Best books I never wrote
REVIEWS BY GRAEME LAY The Coral Island – A Tale of the Pacific, RM Ballantyne The Pearl, John Steinbeck The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway Tess of the D’urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
The sea, the sea. Growing up beside it, first at Oakura, then Opunake, its power and beauty inevitably influenced my boyhood reading. Sea stories were my favourites. Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Kidnapped.
Most enthralling of these was The Coral Island – A Tale of the Pacific by RM Ballantyne. Home from school sick one day, I picked up a copy. A handsome hardback with colour plates, it belonged to my father, who had won it as a prize at Ormondville Primary School, in 1924. The Coral Island gripped me from the beginning.
It’s a story of survival, by English boy protagonists Jack, Ralph and Peterkin. Shipwrecked on a coral reef, they are threatened by pirates and warring natives before their eventual rescue. The Pearl by John Steinbeck moved me to tears. Set in La Paz, Baja California, its exotic location and characters were unforgettable. The story is based on the life of Kino, an impoverished pearl diver and his young family. After his finding of a pearl beyond price brings Kino only tragedy, the book’s themes of poverty, piety, greed and despair touched my young heart. The Pearl a parable, and a haunting one. The sea, the sea, an old man thereof. Ernest Hemingway’s last full-length published work, The Old Man and the Sea, shows how effective fiction of novella length can be. The author won me over immediately to the predicament of his central character, the aged Cuban fisherman, Santiago, who has gone for 84 days without catching a fish. The scenes in which he hooks a giant marlin, then draws it alongside his canoe, are joyful; the ones in which his great prize was reduced to bones by sharks filled me with sorrow. In the sixth form our English teacher, Mr Shaw, gave us a set text by a writer called Thomas Hardy. It was called Tess of the D’urbervilles. The tragic story of its eponymous character captivated me. So too did the setting, 19th century rural Dorset. I subsequently read everything else by Hardy, meaning that for the time being I was done with the sea.
But I knew that eventually I would come back to the sea for inspiration, and I have.
MY YEAR WITH HELEN (E, 93 mins) Directed by Gaylene Preston Reviewed by James Croot
‘Change has to be planned.” That’s one of the many pieces of sage advice doled out by former Prime Minister Helen Clark in this fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary.
The long-serving Mt Albert MP and her role as the UN’S third-highest ranking official might be the initial focus of Gaylene Preston’s tale, but it soon morphs into an exposé of the power and the politics of the 70-year-old organisation.
As Clark makes a bid for the top job, Secretary General, Preston discovers just what she’s up against, despite the UN claiming to be “the most transparent organisation in the world”. With its candidate swapping, political horse trading and vetos, the race for the “world’s most difficult job” seems like something that would take place at Fifa, the IOC or the Vatican (Preston even wryly manages to find some white smoke billowing nearby). You can feel the anger and disappointment in both Clark and Preston as they watch the “good old boys” close ranks.
The veteran Kiwi film-maker is also on hand though to capture Clark at her most charismatic, persuasive and human – whether it’s empowering Botswanan women, inspiring interns or filling her nonagenarian father George’s deep freeze with a year’s worth of ready made meals.
In the Soho hotel suite where he is publicising his latest film, The Limehouse Golem, Bill Nighy is dressed in a perfectly tailored navy suit. In his left hand he plays with a bottle of water, held by its neck between two fingers and inverted. I think of this as his drip-feed of cool, sustaining the actor’s languid posture, his clubland drawl and his liquid-blue stare.
Nighy is much respected in the profession, even though he has barely done any Shakespeare – perhaps because blank verse would test his naturalistic, laconic delivery. He is also a bit of an icon. So many men approaching his age (67) would want to be Nighy, and are doubtless resentful that he got the job – that effortless poise, that lazy ease!
The word “lazy” jeopardises the beginning of our interview. He says that he has never called himself lazy. On Desert Island Discs in 2004 he was talking, rather, about “loafing”.
“Loafing is a bit of an art. It’s like when you played truant. It’s trying to enjoy playing truant without any truant anxiety. Because I work quite a lot and I work with lots of people, having a day off on your own is luxurious and you don’t want to mess it up by having any complicated thoughts about it. You just want to drift. And I’m pretty good at it. I drift between the bookshop, the coffee shop and the park, or something. That’s the perfect day.”
No one would deny him that. Nighy’s self-imposed solitariness since his 27-year relationship with Diana Quick (with whom he has a daughter) ended a decade ago is notorious. He lives alone in a flat near Savile Row – handy for those tailors’ appointments. The nosiest tabloids have failed to attach further romance to his name. I ask if he stands prepared should love crash suddenly into his life.
“I have no idea. No idea. I can’t imagine that happening. I mean, nobody can imagine that happening, until it happens, and then how would you prepare for it? I think it’s a little late in the day for that kind of thing.”
The personae he inhabits are rarely loners, however. Indeed, the main cause of male envy may be that a Nighy role often comes with an attractive and much younger woman attached. In Turks & Caicos and its predecessor, Page Eight, Worricker’s girlfriends were played by Rachel Weisz, Winona Ryder and Helena Bonham Carter, all roughly 20 years his junior. In 2005 in Richard Curtis’ film The Girl in the Cafe the gap between him and the love interest, Kelly Macdonald, was a quarter of a century. In the 2014 revival of Hare’s stage play Skylight, Carey Mulligan, playing Kyra, with whom his character Tom had an affair, was 35 years younger than him.
There is no such nonsense in The Limehouse Golem, an evocative literary thriller set in Victorian London, based on a Peter Ackroyd novel, which briefly suggests that Karl Marx could have been a serial killer – an absurd moment that Nighy enjoyed. Stepping into a role earmarked for Alan Rickman, who was too ill to proceed, Nighy plays Detective Inspector John Kildare, out to rescue the chief suspect in a murder inquiry from the noose. Lizzie Cree is played by 23-year-old Olivia Cooke, but while Kildare may on some level be in love with her, there is no suggestion of a sexual relationship. Kildare is homosexual and persecuted for his sexuality.
“It’s always a good day when you don’t have to be romantic. Even when I was young and eligible for such parts, I used to hate doing them. I could never take myself seriously. I thought you had to be charming or attractive. As someone who didn’t feel attractive or at all charming, I just felt exposed. I used to hate having to be the object of desire. I wouldn’t do them now – I don’t think anybody smart does them – but if you had to do sex scenes that was just appalling. That was a terrible day at the office.”