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How to stay sane: never take yourself too seriously

The lights go down.

Heavy metal chords ring out.

It is clear that Deep Purple have lost none of their ability to rock.

I’ve seen the loudest band of all time (Guinness Book of Records) twice: in Kyiv in 2011 and in Vienna in 2017.  I was fortunate enough to share a beer with Roger Glover and other band members after both shows. (more…)

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East West Street: genocide? Or crimes against humanity?

I recently read East West Street by British law professor and international human rights expert Philippe Sands.

If you have any interest in the cataclysm which overtook eastern and central Europe between 1933 and 1945, I recommend East West Street.  It explains the development of the concepts of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” against the background of the Second World War and the appalling crimes which took place in the run up to, and during, that conflict.

It also considers the relevance of what happened in 1933-45 today.

My copy of ‘East West Street’.  The endorsements ring true

Sands humanises and illustrates his account by focusing on four individuals.  Hersch Lauterpacht was a professor of International Law who developed the concept of crimes against humanity.  Rafael Lemkin was a prosecutor and lawyer who developed the concept of Genocide.  Hans Frank was Hitler’s lawyer and later governor-general of German-occupied Poland from 1940-45.  Leon Buchholz was Sands’s grandfather, who died in Paris in 1997 (‘He took Lemberg to the grave, along with a scarf given to him by his mother in January 1939. It was a parting gift from Vienna, my mother told me as we bade him adieu.’) (more…)

Why “I am Pilgrim” is the best thriller I’ve read for ages

I crave good thrillers.  But they are vanishingly rare.

So when I find a book with a compelling plot, rich characters, horrifying jeopardy and seat-edge cliff-hangers, I fall on it like a starving man on a feast.

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is such a thriller – an epic, breathtaking romp from New York to Afghanistan to Bahrain to Gaza to Bodrum to Bulgaria and back.  I really enjoyed it.

Here (no spoilers) are some reasons it works well:

  1. characterisation: the outstanding feature of the novel.  Both the bad guy (“The Saracen”) and the protagonist, the US-trained superspy codenamed “Pilgrim” (both Saracen and Pilgrim can also mean “Nomad”), are richly drawn, with enough back story to fill several novels.  This can be irritating: the book is so long that some threads of detail disappear (Pilgrim’s drug habit) or reappear without having been described in the first place (the Saracen’s dead wife).   But on the whole the characters, including a host of minor players, gleam like diamonds.  This makes you care about them;
  2. action: the action scenes are thrilling.  A firefight in an Afghan village, the ghastly deaths of three hostages, the theft of some medical supplies from a heavily-guarded facility – all will have you on the edge of your seat;
  3. evil: the consequences with which the world – and specifically the US – will threatened if Pilgrim does not succeed in his mission are both credible and horrific.  The potential horror is illustrated early on in the book in microcosm, leaving you praying it will not come about on a bigger scale;
  4. good: Pilgrim has an unerring moral compass which draws sympathy – a bit like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog).  Other characters also have clear moral values.  Even “The Saracen” plans his act of evil for reasons which he believes are pure and noble;
  5. richness: Hayes reaches deep into characters to create insights which enrich and illuminate the book.  For example, he creates a Jewish character who has survived the Holocaust and hangs around the Bebelplatz – a memorial to the 1933 book-burning by Nazis in Berlin – to highlight a point: when millions of people, a whole political system, countless numbers of citizens who believed in God, said they were going to kill you – just listen to them.  Later, Pilgrim inspires a cynical musician who has lost his mojo to resume his musical career – just in passing.  The book is full of warm, fascinating detail;
  6. I am Pilgrim contains some fine epigrams.  I liked Evidence is the name we give to what we have, but what about the things we haven’t found? and If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go;  
  7. The structure of the book is outstanding.  Hints from opening chapters flower into relevance hundreds of pages later.  For example Pilgrim’s early hatred of the practice of torture by “waterboarding” sets the scene for it to be used later.  The early love of an anonymous Geneva banker for his family becomes a key to the resolution;
  8. The book is rich in cliff-hangers, especially from the mid-way on.  You really, really want to know what will happen next.

Another thriller – described by Edmund de Waal as “utterly gripping” (more…)

West London

Paul Hodson

Hammersmith 119 bollards.JPG

With Travelling Companion and Daughter I spent some end-of-holiday days in west London. We stayed in a flat in Barnes and visited Putney, Teddington and Hammersmith. There were a few falsely sunny mid-mornings (I wasn’t up early enough for the false dawns) but basically the weather was the same grey we’ve been having in Brussels.

Boris bike tube 119.JPG

On the tube train that took us from St Pancras to Hammersmith was a Boris bike (a street rental bike). It didn’t seem to be with anyone. The woman in the photo stood up and moved to to make it clear it wasn’t hers. A few stops later, though, a young man who had been made homeless and was begging down the carriage came along and rolled the bike off onto the platform.

When I lived in London in the 80s I was a north London boy, more or less. These places in the west are…

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50 Shades: 5 reasons it’s a masterpiece, 5 reasons I hate it

‘I only finished the first volume,’ my friend says.  ‘It was so badly written.  And boring.’

‘I disagree,’ I say.  ‘I think the writing is brilliant.  It hits every target for a best-seller.  I read all three volumes.  But I ended up hating it.’

What to make of 50 Shades of Grey?  Last time I looked, it had sold 150 million copies in 52 languages and spawned a hit movie series.  The book has 85,000 reviews on Amazon.com with an average of 4*, and a further 21,500 on Amazon.co.uk – also averaging 4*.  A lot of people love it.  Why?

The following review contains spoilers.  Links in bold italics are to other blog posts on this site.

Each volume of “50 Shades” is substantial

Here are 5 things I found brilliant about the 50 Shades trilogy:

(i) everything is big.  In her book “How to write a blockbuster“, Sarah Harrison says a bestseller must have glamour in the sense of absolute, undeniable, gobsmacking allure… with all the maidenly restraint of Joan Collins on speed.  It’s got to be BIG, she says.  Everything about 50 Shades is big – Christian Grey is not just rich, he’s mega-rich.  He isn’t just talented; he is a concert-quality pianist and outstanding skier and linguist who excels at martial arts.  He’s not only a good person: he wants to help poor people around the world.  He’s not just handsome – every woman he passes is entranced by his charisma.  As Ana sums him up:

(more…)

W. Somerset Maugham on sex, turnips and the meaning of life

A writer compares turnips and sex.  Is he wise, or daft?  Can we use his wisdom – if any – to make ourselves happier?

I have written often about happiness on this blog.  You can find a summary in my piece The one with the links to happiness.

W Somerset Maugham considers happiness and the meaning of life in his essay The Summing Up, written in 1938.  Perhaps writers – and others – can learn from him.  Try not to be put off by the old-fashioned way in which he often refers to “men” when he means “people”

W Somerset Maugham is most famous for his short stories

In The Summing Up, Maugham asks whether writing itself is enough for a happy life…

From time to time I have asked myself whether I should have been a better writer if I had devoted my whole life to literature.

… and concludes:

Somewhat early, but at what age I cannot remember, I made up my mind that, having but one life, I should like to get the most I could out of it.  It did not seem to me enough merely to write. (more…)

Arvon residential writing courses: review

Ahead, in the kitchen, everyone seems to be laughing.  As I approach, the noise swells.  I push the door open to find ten people sitting around a long wooden table, drinking tea and eating lemon drizzle cake.  In an instant, the din dies down as everyone turns to look at the newcomer.

What have I left myself in for?

The prospect of attending a writing course holds both fascination and dread for would-be authors.  I recently attended the Arvon Foundation’s “Editing Fiction: Turning First Drafts into Publishable Books” at The Hurst in Shropshire.  So what actually happens on a writing course?  Do they help your writing?  And what if you don’t get on with the other participants?

I long to sit longer on this bench in the grounds of the Hurst

The Arvon course I attended, in November 2018, lasted from Monday afternoon to Saturday morning.  It consisted of morning workshops, followed by afternoons free for writing, walking, or attending 1:1 seminars with the tutors.  Workshops included sessions on how to edit a novel (including the advice “enjoy a moment (more…)

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