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

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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.”


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