Thursday, 30 December 2010

Bostin books

Santa’s been and gone and I hope he has left everyone something they wanted, particularly in books. As usual, the old fellow has come up with the literary goods for me, as well as delivering some surprises. Biggest surprise of all has been a signed copy of Michael Moorcock’s Doctor Who novel The Coming of the Terraphiles. I never saw this one coming!

The only TV spin off novels I’ve ever read were about Stingray when I was a child; it’s not a genre I’ve ever explored as an adult. The rather ugly name for books based on stories that first appear in film or TV form is “novelisation”. According to the BBC’s h2g2 site, Doctor Who is the most novelised programme in history, with only five episodes not transformed to book form. Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks alone wrote over 60 of them. Other famous novelisations are Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and the original Battlestar Galactica (I am currently rewatching the superb remake with Edward James Olmos). Comments the author of the h2g2 entry, “Novelisations are often looked down on as a literary form, being considered commercial rather than art”.

I’ll confess that if you’d asked me to read a novelisation before I got this book I would have turned my nose up at it, so it will be interesting to see just how fair the judgement is, at least in relation to The Coming of the Terraphiles. It won’t be the first Michael Moorcock book I’ve read: I read some of his books many years ago and remember enjoying them (though I can’t now, alas, remember what they were). At least I know he can write!

Small connections: The Coming of the Terraphiles features a pirate called Captain Cornelius, who shares his name with Moorcock’s character Jerry Cornelius. M John Harrison wrote a number of stories about Jerry Cornelius which were published in Moorcock’s The New Nature of the Catastrophe. I’m currently reading M John Harrison’s unspeakably brilliant Viriconium stories in the Orion Fantasy Masterworks edition. In one of the stories Harrison refers to places called “Shifnal” and “the Wergs”. This made me laugh. Only someone from the Black Country could have heard of the Wergs, I thought. I looked Harrison up and discovered he was born in Rugby, Warwicks. Close enough! Then I came across this verse: “We are the Barley brothers./Ousted out of Birmingham and Wolverhampton”. I was born and brought up in Wolves, and I’m still chuckling at the thought of the town finding its way into any literary creation, let alone one as exotic as Viriconium. It’s just bostin’.

Science Fiction Novelisations,

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Beaus in tight breeches

A few days ago I went to the Thomas Lawrence exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I was especially interested in Lawrence, many of whose paintings I had seen in books on the eighteenth century. It was Lawrence who captured a moment of radical history in his chalk sketch of William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft at their friend John Thelwall’s trial for treason in 1794. I had also read about the artist in his friend Joseph Farington’s diary, where (as I mentioned previously) he is described as “a male coquet”.

Lawrence was born in Bristol in 1769. The family moved to Devizes in 1773 and he was brought up in the coaching inn The Black Bear. Lacking formal education and training, he was something of a child prodigy who sketched and charmed many of the inn’s visitors, Frances Burney amongst them. When his father was declared bankrupt the family settled in Bath, where young Lawrence began his career as a portraitist. In 1787 he went to London and joined the Royal Academy schools, but did not stay there long. He went on to be an enormous success, the portrait painter of his age whose subjects included royalty, actors, bankers, soldiers, and even the Pope.

Despite his professional achievements, like many artists Lawrence suffered from the frustration of achieving success in one area while longing to shine in another. He wanted to be a painter of classical or historical subjects but attempts in the genre, such as Satan Summoning his Legions, were not well received. He was, he felt, “shackled” to the business of portrait painting.

Yet the paintings are marvellous. Standing in one of the exhibition rooms looking from paintings of wriggling children on one wall to stiff-fronted generals on the other I was filled with a sense of the painter’s tremendous empathy for his sitters. Every individual is vivid with his or her own life. The presence of Lawrence’s sitters is so intense I could imagine myself in the middle of an eighteenth-century crowd. I have always found paintings and photographs to be fantastic sources for characters in my stories. It’s not, usually, that I look at a painting and think “he will do as so-and-so” but more often that I see a painting and think “that is so-and-so” as I had already imagined them.

Perhaps I’d seen Lawrence’s painting somewhere and stored it up in my subconscious. I don’t know, but the thrill of recognition was intense. There was Charles Richmond, the London radical who is the main male character in the novel I am currently working on. To Lawrence he manifested himself as the Earl of Aberdeen. If anyone ever reads the novel who has also seen this painting, they will know exactly what Charles looks like.

I have not, however, found anyone I recognise in the quite startling painting of John, Lord Mountstuart, wearing some very tight trousers.

The National Portrait Gallery, Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance

Information on Thomas Lawrence from the National Gallery website -

The sketch of Godwin and Holcroft

National Portrait Gallery shines light on forgotten artist Thomas Lawrence, The Guardian 4 August 2010

Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, National Portrait Gallery, The Daily Telegraph 18 October 2010

Gainsborough's forgotten rival Thomas Lawrence is recognised at last, The Independent 5 August 2010