Friday, 1 December 2017

Aickman at the British Library: A Symposium

Our panel of 6, plus the 7th who moved unseen among us. (Photo: Chris Power)

Our Aickman evening at the British Library was, I believe, something of a success. At least, I like to imagine the man himself was with us in spirit, wearing the smile that a ghost would wear while we sang his praises. To be a ‘neglected’, ‘cult’ author is of course to be a bit of a phantomic presence, a perpetual ghost at the feast of English letters, maybe doomed to walk the earth forever unwelcomed. But Aickman is now a kind of fixture in the nation’s great library, and that’s not nothing, as they say in showbiz.

We tried to summon him right from the start of the night by playing a small audio clip of him reading, very characteristically, from ‘Bind Your Hair.’ (In a letter to Ramsey Campbell of June 1978, now lodged in the BL archive, Aickman writes: ‘I always read each story aloud to a [certain] selected person... There is nothing like reading aloud for the tidying up of stylistic shortcomings.’)

Then Ramsey himself spoke, reading from the memoir The Attempted Rescue in which Aickman praises the mountain-film era Leni Riefenstahl at vivid length and makes a tortuously felt effort to exonerate Riefenstahl of her later closeness to the Nazis. It was an astute way for Ramsey to open a window on Aickman’s unbending opinions – mostly of an artistic nature, some of them expressed in political conservatism. He was – to put it mildly, though it was put so on several occasions during our evening – a man out of time, who felt himself born in the wrong age.

Reece Shearsmith’s reading from ‘The Hospice’ could have lasted all night, such was the pleasure it stirred; and Jeremy Dyson’s turn with ‘Wood’, a superb if less-celebrated story replete with a secluded village and some sinister corn dollies, showed very well why The League of Gentlemen, as well as the contemporary turns both in English nature writing and supernatural writing, are really rather Aickman-esque.

In the end I had to ask the panel: here is a superb writer, a writer’s writer, writing (whether he disdained it or not) in one of the world’s most popular genres – why, then, is he still not better known? One reason, perhaps, is now to be found in the BL archive: a letter to a literary agent in which Aickman distinguishes between ‘entertainers’ who ‘write for a specific market’ and ‘artists’ who ‘write in response to a voice inside them.’ Aickman refused to sell out, whether or not anyone was buying. His friend Jean Richardson told me that he steadfastly refused to inject his stories with ‘more subtle sadism’ of a sort that might have served to ring the mainstream bell. No tears, then – for Aickman did what he wanted to do, and the outcomes earned him undying respect, that elusive immortality that many an artist will dream of.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Robert Aickman at the British Library 10.11.2017

Aickman photographed by Jean Richardson

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

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

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Graeme Souness: buzzer, cruncher, spreader

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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