Category: biography and memoir

41. It’s only a movie (and a book)

Mark Kermode It's Only a MovieLast Monday I met film critic Mark Kermode at the Watershed in Bristol before his event there which formed part of his countrywide tour to present his new book, It’s Only a Movie. He was remarkably bright and engaged, considering he had been at the BAFTAs the night before and had already done 37 interviews (sic) that morning.

Later, he would delight his audience with nearly two hours of anecdotes from his career and opinions on the films he loves and loathes. But before he took to the stage, I talked to him about his career – what his earliest film memories are, why The Exorcist is his favourite film, and what overlooked gems he thinks we should all be seeking out.

40. Charles Dickens – a writer’s life

Charles Dickens readingWe mark the birthday of Charles Dickens earlier this week with a special extended edition of my interview with his biographer Michael Slater from the end of last year, which originally appeared on Blackwell Online.

John Bowen, reviewing the book in the Times Literary Supplement, said:

“[it] immediately takes its place as the most authoritative, fair-minded and navigable of modern biographies. Slater, the most distinguished of modern Dickens scholars, is a master of detail and a stickler for dates (there are a dozen or so on the first page) and the book gives a vivid sense of the day-to-day, week-by-week bustle and productivity of Dickens’s life, its polymorphous inventiveness, its relentless juggling.”

Michael Slater: Charles DickensIn this extended version of the interview, you can hear how Michael Slater first became interested in Dickens, what persuaded him to take on the monumental task, and which aspects of Dickens personality and writing have fascinated him most. Click on the link above to listen to the podcast.

38. Poland – a country in the moon

Polish Winter by Michael MoranMy guest on this week’s programme is Michael Moran, author of A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland.

Michael first visited Poland in the early 1990s after the collapse of Communism as leader of an ill-assorted crew of British teachers charged with introducing the Poles to the delights of market capitalism. As a pianist, he was attracted by the music of Chopin, but confesses that he knew little about the country. He little suspected that he would fall in love with the country and end up making it his home.

A Country in the Moon – the description is Edmund Burke’s and dates from 1795, but might still stand for a country which is very little known and all too often reduced to cliché in the West – achieves something very rare for a travel book: it manages to be genuinely funny and entertaining, and also deeply thought-provoking about the many terrible chapters in Poland’s history.

Moran: A Country in the MoonThe book has been widely praised; the Guardian called it “the best contemporary travel book on Poland, reminiscent in its finest moments of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s masterful Time of Gifts” and said “No thinking traveller interested in Poland should overlook this essential book”. The Observer admired how it  “triumphantly balanc[ed] humour with scholarship”, while the Spectator called it “well-researched and hugely entertaining…  a three-star feast”.

Click on the podcast player above to find out what Michael finds so attractive about Poland – and what it is like to tour the country in a venerable old Rolls-Royce.

Books of the Decade – Kirsten Ellis

Kirsten EllisContinuing our series in which writers and publishers choose their favourite books of the past ten years, today’s guest is Kirsten Ellis.

Kirsten is the author of Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope (Harper Collins). She is currently writing an historical novel and completing her MPhil/PhD in Creative Writing and teaching at Goldsmiths University. From the reviews of Star of the Morning:

“In Ellis’s account… we have a very different Hester Stanhope [from previous accounts]: a woman who has inherited the mantle of her Prime Minister forebears (William Pitt the Younger was her uncle; Pitt the Elder her grandfather), showing due leadership, courage under fire, and a mission to count in the imperial power games being played in the East.”
Lesley McDowell, The Scotsman

Star of the Morning“Ellis has unearthed fresh material, and retells the story with idiosyncratic panache… Ellis is a vivid narrator with an eye for detail: the perfumed dinners attended by naked female slaves; the dusk return of the swallows to the Umayyad mosque.”
Sara Wheeler, Daily Telegraph

To see Kirsten’s favourite books of the decade, click below.

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Introducing the Last Englishman

Here is a short video I recorded with Roland Chambers about his new book, The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome.

You could view this as an appetizer for the longer audio interview with him, coming in my podcast for Faber in early September, in which he talks about Ransome’s life in Russia before Swallows and Amazons. In that podcast I’ll also be talking to John Carey about his new biography of William Golding.

22. From barman to biographer

Rodge Glass – Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography

Rodge Glass: Alasdair GrayIn this week’s podcast, Rodge Glass tells me how, after his first disastrous meeting with Alasdair Gray in a bar in Glasgow, he later went on to be the writer’s student, amanuensis and eventually biographer.

Rodge recalls how Gray (a self-described “fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian”, who is also the author of Lanark, widely regarded as the finest Scottish novel of the past century, as well as a host of other books and creator of many art projects), reacted when the biography was first mooted:

“Be my Boswell!” he shouted, dancing a jig around the room and raising a finger to the heavens. “Tell the world of my genius!” Read More

5. Sofka Zinovieff on the trail of the Red Princess

zinovieff red princessA few years ago Sofka Zinovieff became fascinated by the life of her grandmother and namesake, Sofka Dolgorouky, who was born into a noble family in imperial Russia exactly a century ago. Sofka had known her grandmother when she was already an old woman and, although she knew something of her colourful life, she was to make many discoveries as she researched her book. Her quest was to take her back to her grandmother’s childhood home in St Petersburg and their country estate in the Crimea. It would also lead her to a prison camp in eastern France and the archives of MI5…

You can see some of the great reviews the book has had by clicking here.