Mad Men meets Bulgakov



What author wouldn’t want to be played by Mad Men’s Don Draper? It can’t be bad news for Mikhail Bulgakov (below, left) that he is being represented on screen by Jon Hamm (in Sky’s A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which finishes tomorrow). Nor can it do any harm to his back catalogue, although I’d recommend reading The Master and Margarita before A Country Doctor’s Notebook.

The fact that the doctorly stories have ended up being adapted for the mainstream audience for Sky owes a lot to The Master and Margarita’s recent successes on screen and stage. They used to say that Bulgakov was the author who could never be adapated — now he’s everywhere in every medium. One of the theatrical highlights of the year was Theatre de Complicite’s version of The Master and Margarita at The Barbican. It was incredible — and universally well-reviewed. (Here’s Michael Billington’s. And congratulations to him for his OBE yesterday, by the way.) After a sell-out run in early 2012, the play is back now and booking to Jan 19, 2013. 

Meanwhile, I picked the novel for Not-New Book of the Year for this list for Vintage Classics in the Guardian which also mentions Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. Can’t see them coming to Sky Arts any time soon, though…


Red Books January: Nora Ephron Tribute

This month’s Red (January issue) features a special tribute to Nora Ephron who died in June at the age of 71. One of the funniest writers there ever was. It’s hard to know where to start with these recommendations as I would say: read them all. Heartburn (first edition cover above) is a great, funny novel. I Feel Bad About My Neck is a brilliant collection of essays and thoughts about growing older. I Remember Nothing is full of exceedingly amusing love/hate lists. Wallflower at the Orgy is a brilliant “you had to be there” collection of writings about life as a reporter in the 1960s. Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women is an unusual selection of articles about what it was like to be a woman with a sense of humour at the height of the women’s movement.

Also highly recommended: the screenplay of When Harry Met Sally for some of the best one-liners around: “You made a woman miaow?” “I want you to know that I will never want your Roy Rogers, garage sale, wagon wheel coffee table.” “It’s just a hard Mexican ceramic tile.” More on Ephron’s brilliance – and the story behind When Harry Met Sally – here. Buy someone the Ephron back catalogue for Christmas.

Twitter Christmas Books



Like a fool, I promised a round-up of all the Twitter Christmas book suggestions. So here they are. I must say, they are not what I expected. I asked the question, “What book do you most want for Christmas?” Many people answered, I suspect, a completely different question. Namely, “What’s the best book you’ve read recently?” Or, “What book would you most like to give to someone?” It’s also interesting that whilst newspapers and magazines go to GREAT EFFORT to furnish people with all the latest information on what has just been released, many people recommend books which came out ages ago.

 Anyway. Here’s the Twitter Top Ten Guide to Christmas Books. Editorialised by me and mostly consisting of book ideas I approve of because they are new and exciting and therefore suitable for Christmas gifts and not published ages ago or something that you have read and are telling other people to read.

Grace by Grace Coddington

Vanished Years by Rupert Everett

The Richard Burton Diaries by Chris Williams 

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver 

Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor) — although this is an “old” book I have included it because so many people have started talking about Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor) recently

 This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen 

Henri’s Walk to Paris by Saul Bass


Other suggestions: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Anything by Stella Duffy. Several people mentioned “a Penguin clothbound classic”. The Great British Bake-Off Book (again, nice idea, but they don’t need the publicity). Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Cookery (love this but not new). Winter Games by Rachel Johnson (it was in Red December books). Mutton by India Knight. “Anything by Jojo Moyes.” Gone Girl — @BretsTypewriter mentioned the audio book, @SarahEFranklin and @Lmrhjb want it. This is the sort of book I’m not often keen on. Unless I’ve read it before everyone starts talking about it, I feel like I’ve heard too much to enjoy it.

Thanks to @greetstreebling @sevarina @VauxhallViveur @andreagillies @EWilhide @BeckMoss @ashtonlaura @HannahGray12 @alicrosstarot

I refuse to mention the dog books suggested by @randallwrites (Texts from Dog and The Underwater Dogs).


“Thank you for your champagne”



Bad news and good news. Bad news first. The book of Letters of Note, the wonderful website featuring the most charming, unusual historic letters, has been delayed and will not be out before Christmas. Boo. Good news now. The book is still coming out – in May 2013 – and the delay means there will be even more letters than anticipated. 

Letters in the book include:

* Hunter S. Thompson’s furious memo to a film executive that starts ‘Listen, you lazy bitch…’

* Steve Martin’s ‘personalised’ form letter to a fan

* The letter of a Kamikaze pilot to his two young children, written the night before his mission

* A 9th century form letter from China used to apologise for having drunk too much at a dinner party

* A memo about some of the surprising candidates for Star Trek: The Next Generation

And – favourite! – the one above. Worth waiting for.


2013 books: part one



Just starting to look into 2013 books. There’s a new Maggie O’Farrell that looks great. And a blockbuster from William Nicholson, whose writing I always like. But top of the list is Elizabeth Day’s Home Fires, out in March, the story of a family torn apart by war. It’s about loss, redemption and, best of all, the British class system. Hurrah. Here’s my review of her last novel, from Red, March issue 2011.

Scissors Paper Stone by Elizabeth Day (Bloomsbury, £11.99) Charles Redfern is in a coma after a terrible bike accident. The two women by his side, his wife Anne and daughter Charlotte, don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Charles has made their life a misery for years. And yet not only can they not live without him, but they can barely bring themselves to talk to each other about the hold he has over them. With Charles’ future uncertain, can mother and daughter face up to the truth? An addictive page-turner.”


Backstage with Lily Savage




Lily Savage was queen of the legendary Royal Vauxhall Tavern for eight years before she, or rather, Paul O’Grady, was nominated for the Perrier. Still Standing: The Lily Savage Years, the latest volume of O’Grady’s hilarious, caustic memoirs, tells how Lily came into being. And a very funny story it is indeed. (The above picture is actually Kylie Minogue’s dressing room. Lily always trashed hers.)

O’Grady deserves kudos for the entertaining, brutal interviews he’s been giving for the past few weeks. The best one is here in the Independent with Patrick Strudwick. Not only that but the first of his three memoirs (this is the last) was the only book ever to get unqualified praise in Private Eye:

Funny, well observed and recognisably human. Soon you start to wonder why all celebrity autobiographies can’t be like this.

I’ve reviewed Still Standing: The Lily Savage Years for the Sunday Express but it’s horribly truncated so I’m putting the original below.



Still Standing: The Savage Years by Paul O’Grady (Bantam Press, £20)

I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, please, not another celebrity autobiography….” But be assured. Paul O’Grady – and Lily Savage – are cut from a very different cloth. In Lily’s case, cerise pink PVC. 

O’Grady’s first two books about his “life adventures” were best-sellers and hailed as the best kind of celeb autobiography: genuinely gripping, brilliantly observed, moving. And – shock, horror – actually written by the author. 

Still Standing: The Savage Years, “the third and final chapter” of his life, does the same job. It’s honest, funny and supremely readable. It charts in meticulous, hilarious detail the start of O’Grady’s life in entertainment, beginning with the experiments in drag and cabaret which eventually turned into Lily Savage. 

As this book begins, Lily is just being born. It’s the early 1980s and after a series of odd jobs O’Grady has decamped from London to Yorkshire (having been born and raised in Birkenhead, Merseyside). He’s been offered a stint doing a new drag act. The days of the great northern variety clubs are over and Lily finds herself in a spray-painted geisha wig performing to geezers in rough pubs who really want to see a stripper.

At the time O’Grady’s beloved mother Mary had no idea what he was up to. “What would you do if I waltzed in one day wearing a frock and a wig?” he asks. “I’d bloody poison you, that’s what,” shoots back her answer.   

By his late twenties, having undergone a struggle with his sexuality (and having fathered a daughter at the age of nineteen, whilst realising that he was actually gay), he is starting to think he needs to find a career. “I told myself that at twenty eight it was time to get my act together and do something with my life.” After numerous false starts, Lily really takes off when she gets a cabaret residency at London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern which lasts for eight years, eventually leading to a nomination for the Perrier Award in Edinburgh in 1991.        

O’Grady’s great skill is that he really knows how to tell stories, both large and small. There are tales of his larger-than-life (male) best friend Vera, of wild nights taking acid and of cast parties which end up with naked dwarves (from Snow White in pantomime) trying to pull his covers off in the middle of the night. 

In amongst it all, he’s trying to find his way amongst the “ragbag of queens” and make Lily Savage real as well as funny. The character, he says, is not based on his mother as many have assumed. (Mary died just before O’Grady was cast in a drag role in The Bill in 1988.) “Lilian Maeve Veronica Savage… drank, smoked, openly took drugs, fiddled her gas and electricity meters, believed in plain speaking and possessed a mouth that would make the inbreds who appear on Jeremy Kyle blush. Apart from plain speaking, my mother had none of these attributes.”

There’s a bit of fast forward once Lily takes flight and we’re suddenly into 2012 and O’Grady’s life now, which involves him surviving two heart attacks and the death of his long-standing partner Murphy. Before finding himself alone in Waitrose buying corn plasters. 

With O’Grady, now 57, you really get a natural born storyteller, a true drama queen and a master of the punchline. You could say this book becomes slightly disjointed. But when the writing and jokes are this good, you could just surrender and read the other two books too so that it all makes sense. It’s what Lilian Maeve Veronica Savage would want.




Red: December Books



It’s Red Book Club time again. December issue features Lisa Hilton’s Wolves in Winter as Book of the Month, a historical romp set in 15th century Italy. Fans of Philippa Gregory will like this one. “Think of Wolf Hall crossed with Downton Abbey set in the Italian Renaissance.”

The Cook by Wayne Macauley is a riotous stream-of-consciousness novel about Zac, a “young offender” who finds salvation in a Hell’s Kitchen environment. Or does he? Rachel Johnson’s Winter Games is all Nancy Mitford meets Upstairs Downstairs meets Bridget Jones. Dolly: A Ghost Story is the latest from Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black. My favourite this month is Catherine Bailey’s The Secret Rooms. It tells the true story of the mysterious life and death of the Duke of Rutland.


Archive: The shadow of Princess Leia



On this day a year ago I was writing about Carrie Fisher in the Observer, the woman who likes to say, “George Lucas ruined my life.”  Fisher is such a wonderful writer (Postcards from the Edge, Wishful Drinking). As well as a great actress and all-round mega-fascinating Hollywood type, obviously.

The daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, she had a showbiz childhood from which she has perhaps never quite recovered. (Although who ever really recovers from their childhood?) “I thought everybody had stepmothers living in bungalows at the Beverly Hills hotel wearing negligees.” Her father had a passionate affair with Liz Taylor when Carrie was two.

Fave quote? “I just basically have too much personality for one person and not quite enough for two.”  Shockaholic, her memoir about her mental health and experiences with electroconvulsive therapy, is next on the reading list.


Carrie Fisher pic by Alan Light. Black and white cover pic: original Leia-coiffed Hungarian actress Franciska Gaal.


Best City in the World



Twenty years ago I lived in St Petersburg for a year. It’s still one of my favourite cities. Maybe even the ultimate favourite. Very excited that my 2012 travel essay on going back has made it into St Petersburg: City Pick — “perfect gems of city writing”. Published today by Oxygen Books, £9.99. Click here to see more.

The guide features pieces by over sixty writers including Gogol, Nabokov and Truman Capote. This is a bit embarrassing for them. Their elegant tributes to the city sit alongside the rantings of this one-time “vodka-swilling student”. (Thank you for that, sub-editors.) But they are dead so they cannot mind.

An excellent literary guide if you’re planning to visit Russia. They also do Paris, London, Dublin, Venice and others. Armchair travellers can click to see the essay, Back to St Petersburg, originally published in High Life magazine here.

Plus, I highly recommend “Liking” the I Heart St Petersburg Facebook page. Although the photographs they post are so beautiful that they just make me want to move back there. Which is a bit inconvenient at the moment.


Book of the Year: A.M. Homes



“Gloriously eccentric” (Telegraph), hits “sour, sweet notes” (LA Times) and “a big American story with big American themes” (US ELLE), May We Be Forgiven is A.M. Homes‘ first novel in over six years. She has been away working for TV, writing for The L Word and developing pilots for CBS. I have missed her — although her 2007 memoir The Mistress’s Daughter was so good it pretty much made up for everything. (Don’t read the Amazon reviews, they’re deranged. Must have read a different book.)

Click here for Observer review of May We Be Forgiven. It really is the best thing I’ve read this year. Also must-reads from A.M.Homes (real name Amy): In a Country of Mothers, This Book Will Save Your Life and Music For Torching. Don’t read The End of Alice unless you like really dark stuff.


Typewriter pic by Raul Hernandez Gonzalez.

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