Friday, 10 April 2015

My course in Non-Fiction Writing at The City Lit: April 24 - July 10 2015

From April 24 to July 10 I'm going to be teaching a class in Non-Fiction Writing at the City Lit in Covent Garden. Simply put, this will involve me and the students reading and appreciating the works of some high-order exponents of contemporary non-fiction, and the students producing their own written work for class discussion on a weekly basis. I think it'll be fun. Anyone is welcome to book a place, please do tell your friends etc.

Among the writers whose work I expect we will be looking at are:

Simon Armitage (Walking Home)
Gordon Burn (Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son)
Ian Buruma (Murder in Amsterdam)
Roger Deakin (Waterlog)
Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking)
Ian Hamilton (In Search of J.D. Salinger)
Robert Hughes (The Fatal Shore)
Janet Malcolm, (The Journalist and the Murderer)
Norman Mailer (Miami and the Siege of Chicago)
V.S. Naipaul (Area of Darkness)
Gitta Sereny (Cries Unheard)
Claire Tomalin (The Invisible Woman)

Among the issues I imagine I'll be exploring with the students:

- Structure, narration, point-of-view; 
- how to work up your inchoate ideas; 
- how to be honest on the page; 
- how to explain the way that a thing works; 
- how to describe what people and places look like; 
- how to convey the ways people speak; 
- how to explain a sequence of events interestingly; 
- how to fathom one’s memories accurately...;
- ... and how not to fabricate them; 
- how to bear witness to human misery;
- how to write about people and things of which you disapprove; 
- how to keep good notes, how to conduct interviews; 
- how to begin a piece of writing; 
- and, oh yes, how to end it.

What I Saw at the Danish Revolution: Dogme Days

Somehow, always imagined that mermaid would be bigger...

'Never pass up the opportunity to have sex or appear on television’ was one of Gore Vidal’s many quotable frivolities. Approving at least the second half of the sentiment, last month I was filmed in interview for Swedish television, as a small contribution to a forthcoming series entitled Scenes That Changed Cinema. The scene I was asked to talk about was ‘Christian’s speech’ from Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998.)

It's a terrible thing to watch, still, which is why it's so good; and all shot, of course, on a Sony PC-7 consumer camera no bigger than a man's fist, such that the effect is to make you wonder who on earth is operating while all these awful things are being said. The actors are all totally 'on', for sure, and it's amusing to recall that Vinterberg didn't tell his extras anything in advance about what Christian was going to say, hence the rather 'true' reactions he gets.

But anyhow, look at it again for yourself:  

My credentials in Danish cinema come from having written a book about the Dogme 95 movement a full fifteen years ago now: The Name of this Book is Dogme 95. It was commissioned by Walter Donohue at Faber, and that commission led me to collaborate with director Saul Metzstein and producer Paula Jalfon (also the starry cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) on a companion-piece Channel 4 documentary. That doc - The Name of this Film is Dogme 95, natch - is scarcely seen nowadays but I was pleased to see a complete transcript with stills online here.

Dogme already seems a long time ago but I still get asked about it, and according to my friend Louise Anderson who teaches film the book still gets taught in schools and colleges. It’s out of print, inevitably, but available electronically. The titles of both the book and the doc are, of course, nods to the title of Talking Heads' 1982 live album, itself derived from David Byrne's on-stage introduction to Heads gigs back in the day.

I’m not sure I gave of my absolute best to the Swedish documentary crew. We shot outdoors on a London street-corner at a chilly hour of a March morning, and over time I became preoccupied less by the conversational matters at hand than by the stone-cold coming up through the soles of my boots. However it was fun to look back on a good bunch of films and some happy times spent in wonderful Copenhagen – I learned so much. I wrote this piece for the Guardian in 2000 and it's probably still true or true-ish. 

Festen was a low-budget Danish film that went around the world, so we have to say its dramatic punch proved to be universal. Nonetheless it’s a very “Danish” production, as Thomas Vinterberg admitted in his charming manner when I met with him back in 1999. He spoke of having ‘touched something Danish’, also, amusedly, of having ‘spat in the eye of Danish tradition.’ The rape of children is a powerful, indeed unbearable subject for a drama and that, too – to the shame of humanity – is, perforce, a universal theme. But Vinterberg made use of it intelligently to fashion a little dramatic microcosm of a consensus society, suspicious of difference, permitting of hypocrisy.

(Let me just say that, personally, everything I saw and experienced in Denmark in the course of this project was right up my alley. I thought the place was great. I'd go live there like a shot, anytime. But then I'm a Lutheran kind of guy.)

Applying the austere rules of Dogme 95 tended to make for films that looked a lot messier than audiences were accustomed to, and even though 'shaky-cam' and natural light and so forth enjoyed a stylistic resurgence thereafter there are moviegoers, still, who can’t be doing with any of that. But Festen will always stand up as a piece of cinema because of its strong, indeed classical lines as a piece of drama, a Scandinavian chamber piece that obeys the Aristotelian unities and has shades of Hamlet (‘something rotten'!) and Ibsen in its tale of a family, a grand occasion, a secret, and a war between father and son. 

Festen put Dogme 95 and a 'Danish wave' onto the map, but these waves, of course, break and roll back. Still, 1998 was a moment when the idea of what a movie was or should be underwent a useful change. It's not the fault of Lars von Trier and his comrades that, in retrospect, the influence of Dogme looks most apparent in 'found footage' horror movies, cheaply made rom-coms, and an unsatisfactory little sub-genre of 'films about film' from such luminaries as Steven Soderbergh and Mike Figgis.

The Dogme manifesto - with its reviling of the commercial bourgeois cinema of spectacle and its vaunting of movies with a moral outlook meant to ‘force the truth’ out of fiction - was up my street, too, in its day and I'm fond of it still. Roberto Rossellini, who knew all about this stuff, was right when he said 'There doesn't exist a technique for capturing truth. Only a moral position can do it.' In the end it's not about rules, it's about the artist and artistry. But all artists have rules of sorts - cf. Bresson: 'To forge for oneself iron laws, if only in order to obey or disobey them with difficulty.'

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The People, Our (Anti-)Politics, & Stella Creasy MP

The cover-page of my Esquire piece
Over a few months in the spring I followed Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, around the houses for an interview-based profile that Esquire Weekly had kindly commissioned from me. (If you want to read the piece, published in issue #47 dated August 21 2014, you need to have an iPad or iPhone, but if so please look here.)

The piece was my idea, one in which I was encouraged by a few Labour-supporting friends who, like me, feel that Creasy is an impressively thoughtful and dynamic character who merits a position of prominence in any future configuration of the party’s front bench. But my editor at Esquire, Dan Davies, more broadly endorsed the idea that, over and above any specific debate about Labour’s fortunes, Creasy is of wider interest as a politician actively kicking back against the moody public malaise of ‘anti-politics’ that has been all around us like winter weather for so long now.

Creasy has a public profile and platform for which she has grafted steadfastly and knows how to use. It seems to help that she is a normal human being with musical and pop cultural interests. In the course of our chats I mentioned to her my strong memories of the NME putting Neil Kinnock on its cover prior to the 1987 election (a stroke I fondly imagined would win Labour, oh, millions of votes), and of The Face, the other bible of my 1980s adolescence, diagnosing that what Labour really needed to cure its electoral ailment was a ‘funky politician’. Creasy saw my insinuation coming and met it with a straight sceptical bat. ‘If I’m funky’, she replied, ‘we’re in trouble.’

Another highly significant aspect of Creasy’s profile is her vocal feminism. Esquire is of course a publication mainly focused on the leisure interests of men and when I asked Creasy if she was OK with that she laughed it off easily with a line about ‘manly magazines’, then segued (a special adeptness of hers) into some observations on certain sexually aggressive traits in our society, and how these manifest in young men and even schoolboys. (‘I had an 11-year-old boy tell me’, she recalled, ‘that the problem was that the girls wear all these revealing leggings...’)

So Creasy lacks for nothing in the straight-talking department. As my friend John Rentoul has noted, she possibly talks too fast for her own good, though this may also be the special lament of journalists lumbered with the job of transcribing her. (It could make for other issues, though. I noticed that in public speaking she always has good jokes but doesn’t always time them especially well – that is, in the haste to crack on she doesn’t routinely wait for the audience’s laugh then roll over it, a skill that most top pols quickly get themselves accustomed to.)

The big thing about Creasy, though, the thing that ought to stir Labour hearts, is that she is very much about the people – about forging opportunities for people, and demanding the reform of outmoded systems which obstruct that, and without being sanctimoniously utopian about it. ‘I came into politics to change the world,’ she told me. ‘People are starving now, we need stuff now. So just sitting on the sidelines waiting for perfection? Nah, it’s not going to happen.’ 

I followed Creasy along to three political outings, two of which were described in the Esquire piece. The first was a meeting for her Walthamstow constituents in an oak-panelled room within the Commons, a classic tea-and-biscuits get-together but one on which she put a twist. The aim was to address what she had taken away from surgeries as the most urgent local concerns – ’I can’t get a doctor’s appointment’ and ‘I’m being priced out of the area.’’ So attendees were invited to adorn huge sheets of paper with marker pens, listing their comments and complaints about healthcare and housing, and from the data thus gathered Creasy basically took a floor vote about which issues and suggestions should be acted upon. ('I need your help to challenge them', she told the assembled. 'This is going to work because of you, not us.’)

The second outing on which I observed her at work was at Keble College, Oxford, where she addressed a seminar of digital campaigners: passionate young people, in the main, just as adamant as her in their desire to ‘change the world.’

Ilford, May 2014: The campaign trail
An account of the third excursion had to be cut from what was an already generously sized piece, but this was a sunny May Sunday I spent with her in Ilford (together with the impressive local councillor and parliamentary candidate Wes Streeting) on a spot of local election campaigning - basically, following her down a succession of garden paths as she searched for someone who was indoors and willing to chat, the expending of shoe-leather being another great tradition of our politics. One woman, visibly shattered from working a night-shift, expressed to Creasy a polite indifference as to what voting has meant for her all her life: ‘Whoever’s in power, the same things don’t get done.’ Creasy nonetheless enquired patiently of the woman as to which local issues she rated as important, and persuaded her to have a word with Wes Streeting, too. ‘Turning up on someone’s doorstep is quite disruptive’, Creasy told me later.  ‘But if we can’t find a way to have a better conversation...’

This is really the nub of Creasy’s pitch. ‘You get the political process you deserve’, she told me. ‘If you want to change the world you have to get involved.’ That goes for MPs like her and for people like you and me. There wasn’t room in the piece for the following quote from her but it nicely sums up her thinking:
‘The left has always had within it a very well-meaning strand that says we are fighting injustice for people because they are vulnerable and can’t speak for themselves. My own experience is if you find a way to give a voice to those people they are ten times better at presenting themselves... I happen to think rather than saying, ‘Somebody ought to do something about that’, we should do it together... Our job can’t be just to manage the situation as it is. Otherwise I’m looking at my [MP] email inbox, which is a series of misery and pain, and thinking, ‘The most I can do is mitigate some of this.’ We’ve got to be a lot clearer about how we can work with the public, because that’s the best way Britain can succeed. It’s challenging to traditional politics and to the public too. In my experience it’s more positive and constructive, and it has good results. And it’s a more exciting way to work.’

Creasy is associated strongly with the political use of social media and online rallying cf. the Sharkstoppers campaign to cap the rates of 'payday lenders.' But as the journalist Matthew d’Ancona has put it, ‘Representative democracy is not an app.’ And Creasy is entirely aware of the inherent problems of e-petitions and ‘hashtag activism’ where a pious click or retweet, however felt, becomes the sum of the citizen’s investment in the cause, and so leads precisely nowhere. On that she told me this:

'The payday loans campaign was successful not because we said ‘Payday loans are a problem’ but because it said ‘Capping the cost of credit is a solution.’ It was offering not just an anger but an action that would make a difference. Online communications allow you to have conversations about what are the actions that will make a difference and how do we get there much quicker and have a broader group of people with us. But you have to have a sense of purpose and not just say, ‘Right, who’s angry? Who can make a great joke about Wonga?'

On this form Creasy could remind one of Tony Blair’s injunction that Labour should be ‘the seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger.’ Lazily, perhaps, I am also reminded of someone else about whom I write regularly. Back in 2010 when I was speaking to Sean Penn about his humanitarian efforts in Haiti, and his not unrelated disdain for the internet, he gave me a candid opinion of our wireless society and its capacity for change. 'There are too many people out there doing this' – he mimicked fingers dancing over laptop keys – 'and thinking that they're doing something. And they're not.'

In brief, so as to not be on the fence, as it's no sort of a place to be, I should say that I would be quite content to see Stella Creasy lead the Labour Party at any appropriate point in the future (such as tomorrow, for instance), and lead it into government. But, clearly, an awful lot of anti-politics, well-meaning strands and same old things not getting done would have to be waded through first. At any rate, this is how I ended the Esquire piece:
'Rather than her exit from politics, most journalists who have written about Stella Creasy have been more concerned with her prospects for advancement. But I wonder if the highest office would necessarily be the most progressive outcome of her political mission. She might just as vitally be a lightning-rod for luring new talents into politics – both female and male, within Labour or maybe even without, but people who are on the side of people, and don’t seek power for personal gain but, rather, in order to give it away.'

Monday, 10 November 2014

A new and updated edition of my 'Sean Penn: His Life and Times' from Faber & Faber in 2015

I’m pleased to report that I am now properly at work on a new and updated edition of Sean Penn: His Life and Times, originally published by Faber more or less exactly ten years ago, and so certainly due for a fresh lick of paint.

‘Time is a funny thing, huh’, as Tom Waits says in Rumblefish. ‘Time is a very peculiar item...’ I first met Sean Penn in 2001 and later that year secured his consent to do an interview-based ‘oral history’-style book about his life and work. I began work on that book in the autumn/winter of 2002 as Sean was shooting Mystic River with Clint Eastwood and then 21 Grams with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. One day in the midst of that I called his office to check his whereabouts. ‘Baghdad,’ came the unexpected – unexpectable? – reply. The first Faber hardback edition of Sean Penn: His Life and Times came out in October 2004, six months after Sean won his first Academy Award. A paperback edition followed a year later, with updates that concluded as Sean embarked on a journalistic assignment to Iran and secured the film rights to Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild.

So that was then and this is now, a good while later. Of course, lots of people lead very lively lives, whether or not they have the attention of a wider public, but Sean is livelier than most, and so the new section of the book detailing 2005-2015 is going to have plenty of good and all-exclusive meat in it. I hope it will appear around the same time as the release of The Last Face - Sean’s fifth feature as director, starring Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, on which he is presently at work, the progress of which I have had a fortunate glimpse, and for which – based on the quality of the material, cast, crew, and the calibre of Sean’s previous productions as ‘helmer’ –  cinemagoers would surely be right to entertain high hopes.