Very French, But Odd

Michel Houellebecq, who is certainly an oddball but widely regarded as France’s most prominent writer, has surfaced in a new role.

Having published his last novel four years ago it transpires that he has not been idle. His unpredictability seems to go beyond being consistently engaged in scandalising his countrymen in print. L’enfant terrible of French letters has for the moment changed gear and is now amusing the nation as an unlikely film star.

As France, in line with other European countries, is busy revelling in its post-summer publishing season, Houellebecq has grabbed the limelight, but not with another novel dissecting the modern malaise. Instead, he is the star of two films in which he plays himself.

However, there is no glamour there. The drab and frail-looking Houellebecq is not a pretty sight: a chain-smoking and wine-swilling depressive whose status as a cultural icon has been overlooked and tarnished by allegations of sexual obsessions, misogyny and Islamophobia. Anybody else would not have survived such characterisation.

But contrary to expectation he’s being hailed as a comic genius for his lead role in The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, a quirky film that was shown on television last week. The anorak-wearing author appeared in chains and with duck tape over his mouth after being seized by three men who hold him hostage in a bungalow in rural France.He asks for cigarettes, wine and sex with a prostitute, which his readers will recognise as standard preoccupations in his literary endeavours, and ends up turning this unlikely situation to his advantage when everyone – including the bungalow owners who are the parents of one of his kidnappers – befriends him.

Drink-fuelled conversations around the dining table cover philosophy, sofas and sodomy – subjects which he’s highly qualified in and perhaps without an equal. In one scene, Houellebecq, aged fifty-six, tries out wrestling moves with his kidnappers’ in another he makes love to Fatima, the local prostitute, who ends up moving in – and ‘it’s to help to relax him’, says the mother of one of the kidnappers.

Most of Houellebecq’s lines, delivered in his characteristic deadpan style, are improvised, say the filmmakers. ‘It’s unexpected and irresistible,’ wrote Le Point magazine. ‘Houellebecq is an incredible comic talent.’

Guillaume Nicloux, the director, said he had been inspired by speculation a few years ago that the author had been kidnapped by Islamic extremists as punishment for describing Islam as ‘the stupidest religion’ in an interview. The rumour began when Houellebecq went through a reclusive phase and appeared to have gone missing. ‘I had fun imagining what might have happened during his absence,’ said Nicloux.

Houellebecq had been accused of spreading racial hatred in 2002 with his comments about Islam. After being acquitted, he moved to Ireland where he lived for several years with his corgi. Regarded as a nihilist, he is also hailed as the most eloquent spokesman for a frivolous celebrity-obsessed age. His works, Atomised (1998), Platform (2002) and The Possibility of an Island (2006), featured wife-swapping, Thai-sex tourism and an alien-worshipping sect.

His last novel, The Map and the Territory, published in 2010, was a satire on the modern art world and won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. He appears as one of the characters; a stinking alcoholic with a skin disease and a penchant for eating mortadella in bed.

Near-Death Experience, another film in which the writer stars as himself, is getting rave reviews before it opens in cinemas next month. In it, he heads off to the mountains of Provence to escape his boring routine and has a near-death experience after seeing a life-changing news story on television. ‘The camera is fixed on him,’ wrote Le Nouvel Observateur magazine. ‘Like in one of those animal documentaries where they follow some poor creature wandering about aimlessly.’

In the film about his fictional kidnapping, when Houellebecq has been told he is to be freed, he thanks his hosts for ‘an agreeable captivity’. After it was screened at the Berlin Film Festival this year he said real life was no more interesting than being held hostage. He added, ‘It’s quite an embarrassing conclusion.’

Well, he might be a genius as a man of letters. A comic who might enthral the nation, a nihilist who believes in some weird philosophical concept of life, a man of multiple talents, depraved, and yet, perhaps as a screwball entertainer he provides an antidote for boredom. That in my view would constitute an important part of his legacy.

If nothing else, what a crazy son of a bitch he turns out to be! The princes of hell must surely love him, for they have much in common.

A Rabid Enemy of the Middle Classes

The Conservative Party is destined to lose the next general election if they keep pursuing their present policy of bleeding the middle classes, who have become an easy target for the Chancellor.

The Chancellor in Jovial Mood

George Osborne has so far shown his disdain for the very people whose support is vital if his party is to remain in power.

It is bad policy to favour the very rich at the expense of the majority of the electorate.Even in the present administration, the poor are feeling the brunt of his misguided taxation levies that penalise the largest segment of the hard working classes, whose contribution to the economy is by far the most tangible and the easiest to collect.

Furthermore, such a policy can harbour seeds of discontent as the gap between those who prosper and those who struggle to keep their head above water becomes totally unacceptable and will, in the long term, cause harm to the economy by reason of a dissension that will be hard to control.

The days of confrontation between employers and employees are hopefully confined to the past, although few tremors from time to time still cost the economy a great hunk of money which we can ill afford or, to put it differently, can be used for better purposes.

I truly believe that George Osborne is the cog in the wheel of the new coalition government for his alignment with that section of the community who are more elitist and right-wing than the vicissitudes of time will look favourably upon, or even tolerate.

Nevertheless, he’s without doubt one of the most visible members of the coalition government but he needs to cultivate his image so as not to be labelled the heir to the ugly side of capitalism. His powerful coterie of friends does not sit well with his position as Chancellor since it is likely to give him the wrong image if that’s still possible, however much he tries.

His task in the next few months is to dispel the notion that he’s the foe of the middle classes – which he is at present – by investing instead in their future, and making them more comfortable to the ultimate prosperity of the nation.

The mega-rich are not always one’s best friend. They oscillate to suit the greed that spurs them on and are not the ideal bed-fellows. I would advise the Chancellor to take heed, for he has been warned.

To go against the mounting outcry against his ill-conceived strategy will cost him his political future.

Cancer is My Teacher

Cancer is My TeacherLast night tout Londres gathered at Daunt Books in the Fulham Road to celebrate Lucy O’Donnell, a formidable lady, and the launch of her book Cancer is My Teacher.

The evening was emotionally charged as Lucy was in her element, looking bright and beautiful – and full of her usual zest for life.

Here is the text of my short address on this moving occasion.

Ladies and gentlemen, today marks a special launch of a remarkable book written by Lucy O’Donnell, one of the beautiful daughters of Lady Vanessa Hannam, the distinguished historical novelist whose last two books were published by Quartet.

Cancer is My Teacher is a very moving account of the author’s struggle to stay alive, despite the ravages of an advanced cancer.

We are therefore assembled here to celebrate Lucy’s tenacity and her fight against all the odds, never to give in, but to carry on as if nothing has happened to devastate her normal life.

I first met Lucy about two years ago when I sat next to her at a dinner to mark the publication of one of her mother’s books and quite frankly was totally entranced by her energy, her joie de vivre and her natural capacity to make friends. Intelligent and determined, I found her to be a woman of many parts but always exuding a certain warmth that I would describe as her visiting card with some magic attached to it.

Despite the disruption that cancer can cause to one’s ordered life, Lucy never lost her spirit or whinged or complained about her ill-fate, but smiled throughout her ordeal as perhaps few people in her state of health could have done.

Her book is the story of courage and the stark determination of a young woman in the prime of her life who has astonished the world around her and, in particular, her close friends, for her combative power and her endurance in incredibly harsh circumstances which would have defeated most others.

She has more resilience than anyone I know and we are here to pay her the tribute she has rightly earned, for showing us the way of how to turn calamity into hope, and despair into strength.

This evening we must demonstrate how much we admire this indomitable woman by ensuring that each one in this room buys not only one copy, but a few copies of her book, even if they have to dig deep into their pockets – for her cause is not only admirable, but sacrosanct.

The more people buy the book the more hope they give for cancer sufferers as they follow Lucy’s example and say no to cancer, and utter the immortal words, ‘You shall not prevail.’

A Bunion on their Spanish Onions!

Has sexual liberation become a threat to the male species as more women are now attracted to their own gender and find solace and comfort more conducive with women than with men?

The signs are becoming ominous to the extent that men should polish their act and stem the trend before it gains momentum, for they risk a relegation of their own traditional role.

To save their own bacon, it is imperative for the male to change his attitude towards women not only in the bedroom but also in his general treatment of the fairer sex.

Whenever you open a newspaper, it seems an item attracts your attention where a woman celebrity suddenly declares that she is gay. The latest is Spain’s national beauty queen posting a photograph of herself with her lover on a social media website.

Patricia Yurena, a stunning young lady who was crowned Miss Spain in 2008 and 2013, and came runner-up in last year’s Miss Universe competition, is the first Spanish national winner to make such a public disclosure.

‘I don’t regret what I did and I did it because I am happy about what’s going on in my life,’ said the twenty-four-year old from Tenerife.

The Instagram photo showed Miss Spain and her girlfriend, Vanesa Cordes, a singer and disc jockey, lying together on a bed underneath the caption ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

Her decision to reveal her sexuality won widespread support across social media sites.

‘Thanks to everyone for their comments,’ wrote Ms Yurena. ‘I published the picture spontaneously and in an impulsive manner.’

In 2012, for the first time, two openly gay beauty queens competed for the Miss California USA crown but both missed out on the title. The last Miss Universe pageant, held in November 2013 in Moscow, provoked controversy after it was boycotted by its gay television host because of Russian anti-homosexual laws. Andy Cohen pulled out of hosting the show and tens of thousands called for the competition to be relocated in light of the anti-gay propaganda laws passed by Vladimir Putin.

In 2012, the Miss Universe organisation owned by Donald Trump announced that it would allow transgender women to compete. Trust Donald, for he knows where his bread is buttered.

In brief, sexual liberation, which has freed inhibitions in both genders, has nevertheless brought with it a list of complications both religious and secular. Having said all that, the advantages of living in a free society which respects and recognises the intertwining of both genders far outweigh its occasional repercussions.

Sex in all its forms, as long as it is consensual, is to be encouraged to keep us healthy and in some cases less wealthy for it can turn out to be a commodity of high maintenance.

But ultimately, who cares? Nobody takes anything with him once his life expires. So indulge while you can and to hell with it all!

Simpson & I

I don’t know John Simpson personally but followed him over the years reporting for the BBC in troubled areas of the world and consider him as arguably one of the great war correspondents of his generation whose turn of phrase makes him uniquely iconic in that hazardous profession.

Oggy Boytchev’s book, Simpson & I, which Quartet published recently, is an eye-opener to a world where conflict and peril intertwine to give the reader an insight into the men who risk their lives reporting from the battlefield, with little concern for their safety in order to keep us informed as to the cruelties of war and the sufferings of those caught in the midst of hostilities often not of their making.

Oggy, the Bulgarian asylum seeker who made Britain his home many years ago, knows Simpson at close quarters having accompanied him on many a mission fraught with danger from Iraq and beyond.

Being his right-hand man, Oggy himself grew in stature and learned a great deal about the inescapable barbarities of man to man and the inhumanity that becomes like a staple diet to those involved in armed confrontations.

Today, as the world is engaged in unspeakable turmoil and veering towards the brink of more deadly fights, Oggy’s book is itself a stark revelation of what goes on in the killing fields and the stress of those highly driven and gallant reporters who witness it all at a great cost to their psyche and well-being.

Order your copy now, as its relevance has never been more timely. Then perhaps you will consider yourself lucky, cocooned and sheltered from the evil that like the plague is relentless in the pursuit of its victims without the least remorse or a whiff of human consideration. All that is left for us to do is pray for redemption and hope for salvation.

Oggy’s book is a page-turner that you can ill afford to be without.

The Aftermath

What a mishmash awaits us.

The Scottish Referendum has created more problems than provided solutions. Although the aftermath of a No vote will certainly give temporary comfort to the nation, the long-term prospects of finding a formula that will bring stability to a workable concept of a new United Kingdom is hard to fathom.

For make no mistake about it, things will never be the same again.

The three main political parties will squabble every inch of the way as each will claim a disadvantage by whatever changes have to be made – especially in such complex constitutional reforms that will be needed.

This was made worse by the desperate last-minute promises made to Scotland in order to avoid the possibility of a calamitous Scottish severance from the Union and what this would have entailed.

The division of assets would have taken years to negotiate at a great financial cost, disregarding the acrimony that it would engender in the process.

I still maintain that the coalition government was much too quick to opt for a referendum as the simplest form to quell a rising Scottish nationalism, for they had as usual hurriedly gone into action without giving the matter the seriousness it deserves.

It is now too late to bemoan what cannot be reversed, but perhaps ask the question whether this lot in power will ever learn not to precipitate one crisis after another for not doing their homework properly.

Lightweight politicians have the habit of skimping rather than taking the time to go into the heart of the matter to show their public a bristling mind that unfortunately they do not possess.

Vanity and self-regard play an important role these days with these second-rate politicians who model themselves on star-like celebrities whose main claim to fame is to look glamorous, avoid intelligent discourse and have a superficial lifestyle devoid of any intellectual depth.

All I know is that the months ahead will be strenuous and will require a sustained effort from the British nation as a whole to buck up their ideas, show good will to one another, create an environment where difficulties can be overcome and a new constitution fair to everyone in these isles of ours that will be enshrined as a living proof of a true democracy.

However, if politicians waver, prevaricate or put up stumbling blocks to suit their individual purposes, and a state of anarchy ensues, then we should not hesitate to kick them out.

The Genie in the Bottle

President Hollande has been my other bête noir, alongside Tony Blair, since he was elected and he remains more so to this day: I can’t stop writing about him however much I try. Hollande is full of a fodder that beguiles even when his credibility hits rock bottom.

‘Prone to accident’ is a term that seems to have lost its meaning as he continues to blunder his way in so many directions that a new terminology is badly needed to describe his manic conduct. Perhaps he’s the most boring man on earth but his fate has the signs of being predestined to become also the most ridiculed and unpopular leader France has ever had.

With him, sex and politics is the combination that has landed him in dire straits. He fumbles around unaware of his limitations to play the Don Juan he aspires to be, and causes havoc to his private life in the process. Playing with fire with a certain type of woman is a deadly game that has over the centuries destroyed the most powerful of men, as history so clearly demonstrates.

To add to his woes a devastating book by his former First Lady has, in the articulation of most press coverage, accelerated his ‘descent into hell’. President Hollande caught with his trousers down, not for the first time, sought to defend his socialist credentials after two days that saw a demolition job by his former mistress, notably referred to as ‘the Rottweiler’.

The book, Merci Pour Ce Moment by Valérie Trierweiler, is clearly a hatchet job, where she describes him as weak-minded and a hypocrite who stood for election as the man who does not like the rich, whereas in reality he does not like the poor. He calls them ‘the toothless’.

Le Monde, France’s most authoritative newspaper, reported ‘a wave of panic’ at the Elysée Palace and wrote off Mr Hollande in a devastating editorial: ‘Over ten days, the descent into hell seems endless and bottomless,’ it said. ‘More than ever the emperor is naked.’

‘Mr Hollande is suffering a moral and political crisis,’ added the newspaper, the voice of France’s left-leaning establishment. ‘The impotence of the executive is obvious,’ it carried on, ‘and the collapse of authority is worrying… How much can the head of state hold out?’

‘The president’s legitimacy is in shreds and the country’s trust in him in is near zero. Sitting it out and enduring will not be enough to save his term to a cruel end,’ it added.

The omens could not be worse. Hollande faces an uphill struggle to stay in office while his Rottweiler is basking in a new found role of sweet revenge against the man she claims has humiliated her in more ways than one. His tryst with the actress Julie Gayet was for her the final straw.

Many believe his pudenda has largely been the cause of his fall from grace and she equally proves to be a woman determined to destroy the man who betrayed her; in brief, she could easily be described as the bottle who found its tight-fitting cork in Hollande, even if its duration fell short of expectation.

However, the upshot is that they clearly deserve each other. The Rottweiler’s coup de grâce will, in the long term, be her undoing also.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.