MENTAL ARITHMETIC – a short story

The next post will be on or before Friday11th May. If you want to read my new comic novel about online dating, The Lawless Book Of Love, you need to go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right.

MENTAL ARITHMETIC – a short story

Obsessions are curious things, and perhaps my own is shall we say, small beer. Perhaps better to call it an eccentricity, even a harmless eccentricity, as I don’t see that it puts anyone out in the smallest way, not even myself the tireless but not at all tiresome obsessive. It is no secret to those who know me that I am always doing mental arithmetic in my head (mark the slack redundance. I am not as clever as I thought I was, unless we are to conjecture that the mind might be lodged in the backside as feasibly as in the head). But my mental arithmetic is of a specialised kind, for it is exclusively concerned with time and chronology, the passing of time and the related business of the dates of birth of significant people, some of whom I know personally and others who I don’t. The fact is, it seems to me to be infinitely illuminating to know that e.g. Englishman X was born in 1939 while Englishman Y was born in 1950. The reason is toweringly obvious. The infancy of X overlaps with the duration of the Second World War which means X’s parents and other relatives must have been carrying the anxiety of a world at bloody war, including the apprehension of a possible invasion by brutal at times genocidal German Fascists, and this anxiety surely must have communicated itself however subtly into the warp and weft of X who now in 2018 aged 79 still carries those buried and haunting resonances whether the bugger knows it or not (and if he is a nigh octogenarian English Jew this is even more germane, no pun intended).

However, all this is very general and I shall now be more specific. It is now exactly 51 years since I sat my O level GCE examinations in 1967, the year of both the radical and hallucinatory Sergeant Pepper album by the Beatles, and of the lightning Six Day War where Israel took on the surrounding Arab countries and in less than a week clawed back what it believed to be its rightful ownership of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. Of course, in June 1967, aged 16. I wasn’t thinking about either of those defining events (I didn’t acquire the album until Christmas of the same year) as I was up to my eyes in the make or break O levels which led either to the Sixth Form and university, or to obloquy and oblivion. Yet the truly extraordinary fact is that I can not only remember sitting those sine qua non bastards 50 years on, I can also remember the bulk of their contents, and in some cases to a remarkable degree of specificity. For example, the Biology O level 51 years ago required me to draw freehand a busily sprouting broad bean with the labelled cotyledons. The RE asked me to give the significantly different gospel versions of Jesus’s two separate Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes, respectively The Feeding of the Five thousand and The Feeding of the Four Thousand, with Saints John and Luke completely omitting to mention the latter. The English Literature paper demanded that apropos the HG Wells novel Kipps, our set text, I must give an example of the hero’s social embarrassment when his surprise fortune moved him up the snobbery ladder (I wrote about the ice cream aka the ‘bombe’ going flying in the posh London hotel restaurant, with mortified Kipps blushing and decorously swearing ‘demn’!). But more remarkable than any of that, and this brings in the Second World War again, after a full half a century I can still remember verbatim a specific sentence in the German Dictation exam, both that which Willy Wandless the German master actually dictated, and that which nobody including me the effortless top of his class was able to transcribe correctly.

What I thought Willy Wandless, aka Willy Witless Shitless born 1912, hence 27 when World War Two broke out in 1939, had brayed at us, and thus what I wrote down was, “Allmehrlich nichte er ein.”

I jotted down that terse if musical sentence, even though it made nil sense to me, because I had never heard the first word, presumably an adverb modifying a verb ‘nichten’ of which I had also never heard. The fact that both were unknown to me, was for the simple and laughable reason that they didn’t exist, and indeed it transpired that what Witless Shitless had flung at us teenage ignoramuses was: “Allmahlich, nickte er ein.”

Meaning, “Gradually, he nodded off.”

Wandless was subsequently obliged to send off all our dictation papers to external examiners, but he took a quick look at them before he did so, and then sought me out to upbraid me for getting that very easy sentence wrong. I was his star pupil who regularly got 99% in every exam, and he scowled at me very pettishly as if to say I had let him down badly.

“But we’ve never had the words allmahlich and einnicken in class,” I protested with a blush as it occurred to me not for the first time that schoolteachers, and especially bachelor and spinster ones born anywhere between 1900 and 1920, were often truly bizarre in their outbursts and regularly downright idiotic with some of the things they melodramatically proclaimed.  I did not do so, but could have gone on to say with great feeling that the whole bloody German O level was stark, staring mad in 1967, inasmuch as we were required to demonstrate the utmost familiarity with the obscurest reaches of German grammar, but did very little reading of texts and certainly studied nothing whatever of actual German culture or literature. Thus, while we knew every jot and tittle about the inflection of adjectival endings which a great many Germans themselves get wrong (der junge Mann, den jungen Mann, des junges Mannes, dem jungen Manne) and the suppositional subjunctive, God love us (sei es noch so schwierig, tue ich es doch! Be it ever so difficult, yet I shall do it!) we didn’t know the fucking word for ‘gradually’, surely one of the most essential adverbs in the world (if you doubt me, try going without it or its handy synonyms for a month). Apropos which our German master Witless Shitless was a published author no less, for he himself had written our beginner’s German textbook, full of derring do tales of his own peculiar invention about courageous granddads, epic feats of strength and escaped bulls, and they were peppered with words we would never use in a million years. Amboss for example, meaning a blacksmith’s anvil, that Willy’s Tarzan of a granddad carried on his back across a raging river! Backpfeife, a rare and dated word, meaning slap or smack. Brotkrume, meaning a bloody old breadcrumb! So yes in 1967 when the Beatles were improvising about psychedelic drugs and the boundless cosmos, and the Israelis were briskly routing the hostile Arabs, we befuddled schoolkids knew plenty about anvils, slaps and breadcrumbs, but didn’t know the oh so vital word for gradually, bit by bit, slowly, eventually…

Enough said, and now back to mental arithmetic, which in my view is generally far more instructive than any other field of knowledge. My balls-up of Willy’s O level dictation happened 51 years ago, but then reflect and be truly stunned to realise what in the way of kernel history was going on 51 years before that. That’s right, 51 years before 1967 was 1916, and it was half way through the First World War, and we and our brave allies, the French and the Belgians, were at decimating war with the Kaiser’s troops. And in such a fractured scenario, of course, ordinary Boche soldiers away from the front, were regularly required to guard ammunitions depots and strategic train junctions and the like in the vicinity of Ypres and Passchendaele, and understandably enough a lot of the poor exhausted buggers, short on decent food and brainless with lingering trauma from the trenches, did what exactly, can we imagine? Yes, that’s right, they fell asleep, naturally enough, which is to say, they bloody well nicked ein, for they nodded off as opposed to upping sticks and deserting and fucking off. Let us imagine one of them, let’s call him peacetime farmhand Rudolf Knappertsbusch, helplessly sensing his poor eyelids growing ever heavier in the ammo depot as he dreams of his plump and succulent little girlfriend Heidi Tischbein back home in a village near Monchen Gladbach. Allmahlich nickte der Rudolf ein! ‘Gradually’ and despite himself Heidi’s blameless and uncomprehending peasant boyfriend ‘nodded off’, to be viciously bawled out by an outraged sergeant, a bully called Wilhelm Schatz from Bremen, who said that if it happened again, this flagrant and pansified neglect of duty, he would have Knappertsbusch shot and would happily join in the firing squad personally.

51 years before 1916, when someone like Rudolf Knappertsbusch had been shouted at by someone like Wilhelm Schatz, it was 1865, which was exactly one year before one of the most famous authors ever, HG Wells, entered the breathless and expectant world. He was born on the 21st of September 1866, which means he was conceived somewhere around the 21st of December 1865, a few days before festive Christmas. 102 years later (twice times 51) in 1967 and for my O level, I would be reading the fruits of his creativity in the form of a novel called Kipps, which became famous far beyond the rest of Wells’s fictional comedies (e.g. Ann Veronica or Mr Polly or Love and Mr Lewisham). That was because it was turned into a runaway successful London musical in 1963 called Half a Sixpence and was a vehicle for the stellar promotion of the English pop singer Tommy Steele (his real name was Tommy Hicks) who was born in 1936. Which is to say that HG Wells, whose innocent and charming little novel was responsible for the Swinging Sixties superstar success of Tommy Steele, was 70 years old when his future Artie Kipps = Tommy Hicks/ Steele was born. It seems to me to be also very significant that the musical’s success was at its height in precisely 1963, when the Beatles were already a heraldic presence, but the mop-haired boys were still culturally and affectively speaking the equivalent of the likeable lads next door (aka Tommy Steele with knobs on). There they were with their cheeky but affable Scouser grins, you could if you had wanted have happily introduced them to your aunty or your granddad, and they were certainly nothing like the blearily hallucinogenic long-haired Beau Brummel extravagances they were seen to be a mere four years later on the Sergeant Pepper LP cover. What that means is that though Tommy Steele’s success was colossal and it was in the 1960s, it was not at all a Swinging Sixties success but more like a Belated and Bloated and Austere 1950s success. The novel Kipps was published in 1905 which means it took 58 years to reach in transmuted form the London stage, and by then HG Wells who lived to be 80 had been dead for 17 years. He had seen the end of World War Two and the defeat of the Germans for the second time in that fretful fiasco known as the twentieth century, where wisdom and tolerance and basic kindness and even practical if selfish common sense had seemingly meant nothing at all to anyone. He had also been through wretched self-searching in his final years and aged 78 in 1945 had published a book of only 34 pages, an essay in fact called Mind At The End Of Its Tether. It is a pessimistic and embittered vision of a future where humanity might well be replaced by something else…and of course it was more than likely occasioned by the appalling and quite unbelievable events revealed on the recent documentary newsreel films that anyone could go and watch in the cinema. Piles meaning spectacular mountain heaps of infinitely emaciated corpses, glazed and hollow-eyed little infants among them. Enough said, surely.

As for me, aged 12, I started learning German under 50-year-old Witless Shitless Wandless in 1962, when John Lennon was 22 and Tommy Steele was 26 and was only one year off celebrity, thanks to the novel Kipps which I myself would study 5 years later. Those hideous news reel events were at their unspeakable height in 1944, which is to say only 18 years before I had started off with Willy Wandless reading Ich Lerne Deutsch (written in antique Gothic script) with Richard und Marie and their dog Rolf who bellt laut and their Mutti whose hat was hilariously stolen by a monkey, an Affe, in the zoo when she took her children there. And yes, only 18 years before the loud woof-woofing of good old Rolf and the thieving monkey in the zoo, they were still conscientiously, like the fastidious clerical Beamtes/officials they were, running concentration camps where they immolated and vaporised babies, and elsewhere they were still massacring whole villages of East Europeans as Untermensch Pobel (rabble), weren’t they, if I have it right, which I really think I do?

What I’m getting at is that the arithmetic that we are talking about is strictly mental, and the sooner we all understand that the better for us all.

Advertisements

THE FASCIST LADY WHO WASN’T

The next post will be on or before May 4th. If you want to read my new comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE, you need to go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

THE FASCIST LADY WHO WASN’T

A few years back, newly arrived in Kythnos, and being single and infinitely available, I took a look at a Greek dating site where approximately a quarter of the women put their profiles in English rather than Greek. The implication was that they were looking either for Greek men who were sophisticated English speakers (thus likely to have better jobs with their command of the universal language) or foreigners living in Greece for whom the lingua franca was invariably my native tongue. Early on I was struck by the touching photo of a homely-looking lady in her late 50s, an Athenian whose English profile name startlingly was ‘Puglady’. She was as I say homely, but looked nothing like a pug, and I was initially baffled until I read on and saw she was an animal lover and the light dawned (see below for more about dawns and about misunderstanding). From that I deduced she probably owned a pug dog, and paraded it proudly round the parks and plateias of Athens, but it proved once again the risks entailed in compound nouns, especially when misunderstood in translation. I had immediately thought Puglady meant ‘a woman who looked remarkably like a pug’ rather than she was a fan of the little flatnosed and occasionally buckteethed dogs, and if for argument’s sake she had had an adored pet rat called Sophocles and called herself ‘Ratlady’ would she, I wonder, have had a single approach from anyone either Greek or otherwise?

Puglady had elaborated her profile in English, while other women chose to attach a fancy English name, but with the rest of the CV in Greek. One such had herself down as ‘Lady Godiva’ and boldly declared in Greek that she was ‘tactile’. But being tactile and riding into town bare-arse naked on a handsome horse are arguably historically different scenarios, and I wondered what kind of salivating or other response she got from those Greeks and foreigners who knew the striking details of the legendary English story…

More startling than either of those, was a woman whose profile name was Greek and with the rest of her CV in her home tongue. She was a very attractive widow of 60, with vividly animated eyes and the kindest, friendliest face you could imagine, an obvious gem among all the confused and hopeful Pugladys, and those ‘I am very physical’ Hellenic Godivas. But her profile name suggested she was catastrophically dozy and worryingly slow on the uptake, and worse still that no one in their right mind would ever want her as a partner, as she had named herself Xrisiavyi meaning literally Golden Dawn. To be sure, she really did look as sweet and aureous as the tenderest Greek dawn, but Xrisiavyi is also the name of the brutal Greek Fascist party who specialise in beating up immigrants in Athens and even occasionally being caught on telly beating up their parliamentary opponents in Syndagma. I read her profile carefully, double checking with a dictionary, and very obviously she was no Fascist nor vaunting racist, but God love her, in another country and another era she might innocently have called herself StrictlyAngloSaxon or PureAryanLady, not having checked out exactly what Aryan meant (it is in fact Sanskrit for ‘noble victorious invader’, its opposite being ‘mleccha’ meaning ‘indigenous barbarian’, as encountered in Ancient India circa 1500 BC) …

 

IN PRAISE OF MIKE LEIGH

The next post will be on or before Friday April 27th.  If you want to read my new comic novel about online dating, The Lawless Book of Love, you should go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

IN PRAISE OF MIKE LEIGH

Haughty male voice. “Bring me a biscuit, Christine, a Garibaldi!”

“Very well, dear.”

“No, no, bring me a Bourbon instead!”

Thus, Ralph Butcher the middle aged, tyrannical RE (Religious Education) school teacher orders his dogsbody of a wife, netball teacher Christine, the two of them living in a faceless purchased council house in Canterbury, Kent, UK somewhere around the late 1970s, when men could still boss women about and apparently get away with it. In this accomplished 1980 Mike Leigh comedy for TV, Grown Ups, Butcher is played very ably by the late Sam Kelly (1943-1970) with his impressively egotistical owl-like face familiar from BBC comedies like Porridge and Ello Ello. Butcher is aloof and more or less contemptuous of his pupils, and likes to sit in bed reading aloud to Christine their illiterate RE essays. That is the only thing that happens in bed, and Christine played by the beautiful Pinter actress Lindsay Duncan (born 1950) here looking terminally dowdy and with a singsong pedantic voice, still wants a love life and tells Ralph at one harrowing point she would very much like that elusive trio Love, Sex and Happiness. The religion teacher is suitably stumped and makes no comment as he keeps on earnestly reading his books about the Loch Ness monster and other garish mysteries. Earlier, when his wife asked him did he really believe in the fabled monster, he had ranted at her for her lack of Faith, which of course is an interestingly heretical interpretation given that later he declares theirs to be a Christian household. Even better as a comic touch, and reminiscent of the HG Wells shop-owner tyrants in Kipps and Mr Polly, Ralph punctuates his discourse with odd gurgling noises that arise from his stomach but come relentlessly to the surface in his fish-like mouth.

Next door, two of Ralph’s former pupils, now newly-weds in their early 20s, have just moved in. They recognise him, but he doesn’t remember them, which predictably causes him nil embarrassment. Dick the husband is played by Leigh regular Philip Davis (born 1953) and he is a grunting monosyllabic underdog, working wearily as a washer up of greasy casserole tins in a cheap restaurant. He has a permanent expression of bleary disdain, and despite his ever-ready libido is fighting off the ambition of his cafe employee wife, Mandy (Lesley Manville, another Leigh regular, born 1956) to get pregnant ASAP. They are effective working class counterpoints to the childless middle class Butchers, though Dick like bossy Ralph orders Mandy to make him a cup of tea while he is watching telly sprawled on his back, and when she refuses, he gets in a filthy temper. The young and impoverished couple converse in standard aspirational cliché about gathering things together bit by bit, as they have neither Hoover nor washing machine as yet. Partly this is because they like to go out drinking most nights, while unreformed Dick also reserves the right to go carousing with the boys on his own.  And into this quaint opposition of the quietly desperate Butchers and their unglamorous young neighbours, comes the powerful dramatic foil of Mandy’s older sister, significantly called Gloria/Glor and played with absolute genius by Brenda Blethyn (born 1946) familiar both from Leigh dramas and, sad to say an unbelievably dire UK TV police drama, called Vera.

Gloria is a sad, indeed a truly tragic case. She is 32 and single, a zealous office worker, and she lives at home with Mum who nags her if she goes out, and nags her if she stops in. Her only chance of happiness is to spend as much time as possible with Mandy, so she is always gawping through the window and hailing them heartily with her squeaky insinuating voice, oblivious to their looks of frank despair. She always lands when they are about to eat their dinner, and protests that a bit of toast will be enough for her and promptly helps herself at the grill. This makes Mandy and even Dick feel both guilty and resentful, and in Dick’s case gradually explosive. Gloria craftily ingratiates herself by buying double gins for Mandy in the pub after she had promised to join them for the one drink only, then swiftly depart. Even better she turns up one day with a massive parcel which turns out to be a stand- up Hoover and the two sisters purr ecstatically at the joy of the wondrous gadget. And as foil to a foil, we also have Mandy’s old schoolmate Sharon, played perfectly by Janine Duvitski (born 1952) of Leigh’s 1977 Abigail’s Party fame. Sharon is pessimism personified, and Dick’s relentless teasing implies they might once have had something going between them. Mandy proudly shows her round the house where Sharon declares everything is either too small or needs a good clean. She grumbles about her job on the sweet counter in a big store, and says she wants to be on dresses, but once on dresses says she is bored and wishes she were back on sweets.

Things come to a disturbing head when Gloria turns up with her overnight gear claiming her Mum has kicked her out. Mandy happens to be out drinking with Sharon, and Dick is trying to watch football on Grandstand when the maddening pest arrives. On her return he orders Mandy to throw her out, who does her best, but then sobbing Gloria races off and locks herself in upstairs, until pursued by enraged Dick she flees next door to the Butchers! She barricades herself in their toilet and only Mrs Butcher shows anything like mature sympathy when it comes to calming the pathetic hysteric. She orders raging Dick to get out of her house, clouts Mandy across the face when she terrifies Gloria further, and also bellows at bullying Ralph to get out of the way. She manages to get Gloria out of her refuge with a cup of tea, whereupon the pest promptly falls asleep exhausted, and Christine organises Mandy and Sharon to take her home by taxi. All this might have seemed final, and Mandy and Dick might have banned the hopeless sister for ever more, but the film concludes with Gloria bent over her sister’s swollen belly, ecstatic as she feels the baby kicking and realising she is about to become an aunty.

So what to make of Mike Leigh (born 1943) winner of numerous international prizes for his films and TV work, yet still criticised by some for his unsentimental and others might add, cruelly satirical attitude towards his characters? Around 40 years ago the novelist Julian Barnes (born 1946) then TV critic for the New Statesman was complaining that Leigh was uncomfortably patronising towards the working class and putting his audiences into the invidious situation of sneering at what should not be sneered at. Aside from the fact that impeccably intellectual Barnes, would have about as much notion of how to blend into a rough London pub or other mundane milieu as he would of astral travel, where I believe Mike Leigh really deserves to be applauded is with his radical decision not to idealise working people, nor for that matter anyone else in his dramas. He is accused of overdone caricature when he portrays e.g. the appalling slob of a Mancunian Dad (Clifford Kershaw) in Hard Labour (1973) a gruff and loveless nightwatchman with painful feet who treats his charwoman wife (Liz Smith, 1921-2016) like dirt. But sad to say such folk did and do still exist, and I myself have known them, and Leigh really is not parodying anything or anyone to excess. And after all, Leigh is a director and a dramatist, not an idealistic journalist nor sociologist, and if he wishes to, surely he is entitled to bend the coordinates to get the artistic effects he is after. Where he really excels though, is with people painfully on the edge, such as needy hopeless Gloria, or the seriously disturbed driving instructor Scott played brilliantly by Eddie Marsan (born 1968) in the 2008 Happy Go Lucky, or photographer Timothy Spall’s fragile and childless  Scottish wife in Secrets and Lies (1996) or most powerfully of all with Johnny the Mancunian vagabond (the virtuoso David Thewlis, born 1963) jabbering his apocalyptic obsessions, as he wanders round London looking for who knows what, in that remarkable 1993 film Naked. It is an undeniable fact that Leigh specialises in making us feel thoroughly uncomfortable, indeed has us comically squirming in our chairs, as we recognise those sad and appalling and periodically hilarious folk, who are remarkably like ourselves, and those we know, at our worst. Reflect that no one seriously criticised Harold Pinter (1930-2008) for conveying disturbed and damaging eccentrics in hypertrophied form on the stage, and ditto with the subversive Joe Orton (1933-1967) if only because their bizarre protagonists were by and large classless and rootless and far from realistic flesh and blood individuals. Leigh achieves the same unhinging effects, but with extremely credible café skivvies in Grown Ups, and very ordinary London postmen in the 1982 Home Sweet Home, and ditto the unfeeling Manchester nightwatchman, and the convincingly callous Asian taxi driver (a very young Ben Kingsley) in Hard Labour. He presents them quite so unflatteringly and inevitably uncomfortably, just possibly because he sees the notional aesthetic of the audience’s  ‘comfort’, as ultimately bogus and the consequent enemy of dramatic truth.

 

 

THE QUESTION NO ONE DARES ASK – a short story

The next post will be on or before Friday April 27th. If you would like to read my new comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE please go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

THE QUESTION NO ONE DARES ASK – a short story

When, after our thirty-year marriage, Joanie died of secondary cancer at the tail end of 2009, once the busy funeral was over, and all the many mourners had come and gone, I realised there was something very simple I wanted people to ask of me, but oddly no one, not a single soul, ever did. It was something remarkably basic and obvious, that I would have wished my friends and colleagues to say, nothing remotely sophisticated, something so natural, not to say short and sweet, I couldn’t imagine why no one said it, but indeed nobody ever did, neither at the time nor for months after until something obliged at least one of them to stop in their tracks and almost do so.

I was living alone in a bloody big house that was stuck out in the country, and which inevitably made things worse. My daughter Sarah was away at university, and of course I didn’t expect her to ask me that question, as she was grieving herself in her own particular way, and it was not appropriate for her to put to me, what my friends and workmates, most of whom were at least twice her age, I believed should be putting. My situation reminded me vividly of that of my Dad when my mother had died back in 1990. He also lived in a bloody big house, and she also had died of cancer, though in her case and unlike Joanie she had sat like some obstinate broody hen on the appalling symptoms, kept it all a close secret, and had not consulted the doctor for an incredible, and of course very hazardous, eighteen months. It is a tired cliché but my Dad really was lost without my mother, because his social life had come exclusively through her, as she was the last word in gregariousness and hospitality, whereas he was very shy and naturally reclusive. Once she died everyone apart from me, my brothers and one of his sister in laws, stopped coming to the big old mansion in that grimy village down west, and manifestly he did nothing to encourage any visitors. He didn’t drive but could have taken a bus or even a train easily enough to see old acquaintances, but instead he stayed at home and pushed the time in as best he could. He read the paper, he read his library books, he watched TV, he endured the occasional visits of one or two old villagers, but if they too were widowed or otherwise abandoned he felt no ameliorative kinship. He told me that one unfortunate old man whose wife was severely demented and agonisingly didn’t know him from Adam, bored him to death, and he made a point of offering him neither tea nor coffee in case he opted to extend his visit. The result was that my father was thoroughly bored with his long and empty days, that he frequently went to bed at 7.30, the time a six- year-old child might have, and that every night he firmly bolted the door fast against the uncomprehending and increasingly unappetising world.

It was only a few days after my mother’s death that I visited him with one-year-old Sarah and it occurred to me at once to ask him the simple question that twenty years later I would want people to ask of me. So I put to him my obvious query and he looked at me a little startled and then his eyes filled up and his voice broke for the first time in many years and very huskily he answered:

“Of course, I do! Of course, I do. What else could I do?”

He was dead some two years later aged seventy-six of a rapid stomach cancer which indeed might have been seen to be looming on the horizon. It was all too explicable given his incredible and unhealthy widower’s diet. The first thing he had done after his wife’s death was to empty her copiously equipped kitchen of all but one breakfast bowl, one tea plate which would also accommodate his dinner, one set of cutlery, and a single small saucepan. His sister in law Josie who drove through every Friday night, brought him half a dozen meat pies she had baked herself, and he ate half a one of these that he had heated in the oven every lunchtime and every evening, employing the cooker rings only to warm up some baked beans or tinned peas. And that was it. Twice a day for all of two years he had pie and beans or pie and peas, and nothing else aside from his breakfast cereal.

As for my workmates, or better say professional colleagues, though in a different social and intellectual strata from my factory worker father, they were just as extreme in their omissions. This was my third year of working in a European Literature university department, though I was not employed by the university but by a private charity, and my job was to teach the students how to structure and write their essays, theses, reports and doctorates. If you included the secretaries and administrators, there were about thirty colleagues in all, and when I went back after Joanie’s death, I expected most of them sooner or later to say something, however perfunctory, about the fact I had lost my wife. Note carefully that I am not talking about them putting the urgent question that I really wanted them to put, but just to acknowledge the fact that after thirty years, no small time lapse, I no longer possessed a wife. I should likewise emphasise there was no way in which they could have been in ignorance about it, as the department secretary I shared had sent a memo round about their colleague’s bereavement. And yet as the days and then the weeks went by, only two out of thirty went so far as to acknowledge my loss. One man, bustling energetic Danny Ross, was a lecturer I had first met elsewhere, who also had a wife and the one daughter, and he sent me a delicate and calligraphic sympathy card with a single violet on the front, and I immediately filled up as I read it very slowly. The other was the big surprise, for handsome, sharp-featured Margo De Lisle was the most flagrantly anti-social of the teaching staff, a German lecturer who was an expert on Theodor Fontane, who customarily walked around with her head down and didn’t bother with the usual niceties of casual greetings. Instead today she knocked barely audibly on my door, shuffled in, looked me shyly in the eye, and said she was really sorry to hear of Joanie’s death. I smiled and thanked her and made us both a coffee and told her that only she and Danny, who ironically taught the affectless existentialists Camus and Sartre, had offered their condolences, and no one else had spoken a word.

She looked moderately shocked. “That is certainly altogether strange.”

Of her own initiative, she mentioned the omission to a gentle and amiable man called Roy Stenhouse who taught Lorca and Fernando Pessoa. Roy had always stopped to chat to me whenever we passed in the corridor, and he now went so far as to send me an email saying that he hadn’t mentioned my bereavement in case it upset me, and he also presumed that was the case with the other colleagues who it seemed had also tactfully said nothing. Reflecting that his office was twenty yards away and he could have come and told me his explanation in person, I pondered a while then emailed back to say that I had guessed that might be the reason for all the silence. The trouble was that I wasn’t a mind reader, and like everyone else bereaved you don’t know whether the silence is because people wish to protect you, or to protect themselves, or a feasible mixture of both, or because never having met your wife they don’t, perhaps forgivably, care quite enough, or because they never read the memo, or because they have toothache. I didn’t put in the email that if I had been living in rural Ireland everyone would have come up and shaken my hand, and said with real sincerity, I am sorry for your loss, or if I had lived anywhere at all in Greece they would have solemnly approached, kissed me on both cheeks, shaken my hands and not been surprised if I had shown some open grief. Nor did I add that all these twenty odd lecturers and readers and profs were celebrated specialists in foreign literature, whose trademark, whose very essence, from Dostoievsky to Colette and Grazia Deledda and back again, was deep feeling, deep passion, love, loss, life, death and yes Death again, and that was where I and Roy Stenhouse and the other twenty odd academic mutes came into the baffling picture again.

Then a breakthrough, a timely intervention, a deus ex machina, an example of that ineffable albeit transcendent duo Time and Chance being quietly at work, as they always are, even if we are not aware of it. One night in March I was fishing through my old video cassettes (ironically Roy Stenhouse was the only other person I knew who still played his video cassettes) when I chanced upon Stanno Tutti Bene, starring handsome Marcello Mastroianni as Matteo in one of the last films he ever made, only two years before his death. The title means Everybody Is Fine which is a gross thematic misrepresentation, as old Matteo who lives in Sicily discovers, when of necessity he goes to visit his five grown kids on the mainland, seeing that they never come to visit him, and are always full of lame excuses. It turns out they never visit as they have been lying about their posh jobs and happy marriages, for one has lost his professorship, another is no longer a classical musician, yet another with an absentee husband has hidden the fact that she works as a lingerie model and sometimes has to leave her infant unattended and gaping uncomprehendingly at blaring daytime television. The point is that on his way to the mainland by train, and before he makes these infinitely bleak discoveries, Matteo is so excited about seeing his wonderfully successful kids, he is bursting to tell his fellow passengers about them. However, he has a problem that was exactly my own problem, for amiable as old Matteo looks, with his thick lenses and puffin-like gaze, no one thinks to ask him anything at all, so that with a lateral Zenlike inspiration that took my breath away guileful Matteo simply orders them to ask him what he wanted to be asked.

Ask me what Tosca does in Milan! Go on! Ask me!  Ask me how much Canio, Alvaro and Guglielmo make in their jobs in Turin and Florence, twice as much as I ever did I can assure you! And Norma’s husband, what does he do for an easy living, ask me that, and how much does he pocket in his cushy post? Go on! Ask me!

His fellow travellers are naturally touched by the earnest and excited old man, and his unfettered pride in his legendary children, and they duly put to him the questions he has ordered them to put. At once I decided I would take a leaf out of wily Matteo’s book, and do that tomorrow myself, with the one and only question I had wanted to be asked ever since Joanie had died. And while I was at it, I would go to the very top of the tree, and put my demand to the Head of Department, an affable if markedly staid Zola specialist called Professor Rex Entwhistle. He was the boss of the European Literature department, but not my boss of course, as I worked for a charity and was thus to a certain extent an independent and autonomous appendage, a detached and thereby arguably inviolable professional, because in plain and unambiguous terms Rex Entwhistle was not my line manager and therefore I was not answerable to him…

He however would be answerable to me. I caught him the next day bustling his way through the deserted corridor, and he looked at me a little uneasily now that I was a widower, and would have gone on with no more than a nod had I not indicated I wished to parley. With his fluffy stuck up hair and blameless knitted sweater, Rex exuded a very boyish aura, as if he was at fifty only a larger version of what he had been at ten. He was one of the sunniest and most compliant men I had ever met, and it amazed me that he was a devoted fan of Emile Zola who as everyone knows, must be one of the rawest, shocking and most challenging authors in all of world literature. Perhaps it was all to do with embracing your opposites, for I couldn’t really imagine Rex Entwhistle making himself a martyr over some English equivalent of Dreyfus, then fleeing to France to escape the long arm of the outraged English law.

I didn’t waste any time, but got down to business. I said briskly, “Rex, I need to ask you a favour.”

He beamed uncertainly. “No problem. Whatever I can do for you.”

“I want you to ask me a question, Rex!”

He blinked and started. “Eh? You wan-”

“Yes, I want you to ask me a specific question!”

He beamed once more, though only at half voltage. “Surely you mean that you want to ask me a question.  What you just said, doesn’t really make sense.”

I snorted in a markedly superior tone. “Yes it does, believe you me! You see, it’s a very specific question I would very much like all my of friends and my colleagues to ask. But sad to say, and it’s driving me mad, none of them ever do.”

He stared at me then moderately frightened, as if I might just be about to colourfully and embarrassingly go to pieces. Which might have been why he promptly decided to dodge things with a spurious levity.

“You must mean a kind of riddle or joke? Hah. That’s it, isn’t it? This is your particular way of telling a gag!”

I snorted yet again. “There’s a gag involved OK, but not the type you mean. No, you see it’s to do with my wife Joanie dying, as she did, of cancer after being a full ten years in remission, just three months ago. We really thought she was fully in the clear, we were very happy together for all of thirty years, and ever since she died I’ve wanted all my friends and colleagues to ask me just one very simple question. Well actually no, that’s a lie, Rex, it elaborates into maybe two or three related but very simple questions. But as I say, no bugger ever asks these truly naïve and childlike questions, and so, as far as I can see, the only way I can get them to ask them, is by ordering them to do so!”

Rex went pale. Then in a vain and rather ugly struggle, he became irritated. “You cannot order people to ask you specific things! That’s altogether crazy, surely.”

I stared at him persuasively. “Not if it drives you crazy, when they don’t ask you!  And in any case, being ordered to ask something, isn’t always a sign of craziness on the part of someone making the request. Consider something obvious and undeniable. You like me are an affectionate Dad, aren’t you, Rex? When your kids were little, surely they would often dress up as a king or queen or a wizard or a witch, and say to you, Dad, ask me what it is I’m supposed to be!”

Rex was palpably twitching at that. “But dammit, man, you’re not a little kid!”

I snorted for the third time. “I bloody well am in this case! Grief is a great leveller. It works in transcendent, meaning atemporal terms, which is why so many folk are running scared of it. So for present purposes, Rex, and as far as you’re concerned, I am like a child, albeit aged fifty-nine. So here we go, Prof Entwhistle. Get ready…”

He snapped at me in what looked like terror, “No! No, I bloody won’t!”

I frowned and swiftly blocked his path, and shouted, “Ask me exactly what it’s like for me now that my lovely wife has died. Go on! Fucking ask me, Rex!

“No! Will I hell as like!”

Ask me, you useless bastard! Ask me exactly what it’s like on the inside now that she’s gone for ever, after all of thirty bloody years. Ask me what it feels like from within, day to day, and day after fucking day. “I then paused surprisingly businesslike as he stared at me in his frozen owl-like trance.”Just think about it for a moment, Rex. You spend your days meditating on the troubling and incendiary emotions that the genius Emile Zola evokes in his millions of readers. So why can’t you take two minutes to meditate on mine?”

He gulped. “No! Like hell! You’re behaving as if you’re bloody mad! No, I won’t. It is not in my remit.”

“Eh, Rex? Your remit? Your remit, Rex! But your hero Emile Zola would have had no trouble in asking me! If he’d been here today in this university corridor in 2010, I promise you he’d have been the first to ask the question, and without even needing to be asked.”

Rex cleared his throat with evident great relief and pointed out the significant contextual problem.

“But I’m not Emile Zola! Am I? I mean-”

At that I was seized by what seemed a timely and truly therapeutic laughing fit, and I could even imagine Joanie laughing her lovely head off with me. I looked wonderingly, in real bafflement, at Rex in his chunky cable knit sweater, and with his out of date phone poking out his back pocket, and his country curate style face, like that of a genial adolescent who is still the blameless favourite of his prudish old aunts and his bluff old uncles. Then I smiled and swiftly unblocked his path, and watched him hurry off as if he had some tiger in pursuit. At last, I shouted:

“You’re so right there, old pal. I mean you’re so right, Professor Entwhistle. I promise you that Zola would never have asked you anything at all, whether prompted by you, or by the movements of the stars.”

 

THE NEW AND IMPROVED BRIGHTON ROCK

The next post will be on or before Friday 20th April. If you would like to read my latest comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE, please go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right. Please note I now have a new Facebook Author page at https://www.facebook.com/JohnMurrayAuthor/

 

THE NEW AND IMPROVED BRIGHTON ROCK

Sam Riley (born 1980) is such a gifted actor his portrayal of the youthful psychopathic gangster Pinky in the 2010 remake of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (1938) makes you so angry you want to get in there and give him a good hiding. Riley has variously played the doomed Joy Division rock star Ian Curtis and Sal Paradise the flamboyant hero of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road so he is evidently a versatile actor. Here he combines a vicious surliness with a frighteningly cold and affectless expression, the only sign of any human tenderness being the fact he has a framed photograph of presumably his Dad in wartime uniform of whom we learn nothing during the film. Brutal and amoral as he is, he is also a staunch believer in his Roman Catholic faith and at one stage says to his pathetic partner Rose that it is the only thing that makes any sense, especially the reality of Hell with its eternal fire.

The film updates the 30s novel to the early 1960s just as the original 1947 film with Richard Attenborough as Pinky set the action in the 1940s. Pinky is a part of a Brighton criminal gang specialising in protection rackets, which is run by the elderly Spicer played by the tried and trusted Philip Davis (born 1953) notable elsewhere for his bleakly comic performances in Mike Leigh movies. Spicer drinks heavily and is evidently exhausted and losing his nerve, so teenage Pinky has no problem in frightening him into apparent submission. These two plus their cohorts Cubitt (Craig Parkinson born 1976 who regularly plays bluff, no nonsense London detectives) and Dallow portrayed by Nonso Anozie (born 1978) who is of part-Nigerian descent, find themselves in opposition to the mighty Colleoni, extortionist and gambling magnate par excellence. Andy Serkis (born 1964) who has previously played the anarchic singer Ian Dury makes a magnificent Colleoni so vulgarly rich he has a permanent suite in Brighton’s poshest hotel and a host of suited minders stationed permanently downstairs to vet any potential visitors. Pinky comes to see him alone and unprotected where he states his fearless opposition to the great man and the fact he is ready to betray Spicer, to lure him to the pier where Colleoni’s men can do what they like with him. Things have become very unstable since Pinky went too far in beating up rival gangster Fred Hale (Sean Harris, born 1966, who interestingly has also played Ian Curtis) and ended up braining him with a rock underneath the pier. He was supposed to give him a hiding no more and Spicer is enraged now that all of them face capital charges. My DVD copy says the action is set in 1964 which was indeed the year that the last execution by hanging was performed in the UK (it was finally abolished a year later) but that date also fits with the pitched battles between Mods (qv tidy haircuts and riding scooters) and Rockers (greasy tonsures and straddling motorbikes) which are also an integral part of the film, and present an effective counterpoint of youthful criminal deviance to the organised variety.

Spicer has additional reason to be very alarmed as there was a pier photographer took a snap of him intimidating Fred Hale as Hale tried to save himself by claiming he was with his girlfriend, a rather gormless café waitress called Rose. Rose, on her lunch break, didn’t know Fred from Adam but the photographer unwittingly took a group shot of Hale looking terrified, Spicer looking angry and Rose looking baffled just a few minutes before Hale was battered to death by Pinky. The photographer gives Rose a piece of paper which will redeem a gratis print of the photo if she turns up at his newspaper offices, from which point on she becomes inevitable key to the development of all else.

Rose is played by rising superstar Andrea Riseborough (born 1981) who justly made her name in the 2014 Birdman starring Edward Norman and Michael Keaton. She wears unflattering glasses, is hesitant, inarticulate, and the last word in confused insecurity. Back home she has a bad-tempered Dad who bellows at her all the time and in the café where she works she believes that the other girls shun her. Pinky wastes no time in tracking her down in the cafe and brazenly ingratiating himself, pointing out they have so much in common, both being Roman Catholics, both largely friendless, hence very wisely trusting no one. He arranges a date that same night, then steals the paper slip for the incriminating photo from her coat pocket. Nonetheless his paradigm instability means in small things he cannot control himself, and when the service is slow in Rose’s café he batters the table deafeningly to get some attention. This earns the ire of the café manager Ida played brilliantly by Helen Mirren (born 1945) who I’m not customarily a fan of if only because she stars in so many lightweight films, but she surely shows her mettle here. She evidences a dryness, wryness and mordant worldly-wise persona that must have needed decades as an actress to perfect. She is throughout the film wonderfully paired with her old mate the equally shrewd and unfoolable Corkery the betting shop owner flawlessly portrayed by that virtuoso, the late John Hurt (1940-2017). Meanwhile regardless of the damning photograph, there must have been witnesses of Rose in conversation with Hale and Spicer, so Pinky immediately goes out of his way to terrify his new date into submission. He tells her about other young girls in Brighton who have blabbed about things they have seen relating to gang members, and who have had acid thrown in their faces as a result. He then brings out a phial of sulphuric he keeps for emergencies and proceeds to burn the wood of the bench they are sitting on. Rose is suitably aghast and when Pink asks her to swear a vow of allegiance to him and of silence to the world, she does so at once, and overall she is convincingly portrayed as someone who demonstrates a mindless devotional slavery as a function of her exceptionally low self-esteem.

After his conversation with Colleoni, Pinky lures nervous Spicer to the pier supposedly in order to make peace with the town’s criminal overlord. Spicer wants out of the stressful gangster life so has plans to purchase a little pub up in Nottingham and wants Pinky to buy him out, and even grovelingly tells the young psychopath he will always be welcome in his pub for its perfect pint. To the accompaniment of Mods and Rockers scrapping on the same beach, Spicer is cornered by half a dozen thugs and his heartrending screams are just audible against the racket of the battling youth. The Colleoni boys however double-cross Pinky and pursue him too and there is a telling scene where Pinky shows his vulnerability as after his escape he sits down and cries his terror and his outrage. When he gets back to the ugly subterranean flat where he and the rest live, to his astonishment he is told that Spicer has returned too, for indeed the betrayed gang boss had managed to get away. Pinky confronts him in his bedroom where badly battered Spicer is hurriedly packing and he taunts him with a stick of Brighton rock inserted threateningly into his mouth. We aren’t shown exactly what follows. but shortly after Spicer is seen washed up on the seashore with the Brighton rock rammed deep into his throat as effective choking device.

Pinky’s next inspiration is to marry Rose, as the law, as it then stood, was that a wife could not testify against her husband in court. For that he needs to get permission from her appalling Dad who like Pinky lives in some dog rough subterranean annexe, effective contrast to the palatial mansions which populate Brighton sea front and in front of which the disenfranchised teenage gangs gleefully battle it out. More significantly the rooms where Pinky, Dallow and Cubitt hang out are bleak and desolate to the point of no return, so that when for instance Pinky takes Rose home from the registrar office wedding and has her brutally on the bed, the surroundings are so wonderfully horrible we suddenly decide that Pinky’s obsession with the Catholic hell is vividly exemplified by the place in which he lives, a barren rabbit warren with its mental hospital beds and leaden cupboards so unbelievably ugly it is truly infernal.  Before he can enjoy Rose though, Pinky has to literally buy her off her loveless Dad who smilelessly barters for £175 so that his daughter gets properly looked after. Soon after, horrified Ida, pretending to Dallow to be Rose’s mother, tracks her down at home, and urges her to give up on the double murderer (of opponent Hale and ally Spicer) and warns her that he only married Rose to avoid her testimony in court. Rose promptly pulls one of Pinky’s knives on her, but wise Ida feels only pity rather than anger at her hopeless simplicity and suicidal infatuation. She and Corkery even go and visit Colleoni to plead for Rose’s safety, as the next logical step is that Pinky will murder his new wife given her tendency to blab what had happened despite her husband’s threats.

Before Pinky takes her on what he hopes to be her final journey, Rose begs him to make a romantic record on Brighton pier in one of those 1960s self-recording booths. In a harrowing scene and with his frighteningly blank, immobile face, Pinky inside the kiosk starts by saying that she wants him to say he loves her, but that he hates everything about her, including her clothes her face and her conversation. Rose stood outside the soundproof booth is beaming seraphically at the man she loves, who is evidently saying wonderfully sentimental things about her. With a gun in his pocket, he then puts her on his scooter and drives them up to remote high cliffs where he urges to her shoot herself in the ear (it won’t hurt at all I promise!) and with Pinky guaranteed to do the same right after. Riseborough’s acting here as she faces death to appease the man she loves beyond words, is a masterly evocation of fear, grief and cruel pathos. Cue Dallow and Ida immediately in pursuit in a battered little car that at first won’t start as an impressive exercise in deus ex machina dramatics. Dallow, thank God, manages to beat Pinky off and the two of them engage in a mortal combat. I won’t spoil things by telling you the precise grisly ending but suffice to say Pinky meets an appropriate Nemesis whereas poor Rose, pregnant by her dead husband, ends up in a Catholic refuge run by nuns for unmarried mothers. Still infatuated and loyal to the end, she borrows a record player and plays Pinky’s booth recording and thanks to a glitch peculiar to cheap old vinyl remains convinced to the end that Pinky had loved her beyond words.

The only complaint I have about this excellent film is the unsatisfactory and seemingly contrived religious motif, and I would level the same objection at both the 1947 movie and Graham Greene’s original novel. Pinky’s allegiance to his RC faith is as it were glued on to his persona rather than rising from it naturally, and the same could be said of Pinky/Attenborough’s 1940s allegiance and ditto re the protagonists in many of Greene’s novels and their film adaptations (e.g. The End of the Affair and its 1999 movie) where guilt and arctic loneliness seem to be the thematic pivot, but as it were slapped on adventitiously, almost formally, by seemingly ecclesiastical decree. At one point Sam Riley gets on his knees to beg for delivery from his pursuers, and later Rose goes into church to pray for their happiness on the day of the wedding, but it all seems oddly glued on after the event rather than stemming naturally from the otherwise convincing characters.

Very recently I have been complaining about inept remakes of film classics whereas I would argue the opposite here. This 2010 adaptation seems to me to be streets ahead of the 1947 classic which is often lauded by critics as an exemplary work of genius. I would say that apart from Attenborough’s impressive acting as bloodless Pinky, everyone else in the original comes across as standard 1940s wooden, perpetually talking and barking their lines rather than feeling them. This remake was the directorial debut of Rowan Joffe (born 1973) who decided to make more of Greene’s ‘Roman’ dimension, which alas in my view was no strategic improvement. Other than that, the film deserves a full 5 stars and it might be of interest to know it was shot in Eastbourne rather than Brighton, a Sussex seaside town I have not yet visited.

THE ONE AND ONLY THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR

The next post will be on or before Saturday 14th April. If you want to read my latest comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE please go to the January and February 2018 archives, see well below and to the right

THE ONE AND ONLY THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR

The strident title above refers to the fact there was a 1999 remake of the 1968 Norman Jewison original, which I once watched 10 dreary minutes of on an aeroplane before giving up in melancholy disgust. The location for this classic and infinitely innovative heist movie had been switched to NY from Boston, and the no more than competent Pierce Brosnan had replaced the masterly Steve McQueen (1930-1980), and it was, to put it kindly, lacklustre garbage. Seemingly a second remake is underway at the moment with Michael B Jordan cast as Thomas Crown which I confidently expect to be even worse than the Brosnan.

The 1968 original of The Thomas Crown Affair holds a strong place in my sentimental history. I saw it in the now defunct Hippodrome Cinema, Workington, West Cumbria, UK, the year it came out, and I was sat with my teenage girlfriend in the double seats at the back, the third from the far left as a rule, engaged in incredibly passionate, athletic and lengthy embraces so that we perhaps saw about 5% of the film. There are many ways of describing Canadian Jewison’s radically imaginative movie and perhaps the heist aspect is the least of it. It is also a passionate and understated love story between Boston financier and mastermind crook Tommy Crown/McQueen, and elegant and intelligent insurance investigator Vicky Anderson as played by Faye Dunaway (born 1941). Most impressively, it is an exercise in sophisticated artistic style, as it has a riveting music score composed by Michel Legrand (born 1932) who is not only a composer but a jazz pianist who has collaborated with giants of the stature of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. As the heist speeds up at the start, so does the raw, erotic and explosive jazz score, played by drummer Shelly Manne, the alto sax player Bud Shank and the virtuoso bassist Ray Brown. When by contrast the mood turns tenderly romantic between Crown and Vicky then a lush, victorious and ascendant Legrand string score takes over and sweeps us away, sentimental and gullible cineastes that we are, with its undimming grandeur.

Thomas Crown is a phenomenally wealthy and divorced financier aged 36 whose skyscraper offices just happen to offer a first-class view of the huge Boston bank below. Crown has a cool way with the US consortia he does deals with and when they thank him for their latest acquisition he walks out of the door snorting ‘you overpaid’. Yet he is not invulnerable by any means, and his cinematic foil is his accountant adviser Sandy played by Biff Maguire (born 1926) who you may recall as Captain McLain from the 1973 Al Pacino police corruption movie Serpico. As they play golf together, Sandy makes a sure-fire bet on a putting shot and Crown quickly loses a packet, but to Sandy’s chagrin does not care. Crown is bored with his wealth which is why he decides to rob the bank opposite but he chooses to do it in a way that no one else would. His mastermind ingenuity stems from his decision to hire 4 accomplices none of whom know each other, nor do they know nor ever meet Crown himself, and also the quaint fact that he communicates with each separately by public phone boxes. This is cleverly orchestrated with Jewison’s zestful split screen technique which he admits he ingeniously lifted from 2 movies he had seen at Expo 67, one of which was In The Labyrinth.  Thus, while Robber A is taking instructions inside one phone box, Robber B will soon be liaising with Crown in another kiosk on a separate split screen, and to add to the excitement we have Bud Shanks’ abrasive sax playing to hot up the tension. Given the movie was made half a century ago, this technique could well have dated and with our current extravagant digital possibilities seem infinitely corny, but far from it. It is worth stating at this point that there really is no other movie anything like Jewison’s Thomas Crown in terms of its radical blending of music, cinematography and gritty action, and its only manifest weakness is the occasional depiction of Dunaway as a wayward yet submissive female insurance expert when arguing with the macho cop Eddie Malone in charge of solving the heist. Malone (Paul Burke, 1926-2009) who like every man in this film apart from dapper McQueen, wears a stiff pork pie hat, is also stiff in his detection technique, and needs brainy Dunaway to give him insightful leads. Nonetheless, he is always ticking her off for unpolicemanlike unorthodoxy, and she always submits to his manly chiding and is forever ingratiatingly linking arms with him as they walk through Boston, all of which comes across as the unlovely autopilot attitudes of the prefeminist 1960s. Malone’s pique however is partly justified, as if she recovers it, she gets 10% of the $2,600,000 dollars taken from the bank whereas he only gets his cop’s salary whatever he does. Add to that that in order to shop Crown she decides to skilfully seduce him, and Malone concludes that some folk have all the fun and the dough and that he has more or less none.

Dunaway’s first lead is when she contemplates how the robber might have got rid of all that colossal weight of banknotes which was in small bills of 10,5 and 1 dollars for which alas the bank did not record the serial numbers. Unethical Swiss banks come to mind and sure enough when she and Malone do some research they see that Crown had made half a dozen trips to Geneva, sensibly taking a bit at a time of the massive loot. Unprincipled Dunaway also places a newspaper ad offering $25K to anyone who can successfully shop any guilty party who has been spending an inordinate amount of money lately. This brings in the bumbling getaway man, played by the comically nervous and compliant Jack Weston (1924-1996) who had driven off the sacks of loot that the robbers had put in the back of his station wagon jalopy. He gets on very badly with his smileless wife who swiftly shops him for the 25K, whereupon Vicky’s insurance colleague anonymously informs them over the phone that their young son has just been abducted. Vicky has him safely sat beside her in a car outside a supermarket where there is a charity box receptacle into which Weston puts the last of his dwindling ill-gotten gains, after which the child is driven back to his Mum but Weston is nabbed and taken down to the police station to be grilled by Malone.

The most compelling part of the film is the love affair between Thomas Crown and Vicky Anderson which is done with a good deal of measured and scrupulous direction, helped along by the mesmerising score and more of the ingenious split screen photography. Vicky investigates Crown’s upmarket sporting interests and attends a hazardous polo match where unbelievably McQueen refused a stuntman and played the lethal game himself. She then deliberately bumps into him at a fine art auction and he invites her for dinner immediately.  From the start she lets him know that she is confident he is the thief and he smilingly accepts this as a suitable challenge for two intelligent minds, a kind of cat and mouse duel which Vicky assumes she must inevitably win. The problem is that during her skilful investigations she helplessly falls in love with Tommy Crown via a number of set pieces, where you as viewer are requested to give up your critical faculties and enjoy the picturesque and unlikely excess on screen. He has a sand buggy he drives along the Massachussetts coast at high speed (again reckless McQueen refused a stuntman) with headscarved Vicky clinging lovingly to his side. He also lights a wood fire on the beach and cooks her fresh lobster, and best of all challenges her to a game of chess where with minimal effort she puts him in check and eventually checkmate. It is here that McQueen shows the unexpected versatility of his facial expressions for he is one of those actors like Jack Nicholson where you could stare at his face all day even if it was immobile and speechless. Customarily he plays Mr Cool (see also the 1965 Cincinnati Kid which was also directed by Jewison) but as he gets stymied in the chess game he pulls all manner of inane lip sucking bafflement, which oddly enough is not ultimately inane, given that it proceeds from the effortlessly charismatic McQueen. Then follows the famous sex scene between them which has only ever been rivalled in its whirling and tender euphoria by that between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 masterpiece Don’t Look Now. And talking of the great Sutherland just as he and Jane Fonda cement their growing love affair in the 1971 Klute by going shopping for fruit and veg on an atmospheric evening street market, ditto McQueen and Dunaway learn how tender their feelings are becoming by going and purchasing pumpkins and tomatoes from a Boston market where touchingly the plug-ugly stall keepers all look faintly like something out of Hieronymus Bosch.

Vicky ultimately seems to have Thomas Crown thoroughly cornered when she threatens him with US Inland Revenue investigation, but by way of riposte he tells her that as she is obviously in love with him, she is doomed if she forestalls his latest plan. He has decided to crazily repeat the same bank heist, this time with different accomplices, but with the same pick up place, a churchyard with a litter bin where the nervous getaway man had done his original drop. Vicky is duty bound to break her heart by divulging all this to Eddie Malone, and after the second robbery the pair of them stake out the churchyard and wait for the drop. The money is duly thrown into the same litter bin, the new getaway man is cornered and arrested, and just as Crown did the original pick up in his Rolls Royce, so a Rolls Royce turns up a second time to empty the contents of the bin. While this is going on and with Malone angrily doubting the appearance of the Rolls, and Vicky hoping against hope for Crown’s escape, the bell in the churchyard strikes with deafening and pregnant resonance, a powerful and shall we say imaginative world cinema touch, just as it had the first time round….

There is a Rolls arrives OK but there is no Thomas Crown, just a shrunken little chauffeur with a telegram for Miss Anderson. Tommy writes to tell this tearful and infinitely relieved woman who loves him, that she can either join him in his hideaway with the money, or can keep the Rolls, but he meanwhile has escaped by jet to who knows where…

SPRING AWAKENINGS

SPRING AWAKENINGS

The next post will be on or before Saturday 14th April. If you want to read my latest comic novel about online dating, THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE, go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

NB. Everything below is drawn and edited from a recent issue of the (UK) Literary Review, my very favourite literary magazine

LOW WAGE BRITAIN

At Amazon he had to call the warehouse a ‘fulfilment centre’. At Uber when the bleeping blue light indicated a booking, he had 15 seconds to make up his mind whether to take it or not. At Carewatch, where he had 20 minutes to wake, clean, shower, dress, feed and counsel each ‘customer’ before moving on to the next, he learned the meaning of hopelessness, in a job that is impossible to do in the time allotted: travel time is not remunerated and you are obliged to provide your own fuel and vehicle.

HE HATED BRUSSELS

The controversial author of Sylvie and inspiration to the Surrealists, Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855) had, as a striking pet, a lobster he used to walk through Paris on a silken lead. Regarding the Senne, the trickle of a river running through Brussels, and recalling the allophonous Seine, de Nerval asked himself: ‘What kind of a capital is a city where you can’t even drown yourself?’

THE GREAT MAN’S PONDEROUS TOME

Publisher Gallimard were baffled when 3 weeks after its 1943 publication, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 700 page Being and Nothingness became a freak bestseller. It turned out it was because the book weighed exactly 1 kilo, and people were simply using it as a weight, as the usual copper weights had disappeared to be sold on the black market or melted down to make ammunition.

THE MAD PARENT

Viscount Tredegar was an occultist and friend of Aleister Crowley. He was for a time in charge of the department which supplied the strategic birds for the WW2 Secret Pigeon Service, but was eventually court-martialled for gossiping about Columba’s work. His defence cited his unhappy childhood and the fact that his mentally ill mother had built herself a large bird’s nest in the living room and sat in it wearing a beak.

DEBUSSY GAVE THEM THE BOOT

[Debussy] refused to be bamboozled by reputation…in bracingly acerbic critical essays, in which he made no bones about describing Berlioz as a ‘prodigious fraud’, Beethoven’s piano sonatas as ‘very badly written’ and Wagner’s Ring Cycle as ‘a box of tricks’.

RENOIR THE MISOGYNIST AND ANTI-SEMITE

[Pierre-Auguste] Renoir took a dim view of women’s intellectual abilities and described feminist authors such as George Sand and Juliette Adam as ‘calves with fine hooves’. At the height of the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s Renoir threw in his lot with the conservative Right and slandered French Jews as rootless cowards.

SEX AND A SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE

(from the diary of Bloomsbury writer Francis Birrell, concerning economist John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946)

‘I copulated with Maynard for 2 reasons: a) Out of a spirit of adventure; b) Because it pleased me to think I would copulate with a person I wasn’t in love with & so score off Gerald[Shove]. The whole affair was frivolous. Maynard knew I was not in love with him & as regards me, his was a ‘cock & ball’ affair to use a phrase of his own, as opposed to ‘a hand & heart’. I have not in the least regretted the experiment.’