Monday 17 November 2014

Favourite snatches (18)

The last snatch for the time being, and the last blog, as Salvēte! closes down temporarily. Pressure of work.

I spend (usually) 30-45 minutes each evening knocking out this blog, which I check first thing in the morning before sharing the variable results online. It never feels like a chore and is usually a pleasure. It means that each day leads to and ends in the production of a complete piece of work, no matter how inconsequential. This is no small satisfaction, for me at any rate, and is close to being a form of self-discipline. But I need the hour or so I currently spend blogging to do other stuff, for now.

NEVERTHELESS (makes elaborate caveat gesture) regular readers will know that here at Salvēte!  our sole concern is all for your delight so, as a generous valedictory snatch, here's a link to the marvellous Paris Review interview with T. S. Eliot dating from 1959. It's often unexpectedly hilarious ("I can’t make my children weep over a cat who’s gone wrong.") and always illuminating. Eliot was so wise, and so kind.

This, by the way, is the 19th snatch but appears, for technical reasons, as the 18th. There will be a 20th snatch, and more snatches, and more blogs. Keep watching the skies.

Finally - I shall continue to blog regularly  (if not frequently) for the TLS. Do follow me and the talented cohort of TLS bloggers here:

Thank you for reading Salvēte! Cheerio for the time being.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Dylan Thomas, Nazis and Christmas shopping

These Are the Men is a 1943 propaganda film co-scripted by Dylan Thomas that ridicules the Nazi leadership, anticipating by sixty years the kind of YouTube prank we today take for granted. It's a ten-minute short using sequences lifted from Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph Des Willens in which Hitler, Goebbels, Göring, Streicher and Hess deliver bombastic monologues in dubbed English confessing to their multiple inadequacies, their words courtesy of Thomas. It's a simple, powerful and often  hilarious debunking of Third Reich rhetoric.

This clip is incomplete (but the only version I could find online). You can find the whole film on a fascinating collection of eight Thomas-scripted films (all dating from his brief but productive stint in wartime documentary) on Dylan Thomas - The War Films Anthology, issued by the Imperial War Museum.

I admire a handful of Dylan Thomas poems (most of them from Deaths and Entrances) and I like some of his prose (especially Adventures in the Skin Trade, his uncompleted novel). His letters are marvellous (and proof that he could be, much of the time, a real shit). So are some of his BBC radio broadcasts, the ones collected in Quite Early One Morning. I don't go a bundle on Under Milk Wood and on the whole, long after an adolescent infatuation with the whole Thomas myth, I now think he's a schoolboy's idea of a poet, and too much of his stuff is densely compacted, shallow and meaningless. A very few lines aside it doesn't make its way straight to the heart to the mind. It stays on the page.

But here's a thing. Yesterday at the annual Small Publishers' Fair (a marvellous annual event in Holborn's Conway Hall), I picked up Finding Your Way to Dylan Thomas, a 'micro-book' published by Jeremy Dixon under his engaging imprint Hazard Press ('written, designed, and made by hand in Wales'). The subtitle is 'A photographic trail through Laugharne, West Wales.' The images depict all the local 'heritage' signage directing visitors to sites connected with the poet, a witty idea suggesting the commodification of the life and work (and especially the life). Hazard Press's micro-books are ingeniously crafted from a  single sheet of A4 paper and are an unalloyed delight. They are all ridiculously cheap and I'd like to buy the lot. At two quid a pop you may feel the same way, so why not shop early for Christmas:

Saturday 15 November 2014

Beyond satire

Two screen grabs from cameras in the House of Commons in which our political representatives debate (upper) welfare reforms for sick and disabled voters and (lower) their own entitlement to a (well-earned) pay rise.  It's enough to make you puke until you puke air.        

Friday 14 November 2014

Ian McEwan on trial

My latest TLS blog is about Ian McEwan's recent novel The Children Act. 

I've admired McEwan since the early days and hate to see him off form, but over the past few years each book he writes seems better than the next. In his latest the two main subjects are the evangelical millennial Christian sect known as Jehovah's Witnesses and the workings of the British legal system. He gets them both very wrong. You can read about the former in my TLS blog. As for the latter . . .

A barrister friend with literary inclinations kindly offered to read the The Children Act and, with her keen legal brain, common sense and critical acumen, came up with an amusing list of errors before abandoning the book halfway through. Here are just a few of them (and with my grateful thanks to her):

1. McEwan refers to witnesses taking 'the stand'‎, but that's what they do in America. In England they go into the witness box. When a barrister says 'my expert's in the box' it means their expert witness is giving evidence, and most likely being cross-examined. (This reminds me of how annoying it used to be to see American movies ostensibly set in Britain but filmed on a Hollywood backlot featuring cars - with white-walled tyres.)

2. He refers to senior judges as, for example, Lord Hoffman and Lord Hailsham. But on page 15 we have the late Senior Law Lord, Baron Bingham of Cornhill, referred to as ‘Tom Bingham’. Now this may not strike you as a momentous error, but bear with me.

How to address judges is a bit of minefield (although rich material for a novelist with a satirical bent. McEwan, alas, is not a satirist).

In court you call them 'My Lord', 'Your Lordship', (or 'My Lord Lord Hoffman' if you're facing more than one of them); or 'My Lady', 'My Ladyship', 'Your Honour' – depending on which court your are in. If you know judges socially you tend to use their Christian names. (‘Hello Lenny how are you?’). If you're a barrister and don’t know them you are expected to call them simply ‘Judge’. (‘Hello Judge how are you?’). If you introduce them to someone who’s not a barrister you're expected to use their title. (‘Robert can I introduce my friend Ian McEwan? Ian this is Sir Robert Akenhead.’). When talking about them socially you use both names. (‘I saw Lenny Hoffman at the opera last night’ - but when referring to his judgments you would say ‘Lord Hoffman says  …’). So when McEwan drops Bingham’s title the reader won’t know he was the most senior judge in the land.  Now this may not matter in the great scheme of things but it's the kind of things that novelists (and their editors) are supposed to get right. Otherwise readers may begin to suspect that it's all made up.

3. He refers to the 'Courts of Justice' (p. 19) but to be pedantic (and the law is nothing if not pedantic) there is no such place. He presumably means the Royal Courts of Justice building on the Strand. Barristers refer to it as ‘over the road’ as in ‘I’m doing a trial over the road’. People who work there call it the RCJ.

4. More white wall tyres.  UK judges are not 'elected' as McEwan claims on p. 45, but either 'elevated' or 'appointed'.

5. Still on acceptable forms of address: a judge would not refer to a fellow judge as 'Mr Justice Sherwood‎ Runcie' (p. 49) simply call him 'Sherwood'.

6. Barristers are instructed by solicitors, who refer to them, with predictable accuracy, as 'instructing solicitors'‎. The reference to an 'instructing solicitor' in the context of advising a client is therefore wrong. (p. 49)

7. McEwan also seems to think that Judges sitting in the Family Division are 'robed' (i.e. wear wigs and gowns in court like Rumple) although this has not been the case since 2008.

I could go on, but rest my case. Does any of this matter? I submit that it does (catchy, this). I put it to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you that a novel of the kind written by Mr McE -

His Honour Judge Mental (interrupting): Mr Collard. I hesitate to correct such a distinguished advocate  as yourself but feel that in the circumstances I have to make it clear to the members of the jury that a novel of the kind at the centre of this unhappy case was not so much 'written' as 'perpetrated'.

Bunty Collard Q.C. : I am most grateful my Lord. (continues)  . . . that a novel of the kind perpetrated by the accused makes a claim on our time and attention and even admiration based, at least in part, on its accuracy and authenticity and must therefore be judged, at least in part, by those very standards.  If I may make a humorous observation, m'lud?

His Honour Judge Mental: By all means, but keep it clean, keep it clean

Bunty Collard Q.C.: It is not so much a case of 'the biter bit' as (mnk, mnk) 'the writer writ'.

(Gales of laughter fill the courtroom. Judge Mental wipes tears from his eyes. The jury dissolve. McEwan, in the dock, looks crestfallen.)

His Honour Judge Mental: Oh very good! AHAHAHAHAHAH. "Writer writ' indeed. Mr. Collard you excel yourself my dear.

Bunty Collard Q.C. : Your Lordship is too kind. Now if I may I should like to summon my next witness. Call Margaret Attwood.

Usher: Call Margaret Attwood!

More distant usher: Call Margaret Atwood!

Even more distant usher: Call Margaret Atwood!

(A woman enters the witness box or, as the luckless defendant would say, 'takes the stand')

Bunty Collard Q.C: You are Margaret Attwood?

Woman: I am not. I am Lionel Shriver.

Sensation in Court!

Thursday 13 November 2014


I like pirates. Who doesn't? 

One of the contributors to the current edition of the Times Literary Supplement is an academic named Grace Moore, and I can't resist typing out her Contributor's Note:

Grace Moore is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence of the History of Emotions. She is the editor of Pirates and Mutineers of the Nineteenth Century: Swashbucklers and Swindlers, 2011, and is working on a study of bush fires in nineteenth-century Australian settler literature.

I like the sound of all of this, so I looked up the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence of the History of Emotions - surely never abbreviated as the ARCCEHE - and I'm sorry to have to report that they have a Vision, and a Mission Statement, and all the associated management balls attached to what otherwise seems to be an admirable organisation. 

With a plaguey nip o'grog and a brisk yo-ho-ho I peer yet closer through me one good eye . . .

Their aim, they say, is: "to provide leadership in humanities research worldwide into how societies thought, felt and functioned in Europe, 1100 - 1800, and how this long history continues to impact on present day Australia."

Apart from the barbarous verbal use of 'impact' this all seems above board and ship-shape (me hearties) and, if you can stomach the disappointingly unpiratical language in which much of their stuff is couched, you can find out more here. Ms Moore is I am sure a high-minded academic, but I expect in her dreams she swings from the rigging, a cutlass between her teeth, roaring profanities. I hope she is not seen by her humourless peers as an unreliable swashbuckling gadabout who would be better employed studying (say) the penal colonies or the Great Barrier Reef. 

I always flinch at the phrase 'Centre of Excellence', that sibilant indicator of gormless management values, sent up years ago (when it first came into vogue) by the comedians Fry and Laurie at the expense of the sinister and preposterous education minister, Rhodes Boyson (1925 - 2012): Watch it here. Boyson's no-nonsense mutton-chopp'd Lancashire schoolmaster act is neatly skewered. His posthumous reputation is in free-fall, as a quick skim of the internet will confirm.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Bloody disgrace

Few things in recent years have made me angrier than news that the Coalition government is cutting its funding (or 'annual operating grant in aid' as it's known) of the Imperial War Museum, now under threat and facing an annual deficit of £4m. The IWM has has been forced to draft proposals to:

•   close its unique library and dispose of the majority of its collection

•   cut important education services

•   cut 60-80 jobs

•   close the widely emulated ‘Explore History’ facility in London.

(£4 million is peanuts. By way of comparison, the cost of the London Olympics opening ceremony in 2012 was £27 million. The legacy - around two hours of telly which nobody has seen since. The overall cost of the Olympic boondoggle was £8.92 billion.)

Thea Lanarduzzi of the Times Literary Supplement blogs about this with calm fury here, and there's a link in her piece (and below) to an online petition that may shame the government into rethinking this disgusting and indefensible decision which, once implemented, will lead to the closure of an archive and library of international importance and the collapse of this vitally important institution. Be angry and do make your voice heard.

But, cynic that I am, I detect the whiff of political shenanigans. Who can doubt that at the last minute our sleek clot of a Prime Minister David Cameron, with UKIP snapping at his heels and an election looming, will spring into action to 'save the day' and be 'the hero of the hour'. Good old Dave, the people's friend. He'll tell us, with a moist wobble in his pink little throat, that he's 'passionate' about history 'in this year of all years'. That's the sort of man he is. 

Don't you simply loathe politicians? From the disturbing way they dress to the fatuous way they speak, their slapdash rhetoric, feeble cultural knowledge, low cunning and bluster and overweening sense of entitlement. Any idea of selfless public service went out with the Thatcher years and I cannot think of one - not one - current member of the House who I trust and admire. (Actually and come to think of it I can - Colonel 'Bob' Stewart, Conservative MP for Beckenham since 2010, a very decent and honourable chap I happened to know briefly in the 1980s when the company I worked for arranged his language tuition prior to his service in ex-Yugoslavia, where he became known as 'Bosnia Bob'. But I can't help feeling he's too good for party politics and the shifty, opportunist, point scoring and callow  little shits with whom he has to rub shoulders.)

I'm quite sure that even as I type this there's some spotty young Tory boy who, in a few years' time, just before his incarceration for embezzlement or sexual offences or expenses fiddling, will drive through a bill that will lead to the closure of all our overseas war cemeteries as 'no longer 'sustainable', 'not fit for purpose', 'a drain on our limited resources', 'not in keeping with modern mourning strategies' and 'inappropriate for today's forward-looking society'. This will certainly happen at around the same time the privatised Imperial War Museum is rebranded as the funky new BATTLEZONE ™ featuring the white knuckle awesomeness that is the Extreme Paintball Experience © 

Tuesday 11 November 2014

The Cottingley Fairies, Jesus and Mary

The Cottingley Fairies appear in a series of five photographs taken between 1917 and 1920 by two young cousins, Elsie Wright (1900–88) and Frances Griffiths (1907–86), who lived in the village of Cottingley, near Bradford. Look them up in Google images (as they may be still copyright) and it's important that you do look at them before reading on. Savvy?

The pictures snagged the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and duly appeared as illustrations to an article on fairies he wrote for the Christmas 1920 edition of The Strand Magazine. He summed up thus:

The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.

I'd hazard that the twentieth century mind had already been jolted by the Great War (although to be sure interest in the supernatural in general and spiritualism in particular was one of the cultural fall-outs of the mass slaughter and subsequent flu pandemic).  But - and this is my point - just look at the photographs and wonder that anyone could fall for such an artless prank! Only a credulous dullard could mistake these flimsy paper cut-outs for supernatural entities (although when it came to the supernatural Conan Doyle was the credulous dullard's credulous dullard). The cousins only admitted publicly that the images were faked as late as 1983, by which time nobody really cared one way or the other.  The Cottingley Fairies were always a tiresome and unpersuasive, if well-intentioned fraud. Read more about this queer cultural episode here.

I wouldn't say that my visual sense is way above average but I can tell (say) when the British Film Institute cynically fobs off an audience with a DVD rather than the screening we've all paid to see, and I can tell when something is shot on location, or in a studio, or when special effects are employed, or when there's a clunky cut in the continuity by a desperate editor who has no 'coverage'. I can tell all this because I grew up in a world of television and cinema and later videotapes and DVDs, and because I can be morbidly literal and pedantic about such matters. I'm not, I think, particularly unusual in this and I'm not easily fooled.

But what about simulacra - the appearance of (e.g.) the face of Christ or the Virgin Mary in everyday objects? Examples of such manifestations have occurred in cloud photos, Marmite, chapatis, shadows, Cheetos, tortillas, trees, dental x-rays, cooking utensils, windows rocks and stones, and painted and plastered walls. 

These phenomena were once known as acheropites, from the Greek ἀχειροποίητος, meaning 'not created by human hands', a term  first applied to the Turin Shroud and the Veil of Veronica. Such images are a form of pareidolia - the false perception of imagery caused by the human mind's over-sensitive predisposition to seeing patterns, and especially human facial patterns, in random phenomena. 

The Turin Shroud is self-evidently the result of human ingenuity and not miraculous yet, like the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti and Bigfoot and flying bloody saucers and apparitions of ghosts and those blasted Cottingley Fairies, continues to attract and impress the credulous.  But - and this is my other point - what is one to make of the one indisputable collective apparition of the 20th century, something observed and recorded by an enormous number of witnesses: the Vision of Fatima? This troubles me. Look it up and see what you think.

Monday 10 November 2014

On 'awareness'

On a train in the early 1930s the editor and critic Geoffrey Grigson noticed a newspaper gossip column's headline which said, ambiguously: AWARENESS OF AUDEN. Did this, Grigson wondered, refer to the public's awareness of the poet, or to the poet's own awareness of the world?

'Awareness' today is something we are all presumed in some form to lack, and which must therefore be 'raised'. We are thus constantly reminded by experts (or what Daily Mail hacks invariably refer to a 'so-called experts') of the need to 'raise our awareness' of injustice and abuse, of the planet's fragile ecosystems, of the need to recycle, of endangered species, of salt and sugar and units of alcohol, of prostate cancer and pesticides and Syria and Palestine and saturated fats and so on, and on. I'm not saying this is a Bad Thing, but where will it lead us? One can't have a raised awareness of everything. 

'Choiceless Awareness' - a term and concept popularised by the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) - refers to 'a state of unpremeditated, complete awareness of the present without preference, effort, or compulsion' - and is, seemingly. an ideal state to which we are all expected to aspire. Complete awareness of everything, all the time. Sounds ghastly.

Of course 'raised awareness' is really a euphemism for tolerance and that, of course, is a Good Thing, although it flies in the face of Robert Conquest's view that we are all conservatives when it comes to things we really understand (and he was referring to poetry, but the rule can apply elsewhere). My increasing awareness of (say) the life and works of Nigel Farage and Lionel Shriver (to name two random examples) did not, in my case, lead to tolerance and understanding. But in the case of these two I'd argue that that's also a Good Thing.

Imagine, if you can, a campaign aimed at lowering public awareness of an issue, an issue which, for whatever reason, the Powers That Be would much rather we didn't much think about. What issues would they be? What form would such a campaign take?

Sunday 9 November 2014

French trench slang

On Armistice Day there's a tendency to concentrate on the Great war as a specifically British catastrophe. Here (from the excellent website is a short list of French slang from the period, what's known as  l’argot des tranchées.

Une abeille : a bee was a bullet.

L’antidérapant :  “non-slip“ is the word for wine.

Une auge : a trough was the nickname of the soldier’s plate.

Le Boche : origin obscure but a “ boche “ was the vulgar nickname given to a German.

La Bochie : Literally the Boche’s country,  la Bochie was the term for Germany.

Une boite de singe : literally “ a monkey’s box “ it designated both an artillery shell and canned food.

Les Bouchers Noirs : “ The Black Butchers “ were the soldiers in the artillery. This expression came from the colour of their uniforms and the devastating effect they had.

Un Boyau : “ A gut “ was the entrance of a trench.

Boyauter :  From “ boyau“ , it meant to walk/patrol in the trenches.

Un cabot : a corporal but also a dog.

Un Cerf : a deer was an accomplished cavalryman and a horse.

Chien de quartier : Literally the “ Quarter dog “ was the adjutant.

Cleb : The “ cleb “ meant the dog. It was  brought by the Algerian soldiers.

Un Crapouillot : literally a “ little toad “, it designated a small mortar.

( Gagner la ) Croix de Bois : Earning the Wooden Cross meant to be killed in action.

La gnôle : nickname for a strong alcohol, still used today by the elders.

Le groin de cochon : the pig’s snout was a gas mask.

Un moineau : a sparrow was a shell, because of the sound it made when flying over the soldiers.

Moulin à café : The coffee grinder was a machine-gun.

Un Nouveau-Né : A Newborn referred to a bomb shell that did not explode.

P.C.D.F : “ Pauvre Couillons du Front “ or “ Poor Mugs at the Front “ was a nickname the Poilus gave themselves in the trenches.

Le Pinard : Low quality wine, this slang word is still used today.

Le Poilu : Certainly the best known World War One word. “The Hairy“ was the French soldier, more particularly the one who had survived his first fight.

Les Pompes : the “ pumps “ were the soldier’s boots because they often ended “ pumping “ water.

Rosalie : Rosalie was one of the many nicknames for a bayonet.

La Rosalie de Mademoisellee Lebel : “ Miss Lebel’s Rosalie “ was an expression used to designate a bayonet on a rifle. The Lebel rifle was used by the French army and Rosalie was one of the many nicknames for a bayonet.

Le séchoir : “ the clothes line “ is barbed wire, this slang started because the soldiers who were “killed“ would fall and be tangled in the wire, as if they were hung out to dry.

Une taupe : a mole, was the nickname given to the German soldiers digging tunnels.

Des totos : lice and fleas.

Un toubib : a “ doc “ was the nickname given to the doctors. The word comes from the arabic “ tebib “. It is still used today.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Sex, cigarettes, Nazis.

This gave me a jolt:

From acclaimed director Pawel Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love) comes IDA, a moving and intimate drama about a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland who, on the verge of taking her vows, discovers a dark family secret dating from the terrible years of the Nazi occupation. 18-year old Anna (stunning newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), a sheltered orphan raised in a convent, is preparing to become a nun when the Mother Superior insists she first visit her sole living relative. Naïve, innocent … More
PG-13 (for thematic elements, some sexuality and smoking)

The reasons for the PG-13 rating? ''Thematic elements'? I guess that's the Nazis (although most children seem to learn about nothing else in school history classes). 'Some sexuality'? Fair enough, although that 'some' needs unpicking. But 'smoking'? Is that now deemed too traumatising for little chicks whose sensibilities (uncoarsened by exposure to ultra-violent video games and such nonsense) should be protected from the image of grown-ups smoking? And if so shouldn't the rating at least correspond to the age at which it's legal to buy and smoke cigarettes? Of course Ida may feature a scene in which a couple of Nazis share a post-coital cheroot . . .

Friday 7 November 2014

Ian Hamilton at Keble College

To Keble College, Oxford on Wednesday evening, and a shindig to mark the bequest of the poet and critic Ian Hamilton's library to his alma mater.

Keble is a marvellous Victorian gothic pile. The architect William Butterfield used polychromatic brickwork in a style known as 'holy zebra' which has to be seen to be believed. (His All Saints, Margaret Street, in the heart of London, was described by Ian Nairn as 'an orgasm' and has to be seen to be disbelieved.)

I arrived early so had time to visit Butterfield's Keble chapel, a cross between St. Pancras station and a funfair. It was during choir practice and just before evensong, so I took a seat at the back and looked and listened. The mosaics were all in jolly carnival colours and the organ pipes painted like a mighty Wurlitzer. The mellow reverberations were just the thing for a chilly November evening. Far off could be heard the odd percussive whizz-bang of fireworks - it was Bonfire Night, the 5th of November. 2014 is not only the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, but also Butterfield's bi-centenary - he was born on 7th September 1814.

In the library across the quad some of the 500 poetry volumes in the Hamilton bequest were on display and the bursar had pushed the boat out -  the atmosphere was informal and convivial. Speakers included Ian's son Matthew and his younger brother Stewart, his former tutor John Carey and Xandra Gowrie, who worked with Hamilton on the new review. There were messages of support from some very famous authors unable to make it to Oxford that evening, confirming that Hamilton remains a hugely influential and much-missed mentor to a generation of writers.

The poet Alan Jenkins read Matthew Arnold's magnificent Dover Beach, and read it beautifully. Written in 1867 (seven years before the creation of Keble College) it was a favourite poem of Hamilton's and to hear it read in the library of his old college in the company of family and friends was particularly moving and memorable. The College was founded in memory of John Keble (1792-1866), a leading member of the ‘Tractarian’ movement. He was Matthew Arnold's godfather and Hamilton would write a brilliant biography of Arnold. What goes around . . .

Here's Dover Beach:

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

And for the weekend here's a brilliant television documentary about Ian Hamilton, directed by his partner Patricia Wheatley in 2002, the year after his death:

Thursday 6 November 2014

Four-minute masterclass

Here's a masterclass in screen-writing, ensemble acting and editing/cinematography, all in four minutes. It's from Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon (1976). In a spellbinding performance Monroe Stahr, the young head of the studio played by Robert De Niro runs rings around the pompous and  disgruntled British writer Boxley (Donald Pleasance).

From the uncompleted novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. What more do you want?

There's a handful of great films about Hollywood. Apart from The Last Tycoon I'd add Altman's The Player, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, A Star is Born (the Judy Garland/James Mason version), Singin' in the Rain (which many forget is about how studios managed the coming of sound) and Vincent Minelli's marvellous melodrama The Bold and the Beautiful.

And how about Bogart's last movie? He plays a washed-up and ailing screenwriter in Nicholas Ray's superb In a Lonely Place (1950). Found slumped over a typewriter and surrounded by screwed up drafts, heaped ashtrays and an empty bottle of scotch, a sheet of paper bears his last, and perfect, words:

I was born when she kissed me.
I died when she left me.
I lived a few weeks while she loved me.

Match that!
But there's only one great novel about Tinseltown and it's a great novel full stop: Nathanael West's bleak and piercing Day of the Locust. I get the impression it's not much read these days. One of the main characters is called Homer Simpson.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Ayn Rand, dismantled

In 2011 the BBC transmitted a compelling three-part documentary by the film-maker Adam Curtis called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, now available to view online.

Do watch them, and watch them again. They're about why things are the way they are, and how we got here.

His starting point is the American writer Ayn Rand's eccentric 'Objectivist' line of clumping unreason.

To claim that her shambolic books are works of 'philosophy (as she always did) is misleading - she was an intellectual nincompoop and raging egoist with no interest in any thinkers other than herself and (if cornered) Aristotle. She has the complacent and totalising world view of other delusional charlatans - think of L. Ron Hubbard or Erich Von Daniken.

In her long-winded novel Atlas Shrugged (of interest mainly to psychoanalysts) she attacked altruism and advocated selfishness and greed as the supreme human values. Her malign impact on American political and economic thinking for the past four decades (especially via her acolyte Alan Greenspan) is plain to see. Although she is little known outside the States (and, when known, largely derided) her influence is manifest in the behaviour and values of our banking autocracy. That she is taken seriously by otherwise sane and intelligent people makes one question the meaning and value of sanity and intelligence.

Rand was Russian-born (her real name was Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum) and, it's clear never really got over her first view of the Manhattan skyline. All those thrusting skyscrapers! Could she have suffered from what the Germans call 'Objektophilie'? This is defined as 'a pronounced emotional and often romantic desire towards developing significant relationships with particular inanimate objects.' You can find out more about this rare and deeply unsettling condition at

A good introduction to Rand, should you need one, is the 1949 film version of her novel The Fountainhead, directed by King Vidor. If the image of Gary Cooper nestling a huge pneumatic jackhammer in his crotch doesn't get you giggling uncontrollably the chances are you're already a Rand convert. Here's a link to that sequence, complete with a very suggestive hat adding to the Freudian smorgasbord:

The film, like the novel, is an unilluminating exercise in penis-envy. Needless to say Rand has millions of devoted followers who feel themselves 'empowered' by her ardent Nietzschean belief in the will and suchlike ramshackle bollocks. Her unreflecting and unrelenting endorsement of laissez-faire capitalism reminds me of those lines from Hobbes' Leviathan about a society without political governance - often quoted, but seldom in full

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

'Nasty, brutish and short'. That's Ayn Rand. Her belief in selfishness and lofty commitment to her own loopy ethical system didn't prevent her from signing up for Social Security and Medicare in her declining years. She died, on my birthday, in 1982.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London

Originally uploaded on 30 October 2014 and reloaded today following a technical glitch

'Sherlock Holmes: the Man Who Never Lived and Who Will Never Die' is the clumsy title of an exhibition currently attracting large crowds to the Museum of London.

I went there with my son, a Conan Doyle enthusiast, as a half-term treat.

Highlights? Some beautiful photographs by the great Alvin Langdon Coburn, the flimsy link being that they portray London in hazy conditions, and that fog is associated with Holmes's city (wrongly, as it seldom features in the stories). There was also Benedict Cumberbatch's overcoat from the telly - a lovely thing, but not worth paying twelve quid to see.

Lowlights? Almost everything else.

The manuscripts in the first room were all inexplicably displayed flat in glass cases at hip height, top-lit by powerful halogen bulbs. Any attempt to read them cast a immediate black shadow, plunging the page on display into pitch darkness. The rest of the time the brilliant bulbs reflected, dazzlingly, off the glass. Awful. I wanted to see - and had paid to see, but was unable to see - Poe's manuscript of the Dupin story that inspired Conan Doyle to create Holmes. Impossible to do so, and the same problem applied to all the manuscript material gathered in that first room. A word to the designer: always display manuscripts at a reading angle, at a reasonable height, and think about your lighting. I mean. Jesus.

There followed a series of displays loosely related to Conan Doyle's most celebrated creation. All the labels were displayed at a height that might just suit wheelchair users (fair enough) and small children (which is daft because small children don't read labels - they just want to press buttons and muck about). This meant that after twenty minutes of bending and crouching and peering I was exhausted and irritable. 

There was a constant, over-audible tape loop of television and film versions of Holmes's adventures, random in order and uneven in quality. It was like being trapped in the home of a teenage channel-hopper with an attention deficit disorder. Cabinets displayed selections of old telephones, varieties of pince-nez (because 'they feature several times in the stories'), something on cryptography (and nul points to whoever had the dim idea of attaching huge 'dancing men' figures rendered in shocking pink Keith Haring-style to the outside of Powell and Moya's building); disguises, drugs, and so on. 

There was nothing about the world-wide popularity of Holmes and Watson (and it would have been very interesting to see/hear what other cultures have done with the characters); the extraordinary industrial output of Holmesian fan fiction; the influence of Conan Doyle on later authors and the detective genre. What came as a great surprise was the absence of disparaging and condescending references to Holmes's snobbishness, racism, sexism, rudeness to dwarves and misogyny, 'typical, alas, of conuslting detectives of his age and class at the time'. He got off lightly.

The eye-wateringly over-priced hardback catalogue was part of a depressing range of crappy gifts for sale in the museum foyer - the kind of tat you might expect to pick up in Camden Town or Carnaby Street, or at the awful Sherlock Holmes 'experience' in Baker Street.

We left after half an hour and explored the rest of the museum (which is excellent, and free). For the price of our two tickets we could have bought all the brilliant Granada Television productions of the entire Holmes canon on DVD, starring the peerless Jeremy Brett. You should consider doing just that.

On the rules of modern romantic fiction

In case any of you are planning a career as a romantic novelist, here are some useful guidelines from the Mills & Boon website relating to their so-called 'Modern' category (to be distinguished from, say, 'Medical' and Historical' genres):

Featured in Modern

Modern has classic themes, but we're looking for innovative takes. What would you say if a billionaire demanded you agree to a marriage of convenience? Does a secret baby have to mean a shot-gun wedding? He might have a legendary playboy reputation, but what if she's just as notorious? Our heroes are 100% alpha but that doesn't mean they're perfect. Sheikh, Greek, Russian, Italian, English, American…wherever he's from, it's certain that he turns the heads of every woman he passes!

Modern Key Elements
  • A hero who will command and seduce. There's nothing in the world his powerful authority and money can't buy… except the love of a woman strong enough to tame him!
  • A Modern heroine isn't afraid to stand up to the hero in her own way, whether she's at home in his opulent world or not. She can be shy and innocent, feisty and daring or anywhere in between.
  • These stories are pure romantic fantasy with glitzy, glamorous, international settings to upstage even the swankiest of red-carpet premieres!
  • High sensuality and sky-rocketing sexual tension to quicken your pulse
  • Captivating internal emotional conflicts that will sustain the story over 50,000 words.
  • Tone should be contemporary but with a strong intensity, delivering an instant hit of powerful emotion
  • Give classic themes a fresh 21st century twist - tease, surprise and delight.
For explanations and tips about conflict, dialogue and emotion please click on I Love Romance 

I think it's as easy to write romantic fiction as it is to write good pop lyrics, by which I mean it isn't easy at all and requires a particular kind of genius. I say this without condescension because if I could do either (and make a living from it) I'd be perfectly happy and satisfied to do so. Really. So perhaps I should give it a go. 
Working title: The Handsome Doctor

   Nurse Nancy Headstrong gazed across the sickbeds of the children's' ward at St Heartstrings. There he was, the    dark and intense paediatrician Dr. Sterne, with his ice-blue eyes and healing hands, delicately palpating a poorly five-year-old, murmuring gently.  If only he would look up and see her, in freshly-starched uniform, regulation shoes and modern hair-do. But here came the matron. Better look busy.

See? Really difficult to get the tone.

Text © Mills & Boon, an imprint of Harlequin

Monday 3 November 2014


Click here for details of the University of Bucharest's astonishing 101-volume James Joyce lexicography, now available to download online.

Their website says of the academic cohort behind this colossal production:

"We are a well-fused group of staff and graduate students, very enthusiastic about our work."

Sunday 2 November 2014

The Cherry Orchard

To the Young Vic for a matinee performance of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, directed by Katie Mitchell, a director I much admire.

Proscenium arch, a dimly lit single set (and the set was marvellous). Actors arrive on stage: quite a few of them, and in quick succession, and although I'm familiar with the play I'm already floundering. Who are these people? What's going on?

The problem was not simply one of audibility (the actors had their backs to the audience much of the time, which looked good but … ), it was also one of legibility. It was very difficult to 'place' the various characters as servants or landowners or bourgeoise professionals or wealthy arrivistes. They all looked and sounded pretty much the same and by the end of the play I was still floundering.

The only characters one could immediately 'get' were Leonid (a terrific performance by Angus Wright) and the student Peter Trofimov (channelling Jarvis Cocker a little too emphatically). Otherwise, despite good performances all round, one couldn't tell who these people were or why they mattered. I'm not saying (for example) that all stage doctors should sport stethoscopes but audiences need direction as much as actors. A landowner (for instance), however deep in debt, might dress like a landowner (and  not necessarily in a Barbour jacket carrying a shotgun).

Finally there was the dispiriting trademark of all recent Chekhov productions: I mean gratuitous nudity. To be told in a low voice by the ticket-checker on entering the auditorium that the production contains 'female nudity and swearing' (although the gender of the profanity was unspecified) is always a humiliating and infantilising experience for a ticket-holder, who is placed in the role of a punter in a a Soho clip-joint. One of these days I plan to call their bluff and, faced with such a warning, will leer like a lecherous Benny Hill and say "Phwooar! Fucking brilliant!"

In this case the nudity was confined to the eccentric governess Charlotta Ivanovna appearing briefly naked while saying something inaudible. I feel entitled to stamp and wolf-whistle the next time a naked dolly bird (or beefcake) scampers across the stage during a Chekhov production. And why not? I could even warn the ticket collector in advance that this is what I planned to do so it wouldn't come as too much of a shock to the cast. 

Here's a more serious point - given that this version (by Simon Stephens), in common with most Chekhov productions I've seen over the past few years, took many liberties (not all of them unjustified) with the original text, why bother to keep the Russian names or locations? Why not set the whole thing in the Home Counties? In the 1950s, say? Or in Mexico?

The best production of Chekhov I've ever seen was also, as it happens, at the Young Vic, directed by Benedict Andrews in 2012. This was a startlingly modernist Three Sisters, a radical modernisation of the original and the hooks went in. Set in the round, the acting area consisted of around 200 square tables which were removed by stage hands in the course of the play, so the space diminished as the characters' dreams faded and their lives inexorably shut down. Simple and effective, audible and legible. This is what Chekhov needs.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Whistle and I'll come to you

A day late for Hallowe'en, but here's the astonishing Whistle and I'll come to you.

Jonathan Miller directed this adaptation of M.R. James's ghost story for the BBC in 1968. I've never seen anything on the telly half as good. Do watch it, and be frightened out of your wits. Then raise a glass to the great, the very great, Michael Hordern (who looks rather like, and has a name that sounds very like, Auden). What a performance! Whether insinuating himself into a hotel dining room, dispatching a grapefruit, chumbling philosophically over steamed haddock or striding along a bleak Norfolk beach he entirely inhabits the role of a self-absorbed, rather pompous academic - just look at the way he handles his books.

One of these is by the philosopher F. H. Bradley and it looks like it might be Appearance and Reality (1893). Hordern, hermetically intellectual, snorts at Bradley's contention that  that most ordinary things (time and space, causation, the self, objects and their qualities) are only appearances while reality is the Absolute, a cosmic phenomenon of which we are all part. None of which particularly matters because the story is simply about a bright pragmatic chap confronting the inexplicable and being completely dismantled by the experience.