Friday 31 October 2014

The death of Jeff Koons

Here's a link to the New York Review of Books piece by Jed Perl, who saw the the current Jeff Koons retrospective at Whitney Museum of American Art and hated it. It's a brilliant and (one hopes in vain) career-ending blow to the garish Koons and all he stands for. Do read it. 

In a similar vein Will Self's recent New Statesman piece offered us the rueful reflections of a man no longer young who looks around him and sees only smoking ruins, a realisation that all the pitiful balls in circulation under the heading 'cultural studies' has led us to a crass, hyper-commodified and valueless society, one in which Koons and his like can thrive and prosper.

Something's going on. Things are changing.

A generation born in the 1980s and 90s are seemingly united in their loathing of the vulgar and the populist. They hate the way art has become an alternative economy for the super-rich, the ugly oligarchy who like to think they hold sway in contemporary culture, and the airhead practitioners who service their needs.

There's also a welcome reaction against the glib ironies of post-modernism, the self-conscious playfulness that plagued (and defined) the 1980s and a wish to recover what's been lost - commitment, political engagement and a high-minded sense of the non-material.

There's also a high-stakes seriousness to be observed in the conflict between the values of Western Liberal Democracy and emerging militant theocracies, both overseas and at home. Theocracies tend not to have much time for conceptual art, for playful interventions. Serious artists are asking: what do we stand for? What have we got? When the best lack all conviction and the worst of full of passionate intensity, how can the best re-appropriate the intensity? What comes after Koons?

What, in any case, are the values of Western Liberal Democracy? Are they even, were they ever, a standard against which other values can be judged? If the 19th century was dominated by the British Empire and the Twentieth by the United States (and, to an extent, the USSR), the 21st century will belong to the Asian economic superpowers. So we're seeing a crack in the artistic hegemony of the West, and particularly of the US as represented by Koons and his equivalents.

I believe that there's a new seriousness in circulation in the arts, a commitment to craft, to tradition and to highbrow cultural values. I see it everywhere I look - in the work of poets and writers and artists still in their thirties who are at home with new media and technologies and exploiting them the hilt, but not in thrall to them, who have a profound understanding of the modernist tradition and a sceptical relationship to the 'irony' of post modernism. If there's a future, this is the future.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

On the Goldsmiths again

Just over a year ago, I predicted the outcome of the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, and (to nobody's surprise) got it right. Since then the winning author, Eimear McBride, has become internationally acclaimed as the leading writer of her generation, and her novel a masterpiece.

I've written elsewhere about my favourite book on this year's shortlist - The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves. It's nothing like McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and nothing like any of the other novels on the shortlist (at least three of which seem to me odd choices for this prize, which aims to reward innovation). So we shall see.

But what's the point of all this?

The point of all this is that I've been thinking a lot about prizes, or rather why I regularly - almost invariably - type the word as 'prozes'. I'm alarmed that this might be a sign of what we all call 'early onset', or the harbinger of a stroke, or something. Just now, for instance, I typed prizes as 'prozes' and in typing this very sentence made the same mistake. Worrying.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Auden and Tennyson

I was surprised and - yes - flattered to be sent this link by a Salvete reader to a tiny bit of radio I did five long years ago.

Click here and scroll down to 07:45 to hear me get hugger-mugger with the great Evan Davies on Radio 4's flagship Today programme. This item was prompted by my discovery, in the now-closed British Film Institute archive off the Tottenham Court Road, of some unknown Auden poetry, based on interttitles for the Dziga Vertov film Six Songs of Lenin.

Simon Callow kindly agreed to record some of the verses for the programme and I picture listeners across middle England choking on their cornflakes and spluttering indignantly at the sound of Communist propaganda from the Stalin era. This early morning interview was a hair-raising experience, as you may be able to tell from they air of mild hysteria that prevails throughout.

All of which is by way of preamble to something else: Alfred Lord Tennyson himself, in person, reading 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' on an 1890 wax cylinder recording. That's strange enough, but just look at the uncannily animated photograph (copyright Jim Clark, who has kindly given me permission to link up). Click here.

Jim has produced several of these unsettling animations, and they can be found on YouTube under the generic heading of 'poetryreincarnations'. There's even one of Auden, in colour, reciting 'Musée des Beaux Arts'. What an idea!

Auden, by the way, in his introduction to a 1945 anthology of Tennyson's poetry, said the senior poet “had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet” but “was also undoubtedly the stupidest".

Monday 27 October 2014

Frantic Assembly's Othello

This production of Othello by Frantic Assembly is being revived and will tour the UK later this year and in 2015. I missed it first time around but will (as the fizzier newspaper critics like to say) "kill to get a ticket" because for once this is a Shakespeare production worth reviving. It takes place in a youth club, complete with flickering fruit machine and pool table, a downbeat urban setting that is entirely appropriate, not least because Iago has always struck me as a malign and stroppy teenager and the emotional conflict at the heart of the play is adolescent, over-wrought.

Revivals of popular productions are surprisingly uncommon in theatre, unlike remakes of films, or even revivals of opera or ballet productions. Of course one reason is the availability of actors and the need for theatre constantly to renew itself and offer new sensations to the audience. But would it not be worthwhile, say, to re-stage Peter Brook's hugely influential production of A Midsummer Night's Dream? Or Orson Welles's voodoo Macbeth and fascistic, modern dress Julius Caesar? Or the fondly-remembered National Theatre production of Tom Stoppard's superb Jumpers?

The nearest we get, I suppose, is the never-changing Mouse Trap. If you want an idea of what West End theatre was like half a century ago it's dispiritingly there for all to see. Although I've sometimes wondered what a really first-rate A-List cast might bring to Agatha Christie's old warhorse.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Favourite snatches (19)

Annihilating prose. Here's one William on another, and no prizes for guessing either:

"He sees nothing but himself and the universe.  He hates all greatness and all pretensions to it but his own.  His egotism is in this respect a madness; for he scorns even the admiration of himself, thinking it a presumption in any one to suppose that he has taste or sense enough to understand him.  He hates all science and all art; he hates chemistry, he hates conchology; he hates SIr Isaac Newton, he hates logic, he hates metaphysics, which he says are unintelligible, and yet he would be thought to understand them; he hates prose, he hates all poetry but his own; he hates Shakespeare, or what he calls 'these interlocutions between Lucius and Caius,' because he would have all the talk to himself, and considers the moments of passion in Lear, Othello, or Macbeth impertinent, compared with the Moods of his own Mind; he thinks everything good is contained in the Lyrical Ballads, or if it is not contained there, it is good for nothing; he hates music, dancing and painting; he hates Rubens, he hates Rembrandt, he hates Raphael, he hates Titian, he hates VanDyke; he hates the antique, he hates the Apollo Belvedere, he hates the Venus de Medicis. He hates all that others love and admire but himself. He is glad that Bonaparte was sent to St; Helena, and that the Louvre is dispersed for the same reason - to get rid of anything greater, or thought greater than himself. The Bourbons and their processions of the Holy Ghost give no disturbance to his vanity; and he therefore gives them none."

It's Hazlitt on Wordsworth of course, and from the The Examiner, December 22, 1816 page 803.

Thanks to my regular Canadian correspondent for sending this. I haven't read Hazlitt for many years, although recently skimmed Tom Paulin's biography, which was pretty good. Hazlitt might make perfect winter reading in  the dark months ahead. He makes Wordsworth sound every bit as unappealing as Simon Cowell.

Saturday 25 October 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer

On October 7th 1985 four members of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt. The 69-year-old American Leon Klinghoffer, a retired businessman confined to a wheelchair, was murdered in cold blood by the hijackers and thrown overboard.

This dreadful event demands and repays our understanding, but we need to know what it is we have to understand.  One way is through art. Because art. like life, is complex. And opera is the most complex art of all.

The English National Opera's production of The Death of Klinghoffer, composed by John Addams with a libretto by Alice Goodman, attracted fierce protests when it opened in New York earlier this week. On the first night around 400 demonstrators gathered outside the Metropolitan Opera House calling for the production's cancellation. Inside, hecklers twice interrupted the performance before being escorted from the auditorium by ushers. This was widely reported, but less coverage was given to the hate-mail received during rehearsals by members of the cast and crew, a mild but representative example of which, forwarded to me by a friend in the production team, came from somebody called Paul Stern:

I think you and your clients will be culpable if another attack happens in New York. I lost someone very special to me on 9/11 and I don't appreciate people coming here from Sri Lanca [sic] and Wales and all kinds of places and using our cultural institutions to foster terrorist attacks against Manhattan. The whole group of you are no better than Osama Bin-Laden, hiding away, encouraging other [sic] to attack.  

Is it worth explaining to Mr. Stern that no member of the production came from Wales or Sri Lanka or even Sri Lanca? Mneh. He is unlikely to be won over by reason or evidence as his mind, if that's what it os, has been made up. At least his message didn't culminate in a death threat, but such threats were made to the Met's director Peter Gelb, and must have been disconcerting, to say the least.

I happened to attend the first night of the London production in 2012 and, arriving early in St Martin's Lane, chatted for a few minutes to the solitary protestor, a quietly amiable chap who rather self-consciously held up a neat placard saying (if I remember correctly) "The murder of Leon Klinghoffer was a crime. Enjoy your evening at the opera."

He admitted that he hadn't seen or heard the opera, but didn't think that disqualified him from taking a stand against it. I found it hard to disagree with him. Or, rather, I didn't see his position as wholly hypocritical, and he was so serenely reasonable that argument seemed somehow inappropriate. His presence was almost self-effacing - he just stood there, occasionally being photographed. The performance that evening went smoothly and without interruption and the composer took a curtain call to tremendous applause. I wasn't alone in feeling slightly let down by the lack of protest but on reflection am forced to suppose that those who, for whatever reason, opposed the production realised that protesting would be counter-productive and make them, and their cause, look silly.  

In New York things were more heated. In June this year Peter Gelb announced that, following discussions with the Anti-Defamation League, the planned Live in HD transmission would be cancelled, denying a chance for larger audiences to see the opera and judge for themselves.

The former Mayor of New York, Rudolf Guiliani, wanted to establish his musical credentials before shooting himself in the foot:

"As an opera fan of some 57 years, I find the opera and view the music as a significant achievement. I own a CD, have heard it, and have read the libretto three or four times […] As an opera, the music and choruses are quite excellent. John Adams is one of America’s greatest composers, and I admire and enjoy his music."

With a clumsy volte-face he then added, "the opera is factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging to an appropriate description of the problems in Israel and Palestine, and of terrorism in general." 

But opera is never factually accurate because it makes no claims to being documentary. Is it worth adding that it is because of this great opera that the terrible death of Leon Klinghoffer and the  awful experience of his fellow passengers and the Achille Lauro crew, the general public might by now entirely have forgotten about the whole damn thing?

Friday 24 October 2014

On David Hockney

The current Times Literary Supplement carries a brief review by me of the second volume of Christopher Simon Syke's biography of David Hockney. As an admirer of the artist I'd like to ramble on at greater length about him (f not the biography) 

The beguilingly-titled ‘Etchings by David Hockney who was inspired by Wallace Stevens who was inspired by Pablo Picasso’ were produced in the Atelier Crommelynck in Paris where Hockney acquired the sugar-lift technique, allowing him to recreate brush marks on the etched plate, and to use a single plate for multi-coloured etchings. The resulting portfolio of twenty virtuosic etchings and aquatints, all drawn directly onto copper plates during 1976 and 1977 was published in an edition of 200. I finally acquired a copy of the book during a visit to Salt's Mill outside Bradord, which houses a magnificent collection of the artist's work assembled by a boyhood friend, Jonathan Silver. 

The etchings made a great impression on me as a teenager, when, on the evening of Saturday February 4th 1978, they featured in a profile of the artist on The South Bank Show, a weekly arts programme broadcast by London Weekend Television and hosted by Melvyn Bragg, I loved the etchings and everything about Hockney appealed to me: his languid mid-Atlantic Yorkshire drawl, his expensive dandyish outfits (baggy linen suits, rugby shirts, covetable blunt-ended silk knitted ties and tennis shoes), his peroxide hair and thick-framed owlish glasses and, above all, his  'lifestyle'. 

Hockney's way of life was not just enviably American but wholly, gorgeously Californian. He lived, vividly, in a world of spacious white-walled rooms in modern buildings with, beyond floor-to-ceiling windows, a glittering blue pool surrounded by shaggy palms trees. Beyond that were sun-drenched boulevards patrolled by gliding rollerskaters, then Hollywood, and Disneyland and Venice Beach, which Hockney described as 'a sunny, naked version of Portobello Road'. I wanted all of that, and preferably with girls. That Hockney was gay never occurred to me, though it would have made no difference. He stood for freedom, for self-realisation through art - that was enough, and more than enough for me, then.

He is immensely popular today - 600.000 admirers attended his last Royal Academy show, and when Lucian Freud died in July 2011 the mantle of 'Britain's Greatest Living Painter' was bestowed (by the British press, which allocates such titles) on Hockney, who shrugged it off: 'I don't care about the greatest living painter thing,' he said, 'nor do I think life's about prizes. I'm just busy working.'

Working is what he does best, and what he does most of the time, so the challenge for a biographer is to sustain the reader's interest in a repetitive cycle of work and play. What comes across clearly in the second volume of Christopher Simon Sykes's biography is Hockney's restless energy, his tireless reinvention, his single-minded work ethic and his geeky, rejuvenating love of new technologies: Canon photocopiers (allowing single-handed production of three hundred and sixty original Hockneys in a day), fax machines, Polaroid cameras, the Quantel Paintbox, video and, more recently, the iPad and iPhone. 

'If David is tired of drawing then he'll take photographs, if he's tired of taking photographs he'll paint; if he's tired of painting he'll design an opera. He's constantly thinking he hasn't worked hard enough recently' said his friend Henry Geldzahler. Hockney admits to placing work ahead of  relationships and, while he clearly has many devoted friends, few of them seem to become or remain particular intimates. 
A Pilgrim's Progress is informal, gossipy, good natured and rich in quotable anecdote. I particularly enjoyed the eccentric broadcaster Fyfe Robertson's baffled encounter with a 1977 Hayward Gallery exhibition that, Hockney's paintings aside, showcased what he dubbed phoney-art: "You can condense these two words into one which has the proper flavour of contemptuous derision, Phart." This was almost forty years ago. Hockney's transition from Rake to Pilgrim over those four decades is not simply the development from footloose innocence to mellow maturity, but also from a raffish worldliness to more serious and arguably humbler priorities. Critical maulings (his flower paintings were described by Brian Sewell as 'vulgar cheap-jack daubs') are met with serene imperturbability  ('It's what I think that counts, always') and Hockney is now firmly embedded in mainstream British culture to a degree few other contemporary artists have achieved. This makes it easy to overlook his defiant, combative, principled opposition to, say, the Thatcher government's Clause 18 (banning local councils from 'promoting' homosexuality). He hates 'the fucking Blairs' is scathing about Gordon Brown ("a dreary aesthetic Calvanist prig'). (There has always been something of the reactionary about Hockney, but then all artists become reactionary about things they understand). I was touched by a 1981 letter from his mother in which she openly raises the matter of his homosexuality for the first time (Hockney was 44) and writes, sweetly: 'I'll be modern where I can!' Her son follows the same policy, and his researches into the camera lucida and return to watercolour painting in 2003 reflect his tireless curiosity and range. 

Some years ago Hockney moved from sunny LA to the seaside resort of Bridlington, where he now lives much of the year in a rather dour-looking former guest house with views overlooking the North Sea. He is presumably very wealthy indeed and I confess to a vulgar interest in how much brass he has stashed away. In fact I'd like to know much more about Hockney in general - Sykes as an insider and loyal friend doesn't give much away. 

Thursday 23 October 2014

A pinch of salt

Toby Lichtig has has written this excellent piece on the politics of Holocaust memorialisation in the current issue of The New Humanist.  At one point he writes:

According to Finkelstein – a scurrilous polemicist whose arguments need serious salination – the modern Holocaust is now little more than “an ideological representation”, invented at some point in the 1960s to service American and Zionist interests. 

I like "serious salination" - very good! It set me to thinking about that phrase, from the Latin cum grano sails - with a pinch of salt.

The 1934 Universal Studios horror movie The Black Cat (based very loosely indeed on the Poe short story) is set mostly in (and beneath)  a modernist castle built by the lunatic Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). His nemesis is Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), a Hungarian psychiatrist. Poelzig's home (where he displays dead women in glass cases) is built on the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during the Great War. Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying the fort to the Russians, resulting in the death of thousands of soldiers. He also accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife Karen while he was in prison. Revemge, we discover, is a dish best eaten hysterically.

Anyway, the film reaches a mad climax in a Black Mass (which on the face of it appears to be authentic) is conducted by Karloff in sepulchral lisping cod-Latin and begins (you've guessed it) "Cum grano salis . . .", followed by a succession of ad hoc Latin phrases. All very funny and knowing for the studio heads with a grounding in the Classics.

The phrase is not, despite the commonplace attribution, what Pliny originally wrote - his actual words were addito salis grano ("after having added a grain of salt"). But the Latin word salis means both 'salt' and 'wit', so the phrase could be translated as both 'with a grain of salt' or, equally 'with a dash of wit'. 

The radicalisation of Benjamin Britten

One Saturday morning in April 1935 Benjamin Britten, aged 22, received a call out of the blue inviting him to meet 'a certain film impresario, M. Cavalcanti' over lunch near the General Post Office Film Unit's small studio at Bennett Park in Blackheath. There he was introduced to William Coldstream and signed up on the spot to work on a score for a documentary short called The King's Stamp. The young composer’s diary entries give us an idea of how exciting the transition from his family home in Suffolk to cosmopolitan Soho must have been. We have only to compare two of Britten’s diary entries, exactly one year apart:

4 October 1934
Walk - shopping - & then write all morning - with a cold and very rough & dangerous (strong currents) bathe before lunch. Mrs Chamberlain comes to lunch to talk over matters abt. Orchestra. K. Mead comes to tea, after which we play a four at tennis on Clyffe Court with Laurence and K. Gillespie. Too windy to play seriously but fun.

4 October 1935
The War [in Abyssinia] continues, enormous number of casualties – Abyssinian reverses – to general sorrow. So [No] signs of League activity as yet.  Still enormous excitement – esp. around Soho. I have lunch with a German Jew refugee – Robert Turner, a very intelligent communist – who has some interesting projects ahead.

A third diary entry comes from December that year:

Write a long letter to Mrs Chamberlain […] in defence of Communism – not a difficult letter to write! It has shocked a lot of people that I am interested in the subject!

The reaction of Kertsy Chamberlain, founder of the Bungay Orchestra, can be readily imagined. Britten was at the time becoming increasingly committed to Socialist causes, under the influence of another 'very intelligent Communist' called Montagu Slater. Being politically engagé (to use a common phrase of the period) was a hallmark of young artists and intellectuals, and this tended to express itself in commitment to left-wing causes and Pacifism. Britten, under the initial influence and tutelage of the composer Frank Bridge, would become a lifelong and rather ferocious Pacifist, retaining this commitment long after his leftish political sympathies had waned. The G.P.O. Film Unit was almost entirely staffed by left-leaning ideologues, although it was far from being the Bolshevik hotbed feared and derided by hostile critics in the press. It wasn’t only the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe that prompted a predominately left-wing response among the intelligentsia, although subsequent writers have understandably tended to focus on this. There were  many other subjects for political debate: the Japanese position in Asia, the Italian incursion in Africa (as noted by Britten), crises in the Middle East, the rise of the Soviet Union, the failures of the League of Nations, the slump in the world economy and the dismal state of things in Britain where unemployment exceeded three million – all were the concern of progressive thinkers and the cause of ‘enormous excitement – esp. around Soho’, the most cosmopolitan district of London. International politics and the fate of Europe were urgent, tragic and exciting areas to investigate, particularly by a generation with less of an interest and less of a stake than their forebears in the Empire and its overseas Dominions. There was a widely-shared assumption, especially among the young, that any hope for progress in the industrial nations lay in the development of the working classes as active and informed participants in the democratic process. This was a challenge to Establishment thinking, a challenge taken up by Grierson and members of the Film Unit.

As a film composer Britten developed the technique of onomatopoeic percussion – as in the clatter of saucepans and heard when a cartoon character tumbles down a staircase. His films were almost all fully-scored, with a direct match between image and music, and he was adept at pastiche, moving swiftly and easily between between highbrow and popular sources. 

It may be hard to believe that everything we hear on the Coal Face soundtrack, apart from the voices, is scored by Britten and recorded in the GPO’s small Blackheath studio. Every clank and clatter and rattle is scored using conventional percussion instruments and chains, drills, sandpaper, sheet metal, asbestos, whistles and so on. The clip-clop of the carthorse is of course produced by coconut shells, but these shells, Britten specified, should be of different sizes.

One might think that all this apparatus has more in common with a film studio sound effects department. Jude Brimmer has noted the ‘cartoonish’ quality in the piano arpeggio that accompanies a shot of the artist Barnett Freedman descending a staircase in Britten’s first film score, The King’s Stamp. Britten's approach is indebted to existing techniques deriving from silent film accompaniment, sound cartoons, the European avant-garde and other established cinematic conventions. Like his collaborator Auden, Britten was adept at co-opting public commissions into his own creative agenda and his genius has served to obscure the mainstream sources he freely exploited. He has sometimes been described as the originator of musique concrète, anticipating by fifteen years Pierre Schaeffer’s developments in the late 1940s, and while this may be overstating Britten’s particular achievement, we should bear in mind that he is adapting long-established techniques.

Britten’s Coal Face score is for a commentator; whistler; chorus (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone); percussion (tambourine, suspended cymbal, side drum, bass drum) and piano. For the most part the spoken commentary is meticulously scored, which would account for Slater’s rather uninflected delivery, as he is under considerable constraint in matching his words to the music. It is still hard to believe that all the non-verbal sounds we hear throughout the film are scored by Britten, whose uncanny skill in creating appropriately ‘realistic’ noises in the studio called for an extraordinary percussion score, thus:

1  side drum, block, triangle, cymbal, bass drum, gong.
2  chains, 2 coconut shells, large drill, cup in bucket of water, sandpaper.
3  sandpaper, trip gear, notched wood and wooden stick, sheet of metal and wooden mall
4  wooden whistle, small cart on sandy asbestos, small drill, rewinder, hooter, chain.

Such innovations reflect Britten’s particular genius for conjuring up suggestive and convincing aural landscapes, a random example from much later in his career being the moment in Death in Venice when the powerful ferryboat engines thunder into life. At one point in Coal Face the recorded sound of a struck cymbal is reversed to achieve a whooshing effect, intended to accompany of shot of a speeding train (but disappointingly out of synch by several seconds in every print I have seen). Britten took this idea from Jean Vigo’s surrealist short Zéro de conduite (1933), which famously included a slow motion procession of rebellious schoolboys accompanied by conventional music played backwards on the soundtrack. He saw the film at a screening in Soho Square on 31 May 1935 and his diary entry that evening praises it as ‘a perfect masterpiece, a revelation in many ways.’

Tuesday 21 October 2014


Michel Houllebecq, in an undated Paris Review interview conducted by Susannah Hunnewell :

I am persuaded that feminism is not at the root of political correctness. The actual source is much nastier and dares not speak its name, which is simply hatred for old people. The question of domination between men and women is relatively secondary -important but still secondary - compared to what I tried to capture in my novel, which is that we are now trapped in a world of kids. Old kids. The disappearance of patrimonial transmission means that an old guy today is just a useless ruin. The thing we value most of all is youth, which means that life automatically becomes depressing, because life consists, on the whole, of getting old.

Houellebecq is, as usual, being provocative and mischievous. Whoever said feminism was at the root of all things PC? But there's something in what he says about the disenfranchisement of older people. One of the ways in which an older generation are persuaded to feel despised and marginalised is that their beliefs and standards are invariably depicted as prejudiced, ignorant, out-of-step or simply obtuse, and such flaws disqualify them (obviously!) from having a voice in the debate. They are always part of the problem, in a world run by and for kids.

I am (and this is a line of thought borrowed from Martin Amis) objectively less racist than my grandparents and parents, but probably more racist than my son. Because racism in its many forms doesn't just stop, suddenly, however much we wish it would. 

My feelings about Germany and therefore - in that highly unreliable 'therefore' of bloggers everywhere - about Germans, for instance, are nuanced but on the whole essentially hostile, and I'm sorry to say my son regards my views as racist. Although (and in my defence) equivocal feelings about the Germans are based not so much on race (and least of all the Nazi's sinister balls about Aryan supremacy) as on the overwhelming and undeniable evidence of history. They started it.

Monday 20 October 2014

Favourite snatches (17)

Today's favourite snatch is a distinguished piece of doggerel which I expect you'll all know but may not have come across for a long time:

There was a naughty boy,
A naughty boy was he,
He would not stop at home,
He could not quiet be -
He took
In his knapsack
A book
Full of vowels
And a shirt
With some towels,
A slight cap
For night cap,
A hair brush,
Comb ditto,
New stockings -
For old ones
Would split O!
This knapsack
Tight at 'is back
He rivetted close
And followed his nose
To the North,
To the North,
And followed his nose
To the North.

There was a naughty boy,
And a naughty boy was he,
He ran away to Scotland
The people for to see-
There he found
That the ground
Was as hard,
That a yard
Was as long,
That a song
Was as merry,
That a cherry
Was as red-
That lead
Was as weighty
That fourscore
Was as eighty,
That a door
Was as wooden
As in England -
So he stood in his shoes
And he wondered,
He wondered,
He stood in his shoes
And he wondered.

It's by Keats. of course, and manages to anticipate the later Eliot lines from Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

'Same old same old' as the young people say. We have to leave home, perhaps, to find out for ourselves what home is, or was.

Lines from Little Gidding © The Estate of T. S. Eliot

Sunday 19 October 2014

Dud dads

I once sat and chatted to the author Will Self as we watched our sons playing together in the sandpit on Clapham Common. We were like a couple of knackered old primates, our function on earth fulfilled, now just hanging around as gatekeepers to oblivion as our sons flourished before us.I remember telling him that I thought he'd written one of the few worthwhile things about fatherhood - the introduction to a collection of photographs by David Gamble, published in 2000 and called Perfidious Man

There is no shortage of really terrible writing about fatherhood. Yesterday I came across the following guff from an American publisher. Ready? 

From some of today's most critically acclaimed writers - including Dennis Lehane, Justin Cronin, Andre Dubus III, and Benjamin Percy-comes a rich collection of essays on what it means to be a dad. Becoming a father can be one of the most profoundly terrifying, exhilarating, life-changing occasions in a man's life. Now 22 of today's masterful writers get straight to the heart of modern fatherhood in this incomparable collection of thought-provoking essays. From making that ultimate decision to have a kid to making it through the birth to tangling with a toddler mid-tantrum, and eventually letting a teen loose in the world, these fathers explore every facet of fatherhood and show how being a father changed the way they saw the world - and themselves. 

"One of the first things I learned about fatherhood was that my father was right: it was hard and it kicked the shit out of your life plan."- Lev Grossman

 "I wanted to hold him. I wanted to hold him close and never let go. But we have to let go, don't we?"-Andre Dubus III 

"Bridges are engineered. Children are worked toward, clumsily, imperfectly, with a deep and almost religious faith in trial and error." - Ben Greenman 

"If you counted up the nights I've spent dancing to 'Strangers in the Night,' those hours would stretch three times around the equator."- Garth Stein 

"The most surprising aspect of parenting has been how much my pre-parenting life looks like a cloud in the rearview."- Dennis Lehane 

Contributors include Andre Aciman, Chris Bachelder, David Bezmozgis, Justin Cronin, Peter Ho Davies, Anthony Doerr, Andre Dubus III, Steve Edwards, Karl Taro Greenfeld, Ben Greenman, Lev Grossman, Dennis Lehane, Bruce Machart, Rick Moody, Stephen O'Connor, Benjamin Percy, Bob Smith, Frederick Reiken, Marco Roth, Matthew Specktor, Garth Stein, and Alexi Zentner.

These are 'today's masterful writers'? Jesus wept.

To end on a positive thought (and a suggestion to publishers who share my queasiness about the type of stuff that appears above) - is there a good book for fathers written by women?

Saturday 18 October 2014

On the Nobel Prize

Before the French author Patrick Modiano won this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, beating favourites Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Haruki Kurakami, the high-street bookmakers Ladbrokes offered odds on around forty contenders. Only five of those listed were female, the favourite being the Belorussian journalist Svetlana Aleksijevitj at 7/1, while Joyce Carol Oates (16/1) and Margaret Atwood (33/1) represented the planet's anglophone women writers. That Bob Dylan was included on the Ladbrokes list (at 50/1) makes the bookies' tally of female writers even more unrepresentative of what's going on in the world of letters.

But before making any claims or judgements about such lamentable inequality and chauvinism let's look a little closer at the numbers.

The running total of Literature laureates since 1901, when the Prize was inaugurated, is 110, the apparent shortfall in recipients reflecting those years when, for whatever reason, no Prize was awarded. The first female Literature laureate was appointed in 1909 and was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Swedish. Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf appears on the nation's banknotes and is, the internet insists, "most widely known for her children's book Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils)". The twelve subsequent female laureates are:

1926 - Grazia Deledda (Italy)

1928 - Sigrid Undset (Norway)

1938 - Pearl S. Buck (USA)

1945 - Gabriela Mistral (Chile)

1966 - Nelly Sachs (born in Germany, fled to Sweden in 1940)

1991 - Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)

1993 - Toni Morrison (USA)

1996 - Wisława Szymborska (Poland)

2004 - Elfriede Jelinek (Austria)

2007 - Doris Lessing (UK)

2009 - Herta Müller (born in Romania, writes in German)

2013 - Alice Munro (Canada)

One can't read everything, of course, and I have to confess to near-complete ignorance of most of these writers, an ignorance that extends to many of their male counterparts - Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, José Echegaray and Henrik Pontoppidan for instance. 

If it's difficult to recall all or most or even a few of these female laureates it's because the Prize, with eerie efficiency, seems to remove all trace of most recipients from collective memory. James Joyce, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Ibsen and Henry James never won the Nobel, although each of them is unquestionably more important and influential than the whole cohort of male and female Literary laureates put together. Compare them with (say) Toni Morrison, John Galsworthy and . . .  but you get my point. 

Between 1901 and 2012, Nobel Prizes in six categories were awarded 555 times to 863 people and institutions. Four of the recipients (including Marie Curie) won twice, so this makes a total of 835 individuals and 21 organizations. Of those 835 individuals just 44 were female, around 5 per cent. Here's my point, for what it's worth: female Literature laureates, although still dispiritingly few in number, form closer to 10 per cent of the total and therefore double the average. Even more encouragingly, the decade since 2004 has seen four out of eleven prizes awarded to female writers. That's not enough, but it's something. 

Friday 17 October 2014

Autism and trainspotting

Here's something.  A sprawling hospital complex in Austria where meals, prepared in a central kitchen, are delivered to the wards by an elaborate narrow gauge railway system. It's amazing. Have a look. Was the practice derived from the thousands of miles of railway lines built to supply the trenches in the Great War? Was the original system constructed from army surplus?

Further investigation (or, if you insist, further unstructured mooching around the internet) confirmed, alas, that the railway closed in 2011. How food is distributed around the vast site today is a mystery. Drones?

I came across this hospital railway while researching (too grand a word) my hypothesis that autistic spectrum behaviour of the kind exhibited by the middle-aged trainspotters who congregate on station platforms today must pre-date the coming of the railways in the 19th century. If that's the case,  I ask myself, where did autistic males (and it's mostly males) in the 18th century find a locus of engagement? This is to assume that a condition only recognised and labelled in modern times pre-dates its discovery and did not emerge suddenly, and fully-formed, in the 20th century. I started Googling railways + autism and, well, you already know where this led me - a network in a krankenhaus.

So, before railways, what did trainspotter types (rather cruelly described by some as 'anoraks') find to occupy their obsessive and essentially non-utile interest? How did they find fulfilment? Turnpikes and canals offered little in the way of variety and complexity, so my theory is that it must have been the Church: religion and the related fields of alchemy, sorcery and so on, all highly ritualised and repetitive and regulated systems. Later with the Age of Enlightenment came the various branches of the natural sciences which involved calculation and categorisation and, in a word, lists. Think of botany and chemistry and geology and astronomy. Think of the maniac clergymen who collected and labelled thousands of birds' eggs. Think of stamp collectors (a breed inconceivable before the introduction of the Penny Black).

What if (and this is a wild speculation) the rise of secularism in the machine age reflected the sudden widespread availability, especially in cities, of these alternative interests? Timetables, railway infrastructure, signalling, numbering and so on, all form part of elaborately complex but finite systems that met (and appear to continue to meet) the needs of that part of the population that is mildly autistic, and especially those with Asperger's Syndrome.

Many of us, most of us, perhaps all of, us have quasi-obsessive and essentially impractical interests or preoccupations that might be categorised as Aspergerish. Here's a little test. Go back to the hospital railway link above, click on it, then click at random on all the other little clips of railway trains in the right hand column. These clips are not crowd-pleasing stuff like Flying Scotsman steaming heroically out of King's Cross station, but weird obsessive shots of decrepit backwater lines in post-industrial Germany. Are you (as I am) drawn to this kind of thing? See what you make of the Feldbahn des Sodawerks in Staßfurt. a mesmerisingly bleak environment that will appeal to admirers of Andrei Tarkovsky and a clip that has attracted tens of thousands of viewers. If you can bear one more, try this, shots of diesel engines shunting wagons in a decrepit Ukrainian china clay works.  If you admire this third clip and find it strangely beautiful and compelling then join me at this end of the spectrum - there's plenty of room, and the views are breathtaking.

Thursday 16 October 2014

Wilhelm Stekel and perversion

Wilhelm Stekel (1868 –1940) was an Austrian physician and psychologist who became one of Sigmund Freud's earliest followers and was once described as "Freud's most distinguished pupil".

Our paths crossed, as it were, one Saturday afternoon in the Charing Cross Road when I picked up for a quid a pristine copy of Sexual Aberrations: Phenomena of Fetishism in Relation to Sex, the first English language edition, published by John Lane at the Bodley Head Ltd in 1930.

In those days the Charing Cross Road was still largely the domain of second hand book dealers (and the single most obnoxious change in London since I moved here thirty years ago has been the displacement of so many musty bookshops by nail parlours,  coffee franchises and nasty shops selling tacky shit to tourists). It was easy to pass an afternoon trawling the ramshackle premises and picking up bargains.

This particular book was a wonder - a groundbreaking study that was also, at times, hilarious. In his account of a bourgeoise Viennese matron with a velvet fetish (who succumbed to violent orgasms in department stores whenever she so much as sighted a swatch of the fabric), Stekel excelled himself. She came to his rooms for a course of analysis and on one occasion ("in an action I came later to regret") he suddenly produced from a drawer a scrap of velvet which he tossed onto his patient's lap, provoking a hair-trigger response. I picture the ensuing hullabaloo as a montage of apartment dwellers banging on walls with broomsticks and tousled night workers yelling from widows across the courtyard as, far off, a police siren can be heard approaching. 

The footnotes to this unfortunate episode were at first in English but, as things hot up, switched to Latin, and I was able to decipher a description of the poor women rubbing the material frenziedly between her breasts. But just at that point, so incendiary were the goings-on that the footnotes, alert to the unwelcome attentions of the prurient non-professional grazer, suddenly changed to Greek. Whatever happened next took place behind a linguistic pay wall.

This amuses me still. What if things had become too explicit even for Greek? Sanskrit? Runes? Braille?

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Grayson Parry and Martin Amis

Have a look at this excellent exchange between Grayson Perry and Martin Amis in the current New Statesman.

That 'happiness writes white' is not a view expressed by Maupassant (as Amis, or the person who transcribed the interview, seems to think). It was another Frenchman, Henry de Montherlant (1895-1972) in his Don Juan ('Le bonheur écrit à l'encre blanche sur des pages blanches.')

It's a line often quoted, and almost as often misquoted, or partially quoted, and misattributed.

Montherlant is tricky. Homosexual (but, as somebody one described another celebrated writer, 'the wrong kind of homosexual'), pro-Nazi and ferociously misogynistic, he wouldn't be one's first choice for a convivial dinner party. 

Just as Tournier's sidelining for the Nobel has been attributed by at least one journalist to the troubling content of his greatest novel Le roi des Aulnes (paedophilia, fetishism, Nazis), Montherlant doesn't stand up well to modern scrutiny. But then which writers of the past do? The great ones are always nasty pieces of work compared to the enlightened scribblers de nos jours. None of them pass muster - drunks and junkies, racists and women-haters, brutes all of 'em, and not just the chaps. I'd rather have lunch with Philip Larkin than Ayn Rand, for example. I'd rather have lunch with anyone than Ayn Rand.

Grayson Perry writes persuasively in the New Statesman (which he also guest edits) about what he calls the Default Male (white, middle-aged, middle-class) and the decline of that privileged hegemony. I can't find much to fault in his argument - but wonder, not unreasonably if there's a female equivalent. If such a thing exists - and it unquestionably does - it, or rather she, might equally benefit from a thoughtful deconstruction. Perry's point is that the perspective of the Default Male can no longer reasonably be deemed normative (although this is surely nothing new). I can't help but observe that as society and cultural fragments into individual narratives (in which a clever transvestite potter from  Essex has, and rightly, the same or greater access to public discourse as the Foreign Secretary), we stand to gain a  great deal, but to lose something else - the assumptions by dead white men that underlie the formation of our Welfare State.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Tennyson and Turner

The Splendour Falls

The splendour falls on castle walls
  And snowy summits old in story:
  The long light shakes across the lakes
  And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
  And thinner, clearer, farther going!
  O sweet and far from cliff and scar
  The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes dying, dying, dying.

O love they die in yon rich sky,
  They faint on hill or field, or river:
  Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
  And grow forever and forever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

What does familiarity breed?  Not contempt, I'd say, but something worse - indifference. Some works of art are so familiar, so irreversibly over-exposed, that they have become almost invisible: the William Tell Overture, the Mona Lisa, Swan Lake, The Mouse Trap and Tennyson's poem (above), which I hope you read before scrolling down here. All of them share a cultural afterglow as something once held in great esteem but no longer regarded as essential. One could only have a reproduction of the Mona Lisa hanging on the wall as an ironic 'gesture' - kitsch, unserious, risible.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when a British education - or 'schooling' - involved learning by heart passages of Kipling and Tennyson and Wordsworth and Keats and Shelley and Byron and so on. This in my own experience included Tennyson's 'The Splendour Falls', which is to modern poetry what Turner's The Fighting Temeraire is to modern art.  They were almost contemporary - Turner's painting dates from 1839 and Tennyson wrote his poem in 1848, soon after a visit to Ireland where he was apparently inspired by a place in the mountains near Killarney called the Eagle's Nest. Do Google image this - it's breathtaking.

Both Turner and Tennyson produced art that is today increasingly inaudible, by which I mean to say neither poem nor painting any longer have an unquestioned centrality to our culture. In the past their ubiquity made it difficult to get a critical purchase on their value and now, because of their presumed redundancy, no serious critic is likely to waste their time on either. Of course, and not to rub it in, both painting and poem are about redundancy.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new, 
And God fulfils himself in many ways, 
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

(Tennyson again, from 'Idylls of the King', and if the lines put you in mind of Withnail's Uncle Monty so much the better.)

The 98-gun ship 'Temeraire' took part in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and remained in service until 1838. Decommissioned, she was towed from Sheerness to Rotherhithe to be broken up - Turner shows this last voyage as a modern steam tug, bellowing smoke and sparks, fussily tows the venerable sailing ship up the Thames. The sun is setting, not just on the river but on history, and the glory days of Britain's navy. Turner has reorganised the universe to create and accommodate the mood of eulogy  - the 'Temeraire' is shown travelling east, away from the sunset, although Rotherhithe is west of Sheerness. The painting has a dying fall.

The steam tug, while smaller, meaner and more prosaic, is today as antique and anachronistic as the vessels it replaced.  The 'Temeraire' is fading in the twilight haze - bulky and redundant, yet (and here's the paradox) responsible for securing the world in which its successor finds not just a place, but an entitlement. Just as each modern improvement in our electronic gadgetry serves to make its immediate predecessor appear unwieldy, primitive and impractical. Think of early cellphones, the size and weight of a breeze block.

'The Splendour Falls' is likewise about transience, mutability and loss, the kind of melancholy reflections that cluster when visiting the Irish countryside although Tennyson's visit was before the Irish Potato Famine in which around  1 million people died and a million more emigrated. I could do without 'The horns of Elfland' although this certainly contributes to the theme of loss (of the spirit world - fairies and suchlike were an endangered species in the pre-Tolkien industrial age). But what about 'Our echoes roll from soul to soul'? That's a line!

Looking at Tennyson, and at this poem in particular, I suppose there's another sense of  loss: the loss of my own younger self, the schoolboy reading and dimly understanding such verses as an introduction to a grown-up world of loss and pain and regret. It's a poem so familiar that one no longer sees the words (or in Turner's case the brushstrokes). Technique has eclipsed accomplishment. Parhaps that's a definition of great art. You don't hear the engine.

Image © The National Gallery, London

Monday 13 October 2014

On Anna Maria Hefele

The polyphonic German singer Anna Maria Hefele can sing two different notes at the same time, in which the mid and high range keys harmonise to uncanny effect. It's known in German as Obertongesang ('Overtone Singing') - she sounds like a living Theremin. (There's a wonderful clip of Louis Theremin, demonstrating his invention  here.) Do watch and listen to both.

I was reminded of the glass harmonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin (yes, THE Benjamin Franklin) in 1761, a sophisticated take on the old party trick of making a wine glass 'sing' by rubbing the rim with one's fingertip. Do look this up.

At one time the glass harmonica was much in vogue, especially in Europe, and pieces were composed for it by Mozart, Handel, Beethoven and Richard Strauss. Its use peaked in the 18th century for several reasons - it wasn't loud enough to fill a concert hall, being more suited to the smaller aristocratic music rooms of a less egalitarian age; composers began increasingly to score for modern stringed instruments, brass, woodwinds, and percussion; the instruments themselves were terribly fragile and often shattered in transit. There were also rumours that exposure to its melancholic sound could make both musicians and audiences go mad, as reported by the German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung:

The harmonica excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood that is apt method for slow self-annihilation. If you are suffering from any kind of nervous disorder, you should not play it; if you are not yet ill you should not play it; if you are feeling melancholy you should not play it.

(The phrase 'apt method for slow self-annihilation"should appear on cigarette packets rather than the boorishly capitalised SMOKING KILLS.)

But back to Anna Maria Hefele. I see her demonstration (to which I link above) has attracted over five million viewers which I suppose makes me what marketing people call a  'late adopter'. I know almost nothing about her. She's been performing this type of singing since 2005 (so I guess she's in her thirties), comes from Grafing bei München, a town in the Upper Bavarian district of Ebersberg about 30 km from Munich.

She would, I think, be more at home in theatre than opera - but how to use such a skill?

Sunday 12 October 2014

'Three brandy' Auden

The latest Auden Society Newsletter includes a marvellous piece by Roger Mallion, Research Lecturer at Christ Church College between 1971 and 1976. He knew Auden, who was then living in the College's former Brewhouse, a kind of 'grace and favour' arrangement with the poet's alma mater.

Here's an extract, reproduced with kind permission of the author:

A feature of Wystan Auden that it was difficult to be unaware of for anyone who shared any space with him was his chain-smoking and his conspicuous consumption of alcohol. I do not know how many cigarettes he smoked per day but I can say that whenever I think of the man I always mentally picture him with a cigarette. As for alcohol, in addition to his pre-dinner cocktails (presumably taken in the privacy of the Brewhouse and/or sometimes in the Common Room), which were usually followed by a couple of glasses of wine at dinner, he invariably consumed a post-prandial brandy or two in the Common Room. These brandies were the subject of a little good-natured jocularity on the part of the scientific Research Lecturers. The system for purchasing drinks that operated in the Senior Common Room was that a member helped himself and then stated his purchase and signed his initials on a white card (with a Christ Church crest at the top), a new one of which was placed on the drinks table for this purpose, each evening, by the late Mr. Cyril Little, the Common Room Butler. For example, I like port, and so, on taking a glass, I would write ‘R.B.M. 1 port’. Wystan liked brandy, so he would likewise sign ‘W.H.A. 1 brandy’. The joke among the young scientific ‘set’ in the Common Room was that Wystan’s idea of what ‘one brandy’ constituted was such an outrageous overestimate that we used to jest that a normal-sized brandy would be about what, with mock scientific solemnity, we dubbed ‘300,000 micro-Audens’. There was a rumour that, although he had by this stage of the evening usually retired back to his pantry, wily Mr. Little was well aware of all of this and that when, later, in the course of doing his accounts, he saw ‘W.H.A. 1 brandy’ on the card, he recorded on Wystan’s ‘battels’ (that is, his Common Room/College bill) that three brandies had been consumed. 

"Micro-Audens' might also be used to measure the range and potency of lesser poets.

There's a book to be written about Auden's relationship with booze. I blogged briefly last summer about his method of mixing the imperfect martini. Roger Mallion's delightful memoir can be found on the W. H. Auden Society website, which offers archived Newsletters and much else of great interest 

Saturday 11 October 2014

On Michel Tournier

Forget  Modiano. Forget Roth and Murukami and all the other bookmakers' favourites. Of all the forty Nobel Prize in Literature candidates listed last week by Ladbrokes (with Bob Dylan and Tom Stoppard rank outsiders at 50/1),  not one of them is fit to sharpen Tournier's pencils. 

There are those who agree with me, who have read his books. Those who don't, it's fair to say, haven't. 

His first novel was Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique (1967), published in English under the more prosaic title Friday, a re-telling of Robinson Crusoe from the point of view of his manservant. Next came Le Roi des aulnes (1970, translated in 1972 as The Erl-King). This is a tremendous masterpiece, perhaps the greatest single French novel of the last century - a brilliant, epic and deeply disturbing account of Abel Tiffauges, a car mechanic caught up in the monstrous mysticism of the Third Reich, and including a lengthy (and gripping) discourse on the classification of deer antlers. 

Both books have remained in print ever since, and in English to boot. I can't think of a more convincing debut and second novel from any writer. He was, I think, 43 when the first book was published. More than a dozen novels followed between 1975 and 2002 (the highlight being Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar (The Four Wise Men, 1980), another re-telling, this time of events leading up to the Nativity. 

There's a very good profile of Tournier (in English) with a fairly comprehensive (if daunting) bibliography here. He will be ninety on December 19th this year and is said to be working on a book about Saint Sebastian. 

He has always been well-known among anglophone readers but I get the impression his star has waned on both sides of the Channel and have to confess I was surprised - and delighted, of course - to learn he was still with us. Do read and re-read The Erl-King - an astonishingly powerful and original novel to rank alongside  . . . well, the best of Patrick Modiano..

Friday 10 October 2014

Dad's Army

Earlier this year the BBC broadcast a dramatised adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's 1936 novel Jamaica Inn. In a combination of directorial daring and technical incompetence the lighting was so sepulchral that the viewer couldn't tell where the mumbled and inaudible dialogue came from. The word 'furore' wasn't used (it seems to have disappeared from the tabloid lexicon) so we got 'anger' and 'outrage' - is this the best the tax-payer funded BBC can do?

I didn't watch it (not having a telly) but enjoyed a clip on YouTube last night and the critics were absolutely right - I couldn't see a thing and barely understood a word. It's as if the cultural visibility and audibility of the novel had been set below human levels of reception. The transmission if you like, was flawed.

This was an unusual lapse for the BBC, which (even Daily Mail hacks will be forced to admit) has a pretty good track record when it comes to what used to be called 'light entertainment', our shared collective memory.

News that a big-screen version of the perennial BBC favourite Dad's Army is being shot in Yorkshire fills me with gloom. Because unlike Jamaica Inn, this looks likely to be too loud, too bright, overbearingly visible and audible.

I grew up watching and admiring the ensemble cast of the 1970s original: Arthur Lowe as the pompous blimp Captain Mainwaring, John le Mesurier as Sergeant Wilson, his serene subordinate (but - and this is what made their relationship so excruciatingly funny - his social superior), John Laurie as the sepulchral Scottish undertaker Frazer and the lovely Arnold Ridley as Private Godfrey, the querulous and incontinent medic. Add in the camp adenoidal Vicar (Revd. Timothy Farthing, played by Frank Williams) and his very strange churchwarden, Mr Yeatman (Edward Sinclair) and you have the most accomplished roster of comic actors ever assembled in a single cast. I mean ever.

Each episode I saw in my childhood is etched fondly in the memory (and I can't have seen them all, or even more than a fraction of the total). There was a wonderful warmth to it all, and a gritty gentleness. Clive Dunn's one-note Corporal Jones aside ("Don't Panic! Don't Panic!") they all seemed to be coasting along (in a good way). I didn't much care for the callow Pike (too close to home) and nobody liked Hodges, the Air Raid Warden played by Bill Pertwee, but the rest of the very loveable cast struck me then, and still, as perfect.  

So, hearing that a film version is in the offing makes my heart sink. That it is scripted by Hamish McColl (the lack of brains behind the overblown and charmless Rowan Atkinson vehicles Mr Bean Goes on Holiday and Johnny English) and directed by the man who perpetrated the coarse-grained 'updating' of the St Trinian's movies only adds to the misery. That the new film features a glittering cast (Michael Gambon! Albert Finney! Bill Nighy! Many Others!) bodes ill, as it misses the amateurish quality of the telly platoon, which of course reflected the makeshift nature of the Home Guard itself, our last line of defence against the Nazi menace - old men and boys.

The thought that it will be inevitably be aimed at the usual twenty-something demographic also makes me shudder. Concessions will surely be made, with a consequent loss of the gentleness and slow-burn  cumulative silliness that enriched and defined the original. There will, I expect, be some swearing (or what the British Board of Film Classification refers to as 'Mild Language'). Will they feature snatches from 1940s songs between scenes or (more likely) impose updated hip-hop versions by Dizzee Rascal? Will they have feisty female characters rather than dolly-bird barmaids and battle-axes? The answer to the latter appears, alas, to be yes, with the casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones as a 'glamorous journalist'. This sounds simply awful. The women in Dad's Army (and the clue is in the title) were always entirely peripheral - Pike's fussy mum (who seemed to be conducting an illicit relationship with Wilson, who gave her his ration book), Corporal Jones's predatory widow Mrs Fox and Joe Walker's string of brassy girlfriends. The most fully-realised female character was never seen - the invisible and terrifying Mrs Mainwaring. What we wanted, what we got much of the time, was the men of the shambolic Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard on parade in the church hall, with occasional cutaways to Mainwaring's pokey office and the blissfully fruity exchanges between the Commanding Officer and his Sergeant. Just watch and savour this superbly written and beautifully acted scene. It will make you laugh like billy-oh.

How will the film-makers manage without audience laughter (which was real, be it noted, not canned) and the huge wave of anticipation and affectionate approval which greeted every catch phrase (and every leading character had one, reliably deployed in every episode): "I wonder if that's wise, sir?", "They don't like it up 'em. They don't like it up 'em", "Might I be excused?, "We're all doomed! Doooomed I tell ye!" and, of course, the ritual withering of Pike as "Stupid boy". Best of all was Arthur Lowe's Mainwaring, caught out yet again by wits sharper than his own, complacently bluffing: "Ah yes. I was wondering which of you men would be the first to spot that."

There has of course already been a Dad's Army film, featuring the original cast. This wasn't bad but lacked the charm of the original, set as it mostly was in a couple of studio sets with the odd (and incongruous) location work on a Norfolk estate. One wasn't used to seeing the actors in a larger setting. They seemed diminished, and the script wasn't up to television standard, despite being by David Croft and Jimmy Perry, the show's creators.

All those involved in this project might take a look at what happened when Steve Martin tried to step into Phil Silvers' shoes as the immortal Sergeant Bilko, a film version so jaw-droppingly bad that I suspect not even the director has sat through it. Everything about it was wrong, from the first script meeting to the last syllable of the credits. The rest of us can in the meantime reflect cooly on the ill-fated attempt by American producers to remake the programme for US audiences. Watch, with your eyes shut, a mercifully short clip from The Rear Guard.

To be briefly topical - the election of the first UKIP member of parliament, representing Clacton-on-Sea (surely the real-life equivalent of Walmington), is to democracy what the forthcoming film of Dad's Army is to popular culture.