Xan Brooks and Sarah Phelps on history and nostalgia


Just attended a brilliant Birmingham Literature Festival panel on historical fiction and period drama.

We had an engaging and knowledgeable host in Will Tattersdill, of Birmingham Uni, and two highly entertaining and formidable panellists.

Sarah Phelps has most recently been adapting Agatha Christie for television, to great acclaim.

Xan Brooks is blowing everyone away with his debut novel with a dark take on post-Great War England 'The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times.'

Both had some very interesting points to make about the dangers of nostalgia and how we airbrush history.

Closer to the shock of seismic events, they both agreed there can be a collective and wilful amnesia after appalling brutality, resulting in an unwillingness to see the truth.

The hedonism of the 1920s, seen in this light, was an escape from the war trauma that had gone before.

Both Brooks and Phelps seek to reinstate the truth, or at least turn 'the truth' on its head.

I came away with an atomised sense of history - the need to find the individual beneath the dominant narratives, the importance of digging out the story in order to challenge the received wisdom.

I can't wait to get stuck into 'The Clocks...'

And I can totally see why Phelps is so good at what she does. She loves Agatha Christie, and champions her dark, disturbing fiction.

It was a winning combination, and made for an illuminating discussion.

Literary festival fare at its best, undoubtedly.

What I'm Reading #2

Here's my second book review of 2017, and it's one I wanted to read ages ago, but you know how it is.


People have been saying All That Man Is by David Szalay isn't really a novel. It totally is, and I say that as a writer and lover of short stories, so it would have been easy for me to respond to this as a collection.

All That Man Is forms a series of nine narratives, at first seemingly unrelated. And yet it holds together as a single, unified work because it lives up to its title. It becomes, as we move through what unfolds as the 'nine ages of man', a cohesive novel about what it is to be male in today's world.

This is a dispassionate unpicking of 21st century male angst. It charts man from late teens to old age, across Europe and yet within a relatively narrow timeframe.

The protagonists all share intrinsic qualities and situations - crisis, uncertainty, displacement. There is much mulling over of expectations, both societal and personal, and inner tensions; lost dreams, lost loves, shaky identity and thwarted ambition.

We meet a student, a stoner, a bodyguard, an academic, a tabloid journalist, an estate agent, a dropout, a billionaire and a government adviser.

Some are more likeable than others but all are sympathetic, and this is Szalay's great gift. He is compassionate rather than caustic. His humour is wryly observed, his pathos effortless.

And by the end, with a nicely subtle circularity woven in, I felt I had followed one man, not nine. So clever.



I want to buy this book for all my male friends, my ex boyfriends, my uncles and my son.

I came away from this book acutely aware of how I write men myself. I would never presume to do as good a job as someone on the Booker shortlist, but I aim for the same things: crisis, insight, compassion.

Mr Szalay, I salute you.