Method Authors: A New Literary Movement – from The Independent


Note: For details on the classes, go to our website

I’ve been meaning to write a post on author Thomas W. Hodgkinson’s mooting of the “new literary movement” (ahem) of ‘method writing’ since he first spoke about it on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme a week or so ago. (You can listen to it excerpted on the BBC here.)

However, ironically, I was too busy practising what he was preaching, as I was living in the Montparnasse apartment of one of the real-life protagonists of a short historical fiction I was writing to enter in the Prix d’Hemingway in France.

So it wasn’t until I returned to London late last night that I discovered he had launched the intended project in this morning’s The Independent (online here.)

author-photo-alexaner-fiske-harrison (2)

My Research

Thomas tells an abridged version of the story of why I am one of his three “method authors” in the piece.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison… trained as a matador in Spain as research for his book about bullfighting, Into the Arena. He is also an actor who, like Dustin Hoffman, has honed his technique at the Actors Studio. So for him, nothing was more natural, when he sat down to write, than to don the same black “country suit” and short jacket he’d worn in the arena. Between bursts of typing, he would move about the room, performing what is known as toreo de salon.

[Read more…]


In Memoriam: Antonia Raissi, née Francis, 4 February 1976 – 14 September 2015

Antonia Programme I

I have come to hold the belief that one of the most powerful and definitively human compulsions is that of being remembered: that when the physical reality of self has perished, that echo of appearance, the memory of self in other minds, should be confirmed in defiance of death. Hence the funeral, the oration, the headstone, the monument, the memorial service, the obituary and this, the personal memoire. That, and an expiation.

So I am not writing claiming I knew Antonia better than others – her mother and stepfather, her husband and her sons, her other family and many of her other friends had that privilege – but we had our moments over twenty or so years. I want to write down those I remember, and those I can repeat, before my recollections of them change and mutate any more than they already have. To ‘re-member’ to, as the word suggests, is to piece back together the members, the parts, of a dismembered whole. At best this is a jerry-rigged fiction that just about passes muster and at worst an outright lie, fuelled by want, and perspective, and sorrow.


*                    *                    *


It was in her room in the top floor of Matthews Building I first met her, second on the right. A single bed, a desk, armchair and a basin in cupboard, divided by no more space than you could lie down in, loo and shower down the corridor. St. Peter’s College, Oxford, wasn’t exactly as glamorous as Brideshead Revisited, but Antonia was. Tall, lithe, exquisite faced which she fought against – admiring the strong more than the pretty – speaking with clipped St. Mary’s (Calne) tones and Eton-cropped black hair, which I would later cut to make her look more like Irène Jacob in Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs : Rouge the film we all fell in love with that year. Just as we all fell in love with her.

RedIn that tiny room we were all packed, a group, almost exclusively male at its core, and regarded as deeply, almost hilariously pretentious even by the standards of Oxford undergraduates. However, looking back one can see it was just curiosity and fascination and youthful gaucheness.

There was Hugh Dancy, George Pendle and Paul Curran, all studying English under Dr Francis Warner, Dominic Elliot studying Archaeology and Anthropology, and Steven France studying Philosophy under Dr John Kenyon. Antonia would within her first year abandon Geography for English, and I would only make it to the end of my second before switching from Biology to Philosophy under Kenyon.

Me, matriculation day, October 1994

Me, matriculation day, October 1994

One of her first stories to me, a story which would have perhaps annoyed the more sophisticated and subtle person she became, was of her summer holiday, just prior to coming up to Oxford, in Kenya. I remember still the image she conjured so well of her sitting, dressed in white, smoking Cartier cigarettes, the only non-male, and indeed only non-Masai sitting around a camp fire in The Mara. She would have been eighteen years old.

I wonder if she viewed us like Masai too. She certainly preferred the company of us men, and although she was not a tomboy in the sense of climbing trees, her way of speaking was… well, like anti-aircraft fire – not always deadly accurate, but incessant and intimidating to fly amongst, the dark crumping bursts of her conversational shells peppering the night sky. And it was usually night sky – we sat up late into the night talking and talking, me smoking Marlboro, her Lights, me Coke, her Diet. She wasn’t much of a drinker, disliking the silliness, the loss of control, or so she claimed. When I did see her tipsy for the first time I was surprised at how girly she became. I think that was what she feared most.

Antonia's 19th Birthday Party, L-R, George Pendle, Dave ? & gf, Steven France, Hugh Dancy, Dr. Genevieve Connors, ?, John Mühlemann, ?, David Collard, David Budds, Biranda Ford, Lucy, Antonia, Caroline Early, Cat Bagshawe, Joshua Steckel (Photo by Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Antonia’s 19th Birthday Party, Gloucester Green pizza restaurant, clockwise from bottom left: George Pendle, Dave – & ?, Steven France, Hugh Dancy, Genevieve Connors, ?, John Mühlemann, ?, David Collard, David Budds, Biranda Ford, Lucy -, Antonia Francis, Caroline Early, Catherine Bagshaw, Joshua Steckel (Photo by Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Detail from above (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Detail from above (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

It was inevitable that I would fall head over heels for her – I mean I was only a few months out of an all boys boarding school, grew up without sisters and had never had a girlfriend. And here was this stunning and exotic creature, fitting no standard feminine norm that I knew of – never a skirt or dress, but black boots and jeans on those very long legs, and almost invariably a black polo neck, channelling Juliette Greco with a hint of Audrey Hepburn. Of course, now in retrospect I can see that Antonia wasn’t oblivious to the effect she had on us boys – and we were just boys – wrangling us to some extent with those quirks honed to charms, equalising the gender imbalance using that weapon among all the others at her disposal. [Read more…]

By The Sword: My Latest Column for Taki’s Magazine


My latest contribution to my column, ‘By The Sword’, for Taki’s Magazine is out now. It concerns the current refugee crisis in Europe, but goes as far back as the Viking invasions of Britain, with reference to the epic Old English poem the Battle of Maldon, and beyond that to the Christianisation, decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It is also a paean to realpolitik and how to actually save lives, rather than make public displays of one own virtuous emotions while decrying the viciousness of others. To promote feeling above thought and then parade it in public is infantile narcissism, pure and simple.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

From Spain, the Centre of the World, to Africa, the Heart of Darkness

Estoy en mi chaqueta de rayas en la plaza de toros de Pamplona, 13 de julio de 2015. A mi derecha es Lore Monig, Presidenta del New York City Club Taurino, a mi derecha, el chef celebridad y torero práctico de México, Carlos Manríquez (Foto : Jim Hollander)

In my striped jacket in the plaza de toros of Pamplona, 13 of July 2015. To my right, Lore Monig, President of the New York City Club Taurino, to my left, the celebrity chef and amateur bullfighter from Mexico, Carlos Manríquez, beyond him Peter Remington, publisher of Modern Luxury Houston magazine and his brother (Photo: Jim Hollander)


Having come out of the delights and dangers of Pamplona’s feria de San Fermín running with bulls – already described in the abstract on ‘The Pamplona Post‘, also detailed with a more purist slant on the blog, ‘The Last Arena‘ – I was particularly pleased to see my more cerebral, less visceral side represented in my review of Dr Robert Goodwin’s magnum opus, Spain: The Centre Of The World, 1519-1682 (Bloomsbury Press) in The Spectator. In summary, my view of the book is:

What distinguishes Goodwin from other historians of the period is the sheer multiplicity of his perspectives. He is erudite and concise in covering familiar ground, while full of original insight when it comes to the motives and actions of the key players…

…it is [his] passion that removes Goodwin’s learned book from the shelves of academia, giving it breadth and breath. The most notable effect on this reader was an urge to return to Spain, especially to Goodwin’s beloved Seville, that ‘deeply religious and very beautiful provincial backwater’, with ‘its quiet lanes and courtyards’, its ‘grand monuments’ and its ‘ghosts’. After all, it is not enough to bring truth to history. One must also bring life — and this book has it in golden abundance.

(The review is available in full online here.)

Now I must turn myself to the contentious issue of Big Game hunting for the same magazine in the light of the death of the aged male lion some Oxford biologists rather tastelessly and unprofessionally anthropomorphised with the name Cecil. (Cecil Rhodes was the colonial overlord of Zimbabwe, hence its colonial name of Rhodesia.)

This is an event my own former zoology tutor at Oxford – who has worked hand-in-glove with both the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments on conservation over the decades – referred to in his email as “murder”. He also ended the email, “suffice it to say that I am on the side of the large mammals of Africa excluding the destructive Homo sapiens.”

I do find his response a little ironic, as I remember in my interview with him in ’93 he asked me which of the Pleistocene megafauna had most caught my interest. (It was my time in the Kruger Park in South Africa that inspired me to go and study under him.) I answered unequivocally “lion”, to which his response was how boring they were to study as they spend most of their time asleep. Later I would end up in the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, from where Cecil came, following what would have been his grandparents and great uncles and aunts.


Following the pride in Hwange National Park (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

Following the pride in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe in 1996 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)


Sub-adult lion, Hwange National Park

Sub-adult lion, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe in 1996 (Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)


Anyway, given that I can count among my friends both professional hunters and conservation biologists, and have myself no immensely strong views about the death of animals lower on the cognitive ‘chain of being’ than elephants – a notion of moral status outlined for Prospect magazine, and derivative from my time with Great Apes described in the Financial Times – I hope I’m in a good position to write the piece in a way that lives up to my description in today’s Daily Telegraph magazine: “he is a stone-cold pragmatist with a poet’s soul.”

However, as a child, my best friend was this cat, so in the end, I’ll be on the side of the predators. The question is: which ones?


The author and his first cat

Alexander Fiske-Harrison and Shantallah Millionaire, a name rather more fitting to the beast than Cecil (Photo: Barbara Gail Horne)


Alexander Fiske-Harrison


King Richard III: A savage blank canvas…

As I was on holiday in France this piece was filed too late for publication in The Spectator, so I’ve posted it here – AFH

King Richard III, Duke of Gloucester, in portrait and remains...

King Richard III, Duke of Gloucester, in portrait and remains…

The only remarkable thing about Richard III is how unremarkable he was…

Watching the reburial of King Richard III, this writer was struck by how the unearthing of his bones was being sold to those who would buy it as the unearthing of the ‘truth’ about a much maligned monarch. Conversely, Shakespeare’s play of the same name was being touted as the very zenith of propaganda and the Bard of Avon himself as a sort of Goebbels with the tongue of Goethe; history’s most gifted author prostituting his talents to defame the last and most discrete of its true kings, the Plantagenets, to justify the brash and barbaric usurpers who followed, the Tudors.

Frontispage from the First Quarto

Frontispage from the First Quarto

I myself, attempting to judge events in the context of the time, take the view that the Duke of Gloucester – the name by which he was most commonly known, having held the title from age 9 – was nothing more than a minor product of those crude times whose only notability lay in providing inspiration for one of our greatest artist’s first decent works and through that stabilising a nation that had suffered two generations of civil war. In death and dramatic ignominy Gloucester achieved more for his country than his rather prosaic savagery did in life.

The first point to be made is that there isn’t a historian worth the name who doesn’t hold Gloucester responsible for the death of his nephews – the 12-year-old King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, 4th Duke of York – the ‘Princes in the Tower’.

On the death of Gloucester’s eldest brother, King Edward IV, Gloucester became Lord Protector and had the princes sent to the Tower of London “for their own safety”. He then announced that young Edward V’s coronation would be delayed, and not long afterwards the children were proclaimed illegitimate due to their father’s alleged bigamy. Two weeks later – 6th July 1483 – Gloucester was crowned King of England and France (and Lord of Ireland.) The princes were neither seen nor heard from again. [Read more…]

The Last Arena has moved…

The entire bullfighting content of this blog has now moved onto its own blog, which still goes under the old name of The Last Arena and can be found by clicking here

P.S. Blunt, Bryant and Brando

Further to my post below, I just published this in The Spectator I wonder whether anyone cared about the background of Welles (family of money), Brando (poverty), Nicholson (poverty) or Ordóñez (family of bullfighters). AFH

Marlon Brando: “When he’s gone, the rest move up a notch.”


I’m moving the bullfighting portion of this blog onto a new site, ‘The Last Arena’, because my work is returning to its pre-Into The Arena diversity, however, until then, it will be a rum mix. Now, Marlon Brando had nothing to do with bullfighting and his only remark on it was to Playboy magazine in an interview with Lawrence Groebel (reprinted in Conversations With Brando):

PLAYBOY: What else offends you?
BRANDO: Bullfighting. I’d like to be the bull but have my brain. First, I’d get the picador. Then I’d chase the matador. No, I’d walk at him until he was shitting in his pants. Then I’d get a horn right up his ass and parade him around the ring. The Spaniards don’t think anything more of picking an animal to pieces than the Tahitians do of cutting up a fish.

That said, he does look remarkably like the matador José Maria Manzanares…


Xander acting

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, left, acting in ‘The Pendulum’ in London’s West End in 2008

Anyway, when I trained as an actor, it was at the Method acting school The Stella Adler Conservatory in New York, which not only boasted had Marlon Brando as a alumnus, but, while I was there, he was its chairman.

The only word to apply to Brando in terms of his art, which was performance on film, was genius. At the time I was obsessed with acting and so I was fascinated by him. I am not alone in this, amongst actors, no one is rated more highly, as Jack Nicholson  -who provides the title quote to this post – put it in an article on his friend and neighbour in Rolling Stone magazine,

So I mean it when I say that if you can’t appreciate Brando, I wouldn’t know how to talk to you. If there’s anything obvious in life, this is it. Other actors don’t go around discussing who is the best actor in the world, because it’s obvious – Marlon Brando is.

[Read more…]

My Times Literary Supplement review of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond

tls_logo As I  ease this blog onto another site, ‘The Last Arena‘, so that I have a personal, more general blog here, I saw in the news today that Francis Crawford of Lymond was voted the greatest fictional character in Scottish literature, beating the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and Ivanhoe. Game of KingsI read the ‘Lymond’ books – six novels of historical fiction beginning with The Game Of Kings in 1961 – at the insistence of my brother Byron, who himself had been given them to read by a fellow Army Officer, and continued with them as an undergraduate historian at St. Andrews. GeminiI went on to read the eight Niccolò novels which prequelled them for myself. They are astonishing and addictive books without compare in genre or literary fiction. By coincidence, I was writing at the time for the rather serious The Times Literary Supplement – where Virginia Woolf first reviewed James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry James and T. S. Eliot contributed – when her final novel, Gemini, came out. Her first book had been reviewed in The TLS (or Lit. Supp. as older readers know it), so I reviewed her last, and through it her life’s work. A little while later I received a letter to thank me – which is a rare occurrence in itself (General Lord Richards is the only other example that springs to mind) – but I went on to receive a telephone call, out of the blue, the following August inviting me to dinner at the Caledonian Club in London. We were the sole diners in the room (pictured below), as she liked to dine early, but we stayed late enough drinking her favourite whisky. I had turned 25, the month before, she had turned 78 the week before. It was one of the great encounters of my journalistic career. the_caledonian_club01 When I read her obituary less than three months after, I realised that she must have known she was terminally ill when she called me – the young unknown writer destined to be her last reviewer – and gave to me one of the few evenings she had left alive. Below is the review: naïve, portentous, but sincere and of some value. I hope it explains in part why her character has been chosen as the best Scotland has ever produced. Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The Times Literary Supplement

August 11, 2000

Connected by blood

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

GEMINI. By Dorothy Dunnett. 728pp. Michael Joseph. Pounds 18.99. TLS Pounds 15.99. 0 718 14083 4
Lady Dorothy Dunnett, O.B.E., in a publicity photograph taken by her daughter-in-law

Lady Dorothy Dunnett, O.B.E., in a publicity photograph taken by her daughter-in-law

Dorothy Dunnett is a notable figure in the world of Scottish letters. Seventy-seven this month, she has completed the final novel in her eight volume The House of Niccolo series, the “prequel” to her six-volume The Lymond Chronicles (1961-75). Lady Dunnett has published twenty-three books (including a detective series, a novel about Macbeth and a guide to the Scottish Highlands) as well as serving as a trustee for the National Library of Scotland, on the board of the Edinburgh Book Festival, and as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts; in 1992, she received an OBE for services to literature. According to her own account, she was a professional portrait painter, first exhibiting in the Royal Scottish Academy in 1950, who ran out of novels by her favourite authors – the likes of Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini and Baroness Orczy. So her husband, the late Sir Alistair Dunnett – knighted for services to journalism and Scottish life in 1995 after sixteen years as Editor of The Scotsman – suggested she wrote her own. Her first book, The Game of Kings, was published in 1961.

The House of Niccolo series begins in 1459, with Niccolo, an eighteen-year-old dye-yard apprentice in Bruges. The period covered by the novel saw the beginning of a north-westerly migration of wealth from the Mediterranean basin, first to Bruges and Antwerp, and after, under the oppression of the Habsburgs, on to Amsterdam and London. An unprecedented explosion of wealth from trade led to a unique, and short-lived, social mobility between the mercantile classes and the landed aristocracy, giving rise to the merchant princes. The Renaissance was gaining momentum, much accelerated by an exodus of scholars to the West, following the fall of Constantinople six years earlier. Seven novels later, we find Niccolo a formidable figure, a master of trade and politics, who – among other adventures – has been present at the fall of Trebizond, visited the great schools of Timbuktu before its destruction in 1468, dabbled in the Cypriot succession and, most recently, fought with Charles the Bold at the Battle of Nancy.

Against this vast historical and geographical backdrop, a fictional family history unfolds. Niccolo was rejected as illegitimate by his mother’s husband, the beautiful and vicious Simon de St Pol, and when he tries to prove his legitimacy, he is met with force, both physical and financial, from Simon and Simon’s father, the formidable Jordan de Riberac. Niccolo works his way up from the lowly position they have forced on him, using a range of talents deriving from his almost superhuman abilities with mathematics, thus fulfilling the ideal of the Renaissance man.

Niccolo is soon in a position to exact revenge on Simon, and it is this which earns him the mistrust of his friends, especially when he attacks his paternal family by bankrupting their country, Scotland. This is symptomatic of his one great flaw; Niccolo lacks malice, but he has no conscience when lost in the workings of his own plans. “I’d begun to notice I’d gone too far . . . it was beautiful. Wheels are beautiful.” Scotland is also the winning stroke in his conflict of eight years with his wife, Gelis. She tries to prove herself his equal but ends by accepting that no one could be. By the beginning of Gemini, they are reunited, and Niccolo returns to Scotland for reparation and to neutralize the threat from his paternal family. An added difficulty is that Simon is blindly bringing up Niccolo’s son, Henry, as his own. The striking physical resemblance between Simon and Niccolo’s son could prove Niccolo’s origins, but he reckons the damage caused by such a revelation would be too great. The author has no such qualms, and in Gemini, Dunnett mercilessly ties up all loose ends. No more can be said without giving away the plot, for this is well and truly the last volume of a series. It can be read on its own, but should be taken as the conclusion of a great work.

Fiction is always constrained by fact, and nowhere more so than historical fiction, where the author must fit the story in the spaces between recorded history. This is why Sir Walter Scott held that historical figures should feature as secondary characters only. Dunnett gets around this difficulty by thorough research. There are something like 600 names in the character list for Gemini, of whom fewer than fifty are not “recorded in history”. This is perhaps too many, and is more than she has previously used.

In two areas, however, Dunnett seems to lose her attachment to a realistic historical narrative. The first is the weight given to astrology (hence the titles of the books) and divining, which increases as time passes. It is hard not to link this with her philosophy of history, which views the course of events as a directed stream, in an almost Hegelian sense, the avatars of which are the great men, fictional and real, who are central to her narrative. Dunnett may hold neither view personally, but both traits in the fiction suggest an underlying mysticism. Fortunately, the reader is not expected to swallow this completely.

Dunnett’s style is not the neutral prose of genre fiction and can be opaque and hard to read, especially in the early works. The rhythm of her writing is often awkward in descriptive passages containing unwieldy lists of information, and this is combined with an archaic manner, something of which historical novelists are often guilty. At times, this works with the melodramatic content to produce a powerful, almost operatic mixture. As Dunnett has progressed, her style has become less mannered, and has developed, exhibiting more modern techniques such as short, tight sentences and the use of repetition. Her strongest writing is in the dialogue (and internal monologues), where she displays her characters’ intelligence while masking their intentions. Her characters’ speech is filled with apt quotation, sometimes a little too much so. One would expect men of learning to know their Greeks, Romans and the Bible; obscure allusions to authors such as William Dunbar, the Pleiade poet de Baif, and the playwright John Heywood are used lightly – often just a phrase – and usually left unidentified and untranslated.

However, it is neither as a literary novelist nor as a historian, but as a writer of historical fiction that Dorothy Dunnett deserves recognition. She has taken two men, Lymond and Niccolo, who, like all heroes of romantic fiction, are described almost exclusively in superlatives, and thought about how such “megalopsychic” creatures would affect and be affected by those around them.

This psychological realism within the fantasy is matched by the convolutions of plot. A mere fifty pages before the end of Gemini, we discover that one of Niccolo’s oldest friends, familiar to the reader over 4,000 pages and twenty-five years, is one of his most implacable enemies. We then discover that Niccolo has always known this, and resisted taking action for reasons of consanguinity. The revelation is rendered credible by a lightly drawn but consistent trail of evidence and by the technique of never revealing a character’s whole thoughts, even when the narrative perspective is within the character’s mind. The author’s patience and complexity run through both series of novels, which are themselves linked, a fact made obvious by the first physical description of Simon. The publication of Gemini completes an ambitious literary circle.

P.S. When I say the writing of Dorothy Dunnett is an inspiration to me – as much as Dostoevsky or Hemingway, Wittgenstein or Camus – I mean it. Take for example this passage from my book on bullfighting Into The Arena, where I muse on the different types of courage whilst visiting the British Army on Salisbury Plain before taking a plane to run the bulls of Pamplona.

…[whereas the matador] must not only stand fast and use his training with the bull, but he must dance with it, linking a series of passes with the cape into a deliberately chosen faena, which contains within its graces and exquisite and esoteric death.

Which owes a rather obvious debt to the passage in The Game of Kings when Francis Crawford of Lymond enters into trial by combat with his own brother.

…[both siblings] were natural swordsmen. The slipping and tapping of the fine blades, the unfurling movements growing smokelike one within the other, showed no traces of the grim and gritty striving of a moment before. It was classic swordplay, precious as a jewel, beyond any sort of price to the men watching, and concealing within its graces an exquisite and esoteric death.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

The Author

EVENING STANDARD: Clive’s 50 Not Out In The City

It makes me particularly proud to see that my father’s 50th anniversary in the City of London is makes headlines courtesy of the City Editor of the capital’s great newspaper.

Evening Standard


Anthony Hilton
26th September 2012
Clive Fiske Harrison, with his then fiancée, now wife, Barbara Gail Horne, at The May Fair Hotel in London during his first year in the City, 1963, after his return from New York

Clive Fiske Harrison, with his then fiancée – now wife – the sculptor Barbara Gail Horne, at The May Fair Hotel in London during his first year in the City, 1963, after his return from New York (Photo: family archive placed in public domain)

Today saw the annual general meeting of Fiske & Co, the stockbroker and investment bank.

It also marks the day 50 years ago when Fiske’s chairman, Clive Fiske Harrison, joined Panmure Gordon, then one of the leading brokers. A fellow junior colleague in Panmure at that time was David Mayhew. He, like Fiske Harrison, has survived the intervening years of change rather better than has Panmure. (Mayhew stood down as chairman of J. P. Morgan Cazenove at the end of last year.)

In those relaxed days, the market opened at 9.30am, the partners drank gin or whisky (starting often not much later) and the office workers beer. Hardly anybody drank wine. This was of course before the 1970s market collapse, 1980s Big Bang and 1990s explosion of regulation.

But some things haven’t changed, Fiske Harrison told his shareholders. When he started in 1962, Greek bonds traded at the equivalent of 30p in the pound!

Well done, Clive! I doubt there are many of the current City take who will match your half century.