Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Robert Aickman at the British Library 10.11.2017

Aickman photographed by Jean Richardson

Is Robert Aickman the twentieth century’s ‘most profound writer of what we call horror stories and he, with greater accuracy, preferred to call strange stories’? That was the view of Peter Straub, celebrated author of Ghost Story among others. I think ‘most profound’ is perfectly justifiable even before we get to considerations of style, which in the case of Aickman are considerable. The work is pregnant with unease, melancholia and dread – perfect, then, for this time of year, and also for any other.

To speak of only one treasure in that archive: the Library now holds the manuscript of Aickman’s only unpublished novel, ‘Go Back at Once’ (1975); and that title is so marvellous and so very Aickman that I’m not sure I’d even want to read the work, such is my pleasure in just knowing that it exists.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Graeme Souness: buzzer, cruncher, spreader

‘We called him Sowness when he was at Middlesbrough.’ This, if I’m remembering right, was Bob Mortimer’s memory of how Graeme Souness was welcomed when he joined Jack Charlton’s team as a player on Teesside; and I think it’s true, because my granny in County Durham called him that and all - even when Souness was at Liverpool, skipper and top 'Jock' who could no longer be imagined to hail from anywhere other than Scotland.

You would tend to want to get his name right in person, I'd guess. There was a flair to how Souness carried himself on and off the park, but at Middlesbrough he acquired his principal reputation, for a flint-like toughness. What a player he was, though. ‘Most midfields are made up of a buzzer, a cruncher and a spreader’, Bob Paisley once observed. ‘[Souness] is all three.’ The crunching is what we recall most feelingly, maybe. But the ‘spreading’ was the flashiest element: Souness had a rare gift for abrupt switches of play from left to right through pinpoint flighted passes. He also rifled in some brilliant goals.

Souness is widely felt to have impaired his footballing reputation through management, even though he won a fair few trophies with various clubs. He alienated the Liverpool support by talking to the Sun after Hillsborough, though in 2011, however late it was, he made a pained and dignified apology. By the time he finished as a boss at Newcastle in 2006, though, it was clear that Souness felt the game had gone to the dogs, full of players to whom he wouldn’t have given the time of day when he was playing. But the modern manager simply has to finesse such matters, and Souness is maybe an arch example of a player who was too formidable an ex-pro to sit easily in the dugout.

Souness has just published a new memoir and I must say I enjoyed his previous ones. In an interview-feature with Souness for the Glasgow Herald, Teddy Jamieson does a good job of getting lines out of the great man and is kind enough to quote me appositely from Keegan and Dalglish.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Who Can You Trust?: The Book of the BFI Season

Delighted to report that the BFI Thriller compendium is now for sale in shops and online: another first-rate and very handsome gathering of critical/historical work under the BFI label, assembled by Sight & Sound's James Bell.

It was a pleasure for me to be allotted such generous space in which to discuss what we have learned (after Hofstadter) to call 'the paranoid style in American politics'; and its presence in American cinema from The Manchurian Candidate to The Parallax View, JFK, Syriana etc. With so much to discuss it would have been superfluous for me to cite Norman Mailer's famous contrast, in The Presidential Papers, between the history of politics (‘concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull’) and ‘the dream life of a nation’ (‘a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires.’) But you all know that one, right? The point is that we need, via fiction, to put a foot in that river now and then - remembering all the while that 'paranoia' should not be dismissed, but neither encouraged nor indulged while we're about it.

Arguably I could have used my allocation a bit more shrewdly to permit a discussion of certain famous UK films and TV series on the paranoid theme, most of them hailing from the 1980s when arguments were especially heated on the subject of what a Conservative British state might conceivably do to protect and enhance its status as a nuclear power allied to the USA: I’m thinking of Defence of the Realm, Edge of Darkness, A Very British Coup, Hidden Agenda. Another time, perhaps.

Here’s how my essay, 'Can You Trust The Government?', begins:

Closing his farewell address to parliament as UK Prime Minister in 2007, Tony Blair seized the moment to mount a defence of politics as a vocation. ‘If it is on occasions the place of low skulduggery,’ Blair contended, ‘it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.’ Where politics has inspired thrilling movies, though, it’s mainly that sense of skulduggery that has interested filmmakers and audiences alike – both groups inclined to suspicion of the powers-that-be, believing, as did Lord Acton, in ‘the certainty of corruption by authority.’

Thus, in the modern political thriller the usual villain is corrupt government, its corridors of power purposely darkened so as to conceal malfeasance from public scrutiny. The ur-plot will involve one law-abiding citizen stumbling on a stray insight into this nefarious world, resolving then to expose the truth, but having to learn fast against a ruthless, hydra-headed adversary. As such the genre relies heavily on the exciting tropes of the detective and the fugitive – elements that might be expected to work against a plausible depiction of real-life politics. 

I've probably argued a few times too many that political thrillers ought at least some of the time to depict elected representatives as human figures, confronting dilemmas, racing against time, conscious of their own failings - rather than, say, malevolent members of an Establishment cabal covertly stitching up the People at any given opportunity. Mailer performed the former function with distinction in his epic novel of the CIA, Harlot’s Ghost. When asked by an interviewer why on earth he would want to humanise such people, Mailer replied, 'They really are pretty awful. But on the other hand, who isn't?’ That’s a wittier way of rephrasing Senator Silas Radcliffe, anti-hero of Henry Adams’ great novel Democracy (1880), who argues, rightly in my view, that ‘no representative government can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents.’

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Harry Dean Stanton 1926-2017

Harry Dean, 2003

This is a story I have about the late and rightly lamented Harry Dean Stanton, who died on September 15 at the age of 91. I met him one evening in Los Angeles in October 2002, when he’d have been 76?

I’d spent that afternoon very cheerfully in the old port city of San Pedro, with Linda Bukowski, widow of the legendary Charles. It was a special afternoon for me, having got a great deal of fun out of Bukowski’s writing during my youth, to pass some hours chatting to Linda in the home she and ‘Hank’ had shared, site of so many escapades. We had a couple of drinks: I was on beer, but somewhat cautiously, as my next appointment was to meet Mr Stanton at his home on Mulholland Drive.

Charles Bukowski
I was aware he wasn’t widely thought to be the easiest man to get to know. I knew Charles Bukowski had said as much to Film Comment magazine back in 1987: ‘Harry Dean’s a strange fellow. He doesn’t put on much of a hot-shot front. He just sits around depressed. And I make him more depressed. I say, ‘Harry, for Chrissakes, it’s not so bad.’’

But Linda knew him well, of course, and assured me all would be fine. She even rang him as I was packing up to go, and told him to go easy on me: ‘You be nice to him now, Harry, OK?’

The skies were still light, or as light as Los Angeles gets, when I left San Pedro, but it was extremely dark by the time I was winding my way down round Mulholland Drive, which had very surely taken on the menacing aspect of a place where David Lynch might shoot a movie.

Harry Dean’s place was a bungalow. I had to step cautiously down flagstones overhung by trees in order to get round the back of the place and ring the doorbell. Before I got there something dark and small darted across my path: in my mind’s eye I remain convinced it was a raccoon.

Harry Dean answered the door in bathrobe and slippers, spectacles on the end of his nose, hair a little wild. He welcomed me in, though there was a wariness to him, a certain senior stiffness. Still his living space was nicely arranged for a cordial chat, big sofas squared round a big coffee table with a big ashtray. In fact I admired his bachelor pad all the way round: open plan, cosily masculine, done in russet shades, a tidy kitchenette behind me, while I could see that to the right of the front door was the master bedroom: a tall mirrored wardrobe door hung open.

HDS in Fire Walk With Me
He didn’t seem keen on interviews - the legend was all true. He asked me to prove to him that my tape recorder was really working. He wasn’t sure I knew his body of work and needlessly listed the directors he’d done time with – Hitchcock he seemed especially proud of. Of course, if we’d had time I would have gladly enthused about everything from Missouri Breaks to Young Doctors in Love to Fire Walk With Me.

Then we were done. He told me he was ‘going out’ but I was welcome to hang awhile, and that we might 'have a drink' once he was dressed and ready? So he pottered off to that bedroom. I checked my tape recorder, reviewed my notes, looked back on my busy day. That was ten minutes maybe. Then Harry Dean re-entered, newly purposeful.

The phrase that leapt into my head, honestly, was ‘Alley Cat.’ (‘Rat Pack’ might have been in there, too.) The man was dressed sharp; and he was tapping a cigarette on a silver case. He’d donned a black suit and a crisp shirt, tie with clip, shoes with a high sheen; and the hair was now slick. Now he was smiling a great deal, like everything amused him, since it was time to ‘go out.’ And I felt I understood it all now, including the story about the date he'd brought to Sean Penn’s wedding in 1985. He fixed us vodka tonics, plenty stiff, and the evening got yet more memorable.

So count me in as a big, big Harry Dean fan, all the way. Too many superb performances to cite, but my favourite, if I had to pick one, is this – this scene, especially.

The Polyglots by William Gerhardie; and my part in its persistence

Earlier this decade I had a stint as publishing editor of a list dedicated to the reissue of neglected or 'lost' books of distinction: Faber Finds. One of the eminent long-gone authors under my wing was William Gerhardie, he of Futility, Doom, The Polyglots, Resurrection, Of Mortal Love, Pretty Creatures, My Wife’s the Least of It, Pending Heaven, Memoirs of Satan, et cetera.

But possibly you're rubbing the chin now, wondering if this is a name and an oeuvre you've ever come across before... Don't worry, that's fine. Michael Holroyd, who has worked diligently to improve Gerhardie’s reputation, once hymned him as a writer ‘whose books need to be rediscovered by each new generation of readers.’ And there’s the difficulty: Gerhardie has become the near-archetypal ‘lost writer’, and readers just have to keep rediscovering him.

Blessedly, the house of Head of Zeus has now reissued Gerhardie's most widely admired novel, The Polyglots, in a new trade edition, and they were so kind as to ask me to write an introduction (the opening gambit of which is below.) In tones dreadfully familiar to most working novelists, Gerhardie once lamented that The Polyglots had earned him ‘something equivalent, in terms of royalties, to nothing.’ But it lives, it survives to speak to us still.' 'All great writing,' George Steiner insisted, 'springs from le dur desir de durer, the harsh contrivance of spirit against death, the hope to overreach time by force of creation.' And that's what it's all about.