BBC BLOGS - The Reporters: Razia Iqbal

Archives for October 2008

Death of the book?

Razia Iqbal | 14:56 UK time, Wednesday, 29 October 2008

oprah.jpgSo the Queen of endorsements, Oprah Winfrey, has come out and said that Amazon's Kindle is "life-changing".

Could this shift the e-book reader away from the niche market and into the mainstream?
And should we care?

I love the physicality of books; there is something special about opening a new novel, or sitting in a book-lined room and perusing through an old one, which is so much more preferable to having all my books hidden in an electronic gadget.

However, I'm not sure the issue here is about being a luddite. It was only a matter of time before books caught up with other art forms such as music, movies and television. And it will be a while yet before the advent of the Kindle or Sony's Reader shuts down any libraries or bookshops. So, the death of the book isn't being announced any time soon.

But the issue of celebrity endorsement though is a fascinating one. Oprah's opinion can change a writer's fortunes, and it's not just her literary recommendations that people pay attention to. Let's not forget that when she endorsed Barack Obama for President, a study by economists at the University of Maryland showed that Winfrey's nod would give the Democratic nominee one million extra votes.

kindle_250.jpg So, the fact that she is saying Amazon's Kindle is the "wave to the future" must have brought more than a smile on the faces of those running the show at Amazon.

For all that she has done for books and publishing, her very endorsement for this e-book may reignite a slow-burning fire: The next step for Amazon could be making a bid for the best literary agencies, thereby making a much shorter route from the writer to the reader.

And that really would be a revolution in books and how they are produced.

The history boy

Razia Iqbal | 09:11 UK time, Friday, 24 October 2008

bennett2006_bbc226.jpgThere is clearly something in the air.

Earlier this month, it was announced that the archive of the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes had been acquired by the British Library.

Full of poignant insights into his thought processes and his emotions about his second wife, Sylvia Plath, it is a treasure trove for scholars and those even vaguely interested in writing.

And just a few days ago, the Nobel Laureate, Doris Lessing, made a gift of some 100 letters to the University of East Anglia.

One of them revealed why she turned down the offer to be made a Dame, because of Britain's "non-existent Empire".

Today it has been announced that Alan Bennett is presenting his papers as a gift to the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.

Bennett doesn't have a computer, and re-writes quite a lot; much of the archive is handwritten, which according to him "seems to delight the archivists, but it's always dismayed me and there's so much I'm quite glad to see the back of it".

And characteristically, he is treating the gift as an obligation repaid.

He says: "I say with some pride that I had a state education: school, university.

"None of it cost me or my parents a penny. It's a situation which young people in education today can only dream of and this is wrong".

Now, these three writers are unique and their work is of enormous interest.

But the rest of us - well, we're not blessed with major or even minor literary genius, but I'll bet there is a treasure trove of letters out there. Jottings, attempts at literature, and so on.

So here's my question. What would you bequeath to the nation?

Leibovitz: 'Queen documentary was heartbreaking'

Razia Iqbal | 14:51 UK time, Wednesday, 22 October 2008

leibovitz.jpgI was a bit nervous about meeting Annie Leibovitz today - because my preparation suggested that she checks out her interviewers rather rigorously before she agrees to speak.

I had been asked to send a CV, but in the to-ing and fro-ing of emails, I had accidentally on purpose failed to send one. But maybe she had done her homework anyway - checked out this blog, watched some of my reports... who knows?

But I was also aware that very often, with big name interviewees, it's the PR people who are the really jumpy ones. The subject is usually relaxed and happy to chat away.

And that's exactly how it turned out with my "new best friend", Annie!

It is extraordinary how much of a celebrity this celebrity photographer is. BBC News had secured one of only two broadcast interviews with her and, after we had finished, there was a highly unusual scrum of photographers, news crews and journalists trying to grab a word as she walked around her retrospective exhibtion at the National Portrait Gallery. Everyone wanted a piece of her.

We got half an hour to speak, during which time she talked happily about Her Majesty the Queen, and the portraits she took of her; one of which takes on such a painterly look that the likes of Gainsborough or Reynolds would have been envious.

But, of course, the scene of that photo shoot became the centre of a huge controversy at the BBC, and resulted in the corporation having to apologise to the Queen. A trailer for the programme appeared to show the monarch walking out of the photo shoot looking cross when, in fact, she was walking into the photo shoot.

Not our finest hour.

It turns out that Leibovitz didn't even want camera crews present at the photo shoot. She has asked press officers if it could be avoided and was told 'no'. She even asked the Queen herself if she minded, and it seems the Queen dismissed the whole thing - saying she didn't even notice the camera crews any more.

Leibovitz told me she thought the episode was "heartbreaking". Had the truth of that day been highlighted at the outset, then the Queen would have been shown to be frustrated and that was interesting in itself.

For anyone who hasn't seen the documentary, you can watch the relevant clip on YouTube, and see that Liebovtiz is absolutely right. What actually happened is in itself a revealing portrait.

Ted Hughes' schoolbook masterpiece

Razia Iqbal | 08:01 UK time, Wednesday, 15 October 2008

phunt.jpgThe British Library has just acquired a major and critical archive of material from Ted Hughes, a titan of 20th Century poetry.

Comprising of notebooks, diaries and personal letters, it covers Hughes' entire career from his energetic debut, Hawk In The Rain, to the revelatory Birthday Letters - an account of his tragic relationship with Sylvia Plath.

Like many writers, Hughes had a superstitious tic - he preferred to write on second-hand paper. During harmonious times, he and Plath would share notepaper, taking advantage of their habit of writing at opposite ends of the day. Following her suicide, Hughes started writing about their relationship in partially-used school jotters, which he had bought in bulk and stored in his home in Devon.

Those early drafts eventually became Birthday Letters, the Whitbread Prize-winning collection Hughes published in 1998, the year he died.

One of the notebooks in the British Library's collection is even inscribed with the details of its previous owner. "P Hunt, June 1960," it reads, "Histry [sic]".

I got to wondering what had happened to P Hunt? And how would it feel to have your tatty old school book be the starting point for this touchstone of British literature? If you share that name - and were at Vicars Hill School in Boldre, Hampshire, in 1960 - why not get in touch?

Booker Prize: Blessing or curse?

Razia Iqbal | 21:40 UK time, Tuesday, 14 October 2008

booker_books.jpgAnd the winner is... a first time novelist. Aravind Adiga, only 33 years old and the youngest on the shortlist, although it's his birthday next week. What a great birthday present: £50,000 and one of the most prestigious literary awards going.

The chairman of the judges, Michael Portillo, said of Adiga's book, The White Tiger: "In many ways it was the perfect novel. True to itself throughout, and maintained its tone and the position of its hero as thoroughly villainous."

Mr Portillo said the decision was unanimous. However, when each judge championed their particular novel at the final meeting today, I have been told that all three men in the room cried when a passage from one of the other shortlisted novels was read out.

Only two other writers have won with their first novel: Arundhati Roy with The God of Small Things, and DBC Pierre with Vernon God Little. Roy has not written a novel since, and Pierre's next novel sank without a trace. For all its immediate glory and increase in sales, can winning the Booker with your first novel also be a curse?

What price for a masterpiece?

Razia Iqbal | 16:45 UK time, Monday, 13 October 2008


Sixty of Britain's best known artists have written to the Times newspaper calling for two Titian paintings to be saved for the nation.

The market value of the two paintings, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, is thought to be close to £300 million. The Duke of Sutherland is giving the National Galleries of Scotland - which have held the paintings for decades - an opportunity to keep the paintings, but only if they can raise £50 million before the end of the year for Diana and Actaeon. There would then be a four year repreive before another £50 million had to be found for Diana and Callisto (there is more background in this Q&A from my colleagues on the news website).

Among the 60 artists who want the paintings to remain in the UK are Lucien Freud, David Hockney, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley. The list is long and distinguished.

gormley.jpg I had a chat with Antony Gormley today, and he confirmed he is dipping into his own pockets to save the paintings, although he wouldn't say how much he was donating. He didn't think there was any "moral pressure" on artists to offer their spare cash, but said it was important for them to speak out.

When I put it to him that some might balk at the prospect of raising money for works of art given the current economic climate, he was unhesitant: "It is absolutely the perfect time to be talking about this. Money isn't worth anything and art is. There is no measure of how a thing of beauty can change the world".

Tracey Emin has previously told me that if everyone in the country contributed one pound, we could raise the money needed to keep the paintings here.

Diana and Actaeon is often talked about as one of the greatest paintings in the world. I've stood in front of it for hours and marvelled at its beauty, and I am glad that I have had the good fortune to be able to do that. The painting and its partner are works to marvel at and feel inspired by.

So, here are some questions: Does it matter to you that these paintings stay in this country? And, if so, who should pay for them?

Pensioners have been sending in donations, as have students. Perhaps Tracey Emin is right and we could all do our bit. I would be happy to donate a tenner. What would you be willing to spare to keep them here?

What are your favourite children's books?

Razia Iqbal | 12:45 UK time, Friday, 10 October 2008

gruffalo_300.jpgWe all know about the boom in children's literature, led by the boy wizard Harry Potter and those other heroes, such as the boy spy Alex Rider and the girl adventurer Lyra Belacqua.

It has been a remarkable decade or so for books for children. Anything and everything that is done to encourage them to wander into a library or bookshop and get lost in other worlds is important and serious business.

As we are in Children's Book Week, I thought I would ask you what your favourite books were as a child or what books you read to your children now? I wasn't read to as a child, but devoured books myself.

With my own children, (a boy aged 11 and a girl aged 7) favourites have now become classics, still talked about and mentioned from time to time.

Here are my top three:

1) The Gruffalo, by Julie Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, was loved by both my children. Such a simple and clever story.

2) The Tiger Who Came To Tea, by Judith Kerr, is one of my all time favourites, for its ordinary delight in imagination, and the fact that my daugther has often said at the end of every reading "I wish we could have a tiger who came to tea".

3) Michael Rosen's Don't Put Mustard In The Custard, both book and tape (listened to in the car in the days when they had tape decks). Brilliantly read by him, and lines of such dreamy truth, and hilarity that they still come up in conversation.

What are yours?

Tennant plays for laughs at RSC

Razia Iqbal | 09:30 UK time, Thursday, 9 October 2008

loves_blog.jpgDavid Tennant started rehearsals for Love's Labour's Lost almost immediately after Hamlet opened at Stratford's Courtyard Theatre a few months ago. It's hard not to be in awe of his commitment and mental agility.

His star status made Hamlet a theatrical event and the RSC may well have another hit on their hands, which is surprising given that the play is Shakespeare's most forgettable early comedy. But the triumph is not Tennant's alone. The cast is very much an ensemble. Edward Bennett as Navarre, Joe Dixon as Don Adriano De Armado, and Nina Sosanya as Rosaline really stand out.

Tennant plays the witty Berowne (this and Hamlet were the two roles Tennant was particularly keen on playing, a happy co-incidence for director Greg Doran to want to direct the very same) who is sceptical of King Navarre's intention to withdraw to the forest with his Lords to fast, study and deny themselves female company for three years. This all changes when the Princess of France arrives with her ladies.

The play is rarely performed and its reams of tricky Elizabethan wordplay might explain why, but Doran's production is full of exuberance and had the first night audience in stitches. It loses its way in the second half, and while there is much to reflect about love over reason, playing it only for laughs obscures that.

The pre-teen audience who piled in to see Tennant as the Prince of Denmark may not be as compelled by this, but they will come none the less, such is Tennant's cache. Whatever weaknesses in the play, what they will see is an actor who can hold an audience utterly every time he is on stage.

Has Saatchi lost his Midas touch?

Razia Iqbal | 18:14 UK time, Tuesday, 7 October 2008

saatchi1_ap.jpgHe is so elusive that it's hard to tell Charles Saatchi has been away from the contemporary art scene for a while.

As preparations were being made for the grand opening of his vast new Saatchi gallery in London, he scampered off at the first signs of any cameras, yet he was overheard saying he hoped they could convey what he was trying to do at the gallery. If only he would explain himself, but he is consistently reluctant to give interviews.

The space at the former Duke of York's headquarters in Kings Road is stunning - room after room, light, airy and beautifully proportioned. But unlike the way Saatchi changed contemporary art in the 1980s and 1990s, the art he has chosen to showcase in his swanky new gallery, is less impressive. Has the man with the Midas touch lost it?

That he has chosen Chinese art to launch his gallery is bold, but quite a lot of it falls flat. My favourite is the installation by two young artists, called Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, entitled Old People's home. Thirteen life-size sculptures of elderly world leaders slumped in electric wheelchairs cruise eerily through the room and occasionally bump into each other, or you, if you're focussed on one and another is heading your way. They are witty and brilliantly conceived.

Saatchi has been buying and investing in Chinese art for several years now and his interest has ratcheted auction prices, but his selection here is erratic and uneven. Some feels like its just there for shock value. He's still got loads of money, and the gallery is stunning and free to get into, but the art inside, bar a few exceptions, is unlikely to become the next big thing.

Unsung celebrities

Razia Iqbal | 15:55 UK time, Friday, 3 October 2008

moss_gold.jpgIt's an eerie, unsettling, yet magnificent sight - the 50kg, £1.5m solid gold Kate Moss statue at the British Museum.

With gold being in more demand than ever, the insurance must have gone through the roof. I did think that if the economic climate continued to spiral out of control, the Bank of England could requisition the statue and melt it down. But then we would lose our very own Aphrodite, contorting in her impossible yoga pose and staring out to the Greek goddesses and beauties around her.

That she symbolises the impossibility of beauty and riches, I can stomach. That the artist is reflecting our times is harder to swallow and more so because it is essentially true: That celebrity is the new divinity.

serra_300.jpgI thought about celebrity again as I walked through Richard Serra's gargantuan steel structures at the Gagosian gallery today.

Serra, whose exhibition opens to the public tomorrow, doesn't come to Britain very often. His work was last seen here in 1992. Yet his name should be shouted from the rooftops, or even just from the top of his vast pieces, which constantly play with form.

He is a champion of seriousness and his work should be more widely known and experienced.

One piece, redolent of the hull of a ship, forced me to walk backwards away from it and compelled me towards it again and again. He used to work in steel mills, and he talks with ease about the construction of his pieces, seeing the grips needed to places his pieces on site as extensions of his arms. There is a heroism to his work which is as much to do with his obsession with process as with the final product.

What is it about sculpture and big sculpture in particular which speaks to our primitive selves. What makes it so potent?

Making sense of Le Corbusier's legacy

Razia Iqbal | 16:04 UK time, Thursday, 2 October 2008

corb_blog.jpgThe architectural highlight of Liverpool's European Capital of Culture is the first exhibition of Le Corbusier's work and ideas to be seen in this country for 20 years.

To his supporters, Le Corbusier - real name Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris - is the godfather of modern architecture, to his detractors he is the man whose malign influence ruined our cities with the high rises built in his name in the 1950s and 1960s.

There are no Le Corbusier buildings in this country, so for those not about to rush off to Chandigarh, India, or visit the brilliant Notre-Dame-du-Haut Church in Ronchamp, France, you will have make do with his extraordinary plans, wonderful films (an amazing insight into his imagination and very rarely seen, so worth going just for these), models, and even paintings and scribbles.

I'm not sure who the exhibition is aimed at though. Those who think he is a genius will continue to do so. Others who think he is to blame for some of the worst that blights urban landscapes will also feel vindicated.

I wanted to walk away from the exhibition feeling exhilarated but, while the setting in the crypt of Liverpool's Metropolitan Cathedral was perfect, the exhibition felt sterile and clinical.

I wanted to feel Le Corbusier's intellectual passion and be swept up by his unique multi-disciplinary approach. He expanded and widened the scope of what it was possible to build and his legacy can be seen in the work of Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, and David Chipperfield. His work is more relevant than ever and, sadly, I'm not convinced the exhibition successfully conveyed that.

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