Saturday, 2 June 2012

Dickens 2012: Dateline Seoul

Dickensian, no? Down by the docks in Incheon, South Korea
It was as an evangelist for Dickens and his enduring eminence (see passim) that I spent a few days in Seoul this March past, at the kind invitation (per my excellent Buenos Aires adventure) of the British Council. And the South Korean capital was really a lovely, fascinating, rewarding experience for me. What did I learn? Well, to speak of just a couple of dozen imperfectly formed impressions:

1) I arrived with the intention of looking with clean eyes, eschewing cultural cliché... That said, it is a fact that the view from the window of my (most comfortable) hotel room on the seventeenth floor was part occluded by glowing SAMSUNG and DAEWOO signs. This, after a drive from Incheon Airport through a mist so profoundly murky that for certain stretches I rather feared we were heading north to the Demilitarised Zone – if not the Twilight Zone. (In due course I came upon a popular local brand of bottled water called ‘DMZ’, and had to wonder what it was aiming for, beyond name-recognition.)

2) For all that – if you were to ask me now which is the neighbouring nation that casts the longest shadow over South Korea, against which South Koreans harbour a distinct historical complaint and measure their current levels of progress/success? Well, that would be Japan, I reckon. The old colonial presence is still 'felt' quite strongly, and there is of course a clear sense of economic comparison and competition.

3) There are maybe 25 million people in South Korea? And 12 million of them are in Seoul? The city is hemmed by mountains as far as the eye can see from a high vantage, and this certainly brings home to one the reason for the city’s marked architectural verticality. High up you can also see more clearly how the colonial Japanese re-planned the city, from east to west – in a defiance of the former order that was no doubt wilful.

4) The weather did pick up notably while I was there – however we did get one afternoon of spring snow, which was rather charming and, naturally, put me in mind of Yukio Mishima.

5) Something I realised very quickly, i.e. on arrival at the airport, as that our Dickens 2012 deliberations were only one big deal going down in town that week, possibly the main one being the Nuclear Security Summit. As it happened, Obama arrived in Seoul only as I was leaving, nonetheless I got to observe the ‘Ring of Steel’ being put in place downtown, and steely it most certainly was...

6) Of course I'd be inured to this had I ever visited Japan, but it was just a bit grim to see Robert De Niro advertising the 'Paradise Casino' on hoardings all over Seoul. But it’s maybe less demeaning than some of those comedy films he’s done.

7) I picked up a bit of Korean history; and if you believe the worst stories then getting buried alive was probably too kindly a fate for the insane Crown Prince Sado (1735-1762).

8) Cosmetic surgery is undergoing a huge boom in Seoul, clinics abounding in the heart of the city, a particular fad being for westernised eyelids and noses and skin tones – ‘the erasure of any trace of Mongolian’, as someone put it to me ruefully. Depressing stuff, however you cut it, and wont to lead one to dark old-fashioned thoughts on vanity and morality. Bodily aesthetics shouldn’t be subject to any kind of cultural cringe. I could easily have set a more radical version of The Possessions of Doctor Forrest in Seoul.

9) I hear that the population of South Korea is in a slow steady decline. One easy reason is that more and more women are going out to work. Meanwhile, and not by accident, it seems that working class men (rural especially) are ‘buying brides’ in greater numbers, from Cambodia and Vietnam. This is social dynamite, obviously, as well as grim in itself.

10) I ate very well throughout my stay, Korean cuisine is deliciously sharp-flavoured, spicy and moreish. Naturally I consumed a great deal of kimchi, and found that it ranged from very good to great depending on the core quality of the cabbage. (I did receive a bit of ribbing on my chopstick technique: a Western 'pincer'-style that has always served me OK until now, but which by Korean standards is the trait of a thoroughgoing rube.)

11) In the talks and symposia that I attended and spoke at, we were of course much absorbed in questions of the novelist and the city, how a writer 'takes ownership' of a built environment and its people, how urban planning and literary fiction feed off each other. The oeuvre of Dickens lends itself easily to all this, but a key text from the Korean side was Pak T'aewǒn's urban odyssey 'A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist' (1934), which was hugely influenced, like pretty much all of Korean literature in that era, by Ulysses and high European modernism. I was given a most enlightening guide through this text by dint of a walking tour across Seoul, organised by my hosts and conducted by the critic Byungsik Heo, which retraced the steps of the eponymous Kubo.

12) Our perambulation took us by the attractive Cheonggyecheon Stream, a project of urban renewal spearheaded by Seoul’s former mayor – now South Korea’s president – Lee Myung-bak. For some decades after the 1950s the stream was reduced to a mere sewer concealed under concrete and asphalt, and its restoration came at huge cost to the public purse. The irony is that what we now see is a fake. In fact the old stream proved unsalvageable, and so the new concrete channel is an artificial way, its current created by the daily electric pumping of thousands of tons of water. Meanwhile, in the depths beneath, the old sewer remains the old sewer... Such is the game of urban regeneration, you might say – but clearly Cheonggyecheon offers us an easy metaphor about city politics, heritage, ‘clean-up’, the authentic and the superficial.

13) Political protestors on the city streets who wish to give cheek to President Lee Myung-bak will sometimes don cat costumes. It’s not an obvious stratagem, until you understand that some of the President’s strongest critics have given him the pungent nickname of ‘The Rat’.

14) The British Council in Korea treated me to several fine meals and considerately arranged for me to meet some really formidable local writers and scholars. The brilliant Professor Hyejoon Yoon is both a novelist and academic, and the Korean translator of Oliver Twist, inter alia. The remarkable and most venerable Brother Anthony of Taize has, since relocating to Seoul from Cornwall thirty years ago, become probably the most eminent translator of Korean into English. And Gyeong Uk Kim, Choi Jae-Hoon and Yoon Seong-hee are three very smart and accomplished contemporary novelists, all just a couple of years younger than me.

MacArthur in (Freedom) Park
15) In the company of those novelists I was given a wonderful guided tour of Incheon, the port town that really opened Korea to the world, and (as I recalled from my O-Level History) saw probably the hinge battle of the Korean War. That, of course, is why a statue of General MacArthur stands in the former Park of Nations, which became Suh Park during the Japanese occupation, then Jayu (Freedom) Park after the war of 1950-53... 

16) On the slopes of Freedom Park is a wonderful Cultural Centre: a late nineteenth-century clubhouse with polished walnut wood floors, leather wingback armchairs, glass-cabinet displays on every wall, representing all the great trading and seafaring nations of the 1890s... It was known as the Jemulpo Club, in the days when diplomats and businessmen came to sip their bitters or cordials, and gaze meaningfully out across the bay toward the ‘Yellow Sea’...

17) Incheon is an old shipping town that has also been 'regenerated' in the manner of a fair few old shipping towns one might speak of... As you get near the docks you find former shipbuilders’ offices and granaries and bonded warehouses that have become art galleries and theatres and rehearsal/studio spaces, attractive places where one can also get a damn fine cup of coffee. I found all this very stirring, and began to tell my companions (through my translator) some stories of the changing faces of post-war Newcastle upon Tyne, and a man called T Dan Smith...

18) Our last stop in Incheon was a shanty town that has existed in various forms since the Japanese colonial period: now it’s a series of broad alleys lined by homes made from breeze blocks, tarpaulins and corrugated iron, along with some nicer-looking prefabs, and a mercifully foursquare kindergarten. (There were a few too many exposed gas pipes for comfort, and the archetypal black dog tied up to a tyre with rope.) Our local host brought us into the home of a local shaman: a lady of advanced years, sat comfortably in her parlour before a small telly, cell-phone and cigarettes placed at her side. Behind a sliding screen was her altar, heavily incensed, festooned with all manner of charms, amulets, scarves and sashes, where she also keeps the knives she will sometimes dance upon for ceremonial purposes. Call it a throwback if you will, but port towns are big on shamen, with good reason. Wherever men have set out to sea, you get a keen attention to fates, augurs and omens. For me, a fitting place to conclude the cultural expedition.

19) I am most grateful to my hosts in Seoul, who could not have been more thoughtful: in particular to Yoonjoe Park, who put together the program for my visit with great astuteness and kind consideration; and to Jaeyong Park and Yoonna Cho, who took me everywhere and guided me in expert and most affable fashion, as well as offering copious and much-needed translations.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Sean Penn: Bringing Sexy Back

Regular readers (!?) will recall that back in the autumn of 2010 I was dagging around after Sean Penn on the Dublin and New York shoots of Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be The Place.
The London Telegraph kindly sponsored the second leg of that itinerary, and with the UK release of the movie early last month my write-up of the whole adventure duly appeared in the Telegraph's Saturday magazine - a cover story, thank you very much.
There's not a huge amount of material that I left on the cutting room floor, outside of a fair bit of stuff recorded on my dime in Dublin that was/is intended for the update of my Sean Penn: His Life and Times. And I used most of the jokes too, though there is a story about Sean and a New York cop in Central Park that I would love to regale everyone with, but that it could have repercussions...

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Dickens and "utterly unreasonable compassion"

Having of late and very gladly taken my turn as a missionary for the exalted name of Charles Dickens, I was pleased back in February to attend the wreath-laying at Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, that marked the bicentennial of the great man’s birth. 

I went along not expecting the ceremony to be a huge deal, rather more interested in the prospect of seeing the Abbey in full formal regalia, and also the outside prospect of some top-quality people-watching. (Simon Callow had made it plain that all true believers should shun the Abbey and make their way to Portsmouth for the day; but then Simon Callow was not someone I’d been hoping to snag a glimpse of.)

I had a slight wardrobe malfunction at the door to the Abbey, an impeccable usher leaning to my ear to murmur, ‘May I remind you, sir, of the formality in respect of hats...?’ For I was in fact wearing one, and it had simply hadn't occurred to me that a man must go bare-headed into church... Anyhow, once inside, I was allotted a nice seat right on top of Gladstone's grave. After the solemn entrance of HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, and a lovely airing from Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony, we were treated to a consummate and notably upbeat assessment of Dickens and his legacy by Claire Tomalin, and a very controlled and intense reading of the death of Jo from Bleak House by Ralph Fiennes. 

But to my surprise my favourite address was that given by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams is obviously a smart man, though in the past that hasn’t stopped him from saying a lot of fatuous things – fatuous even by the low standards of what clever Anglicans are forced to say just on account of the collars round their necks. But literary appreciation is evidently a strength of his. I have quite never been able to bear the thought of his book on Dostoyevsky, but quite possibly this has been my loss. His best observations on Dickens were in respect of the ticklish issue of caricature, melodrama, excessive emotion and what have you. Very accurately he praised Dickens’ gift for depicting characters who are in advanced states of inner torment – ‘in hell’, as was the forgivable gloss – and pointed out that what is often their salvation in Dickens is an “utterly unreasonable compassion" that shakes the dungeon and “because of its utter unreasonableness can change everything.” It is the very same excess that leaves many of us in bits over Dostoyevsky, and Williams was, I daresay, promoting the connection quite deftly. 

On the star-gazing front, by the way, I feel I need only report that I made my way out of the Abbey side by side with Ron Moody - The People’s Fagin, no question. A cherishable moment.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

David Storey & 'This Sporting Life': Me on Radio 3

Back in early March BBC Radio 3 kindly broadcast a contribution of mine to their regular 'Essay' series. In that particular week all the contributions were on the theme of representations of sport, and grouped under the heading 'Listener, They Won It.' I'd been asked to pick a film that gives an especially good audio-visual account of how a particular sport is played and experienced. Pretty much without hesitation I chose the film version of David Storey's novel This Sporting Life, directed by Lindsay Anderson in 1963. Thanks to BBC iPlayer you can still listen to the edited broadcast here; and what follows is the text that I read out:

"The opening credits of Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life are accompanied by a musical score so nerve-straining and ominous, it could lead you to expect some kind of spy thriller set in Cold War Berlin – or maybe a tense war drama about young squaddies patrolling the Malayan jungle – either of which would have been perfectly viable subjects for a British film in the early 1960s.

But then we start to hear the unmistakable din of a crowd watching live sport. Then comes a credit thanking Wakefield Trinity rugby league football club, for their ‘generous co-operation’ in the making of what we’re about to see. The music turns a shade more muted and melancholy. And, with that, we’re thrown directly into the thick of battle.

A rugby ball rolls loose over turf: a player lunges for it but it’s booted clear of his grasp. Cut to a defensive tackle, made rather high – round the attacking player’s neck, wrangling him to the ground – but quickly he recycles the ball behind him with a scrape of his boot. The attack resumes: another player makes a purposeful run, ‘handing off’ a defender as he goes. The crowd noise rises. Already you feel the pace of this game, the size and force and fierceness of the big men in the frame.

The attack gains ground in the teeth of more tackles, and the camera tracks to keep pace with play. A man goes down in the mud but, again, he heels the ball back to a teammate. Suddenly half a dozen passes are strung together. The crowd roars. Then the ball’s in the hands of the ‘loose forward’ – the team’s fastest runner, Frank Machin, who barges his way through – not so much ‘handing off’ as elbowing defenders aside – to ground the ball over the try-line for a score.

Straight away there’s a defender right up in Machin’s face – they eyeball one another and butt their barrel chests. Cut to a scrum – the camera down at eye-level of both rows before they lock heads, then up with Machin as he retrieves and passes the ball. But no sooner has he released than an opponent darts around the scrum and punches him smack in the mouth, making a bloody mess of his front teeth. This is what the late Bill MacLaren, the BBC’s beloved ‘voice of rugby’, might have called ‘a wee bit of argy-bargy’...

Except MacLaren’s game was rugby union, one of the sport’s two rival codes, divided not just by a rule book but by social class and geography. In a British context, for sure, rugby union is southern and bourgeois. But This Sporting Life is a tale of rugby league: unambiguously a game of the north and of industrial working-class men who, back at the end of the nineteenth century, simply couldn’t afford to give up their Saturday wages and play their sport at leisure, in the union manner, as ‘gentlemen amateurs.’ And so, in 1895, the northern and southern clubs formally went their separate ways.

It was the Union game that I was taught to play as a boy, at a grammar school that fancied itself as a bit fancy (such that association football was considered totally uncouth, even though we all kicked a ball around the schoolyard at lunchtime.) And I could see that Union was more ‘sophisticated’ than League in terms of rules and tactics: hence its reputation as the game of ‘kick and clap.’ But, being a bit on the wiry side as a lad, I was less keen on how Union favoured the chunkier sort of player just because of the primacy it gave to the scrummage.

In League, a scrum is hardly more than a ritual for getting the game restarted. But scrummage is really the trademark of Union: its visual signature of big mastodon-like blokes knuckling down to heave for the try-line; that sense of a ponderous stop-start battle fought in winter mud. Of course League has never lacked for ‘muck and nettles’ either. But it is faster, and more free-flowing – offers more opportunity for flourishes of individual artistry. Certainly it’s the kind of rugby I’ve always preferred.

To argue that one code is tougher or more demanding than the other would only be a pointless provocation. Let’s just say that in League as in Union, toughness as a masculine virtue is very obviously prized. Neither of them are games for retiring types or faint-hearts. And yet, by the law of averages, you will occasionally find that beneath a rugby shirt beats the heart of a poet. One such poet is David Storey, who is perhaps the boldest and most accomplished of those English writers from the 1950s who were lumped together as a movement under the label of ‘kitchen sink realism.’ This Sporting Life was Storey’s first published novel, which he duly turned into a  screenplay for Lindsay Anderson. And in common with his later work it was absolutely rooted in the life he’d actually led.

Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, in 1933, Storey was a miner’s son and grammar school boy whose dad didn’t want him going down the pit but, rather, setting himself up in some more respectable profession. Storey was a very handy rugby player, but he had other more burning talents inside of him – painting, for one. In 1953 he signed professional forms with Leeds rugby club. But he used his signature money to pay his fees at Wakefield Art School, since his dad refused to subsidise any such bohemian ambitions.

When Storey then won a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art, Leeds gave him special dispensation to attend classes in London then commute back home for matches. Thus the £6 a week earned by Storey’s sporting life also funded his higher creative calling. And yet this radical divide in his young self also put Storey in a sadly familiar predicament: that of the northern proletarian artist whose self-education and high attainment act also to alienate him from whence he has come.

As Storey has told it, his Leeds teammates regarded him frostily as “the outsider from London.” Meanwhile at the Slade School he was taken for “a bit of an oaf.” It got to be that the only time he could find solace was in those solitary London-to-Leeds train rides; and it was in this solitude that the painter began to write, and a novel emerged. Its title came to Storey in a remark he overheard on the radio: ‘This sporting life’ somebody said, ‘is gonna be the death of me…’

But his real inspiration had been a particular experience on the pitch. Though no shrinking violet, Storey had a very rational fear of getting seriously injured in a game. And once, when a loose ball fell at his feet and his instinct told him to stoop and collect it, he was sure in that same instant that to do so would earn him a kick in the face. So he held back, and one of his older teammates took the ball, and duly received that dreaded boot to the teeth. Though Storey had got away unscathed, he did have to accept a short four-lettered rebuke from his veteran teammate, and he felt guilty – that guilt turning, upon reflection, to an imaginative sympathy, one that led Storey to describe This Sporting Life not as an autobiographical work but rather more the tale of ‘the guy I caused to have his teeth kicked in.’

And this is the guy we meet in the opening reel of Lindsay Anderson’s film. Frank Machin is played by the young Richard Harris, himself a gifted rugby player in his teens before he left Limerick for drama studies in London. And the camera can’t lie: Harris looks like a player – big and burly, but athletic, his eyes intensely focused under a no-nonsense haircut. A tough guy, for sure. But it’s no accident that the movie starts with Machin losing his front teeth; for in the drama that follows he’s forced to endure any number of hard knocks.

After that assault on his mouth we see that Machin is of sufficient value to his club that he can demand to be chauffeur-driven to a private dentist, there to be fitted for a plate at ten guineas. ‘Come on’, he chides the dentist through swollen lips, ‘whatever the bloody price...’ But as the nitrous oxide gas delivers him to unconsciousness, so the film begins to bleed the past into the present: a bold editing style that mirrors Storey’s novel and lets us into Machin’s life – the path he took to sporting glory, and the thorny question of whether it was worth the effort.

The younger Machin we meet as a local lad at a Saturday dance, a hothead, wild enough to pick a fight with a player from the City rugby team. But afterward Machin badgers the team’s aged talent-spotter to get him a trial; and the scout can tell, Machin obviously has something burning inside him that demands expression.

The trial is a triumph. Machin’s ball-running skills are abundantly clear, though he’s nearly thwarted by a teammate, Gower, who obstinately won’t pass to him. So at the next available scrum, with the referee’s vision obscured, Machin smacks Gower in the mouth: proof, if it were needed, that he’s not to be messed with – though the viewer does get the sense that what goes around will come around.

What also comes over from these superb rugby sequences is the skilful eye of director Lindsay Anderson, then at the outset of a movie career marked by a preference for gritty material that belied his upper-middle-class background. But then his Cheltenham schoolmate and friend the writer Gavin Lambert remembered Anderson as always playing a very ‘efficient game of rugger.’ Anderson’s natural style was a kind of poetic social realism, and one sees this in the way that he repeatedly frames Richard Harris on the field: waist up from a low angle against a great grey Yorkshire sky – gladiatorial, mud on his shirt, exertion etched upon his face.

Having proven his worth in trial, Machin is signed up for a thousand pounds by City’s industrialist owner Mr Weaver, and he soon becomes a hero to the team’s support. Away from the pitch, though, the emotional crux of the film is really Machin’s turbulent relationship with his landlady Mrs Hammond, a woman with two children, widowed by an industrial accident at Mr Weaver’s factory. Perpetually terse and fraught, Mrs Hammond keeps her late husband’s boots by the hearth, always polished to a shine. Machin looks at those boots, and at Mrs Hammond’s handsomeness, and her obvious repression and unhappiness, and he determines that he will drag her free of the little world that’s oppressing her – one whose leash he believes he has already escaped. He cannot see that he is laying claim to ownership of her, just as Mr Weaver owns a contract on him.

Meantime, Frank’s star rises: he buys a Bentley and a cashmere coat, escorts Mrs Hammond wreathed in furs to a fancy restaurant. But his behaviour is obnoxious and embarrassing. He wants to see himself as entirely his own man, principled, heroic, protesting society’s limits, careless of material things. But this blinkered, battering kind of individualism only serves to make him enemies, even out of people he claims to love.
Lindsay Anderson saw This Sporting Life as ‘a tragedy’, and it is, in the sense that it expresses superbly the lonesome plight of a sportsman who has contrived to ruin his life everywhere other than on the field of play; and must realise, moreover, that his glory days are numbered.

As his Local Hero status recedes, Machin discovers that he’s not really so special: in the eyes of the crowd, only ‘a great ape’, a surrogate for lesser men who pay their ticket and so pay his wages, just to live vicariously by his efforts for eighty minutes or so.

Late on in the film, with Machin’s personal life unravelling, Anderson shoots one match in the manner of a battle scene, with no sound but a harsh percussive score, and images of weary, filthy bodies crashing dazedly into one another – a plangent sense of cold and exhaustion and pain – ignorant armies clashing on a darkling plain.

The final sequence is yet more painful, as Anderson frames Machin in the last of those low-angle shots from waist-up, looking older and slower and more easily hurt in the tackle. The floodlights are on in the winter dusk, the cooling towers of gasworks overshadow the pitch. And as Machin stands, bruised and battered, his breath condensing in the air, one voice from the crowd cuts through the din. ‘Come on Machin! Get a bloody move on!’ Those ‘lesser men’ have renounced their former idol. Resignedly, heavy-footedly, he jogs back into the fray. This sporting life, we understand, will be the death of him – and it’s wisdom dearly bought. But – in the hands of David Storey and Lindsay Anderson – elevated to the level of poetry.

Dear diary...

In my late teens (this would be 1988) I began to keep a diary, and this peculiar habit sustained me for several years, its upside being that I nearly always knew what I was thinking, its downside being that I nearly always knew what I was thinking... In those days one had ample time to order one’s thoughts; but then order in one’s affairs can quite quickly become oppressive.

In my late thirties (this would be 2008) I began to blog, and did so fairly diligently for a couple of years, the upside being that I was able to curate all sorts of written opinions on the issues that concern me, the downside being that these came to bear a rather strained relationship to the writing that I did for a living... Time is money, these days, I find, and one has to be mindful of succumbing to luxury.

Looking back, we can all say of ourselves - can't we? - that we have been a succession of selves rather than one integrated individual. And yet, the effort does persist to try to pull it all together... I’m going to have another go at it here.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Becoming Boz: Me, Buenos Aires, Charles Dickens, Lionel Messi

I know, I know, back I come, tail between my legs... My excuse this time is that I moved house, and to some extent we're still unpacking. Even prior to that I ought to have written up my adventures last November teaching Dickensian descriptive writing in Argentina - or at least linked to this essay of mine like so, which gives my more or less complete thoughts on the matter.
My sponsor was the British Council, with whom I very much hope to work again in future, and they've graciously added me to their directory of UK writers here.