Kevin Avery: Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life And Writings Of Paul Nelson

Reviewed by Robert O’Connor

Paul Nelson

Frank Zappa once said “most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.” However true that might be, Paul Nelson was one who most definitely could write. And he interviewed people who could talk, and plenty of people read what he wrote.

Kevin Avery certainly read what Nelson wrote, and has now written Everything Is An Afterthought (Fantagraphics, who usually publish comics), which is both a biography of Nelson and a collection of his work, including some pieces that have never been published. The book is covered in praise for Nelson, both on the jacket and throughout the book, from other people who read his work and were inspired by it. They’re from the people he wrote about, his friends, colleagues, fans or some combination of the three: Jon Landau, Robert Christgau, Jackson Browne, Greil Marcus, Rod Stewart, Cameron Crowe and Bruce Springsteen are just a few of the people quoted.

Nelson was born and raised in Warren, Minnesota, a town in the northwestern corner of the state with a population of around 2,500. He went to the University of Minnesota where he started The Little Sandy Review with Jon Pankake. It covered folk music, which Jon loved. They reviewed new releases from national folk labels like Folkways and Prestige along with local artists like Tony Glover (who later joined the ‘zine as a contributor), Spider John Koerner, Dave Ray and Bobby Zimmerman.

Nelson’s work caught the eye of Irwin Silber, the editor of the magazine Sing Out! Nelson moved out to New York when he graduated in 1962. He covered the folk scene in Greenwich Village, populated by the same folks he wrote about in Minneapolis, including Zimmerman, who by now was going by the name Bob Dylan. He wrote for Sing Out! until 1965, when he parted ways with them over Dylan going electric at Newport. He was one of Dylan’s few defenders from within the folk community.

Nelson moved to Mercury Records where he worked as an A&R man. His most famous act there was to sign the New York Dolls for their first recording contract. He also released the album 1969: The Velvet Underground, the band’s last album.

He then moved on to Rolling Stone, where he took over the mantle of the reviews editor from Jon Landau. He stayed at the magazine until 1982. For the next 24 years until his death in 2006 he ran a video store, worked on projects and his name hardly appeared in print. One of the few exceptions was a 2000 interview he gave to Steven Ward which starts with the same question that the press release for Avery’s book starts with: ‘What ever happened to Paul Nelson?’

Avery fills in these missing years, describing what Nelson had been up to, much of it pieced together by works collected from Nelson’s apartment after he died. Among the things he worked on were long articles about Clint Eastwood and a biography of Neil Young called Rust Never Sleeps, which he never finished. He co-wrote a book about his good friend Rod Stewart with another good friend, Lester Bangs. He also labored over a screenplay, something he had wanted to do ever since he started his writing career.

In these, Nelson shows himself as a first-rate writer, who didn’t stand at a distance when critiquing artists. All too often he was – or would become – friends with the people he reviewed. They provide intimate portraits of the artists and Nelson shows an immense respect for his subjects. He held an intervention for Warren Zevon, who was suffering from alcoholism, and described the experience in his famous 1981 Rolling Stone Piece ‘How He Saved Himself from a Coward’s Death.’

Like the best critics, Nelson was primarily a fan of what he wrote about, subjects that struck a chord with him. And here’s a bio and a collection of his work written by a fan of his.

Note: Avery has another book of Nelson’s collected writings that came out around the same time as this one, Conversations with Clint, (published by Continuum) which collects a series of interviews he did in the late 70s early 80s with Clint Eastwood.

Candice Millard: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Reviewed by Greg Houle

President Garfield

Long relegated to history’s vast nether regions of obscurity, the twentieth president of the United States, James A. Garfield is best known for two things: he was the last of the American presidents to be born in a log cabin (in Ohio in 1831), and he was the second American president to be killed by an assassin’s bullet while in office (the first being Abraham Lincoln, sixteen years earlier in 1865).

Candice Millard does her best to lift this once highly regarded, entirely self-made paragon of late-19th-century American politics out of anonymity in her new book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. Millard traces Garfield’s rise as a poor yet precocious child whose father died before his second birthday to his reluctant ascension to Republican presidential nominee and victor of the election of 1880.

“I have never had the Presidential fever; not even for a day,” Garfield said at the time, but in a day when the Republican Party was rife with conflict between the old guard “stalwarts” who believed in the patronage system of rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies, and reform-minded “half-breeds” who favored a government and civil service based on merit, Garfield did not back down from what he saw as his noble duty for his nation.

Solidly behind the “half-breeds” Garfield appointed his former rival and fellow reformer James Blain as his Secretary of State (after he made Blain promise him that he would never again run for president, a promise that Blain, ultimately, broke) and aimed to take Washington by storm and shake up the stagnant and corrupt political system that had washed over the government of late-nineteenth-century America.

While much of the United States was behind Garfield’s reformist agenda, fate unfortunately was not. Less than four months after he assumed the presidency Garfield was shot, at close range, by the fantastically deranged eccentric Charles Guiteau in a Washington, DC train station. Less than three months later Garfield was dead.

Millard, who expertly sets the stage leading up to Garfield’s assassination on July 2, 1881 by introducing her readers to a cast of vivid characters – from the famed and dogged inventor Alexander Graham Bell, to the flamboyant stalwart Republican senator Roscoe Conklin and his toady Chester Arthur (who also happened to be Garfield’s Vice President thanks to a compromise that the stalwarts and half-breeds entered into at the Republican convention), to Lucretia Garfield, the president’s shy yet keenly intelligent wife who Garfield had grown to adore over the years. Yet none of Millard’s characters are as remarkable as Charles Guiteau.

Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction and Millard seems to relish her opportunity to write about a subject who, if created for a novel, would seem completely unbelievable. After an odd childhood Guiteau attempted to gain admission to the University of Michigan but when he couldn’t pass the entrance exam he instead joined the Oneida utopian society in upstate New York, famed mostly for its acceptance of free love and the fact that its members included two presidential assassins (the other being Leon Czolgosz who killed President William McKinley in Buffalo, New York in 1901).

Despite its free love mentality, the women of Oneida did not warm to Guiteau (in fact, as Millard notes, they took to calling him Charles “Gitout”) and after five years in utopia he left and later filed a lawsuit against Oneida leader John Noyes. After floating around New York and Chicago, Guiteau, who was an expert at sneaking out of hotels without paying his bill and “borrowing” money from distant relatives who he never intended to repay, somehow obtained a law license and began practicing, first in Chicago and later in New York. Never very successful, he regularly enraged his clients by making nonsensical arguments in court that had little to do with their cases.

After abandoning the law, Guiteau dabbled in theology briefly before finding his true calling around the stalwart Republican fringes. This is where Guiteau is at his most fascinating and where Millard shines at capturing his chilling persona. It was during the 1880 presidential campaign that Guiteau convinced himself (and likely nobody else) that he had helped to elect Garfield president by delivering an uninspiring (and little-heard) pro-Garfield speech one time in New York City. It was also during the campaign that Guiteau struck up a one-sided “friendship” with the vice presidential nominee Chester Arthur and other members of the Republican Party, writing largely unanswered letters to them – including Garfield – that took a familiar tone as if he had been friends with them for years.

Once Garfield was elected, Guiteau was convinced that he would be given the ambassadorship to Vienna as his prize for electing the president (later deciding that he preferred Paris instead). Despite the fact that Guiteau never did anything to legitimately help elect Garfield, and that neither the president nor any member of his inner circle had a clue who Guiteau was, he continued to write chummy letters to Garfield and members of his administration. He even joined the throng of office seekers who flooded the White House (a common practice in the19th-century political landscape) after Garfield took office to make sure that the president was aware of his request.

One day, while visiting the State Department to inquire about when he could finally take up his new post in Paris, Guiteau crossed paths with the new Secretary of State himself. Blain, in no uncertain terms, told Guiteau to get lost and abruptly walked away. Crestfallen yet undeterred, Guiteau decided that he had to warn the new president about his Secretary of State who clearly wasn’t aware of how important Guiteau had been to Garfield. But when his warnings went unanswered, Guiteau concluded that the problem ultimately rested with Garfield himself and, with the full backing of God – whom, by this point, Guiteau believed wanted him to kill Garfield – his task was set.

The assassination itself was a relatively simple task in the days before presidents had a protection detail and walked around openly in public places. Guiteau shot the president in the middle of a crowded train station minutes before Garfield was scheduled to board a train to the seacoast of New Jersey and he was apprehended moments later by police.

But what Guiteau thought was his crowning achievement – indeed the very work of God – was actually just the beginning of the end for Garfield and an American public shocked at the news of their mortally wounded leader. Millard then enters the next phase of this tragedy, describing in vivid detail how Garfield, ever cheerful even while enduring extreme pain and facing death, had his recovery thwarted by the antiquated medical practices of a particularly arrogant physician.

While the assassination of James Garfield has largely been lost to the passage of time, Candice Millard’s page-turning new book has brought it back to life in a remarkable way. Adeptly weaving together the stories of fascinating characters to create movie-like scenery, Millard reintroduces us to this truly American tragedy.

Greg Houle is a freelance writer who lives in New York City. Find out more at www.greghoule.com

Sir Oswald Mosley: Blackshirt – Stephen Dorril

Stephen Dorril’s “Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism” is an exhaustive re-examination of the man who, far from being a Hitler admiring crank, was inextricably bound up with British politics and upper class attitudes, writes Ben Granger

Many may find the sheer weight of this tome wrongly flattering of its subject, regardless of content. Why should such a figure merit 700 pages? Surely this was, at best, a nearly-man in British politics? He may have risen to Cabinet level certainly, but then so did hundreds of others. The grimy pack of thugs he came to lead once his mainstream ambitions failed may have caused a splash as they bashed enemy heads in, but no-one voted for them. Surely, ultimately, they and he were an irrelevance? Dorril’s expertly researched account gives the lie to such a view and leaves no doubt that the story of Mosley is inexorably entwined with the story of twentieth century politics as a whole, mirroring the highs and the lows, ricocheting from the machinations of high society to the violent desperation of the underclass, and taking in every major Parliamentary player in between.

Sir Oswald “Tom” Mosley was a pure-grade scion from a northern branch of the old land-owning aristocracy (Mosley Street in Manchester takes its name from the clan), of the type still rolling in money but comparatively side-lined politically in the bourgeois twentieth century. With a boorishly uncaring, neglectful father, and indulgent mother, his defining character traits were shown early on at boarding school and elsewhere. A narrow, directed charm, rampant ambition, intellectual laziness, sexual incontinence, untrustworthiness, and a tendency to brow-beat and bully. Above all, a narcissistic sense of self-adoration, belief in entitlement and complete lack of self-doubt, of the type so often found in his caste. But taken just that one degree further.

After service in the air-force during the First World War, where he performed with distinction and enthusiasm, impetuous Tom managed to secure a position as a Conservative MP by the age of 22, the natural home for a man of his class and connections. He soon became renowned as a powerful orator in the Commons for his party. But this “man in a hurry” was impatient with the old guard still running both party and country, those who had allowed the calamity of war to decimate the young men of the nation fighting abroad, and who allowed an untrammelled laissez-faire capitalism to terrorise them with poverty once they had returned. Dorril goes into expansive and exacting detail about the clashing political and economic trends amongst the elite of the time. This in itself provides an unfaultable Parliamentary political history of the period, a vivid picture of the flux at work, which formed the background of the contradictions which made up Mosley’s outlook. He at first identified wholesale with the “social imperialists” in the Tory Party as against its free trade faction. He supported those who, in wishing to save the existing social order, believed in economic protectionism to protect a relatively decent living standard for the British working-class, bolstered by the exploitation of Empire. Such a world-view was entrenched in a romantic conception of England, with the foreign (and, sometimes, Jewish) “other” as its symbolic foe. This paternalistic ethos was the basic core of Mosley’s philosophy from thereon, but his contempt for the Empire Tories’ lack of innovation made him seek his cause, his following and followers, elsewhere.

Mosley was as much a figure in “high society” as in politics, very Tatler fodder. Those he ran with were rich, young, louche, promiscuous, glamorous and shallow, of the type Evelyn Waugh at once admired and despised. As Mosley married his first wife Cimmie, this “dashing”, charismatic figure dazzled many. While gentle, warm Cimmie was liked by most who met her, quite as many people were as put-off by Mosley’s boundless self-importance as were taken in by his charm. While praise came from many, his Tory rival Stanley Baldwin spoke for many more by remarking “He is a cad and a wrong’un and they will find it out,” before he left the party. Cimmie’s delicate nature was in turn tested to immense distraction by her husband’s countless, remorseless affairs – including with her sisters.

Mosley would never be content as anything less than the biggest fish in the pond. The Tories disappointed him so he joined Labour, seeing that as the party more capable of delivering the change -still amorphously defined- that he craved. For a while his “radicalism”, advocating wholesale economic reorganisation to achieve full employment led a few on the Left, even the great Bevan for a short time, to see him as a potential leader. Indeed, it is distinctly unnerving to see both the respect Mosley was shown by sections of both the Labour Party Left and the Independent Labour Party, and the seeming ease with which his rhetoric of renewal could blend with theirs.

As Mosley made his way into the Cabinet of Ramsay McDonald’s doomed Labour government and expounded his economic programmes to tackle unemployment (Keynesianism with an authoritarian kick), their rejection by McDonald was due to the latter’s timidity rather than any genuine opposition to creeping dictatorship. Mosley was enraged as his proposals were ignored, and immediately split with the Labour leadership. As this schism occurred, it is a testimony to both the man’s demagogic charisma and his ideological vacuity that many in both main parties now saw him as a possible leader. The ambiguity was such that for a very brief time Churchill and Bevan alike were keen for him to lead their respective parties. But impatient Tom had his own ideas. He had taken his ball home. He would have his own party. The New Party.

The New Party was formed in early 1931, it soon became clear just what its founder’s forever trumpeted radicalism amounted to. Fierce rhetoric about change and national renewal (and the clamour of a throng of restless, violent young men to drive this home) masked a dangerous and ringing hollow at the party’s ideological core. Its launch was a huge media event at the time, and figures of the stature of Bernard Shaw and H G Wells were initially sympathetic (both being Fabian socialists but with a disturbing penchant for Mosley’s coldly elitist, authoritarian and technocratic attitudes). The initial boost was short-lived however, and the New Party’s lack of clarity, together with a poor showing at their first by-election in Ashton-under- Lyne, saw it heading nowhere in electoral terms. By 1932, the New Party had already changed its name to the British Union of Fascists.

The BUF was never less than an unabashed personality cult from the beginning, the logical conclusion of the overweening toxic brew of narcissism and megalomania that animated its founder. Massively over- represented by ex military men like Mosley himself, he found it easy to run the movement as army rather than a party, dominating every aspect of members’ lives. They even had their own uniform, they were the Blackshirts, aping Mussolini’s crew before them. Ex-member Colin Cross recalled the faithful “Even saluted him when he went into the sea to bathe at the Movement’s summer camps at Selsey”, and “they whispered his name in religious awe………he was presented to the public as a superman. Criticism was taboo and humour nearly so.” At last the man had found the captive audience he had always craved. Now all he had to do was enlarge the audience to encompass the whole nation.

The BUF was always clear in its violence, but it was far from ideologically coherent, even less so than the man himself. He took a fair-sized gang of old Labour comrades with him, but to the great majority of Labour and trade-union men and women, the Fascist movement was not just a mistake, but a sickening anathema. This was a party based on a movement that massacred their brothers and sisters in Italy, directly supported by the capitalist class in that country. They knew the enemy where they saw it. The organised working-class were forever, fervently opposed. Many more members came from elsewhere, including pre -existing smaller UK Fascist movements. Amongst them were the British Fascists, an old group of simplistic upper-middle-class reactionary blimps who had previously been active in trying to break the 1926 General Strike. Joining them were more recent and more vicious groups of Nazi cheerleaders, whose chief motivation was a pathological hatred of “Jewry”. Of equal importance and greater number were natural Tories driven to a new radical dynamism against the perceived socialist threat. This contingent was personified by Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere, a friend of Mosley’s who threw his paper behind the new movement wholesale. Meanwhile, the movement was secretly, and illegaly, receiving a large chunk of its funding direct from Fascist Italy, and, increasingly, (as the anti-Semitism increased) from Nazi Germany too.

The degree of the extent of Mosley’s anti-Semitism is central to the conundrum of his character. It is interesting to contrast his personality with that of Hitler, the man he so desired to emulate, failing so spectacularly. There is no doubt that Mosley was not possessed of the overwhelming personal hatred of Jews that so engulfed Hitler. He had several Jewish friends prior to the BUF. His rival, the hysterically overwrought anti-Semite Arnold Leese, leader of the tiny, ultra-fanatic Imperial Fascist League taunted Mosley as a “kosher Fascist” for this very reason. Amusingly, one of Mosley’s early New Party stalwarts was a Jewish East End boxer named Ted “Kid” Lewis, who exited the movement with a punch to Mosley’s nose when the latter confirmed that yes, he did intend his movement to be anti-Semitic. Furthermore, Oswald explicitly did not sign up to the facetious and insane pseudo-science the Nazis used to justify their race hatred, casually denouncing it as gibberish. He mocked the notorious forgeries the Protocols of the Elders of Zion too.

The very fact he could then lead a movement openly engaged in repeated violence against this scape- goated racial group shows the black-hearted, gangster opportunism at the core of his being. The hatred of the Jewish enemy was a galvanising myth to a movement which otherwise had little to tie it together, and he knew it. With characteristic dishonesty, Mosley dismally pleaded self defence in his campaign against the Jews, claiming “they started it.” Mosley came to advocate the expelling of all Jews from Britain who had shown “disloyalty.” Where they were to go was unclear, Madagascar, or possibly Uganda (“very empty and a lovely climate” helpfully offered Mosley’s second wife Diana, formerly Guinness, formerly Mitford.) It is an interesting rumination of what constitutes a truer evil, the deep-felt fanaticism of a Hitler or the gutter-shallow opportunism of a Mosley. It is however, much easier to see which was more successful.

Adolf met Oswald on several occasions but was never fully convinced of him, doubting his commitment, sensing his lack of whole-hearted zealotry. Goebbels was even less impresed, dismissing him as “an outsider of small political significance.” Hitler was however genuinely taken with Mosley’s wife Diana. He was even more taken by her sister Unity, and the feeling was mutual. Mosley married Diana at a secret ceremony in Goebbels’ house, having already carried out a long affair with her. The contrast of kind-hearted if naive Cimmie with the coldly ruthless Diana was seen by some as emblematic of Mosley’s journey to the dark side. While her portrayal as a Lady Macbeth figure even more malignant than her husband may have a toe in misogynist myth, he had certainly met his match with her in amoral callousness. The Mitfords were the epitome of high society elan, and Hitler himself, for all his railing against “British decadence” was far from immune to the charms of this glamorous set. Diana and Unity, regular and welcome visitors to Hitler, acted as a conduit between Mosley and his new benefactor, while the intelligence services were more concerned with the Mitford pair than Mosley himself as a threat to the state.

The BUF was to change its name to the BU at the end of 1934. Short for the British Union, though its full new title was the rather less innocuous British Union of Fascists and National Socialists, reflecting the increasing influence of the Fuhrer. The thuggishness was thrown into sharp relief at an infamous public gathering at Olympia in June 1934. The mass meeting was held in a theatrical, explicitly Nuremburg style, the movement’s new Lightning-in-a-Circle symbol (wittily dubbed “the flash in the pan” by opponents) dominating the hall just as the swastika did to the Nazi faithful in Germany. The Blackshirts deliberately attracted as many opponents as possible to this meeting, and then, with a variety of home-made weapons, pulped into bloody submission anyone who heckled The Leader. Many serious injuries resulted. Mosley was attempting to prove his control of “the street” once and for all, yet this one meeting probably did more than any other act to convince potential followers of his ruthless, sadistic nature. His unpredictable nature too – probably a greater anathema to the British business class.

The BU suffered a severe propaganda blow with the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when a massive crowd of local working-class youths, Jews, Communist and Labour activists violently prevented Mosley (resplendent in a new uniform explicitly modelled on that of the Nazi SS), from provocatively marching down the street in the heart of the Jewish East End. As the Blackshirts were protected by police, (many sympathetic to Mosley, or at least distinctly hostile to his leftist opponents), the fight was between demonstrators and police rather than the barricaded Blackshirts themselves. But the victory was real, They Did Not Pass. As Dorril shows, in some areas of London, notably Hoxton and Stepney support from sections of the East End working-class was actually to rise afterward – but the psychological defeat struck deeply amongst its followers, and seemed emblematic of the movement’s wider failure. The early membership height of 50,000 had fallen to under 10,000 by this point. The movement was losing money continually, despite being bankrolled by both the foreign Fascist powers and Mosley’s own landed estates. Uniforms, banners, headquarters and truncheons do not pay for themselves. Intellectually he was without capital too. The writers of the day were overwhelmingly Left. The strangely acidic Wyndham Lewis was one of the few artists who were taken in for a time by the movement, but even this support did not last the distance. Dorril recounts Lewis and Mosley met on several occasions in the late 30s, but the former was increasingly alarmed by the latter’s talk of the sad practical necessities of machine gunning the movement’s foes in the street “when push came to shove”. When Lewis came to write the ironically titled “The Jews – Are They Human?” in 1937 he was sardonically repudiating his past Fascism. The only noted author to back Mosley by then was Henry “Tarka The Otter” Williamson. With even his few intellectual allies now taking the piss, who would take Oswald seriously now?

When Britain went to war with Mosley’s ideological masters in Germany and Italy, it was the cataclysmic close of any last lingering chance of a revival in his movement. Unity Mitford shot herself in the head, yet failed to succeed in suicide, dribbling on for years afterward. While Mosley and his wife claimed they were still loyal to Britain (whilst agitating for “negotiated peace”) the authorities had different views, and imprisoned the pair in Holloway Prison. Sympathy was not widespread. Nancy Mitford was one of those who denounced sister Diana and her infamous husband to the security services. Several BU members either fled to Germany or had moved shortly before war was declared, to fight for the Nazi cause. Some were propagandists like “Haw Haw” Joyce, others like John Amery joined Waffen SS divisions. In keeping with the stomach-wrenching nature of their treachery, none saw active combat against soldiers, yet several were active in murderous atrocities against unarmed Jewish civilians. By association, Mosley was seen, by the vast majority of British people, as the most venal kind of traitor.

Churchill, one of many who once saw Mosley as a potential leader of his party and country, decided to release the man and wife in late 1943 in what he saw as a humane gesture in relation to the Blackshirt’s ill- health. The decision sparked mass popular protest and outrage. The working-classes in particular were prominent in street demonstrations demanding that the key should be thrown away, or the noose brought in. The would-be Leader of Britain was really – truly – loathed the length and breadth of the land. Oswald and Diana seemed to bear this hatred with an attitude beyond the straightforward arrogance which was their defining nature, and into a whole other worldly nether-realm of bitter fantasy. It was the Jews who hated them, the establishment, the government – certainly not the good old British people. These demonstrations were the results of the Jewish cabal that had Britain in its grip…..surely?

His solipsism increased by incarceration, Mosley took to writing at greater length, honing his philosophy in ever more verbose terminology. He claimed to have now moved “beyond Fascism”, and propounded that that he had found a unique “synthesis”, beyond the both capitalist and socialist ethic, fusing Christianity and the ideals of Nietzsche, combining dictatorship and democracy. But the schism between his feigning of esoteric high mindedness and the squalor of his day-to-day political activities became starker than ever when he began his new party in 1947- the Union Movement. The same gang of dysfunctional Jew baiters were to continue their street fighting, to a mixture of disgust and indifference from the general populace (gaining for instance less than 2000 votes in the whole of London during local elections in 1949). The full extent of the Nazi horrors, the millions of innocent souls butchered in the camps, was now evident, discrediting Mosley’s mob as never before. Accordingly, the calibre of the UM member was even lower than that of the BU before them, a selection of gangsters, psychopaths and street thugs, with the odd loopy Lord thrown in.

This sorry pack were eventually to find a new scapegoat, and a short-lived new lease of life with the “coloured immigration” of the 50s. As tensions grew in sections of the white population towards the novel new migrants from the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent, the UM had some success in actively encouraging race riots, in particular the Notting Hill riot of 1958. Their success in leading to smashed windows and broken bones did not translate into votes however, and the fetid nature of their street activity stood in starker contrast than ever from Mosley’s increasingly abstruse theorising. His new vision was of a United Europe, national boundaries broken down among the great White brotherhood, who would in turn go to plunder what they needed from Africa, using their superior colonial know-how. Ironic that a movement now recruiting on an anti-immigrant platform should have as its ultimate goal the large scale immigration of a white master class to the African continent. This was grotesque racism sure enough, but it was neither populist nor popular. Even amongst rising anti-immigration feeling, the UM could not truly take off.

Ultimately it was to be Mosley’s intellectualism that was the final death knell of his movement. The issue of race did indeed strike at the core of British political life by the late 60s, and immigration became a key electoral theme. But the UM’s abstract ideas of White European Unity did not accord with the xenophobic mood ignited by the “Rivers of Blood” speech of the Conservative Enoch Powell. The sentiment he unearthed and tried to harness was as strongly anti-European as it was anti-black. Those who didn’t like the “niggers” and “pakis” didn’t tend to be too keen on “frogs” and “krauts” either.

The Mosleys were livid that Enoch had succeeded on territory where they had failed. In an amusing glimpse of the couple’s snobbery and delusion, Oswald dubbed Powell a “middle-class Alf Garnett”, while Diana denounced him as “far-right” as opposed to their “hard centre”! A truly Fascist party was to gain from the racist rhetoric of Powell. This was not the Union Movement however. It was the National Front.

The NF was inspired by the same Nazi and Fascist ideas that Mosley first fermented in the country. Its first chairman was A.K. Chesterton, formerly a leading figure within the BU and a close confidante of Oswald. But its simplistic, xenophobic approach was far more adept than the UM at tapping into the visceral, base hatred that keeps such a movement going. It was blacks and Asians who were getting the beatings and firebombed houses now, with the added advantage they were much easier to spot than Jews. The boot- boys of the NF were every inch the descendants of the Blackshirts before them, but they had moved on and left their spiritual grandpa and grandma Oswald and Diana behind. Bitterly jealous of the NF’s success, Mosley remarked to his private circle, in a statement beyond the parody of the most gifted satirist, that the Front was “funded by Jews.”

The pair moved to France, and lingered on as bitter remnants, their reputation rotting in a pleasing reflection of their withered souls, cursing the cosmopolitan conspiracies that had kept them from greatness, never seeing the fault in themselves. No matter that most saw a malevolent opportunist, in his mind’s eye he would always be the great, lost, put-upon prophet. Mosley would periodically attempt to reappear with attempts at self-justification. Following one such appearance on The Frost Report in 1967 interviewer David Frost remarked.

“He saw everything through the distorting mirror of his own fantasises, and was irretrievably consumed by them. He would never see himself as others saw him.”

Oswald died in 1980, and the vaguely sympathetic obituaries he received in certain quarters such as The Times revealed for the last time that the solidarity of the ruling classes will out in the end.

Dorril has produced the definitive Mosley biography, superseding the absurdly sympathetic soft-soaping work of Robert Skidelsky, which centred on Mosley’s Parliamentary career and treated the BUF as an epilogue (a bit like a biography of Fred West which focussed more on his earlier career as an ice cream salesman.) This is a fascinating story, both for anyone interested in British political history of the last century, and anyone intrigued by the tragic tale of a truly diabolical man. Dorril has done an unfaultable job on the research, and brings the narrative to life well with his grotesque menagerie of characters. There are flaws to the book. The author has a background as an analyst of the machinations of the intelligence services of Britain and abroad, and while this eye for detail has undoubtedly made this work the powerhouse of research it is, the endless recanting of certain details, the exact nature of how the BUF obtained its funding for example, can sometimes drag the story’s flow. More directly, he concentrates a little too much on the nature of MI5’s observation of the movement, when this is very much a side-show to the main narrative. This dry style can sometimes cloy over such a long length. Further, while Dorril is great on the detail, actual analysis is very thin on the ground. The one time Dorril does attempt an analytical overview, it is with some rather tenuous observations about Messianic leaders toward the end, claiming that one Tony Blair shares the traits of this style. Maybe so, but the point is made clumsily and without satisfactory justification.

Ultimately however, Dorril’s stance in going for the research style, dispassionately observant, pays off into a great narrative by nature of the sheer dramatic scope of the story he so meticulously examines. Scene after scene and figure after grotesque figure linger on the psychic retina. The drawing room parties of the man playing host to every major political figure of the early part of the century, one by one falling away as he fell into disrepute. Mosley’s seaside frolics with his patrician pals, offset against the pogrom style excesses of his nastiest East End thugs, breaking into Jewish houses and attacking children within. Mosley’s relentless psychological torture of his first wife, the most poignant of his bullying victims. Diana fending off the accusations of sister Nancy that she had had supported a movement that murdered six million Jews with the remark “But darling, it was the kindest way.” The London BUF headquarters that doubled up as a knocking-shop, underlying with grim humour the movement’s crossover with organised crime. The UM hijacking the teddy-boy youth cult just as the NF did with skinheads two decades later. The sheer gall and lack of self-awareness in Mosley’s late-life attempts to rehabilitate himself, attempting a “truce” with Jewish leaders without any pretence of apology.

This is a grim tale that needs only clear explanation and examination to be one of fascination. This is a task Dorril has performed with enormous success with this eye-opening and exhaustive work.

Peter Morfoot: Burksey: The Autobiography of a Football God

Chris Hall


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Burksey: The Autobiography of a Football God
Peter Morfoot
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This has got cult classic written all over it. Burksey is the spoof autobiography of Tristan Stephen Burkes, a world-class footballing genius and monstrous idiot. Although a fair amount of football knowledge over the past few decades is assumed, Burksey isn’t about football per se, it’s also a broader satire on celebrity and contemporary society, from new age therapies and rehab to BritArt and fandom.

Burksey is a savage indictment of the greed of modern-day football (Burksey signs a new 110k a week contract for his new club, Sporting Meriden, on World Poverty Day) and is also very, very funny. One of the brilliant conceits is that the book has been ghostwritten by about seven people, each one presumably unable to continue working for such an ego-maniac; another is the hilarious and outrageous plugs for one of his sponsors, the Stelsat Corporation of America.

A lot of the fun of Burksey is the all-too-plausibly preposterous situations he finds himself in, such as partially sacrificing a goat and putting Ossie Ardiles into a hypnotic trance. Zelig-like, Burksey is involved in most of the major sporting and social events of the past couple of decades, of course drawing all the wrong conclusions (he’s a big fan of “Mrs T” naturally). But somehow, much as with other certain footballers who you know to be venal, money-grabbing bastards, you can’t help rooting for Burksey.

Another joy of the book is trying to spot the bits that Morfoot has made up, interweaved as it is so seamlessly with scarcely credible factual stories. I’m not entirely sure, for example, that the biscuit rota at Chelsea supposedly brought in by Glenn Hoddle is untrue. And the spoof Chris Morris programme, Brass Knuckles, in which Burksey fulminates on behalf of the children attacked by underwater bees is worthy of the great man himself.

Morfoot is obviously, despite everything, a huge footie fan and one senses a deep disgust at the way in which the game has developed. The only downside is that I won’t be able to look at Delia Smith’s ginger sponge ever again.

David Nobakht: Suicide: No Compromise

Chris Mitchell


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Suicide: No Compromise
David Nobakht
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Just finished the top notch hardback edition of David Nobakht’s biography of synth-rock pioneers Suicide. I would have loved to have written this book. Very much a band biography rather than a personal history of Suicide’s two members, Alan Vega and Martin Rev, Nobakht assembles a wealth of material that traces Suicide’s genesis. From the first tinkerings with primitive electronics in the early 1970s, endless confrontational, blood-smeared gigs, through to the release of their seminal self-titled debut album – "up there with the first Stooges or Velvet Underground album" – the extreme reaction they provoked touring with The Clash at the height of punk in the UK (one night someone threw an axe at the stage. A fucking axe!), the involvement of Ric Osacek from The Cars who spent a good chunk of his own popstar earnings on them, through to their gradual acceptance during the 1990s and their triumphant string of gigs that they’ve been playing since 1997 to an increasingly enamoured audience – Nobakht covers it all, and it’s one of the strangest and most fascinating pop history stories I’ve read.

Over 30 years, Suicide have not simply survived, they’ve thrived, and now they are getting as much acclaim as they used to get abuse. It’s just as well, given that both Rev and Vega must be getting on towards 60 now – and having seen them live twice at London’s Garage, it’s evident that age won’t stop them from generating some of the most beautiful and vicious noise you can ever hope to hear. For all their supposed influence on industrial music, Suicide have an intense warmth and humanity to their music – even when they’re sonically scaring the crap out of you – which is wholly absent from the more po-faced knobtwiddlers that came after them. Suicide are still as vital as ever within an increasingly moribund music scene, still outside it even as they become accepted and assimilated into it.

What’s interesting from Nobakht’s book is how aware of their own position in pop history Vega and Rev are – much of the book is written in their own words, and they are reluctant rock stars. Clearly they’re quite thrilled at finally getting some recognition and earning some money to support themselves – because despite being hugely influential, no one actually bought their records – but equally, after 30 years of scraping together enough money to get on to the next album, their new success only comes from doggedly sticking to what they wanted to do. At one point, Vega talks quite poignantly about his 1980s solo career, where he became huge in France of all places, had a major label deal with Elektra – and then suddenly got dropped. He admits it felt really painful to be kicked off the label after struggling so long to get paid anything for making music – but also reckons it was for the best. It’s not often you hear a musician openly admit he misses the money that a major label brings.

Nobakht does a sterling job of chronicling Suicide’s rise over 30 years with a cast of thousands describing what a huge impact listening to or seeing the band had on them – Marc Almond, Henry Rollins, Moby, Michael Stipe, Bono (eh?) – among many others. You’re left in no doubt about the huge impact they had. There’s the received wisdom that the first Velvets album sold very badly, but that everyone who bought a copy started a band – and Jim Reid from The Jesus And Mary Chain says as much about the first Suicide album. People like Marc Almond say it was the second, more heavily produced and disco-tinged Suicide album that actually laid the blueprint for many of the one keyboardist, one singer synth bands that were to follow – either way, neither album had much success at the time of their release. Either way, while Suicide’s records are great, they simply don’t capture the sheer euphoria of what they do live.

Beyond Suicide themselves, No Compromise provides an evocative description of decaying Seventies New York and the emerging punk scene around Max’s and CBGB’s, mixed up with the artist lofts where Vega and Rev first hung out and played their first tentative gigs alongside the likes of the New York Dolls. If Vega and Rev seem like New York cliches at times – summoning up death, darkness, lust and disgust, all the usual motifs of that city’s music – it’s because they were the ones helping create that now-overused vocabulary to begin with. And, as several people point out in the course of the book, others may throw the same shapes or try to adopt the same postures, but very few get near the intelligence that radiates from Suicide’s own sardonic, sonic howl.

Nobakht himself stays pretty much out of the text – he doesn’t really talk about Suicide’s own impact on his own life or the process of writing the book – it would have been interesting to see a more personal slant at times and some "behind the scenes" comments on talking to so many pop stars about Suicide’s influence on themselves. Likewise, the personal lives of Alan Vega and Martin Rev remain firmly out of the spotlight, which is both good and bad – reading the book, you do develop a certain affection for them both and it naturally leads you to want to know more of their traditional biographical details. On the other hand, maybe it’s just better to preserve the mystique. On a pedantic note, I bristled at the one word mention of The Sisterhood, a side project from The Sisters Of Mercy on which Vega guested, as I would have loved to have heard more about how that was recorded. The Sisters were huge fans of Suicide, regularly covering "Ghost Rider" as a set closer when they played live.

Nobakht’s book is definitely an essential for Suicide fans – it’s perhaps a little too reverential, but then, Suicide deserve a bit of reverence after all the shit they’ve been through. (Although there is a hilarious moment when one person describes seeing Suicide as "One guy playing a crappy Farfisa badly and another guy hitting himself with a microphone and falling down a lot"). Vega and Rev prove to be fascinating interviewees, unafraid to try and grasp for the big ideas when talking about their sound but not taking themselves too seriously either. Their self-awareness of their place in musical history, and their depictions of what came before them and after them, makes for a unique perspective on how music has changed from doo-wop to rock’n’roll to punk.

More importantly, though, No Compromise is not an eulogy for a band that was great once but is now just playing the circuit cashing in on their reputation – what’s life affirming about Suicide is that they are a band who are still going strong, still experimenting, still playing. (See a Suicide gig and the only time you might actually recognise a song is during the encore). While the audience has changed and become a lot less hostile, Suicide themselves continue doing just what they want. True, they still don’t sell many albums, but royalties for covers of their songs appearing on soundtracks for The Crow and The Sopranos have apparently earned them more cash than their entire 30 year career of record sales. That such unexpected luck should befall Suicide is a skewed vindication of both their influence and their sound – 30 years old, rooted in the past, playing in the present, still sounding like the future.

Joshua Davis: The Underdog: How I Survived The World’s Most Outlandish Competitions

Chris Mitchell


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Joshua Davis
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Joshua Davis set out to win. At anything. Living in a crappy apartment with a crappy job and a loving but long suffering wife, Davis set out to prove himself. So runs the premise of his book, which is one of those hard-to-classify mixes of travelogue, biography, meditation and jokes about dwarves.

The Underdog starts off weakly and doesn’t really hit its stride til the third chapter. The lead-in time is worth it though, because the outlandish competitions Davis takes part in not only take him all over the world but also bring him into contact with some truly remarkable people. As Davis’ confidence grows in between becoming a pro arm wrestler, a matador, a sumo wrestler, a backwards runner and a sauna endurance competitor, so his prose manages to capture the euphoria, absurdity and the despair of the training process of each challenge. Davis continually grapples with the vertigo of impossibility that opens up in front of him and lays it wide open for the reader to understand his own feelings as he goes through each training regimen. Where Davis really succeeds here is in his lightness of touch – he’s serious about what he’s doing, but he’s not earnest. Similarly, he avoids the tedious “isn’t this oh-so-wacky” route too – although, admittedly, he does have a page about midget matadors.

It’s the people he meets that are the real stars of this book – Maru the Hawaiian Sumo Grand Master, at the end of his career at 32 and treated like a near-diety in Japan, which makes for a somewhat lonely existence; Mr Veerabadran in Chennai, India, the world backward running champion who focuses on the face of his wife to cut through the excruciating pain; and, of course, the midget matadors. There’s a host of other characters that Davis manages to describe concisely and eloquently, cutting to the heart of what they are about within a few pages and connecting their seemingly odd pursuits to the importance it holds within their lives. Veerabadran is my favourite person here, utterly resistant to his life being defined by others, nuts about his wife, contemptuous of money and the person who articulates what lies at the core of this book: “Everyone make meaning. That is what you must do. You make your own meaning”.

Davis never uses that byline of parents everywhere – “It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part” – but this book provides a hugely entertaining and quite moving affirmation of exactly that. By doing something that’s important to you (provided it’s not illegal), you still win indirectly even if you fail, just through the people you meet and what you experience along the way. Certainly, for Davis, his competition quest opened the door to writing for Wired magazine, where he remains a contributing editor, including recently spending time in Iraq. It beats sitting in front of the telly anyway. [See joshuadavis.net for more details]

Davis lost every single competition he took part in but it would be dimwitted to say that somehow invalidates the value of what happened along the way. Davis is refreshingly unanalytic in that sense – he doesn’t try to extrapolate self help theories for his readers to follow – instead, we get to see him helping himself, moving from competition to competition realising he can do anything with some help and good will from others. The reason why we think these things are funny is because they make no sense on the surface. How can a tiny guy like Josh Davis becomes a sumo wrestler? The answer seems to be: simply by deciding to do so. Like PJ O’Rourke says, “You learn to work around huge areas of inability”.

What I enjoyed most about this book is that Davis covers a lot of ground here very concisely. His prose is amusingly self-deprecating but full of confidence; he runs the usual humour of American abroad culture shock while showing huge respect for those he meets; he shows a curiosity about the world from the vantage point of someone who knows nothing and is not afraid to admit it. He captures the wonder of learning something new – and the frustration and self-doubt that inevitably goes with it – and the way that such learning is never wasted. Even if you don’t win.

John Battelle – The Search: How Google And Its Rivals Rewrote The Rules Of Business And Transformed Our Culture

Chris Mitchell

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John Battelle

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John Battelle’s The Search is more than just a potted history of Google, although that company looms large throughout his book; rather, it’s a book which takes stock of Google’s giddy rise, the search engine wars between Google, Yahoo! and MSN, and the arrival of online contextual advertising which has irrevocably changed the nature of advertising itself. Battelle recognises that the real story about the search engines is actually outside the admittedly fascinating geek arms race between the big players: what’s important is what the very act of searching for information on the Internet means for business and consumer alike. The simple act of keying in a phrase to a search engine is carried out billions of times a day and in totality provides an unprecedented map of human desires. The commercial ramifications are obvious, but our culture and our access to information are also being transformed by the nature of search. Put it this way – once the Net becomes a daily part of your life, it’s hard to imagine doing without it.

It’s difficult not to sink into hyperbole when discussing search engines, given the frankly insane stats generated by Google’s meteoric rise (from zero to $1.3 billion annual revenue in five years, biggest IPO in Silicon Valley, shares at $300 a pop, trimester profits of $300+ million, and so on). But Battelle points out in his introduction that he didn’t want to write a straightforward business biography of Google for the good reason that business biographies don’t get read. There is a lot of coverage in here about the rise and fall of different search engines, to be sure, and Battelle has conducted hundreds of interviews with every key player in the industry to piece together an excellent overview of the industry’s audacious growth. But Battelle is primarily interested in the implications of what the massive leaps in search engine indexing and intelligence mean for the future. The Search, then, isn’t simply a business book or a geek book, although it will be marketed as such: it’s actually tackling one of the most profound but almost invisible cultural influences on our daily lives: how search engines organise and present information in response to our queries. As more and more of our lives moves to being managed through the Net, the companies who can correctly analyse what we are looking for and give it to us in the most hassle free way are the ones who will prosper. And, as a by-product of that, the more users they have, the more they can analyse what’s been asked for before to anticipate what will be asked for in the future. Battelle calls it the Database of Intentions, and mastering the analysis of all those billions of queries is where the money lies.

The most obvious example of the commercial gold in search queries is contextual advertising, those text ads that turn up next to your search results that are related to your query. Still in its infancy, contextual advertising has revolutionised online advertising and had a huge knock-on effect on old media. The targetted nature of contextual ads – they only get served to someone who’s interested in that subject; the ad buyer only pays when someone clicks the link – has meant thousands of businesses that couldn’t afford to advertise can now do so and, crucially, get results of real money-in-the-bank business driven by those ads. Shoestring businesses have enjoyed massive sales boosts as a result of this approach, without having to spend vast sums on marketing. The joy here is that everyone wins – the customer finds what they want, the business gets business, and the search engine makes money for connecting the two together. Advertising becomes – shock, horror – useful and even valued, rather than an irritant. That’s the ideal scenario, anyway, and Battelle provides case studies showing both the up and potentially disastrous downside of relying on search engines to drive business your way.

Contextual ads have not only helped advertisers but also website owners too. The Net’s free culture has always meant that paying for content has been a thorny issue – surfers loathe registering for access to newspaper archives online, much less paying for it. Google’s Adsense program provided a way for sites to have relevant ads to their content appear on the page and in doing so, allowed site owners to earn some handy pocket change too. (Of course, I’m biased here: in the two years I’ve been running Google Adsense on Spike, its monthly revenue has steadily increased as Google tweak the system to display more relevant ads).

As Battelle has pointed out on his Searchblog, now is a great time to be a publisher on the Net, because there are more and more easy ways of earning cash from content. Blog networks like Weblogs, Inc which earn over $2000 a day from Adsense, or probloggers like Darren Rowse who recently earned $15000 in one month from Adsense, show that there’s real money to be made from providing top quality, regular content. Indeed, Battelle has recently launched Federated Media Publishing, which will be teaming up with selected sites to manage matching ads to their content. Battelle, a former editor of Wired and founder of the Industry Standard, is already “band manager” for leading blog BoingBoing, and has considerably increased that site’s revenues since coming aboard.

As founder of the Industry Standard magazine and a co-founder of Wired, Battelle has been round the block in both old and new media, and much of The Search’s vitality stems from his own hands-on involvement in the industry. There’s little of the usual business pomposity about Battelle’s prose. Instead, Battelle writes in a lucid and informal style, clearly in command of his material but confident enough to not deluge the reader with extraneous info to demonstrate his research. The Search is, in short, refreshingly bullshit free.

The same can’t be said for the future of search engines. With the realisation that the potential of search has only just begun, there are real dangers ahead too. Ownership of personal information is the major concern, with some beginning to see the likes of Google not as a benign info provider but a Big Brother like monitor of all online movements. Criticism of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” moral code has also begun, with the company’s current leadership of the search field making it walk point for the whole industry. Gaming contextual advertising is also an increasing problem, with clickfraud and spam blogs on the rise, clogging search results with poor quality websites. Each of the engines is working flat out to find ways to counter these emergent problems, and no doubt as they deliver solutions a whole new set of crises will arise; given the industry’s flux and mutability, it’s hard to imagine a point at which there will be no clouds on the horizon.

For now, though, search remains a huge success story – Google may well be about to have its own stock bubble popped, but the company is profitable and unlikely to be knocked off its leadership perch by Wall Street alone. Yahoo and MSN are moving into the contextual ad field, each looking to get the competitive edge to make advertisers and publishers alike use their particular system. Most importantly, all three are continually trying to find better ways to slice and dice the Database of Intentions to give you what you want quicker, simpler and faster. Google, to my mind, still remains out in front for innovation, constantly testing business boundaries and received wisdom, putting the user experience first and working backwards. In the last five years, it has continually gone its own way and managed to take the industry with it. But Yahoo and MSN and, indeed, people and companies we’ve never even heard of yet, are not to be underestimated. John Battelle’s The Search provides a brilliant illustration that within five years everything in the search world can change absolutely. It has done so already once – it probably will do again.

Mark Andresen – Field Of Vision: The Broadcast Life Of Kenneth Allsop

Chris Mitchell

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Mark Andresen

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Biography is often the most satisfying of all literary genres; other people’s lives frequently prove more fascinating than most fiction and the palpable, if inevitable, sense of beginning, middle and end provides a natural plotline and structure. Where most fiction is reality badly rendered, biography has the opposite problem of having to deal with too much reality. The biographer must sift and select the salient points of his subject’s life, discarding the dead days and trying to find coherency and meaning in the others. A good biography does not merely recount its subject’s life as a narrative but attempts to provide insight and analysis of its subject to the extent of provoking empathy in the reader. Mark Andresen’s biography of Kenneth Allsop succeeds on all these fronts.

Usually reviewers of biographies are meant to have an understanding or expertise about the subject to verify the accuracy or otherwise of what’s written. I had never heard of Kenneth Allsop until encountering Andresen’s book, which made engaging this particular reader all the harder. But Andresen’s economic prose, evident enthusiasm for his subject and lack of sentimentality combine to produce a compelling portrait of a remarkable if troubled man.

A Fleet Street journalist and one of the first anchormen for BBC current affairs programmes, Allsop died by his own hand in 1973. Having lost a leg to tuberculosis during the Second World War and battling daily tubercular-related pain for the rest of his life, Allsop produced a vast quantity of journalism and numerous diverse books, as well a Broadway play. His early love of ornithology grew into passionate campaigning for conservation at a time when Friend Of The Earth barely existed. This lifelong love of nature also provided a lengthy and troubled friendship with Henry Williamson, author of Tarka The Otter, Allsop’s childhood hero and a befuddled Fascist sympathiser both during and after the war. Allsop’s disability drove him to continually seek extra-marital affairs in a form of self-validation which continued for all of his life. Indeed, Allsop’s writing pseudonym “Percy Redcar” was named after his two most precious possessions — his automobile and his penis.

Andresen captures the complexities of Allsop’s character, from the gung-ho sports-car–and-sexual-conquests to his outbreaks of self-pity, his overwrought poetry to his longsuffering wife Betty, his perfectionism and his lifelong love of nature. A remarkably self-centred man, Allsop was obsessed with work and would frequently forsake family, friends and flings in order to churn out more words.

With Allsop coming of age just before WWII and then scrabbling for work in Fleet Street in the lean post-war years before finding a new career in the nascent BBC’s current affairs programmes, Andresen’s biography provides an absorbing insider view of how both those veritable media institutions functioned and changed through the Forties and Fifties. This is, then, also a biography of the media, of the turbulent changes wrought upon Fleet Street by the post-war shift in sensibilities and, most dramatically, by television.

From a literary perspective, Allsop’s relationship with Henry Williamson is the axis around which his life turned — having found his work as a teenager, Allsop remained obsessed with Williamson’s portrayal of nature throughout his life, cultivating a friendship that continued until Allsop’s suicide. Andresen rightly spends several pages describing Williamson’s own life, which fits with the mould of bohemian, somewhat otherworldly writer. Williamson’s flirtation with fascism, including a visit to pre-war Nazi Germany is compelling for its record of contemporary attitudes.

The other key figure in Allsop’s life, his wife Betty, sadly remains a shadow through much of the book, her stoicism continually noted but never explained. More detail on her own pursuits and interests — she was an active political campaigner — as well her coping with Allsop’s numerous affairs would have been welcome. I found it difficult to understand why she stayed with him. Similarly, more detail on Allsop’s love affairs, especially long term ones that were proper illicit relationships rather than brief couplings, would have been good. Maybe it’s just my prurient interest, but the sex drive goes a long way to defining not only a person’s outlook but actions too. But these are minor quibbles and perhaps biographically impossible to satisfy through lack of source material.

Having never heard of Kenneth Allsop before this biography, I am now sufficiently interested in his work to want to track down two of his novels (unfortunately most of them are currently out of print). If it kindles or reignites an enthusiasm and interest in its subject then a biography has done its work. Field Of Vision, then, is a fitting tribute to Kenneth Allsop.

Pamela Stephenson – Billy

Kevin Walsh

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Pamela Stephenson

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Pamela Stephenson faced a real challenge in the writing of this book: the viewpoint. She came to public attention as the peroxide-blonde Australian comedienne in ‘Not The 9 O’ Clock News,’ famous for its off-the-wall sketches. So should it be a funny woman’s take on the funny man’s rise to fame?

But she’s also his wife, which gives her a unique insight into his life . Maybe a family portrait, with intimate revelations about the Connolly household?

Her third hat is as a clinical psychologist, practising in the inexhaustibly fertile setting of Southern California. So perhaps a ‘notes-from-the-couch’ approach?

It appears she never got round to making the decision, and the result is a remarkably uneven book that changes tone more often than Billy changes costume.

The story itself is truly inspiring: born of humble Irish Catholic stock in Glasgow, Connolly survives abandonment by his mother, sexual abuse by his father and psychological torture by his aunts. He ends up working as a shipyard welder, but buys a banjo and starts playing gigs on the side. Music leads to a stand-up routine – by accident, it appears, as he forgot the words to a song. The venues got bigger and bigger, the act more and more outrageous, and before long Billy was a household name nationally. And then a worldwide phenomenon.

It’s a classic rags-to-riches story, spiced up with a startlingly frank revelation of child abuse. It ought to make compelling reading, and it does, to a point. But there’s just one problem: Stephenson’s writing. Time and again she resorts to tired old clichés: audiences ‘roar with laughter'; Billy is ‘pleased as Punch’ and ‘tickled pink'; his grandmother is dressed up ‘like a Christmas tree.’ It’s all very pedestrian, and constantly intrudes on the telling of the tale.

But it’s not even consistently pedestrian. Every so often, Dr Connolly (Stephenson, that is – confusingly, Billy is also Dr Connolly, having received an honorary doctorate from Glasgow University) emerges to make an observation: ‘As Carl Jung explained, denial of our shadow side will often cause it to rise up against us,’ she notes of Billy’s father. Billy’s cousin suffers from ‘an Oedipal rage.’ These forays into the world of analysis sit uneasily with the jocular tone in the rest of the book.

In one breathtaking lapse, she refers to a ‘mentally retarded shipyard sweeper’ who worked with Billy. Worse still, she tells us that Billy’s aunt, Mona, suffered from ‘crazy paranoia.’ And this from somebody who insists on ‘African-American’ instead of black, and ‘Native American’ instead of Indian.

And so it proceeds, veering wildly from a matter-of-fact chronology to a jokey, conspiratorial isn’t-my-husband-naughty routine, to a quick lesson in pocketbook psychology.

A quick run through the chapter names ("In search of a duck’s arse", "That Nikon’s going up your arse", "There’s holes in your willie") prepares you for what’s to come, and told by Billy Connolly himself, it would be funny. Very funny indeed. But the problem is that Stephenson isn’t nearly as funny as her husband. Indeed, his brand of humour works only when delivered by him personally. Perhaps it should have been an autobiography.

The book if packed full of swish Hollywood parties with A-list celebrities. The name-dropping borders on the tedious in the end: Eric Idle, Eric Clapton, Cher, George Harrison, Richard Burton, Judi Dench, Ralph McTell, Al Pacino. The book is peppered with such phrases as ‘Germaine Greer once told me…’, ‘the occasion is a birthday dinner for the actor Sylvester Stallone’ and ‘I’ve noticed that the former President, Ronald Reagan, is dozing off..’ You are left with the distinct impression that ‘Pamsy’ is far more starstruck than the plain-talking Billy.

And yet, in the end, it is possible to see past the tortured prose and the self-conscious name-dropping. After all, this is a book about Billy Connolly, not Pamela Stephenson. From the early days, racked by insecurity (he thought he’d one day be exposed as ‘just a welder’), through the almost-obligatory battle with alcohol, to worldwide success and acceptance, he’s retained his humour (obviously) and a down-to-earth approach that endears him to the reader.

From whatever viewpoint you take, it’s a story of triumph over adversity. Despite the patchy writing, the seductive cocktail of celebrities, risqué humour and sexual revelation makes it a sure-fire success.

Thomas Bernhard: The Making Of An Austrian and The Novels of Thomas Bernhard

Stephen Mitchelmore finds Thomas Bernhard to be elusive within two studies of the Austrian writer

What if everything we can be depends on playing a role? Where would that leave us? Well, first of all, it would mean that the public self, the one presented to the world, is not “a mask” but the original; the thing itself. Behind the scenes, alone, we live the mystery of self-consciousness. We wonder who it is that wakes at four to soundless dark. Alone, we dream of another life; the one in the biography. Perhaps the oppressive climate of our culture – as seen in the triumphant exposés of the press and the prurience of Reality TV – is due to our frantic need to remove in others what we see as a façade in ourselves. And as art is seen as an adjunct of this removal (“expressing the inner self”), so the inevitable disappointment in its resistant playfulness leads to a shift in preference to revelatory biography and memoir. Could this be stage fright on our part?

Early on in Thomas Bernhard: the making of an Austrian, the first English biography of the Austrian novelist, playwright and poet, Gitta Honegger says the apparatus of the theatre is an “annoyingly overused existential paradigm”, and she’s right. I’ve only used it once and it’s annoying me already. However, it is clear that her subject is the paradigm’s essential figure. There seems to be no private Thomas Bernhard. As such, Honegger says he is a particularly Austrian phenomenon. The nation, she says, transplanted the baroque theatrics of the old Hapsburg Empire into its cultural life, notably the Salzburg Festival, the state run Burgtheatre, and one man: Thomas Bernhard. Each provided an arena for Austria to conjure its self image.

In Bernhard’s case, it was invariably a negative image, as if Austria needed an impression of embattlement against a hostile world. For example, when Bernhard received a state prize and made critical remarks about the state in his acceptance speech, a Government minister stormed out and slammed a glass door so violently that it smashed. And just before his death in 1989, he was verbally attacked by the President (an ex-Nazi), and physically attacked on a bus by an old lady wielding an umbrella. Since his death, however, Bernhard has become a national treasure. His vitriol has been rebranded, Guy Fawkes-like, into a fireworks display. As a result, his description of Austria as a place with more Nazis in 1988 than in 1938 (the cause of the President’s and the old lady’s wrath) is safely consigned to history. Like the “Anschluss” and the President’s SS uniform, it is part of Austria’s rich cultural heritage. Perhaps this is why, in his will, Bernhard refused to allow the publication or performance of his work within the Austrian state for the duration of the copyright; he foresaw his place in the state circus. (The lawyers have since got around this.)

However, the important thing to remember is that it wasn’t Bernhard who said Austria was still full of Nazis, it was a character in his play “Heldenplatz”. And while everyone assumes Bernhard meant every word as his own, those words are part of a whole that, as JJ Long explains in his book The Novels Of Thomas Bernhard: form and its function, demands to be experienced not in isolation as preferred by the culture-vultures, but in real time. If this is done, irony leaks into the hyperbole and all attitudes become unstable, even irony. In effect, even after death, Bernhard still performs, refusing to become a museum piece. The man himself remains a mystery. So what, in fact, did Thomas Bernhard think? Who was he when alone, no longer dancing before the appalled Viennese bourgeoisie? These are questions for a biography.

But don’t get your hopes up. As Honegger’s subtitle indicates, there is a plea of mitigation. She says her book is a “cultural biography”; as much about Austria as about Bernhard. While this is disappointing, it is also understandable. Most correspondence is unavailable, and friends do not say anything particularly intimate. In fact, the one clear sexual revelation doesn’t alter the image of a performer: Bernhard liked to masturbate in front of a mirror! We’re told this on page 10, so it’s all over pretty quickly. Instead of a chronological narrative, we’re given themes in which Honegger makes frequent (and wearying) digressions into cultural history and their relevance to Bernhard, such as the notion of “Heimat”, and the significance of the theatre in Austria.

In connection with the latter, Honegger rightly makes much of Bernhard’s staging of his experience. In his compelling memoirs (written in five short volumes but collected in English as Gathering Evidence), Bernhard recalls events through the eyes of his younger self while he (the younger self) is also observing or reflecting. He observes his younger self observing from a vantage point separate from the “action”. One observation point leads to another and then another. We might see this as a prime example of Chinese-box Postmodernism where all facts are as hollow as the next, but in Bernhard’s memoir the gnawing question of origin is always there. The facts are plain: Bernhard’s father abandoned his mother before Thomas was born, and died during the war years in mysterious circumstances; he either killed himself or was murdered. He never met his son. Bernhard was later punished by his bitter mother who saw her humiliation in the inherited features of her boy. No amount of virtuoso storytelling and opinionating could prevent the author from being thrown toward the bitter facts of his birth, and its consequences, much as we wonder, whilst vomiting, what we had eaten to cause it.

Bernhard’s early life was also blighted by the Nazi era. He saw at first hand the terror of Allied bombing raids on Salzburg. Barely a teenager, death closed in from all sides. And after the war, when he tried to make his way in the world as a trained singer, he was struck down with tuberculosis after working in freezing conditions in a grocery store. In hospital, with his lungs full of breathtaking sputum, he was given the Last Rites. Miraculously, he survived when all around were dying. Honegger says he wrote the memoir as a record of his victory over that death and the attempts at metaphorical suffocation by his upbringing in particular, and Austrian society in general. Victory was the result of a decision to become himself, to live despite all that suffocated him, even though it was futile. I say “futile” because all that suffocated him also provided the oxygen. It is no coincidence that, despite the oppressive details, there is a sense of freedom pulsing out of the pages of Gathering Evidence. Later, the existential energy of Bernhard’s neurasthenic narrators will also emerge from this outrageous, paradoxical act of will.

Thomas Bernhard

Perhaps it because Bernhard provides the most useful guide to his life that Honegger does not attempt to take us through the minutiae of his daily existence. Yet while the analysis is very interesting, one longs for that minutiae. Recently, a BBC Radio 3 documentary on Bernhard revealed that his record collection consisted almost entirely of the 19th Century Romantic repertoire. One might have assumed this great Modernist would have preferred Schönberg and Webern, Bach and Haydn over Schubert and Brahms. Apparently not. (Curiously, this is similar to Beckett). I don’t recall Honegger mentioning anything like this. Nor does she mention the novel Bernhard had sketched out before his death. She prefers to skim over the surface, taking what is necessary for her themed coverage. When it comes to Bernhard’s sexuality, for example, there is an exhausting bout of Freudian analysis arising from his father’s absence and his mother’s maltreatment. It is unconvincing only because it is so persuasive. Actually the same is true of the opinions expressed by Bernhard’s narrators. Perhaps Honegger is having a laugh as our brows sweat over the complexities of Oedipal anxiety? I would like to think so. In the rest of the book, Freud gets barely a mention. It is very odd.

It is also vague. We don’t get a definitive answer as to whether Bernhard was hetero-, bi- or homosexual. Honegger says he “came between couples”, which suggests one conclusion, but what she means is that both sexes were drawn into an ambiguous relationship with the writer. It’s a living example of Bernhard’s elusiveness, and proof of nothing else. Another is the one major relationship outside his family. It was with a woman 39 years older than himself. She was a widow who befriended Bernhard when he was a young writer. She provided a home and material support when he was struggling. He called her his “Lebensmench” (Lifeperson); a word he invented. Understandably, Honegger doesn’t have much to give us on the details of this partnership. All windows are opaque. The same is true, more or less, for other areas of his life. Indeed, Bernhard is a phantom in his own biography.

JJ Long takes a firmer route by concentrating on the novels. Bernhard, he says, was “a writer of considerable diversity, profoundly concerned with the problems and potential of storytelling.” Originally a doctoral thesis, The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: form and its function uses the technical language of Narrative Theory to understand the unique qualities of Bernhard’s writing. Reading it requires a high level of patience and concentration. Moreover, it leaves the lengthy quotations in German untranslated. This is regrettable as those most likely to be drawn to the book – Germanless Bernhard fans – will be hampered. Presumably the costs involved are prohibitive. Still, even monolinguists can gain a good deal from what’s left. Whereas Honegger bizarrely accuses Bernhard of being a solipsist – someone for whom the world is merely a projection of their own mind – Long stresses the “narrative strategies” and “hermeneutic sequences” employed to undermine such narrow interpretations of Bernhard’s monological prose.

For example, he writes that the reflective form of the great, valedictory novel Extinction allows “an excavation of the past even as it moves forward into the future.” The novel’s narrator fires at familiar targets – particularly the repression of the Nazi past – even as he himself succumbs to the same temptation to repress the facts of his own life in order to resist the impending extinction of the title. Indeed, the targets are not only familiar but familial. Long shows how most of Bernhard’s novels – like his memoir – are concerned with “transgenerational transmission” (that is, inheritance). The narrator’s family consists of ex-Nazi parents, both sad and monstrous people, whom he loves and hates in equal measure, as well as grotesque siblings who have not resisted the legacy of repression. As the eldest, the narrator inherits the family’s country estate in darkest Austria when the parents are killed in a car crash. As he also feels that he has not got long to live, he decides he must return from his sunny life in Rome to redeem the legacy. We don’t get to find out how he does this until the final page. As he goes forward to do this, he reflects on why it is required.

Yet the reason why the narrator’s predicament compels our attention, and gives us pleasure, is his spirited unwillingness to complete the task. He is forever delaying the end in both the action as described (stalling outside the gates of the estate) and in the act of storytelling itself (spinning variations of anecdotes and opinions). Long says these delaying tactics are achieved through “embedded narratives” and “retarding elements”. As a successful doctoral candidate, “pleasure” is not an issue for him, but for those of us who turn to Bernhard for this reason, it is interesting to note how these techniques create an experience similar to the reading of a thriller or detective novel. In those genres, pleasure comes from the growth of mystery and suspense before the inevitable denouement.

Extinction is similar in that one reads to find out what happens next. However, the distinction is that the thriller cannot reproduce the same pleasure on re-reading. A new story is required every time. Extinction on the other hand positively demands to be re-read in order to enjoy that delay again and again. In fact it becomes more enjoyable as we join with the narrator repeating stories and opinions in order to delay our return to the mundane world. Unfortunately for him, the delay has more serious import for the narrator. For a time, we feel more alive even if our noses are “buried in a book”. This is the great problem and potential of storytelling. Long’s analysis, which is richer and more complex than I have space (or patience) to detail, manages to elucidate Bernhard’s method and highlight his remarkable technical achievement. One cannot go away from this book and still believe, as so many do, that Bernhard is merely a ranting egoist. Those who already know better will perhaps understand more clearly how Bernhard maintained his high-wire act, though we would still like to know more in physical detail.

In one brief insight to his working process, Honegger quotes Bernhard as saying he wrote “with full commitment”; his entire body took part in the creative process. Perhaps this is why he preferred to call his novels “prose texts” as this suggests a script for performance. Indeed, Bernhard’s many plays are not greatly different from the novels. It seems Bernhard himself felt most alive when writing, like an actor on stage even at his writing desk. Honegger observes that each work was a reassertion of that early decision to live. Appropriately, some way into Extinction, the narrator reflects on the frustrated lives of those stuck in small-town provincial misery from which he, the narrator, had escaped. He says they fail to better themselves, to “get away from their real selves” because

“they lack the intellectual energy, because they have not discovered the intellect – the intellect around them or the intellect within them – and have therefore not taken the first step, which is the precondition for taking the second.”

So, we might assume that in writing, Bernhard got away from his real self. But “full commitment” means he did it with his mortal body as well as his intellect. Despite his early escape from death, Bernhard was always seriously ill. He expected to die before reaching fifty. His half-brother, a doctor, claims to have kept him alive for an extra ten years after that. Mortality was an over-riding theme and writing was at once the escape from death’s imminence and its enactment. Barthes’ Death of the Author was more than a concept to Bernhard. In fact, in a blessed piece of minutiae, Honegger tells us one of his favourite games was “playing dead”. It’s a nice idea to think of the novels as the place were Bernhard plays dead for us. Nowhere else is he more alive.

Keith Altham – No More Mr Nice Guy!

Robin Askew

At home with Sting. The in-no-way-narcissistic rainforest dwellers’ friend and tantric sex enthusiast is looking for a space in his sitting room to hang a giant self-portrait. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that this will not match the decor. Eventually, Mrs Sting, Trudie Styler, suggests that it should go in the bathroom in place of a print of the Salvador Dali painting titled The Great Masturbator. "After all," she reasons, "it will just be replacing one wanker with another."

For 25 years, Keith Altham was a "friend of the stars", as they say, first as a journalist on the NME and then as PR man for many of the biggest names in rock, from Rod Stewart to Van Morrison and Paul Weller to Ray Davies. He regressed from representing to Rolling Stones in the ’60s to "Orville the bloody duck" in the ’90s, at which point he wisely decided to jack it all in. Rather than writing an autobiography, he’s chosen to spill the beans on his pop star chums in the rather cheesy format of individual letters addressed to each of his former clients. (To Van Morrison: "What can I say? What a talent. What a singer. What a songwriter. What a pain in the arse!")

In many ways, this is a bloody awful book: poorly written, littered with typos and spelling errors and reeking of self-aggrandisement. But Altham really was at the centre of it all during the ’60s and ’70s. It was he who suggested to Jimi Hendrix the idea of setting a guitar on fire. And in one of the great forgotten footnotes of rock history, he once took Jim Morrison to see Status Quo ("Tell them to turn down, give up and go home," sneered the Lizard

If you’re prepared to endure the leaden prose, there’s a huge reservoir of great stories here. Altham particularly admires Sting, despite Mr. Sumner’s propensity to "to be such a humourless prat", and seems to have preferred the company of down-to-earth heavy metallers like Saxon and Uriah Heep, although he loathed their music. Fortunately, he doesn’t allow these personal friendships to prevent him telling yarns that show them in a considerably less than flattering light. Many of these sail very close to the wind indeed. M’learned friends may wish to examine his introduction for what would appear to be a libellous statement about that nice, well-adjusted Michael Jackson.

Connoisseurs will already be familiar with the one about a typically dishevelled Van Morrison turning up late for a party ("Did anyone order a minicab?" shouted the unfortunate who answered the door), and the message Rod Stewart carved into a tabletop when he learned that Sting was to be the next user of the Lear jet he was travelling in ("Sting, how come you ain’t go no sense of humour, you cunt?"). But who’d have guessed that underneath his carefully cultivated likeable exterior, Phil Collins seethes with rage at being perceived as "the nice man of pop"? Eventually, he snapped when an unchallenging interviewer asked whether he was really as nice as he seems: "Why don’t you ask my ex-wife?"

For celebrity bitchiness, look no further than Elton John’s wedding present to Rod Stewart of a £10 gift voucher with instructions to "buy something nice for the home". And for a real surprise, turn to the chapter on the Moody Blues behaving badly, which features a naked, comatose young woman wedged securely into a washbasin by her arse while Graeme Edge fires arrows at policemen who’ve been called out to investigate the mild-mannered prog-rockers’ raucous partying.

Best stories? Well, there’s a great one about Marc Bolan being evicted from the backstage area of a Rolling Stones gig for sexually molesting Mick Jagger. "Get him out of here," bellowed the indignant leathery Stone. "He just grabbed my balls." "I didn’t realise they were sacrosanct," responded the Electric Elf as he was marched away by burly security guards.

But by a whisker, the accolade has to go to Terence Trent D’Arby, the "silly twisted boy" whose fall from public favour was even more meteoric than his rise. D’Arby seems to have crammed plenty of over-indulgence into his brief brush with fame, but one episode proved too much for his female manager. She resigned when he rang her late at night in her hotel room demanding that she procure condoms for his latest female acquaintance. It seems this sexually provocative performer was too embarrassed to make the purchase himself. But before leaving, the manager phoned down to reception in their five-star hotel, whose staff were made of sterner stuff. Without batting an eyelid, the servile concierge entered the celeb’s bedchamber bearing a silver platter on which a selection of small foil packets were arranged tastefully and asked if madam would care to make her selection.

Andrew Goodman: Gilbert and Sullivan’s London

Budge Burgess

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When General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, complained that ‘the devil has the best tunes’, he meant the sensual, drunken pleasures of the working class pub and music hall, not the elegant appeal of Gilbert & Sullivan. Yet Arthur Sullivan’s light operas deliver enduring, popular tunes, and the words of W.S.Gilbert embody a caustic commentary on Victorian society.

Gilbert & Sullivan occupy a unique place in English life – solid, respectable, instantly recognisable. If their comic operas are archetypally Victorian, they have endured – scores of professional and amateur companies include ‘Pinafore’, ‘Mikado’, etc., in their repertoires, while the distinctive G&S style continues to serve as a reference point for comedy – parodies are regularly churned out to deflate some politician, party, or pompous personality.

But Andrew Goodman isn’t writing a biography of Gilbert & Sullivan. He offers, here, an almost-autobiography of London, letting the streets and buildings speak for themselves through their association with G&S and the social world they inhabited.

This is not effortless bedtime reading. Goodman weighs the building bricks of social, urban, architectural, and cultural history, binds them together with guide book mortar, and lays them into a street map of Victorian London and its theatregoing world… which does not make it easy to digest, for there is a recurring subtext of references and allusion which can leave the casual reader struggling. Or hungry to learn more.

These are almost raconteur writings – sketches of a city and a tour of its Gilbert & Sullivan links, comprehensively researched and vividly recounted. What Goodman achieves is a vision of 19th (and 20th) century London, illuminated by vignettes of prominent Victorians.

Goodman’s is a documentary style, but not in the form of glib camera panning and tracking and saccharine voice over. Rather he mimics the pander quality of a bric-a-brac market. He invites you to leaf through boxes of old postcards: study the sepia photos, flipping magic-lantern style before your gaze; stop, occasionally, to take one out and read the back; pause, and imagine who wrote it, who read it, what their lives and relationships involved; select and shuffle the pictures to construct your own interactive narrative.

Gilbert and Sullivan's London

Goodman’s history builds frozen snapshots into a silent movie of an organic city, growing, living, in places dying and being rapidly built over. This is more a travelogue in the traditions of Dervla Murphy or William Dalrymple than a smooth guide to London. It is a visitor’s time travel companion, not a tourist’s.

A brief stopover in some city gives tourists time enough to take in a few over-dressed highlights, following a non-stop itinerary of sights, but bypassing the sites – the real, living environment, with its pasts, presents, and futures spectral behind the changing facades. Cities cannot be understood through the window of an impatient taxi, casting channel hopping glances at anonymous urban landscapes. To appreciate a naked city, an old city, the visitor has to walk its streets, feel them, get into the plot of their storylines.

Following a guidebook is never a satisfactory way to absorb place. There may be plaques on walls to inform the passer-by that W.S.Gilbert or Arthur Sullivan once lived here, but that conveys little of significance. It’s like trying to read a book by studying the footnotes and ignoring the text.

Goodman unveils the character of late-Victorian London and its absorption into the lives and works of his elegant, privileged, human protagonists. Consider how rarely any of us ever study the human face. We coyly, politely note the current expression, the eyes, the set of the mouth; we rarely focus on the whole, its lines and creases, bumps and blemishes, moles and peripatetic hairs… its composite history.

Painters have licence to erase wrinkles and moles. Photographers – since before the airbrush – have smoothed out texture by careful lighting and strategic camera placement; it’s only in distressing times, when the dispossessed become the darlings of polite society – the Depression, London Blitz, or Third World famine – that they show pain, grime, and the years of living which mould the human face. Agony, as honest fetish, can sell a magazine cover almost as effectively as Buffy. Almost.

Goodman explores the lines and pores, feeding us with anecdotes and snippets, doling out cryptic pieces of a mobile jigsaw puzzle. He investigates a living city, not an idealized one, and invites the reader to put it into perspective. He looks up from street level, looks inside, gives buildings purpose and presence by blending bricks and mortar with the people who climbed their steps, opened their doors, and drew the curtains on the life therein.

As a Scot, I’ve always found London too foreign a capital. It’s a fine city – I lived and worked there for four years – but it’s an invasive world with the mindset of an imperialist; the narcotic of its political, economic, social, and cultural past and power is absorbed by osmosis. London has icons – Piccadilly Circus, Tower Bridge, the Changing of the Guard. But real London life – even for so exalted a circle as that of Gilbert & Sullivan – revolves around work, home, and play, and an endless stream of hasty interactions with anonymous people and places.

Goodman takes snapshots of London’s bygone world, then makes picture postcards of them for the reader. In doing so, he establishes patterns of significance, glimpses of interactions, and a sustained sense of movement and changing times.

Lavishly illustrated, with black and white pictures and vivid words, this is an intriguing, esoteric work into which you may be seduced. An essential for the Gilbert & Sullivan enthusiast or anyone interested in London’s past, it has the capacity to infect the casual reader with curiosity and a desire to explore further… and perhaps even take in the next production of The Pirates of Penzance. Perhaps.

Miranda Seymour: Mary Shelley

Budge Burgess

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The story of Mary Shelley and her invention, Frankenstein, is one of the great romantic tales of literature. At 16, she ran off with the poet, Shelley. At 18, she was challenged to write a chilling story during a famously Gothic storm. Her creation was to be absorbed into the English language as one of the most enduring images of the 19th century.

Miranda Seymour resurrects Mary Shelley’s life as assiduously as Frankenstein assembled his monster. What emerges are two tales: a forensic dissection of Mary’s experiences and influences, unpicking that supreme creative moment; and the biography of a lost childhood, exploited youth, and premature middle age. The question remains, did Mary ever achieve the animation of her creature or find a less artificial life?

Famously the daughter of two of the 18th century’s most radical philosophers – William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft – Mary appeared destined for a politically-active life. However, her mother died as a result of the birth, her father spent the rest of his life evading debtors while trying to keep up appearances.

Godwin remained ‘comfortable’ – he never suffered the poverty of the working classes. Family life, especially after his remarriage, seems to have been less that glittering. Godwin lingered within the literary and political diaspora, but Mary is left an emotionally distanced child, a lonely 16 year old searching for excitement and adventure. Shelley appeared as a dazzling comet, sweeping her off her feet.

Yet the Shelley we meet is a spoiled brat – a hyper-privileged aristocrat who can afford to be irresponsibly self-centred. He carries off Mary and her stepsister, readily abandoning his pregnant, 18 year old wife. Mary is soon with child. She loses it. Becomes pregnant again, and again, and again.

Mary may have seen the affair with Shelley as a liberating statement of self-determination – she clearly had greater maturity than her future husband. Yet she is ultimately left dependent… on Shelley, then on his family and estate. She hardly emerges as a feminist icon.

Mary Shelley: Miranda Seymour

The contrasts are striking. Frankenstein has a fascinating provenance. Miranda Seymour searches for evidence of its conception – from a meeting with Coleridge and reading of his Ancient Mariner, to time in the whaling port of Dundee, and the impact of a family friend active in medical research and electrical experimentation. Mary’s parents were giants; she has one, great moment of inspiration – without it she would have remained a mere footnote.

Mary settles for matronly, middle class convention and the life of a threadbare gentlewoman. Perhaps the threat of poverty was too much. Perhaps the true monster was her life of dull, material reality, falling premature victim to the narcotic of convention and conformity. Perhaps the expectations of her parentage and literary offspring were too great.

Seymour presents Mary as a unique talent and exemplar of the 19th century, middle class woman – unfulfilled, fixed in place by roles which constrain but never extend. Having transgressed the social norms – rejecting paternal authority, an openly extramarital affair, mother of a bastard child, and, most damning, marriage into the aristocracy by a lower class woman – Mary can never be allowed to fit back in, no matter how much contrition she might show. She is doomed to sidelined ordinariness.

This is a twin biography – of the stellar creation and of the mundane woman. Had Mary been placed in cold storage in 1820, to be defrosted by the glare of 20th century media attention, she may have been allowed to grow into a person in her own right. In practice she remained in the shadows of her creature, her husband, and her parents. She is trapped in the role of ‘little woman’, a tarnished chrysalis whose butterfly had escaped to take on a life of its own. The real gothic horror story is her life.

Miranda Seymour pieces together her research expertly, producing a solid piece of scholarship which will absorb both the literary student and the lay reader. Densely written, this is a finely drafted portrait of a rare moment of genius and of a woman of her time.

Richard Holland: Nero: The Man Behind The Myth

Budge Burgess

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Interest in Roman history is an ironic perennial, blossoming with each Hollywood blockbuster – Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, Gladiator. Romans appreciated the mass appeal of the spectacle, now available on celluloid with reassurance that no animal was harmed in its making.

Nevertheless, few could name a single Roman – Pontius Pilate was, Spartacus wasn’t – except the odd Emperor. Julius Caesar lives on through Shakespeare; Claudius was celebrated by Robert Graves and BBC. And then, there’s Nero: he fiddled while Rome burned, and persecuted the early Christians. Or did he?

Richard Holland challenges the preconceptions which cloud our understanding of Nero and his world by exposing the myths and misinformation. He presents a man with powers of life and death over the ‘civilized’ world, a product of his era. History is an exercise in understanding, not an excuse for moralising.

Holland embraces the psychological and sociological subtext, demonstrating, lucidly, the problems facing a student of ancient history. Evidence is partial and scanty: archaeology is serendipity, the few written records notoriously biased.

Any biographer aiming at a critical history – rather than simple chronology – has to develop forensic skills in interpreting evidence. Depending on its quantity and quality, the biographer is launched into speculation and surmise, and can fall prey to subjective illusions. Objectivity is the first casualty. Biography of an ancient figure can dissolve into pseudo-fiction.

Holland’s strength is his ability to combine balance and objectivity with an almost fictional quality – Nero: The Man Behind the Myth is a real page-turner, in places as fast paced as a detective novel. Holland explains, clarifies, and interprets, without patronising.

Richard Holland: Nero

He deconstructs the morality of Roman politics. Its Empire stretched from Spain to Egypt, and was ruthlessly centralised. All power flowed from the city and to a handful of rich families, following the conduits of military roads and conquest.

This was a society founded on extreme violence – a superbly organised Army and rigorously disorganised slavery (Rome’s nightmare scenario was of slave revolt). The labour-saving device of the era, a third of Rome’s population had no more rights than a washing machine. Living was conspicuously expensive, life was cheap.

Holland captures this alien morality. Nero is born to a career of murder – he disposes of his wife, mother, and any who cause inconvenience – yet can be altruistic. He is popular amongst the labouring classes. He frees talented slaves and promotes them to positions of authority. He favours ability over breeding. His downfall, inevitably, is due to his failure to pander to the aristocracy.

Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned – he organised fire fighting, food aid, and emergency housing. He is lenient and conciliatory after Boudicca’s revolt in Britannia. His persecution of early Christians is questionable. Evidence, argues Holland, is largely based on later records, written by Christian propagandists or political opponents.

Holland portrays Nero’s mother, Agrippina, as an overbearing, manipulative woman who refuses to let go of her son. Nero, meanwhile, is a pampered adolescent, reluctant to grow up. He wants independence, wants to be himself. Not for him the grey political life; he insists on writing, singing, playing. His heart is in the arts.

Yet, if there is a weakness in Holland’s account, it lies in his analysis of Nero the artist. Here is a young man absorbed in the ‘pop’ scene of his day. He inhabits two cultures, the imperial and the artistic. Holland’s biography is a convincing piece of historical analysis. He offers a credible picture of a young man ultimately disinterested in the mundane world of politics and court life.

But exploration of Nero’s other culture, of his passion for the arts, is another challenge. Explaining this lifestyle can only be speculative and subjective: the political history might be pinned to known evidence, but convincing characterisation of the artist demands too much licence to sit entirely happily within the history.

Nevertheless, this is a first class book. If parts seem unsatisfactory, it’s because the reader is left hungry. A good biography should leave room for doubt, should leave the reader keen to learn more and delve further. Nero: The Man Behind the Myth does just that. It is to be commended.

Bill Hicks : Bad Moon Rising – a tribute of sorts

Even though he’s been dead for seven years, the savage political satire of Bill Hicks makes more sense than ever. Chris Hall spreads the word.

If you mention to any intelligent individual under the age of 25 that you saw Nirvana and The Pixies live you’ll get a response along the lines of “you lucky bastard”. However, if you say that you saw Bill Hicks live, the reaction is qualitatively different. There is a crestfallen look. For those fans who have come to worship him from his albums and videos, it only reinforces the knowledge that they will never see this late and very great comedian for as long as they live. He died in February 1994 from pancreatic cancer at the pitifully young age of 32.

I only saw Hicks play the once but the memory of that evening is as seared into the cerebral cortex as so much steak on a griddle. I still have the fading ticket: “Bill Hicks. Brighton Festival. Sun 10 May 1992. 8pm. Comp.” Complimentary because this was also my first review for the university magazine I wrote for. The expectancy of that evening was immense. There had been a Channel 4 programme on him and we had picked up snippets from time to time from the NME and Montreal Comedy Festival clips. Here was someone taking an interest in the outside world again, not ploughing a furrow of flim-flam – Is It Me Or Is Airline Food Really Bad? For my friends and me, just on the evidence of that evening, Hicks was the greatest comedian there ever had been, or ever would be.

For some, humourless PC types, his “goat-boy” persona threw them off track. It was the side of Hicks that mined personal, rather than political, obsessions (of course, not necessarily his own obsessions). It was difficult for some to square the Marxist, sub-Chomsky perspectives with a man who would talk about renting “Clam Lappers” and “Anal Entry volume 500″ from his local video store. Live, Hicks was more extreme in all directions. The time I saw him, people in the front row must have been deafened by his screams of admonition to boy pop bands of the day to “Play with your fucking heart!” (How perceptive I was in noting in my review, with what I obviously thought of as devastating understatement, that Hicks was “more Lenny Bruce than Lenny Bennett”). He also had a peculiar air of physical omniscience over the spatio-temporal coordinates of the room, where he cadged a Silk Cut from someone at the front of the audience and dropped it only to catch it without looking at it and without his eyes straying from us to say nonchalantly “I doubt it…” before lighting it in one graceful movement.

Even though the act was honed and down pat so that he could riff around it (“excuse me why I plaster on a fake smile and plough through this shit one more time”) when I saw him at Brighton he was consummate in fielding questions from the audience (on subjects as diverse as the then recently launched Euro Disney in Paris to how Labour lost the 1992 general election).

Bill Hicks - pic copyright Sacred Cow Productions

I thought of Hicks as soon as Dubyah “won” the US election. One could simply replay the Hicks material about George Bush from the time of the Gulf War and apply it to Bush II. History repeating itself first as farce and then as a Bill Hicks routine. Where was Hicks when we needed him during Clinton’s dreadful Presidency? The Lewinsky affair, the impeachment hearings, the Presidential pardons – you feel that he would of made such an incredible impact had he lived. Who knows, perhaps he would of given direction to the growing Western response of anti-capitalism? He was that inspirational.

Hicks used comedy in a way that Lenny Bruce had used it in the Sixties, as a consciousness-expanding one. The appeal was one of a manichaean righteousness that could of course slide into savage arrogance. There is a joke he tells about a waffle waitress who, seeing him reading a book, asks him “Why y’all reading for?” to which he replies, and it’s hard not to blanch from the savagery of it: “Well, I guess I read for a lot of reasons, the main one being so I don’t end up being a fucking waffle waitress.” So there we have it – comedy that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, but which makes sure to afflict the afflicted as well.

In the evolutionary sense, a subject he was particularly interested in, Hicks’s lines continue to be highly successful memes: “You’re not human till you’re in my phone book”, “Human beings are just a virus in shoes”, etc. I can’t of been the only one to notice in the dark poetry of Hicks’s faux heartfelt tribute to his dying Grandma who he wants to see used in stunts in a martial arts film, the intimation that here was potentially a great writer too: “Do you want your grandmother dying like a little bird in some hospital room, her translucent skin so thin you can see her last heartbeat work its way down her blue veins? Or do you want her to meet Chuck Norris?”

Hicks arrived, in mass media terms, at the tail end of those seemingly monolithic Republican and Conservative governments of the 1980s and early 1990s and what a fillip it was to have such a hardcore exorcism of our anxieties and anger. We loved the fact that here was someone you genuinely knew would never sell out (hear Hicks’s response on Rant in E-Minor to a British company that wanted him to advertise their “Orange Drink”). For a while, my girlfriend and I kept our own “Artistic Roll Call” on the wall, where we would strike through the names of “artists” who’d just appeared in an ad for family hatchbacks or a new online banking service (“Do an ad, and you’re off the artistic roll-call for ever.”). It was a depressing and shaming list.

Part of the sadness at Hicks’s death was the sense that a powerful, not just a very funny, political critic had been lost, and one who was irreplaceable. He has cast a very long shadow for comedians since his death. Someone that unique is always going to bring out the imitators, the paraders of his feathers (the lamentable British film Human Traffic has a Hicks segment on drugs, and even has the gall to end the film with one of his lines).

One doesn’t have to strain that hard to hear the tropes or cadences of Hicks in any number of present-day comedians. I saw Rich Hall, a Perrier Award winner no less, shamelessly adapt Hicks’s Jay Leno fantasy routine where Leno, the straw man who has the revelation “Oh my God! What have I done with my life?”, shoots himself and a spray of blood in the shape of the NBC peacock is produced (with the venomous pay-off: “A corporate man to the bitter end”). But righteous anger is not so easily commodified or corrupted, as Denis Leary must have realised by now. To my mind, Rob Newman is the only comedian to have come even close to Hicks’s level of insight and intensity.

Mark Thomas said witheringly in interview, “If he couldn’t be angry when he had a few months to live, then there’s something wrong.” (Thomas told me rather laughably that he felt that “Hicks is the American Mark Thomas” and that Hicks was doing very similar material to him when Thomas went to see Hicks at Edinburgh.)

What’s even more galling is the conflation in the minds of some people of Hicks with Leary. Yes, they both smoked a lot, yes, they both wore black. End of similarity. Leary is (or should I say was?) a one-trick hack, the one trick being No Cure For Cancer, who ended up taking “cameo” roles in films like Judgement Night and Demolition Man while advertising piss-weak beer (“Another corporate shill at the capitalist gang-bang”).

The appetite among his fans for all things Hicks is partly a function of the lack of a biography – the Nick Doody biography has been due to be published for years.- or much new material since the posthumously released Rant in E Minor and Arizona Bay. Given that Hicks was gigging from the age of 14 in Austin, Texas (incidentally where Jenna Bush, Dubyah’s 19-year-old daughter, was recently arrested for under-age drinking) right through to his death aged 32 there must be a lot of material that hasn’t been seen yet. Hicks’s friend Kevin Booth, who ran Sacred Cow Productions with him, runs an excellent website dedicated to Bill Hicks, www.billhicks.com, which occasionally adds new audio and video clips of Hicks.

In America, as far as I can gather, he was a genuinely marginalised figure, and continues to be. There was a sense, though, that, as in the case of that other great American maverick export Jimi Hendrix, it was maybe going to be a case of Hicks making it in Britain first. I met a journalist in San Francisco, Jack Boulware, who interviewed Hicks for Arena magazine in the States. He told me that the reason he thought Hicks was beyond the pale in America was simply that he seemed to be so anti-American. It’s often said, quite rightly, that Hicks was in essence a preacher (indeed he admitted it himself) and I’ve always thought of him as Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, choosing not self-aggrandisement but enlightenment, beating sense into comatose America with those fists marked love and hate.

A fascinating Index on Censorship article from December Issue 6 2000 details the machinations that prevented Hicks’s segment from being broadcast on an edition of the David Letterman show (he’d appeared 11 times before on the same show). Hicks’s letter to the journalist John Lahr – his Dear John letter to life in some ways – is a cri de coeur: “Jokes, John: this is what America now fears – one man with a point of view, speaking out, unafraid of our vaunted institutions, or the loathsome superstitions the CBS hierarchy feels the masses (the herd) use as their religion.” One of the “hot points” that CBS highlights as “unsuitable for our audience” is the following “pro-life” skit:

Bill Hicks: You know who’s really bugging me these days. These pro-lifers … Smattering of applause. Bill: You ever look at their faces? ‘I’m pro-life!’ (Bill makes a pinched face of hate and fear, his lips are pursed as though he’s just sucked on a lemon.) Bill: ‘I’m pro-life!’ Boy, they look it don’t they? They just exude joie de vivre. You just want to hang with them and play Trivial Pursuit all night long. Audience chuckles. Bill: You know what bugs me about them? If you’re so pro-life, do me a favour – don’t lock arms and block medical clinics. If you’re so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries. Audience laughs. Bill: Let’s see how committed you are to this idea. (Bill mimes the pursed lipped pro-lifers locking arms.) Bill: (as pro-lifer) She can’t come in! Audience laughs. Bill: (as confused member of funeral procession) She was 98. She was hit by a bus! Audience laughs. Bill: (as pro-lifer) There’s options! Audience laughs. Bill: (as confused member of funeral procession) What else can we do? Have her stuffed? Audience laughs. Bill: I want to see pro-lifers with crowbars at funerals opening caskets – ‘get out!’ Then I’d be really impressed by their mission. Audience laughs and applauds.

Hicks ends his letter to John Lahr with a passionate plea for sanity: “This is what I think CBS, the producers of the Letterman show, the networks and governments fear the most – that one man free, expressing his own thoughts and point of view, might somehow inspire others to think for themselves and listen to that voice of reason inside them, and then perhaps, one by one we will awaken from this dream of lies and illusions that the world, the governments and their propaganda arm, the mainstream media, feeds us continuously over 52 channels, 24 hours a day.

“What I realised was that they don’t want the people to be awake. The elite ruling class wants us asleep so we’ll remain a docile, apathetic herd of passive consumers and non-participants in the true agendas of our governments, which is to keep us separate and present an image of a world filled with unresolvable problems, that they, and only they, might somewhere, in the never-arriving future, may be able to solve. Just stay asleep, America. Keep watching television. Keep paying attention to the infinite witnesses of illusion we provide you over ‘Lucifer’s Dream Box’.”

For anyone doubting the veracity of Hicks’s analysis, a good recent example of news being managed in such a way that it keeps us “passive non-participants” is the virtual US press black out over the recent Kyoto protocol all under the guise, no doubt, of it being of no interest to the American public that the US has an appalling environmental record.

Hicks has his revelation while watching the Letterman show the week after being pulled. The scales fall away from his eyes, and he’s looking at the real reason. He’s looking at a “pro-life” commercial.

Gore Vidal once gave a definition of real politics as “Who collects what money from whom to spend on whom for what” with the corollary that “no politician in the US dares address that subject for fear we’ll discover who bought him and for how much.” Follow the money, indeed. And what was one of the very first things that Dubyah did as President? It was to cancel the funding of abortion clinics abroad.

Peter Ackroyd – London: The Biography

Chris Hall

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Those who have read Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and The Limehouse Golem will recall that the word golem comes from the medieval Jewish for an artificial human being brought to life by supernatural means, a “thing without form”. Ackroyd’s latest book, London: The Biography, has itself managed to breathe life into a seemingly formless city – a tangible sense of London as a living organism permeates this remarkable work.

Indeed, even the endpapers show “seven phases in the evolution of Old London Bridge, 1209-1831″, perhaps a subtle reinforcement of his idea that London is a living organism, that it has a “human shape”, echoing the seven stages of man.

He has a strong faith in London as a palimpsest: “London has always been an ugly city… It has always been rebuilt, and demolished, and vandalised… one of the characteristics of London planners and builders, over the centuries, has been the recklessness with which they have destroyed the city’s past.”

There is a fascination with London as a built environment (after all, he does say that London is made “half of stone half of flesh”), of what London does to its citizens. There is the novelist’s sensibility here, looking for form: “The emphasis upon finance is sustained by the enquiry of the late 20th-century prostitute, ‘Do you want any business?’ ”

London: The Biography rings with the city’s peculiar echoic quality which Ackroyd is always attuned to. He writes that the London Eye has its precursor in the 17th century at Bartholomew’s Fair, and that following the GLC’s abolition in 1986 “in effect London resumed its ancient life, with the separate boroughs affirming distinct and different identities”.

For Ackroyd, it is this historical imperative that shapes London. “Whenever the opportunity and location are offered, it replicates its identity. It is a blind force in that sense, not susceptible to the blandishments of planners or politicians…”

Temporal simultaneity to Ackroyd is as real as the Thames, flowing through time as well as space. He is quick to point out that “contemporary theorists have suggested that linear time is itself a figment of the human imagination”. Indeed, his book itself moves “quixotically through time” forming a labyrinth, and can be explored from a multitude of entry points.

Peter Ackroyd  - London: The Biography

The book is arranged into themes such as London as theatre, crime and punishment, London as crowd, London’s radicals, and for every main thoroughfare of London: The Biography there are scores of delightful or macabre side streets to wander down. Take the following list of synonyms for prostitutes, which reads like a bizarre incantation: “… smuts, cracks, mawkes, trulls, trugmoldies, bunters, does, punchable nuns, molls, Mother Midnights, blowzes, buttered buns, squirrels…”.

Within each theme we have Ackroyd’s compendious learning tripping the switches between past and present. He is no Eric Hobsbawm or Asa Briggs, he is neither ideologue nor pedagogue, instead it is through anecdote and vivid description that we are led through labyrinthine London.

Of course, any thesis that London, as it were, imprints itself on its citizens is going to occasionally sound overblown: “London drives some of its citizens mad. A psychiatric survey in the Seventies revealed that cases of depressive illness were three times higher in the East End than in the rest of the country”. But these criticisms, like pointing out lacunae, miss the point, for in a very real sense, as he himself says at one point, there are 7 million versions of London being written everyday.

This is very much the book that Ackroyd has been building up to, or even the one that he was born to write, prefiguring it in his biographies (Blake, Dickens) and fiction (The Great Fire of London, Hawksmoor).

London: The Biography doesn’t just have sources, it has an essay on sources, and at over 800 pages you might be forgiven for buying the audio version read by Simon Callow (who is also, incidentally, appearing as Dickens in Ackroyd’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens). Ackroyd has put in a heroic amount of research, and it would be churlish indeed to disabuse his book of its definite article.

Gitta Sereny : The German Trauma

With the publication of her new 75 year study The German Trauma, Eugene Byrne talks to Gitta Sereny

Eugene Byrne

For someone who’s spent most of her adult life staring into the abyss, Gitta Sereny laughs a heck of a lot. “I love to laugh. I laugh a great deal. I think because of my early exposure, if you like, to tragedy and to the sad events in Europe, I have learned detachment and that is the most valuable thing for any writer, any journalist, any historian to learn. There are different sides to my life.”

Originally of Hungarian stock, she was born into a wealthy Viennese family in the 1920s, educated all over the place, including three years at an English boarding school, which she adored. One of her most vivid childhood memories is travelling home from England, getting stuck at Nuremberg and being taken to a Nazi rally – and loving it. She was all set to become an actress when the second world war intervened. She worked with orphans in occupied France, had to flee the country because of her Resistance connections, worked with refugees after the war, and since then has spent most of her life living in England after moving here when her American photographer husband Don Honeyman took a job with British Vogue. She became a journalist and author, with two principal areas of interest: Nazi Germany and its aftermath, and children who kill.

Gitta Sereny has long been a heroine of mine, and of many other hacks. Not only is she a formidable investigator who’s managed to persuade some of the world’s biggest newspapers and magazines to fund her probing (a stupendous achievement in itself), but she’s also a better interviewer than we’ll ever be.

Gitta Sereny

Here’s how good she is. One of the articles in her new book, The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938-2000, tells of how, in the 1970s, she interviewed Franz Stangl, who’d been commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp. He was in a German prison and she was hoping that, of all the Nazis she’d met until then, she was about to meet someone “less primitive” as she put it. Instead, she met a troubled soul in deep denial, a man who couldn’t face the truth of what he’d done. Nineteen hours after her last session with him, he died of a heart attack.

The German Trauma starts out with a fair amount of autobiographical detail, but then sort of loses interest. “I’ve always said that I’m not going to do an autobiography, and I don’t suppose I will, and I was tempted in this case to use the autobiographical means to explain to readers – because they’re constantly asking me this – why I do these particular subjects that I do. I just thought it would be interesting for readers to see under what conditions one does this.”

It’s a series of essays and articles written down the years, as well as more recent material dealing with Nazis and how postwar Germany is dealing with the Nazi period. It’s one of those books you pick up and think ‘potboiler’, before realising you’ve read half of it, swept away by a style that’s vivid, but which also manages a ruthless intellectual honesty. Of particular note are her chapters on the children of prominent Nazis, on the Ivan Demjanjuk case, on the heartbreaking stories of children abducted by Germans in eastern Europe and settled on German families. Her investigation into the Hitler Diaries fiasco, in which a German magazine and our own dear Sunday Times paid thousands for patent forgeries, reads like a superior thriller. Her suspicion as to what happened to much of the money makes for a chilling conclusion.

Among her several publications she’s probably best known for Cries Unheard, her book on the Mary Bell case, and for Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. Speer started out as Hitler’s favourite architect, and ended up as Nazi Germany’s Minister of Armaments. Speer is covered in the book as well.

German trauma

By Sereny’s estimation, Speer’s organisation of the German war machine prolonged the war’s misery by at least one year. That he was not hanged after the Nuremberg trials was partly chance, and partly because, although he was indirectly responsible for millions of deaths – those of slave workers and war casualties – he played no part in the Nazis’ extermination policies. He spent 20 years in Spandau prison but became close to Sereny in the years before his death. This was an extraordinary relationship; there were no other surviving individuals who’d been so close to Hitler, with whom he had an almost father-son relationship.

“I grew to like him,” she says. “And I’m very grateful to him. He talked to me a great deal. It’s an extraordinary thing to find a man as qualified as he who is willing to give what he did to me … He phoned me a lot. He was in great need of communication. It was his need, not mine. I learned a great deal from him. I think he knew more about Hitler than anyone else. He was more willing to search in himself for the reasons why what happened did happen, and that’s an extraordinarily courageous thing to do when you did as much harm as Speer did.”

One chapter which she’d intended to include, but cut out at the last minute, would have dealt with American academic Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s hugely controversial book of a couple of years back, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Goldhagen’s thesis, basically, was that all Germans were responsible for the Holocaust, and not just Hitler and the Nazi party.

“I’m so sick of Goldhagen that I decided to take it out,” she says. “His theory is that the Germans were exterminationalist anti-Semites since the middle of the 19th century, which is historically completely false, because in the middle of the 19th century, no-one’s borders were more open to refugees from Russian pogroms. It was a great age of liberalism in Germany … He simply doesn’t have a historical understanding, he doesn’t know history, and he has an emotional interpretation of Germany – which I understand in his case and sympathise with, but it is wrong … I think there was huge anti-Semitism in Germany, though there was more in Austria, and it was developed tremendously by Goebbels [Hitler’s propaganda minister], but all of this he does not understand and does not say … Germany did have 530,000 Jews, which is quite a large number if most of them were middle-class professionals, owners of department stores and things like that. That becomes very visible, and I think that that is a problem.”

As for the danger of resurgent fascism in Germany, Sereny is relaxed. “I think the last country where it would resurge is in Germany. There is a danger everywhere, particularly in Russia, which is so huge and where they are so nostalgic for the dictatorship they have lost, which cared for them from birth to the grave, and that is dangerous. Thank God we haven’t had this in the western democracies, and we don’t need to long for it. And in Germany they would simply resist it, because that lesson has been very deep – and that is what my book is about.”

Jean-Yves Tadie: Marcel Proust

Stephen Mitchelmore

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For a short time, I used to stay up most of the night. In the long summer months between school years there was no all-night radio let alone all-night television. To pass time, I would listen to the BBC World Service on poor Medium Wave reception. One night around two in the morning, an actor with a mellifluous and slightly effeminate voice read out a half-hour extract from what I now know as "Swann’s Way", the first part of Marcel Proust’s multi-volume novel "In Search of Lost Time". Next day, as I played football in the local park, I told my friends of this daft book that took half an hour to describe someone ringing a doorbell. Inside, however, my dismissive tone was tempered. Secretly, I was impressed. The following week there was an extract from another part of the novel, of which I have no memory, and in the third and final week, he read the section known as "Albertine Asleep". And I taped it. The tape still exists.

"Albertine Asleep" is both erotic and philosophical. Curiously, one engenders the other. The apparent longuers of intimate description I had told my friends about became instead moments of defining clarity. Perhaps that is what impressed me. At the beginning Marcel, the narrator, chances upon his girlfriend Albertine napping in his room. He sits down and gazes at her:

"Stretched out at full length on my bed, in an attitude so natural that no art could have devised it, she reminded me of a long blossoming stem that had been laid there; and so in a sense she was: the faculty of dreaming, which I possessed only in her absence, I recovered at such moments in her presence, as though by falling asleep she had become a plant. In this way, her sleep realised to a certain extent the possibility of love: alone, I could think of her, but I missed her, I did not possess her; when she was present, I spoke to her, but was too absent from myself to be able to think of her; when she was asleep, I no longer had to talk, I knew that I was no longer observed by her, I no longer needed to live on the surface of myself."

Marcel goes on to use her sleeping body for "less pure" purposes. Undoubtedly there is something pathological going on here; a voyeuristic absorption where there is only the possibility of love. Yet within his apparent solipsism, the world opens up to Marcel. Albertine too is not living on the surface of herself, no longer acting. He is able to love her for herself. But which self is that? "Races, atavisms, vices reposed upon her face" he exclaims. To a certain extent still, she escapes him. Yet as the similes of plantlife suggest, watching her sleep was almost to connect with a self so deep as to be dispersed within nature. Hence Marcel’s sudden loss of interest in the letters tucked into Albertine’s discarded kimono.

Until that time, access to such intimacies would mean getting the information necessary to confirm or deny his tormented imaginings about her life away from him (he suspected that she was conducting other – Lesbian – affairs). But at this time, they are irrelevant. Nothing in their relationship is resolved, but in his contemplative reverie, jealous love abates for a while and perhaps begins to die at last. And that’s what the novel is all about really: the process of love. The extraordinary length of the book enables us to experience that process. It’s not a matter of gaining knowledge alone but of realising how that knowledge is gained. Marcel learns the heart’s lesson, and says, at the end of the novel:

"Ideas come to us as the successors to griefs, and griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some part of their power to injure our heart; the transformation itself, even, for an instant, releases suddenly a little joy."

So for him, genuine happiness is not achieved by rushing for one of the poles of that fin de siecle – the ivory tower and the brothel, which, incidentally, are also the poles of this fin de siecle. It’s a space between, just as "In Search of Lost Time" is somewhere between essay and lyric.

If we see the novel as the story of the discovery of this truth then a biography of the author is superfluous. No matter how many letters the biographer could extract from Proust’s metaphorical kimono, the inner truth of his life would be retained in the novel’s moments of inspired contemplation. Of course, many biographers regard it as their duty to raid the kimono and present the abstractions we call facts, which in this case would be: Proust the mummy’s boy, Proust the sycophantic social climber, Proust the closet homosexual, Proust the asthmatic recluse with a private income. Books with these facts, about other artists, appear each week, enabling one to discard the actual works of the subject. But thankfully, Jean-Yves Tadie has learnt with Marcel. His 800 page archaeology traces the ‘necessary metamorphoses which exist between a writer’s life and his work, between reality and art’. It’s appropriate that these are actually Proust’s own words, as they sum up Tadie’s faithful approach. He argues that Proust’s first novel, "Jean Santeuil" –superficially very similar to the later work – was abandoned because, by sticking to the facts of autobiography, it distorted the vision he wanted to impart.

Proust

In the introduction, Tadie claims not one insignificant fact concerning the metamorphoses is included in the biography. As it turns out, there are a lot of significant facts. And it makes for slow going on the page-turning front; this is not a biography for the Alain de Botton crowd. In a way, this a shame as most biographers see it as their purpose to bring the subject alive. Not this one. However, at one point, Tadie does quote an eye-witness’s description of Proust’s ghostly pallor around his large, sad eyes as he makes a foray into the Parisian night. It may not have much to do with the growth of the novel, but the man’s presence is felt. It is very welcome.

And when Tadie tentatively brings up Proust’s rumoured brothel fetish (having rats stabbed with pins), one breathes a sigh of relief: at last, gossip! Not that the whole book should descend into endless speculation, of course. But aren’t eye-witness reports almost as important to a biography as watching Albertine asleep was to Marcel? Despite his bedside discovery that love has little to do with "the girl with the raven hair" in herself, he realises that the death of anguished love would mean the end of desire for knowledge in general. Albertine’s teasing distance and Marcel’s resultant jealousy are necessary detours to understanding. For this reason, he gets as much pleasure from seeing Albertine wake up as sleep: the process continues. In Tadie’s book, I needed more of a woken Proust. At one point, he refers to Cocteau’s description of Proust’s voice, yet doesn’t reprint it! What a tease.

There are compensations however. The chapters on the influence of Anglo-American influence on the young Proust, are particularly fascinating. Tadie shows in detail how the works of Emerson, Carlyle and Ruskin inspired devotion before being enfolded into Proust’s mature philosophy. It is a philosophy dependant on the constant revisions caused by the shocks of life. In impressive (and exhaustive) attention to detail, Tadie takes us through the shocks that helped develop the man and then the novel. The latter include publishers’ doubts or indifference, increasingly poor health, and the First World War. But the major influences would be the death of his mother and his pathetically unsuccessful love life.

His mother’s death is anticipated in the famous bedtime kiss passage in the novel, while the love life is more shrouded. From Tadie’s research, we learn he was particularly attracted to working-class men, whom he employed as servants, often with their wives, just so he could be close to them. His was a polite love, it seems: Tadie says "Proust possessed nothing and no-one". Perhaps as a result, he was generous beyond his means as he tried to win favour. He bought Alfred Agostinelli (the major component of Albertine) a light aircraft, which he proceeded to crash into the sea off Marseilles, killing himself. We’re told that Albertine’s name is mentioned 2360 times in the novel. This demonstrates that loss was confronted head on, so at least a little joy might be redeemed. In summing up Proust’s aesthetic, Tadie says: "He did not believe that happiness was to be found in a sensation experienced in the present moment, but rather in the recollection of a sensation, in the link between present and the past." It is not to be confused with nostalgia. When I listen to the tape of "Albertine Asleep", it is not youth I recover, but hope.

Barry Miles: The Beat Hotel

Nathan Cain

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Barry Miles

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9 rue Git-le-Coeur is an address that looms large in the literary landscape of the last half of the twentieth century. It was, until 1963, the site of an anonymous, low-rent flophouse on the traditionally bohemian Left Bank. It would be a wholly unremarkable place, indistinguishable from the many other similar hotels in Paris, except for the fact that it housed, with the exception of Kerouac, all of the major "Beat Generation" authors at one time or another from 1957 to 1963. Its tenants, while living in considerable squalor, produced some of the most enduring and influential works of literature of the period, and laid the groundwork for the then nascent counterculture.

In his book The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963, author and scholar Barry Miles recounts the history of what went on during the years when the Beats were abroad in Paris. Miles’ choice of material is excellent because it was at the Beat Hotel where Ginsberg wrote "Kaddish", which is often considered his best poem, where Corso developed the voice that he would give full expression in his book The Happy Birthday of Death, and where Burroughs completed Naked Lunch and learned the cut-up technique from Brion Gysin, which resulted in his next three major books, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express.

The problem is that the material has all been used before. Anyone who has read a halfway decent biography of Ginsberg (such as Michael Schumacher’s Dharma Lion) or Burroughs (Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw) will not find much that they have not been exposed to. By focusing on a place in time instead of any particular individual Miles, while relating many interesting anecdotes, such as the time Ginsberg and Corso got drunk and made complete fools of themselves in front of Marcel Duchamp and Ray Man, fails to write about any of the major players in his book in any real depth. The title of the book promises to cover Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs, but, coming in at under three-hundred pages, one can tell just by looking at it that the book will barely scratch the surface of the minds of these three complex individuals.

In fact, Miles doesn’t even manage to stay strictly with the people named in his book’s title. He strays, most notably writing about Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville and the invention of the "Dream Machine," a device that uses flickering light patterns to induce hallucinations and their early experiments with early multimedia performance art. It is when he strays from the dull retread of well known literary history and focuses on some of the more overlooked figures who were also present in the Beat Hotel that Miles is at his most interesting.

The Beat Hotel, however, is, for the most part like looking through someone else’s vacation pictures. It gives the reader some sense of what it was like to be there, but one can’t help but feel that in between the snapshots of bohemian life in Paris that the real story took place in the spaces in between.

Paul Celan : After The Disaster

Stephen Mitchelmore explores the post-Holocaust poetry of Paul Celan

“With a variable key
you unlock the house in which
drifts the snow of that left unspoken.
Always what key you choose
depends on the blood that spurts
from your eye or your mouth or your ear.

You vary the key, you vary the word
that is free to drift with the flakes.
What snowball will form round the word
depends on the wind that rebuffs you.”

This is a poem by Paul Celan translated from the German original by Michael Hamburger. The original was written in the early 1950s. Its title is the first line. We assume a translation is second-hand and only the original can provide definitive clarification. But clarification of what? Isn’t our sense of the opacity of translation also the sense of the rebuffing wind in Celan’s poem? Searching for the key to this poem, and being resisted, we sense the climate the poem reports. As we watch the snow gathering, pursuing an answer to explain why Celan chose this particular key – and there are grim details one can point to – prompts only a return journey to the poem.

It is an uncomfortable fact that the bar to a poem’s key – this poem’s key – is the key to the poem itself. Some might dismiss this as tiresomely reflexive; a poem about poetry. It is clear, I think, that this is an insensitive reading. The metaphors are too close to experience to dismiss it as abstract. Indeed, can they get any closer?

Celan’s friend, the French poet Yves Bonnefoy, wrote: I believe that Paul Celan chose to die as he did so that once, at least, words and what is might join. He had drowned himself in the Seine in late April 1970, six months before his fiftieth birthday. What is Bonnefoy talking about? Surely death by drowning and words are as far apart as one can get? Bonnefoy is alluding to his friend’s peculiar linguistic heritage and how it affected his life and poetry. Celan was grew up in the city of Czernowitz, then part of Romania, now within Moldova. Its political geography meant many languages were spoken among its inhabitants. In the poet’s home, the language was High German, while the wider community generally used the more latinate Romanian. There were many others in circulation, including Yiddish.

The last is significant as Celan was part of a large Jewish community. There was anti-Semitism, for sure, but German culture was the pinnacle of Western civilisation. It promised something better than feudal sniping. Inspired by his mother’s deep love for it’s poetry, he wrote lyric poems in the tradition of Hölderlin and Rilke. It is said that as a youth he had a remarkable affinity for it too. His taste moved him toward the contemporary symbolist and surrealist movements, and despite his polylingual abilities, he always wrote his poetry in German; his muttersprache.

Paul Celan

Then war came. Celan was, by chance, separated from his parents on the day the Nazis arrived and deported the city’s Jews. He never saw his parents again. They were taken to a Ukrainian labour camp. His father died of disease; his mother was shot. After this, as Hugo Gryn said, Celan was in the position of being a writer in the language of his mother and of his mother’s murderers. He could not renounce the latter’s language without renouncing the former’s. Celan was robbed of his parents’ death as well as their lives. Bonnefoy implies the same goes for his müttersprache.

“We can say of Celan as of no other poet: his words did not recover his experience. The loss was felt,” he says, “like a discharge without origin or end.” And as a result: “nothing real could authentically respond to this flux or be its equal, in the absolute, as referent: only the river itself … seems to fold in on itself (losing itself) like the only thing signified on the scale of so much absence.”

So for Bonnefoy, an avowed Christian, another death becomes another metaphor of hope. If his explanation is exemplary, we remain in what Maurice Blanchot calls “the civilisation of the book”, where literature takes possession of everything – that is, submitting it to a pre-established unity symbolised by the enclosing covers of a book. Even Bonnefoy’s sensitive appraisal leaves too strong a trace of the dubious correlation of life and art. Its presence allow us to keep the discomposing reality at a distance, within the inexorable logic of a narrative with a beginning, middle and, most importantly, an end.

This article on Celan will tend toward that logic too. Perhaps it must. But whereas the industry surrounding Sylvia Plath, for example, regards the poetry as an expert witness to judging the case of her tormented life and suicide, with Celan, this would be to miss everything.

Seamus Heaney begins his essay on Sylvia Plath by stating the potential of poetry:

the poet’s need [is] to get beyond ego in order to become the voice of more than autobiography. At the level of poetic speech, when this happens, sound and meaning rise like a tide out of language to carry individual utterance away upon a current stronger and deeper that the individual could have anticipated.” (Note the pervasive river theme!).

He then goes on to examine how Plath developed her poetry yet never moved beyond “the dominant theme of self-discovery and self-definition”. Nowadays, of course, that theme is enough to launch ten-thousand poems beginning with ‘I’. But what does moving beyond this theme mean? Celan was ambivalent, to say the least, about that rising tide out of language. Indeed, it caused him to lose trust in his most famous poem, “Deathfugue”. This is how that poem ends; the subject, you will notice, is explicit:

“Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we
drink you

death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on us he grants us a grave in the air
he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from
Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith
” (trans. Michael Hamburger)

If any help is needed, the line “a grave in the air” can be read as the smoke rising from the camp chimneys; plain fact as much as metaphor. Overall, the poem emerged from reports of small Jewish orchestras playing tangos within concentration camp fences, often accompanying gravedigging and executions. The poem mimics the pace and rhythm of the dance that had captivated carefree Europe between the wars. Its first title was indeed ‘Death Tango’. In placing such lightness within the realm of such darkness, an entire culture is incriminated. The change to ‘Deathfugue’ recalls the divine lightness of Bach, while ‘Margarete’ alludes to the tragic heroine in Goethe’s Faust, forgiven by God despite everything. (It is a bizarre but telling fact that Goethe’s famous oak tree outside Weimar was protected by the SS as the Buchenwald concentration camp went up around it.) Margarete is contrasted with Shulamith, the female symbol of Jewish hope in the Song of Solomon, who is not forgiven.

In post-war Germany the poem became part of the curriculum for schools and was acclaimed by numerous critics in the new Federal Republic. However, praise tended to be for what was called the poem’s “mastery” of what had passed – the Holocaust; enabling a reconciliation of sorts. Germany wanted to move on. It welcomed the rising tide out of language as it bore guilt away. The worst was confirmed when schoolteachers discussed the use of the poem in class. They agreed it was excellent in teaching how poetry might follow a musical pattern like a fugue but, they felt, the teaching should not be side-tracked by talk of the Holocaust. Celan’s subsequent distress led him to refuse to perform readings of the poem again. Perhaps he also felt there was a tendency toward the dark romance of a ‘terrible beauty’ in its aesthetic effects. Above all, it faced the progressive movement of the civilisation of the book, enveloping discordance like the resolving refrain of a Beethoven sonata.

Where did go Celan after this? Does it matter? What does poetry matter in our time anyway? If it is merely a means of reminding us of what has happened and what it means, then one wonders why the facts have not been enough. Perhaps that is the point: the facts have never been enough. Aharon Appelfeld, another writer-survivor, reminds us that “the numbers and the facts were the murderers’ own well-proven means. Man as a number is one of the horrors of dehumanisation.”

Celan does not offer the facts. Poetry is something else, something more than the facts. But, in general, that ‘something else’ remains under suspicion even more than the dehumanising facts because ‘something else’ seems to be only self-regarding gymnastics with a dictionary. Indeed SPIKE quite rightly announces itself to be “violently prejudiced” against poetry. What is the alternative? Celan’s poetry is an answer.

“A word – you know:
a corpse.

Let us wash it,
let us comb it,
let us turn its eye
towards heaven.”

This, the end of a poem, advocates the inversion of literature’s gaze. It moves in the opposite direction to most post-war poetry and prose, which sought practicality, matter-of-factness, accessibility. The quoted words come as a dark reflection at the end of the poem Nocturnally Pouting, itself a dark reflection on a bus journey over an alpine road in Austria. The presence of those departed is perceived in the landscape: in the “greyed moss”, in the “crossed and folded shafts of the spruces” and in “the jackdaws roused to endless flight over the glacier”. All are keys to those who “stand apart in the world”, each one “surly, bare-headed, hoar-frosted”, each one discharging “the guilt that adhered to their origin . upon a word that wrongly subsists, like summer.”

The polemic is striking and memorable, but for that reason perhaps begs the question: how does one turn a word heavenward? Isn’t this a rhetorical gesture? Celan’s title for the collection in which the two quoted poems appear is “From Threshold to Threshold”, and this just about sums up the “failure” of these two poems to cross the threshold to heaven. As readers we tend to grasp moments of manifesto-like clarity such as these; but assertion is not enough. Despite its practical matter-of-factness, it betrays failure. This is not to criticise. Failure is central to the history of modern poetry, although such failure is now usually misunderstood.

To simplify, the concern of the Romantic-Enlightenment poets of the 18th Century – the beginning of the modern age – was humanity’s relation to nature. We are familiar with this in Wordsworth and Coleridge. In the greater Europe, Hölderlin’s inspiration was also “To be one with all that lives, and to return in blessed self-forgetfulness into the All of Nature“. While he pursued it in poetry, others, such as his friend Hegel, turned to philosophy. But where philosophy feeds off distance, allowing the goal of the Absolute – which would be the end of philosophy, the end of history etc. – to be preserved indefinitely as a self-aggrandising rhetorical device, poetry demands the end without delay: if poetry remains, distance remains. Where today’s celebration of nature uses language in an unironic slideshow of clichés (see any New Age CD, website or poetry book made of recycled paper) the Romantics recognised only failure: words, corpses.

Worse, Enlightenment promises actually inaugurated the manifold growth of science and technology that sought (and still seeks) to conquer nature rather than to respect it. The consequence of Enlightenment was at once to liberate us of the fetters of medieval society and to destroy the traditions by which society kept its body and soul together. The contradiction remains with us, and the agitation of modern culture can be summed up as the tension between accepting the wilderness and our instinctive rejection of its freedom. A Celan poem reflects the struggle:

Should
should a man
should a man come into the world, today, with
the shining beard of the
patriarchs: he could,
if he spoke of this
time, he
could
only babble and babble
over, over
againagain

(Trans: Michael Hamburger)

He speaks but only just. It is poetry with aphasia. How might a man speak of this time, this ‘destitute time’, as Hölderlin called it, without using destitute words? Celan renews the question.

If for every Hölderlin there is a philosopher like Hegel, then for Celan there is Martin Heidegger.

His analysis of the modern age had a profound influence on Celan’s work, offering a theoretical apparatus to his own poetic one. Simplistically, Heidegger sought a new mode of thought to counteract the mechanistic tendency of the modern world. He believed that humanity had become separate from its harmony with the rest of nature, as he believed was in place in Homer’s Greece. This separation was due, he thought, to the rise of dualistic ways of thinking set in motion by Plato.

Concentrating on the concept of ‘being’, Heidegger argues that ‘human being’ is not a thing like other things (objects in the world as we know it) but a clearing (a non-thing, a nothingness) in which those things are presented, where they actually become things. And rather than this being an argument for solipsism (the world as function of one’s mind), it means our knowledge of the world is not a product of boxed-in consciousness. Instead of minds making thoughts possible, it is the ‘being’ preceding mind that makes it possible for us to regard ourselves as minds having thoughts distant from ‘the real world’.

This is a major challenge to the Cartesian tradition that has dominated Western thought for the last four centuries. But the clearing depends on a temporal and linguistic aspect. Things appear in the three dimensions of time, enabling us to categorise it in language and so differentiate it from the rest of the world. Such categorisation, however, is restricted by our need for control, and so the thing disappears from view. We become blinded to the discourse of the world; to what is revealed. The world becomes an object. This is a necessary tendency but one that can and must be counteracted by the function of the clearing.

Heidegger argues for the truth of the clearing by pointing toward the mood of anxiety that seems to characterise our everyday existence. We spend most of our time avoiding this mood, of course. He says we try to become totally absorbed in ‘the real world’, as defined by such dead language, in order to avoid facing up to our mortal nothingness as revealed in anxiety. So, rather than liberating us, the techologocally-advanced modern world opens a rift between the public self – the one in which we have in order to live without becoming paralysed by anxiety – and the ‘anxious’ self in the so-called clearing. Heidegger says that opening ourselves to anxiety by giving up our need for egoistic certainty will reveal the world in its abundant nature. It will set one free. The French existentialists of the post-war era adopted this theme from Heidegger, although their ‘absurd’ freedom was foreign to him. A French philosopher more in tune with Heidegger, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, sums up the condition for the present era:

Today, everywhere … remaining reality is disappearing in the mire of a “globalised” world. Nothing, not even the most obvious phenomena, not even the purest, most wrenching love, can escape this era’s shadow: a cancer of the subject“.

This is not a conspiracy of others but a runaway part of our need to live in the world rather than be imprisoned by autism. Selflessness, of course, while admirable in most cases, can also descend into what we called inhumanity. One of the terrible ironies of this story is Heidegger’s own descent. In the early 1930s, he saw the Nazi party as a political movement capable of mediating the needs of the modernity with authentic existence, making Germany a modern-day equivalent of ancient Greece. In 1933, the Rector of Freiburg University, where Heidegger was a renowned young professor, resigned in protest at Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws. Heidegger took his place after an election among the Aryan lecturers. He soon resigned in disaffection but never revoked his party membership and referred to his regret for the Holocaust only in what Maurice Blanchot called ‘scandalously inadequate’ fashion.

Such facts make Celan’s interest in his work more compelling. Heidegger represents the dangers inherent in the Romantic project. Another example would be the terror following the French Revolution. What does this mean for poetry? Well, in his isolated time after the war, during his denazification, Heidegger came to believe poetry was the means to open up the world; it could rouse the revelation of things in the clearing. In fact, it was the revelation itself. His intense meditations on Hölderlin’s poetry is summarised by an essay title taken from a poem: “… poetically man dwells …”.

Elsewhere he wrote that “Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.” If that is the case, and poets tend to feel it is, then it means, following the catastrophe of the Holocaust, language would have to change in order to rebuild the tainted home.

In the post-war era, this was an imperative for Celan as he was now living in Paris as a translator and tutor, physically and metaphorically exiled from his homes: Czernowitz, under Soviet rule, and German, under the weight of “murderous speech” as he called it. It was an imperative because, as his Paris contemporary Samuel Beckett put it: one writes not in order to be published, one writes in order to breathe. Celan could not breathe in the old language. The old language was saturated with the conditions by which an entire culture was able to produce the greatest art and thought in history and then produce death camps with the efficiency of a factory. No wonder Adorno said that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz was itself barbaric.

What Adorno didn’t say, and this has been ignored too often, is that poetry could still be written only not as we had known it. The new language, the new poetry, would be a way of turning us toward that which is absent in our everyday world, that which “stands apart in the world“. This formulation, like Heidegger’s clearing, betrays a religious sensibility. After Auschwitz, however, God was under radical question. The space left by Him, on the other hand, was not:

Psalm

No one moulds us again out of earth and clay,
no one conjures our dust.
No one.
Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower.
Towards
you.

A nothing
we were, are, shall
remain, flowering:
the nothing-, the no one’s rose.

With
our pistil soul-bright,
with our stamen heaven-ravaged,
our corolla red
with the crimson word which we sang
over, O over
the thorn.

(Trans: Michael Hamburger)

One can draw neither comfort nor despair from this poem, or rather, neither of them alone. It is a psalm and an antipsalm; sacred and bitter. What stands apart is palpable only in its absence; a void saturated by void, to use Blanchot’s phrase. Celan’s biographer John Felstiner has brought out the allusions within ‘Psalm’ to Jewish and Christian mysticism, both of which has to be bypassed here. But, to repeat Eliot on Dante, I think it communicates before any of these allusion are understood.

It may seem paradoxical that the writer of such a poem as ‘Psalm’ has a biographer (Heidegger says the author of every masterful poem is unimportant) and Felstiner’s book does indeed concentrate on the poems. Despite this, he uncovers the probable origin of the title of his 1959 collection “Sprachgitter” – Speech Grille.

Celan’s mother-in-law retreated to a convent and when the family visited her, she would remain behind a grill. Such a barrier holds also for poetry’s revelation. One must accept the limit for it to work; the limit is part of the experience. Or non-experience. Lacoue-Labarthe’s brief and powerful book on Celan is actually called “Poetry as Experience“. It characterises the poem as something always returning to its source, approaching the inaccessible, and, necessarily, inaccessibility. The poem returns to the experience itself – the revelation in the clearing – not ‘the stuff of anecdotes’ but the etymological origin of ‘experience': a crossing through danger. It is a crossing resisted only in what the poem lets us consume as readers: “a poem has nothing to recount, nothing to say; what it recounts and says is that from which it wrenches away as a poem.

So what, exactly, remains before and after this wrenching? Celan names it himself, in a speech upon receiving the prestigious Büchner Prize: “the poem has always hoped … to speak also on behalf of the strange – no, I can no longer use this word here – on behalf of the other, who knows, perhaps of an altogether other.” (translated by Rosemary Waldrop)

Perhaps the ‘strange’ can be used no longer because it is already too familiar, too homely. He had to seek another word or phrase: “the altogether other”. His speech, as much as his poetry, has to be attuned to the demands of experience. Celan also refers to the attempt to give each poem its own date, its own unique time, so that it speaks with supreme accuracy.

Deep in Time’s crevasse
by the alveolate ice waits,
a crystal of breath,
your irreversible witness

(trans. Michael Hamburger)

The difficulty is that language depends on generality; the more specific a word the harder it is to reach across time; we will not connect to the “altogether other” trapped in time’s crevasse. In fact, it could not be language anymore. Yet if it can connect despite risking such isolation, it would be all the more richer. In this respect, Celan requires a certain amount of patience on behalf of his readers. For example, a late untitled poem in full:

Illegibility of this world.
All things twice over.
The strong clocks justify the splitting hour hoarsely.
You , clamped into your deepest part, climb out of yourself for ever.

(trans. Michael Hamburger)

This is puzzling, but such puzzlement does not matter much once one sets the need for facts or conclusive harmony aside. Less sympathetic critics dismiss his work as ‘hermetic’, sealed from approach. They say only the writer could know what such a poem is about. Why is the world illegible? What is a strong clock?

I have no answers. Perhaps the lack of a title necessitates a certain blankness in the initial response. The moment one titles an experience the dangers lessen. Would a biography help us understand this? Probably not. Celan was adamant that his poetry was accessible: “As for my alleged encodings” he said “I’d rather say: undissembled ambiguity. I see my alleged abstractness and actual ambiguity as moments of realism.” It seems odd that a poet so keen – perhaps even desperate – to reach across time, to provide us with such realism, should do so by writing wilfully unreadable poems. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to assume it is the poetry’s problem.

Professor John Carey of Oxford would disagree. He is Britain’s foremost opponent of difficulty. In his best-selling book ‘The Intellectuals and the Masses‘, he argues that Modernism – the epitome of difficulty – was invented by intellectuals in order to alienate the so-called masses, who, newly emancipated from illiteracy, were seen as muddying the pure waters of literature. Celan indicates other reasons. In fact, the ‘enjoyment’ Carey demands is really a means of retaining a dualistic attitude to literature; of ‘talking eyes into blindness‘, to use Celan’s phrase. Of course, many Modernists were proto-fascists, yet this doesn’t mean difficulty equals Totalitarianism. It means, instead, a ‘crossing through danger’ is not mere rhetoric. The dangers led Heidegger to his great error.

It troubled Celan that the man he saw as one of the greatest of modern thinkers, so close to his own work, was a Nazi. One cannot even say ‘had been a Nazi’ because he never said anything that amounted to a renunciation. Late in life, Heidegger became interested in Celan’s work. He recognised him as the only living equal of Hölderlin. He attended public readings given by the poet, and in 1967 even invited him to his famous Black Forest retreat at Todtnauberg. Celan accepted. This was a significant move as Celan had developed an intense sensitivity (one might say ‘anxiety’) toward anti-Semitic tendencies in post-war Europe. When his dedicated publishers re-issued the work of a poet popular in the Nazi years, he left for another, and when German literary authorities exonerated him over plagiarism charges, he regarded it as a humiliation to be even under investigation. Yet here he was meeting a man in his most intimate home, a home in which, it is said, he had once run Nazi indoctrination sessions. Perhaps Celan never knew the full extent of Heidegger’s culpability.

Generally, not much is known about Celan’s reasons for accepting the invitation, nor what happened during the visit, but very soon after Celan wrote a poem called ‘Todtnauberg‘. The title reference is explicit; the place name is synonymous with the philosopher. This is the first half:

Arnica, eyebright,
the draft from the well
with the star-crowned die above it,
In
the hut,

the line
– whose name did the book
register before mine? -,
the line inscribed in that book about
a hope, today,
of a thinking man’s
coming
word
in the heart,

(trans. Michael Hamburger)

As Pierre Joris points out in his exceptional analysis of the various translations of the poem, ‘Todtnauberg‘ is barely a poem than single sentence divided into eight stanzas. The first of the three above display Celan’s extraordinary eye for nature, as noted earlier in “Nocturnally Pouting“. Arnica and Eyebright are flowers noted for their healing qualities, so right from the start there is the sense of what the meeting is all about. In the third, the poet signs the visitors book and makes plain his awareness of who might have signed it before – Germans being indoctrinated into Nazi ideology perhaps. He hopes for a word in the heart of the great man. Did the word reveal itself? The remaining five stanzas are:

woodland sward, unlevelled,
orchid and orchid, single,

coarse stuff, later, clear
in passing,

he who drives us, the man,
who listens in,
the half- trodden fascine
walks over the high moors
dampness,
much.

Almost certainly not. The two men walked across woodland each in his isolation: an orchid and an orchid. And the poem remained isolated as far as Heidegger was concerned. He displayed his special copy of the poem proudly to subsequent visitors to the cottage, seemingly unaware of its implications. Perhaps this is enough to indicate the blindness of a man, even one with genius, rooted in his familiar landscape – brought out here in Hamburger’s translation of log-paths as ‘fascine’, a word so close to ‘fascist’, the etymological origin coming, as Joris says, from the Latin ‘fasces’ – a bundle of wooden rods – the symbol of fascism.

‘Todtnauberg’ , therefore, cannot be regarded as a coded accusation, or as a shy expression of bitterness, or sentimental regret, or of pompous self-definition in contrast to a supposed intellectual superior, but rather the very openness Heidegger apparently lacked. As Celan once said: “Poetry does not impose itself, it exposes.” The lack of a second ‘itself’ in this sentence exposes.

Paul Stump – Unknown Pleasures: A Cultural Biography of Roxy Music

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Yesterday, Bryan Ferry nearly killed me. Lost in the music on my car stereo, I took a sharp corner on the A7 south of Edinburgh at a foolish speed. Unable to turn quickly enough, I lost control of the car and skidded to a stop on the wrong side of a road, nanoinches from the tip of a precipice. Pulling into a layby, I morbidly meditated on what might have happened had I parted company with the road. The sequence I imagined went something like this: a breathy expletive as I helplessly awaited my fate; a screech of aluminium on tarmac; an implausibly cinematic car-roll down the cliffside; and finally, nothing save the distant braying of sheep and the melancholic sound of eerie harmoniums and Weill-esque crooning.

Assuming I would have survived the accident, I began to imagine how I would have accounted for my insane driving to any passing constable of the law. "It’s very simple, officer. You see, I was reading Paul Stump’s Unknown Pleasures: a cultural biography of Roxy Music and I just had to revisit the Let’s Stick Together version of ‘Chance Meeting’. And after that, I quite forgot where I was and what I was doing". Quite how effective such pleading would be, I am unsure; but I like to imagine being thrown into an Edinburgh police cell and charged with driving while under the influence of experimental rock.

Unknown Pleasures is the second book by features journalist Paul Stump. Its assessment of the shape of Roxy’s – and, effectively, Ferry’s – career is conventional enough: stratospheric start with Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure; mid-career malaise, culminating in the dreadful In Your Mind; and rocky reascent to Taxi, Mamouna and the smoother nineties schtick. Stump gently scotches the dafter myths about Roxy and emphasizes a number of important propositions.

He rightly argues that Brian Eno’s contribution to the band – though brilliant – was by no means essential to the band’s success; that the Roxy Music vision is comparable in many ways with Bowie’s (here Stump is very insightful); and that Ferry, despite the aforementioned slump in the mid- to late 70s, produced some great work in that period. He also suggests that one misses the complexity of Roxy Music’s lyrics if one makes a simple identification between Ferry’s song personae and Ferry himself, as Johnny Rogan tends to do in his book Style with Substance: Roxy’s First Ten Years. Oh, and along the way, Ferry emerges as a poetic and musical pasticheur of considerable sophistication and integrity.

Regular and transitory Roxy band members are given the respect they deserve and there are separate, rather workmanlike chapters on the solo projects of Eno and of Manzanera and Mackay. Roxy followers seeking new information or gossip about Ferry, Eno et al will find little they didn’t already know; but Stump offers refreshing and convincing interpretations of well-known material, skilfully weaving musical terminology and sociological insights into his analyses of the songs.

Unknown Pleasures shows how Ferry’s extraordinary artistic vision was shaped by his lifelong curiosity about the workings of popular music and cinema and by his immersion in the work of the Pop Artists – particularly his artistic mentor at Newcastle University, Richard Hamilton. Although Stump wisely refrains from grandiose theories, it might be concluded that the former contributed to the deep, romantic streak in Ferry’s output ("2HB", "Three and Nine", "Avalon"), the latter to the hedonistic postmodern celebration of superficiality and consumption ("Beauty Queen", "The In Crowd", "The Thrill of It All"). Whatever the causes, Ferry emerges as a divided character, half Honest Northern Lad (there are overtones of reverse snobbery in "SuperGeordie"’s comments on his poor origins), half coked-up metropolitan dandy, stranded between 20s loungeroom and 80s boardroom.

Indeed, all the Ferries are represented in Stump’s book: Ferry the sensitive Englishman in raffish California; Ferry the parvenue "proto-Thatcherite" snob; Ferry the mercurial self-stylist; Ferry the wearer of the ridiculous "quasi-gaucho ensemble" that made him a critical laughing stock on the Country Life tour and allowed Nick Kent to brutally dub him "the George Lazenby of the Argentinian corned-beef market". Nevertheless, there is a sense that Ferry’s creation of Roxy – and himself – was incredibly purposeful and visionary; nay, a Nietzschian act of will.

Indeed, our Bri finally emerges as a suitably seedy subject for an Amadeus-style biopic – a flawed and multi-faceted genius whose schizophrenic attitude towards wealth and fame produced the creative tension that underpins his masterworks.

Thankfully, however, Stump is never sycophantic towards his primary subject. He does not shrink from criticising Ferry for his sometimes antedeluvian attitudes towards women and money or to condemn the sloppier of Ferry’s solo efforts. Indeed, some of Stump’s aesthetic judgements are perhaps a little too harsh (Bête Noire surely deserves better than "relentlessly nugatory") and one or two of the finest Roxy songs get short shrift ("Still Falls the Rain" isn’t even mentioned, for heaven’s sake).

Other minor irritations are the occasional lapses in spelling, the omission of certain words, and Stump’s repeated description of the Roxy technique as Pointilliste, which needs further unpacking to be intelligible. But these are trifling objections. Mostly the writing is exceptionally lucid and witty; and the book’s comprehensive scope will ensure that it is the definitive work on Roxy for many years to come.

One final word of advice: given the density and length of Stump’s 372-page book, it’s probably wisest to ensure familiarity with Roxy’s output before reading it. So dig out momma’s record collection. Better still, invest in the recently released Valentine CD-ROM (Burning Airlines, 2000), which contains stunning concert footage of six of the best early Roxy numbers. And hey, drive carefully…

Arvo Pärt : Miserere : Miserere And Minimalism

Lewis Owens meets composer Arvo Pärt

A few months ago, I contacted the composer Arvo Pärt through his publisher in Vienna. I informed Mr Pärt that I was interested in writing a book on his life and music. After reading my proposal, Mr Pärt suggested that we met to discuss things further. The first meeting took place on Wednesday March 29 at the Royal Academy of Music, where there was a three day festival in honour of his music. The second meeting was at his house in Essex, which was followed by a visit to the nearby Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist.

Arvo Pärt was born in Paide, south-east of Tallinn, Estonia, on 11 September 1935. He entered the Tallinn Conservatory in the autumn of 1957 and was later a winner of the “All-Union Survey of the Creative Work of Young Composers” held in Moscow for composers throughout the USSR under the age of 35. Although his musical ability was clearly evident, its religious content led to various confrontations with the Soviet authorities (his work Credo was banned for over decade) and he applied to leave the Soviet Union (and hence relinquish Soviet citizenship) in 1979 with his Jewish wife, Nora. On January 18, 1980 they left Tallinn for Vienna where they acquired Austrian citizenship. They now live primarily in Berlin.

Pärt’s minimalist music is rapidly increasing in popularity, and his attempt to re-establish the sacred roots of music has a growing appeal. Yet it seems to me that without understanding or appreciating the reasons or ‘philosophy’ (in a non-academic sense) behind his often repetitive tonal compositions, Pärt’s music may seem rather banal and somewhat unimaginative. Therefore, my interest was primarily to understand in greater depth the ‘philosophy’ that drives his music.

Arvo Pärt in rehearsal
Pärt in rehearsal

Eschewing in large part the conflicting tension of opposing forces that constitutes the dynamics of change found in, for example, the later symphonies of Tchaikovsky, Pärt’s harmonies suggest an understanding and experience of ‘time’ that is non-linear and non-teleological (that is, it appears to reach no climax or ‘goal’); moreover, as it lies outside a linear, teleological paradigm, it is immune from accusations of stasis.

Indeed, Pärt’s work has an underlying dynamic and organic unity, which seems to require an intuitive mode of perception to be experienced fully. This includes an experience and perception of silence that, much like the apophatic mystical tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church that Pärt embraces, seeks to overcome chaotic multiplicity and establish contact with a true and authentic unifying essence. Pärt has coined the word ‘tintinnabulation’ to describes this style of his work which dates from the early seventies:

Tintinnabulation is the area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, in my music, in my work…the complex and many-faceted only confuses me and I must search for unity…everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence comfort me.

Before our first meeting at the Royal Academy of Music, I attended a rehearsal of Pärt’s Miserere, during which the composer crept stealthily from every corner of the room, from instrument to instrument, bass to soprano, listening, suggesting and often wincing when the instruments and vocals did not harmonise “like Romeo and Juliet.” My work is like a puzzle or a mosaic, he claimed, if one piece is lost or out of place, then the whole work cannot function properly: “the machine cannot turn back” once it has begun.

After the rehearsal I was able to spend some time with Arvo and Nora Pärt. Pärt himself is as ‘present’ as his music; his deep, dark Slavonic eyes pierce you as sharply as any of his religious works. We discussed my intentions to write about the ‘philosophy’ behind his music. “‘Philosophy’? He has none”, his wife cut in sharply in broken English, “he learns everything from the old Church Fathers.” To really understand his music, she continued, you must first understand how this religious tradition (Eastern Orthodoxy) flows through him. Her husband agreed: I was therefore invited to spend a day with the Pärt’s at the Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex the following week.

Mr Pärt met me from the station, and we spoke of my work on Nikos Kazantzakis (whom Pärt clearly disliked for being too ‘unorthodox’) whilst we drove to his house in Essex. For the first couple of hours we discussed my proposed book, eating strawberries and drinking tea whilst being watched closely by the numerous severe-looking icons that decorate his sitting-room.

Church at Stavropegic Monastery of St. John The Baptist
One of the churches at the Stavropegic Monastery
of St. John the Baptist

Despite the obvious language barrier (I do not speak Estonian; Mr Pärt’s English is commendable but limited), it was also apparent that there were further barriers to overcome if my project was to be given the green light. We talked philosophy, theology and music, but Mr Pärt was visibly uncomfortable and nervous. Any book about him, he claimed, must begin with the substance of music itself – the arrangement of the notes. It is from this musical epicentre that everything else must radiate. “If anybody wishes to understand me”, he continued, “they must listen to my music; if anybody wishes to know my ‘philosophy’ then they can read any of the Church Fathers; if anybody wishes to know about my life, then there are things that I wish to keep closed…unlike our friend John [Tavener]!” It was clear that my proposed project was running into difficulties before he suggested that we headed for the monastery.

The Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist is home to around 25 monks and nuns. It was established under the spiritual guidance of Archimandrite Sophrony, who died in 1993. Sophrony had arrived on Mount Athos in 1925 and entered the Russian Monastery of St. Panteimon where he began scribbling down the teachings of his elder St. Siluoan. Many of his works are to be found in the monastery bookshop. The monastery itself is a mixture of richly ornate old timber buildings that blend beautifully with newer, more modern constructions. The monks and nuns spend their day in prayer, icon-painting, and in the general upkeep of the monastery. A large section of land enables them to grow various fruits and vegetables, and thus remain largely self-sufficient.

When showing me around the monastery, Pärt’s demeanour visibly changed. He came to life again, like he was during the rehearsal of Miserere, prowling cat-like from one icon to the next as he explained to me their origin and symbolism. He was clearly relieved to have left the ‘intellectual’ atmosphere that we had created earlier, and to breath instead a more ‘spiritual’ and aesthetic air. I was even treated to a duet by Pärt and his wife in one of the Churches.

At 5.00 p.m. the bells called all the monks and nuns to eat (as it was Lent, this was their only meal of the day). After a monkish chant that seemed to be taken straight from one of Pärt’s works, we ate our simple meal of olives and pulses in silence, listening to a reading from the teaching of Johannes Climacus. Humbleness prevailed. Soon afterwards Arvo and Nora Pärt presented me with a gift: Archimandrite Sophrony’s spiritual biography of “Saint Siluoan the Athonite.” We talked no more of my own proposed book; it just didn’t seem appropriate in the surroundings.

As I left the monastery and made my way slowly home, I recalled Pärt’s words and decided to put my book project on hold for the time being: “If anybody wishes to understand me, they must listen to my music; if anybody wishes to know my ‘philosophy’, then they can read any of the Church Fathers; if anybody wishes to know about my private life, there are things that I wish to keep closed.”

John Steele: The Bird That Never Flew

Stephen Harper

The Bird That Never Flew is a crude but extraordinary autobiography. With a minimum of literary fuss, John Steele describes his unimaginably brutal life, which began in the gritty Glasgow estates of Carntyne and Garthamlock, continued in remand homes and approved schools, and culminated in stretches in the infamous "big houses" of Barlinnie and Peterhead.

In 1978, thanks to the creative testimony of his friends, Steele was given a twelve-year sentence at Peterhead for a minor part in a robbery. Through destructive behaviour and "dirty protests" he constantly defied his brutal treatment at the hands of warders and continuously tried to escape from prison; as a result he was increasingly punished with beatings and solitary confinement.

Over the years Steele developed Houdini-like powers of escape and earned notoriety for daring jail-breaks. Most remarkable of all, Steele’s spirit was never broken, despite the best efforts of vicious and sadistic officials. But no sanctimonious nod to the "endurance of the human spirit" or "the power of one" can do justice to this book’s deep social conscience.

The book’s title is taken from a nonsense rhyme that refers to the symbols on Glasgow’s coat of arms:

The bird that never flew,
The tree that never grew,
The bell that never rang,
The fish that never swam.

Just in case there is any doubt about the rhyme’s relevance to the course of his miserable career, Steele starts the book by emphasising the stark social fact that conditioned his early life: the hopeless poverty of Glasgow’s post-war working class.

The early chapters, which deal with Steele’s childhood in the 1960s, are fragmentary and perfunctory; but the staccato style adequately conveys the randomness of a life spent on the rob and on the run. "All my young life was spent running away from something", remarks Steele wistfully, "- bed, Carntyne, my dad, the world itself".

The everyday life of Glasgow’s poor, Steele maintains, was not all bad. There was a strong sense of community; neighbours were regarded as family members. On the other hand, housing conditions were bad, incomes were exiguous and theft was both a necessity and a way of life: all the male members of Steele’s family were criminals. As if this were not enough, Steele was constantly subjected to appalling and motiveless beatings by his father Andy, a notorious gangster with a long prison record. Inevitably, Steele fils found himself caught up in a cycle of crime, violence and incarceration.

As the book progresses, Steele’s childhood thrashings blend seamlessly into the torture and beatings he receives from policemen and prison warders. Steele is humiliated and beaten up in schools and jails all over Scotland – Glasgow, Tranent, Peterhead, Inverness; the only thing that changes is the location. The routine and homogenous nature of this violence transforms the book from a dismal snapshot of local misery into an epic study of institutionalised violence. Truly amazing is that, despite all of his suffering, Steele’s tone is regretful rather than bitter, rational rather than vicious.

Indeed, there are some exquisite verbal confrontations. When the governor of Peterhead informs Steele – who is extremely ill as a result of a "dirty protest" – that "his nervous system is going haywire", Steele responds wryly that the governor’s "prison system is going haywire". Indeed, this book is profoundly concerned with "the system" – an irresistible admixture of psychiatric, medical and penal prejudice that deprives prisoners of their identity and humanity.

As well as constant torture and psychological humiliation, Steele has an absurd encounter with a psychiatrist, and is often close to being sent to Carstairs as a mental patient. But as Steele convincingly shows, destructive protest against his treatment was the only survival strategy available to him. Indeed, one is reminded of the theory of R. D. Laing, the controversial Glaswegian "anti-psychiatrist" who worked in Carstairs around this time, that what we call "mental illness" might actually be a perfectly rational behavioural response to extreme psychological disturbance.

Several poignant scenes lighten the sombre tone of the book. When Steele’s girlfriend visits him, for example, the lovebirds overcome the prohibition against physical contact by removing their socks and pressing their feet together under the table. Unfortunately, however, Steele felt unable to continue any romantic relations so long as he was in jail. His only constant supports are his brother and his heartbroken mother, who visits him wherever he is.

Steele’s other crutch is the arts: he is happy when he is able to sing the country songs he loved as a youth. And in Inverness, Steele smuggles a piece of pencil from the exercise yard into his cell, where he writes poems on pieces of toilet roll. Yup, there’s nothing like jail to reaffirm the transcendent power of art.

Of course, some will question whether Steele was really more sinned against than sinning. As in the case of Jimmy Boyle, the balance of responsibility will be shifted from society to the individual. It’s easier that way. But the comparison with Boyle is unfair to Steele, who was never violent and did very little wrong in his life; he simply grew up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although the book is more descriptive than didactic, Steele’s own view might be summarised by Isaac Asimov’s aphorism: "violence is the refuge of the incompetent". But Steele does not criticise the cruelty of individuals so much as the dehumanising culture of a prison system in which inmates are called "animals". This system is indeed incompetent, since the "lesson" it so brutally – and cynically – teaches encourages resentment rather than respect.

While it is never explicitly stated, Steele’s other major point – that criminals are not born, but made – is implied throughout the book. As the Scottish Executive pursues its mission of social inclusion, The Bird That Never Flew should be in every Member of Scottish Parliament’s Christmas stocking.

John Baxter: George Lucas: A Biography

Chris Mitchell

Throughout his film-making career, George Lucas has continually pushed back the boundaries of technology in order to realise his ideas on the silver screen. John Baxter’s biography of the man is not only an account of Lucas’ personal history but also the transformative effect Lucas’ fascination with technology has had on the entire movie industry since the advent of Star Wars.

While Baxter’s biography (published under the title Mythmaker in the States) is not authorised and he lacked any direct contact with the publicity-shy Lucas, his exhaustive research provides a balanced overview of Lucas’ career. Although Baxter doesn’t shy away from discussing the detrimental effect of Lucas’ driving ambition on both his marriage and many of his friendships, he prefers to concentrate on Lucas’ movie innovation and the building of the LucasFilm empire.

What becomes most apparent in Baxter’s portrayal of Lucas is his fascination with technology’s ability to create filmic illusion on a grand scale, rather than a fascination with movies themselves. From his first experimental picture THX1138 through to Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Phantom Menace, Lucas continually sought ever-grander ways to put the audience on the edge of their seats, rather than conveying a message or making social comment.

In doing so, he inaugurated the age of the blockbuster, where spectacle took precedence over everything else. Lucas summed it up himself by saying "I’m a film-maker, not a director. I like the physical part of making movies. I might be a toymaker if I wasn’t a film maker."

George Lucas

The strain on Lucas’ health making Star Wars meant that he avoided sitting in the director’s chair for another 20 years until The Phantom Menace. Much of that strain was caused by the creation of Industrial Light And Magic to produce Star Wars’ special effects, most of which had to be created completely from scratch.

Along the way, ILM created Photoshop, which is now the industry-standard computer graphics application, and later Pixar, who became a separate company and pioneered the digital animation of Toy Story and A Bug’s Life.

It’s apparent that Lucas returned to directing with The Phantom Menace precisely because the technology had finally caught up with his vision. Digital editing allowed him absolute control over the movie’s execution, rather than the fraught creation of Star Wars.

Ultimately Baxter’s biography portrays Lucas as a maverick who refused to kowtow either to Hollywood or to accepted notions of what makes a movie picture. It’s an immensely readable account that will appeal to Star Wars aficionados and film fans alike. It also acts as a fascinating overview of the way the movie industry has changed over the last 25 years and how much Lucas’ independence and interest in exploiting technology helped shape that change.

Chester Himes : Lesley Himes: A Life Of Absurdity : Life After Chester

Mark Ostrowski meets Lesley Himes, widow of the late, great Chester Himes

Women without men: María survived Borges; Linda Lee, Bukowski; Mary, Hemingway; and Lesley, Himes. Women who dealt with their husbands’ blindness, alcoholism, mental disorders, strokes. Women who now control the reproduction of their late husbands’ work, their copyright.

I was ruminating on the peculiar fate of these and other authors’ wives-turned-widows as I waited for Lesley Himes, widow of American expatriate writer Chester Himes. Himes, who has been hailed as “the father of black American crime writing,” is best known for his Harlem-based thrillers, eight of which feature the detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. He also has the distinction of being the first non-French author ever to win the Grand Prix de la littérature policière; it was awarded to him in 1958 for his novel For Love of Imabelle, which is now published as A Rage in Harlem.

It was a clear, hot day in Moraira, an increasingly pretentious fishing village in the south of Spain, but from the shady confines of the Plaza de la Sort the heat was much diminished.

Lesley arrived wearing a pale green chiffon dress. Although now in her 70s, she hasn’t lost any of the flair of her Paris days, when she worked as a photo librarian for the Herald Tribune. (“She was Irish-English with blue-gray eyes and was very good looking,” Chester Himes wrote in My Life of Absurdity, the second volume of his autobiography.) “I was extremely elegant,” she admitted. “Everyone around here always thinks I’m going to a party.”

Lesley Himes, wife of Chester Himes

The waiter had hardly finished uncorking our bottle of Marina Alta white wine when her cellular phone rang: “Hello? How are you! When does your football match kick off? Oh, Ted, what a pity! I’m going with David on Monday…” Life after Chester indeed.

My expression must have betrayed my thoughts, for she reminded me that a long time—fifteen years—has gone by since Chester’s death, over the course of which she had been tempted to re-marry twice. The first of her suitors, a “pompous Jewish man who lectured in minority studies at Berkeley,” was surprised that Chester hadn’t written more about her in his autobiography. One of the reasons Lesley believes she was given such short shrift in My Life of Absurdity is because Chester’s failing health had thrust her not only into the role of typist but editor as well: “Chester had a hard time finishing it. We got into arguments because I’d take the manuscript back and say, ‘Chester, this wasn’t like that.’ He had me sleeping with someone I didn’t even know…”

A Life Of Absurdity: Chester Himes

What lured the Himeses to the obscurity of southern Spain and away from the conviviality and recognition they enjoyed in Paris remains somewhat unclear. (Perhaps James Sallis’s upcoming biography will shed new light on the matter.) Was it simply Chester’s compulsive personality, his urge to jump in the Jaguar and go somewhere new? Upon my bringing up the suggestion made by one of Himes’s first biographers, Michel Fabré, that they couldn’t afford the French Rivera, Lesley became livid. She would become similarly piqued twice more: first, at the mention of long-time Himes confidant and author of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Melvin Van Peebles (“Somehow when anyone starts talking about Chester, Melvin always gets in on it. He never drops me a note…We fed him for weeks and weeks in Paris.”); and again with Ellen Wright (“The only problem with Richard [Wright] was his wife. I couldn’t stand the woman.”).

But before accusing Lesley of unwarranted vituperativeness, it bears mentioning that she—no double-entendre intended—did not cast the first stone. Van Peebles’s portrayal of her in his introduction to Himes’s prison novel, Yesterday Will Make You Cry, the unexpurgated version of Cast the First Stone, as “Chester’s ladyfriend-cum-watchdog” is anything but flattering. (For a thorough thrashing of an author’s wife, see Graham Greene’s review of Jessie Conrad’s Joseph Conrad and his Circle. )

Obviously the inverse of Paul Bowles’s axiom – “intense discomfort often helps to induce intensive work” – was true in Chester’s case. “I think the only problem with coming here was that it got to be too comfortable,” she said. “He really didn’t have to work…Chester didn’t write because he loved to sit down and write. He wrote for a living. He wrote to make money.”

The last thing written by Chester is generally regarded to be a letter of complaint to the Herald Tribune. “He didn’t write that. I did. Because I was so pissed off they never mentioned Chester’s name. I thought, I know what Chester would say, so I’ll do it for him.” Multiple strokes had deteriorated his health so badly that Lesley was forced to do more than attend to just his physical needs: “In the final years I had to take over the books…I had to write letters to some important people. I was very good at faking his signature. I knew exactly what he was going to say.”

Lesley has decided that upon her death all income derived from Chester’s books will go to the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. The money will be used to set up a grant in Chester’s name for Afro-American artists. “Chester would have wanted it that way,” she added.

As we sat sipping our muscatel, I realized that the question of race had hardly been mentioned during the whole afternoon. When I told Lesley this, she smiled and said: “That’s the thing people say was most incredible about me. Chester said one day, ‘You’re the only true colorblind person I’ve ever met in my life.’” Coming from the likes of Chester Himes – as anyone who has read his Plan B will understand – this was quite a compliment.