Friday, 1 March 2019

Talking Politics: Best Political Novels


Recently I sat down in Cambridge for the Talking Politics podcast with host David Runciman and fellow guest Kasia Boddy, and it was as grand a conversation I’ve had in years - now online here. Being a long-time admirer of the podcast I felt much as thrilled to be part of it as I guess pop groups used to feel about getting asked onto Top of the Pops.

Our subject was Political Fiction, and that is dear to me, of course. I got to talk about the making of Crusaders and The Knives, and a host of memories returned in the process. Both are political novels, to be sure. 

Crusaders got its title from Harold Wilson’s famous and incorrect assertion that the Labour Party is a moral crusade or nothing, and it addresses the ideas of Christian Socialism and Methodism-over-Marx as elements of Labour thinking and history. Tony Blair appears in it, and the central character, Reverend John Gore, is, if you squint, maybe an image of what Blair might have become if he'd gone into the Church instead of politics.
 
The Knives is more expressly about the practice of politics – how make policy and law about identity cards or domestic violence, say, or why sign a police surveillance warrant – but also, in its conflicts between characters: about ‘politics’ as a bunch of things in which people believe, and which influence their personal behaviour e.g. my fictional ex-army Home Secretary Blaylock and his human rights QC ex-wife.

In terms of other political novels I love, it wasn’t the right place but I would have liked to put in one more word for After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima, which drew so effectively upon real Japanese politics that Mishima was hit with a lawsuit. Mishima’s alarming political postures in life tend to overshadow the intelligence of his fictions; and in After the Banquet he used a brilliant device – the female proprietor of a restaurant popular with senior government officials – as a means to enter ‘the whirlpool of politics.’

The ‘timeliness’ or otherwise of fiction in addressing our times is always a slippery business. Crusaders was much concerned with Thatcherism and New Labour, two ideas that, judging by the conditions of Conservative and Labour parties in 2019, feel like they have moss growing over them in some tomb. With The Knives, which I finished in early 2016, I still think a lot about the scene in the novel where Blaylock goes to Brussels and ponders the whole game as a fairly thoroughgoing Eurosceptic who, in the ‘real world’, would nonetheless certainly have voted Remain.

Is our current moment, then, good or bad for political fiction? It had better hang on a bit yet: I have another political novel in the works. Spy writers of a certain age clearly miss the Cold War era, unlike most of the rest of us. Cultural veterans of the 1980s might well remember how useful Thatcherism proved to their store of ideas and convictions. In 1939 Brecht pronounced that it was ‘a bad time for poetry.’ It certainly was, as John Willett puts it, ‘a bad time for humanity.’ But German literature had just gone through an extraordinary efflorescence, and that continued, for Brecht and other contemporaries. Whether or not poetry makes anything big happen, the tragedies of our times very obviously bring forth great writings that survive and sustain us.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Critical Quarterly: Sherlock Holmes Redux


Critical Quarterly is a fine literary journal founded in the late 1950s by C.B. (Brian) Cox and A.E. (Tony) Dyson. Cox – a scholar and poet who was soon to become a leading figure in the national debate about education – was an avowed believer in 'the moral importance of literature,' with a particular love of poetry and a passion for ensuring that good contemporary writing had its day n the sun, rather than suffering in the shade of the Great Tradition.

The brilliant Colin MacCabe became CQ’s chief editor in 1990; and I’ve had the privilege of seeing my work in the journal’s pages since the mid-1990s. Matthew Taunton, Senior Lecturer at UEA, is now CQ’s deputy editor, and he and I worked together very happily as co-editors on the journal’s latest number, Sherlock Holmes Redux: a revisiting of Conan Doyle’s deathless canon and some of the many intriguing variations still being played within it.

Matthew took charge of a number of critical commissions, new writings on Doyle’s Sherlock, and those fruits are as follows:

- Daily bread: food and drink in the Holmes canon by Simon J. James
- Sherlock Holmes and risk by James Purdon
- Holmes the narrator: ‘Here it is that I miss my Watson’ by Lauren Owen
- Fair exchange?: Between the afterlives of Holmes and Raffles by Matthew Ingleby
- Escaping the Strand: the paratextual Sherlock Holmes by Katharine Brombley

My side of affairs was a sequence of interviews with creative individuals who have produced adaptations of Sherlock designed for contemporary audiences; and I threw in an essay of my own about the strange case of Sherlock and his famous contemporary Dr Freud of Bergasse 19:

 - A criminal and a crime‐fighter’: the Sherlockian Freud and the Freudian Holmes by Richard T. Kelly
- ‘Playing in the sandpit of Sherlock Holmes’: an interview with Jonathan Barnes
- ‘Near to the hem of his garment’: an interview with Sarah Perry
- ‘Was it better to slap him or kiss him?’: an interview with Louise Brealey

I recommend the whole package unreservedly to anyone with an interest in Holmes, the crime-detective genre, 19th-century literature more generally, and the crafty creative business of adaptation. On that score I also recommend Jonathan Barnes' raft of new Sherlock audio adventures for Big Finish; Sarah Perry's new Holmes story ‘The Problem of the Kentish Ghost’, written for Sophie Hannah’s compendium Deadlier: 100 of the Best Crime Stories Written by Women; and, of course, Louise Brealey’s performances as the intriguingly non-canonical Molly Hooper in the BBC series Sherlock. Louise is also our edition’s cover star, and living proof of the novel transformations that still exist to be wrought upon the great consulting detective.


Friday, 30 November 2018

Bernardo Bertolucci 1941-2018: a phantastic guy


Name a filmmaker who maybe, maybe, spent a shade too long in psychoanalysis; Woody Allen’s name might spring to mind. But it was true, by his own admission, of Bernardo Bertolucci, who famously greeted the winning of a barrel-load of Oscars with the quip that Hollywood had become, for him, ‘the big nipple.’ He couldn’t stop himself.

That same year, 1988, John Boorman had done the rounds of Hollywood functions because he, too, was promoting a movie with multiple nominations; and in his diaries Boorman recorded a wonderful exchange with his fellow auteur. He asked Bertolucci quite why he’d done so much time on the analyst’s couch, and the reply was, as I recall: ‘Because I kept on making beautiful movies and nobody went to see them.’

The thing is, you can see Bertolucci making that joke, in all candour, with the delighting, semi-rueful smile that travelled halfway up the side of his face.

But, of course, not nearly so neglected! Bertolucci was, is, will be famous for Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor. The Conformist is widely considered his masterpiece, one of the all-time great movies. Before the Revolution and The Spider’s Stratagem are hugely admired. Much else in his body of work is extraordinary and brilliant. That’s plenty, no?

It’s The Conformist for me, too. It’s about politics, about Italy and fascism; but it’s about cinema, too – helplessly, ravishingly. Bertolucci would own up, candidly, to a case of ‘the disease of cinephilia.’ In this movie, he made plain, you could see Ophuls, Sternberg, Welles. But you saw Godard, too – the father he offended by taking Paramount’s money to distribute the film. You saw Bresson: Bertolucci, who venerated the great man, cast Dominique Sanda fresh from Une Femme Douce because, he quipped, he wanted to steal one of Bresson’s virgins, put her in a beautiful dress and take her to a party.

Bertolucci was always honourable towards his great collaborators, too, as on The Conformist: the visual powerhouses Vittorio Storaro and Nando Scarfiotti, and Franco ‘Kim’ Arcalli, who helped him reconstruct The Conformist in the cutting-room (‘an ex-Partisan, fantastic guy!’ as Bertolucci would describe him to years later.)

Bertolucci’s cinema has given me so many more joys: that apartment in Last Tango in Paris, with its strange Christo-like shroud; the umbilical links in Luna, and the pop-culture joys of Marilyn Monroe in Niagara and Matthew Barry’s café-jukebox dancing; the toast in The Last Emperor to ‘The Lord of Ten Thousand Years!’; The Sheltering Sky’s heartbreaking scene between Malkovich and Winger on the rocky plateau, that film’s heartbreaking score, its exquisite ending with Paul Bowles…

Bertolucci’s ambitions were so grand and romantic, his conception of sex and politics so heady, that you’d be hard-hearted not to see the life-enhancing charm of them, even if he sometimes bit off more than he could chew. If I remember it correct he wanted Novecento to be co-founded by Hollywood and Mosfilm, with US and Soviet actors in the two leads, as a means of engineering a little creative détente. That plan was doomed, a shade too schematic: as is any cinema, in my view, that tries to score points based on theories, that wants to editorialise rather than dramatise. Some of Bertolucci’s movies aren’t as dramatic as they ought to be; but they’re always ravishing.

When I was a research student at the British Film Institute in the mid-1990s I wrote a thesis on Nando Scarfiotti and his work, to which Bertolucci, with great grace, contributed in loving memory of his friend and colleague. I met him on the Tuscan location of Stealing Beauty, where he was commanding matters with the charisma I expected. Darius Khondji was the DP – no mean substitute for Storaro, who wasn't available, as he sometimes hadn't been ever since he was, in Bertolucci’s impish words, ‘unfaithful to him with Coppola’ for Apocalypse Now

I will never ever forget that day, that conversation, all I saw on Bertolucci’s show. I have one or two friends who are filmmakers, and I like to address them as ‘maestro,’ jocularly, but in respect, too – because it’s very hard to make a good film. Bertolucci made some great ones, and when I watched him make cinema I was so struck by the easy way in which he was addressed repeatedly by his collaborators as ‘maestro.’ He certainly was.  Buona notte e buona fortuna, maestro.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Nicolas Roeg 1928-2018: all of a time


‘When I was 12 years old,’ Nicolas Roeg said once - or maybe more than once? - ‘my father said the most extraordinary thing to me. “The day you’re born is your only chance to really have tomorrow, because by the day after you’ve got yesterday.” At the time it completely confused me, but gradually it began to make a little sense…’

Saying this to my tape-recorder, as it happened, Nic looked rather wry: however sad the sentiment, he surely knew that it constituted a little statement on the major theme of his art. For if cinema is – as art schools define it – a ‘time-based medium’, then he ranked high among those filmmakers who have articulated and poeticized our sense that time is really in the eye of the beholder. In Nic’s work the past, present and future seem to co-exist in the same fleeting instant.

Nic (who died yesterday, aged 90) was – is – a filmmaker’s filmmaker, in the sense that you’re better to measure his brilliance by the influence he exerted than on his box-office takings. He was so original and questing in his work that directors were bound to follow him, and to pay him that great tribute (hommage!) of stealing from his store of magic.

It’s analogous to how the best writing on Hitchcock is Hitchcock’s famous set of dialogues with Truffaut, and the best critical response to his Vertigo is the number of loving emulations of that movie by other filmmakers, rather than the stacks of academic monographs rehashing ‘reception theory.’ Nic’s personal testament, The World is Ever Changing, published by Walter Donohue at Faber in 2013, is the best thing you can read about him.

It might have been better for Nic’s career if all such debts had been repaid him in cash, but he always seemed – how should we say? – philosophical about it. The first time I talked to him at any length he remembered an early pre-release screening of The Man Who Fell to Earth after which his producer Michael Deeley enthused to him that, however the film might fare commercially, his peers would be ripping him off in no time.

I remember the day of that discussion really well. Finding his address in Notting Hill, just a few streets away from Powis Square. Climbing the stairs to his study, passing the framed Hockney Polaroid-collage of Theresa Russell as Marilyn Monroe, custom-made for Insignificance. The study itself, dressed from corner to corner with piles of books and objets d’art. I remember every encounter I count myself lucky to have had with a man who I basically hero-worshipped from boyhood.

The first being-in-the-same-room magic - round about now, only 33 years ago - involved my getting his autograph after a screening of Insignificance and a Q&A at the Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast. Theresa Russell was at his side; and had Jesus Christ chosen Belfast that night as the site of his Second Coming I really couldn't have been more impressed

In March 2009 BAFTA hosted a tribute evening to Nic as a means of bestowing their Fellowship upon him, and the banner they chose was 'The Magician With A Movie Camera.' BAFTA has a reel of highlights here. Danny Boyle and Duncan Kenworthy curated the evening and enlisted a great array of speakers, which I, by an immense stroke of good luck, was invited to join - to speak, I thought, on behalf of the fans in the stalls. So it was a very special and memorable evening - for the honouree, I’m sure, and for all attendees, I hope. Certainly for me.

Nic was – is – as brilliant a filmmaker as Britain has ever produced, the golden era of his work (roughly the 20 years from 1966-1985) standing comparison to the best of anybody else's ever. It’s true that many fans rated the later work less glowingly, and I think that disappointed Nic, as it would any artist. ‘It began to annoy Welles,’ he told me. The Magnificent Ambersons is a huge movie, but all people would say of it was that it wasn’t Citizen Kane.’

Anyone who ever 'interviewed' Nic had a similar sort of experience: you didn’t quiz him, you just listened, and tried to follow his associative leaps. John Huston, very different but also a bit of a magician, seemed to crop up in his conversation a fair bit; Nic especially liked to use Huston’s analogy of making movies as:
‘rather like being the mayor of a mining town – everybody’s working long days to the same end, there’s fun to be had. Then the mine closes, the population leaves, the town is deserted and the director is the last person left. Huston said, ‘Taken all in all it’s a rather melancholy affair.’ It is a loss, curiously, the end of a film – because your life has been in it. Your personal life is put aside. It’s a cliché but the films are like children. I don’t have a favourite, they’re all of a time and that time has gone by.’
He was quite enthralled by the i-Phone and ever-evolving possibilities of image capture, while being truly perplexed by the extent to which people persisted in putting movies together by the same old ways. ‘The weird thing,’ I recall him musing, ‘is that one’s grandchildren will say, ‘I don’t get it, what is a ‘film’? Why was it ever called ‘film’?’ You can start explaining about celluloid and light and they’ll say, ‘Oh…’’ 

Already I’ve had such conversations with my children – time's like that – but Nic’s films are going to endure. The pictures he made were just so strong and vivid and irreducibly part of him, right up to the point where they crossed over and became part of us.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

The Knives in New Statesman Best Books of 2018...


There was much rejoicing round mine back in 2016 when The Knives was a New Statesman Book of the Year pick; and I can’t say I was any less thrilled last week – reader, I opened a bottle – when the great David Hepworth (he of Smash Hits, Whistle Test, Mojo, and the author of several superb pop-cultural books including 1971) selected my defiantly not-yet-past-it novel as his best read of 2018. A big thanks owed to a writer I admire hugely.

In doing so Mr Hepworth also gave voice to a question that must surely have burned in the hearts of millions during the run of the BBC’s big drama smash of this year... Sadly, I know the answer. The people who make TV dramas are very smart people with a pretty sure sense of the audience for whom they're spending all that money in order to entertain grippingly from week to week. The relationship between my fictional Home Secretary Blaylock and his close-protection bodyguard Andy Grieve is vital to The Knives; but never in a million years would it have occurred to me to rework that relationship as a study in male-female sexual tension. 

Also, since I believe our elected politicians are rarely much better or worse in nature than we the people, I suspect I'd struggle somewhat to render with any conviction the power-corrupts dynamic that drives the majority of political thrillers made for film and TV.