World War 2 will premiere in July in London before transferring to the Edinburgh Fringe on August 11th.

To find out more about The Three Belles show go to: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-three-belles-go-to-edinburgh-fringe#home

For more information about London Life magazine: http://Londonlifemagazine.org

 

Angelina Jolie – To Say “Grubby” Doesn’t Say Half Of It – Book Review

Angelina – An Unauthorized Biography, by Andrew Morton

Book Review

What can I do in reviewing this book except give you my overriding impressions?

The first one is about the subject matter as Andrew Morton likes to portray her. Under his hands, Jolie comes out of this book as a nasty, mercurial, capricious, selfish, unfaithful manstealing drug addict who continually lies and presents the truth to suit her own needs.

It’s not a flattering portrait by any means. Manipulative, destructive and shallow, Morton presents us with a picture of a woman driven by a series of addictions and compulsions. She is a whirlwind of sexuality and deceit who is quite happy to walk into stable relationships and wreck them to serve her own ends. Even her later work with the UN is portrayed as in some way capricious and self-serving, and even her treatment of the kids she adopts is according to Morton at best worthy of suspicion and at worst actually illegal.

Unlike Jolie, this book is not pretty. There is something mean of spirit in Morton, and it comes through in the overall impression her gives of Jolie, rather than the facts of her life taken individually.

The cause for Jolie’s unstable personality as it is here presented leads me to the second observation about the book. Morton is just as happy to point to the fact that Jolie is a Gemini to account for her character traits as he is to fill the pages with whacky post-Freudian psychobabble to describe her motives. The book is much better when Morton is not theorising on the deep unconscious reasons for Jolie’s behaviour and actually tells you about her behaviour. I don’t expect to be told about her personality on the basis of her star sign or spurious psychology just as I wouldn’t expect to be told that the lumps on her head are evidence that she was more amorous than other women, or that the full moon turns her into a werewolf. That, Mr Morton, is space-filling – and piss-poor writing.

That said, this book does give an account of Jolie’s life which – with its emphasis on destructive sex and drug abuse is like watching a slow motion car crash. She cuts herself as a kid, her mother gives up her bed to Jolie and her boyfriend when the couple are just 14, Jolie nearly stabs him to death and he does the same for her at the same age and both go to hospital… And so the sad show goes on. The young Jolie takes copious drugs and screws anything that is slightly warm and still breathing, and appears perfectly happy to wreck relationships and treat the people around her like disposable syringes. Essentially, she is portrayed as a fickle, feckless “user” – in all its connotations.

It’s not nice reading, but I suspect it is in part accurate – though it skims over Jolie’s acting skills and attempts pat “psychological” interpretations of her life as seen from the outside rather than giving a genuine insight into the woman herself. In Morton’s telling, the life she leads becomes so debauched and so dissolute that even she can’t handle it any more – the night she shares an apartment with her lover, ex-husband, lesbian ex-lover and her girlfriend and has a breakdown is pricelessly funny in the deadpan way it is delivered by Morton. I don’t think he was meant to be funny, but one can have little sympathy for a two dimensional character who has been set up by the author as willing to make a mess of her life apparently on purpose.

The character of Jolie is remarkable in this book simply because she weathers it all. She’s portrayed as a kind of adult role-play Lara Croft who raids married men’s beds rather than ancient tombs and comes out completely unscathed.

Where others would go to pieces, she simply goes for the next fix, which is either a tumble in the hay with someone else’s husband or a shot in the arm to keep her going. Unafraid to wreck the happiness of others to supply her own obsessions and compulsions, I found that I at once hated this version of Jolie and begrudgingly admired her for her apparent armour-plating and psychotic self-serving.

Her treatment of her father Jon Voight throughout is awful. Morton implies that Jolie wants to blame him for all her woes rather than address them, mature and grow up. This, could be true, I suppose, it could be the extreme life that the extremely wealthy lead, or it could be a gross caricature. If it really does lift the lid on what is beneath the surface beauty of Hollywood, and of Jolie, then it made me glad of my rather boring life.

To be frank, I felt grubby reading about Morton’s Jolie and her shenanigans.

Some things are better left unsaid. And some books unwritten. This is one of them.