Tuesday 18 August 2015

Viva Corbyn, Vive Ceylan

I haven't posted a blog in a couple of years, for various reasons: life aged 75 being altogether too enjoyable and full to spend a great deal of time looking at a small screen; age and health making the composition of online writings less attractive, etc etc. And horrific national and world events also contributing to one's general feeling of depression if not actual despair: e.g. the re-election of the British Nasty Party (Cameron, Osborne & co. with their privileged and moneyed chums); the ongoing global destruction and loss of life on all fronts (e.g. Syria, Gaza, the Mediterranean); planetary pollution of every kind; crises in Greece – austerity and desperate immigrants in swarms (copyright D. Cameron); American, Israeli and Islamist follies and barbarism and diplomatic or rulers' hypocrisy; pointless, dangerous and wasteful technological ingenuity (nuclear proliferation, drones and all sorts of evil weaponry) – you name it. 

But I'll stop ranting and just urge any disillusioned Labour voters in the (dis)United Kingdom to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, one of the few honest and fairminded socialists left in the House of Commons: I met him a few years ago and can confirm that he's a decent, principled, intelligent human being, just the person to revitalise the Labour movement. The fact that Blair, Campbell and Mandelson, all so economical with the truth, have come out so strongly against Jeremy (oh, and just today, Brown the bankers' friend, ditto), along with the other three whingeing Blairite contenders, should persuade everyone who disliked and distrusted what New Labour became, to support Corbyn, who at least has a vision of this country's future untainted by shameless capitalistic greed and self-interest.

Cut to a beautiful, humanist film – exceptional cinema, which perhaps in time will be regarded as a twentyfirst century classic: Winter Sleep, last year's Palme D'Or winner at Cannes, a Franco-Turkish production written and directed by the wonderful Turkish moviemaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Do not be put off by its length (over 3 hours!) It's faultless and inspiring: the actors seem to live their parts as they do in, say, Chekhov, and it's perfectly photographed and altogether inspiring.

Monday 22 July 2013

two Johnsons and Coe

In a recent London Review of Books piece, that excellent and entertaining writer Jonathan Coe examines a recent compilation, The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson. It's as perceptive an analysis as one might expect from Coe, whose fascinating 2004 biography of Bryan (B.S.) Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant, I've only belatedly caught up with.

I was struck by some nice parallels and contrasts between Coe's devastating brief critique of Boris the right-wing, uppercrust Bullingdon bullyboy, and the admirable, if overly admiring, 500-page volume Coe devoted to the socialist, workingclass Bryan S. Both subjects, though, amply demonstrate Coe's own wit, wisdom and facility with words. He seems cleverer, as astute yet unassuming, and in many ways more interesting, than either of the Johnsons he's writing about. Coe's flawed if rather larger-than-life protagonists share/d considerable charm, however, alongside their own mightily inflated ambitions.

Boris lacks weight and intellectual and moral seriousness but masks his High Tory arrogance with a superficially attractive, no-bullshit, faux-naif comical persona. By contrast, Bryan, who regarded himself (in every sense) as a heavyweight novelist, had a rather ponderous and over-schematic approach toward Literature – at least in respect of his own work, which he considered trail-blazing experimentalism. Unfortunately, such self-conscious avant-gardery, however well-intentioned, can soon enough slide into unreadable and unrewarding failures of style, desperately humourless dead ends. Bryan's lifelong desire for ever-broader recognition plus great reviews, increased sales and the big money, all resulted in disappointments, depression, alcoholism, gross over-eating and furious arguments with everyone you could imagine or he could confront. It all ended desperately, with his suicide in 1973.

Coe points out that like one of his characters, B.S.Johnson was "prone to belligerence when drunk", but he could also be bluntly and aggressively opinionated when sober. It's true that in addition to his own personal and professional struggles – with just about anyone he ever had contact with in the whole English-speaking bookworld! – he also crusaded energetically on behalf of literary freelances, from the early 1960s until his untimely if seemingly inevitable death. Part of the trouble was, he spread himself much too thin in all sorts of forms and communication media – prose, poetry, plays, films, TV scripts, documentaries, radio, editing, articles, reviewing, teaching, anthologising – although some of these directions he felt he had to pursue, in order to support his wife and two children. Coe cites the author Gordon Williams, Bryan's friend and contemporary, who thought him "simply a gifted writer with a somewhat inflated opinion of himself and a baffling compulsion to insult and offend the very people who were most in a position to help him". This personal view seems to confirm a general impression and perception of him from the time.

Over a dozen years or so, Johnson and I found ourselves on and off the lists of several of the same publishers. Whatever the particular circumstances – too many premature moves, too many different editors –  changing your publisher generally proves questionable, especially in regard to aspiring younger writers. Publishers and agents aren't so keen to promote you, unless they feel they own you; you're their discovery and/or property, and will therefore contribute both to their eventual backlist and their reputation – continuing testimony to their critical acumen, not to mention the hope of longterm potential profit! You must 'belong' to them exclusively or at least let them think so. This was part of the problem, and things haven't changed that much over the years. Yet Johnson did come across as never satisfied, despite (for the time) some quite generous fellowships, grants, awards, arts council tours and so on. He made a lot of noise, kicking up quite a fuss, one way or another generating a lot of publicity from his more boorish behaviour. Johnson's bullish, sometimes clowning, always intransigent, nature, may well have cloaked the desperate loneliness and insecurity all decent writers feel: indeed it proved disastrous in the end.

I recall various writer friends and contemporaries at that time joking about his self-aggrandising, would-be experimentalism and major league ambitions; it was suggested that the use of the initials B.S. accurately implied Bull Shit. This may have been a bit harsh: Coe very diligently and in perhaps over-exhaustive detail, describes BSJ's extreme, ultimately deadly earnestness towards his fame and reputation. But there's a qualitative difference between self-belief, pretension, and innate talent. Of course as Browning had it, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp/ Or what's a heaven for?" (Now there was an early experimentalist!) Johnson, with all his authorial dogmas, now seems sadly dated if not derrière-garde. Imagining he could emulate his hero Beckett – who was kind and indulgent to him, as to so many others scribbling in his shadow – whom did he approve of, as genuine contemporary British experimentalists? Well, there were a very few chums – Ann Quin, Alan Burns, Eva Figes, Z. Ghose and G. Gordon and the like, none much read now…

Apart from his adoration of Joyce and Beckett, he seems not to have digested or admired other excellent Irish stylists of the time, the experimenters Flann O'Brien and Aidan Higgins and (naturally!) more traditional storytellers like William Trevor and John McGahern. His critical judgements and development narrowed through neurosis and dogma, and if this sounds like a generalisation via hindsight, what about his silly and ill-informed pontification, in an article for the Film and Television Technician (the ACTT house journal): "There is not one British film which could scrape into the world's top hundred… No, there is not one British film [i.e.1918-71] which can compare with our high achievement in all the other arts". This may have been calculated to provoke and affront his specialised and far more experienced readers; was it arrogance or ignorance? Otherwise, why not a single mention of Hitchcock, Humphrey Jennings, Michael Powell and other classic names?

BS had a streak of buffoonery, just like Boris J these days, but a deadly combination of thwarted hopes and ambitions, and of beating one's head against a wall of largely self-created hostility and confronting the largely reactionary conservative attitudes of the time, misled him into thinking he was an isolated and misunderstood genius. Even more sadly, with some late and despairing intimations that an artist's premature violent end would help ensure their immortality, his energy ran out and he felt his time would never come, except posthumously. Not a happy conclusion for a confused, often agreeable and gregarious man.

Ironically, he was right, though much good it did him: however, since his death forty years ago, he has been 'rediscovered', written about (especially well and expansively in Coe's biography – and Coe has also just edited a selection of BSJ's shorter writings), and will now doubtless be hailed as the master wordsmith he thought he was. Well, I suppose the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. I did meet Bryan Johnson in the early sixties a couple of times; he was drunk and argumentative and we had little in common; I also contributed to Transatlantic Review in 1962 when he was Poetry Editor: there, that's declared my interest, in so far as it goes! But he's still worth far more than his namesake – the current, shallower, more privileged but less substantial, 'other' Johnson, Boris the Tory Pretender.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

J.R.Ackerley and 'Tulip'

I've always enjoyed the writing of the British author J.R (Joe) Ackerley, long dead now, an excellent critic, editor and prose writer. His poignant memoir My Father And Myself is a little classic of autobiography, a fascinating revelation of familial skeletons-in-cupboards – at once intimate and outspoken, elegantly written, confessional yet discreet.

Watching the animated film drawn from Ackerley's book My Dog Tulip (itself another extraordinary autobiographical work, based on his longterm relationship with his canine, Queenie), we found it just as enchanting and indeed even more impressive on a second viewing. Released in 2009 (when I first saw it on the big screen) My Dog Tulip struck me as one of the very best full-length animated features I'd ever seen. My opinion was generally shared by reviewers and arthouse audiences, including Philip French, perhaps the doyen of UK film critics, who wrote: "Exquisite… A film to cherish". It's also very funny as well as touching, and says more in its 82 minutes than many more mainstream and bigger budget movies. It's voiced, quite beautifully and most appropriately, by Christopher Plummer, the late Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini, while the film's whole conception – the brilliant artwork, music and the spikily effective and witty narrative – is altogether delightful.

It's the work of a painstaking and exceptionally talented pair, an American husband and wife team working from home: their names are Paul and Sandra Fierlinger. Paul, an immigrant to the USA of Czech origin, has for years been an Ackerley fan, and here he has somehow managed to absorb and convey onscreen a quintessentially English style of humour. The film is witty, rueful, self-deprecating, a quietly observant, wonderfully camp analysis of class and relationships between humans and canines in the UK. (Anyone, for instance, who enjoys Hancock and Alan Bennett, would delight in this imaginative and enthusiastically created classic of animation.) Try to get hold of the dvd, for the extras are most entertaining and illuminating. I can honestly add, as a confirmed cat-lover, that this is absolutely the best and most endearing film about a man and a dog that I've ever seen – and frame by frame, it's technically brilliant too!

Thursday 25 April 2013

last comment on last rites

One more haiku, the last I intend to produce re the vile Thatcher and those creepy yet grandiose shenanigans in St Paul's last week. (Further reactions, however humorous or creative, may not be altogether good for an old geezer's blood pressure.)


A clown's tears, facile:
they're all in this together,
Tory crocodiles!

Wednesday 17 April 2013

thatcheration indeed



Writ large on a wall
somewhere in Brixton: IRON


Her greed-grocer mind
spelled Upward Mobility
whatever the price


Young ‘Snobby Roberts’
reinvented herself, moved
on, waging worse wars

So much for her who, among her other infamous achievements, considered Mandela a terrorist and Pinochet her pal!

Monday 14 January 2013

two new documentary classics

The finest, most memorable, and by far the most emotionally involving films I've seen in the past month are both documentaries. Our excellent local Picturehouse should be commended for showing two such disturbing – indeed deeply shocking, and therefore uncommercial, or anti-commercial – films.

Both 5 Broken Cameras (dir. Emat Burnat and Guy Davidi) and McCullin (dir. David Morris and Jacqui Morris) focus on truthful and courageous photo-journalism in extremely hazardous and life-threatening circumstances. Exemplary bravery, honesty and compassion are the (un)common denominators of both.

5 Broken Cameras is co-directed by a Palestinian and an Israeli – in itself a remarkable enterprise – and the Picturehouse brochure describes it thus: "At his son Gibreel's birth, Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat gets his first movie camera. He starts recording both Gibreel's childhood and the violent conflict that snowballs as Israel's 'security barrier' is driven through their neighbourhood. This affecting, poetic documentary reveals the determined spirit of Burnat and his family." An understatement, of course, as anyone who's been to the West Bank would recognize.

"Affecting" yes, but a truly effective picture too, in which the shameful daily injustices, and the bullying brutality and murderous actions perpetrated by the IDF and the self-styled Zionist "settlers" are vividly and searingly depicted. Personal essay and political cinema at its most provocative, its award at the Sundance Film Festival was well-merited: audiences will need strong stomachs and open minds to watch this extraordinary film, but let's hope it gets as widely distributed as possible. Don't miss it! (There's also a frank and informative interview with the two directors – impressive and dignified people, both of them. This is on Youtube, and a dvd will be available at the end of January.)

Don McCullin, now in his seventies, is in John Lennon's phrase a "working class hero", an internationally renowned British photographer. Here he is interviewed about his life and dangerous career – the art of survival while witnessing and chronicling many of the bloodiest and most violent conflicts of the last 50 years. These range from the Congo to Vietnam, Biafra to Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Salvador and the Middle East. McCullin's sincerity, modesty and moral decency (as with Messrs. Burnat and Davidi) shine through the interviews, stills and archive footage around which this biographical feature is constructed. This film too is revealing and riveting, and it too exposes the full madness, horror and human tragedy of occupation and war. McCullin doesn't duck the hard questions, especially the awkward and perhaps unavoidable fact that taking photos in high-risk situations so often gives the person behind the camera an adrenalin rush like no other: gambling with one's life for the sake of a scoop, in order to fix something quite fleeting, yet absolutely precious and unique, made him almost what he calls in his superb autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour (1990),
"a war junkie". Fortunately for him and for us he survived various misadventures and injuries along the way. Now he lives in his beloved Somerset, photographing the landscape and sorting his amazing archive for posterity. Another impressive human being, now the subject of an equally impressive film.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

another terrific film

I've been travelling and writing quite a bit recently, hence no blog since June. We've been to Berlin and Lübeck, fascinating places, the latter a rather pleasant surprise, especially as regards art and marzipan…(Incidentally our city Exeter was bombed in WW2 in retaliation for the devastation of Lübeck, Hitler's so-called Baedeker raids of 1942.) Then the new book Getting On (Poems 2000-12) was launched here in Exeter, with a further launch and reading scheduled at Bookmarks in London next week (Nov 6th).

At present our main library is undergoing major alterations and refurbishment, moving to a site next door: all these changes and (let's hope) improvements will take about 14 months apparently. Alongside the staff shake-ups and redundancies, all too many books and dvds are being sold off at bargain prices: in terms of film, this has meant we've watched a variety of interesting foreign classics, award winners and recent indie stuff (because that's what The Powers That Be are generally keen to get rid of!) None of them easily classifiable, let alone qualifying as mainstream movies.

Among some unexpected treasures not so far listed to be sold off, is Leap Year, a terrific Mexican film directed by an Australian director in his mid-thirties, Michael Rowe. Leap Year dates from 2010, when it won the Golden Camera award at Cannes for best debut film. It's quite gruelling and explicit – one-room, low-budget filming, while the acting of Monica del Carmen is courageous and extraordinary. Here's the supreme antidote to all the sick-making Hollywood shlock pumped out about dating and human relationships: in its pared-down (89 mins) style – a quasi-Bressonian eroticism? – and its extreme and unrelenting sincerity, Leap Year is strong stuff. Its frankness might well offend, provoking shock and defensive emotional reactions from many quarters – especially among the narrower sorts of feminists, the censorious prudes and lovers of sentimental cliché, and all those unthinking consumers of standard porn – none of whom would properly engage with the brutal and moving realities of the film's sexual politics. And it's not simply about gender attitudes, big city isolation and loneliness, but also very much concerned with class, race and economics in Mexico, where Michael Rowe has lived for many years. Rowe's stubborn persistence in getting his uncompromising script accepted and, after years of difficulties encountered, managing to direct it so effectively, bodes well for the future of someone who seems like a genuine auteur. Good luck to him, the award for his Año Bisiesto was no more than he deserved.