This is the Story of Mike’s Ceiling.

This is the story of Mike’s ceiling. I moved to Portugal in 1989 with my wife, Jane, after we’d been travelling for a year through Africa. On our first day in a rented house high up in the Serra da Sintra we met Nucha, a Portuguese writer, who was married to an abstract landscape artist, Michael Biberstein. We became friends. A few years later, disturbed by the crowds taking advantage of the new motorway from Lisbon to Sintra, we moved to an isolated farmhouse in the rural Alentejo. Some years after that Mike and Nucha found their own isolated millhouse about twenty minutes away.
The friendship continued. The dinners were legendary. It was not unusual to go to Mike and Nucha’s and sit at a table of fifteen to twenty people of all ages and from all walks of life – artists, curators, gallery owners, musicians, writers and archeologists. And then there were the dogs. Originally there were two but Mike and Nucha’s love of dogs became known in the area. Strays found their way to the house and some unwanted dogs were left at their gate. Finally they ended up with 10 dogs. And they were live-in dogs. You’d go to their house for a meal and all the sofas and chairs would be occupied by dogs who, once you’d moved to the dinner table, would lie underneath and fart horribly so that we’d stagger back burying our faces in yet another glass of red wine.
Mike found an old barn in a nearby town, which he converted into a studio and painted bigger and bigger canvases some of which were inspired by the huge skies and space of the Alentejo. It was not unusual for him to paint a triptych of 2m x 3m paintings.
Then in 2009, through an architect friend, he came across the Santa Isabel church in Campo Ourique in Lisbon. The church was in need of some restoration work and above all it had this dark grey oppressive ceiling about 20m x 40m. The idea, hatched between the priest, the architect and Mike, was to create a painted ceiling to cover all 800 square metres. It was going to be Mike’s biggest ever work.
Over the following years they made a scale model of the church large enough that you could walk into it and look up at the ceiling on which Mike had painted his vision for Santa Isabel. This model was shown in the Appleton Square gallery in Lisbon in 2012. I’d seen the church with its dark oppressive ceiling and to walk into that model on that night in the gallery and look up to see Mike’s vision of this vast, open sky was truly inspiring. But the model was probably only 4 square metres and he had to translate that onto 800 square metres whilst being 20 metres off the ground.
Some money was forthcoming, the scaffolding was offered for free, Mike was looking for an artistic team, the project was looking very promising. It was about this time that my wife, Jane, got sick and early in 2013 she was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a kind of precursor to leukemia. We retreated to our flat in Islington and waited for the call to begin her treatment – a bone marrow transplant.
This was going to take a year and Jane, who’d always loved our house in the Alentejo, wanted to go there to close it down and see our friends. At the end of April we had a dinner with Mike and Nucha in the house of some close mutual friends, Manuel and Deb, because Jane, with her fragile immune system, couldn’t risk infection from the dogs. It was a poignant moment. We had no real idea when we would see them all again.
Jane and I returned to London and a few days later went for a picnic with our upstairs neighbor and his girlfriend. We came back in the early evening feeling cheerful until we received a phone call from Manuel. He told us that Mike had died. He’d been found lying on the living room floor that morning as if asleep, but he’d suffered a massive stroke.
The first irrational feeling we had was one of anger. We were furious. How could this have happened? What powers were responsible for such a random act? We’d only just been with him five days before. It was maddening.
Jane was very poorly but insisted on going to the funeral, which, being in Portugal, had to be done immediately. Because Mike was a Swiss national they gave Nucha special dispensation, which meant four days. I planned to get Jane there and back in 24 hours.
The priest of the Santa Isabel church had given over one of the small chapels behind the main body of the church for the vigil. We arrived to find Mike’s shell-shocked daughters, his sister and brother-in-law and, of course, Nucha and her family and their friends. We staggered from embrace to embrace like war veterans. We sat in the church for a short service under the dark grey ceiling, which Mike had been about to begin and wondered what had happened to our lives.
Fate had not finished with us. Jane’s treatment started at the beginning of July. The first chemo, to knock out all the leukemic cells in her blood, failed. The next bout of chemo, more powerful than the last, was successful, but her own bone marrow never recovered and she died on 19th September 2013.
In October I went to Portugal and met up with Nucha. Our lives had been turned upside down, fiercely shaken, and cast aside. Nucha couldn’t live in her Alentejo house without Mike and had returned to Lisbon to share with her sister. I was living alone in a house in Oxford, which I’d rented, for what I had assumed would be the year of Jane’s treatment.
Nucha announced her intention to establish Mike’s legacy by getting the Santa Isabel church’s ceiling painted in accordance with Mike’s vision.
She had a lot of expert help. Mike had plenty of friends in the art world and she was never short of advice on how to complete the project. Very early on she established a relationship with the company Factum Art in Madrid who had done projects for the likes of Anish Kapoor so they were used to making things happen on a large scale. What she didn’t have was any help to raise money and to get the project off the ground. She knew that was going to be her task.
It was a long, hard process and Nucha had to learn a lot and get used to disappointment. The world recession and subsequent austerity had hit Portugal particularly hard. Also people weren’t so interested in dead artists who weren’t going to produce any more work. In desperation we even talked about raising some money ourselves and using that to encourage others to put their money in. There were ideas such as selling 800 individual square metre canvases of Mike’s vision. But Nucha soon realized that what was required was a major donor. It was just a question of getting through to the right people.
I don’t know how she did it. As a writer she wasn’t cut out to deal with the rich and powerful, but she was accustomed to persistence. What I do know is that her passion for the project never diminished. It became the most important thing in her life that Mike’s biggest painting got off the ground.
Finally it was the Misericordia (the equivalent of our Church Commissioners) that came through with the money. Earlier this year the scaffolding went up and in March a team of four painters started work. They finished it at the end of May. At the beginning of June I went up the scaffolding with Nucha and some friends and we stood under the realization of Mike’s vision. It was hugely emotional for all of us. We remembered Mike. I remembered Jane. I’ve never felt so proud of a person as I did of Nucha that day. She had made this happen. All that anger and sadness of three years ago dissipated under Mike’s resonant ceiling. She stood, arms outstretched, embracing his and her brilliant creation.
The official blessing of the ceiling will take place during a Mass tomorrow with the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon, Dom Manuel Clemente at 19.00.
If any of you are ever passing through Lisbon may I recommend that you visit the Igreja de Santa Isabel, where Rua Saraiva de Carvalho and Rua São Joaquim meet, 1250-096 Lisboa. You will not be disappointed and you will realize that absolutely anything is possible if you believe in it enough.

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ANDY OVERCOMES HIS GREATEST OPPONENT…

I knew Andy Murray was going to be all right this year when I found I could watch him without writhing in my seat. Even when he was two sets down against the awkward Verdasco I never doubted that he would come back. There was a maturity about him which had been absent in many of his earlier Wimbledon encounters. He was still getting frustrated, even in that mesemrizing final, as any player would under the circs, but it was out and gone. No energy was expended on what had past, all energy was directed to the next point. It is probably the most important thing that Lendl has instilled in his man. It was curious that Andy never really played that brilliantly in the quarters and semis, except for that purple patch he put together against the Pole, Janowicz. But from the off against Djokovic in the final you could see you were in the presence of a completely different man. He had his mission and nobody, not even the massive reputation of the World No. 1, was going to take it from him. He marshalled himself for that moment. For those of you who haven’t read David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ I can recommend it for some of the tennis insights, which is not such a different game to writing, as anybody who has faced themselves over the blank page can attest. Tennis is a game in which your opponent turns up in order that you can battle against yourself and hopefully come out on top. It’s interesting that the most difficult point to win is Championship point because you have reached that moment of potential triumph and are exposed to the greatest fallibility and only you can tip the balance. And so it was that Andy Murray finally overcame himself. I detected a certain sadness in myself, because it was this that so entranced me about the man, to note that his particular struggle was now over. The striving is everything, and once you’re there the reaching seems beside the point.

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THE GERMAN VERSION OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

My German publishers, Goldmann/Page & Turner, have just announced the title and publication date of the German translation of Capital Punishment. The title in German will be ‘Stirb für mich’, which means ‘Die for Me’, a great title especially as the next Charles Boxer book due out in the UK is called ‘You Will Never Find Me’. The publication date in Germany is set for August 19th 2013. Here is the front cover:

German Front Cover

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REALITY CHECK

We saw Zero Dark Thirty last night. For once a US action thriller turns out not to be a propaganda vehicle for the American way, but rather the opposite. First of all, the world’s greatest spy agency takes ten years to track down their Public Enemy No. 1. At the outset they use extraordinary rendition and torture in order to achieve this. It is not a successful strategy and has deleterious effects on morale. There is quite a high level of incompetence (allowing a dubious source into a military compound without any form of search resulting in multiple deaths) and lack of political will (it takes nearly 6 months after finding OBL before the powers can be persuaded to allow the SEALs to go in) shown throughout. It is, I suspect, utterly true to life. There must be some apoplectic politicians in DC.

The heroine, Maya, looks as if she would be cool to the touch. She is a woman operating in a macho man’s world. She is professional, driven, focused, determined, relentless, analytical and devoid of any humour. She is Kathryn Bigelow played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain. There is only the merest hint of an attraction to a fellow CIA agent, which is ruthlessly suppressed. There are two demonstrations of emotion: when her fellow operative is killed by the dubious source she sits on the floor slumped against a filing cabinet distraught, and at the end she allows herself a single tear. I can’t think of anything that would endear her to an audience, which, for this heroine, is perfect and gives you an insight into the Bigelow view of the world in which she operates.

The film is long. The processes are extensive. The torture scenes are writhingly drawn out. The investigations and analysis of major players operating round OBL are lengthily described. The final tracking down (by mobile phone triangulation) of OBL’s main contact with the outside world through the market places of Rawalpindi and Peshawar to the Abbattobad compound are minutely envisioned. And the final showdown, the assault by special forces on that compound, is shot pretty much in real time.

The finale was a very strange experience for a movie of this kind. There were no heroics. The assault was unopposed, of course. There was a disaster when one of the choppers crashed. The main problem seemed to be the number of doors that had to be blown in order to gain access. There were twenty odd SEALs versus 3 men, only one of whom was armed, and the rest were screaming women and wailing children who had to be corraled. As the attack lengthily and loudly developed lights came on in houses nearby. Men appeared on rooftops and in the street while the SEALs ransacked the place gathering up hard drives and files. They almost blew the relief helicopter when they destroyed the wrecked chopper in the animal compound. It was messy. It was low key. It was as far from Chuck Norris or Sly Stallone as you could possibly imagine.

A lot depends on your stamina as to whether you will enjoy this film. If you have the appetite for reality played out to this extreme you will find it utterly engrossing. Bigelow, and her screenwriter Boal, are determined to be absolutely faithful to their material. I can imagine them sitting around with producers saying: ‘No, that cannot be left out. That absolutely has to be in there. Shorten that and it will make no sense. Curtail that and it wouldn’t reflect the reality.’ So everything is in there. It is a ten year history of terrorism and how the CIA finally got their man.

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THE ART OF PATIENCE

We finished watching the first series of Borgen the other night. I can’t remember any British series over the last 20 years having so engaged me as did this Danish political drama.

Watching it just made me think how mediocre is the fare we’re served up night after night in the UK. The writing is terrific with such subtle characterization, which in turn seems to provoke superb acting.

What I really appreciated was that they played out all the difficult scenes and they were in no hurry. It takes all ten episodes for the post election joy to turn into pressure of work, gradual withdrawal from family life, lack of communication until finally they hit the buffers of divorce. And you don’t even realize that it’s a story line.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve really cared about a cast of TV characters, but I cared about all of them. Even the prime minister’s spin doctor, who we should hate. I especially liked the device of the audience being let in on the secret of his terrible demon while the other characters operate without that knowledge.

I thought The Killing was very good, although at times the plot creaked away, but again they never shied away from the difficult scenes of, say, the parents of the murdered girl whose pain and suffering is played out over almost all the episodes.

It’s as if we’ve got to relearn the art of patience.

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MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE I’M A LONDONER

Having written novels set in West Africa, Lisbon and Seville, I was asked recently why I had chosen to set my latest thriller, Capital Punishment, in the ‘less exotic’ location of London. I was amazed as, over the years, London to me has become increasingly exotic as its population has expanded, sucking in people from all over the world.

Being an outsider for many years helped me to look at London with fresh eyes. As an insider, in the 1980s, I only connected with the ‘village’ where I lived, my office, the pubs and restaurants where I met friends.

So I set about discovering new parts of London, taking lengthy bus and tube journeys to all corners, while watching and listening to other passengers. I walked the streets noting the architecture, shops and food outlets, taking in ancient monuments and churches and the unexpected marvel of the Gherkin suddenly looming incongruously over a Bangladeshi street market.

I took long walks in northern parks, around the Docklands and along canal towpaths with their waterborne communities. I looked at faces and wardrobe, sat in unreconstructed Victorian pubs, groovy coffee shops and the murkiest of greasy spoons, trying to sniff out an atmosphere.

Even in the most rundown areas I found a strong sense of commerce and, in every neighbourhood, layers of society which, like air traffic stacked over Heathrow, never converged, except perhaps when buying milk in a convenience store.

This is what writers do. But apart from giving me scenes and dialogue, was it helping me to capture London? The difficulty here is that there are no unique experiences that all Londoners have. Londoners use London in their own particular way.

But everybody is a Londoner. You ask anyone where they live they don’t name their ‘village’. Whether they’ve been here for three months or six generations they say: I’m from London. To them it’s the only worthwhile show on earth. So what binds these disparate groups together?

Nobody cares why you came and nobody will give a damn if you leave. But while you’re in London…you are a part of it. You wear the invisible badge of someone who has stepped into the bear pit. There’s the camaraderie of the survivor in being a Londoner.

This was the revelation: Londoners aren’t here because of the Shard, White Cube and the Donmar Warehouse although they contribute. They’re drawn here by the energy and energy comes from people and I’ve never seen London in more interesting shape, stretched as it is in all directions by a multicultural, multi-ethnic population.

Its layered history, constantly evolving cityscape and its vastly striving and always changing population make London more a state of mind than a describable place. It’s friendlier than I remember it. It seems louder, but that might be because I’m no longer young. Humour is still very much a part of the landscape as is cynicism (briefly defeated by the Olympic spirit). And the one thing that we all need to get through a day in the capital: defiance.

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WHAT? NO BOOKS!

To those of you who have tried to go to Waterstones to buy a copy of my latest novel, Capital Punishment, and been told that they are not stocking this book, here is the explanation:
The order for CP was sent to Waterstones in good time for publication day but it was, unfortunately, on the same pallet as another publisher’s books which they had asked to be withdrawn. The CP order was therefore rejected and sent back to the warehouse along with the other publisher’s books.
The error has now been ‘discovered’ and put right and the CAPITAL PUNISHMENT will be in Waterstones on Friday 25th January.
Massive apologies from all concerned to all of you who have made fruitless trips.

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CHINATOWN VERSUS QT

I saw C4′s Guru-Murthy taking several broadsides from Tarantino in an interview about Django Unchained last night. Why on earth ask someone like Tarantino such ridiculous questions about the connection of movie violence to real life killing? He is the master of hyper cartoon violence. Violence so violent it becomes supra-violence. Like his characters and dialogue Tarantino operates in a fantasy world several removes from anything that could be called remotely real. So why ask him about real life? He hasn’t a clue what that is. Before he became a world famous director he was a video shop clerk who sat in the dark and watched movies for 20 hours a day. Then he started making them. I can’t think of anybody less able to offer any insight on real life violence than QT. It made for an exasperatingly boring interview.

I saw Chinatown on the big screen at the Curzon Soho for the first time last week. Now that’s an interesting movie about violence. There’s hardly any and yet the few moments of it are memorable not least because the first results in Jack Nicholson spending most of the rest of the movie with a white, occasionally bloody, ball of cotton wool taped across his nose. The audience gasped with empathetic pain when the knife flicked open his nostril. And it was the director of the movie, in one of two cameos, who inflicted it: the exquisitely miniature Roman P. The other bit of violence happens at the end and I don’t mean the moment when Faye Dunaway is shot through the eye and falls back from the car’s horn to reveal the gaping wound. I mean the bit where John Huston envelopes the girl (the daughter/sister) and hustles her away to some endlessly abusive future.

I’ve seen Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown but I suppose there’s so much violence in all those movies that none of it made a lasting impression.

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HAPPY NEW YEAR

Happy New Year to you all.

This one kicked off with some good news in from the USA about reviews for Capital Punishment. Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review and called it ‘energetic and thoughtful’. PW have not always been fans of mine. They famously started their review of The Blind Man of Seville with the line: ‘This just goes to show that even a writer as talented as Robert Wilson can have an off day.’ (When my cardio surgeon opened me up for my bypass he said those words were engraved on my heart). What got to me was the singularity of that ‘off day’. When did you last write a book in a day? Then again having an ‘off 547 days’ doesn’t have the same ring to it and perhaps they thought that would be just too cruel.

Kirkus were also very positive about CP and described me as in ‘elegant control of the narrative’. It never feels like that when you’re doing it, of course. That phrase might lead you to believe that as I prance about my office I’m occasionally performing wonderful flourishes with my quill whereas the reality is thrashing out biro scribbled sheets of photocopy paper raked with sweat and tears.

So that’s a decent start across the pond. Let’s see what they make of it over here in old Blighty.

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ALL IN THE HAIR

Went to see ‘Skyfall’ the other night just to ease myself back into the cinematic groove. It was a return to the more successful tempo of Casino Royale rather than the jittery madness of Quantum of Solace. They must have been living on smoothies for weeks after the opening car chase sequence upset so many applecarts but this set the Mendes tone. It was all about knowingness. I liked the apocalyptic island which looked preferable to Macau’s excesses. It was forgiveably irritating, because it was so absurd, what can be achieved with or without a computer these days. I wouldn’t have minded it being a bit funnier. The banter between Bond and M, Moneypenny, Tiago Whateverhisnamewas played by Javier Bardem and Finney’s Kincade seemed to be holding back, but then I suppose they always have to be mindful of global appeal and this keeps the one liners on the bland side. I liked that scene of Bardem gaying up to Bond and for sheer queasiness I think his villain will be a tough act to follow. Maybe Mendes, who says he’s game for another, will bring him back in the next one with different hair. After No Country for Old Men and now this, Javier must be on the hunt for even more talented wigs.

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