Interview with Dr Leo Mellor

March 15, 2009

leomellorDr Mellor is the Roma Gill fellow in English at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge; he specialises in modernism and Second World War literature. He teaches for several papers across the BA course and supervises dissertations on 19th- and 20th-century topics.

7am Wake up to the Today programme. Go to the gym, followed by breakfast with my girlfriend, a theatre director and translator.

8.45am Walk to college, which takes about 45 minutes.

10am Give a 50-minute lecture. I do about two a week, at the moment it’s literature and the Second World War.

11am Have an hour-long “supervision”, a one-to-one (or two) tutorial with students about their essays. I do about 12 a week.

1.15pm Eat with the 60 other fellows of the college at high table. It’s a really good way to bond as a unit.

2.30pm Give a weekly seminar, on modernism and the short story.

4pm More supervisions and endless emailing, mostly with the 30 English students I’m responsible for, but also arranging library visits, organising symposiums and contacting the editor of a book I am writing on London’s bomb sites and the literature of wartime London. I also set entrance exams and interview prospective students in December and January.

5pm Work on my book – it’s my first. I try to clear one full day a week, but the reality is that the three eight-week terms pass in an intense, exciting blur, and holidays are for research and writing, preparing reading lists, lectures and seminars.

7pm Sometimes I eat in college, work late in my office and then catch last orders in the pub and debate with friends. If not, I walk home listening to my Welsh-language podcasts practising my vocab. My mother is Welsh but I grew up in Brighton, so I only speak a little.

8pm Prepare for tomorrow’s supervisions, reading all the essays I will be discussing. Practise lectures on my cat Tolly.

8.30pm Cook dinner. I enjoy cooking as a way of relaxing.

9.30pm More preparation. Then I’ll read in bed until I fall asleep at about midnight. I have countless books on the go at once. I like to read articles and journals around my subject, but also completely off-topic as well. As a child, I just wanted to read books and I’ve fallen into a career where I get paid to do that. Some days, I can’t quite believe it. 

This piece first appeared in the Observer Review

D M Stith: Heavy Ghost

March 8, 2009


Like his celebrated label boss, Sufjan Stevens, David Stith is very much a man in thrall to God. The product of a musical, Christian family, along with the biblical imagery – all rising up, ghosts and devils, David and Isaac – there is something undeniably religious about his sound. Stith plays his fragile voice like an instrument – pouring forth praise or gospel-like narration to an orchestra of claps, drips, twangs, ghostly wails and celestial piano. Notes clash and jar, rhythms hammer and crash off kilter, but somehow it all creates an uplifting, beautifully addictive cacophony like nothing you’ve heard before.

This piece first appeared in The Observer Review.

Mary Shelley: The Pilgrims

February 8, 2009



Aiming to revive “unjustly neglected and little known works” of great authors, Hesperus has gathered for the first time five of Mary Shelley’s short stories published between 1829 and 1837. As Kamila Shamsie notes in her affectionate foreword, the tragic details of Shelley’s life are never far from her work, and this collection is held together with the theme of loss.

Mary Shelley suffered the death of her two eldest children, followed by the loss of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. From anyone else, such descriptions of grief and pain as: “My brain and heart seemed on fire, whilst my blood froze in my veins” would seem melodramatic. Here, they are weighted by experience.

But it is to the father-daughter relationship that Shelley returns time and again. She described her attachment to her father William Godwin as “excessive and romantic”, a bond fired by the death of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft days after her birth. All but one of these stories centre on a woman torn between father and lover, a position Shelley found herself in when Godwin was outraged at her attachment to his protege. This terrible choice is most dramatically played out in The Dream, in which Constance de Villeneuve seeks St Catherine’s counsel on whether to embrace the lover who fought against her dead father.

Shelley might be best known for her visionary Frankenstein, but this collection is no less powerful, marrying thought-provoking storytelling with a fascinating glimpses into the mind of a woman whose life was uncommonly marked by grief.

This piece first appeared in The Observer Review.

One Little Plane: Until

December 21, 2008


Her moniker comes from a 40s Disney cartoon, and with her cutesy, dreamy voice and a flurry of tambourines, bells and xylophones you could be forgiven for thinking a five-year-old had raided the school music box. Yet London-based Chicagoan Kathryn Bint’s brilliantly catchy folk-pop songs are far from twee, carrying a raw account of love, loss and rejection on her sweet sounds. ‘Sunshine Kid’ is the highlight, with Bint cooing her bouncy refrain to a simple, thudding guitar riff impossible to resist. Produced by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, this is an unassuming yet perfectly formed debut.

This piece first appeared in The Observer Review.

Mother Goose, Hackney Empire

December 14, 2008



Something is rotten in the land of Hackneytopia. Mother Goose has acquired a goose that lays golden eggs but the riches have gone to her head, and wicked witch Vanity threatens evil and disaster to all who cross her path. 

Hackney Empire has pulled out all the stops for its 10th anniversary self-produced panto, as usual written and directed by Susie McKenna, who also plays wicked witch Vanity, with a stunning staging and terrific cast. Sharon D Clarke is transfixing as white witch Charity, a purple-wigged disco diva whose rich voice is truly spine-tingling. Clive Rowe uses his booming voice and beaming, cherubic face to create a divine dame Mother Goose with an endearing softness. And when the two sing together, well, you just don’t want it to stop.

The supporting cast work overtime to electrify the stage at all times. A wonderfully expressive goose with moving eyelids, made by puppeteer Scott Brooker, threatens to steal the show. There are puppets that swoop across the audience, body-popping skeletons and the cutest baby bear you ever did see. Warm-hearted and joyful, this show is a riot from start to finish. 

This piece first appeared in The Observer Review.

Neil Young: Sugar Mountain: Live

December 7, 2008


This remarkable time capsule reveals Neil Young testing reaction to his post-Buffalo Springfield solo career over two nights in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Forty years later, the two-track recordings of those shows are finally released. Stripped of the ornate arrangements of his self-titled 1968 debut album and with no harmonica in the toolbox yet, this is just Young, a guitar and his thoughts. Ten tracks of nerdy asides and witty revelations break up the music, giving a thrilling ‘Neil Young in your living room effect’. An astonishing insight into the mind of a 22-year-old at the dawn of an impressive solo career.

This piece first appeared in The Observer Review.

Interview with Rania Khan

December 7, 2008


Photo: Suki Dhanda

Rania Khan, 26. Labour councillor for Bromley-by-Bow in Tower Hamlets, London; secondary-school science teacher

‘I got involved in politics because I felt so angry about the Iraq war. I was inspired by the passion and courage of Respect councillor Salma Yaqoob and political campaigner Lindsey German. When I was asked to stand as a councillor I thought it was a completely bizarre idea and that I would never win. Some of the men in the Respect party wanted me to stand in a ward where there was no chance of me winning. But I was selected and in 2006, to my amazement, I won. This year I left Respect for Labour – there’s a lot more resources in the party and I felt I could be fairer to my constituents.

‘I’m Bangladeshi and as an Asian woman I do find you are made to feel like a second-class citizen. The mentality of girls being a financial burden is still there. My dad would complain he didn’t have a son, which I found very painful as a child. That became my driving force. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t lesser for being female; that I was better than any son my parents might have had.

‘I describe myself as a feminist, but feminism doesn’t make sense to me as a separate entity. I see it as part of the wider struggle for equality, alongside class and race.

‘The escalation of the porn industry and lap-dancing clubs really bothers me. I moved from Libya to London when I was about eight and seeing images of women being exploited and used as sexual commodities everywhere made me feel sick. I would walk down Tottenham Court Road as a teenager with my mates, ripping out all the prostitution fliers from the phone boxes.

‘I want to see more women, especially from ethnic minorities, involved in politics. Women need to be educated and empowered to take those key positions; only then will we see change.’

This piece first appeared in The Observer Review.

Interview with Yeukai Taruvinga

December 7, 2008


Photo: Suki Dhanda

Yeukai Taruvinga, 26. Opposition campaigner who fled Zimbabwe fearing reprisals from Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party

‘I didn’t want to leave my country and my family, but I had to flee when I was physically abused by the militia of the ruling Zanu-PF government for supporting and campaigning for the opposition. Within hours of arriving in the UK I was told my claim for asylum had been refused. They wanted me to produce evidence, but how could I? I asked them: “What is more important, the evidence or my life?”

‘I was held for a week, then told to report once a month to an immigration centre while my case was reviewed. Four years later, I was told that my case had been refused and I was being sent back. All I had was my handbag. They wouldn’t allow me to get anything from my home, or to contact my solicitor. I was so scared that I would be deported to Zimbabwe, where I would be imprisoned and never see my family again. Seven years later I’m still waiting on the Home Office. They say my case will be decided by 2011, but until then I cannot work or study. I am in limbo. Most of my time is spent volunteering for Women Asylum Seekers Together, a group campaigning for and empowering women asylum seekers.

‘This idea that asylum seekers get free houses, cars and mobile phones is a lie. When I first claimed asylum I was given £30 a week and a shared room in a bedsit. Now I am classified as a ‘failed’ asylum seeker, yet the government accept that it is not safe for me to return, so I am given accommodation and £35 a week in supermarket vouchers.

‘I want to pay tax, support myself and pay my way but I am not allowed. I want to work with young people and do something positive. I want young people to say: ‘”This is Yeukai. Be like her.”‘

This piece first appeared in The Observer Review.

Juneau Projects Interview

November 19, 2008


Easy Virtue

October 29, 2008

Winter just wouldn’t be the same without at least one period drama set in a vast country pile in the inter-war years (see Gosford Park, Atonement, and also this year Brideshead Revisited revisited).

The usual portrait of the crumbling upper class, featuring lashings of guilt and tragedy, has been nudged aside with a knowing wink and saucy pout courtesy of the Noel Coward play Easy Virtue. Stephan Elliott (Priscilla Queen of the Desert) adds an extra helping of naughtiness as co-screenwriter and director.

The owner of the Easy Virtue in question, blonde American bombshell Larita Whittaker (perfectly pitched by Jessica Biel), is a thoroughly modern racing driver who finds herself married into the Whittaker family toxic soup in the run up to Christmas.

No amount of gorgeous wide legged trousers, fur, bias cut silk or red lippy can detract from Mrs Whittaker Snr’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) horror at her son marrying a coarse American who smokes. And so the battle commences.

Colin Firth does his thing as the distracted head of the household, presiding over two wicked sisters (Kimberley Nixon as Hilda is one to watch) and Larita’s beau and heir to the disappearing fortune – John (a forgettable non-performance from Ben Barnes.) 

This film is not as funny as it thinks it is, yet at times mistakenly goes after comedy at the expense of believability. The first two thirds of the film are a hail of unfunny one-liners and over-familiar and informal interaction between the Whittaker family members and their servants. Hang in there and you are rewarded with a few genuine laughs in the final third, but be prepared to put up with some heavy handed clangers and shoddy slapstick first.

The decision to soundtrack the film with Thirties swing renditions of pop hits (such as Carwash, a grating When The Going Gets Tough The Tough Get Going and a unutterably hideous Sexbomb) only further reinforces the misjudged tone.

Finishing with a flourish before the drama of war can cloud the jollities and with only a passing nod to the Depression, Easy Virtue, despite its shortcomings, is the perfect tonic of style and glamour for a chilly, pre-recession era evening. And nothing could be as bad as the drawn out tedium of Brideshead Revisited revisited.

Easy Virtue is on nationwide release from 7 November.