Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Proms Extra, unfinished work, the vital placenta...

From left:Tim McInnerny, your correspondent, Shahidha Bari

A theme of this year’s BBC Proms has been 'Unfinished Work', which makes rich pickings for anyone interested in the discerning matter of artistic decision-making, branching histories and all the things that might have been had we but world enough and time. 

I had the great, great pleasure of participating in a BBC Radio 3 Proms Extra discussion last Friday at Imperial College Union, hosted by Shahidha Bari with consummate readings by Tim McInnerny. The whole was expertly boxed by producer Simon Richardson into a 20-minute extract broadcast at half-time in that evening’s Prom concert. You can listen here, between 24:14 and 44:26, if you're subscribed to BBC playback services, and if not then the procedure takes a mere moment.

What is the principal allure of the unfinished? In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder wrote feelingly of how ‘the last works of artists and their unfinished pictures’ can be ‘more admired than those which they finished, because in them are seen the preliminary drawings left visible and the artists’ actual thoughts, and in the midst of approval’s beguilement we feel regret that the artist’s hand while engaged in the work was removed by death.’

Writers may die too soon even today but, generally, later than they used to. There are other intriguing reasons (excuses?) for not finishing. Writers can be very tough judges of their own output, never truly satisfied. They may come to find in their hearts that they should never have started the work in the first place, because they didn’t really know how to finish it – didn’t know, in other words, what the book was really about. But in the cases of writers of distinction the incomplete manuscript offers a privileged look inside the workshop and the writer’s struggles to fashion the raw material: our imaginations are piqued by the great unknowable of where we might finally have been transported.

One or two things I might have added to the broadcast, world enough and time etc:

- Another aspect of Ralph Ellison’s labours over what we now call Three Days Before the Shooting... is that some part of his inspiration was the hugely charged ‘moment’ in American race relations circa 1955, Brown vs. Board of Education etc; but that 'moment' just kept moving on, and Ellison couldn’t be uninterested in the real-world real-time transformation of his nation. It did, though, prevent him perhaps from getting fully astride of his material. If you want to write about the times you’re living through, it can be a helpful idea to pick a fixed moment from the recent past – five to ten years ago, say? – and to stay there.

- A chat about Kafka and The Castle had to be sacrificed for time, and I doubt I said anything new, other than maybe that, on the subject of perfectionism, all writers could do with being as hard on themselves as Kafka was. (Of The Metamorphosis, one of the few works he proposed to spare incineration, the most Kafka would say was that he was ‘not unhappy with it.’)

- Of Scott Fitzgerald’s struggles in writing film scripts, which gave us no cinema of note but a half-dozen chapters, at least, of The Last Tycoon – I still get a smile from Joan Crawford’s famous attempt to encourage him during those fruitless months at MGM: ‘Write hard, Mr Fitzgerald, write hard!’ This is kindly, hopeless advice. Either the stuff wants to come out or it doesn’t – willed exertion levels have little or no purchase in the matter.

- Any discussion of Jane Austen’s Sanditon leads one to the thorny business of other writers, or scholars or editors or friends, trying to finish an uncompleted work by unauthorised proxy. This to me is so inherently flawed an enterprise as to seem fatal. The most gifted mind you might summon to such a task is only going to make educated guesses at forbiddingly hard-to-know intentions. Notes and diagrams of the sort that Fitzgerald left behind don’t begin to say how the job ought to be done. Only a literary talent as large as the one who left the scene could conjure the sorts of sparks that come from self-editing and rewriting. 

Marguerite Yourcenar, in her magisterial monograph on Yukio Mishima, puts it best in addressing the question of whether Mishima truly completed his Sea of Fertility on the morning of his suicide (per legend) or actually on his summer holidays a few months previous:

‘ ... to finish the last page of a novel does not necessarily mean that this book is done: a book can be considered finished only the day it is put in an envelope and sent to the publisher... it is finished the moment it definitively separates from the vital placenta where books are conceived...’

Keegan, Dalglish and a podcast with Matt Williams

I remember it like it were yesterday.

Broadcaster Matt Williams – Lancashire-born, I believe, and reared near Liverpool – is the man who expertly handles the sport on the Simon Mayo Radio 2 Drivetime programme, and who, moreover, does a great service to those of us who write books about sport by hosting a regular Sports Book Podcast in which he crafts a really considered platform for an author to explore with him the themes of the work in question.

Late last month Matt kindly gave me a slot in which to talk about Keegan and Dalglish: how their playing and managing careers intertwined, why both players at times stood apart from their teammates, the famous debate of whether Dalglish's talent was innate while Keegan had to work at his – it’s all there, man. You can listen to it here.

Matt was particularly amused by an anecdote in the book related to Gateshead’s own Lawrie McMenemy, who is, by all accounts and evidence, quite a witty man. Here’s the text in question – it relates to Kevin Keegan’s desire, circa early 1980, to move from Hamburg, back home...:

Keegan was thinking seriously of England again, above all for family reasons, but also thanks to a cheeky punt in his direction ventured by Lawrie McMenemy, affable manager of Southampton, who called Keegan in Hamburg with a friendly enquiry about a special German variety of light fitting. McMenemy, in truth, was merely fishing for a way to sound Keegan out about moving to the Saints. They had won the FA Cup in 1976, had been finishing decently in the league, and McMenemy was assembling a squad of young bucks and veterans who could still do a job: Mick Channon, Alan Ball, Dave Watson, Charlie George. McMenemy let Keegan know all of this fascinating stuff in hope that he might appreciate the special challenge of a ‘smaller club.’

In fact, for reasons McMenemy could only have half-guessed at, his offer ticked most of Keegan’s boxes. Keegan agreed to take a meeting in London at the loaned house of a Saints supporter; McMenemy’s finance director Guy Askham also attended and brought a contract along just in case. To their amazement, Keegan signed it. McMenemy stayed on in London to watch Keegan run out for England at Wembley against Ireland, tickled by his private knowledge that the England captain was now a Southampton player. Keegan scored both goals, superbly, as England won 2-0. McMenemy continued to keep his £420,000 signing completely secret until the following week when he invited press to a conference suite at the Potters Heron Hotel in Romsey, on the enticement that they would get to meet someone with ‘a big part in the club’s future.’ Into the suite strode Keegan, fresh off the plane, and well pleased by the matinee performance McMenemy had made of it all.

Keegan, Dalglish, and all the money in football

Most interested to read this piece by top commentator Chris Deerin for the new-start website Unherd, in which his account of the what-we-might-conceivably-call 'financialisation' of football becomes almost dizzying to people of my vintage who grew up with such a different game (albeit one in which Kevin Keegan seized on all of the limited opportunities then available for players to put money in their purses - see the illustration to your right, one of many lovingly curated at the witty nostalgia website Who Ate All the Pies?)

I'm reminded that when Newcastle United FC floated on the Stock Exchange back in 1997 its share-flogging brochure cited the club's primary activity as (I paraphrase) 'selling the rights to watch football matches.' As long as the customers are there - wherever they are, i.e. whether or not in such numbers through the turnstiles as once was - the money is liable to remain as bizarre as it is.

Such vertiginous sensations about the sums sluicing through the sport were, of course, a point of departure for my Keegan and Dalglish, which is kindly cited halfway down the Deerin piece:

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Knives: "Pulsating action, suspense & drama"!

A very gratifying write-up here for The Knives – under the headline ‘Tackling terror, battling betrayal - a British politician's fate’ – by Vikas Datta, under the banner of the IANS (Indo-Asian News Service). Datta gives a very astute summary of the novel's main 'argument' from the get-go:

"There is no shortage of security challenges - terrorism, radicalism, illegal immigration (and the backlash it causes) - for modern nations, particularly in the West. Now imagine you had the responsibility to tackle these. How effective could you be against a backdrop of budgetary cutbacks, political intrigue and a sensationalist media ready to pounce on any lapse?
In the hot seat as Home Secretary, British soldier-turned-Conservative politician David Blaylock discovers being tough himself is not enough, his ministerial colleagues - who include two of Indian-origin - and his bureaucrats can be as devious and covert as his adversaries, whatever he does or doesn't will invite criticism and there are no easy or evident choices. And his fierce temper that is never below the surface isn't really helpful." 
This is the conclusion:


The BFI Thriller Season: October-December 2017

The British Film Institute – where your correspondent did time both as a student and employee – is a colossal force for film culture in the UK and beyond, and in recent years it’s come to specialise in extended, ambitious big-theme seasons unspooling at their South Bank base and venues countrywide. In 2013 they treated The Gothic, a project to which I was very pleased to contribute. This autumn, from October to December, they are doing Thrillers – a vast, twisty, engrossing subject that surely offers something for everyone.

To coincide with the season, the BFI will publish a BFI Thriller Compendium with contributions from writers including Jake Arnott and Lee Child. I was delighted to be asked to do the chapter on political thrillers, dealing especially with themes of conspiracy and paranoia, from The Manchurian Candidate through The Parallax View and All the President’s Men to Syriana and more. There's a lot to be said on the subject, and I hope it will be part of a great big diverse conversation stirred up by the season. See you there maybe?

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Kevin Keegan: superstar, and "emotional lad"

We’ve just seen another ‘Charity Shield’ go by, the current league champions and FA Cup holders playing out a big curtain-raiser for the new football season. 43 years ago today this match threw up one of its most incendiary stagings.

The man who struck the spark was Kevin Keegan: the superstar of 1970s English football, the game’s first millionaire and multi-media celebrity, twice winner of the Ballon d’Or and one of precious few British footballers who made a success of a career overseas, winning the Bundesliga with Hamburg in 1979. That was Keegan’s last winner’s medal in the game, though; and his huge achievements were, over time, to be weirdly eclipsed by incidents arising from his determined, passionate temperament – the same one that had driven him to singular success.

On August 10 1974 champions Liverpool were led out by their recently retired manager Bill Shankly, a show of respect to the great man. Striding along beside them were cup holders Leeds, behind their new boss Brian Clough, who had already been typically outspoken in his disparaging view of the Leeds brand of football. It soon became apparent that the Leeds players hadn’t cared for that: having been stigmatised thus, they were about to make a great show of holding up their bloody stigmata.

Kevin Keegan’s views, expressed in his 1977 memoir, were even more radical than Clough’s: ‘I hated Leeds and everything they stood for.’ From the moment the Charity Shield game kicked off, Revie’s team seemed to fancy a scrap. Soon the game became one big niggle. As Johnny Giles would tell the Guardian with relish, ‘Keegan was quite an emotional lad and he was in one of his moods that day.’ Giles and Billy Bremner were happy to buddy up for a sort of tag-team toughness: together they helped to make Keegan’s afternoon a misery, and Keegan felt he was getting no help from the ref.

Around the hour mark, incensed, Keegan pursued a loose ball and went through Bremner, then hared after Giles, who felled him with a right-hook. From the resulting free- kick the ball went up into the Liverpool half, but Keegan went after Bremner. ‘I have Irish blood in me,’ he would write, ‘and sometimes my temper rips.’ He and Bremner exchanged blows in front of the ref, and though Keegan protested when they were pulled up together he surely knew he was for the early bath. He stripped off his shirt and flung it away. Bremner copied him, though he might have thought twice about showing his pale gut alongside Keegan’s ripped and muscular torso. Joe Keegan was in the Liverpool changing room to console his son, and when Bremner entered to make an apology Keegan’s dad told him to bugger off.

Keegan would be made an example of – fined and banned for 11 games. In the aftermath of the game he chose to drown his sorrows in beer then awoke blearily to the unwelcome news that he was required to play in a testimonial for Celtic’s Billy MacNeill on Monday night and had to get himself up to Glasgow. On the other side that night was Kenny Dalglish, Scotland’s finest player, whose path had crossed with Keegan’s before and would do so again.

Keegan ran into Leeds United again, famously, in 1996. He was now managing Newcastle United, they were bidding for the league title but had let a 12-point lead over Manchester United dwindle to nothing and were now having to chase.  Man Utd made hard work of beating a Leeds side reduced to 10 men, after which Alex Ferguson resorted to his familiar psychological tricks, suggesting that Leeds had tried extra hard against his team but would likely roll over when they next met Newcastle.

Keegan’s team eked out a win over Leeds: they were three points behind Man Utd, two games left apiece. Sky was covering every game in the run-in and it was a tolerably satisfied Keegan who left the Newcastle changing room to do his duty before Sky cameras over a relay to studio presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray. Keegan set forth cheerily enough. But soon there was a reference to ‘slanderous’ remarks by Ferguson – and Keegan was not having this marked down to banter.

He spilled his vessels live on TV, louder than he had intended on account of wearing heavy headphones for studio relay, jabbing a finger for unneeded emphasis: ‘I’'ve kept really quiet, but I’'ll tell you something – he went down in my estimation when he said that…... I’ll tell you, you can tell him now if you’re watching it, we’re still fighting for this title, and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and… and… I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it.’‘'

It was quite a show. McDermott, having watched the broadcast in some incredulity, reached Keegan on the phone. ‘Ah, sod him,’ said Keegan, still seething with regard to his nemesis at Old Trafford.

Keegan could not have envisaged the extent to which his public image, into which he had put so much graft and applied so much polish, would come to be defined by that flailing and profitless outburst against Ferguson. No golden goals for Liverpool or England or Hamburg, no pop records or Brut TV ads or BBC Superstars heroics would be recalled with such relish in the coming internet age as ‘I will love it if we beat them.’. And yet, for seasoned Keegan-watchers it was nothing so unusual: the resurgence of the heart-on-his-sleeve ‘emotional lad’, as observed so vindictively by Johnny Giles. Reputation-wise it’s a poor return for what Keegan has done in – done for – the game. He was always his own man, and there has been no one quite like him within football or without.

(For a more multi-stranded version of this argument, I refer you to my Keegan and Dalglish, published today.)