MARLON’S SECRET LOVE

MARLON’S SECRET LOVE

Here is a puzzler for you, and if you’d asked me this question a month ago, I’d have had not the faintest inkling, and would have been more than astounded by the answer.

To whom did Marlon Brando (1924-2004) refer, when he informed a reporter: if my friend had been a woman, we would have been happily married ever after. He also kept the same person’s ashes in his bedroom and had nightly conversations with them. Also, when high on hashish, Brando said that the same man was the one great love of his life.

That’s right, Mr or Mrs 1950s TV Mastermind, it was Wally Cox (1924-1973) and before the rest of you say who he, I would add, think of Hiram Holliday, and when that still draws a blank, try Paul Gallico. At last we are on safe ground because the American Gallico (1896-1976) not only penned The Adventures of Hiram Holliday (1939) he also wrote the 1941 The Snow Goose and the even more famous The Poseidon Adventure (1969, filmed in 1972). Prolific Gallico wrote 41 novels in all, many of which were filmed (including a novel about a cat called Thomasina, whose film adaptation I saw with a bulging mouthful of Quality Street, when holidaying aged 13 in Cardiff in 1964). Nonetheless the great man was attractively modest about his talents.

‘I’m a rotten novelist. I’m not even literary. I just like to tell stories.’

That aside, the reason why I’d have been astounded to hear that Marlon had a passion for Wally, was that between 1960 and 1961, being a 10 year old telly freak, I watched the BBC’s broadcasting of the Hiram Holliday stories, which were the full 5 years’ worth of the original US show (1956-1961) compressed into a single viewing season, as the BBC no doubt believing them to be high art, put them on 5 nights a week, the first time they’d ever done so with a US show. To be accurate, I watched Hiram’s/Wally’s adventures perhaps a total of a dozen times and even as a young boy was not very impressed. Hiram was a weedy bespectacled American proof-reader who was a sentimental variation on Superman, as he had James Bond style secret powers which allowed him to go around the world with his querulous stooge/straight man pal, Joel (Ainslie Pryor, 1921-1958) sorting out its problems by dint of clandestine muscle and artless ingenuity. He even got involved in the Nazi peace pact of the Austrian Anschluss (recall the novel came out in 1939) so there really were no limits for the innocent moon-faced little man of mystery.

In real life Cox married 3 times and fathered 2 children, and all those wives pooh poohed the slander that Wally’s and Brando’s love was anything but platonic. He was also a serious DIY man, wired his own house and even kept a kind of fully fitted workshop in his studio dressing room. He was a military veteran to boot. All of which is to emphasise the obvious, that appearances aren’t everything, and to add that Marlon and Wally roomed together in NY from 1948 onwards when they were both 24 and aspiring actors.

I’m sure you’ve already guessed that the way I came across this extraordinary knowledge was via the internet, prompted initially by a fit of random and you might say idle nostalgia. A few weeks ago I remembered my Hiram Holliday viewing of almost 60 years ago, and the programme as I recalled it seemed so whimsical and so wet behind the ears, I imagined it must have been scripted by some D list recovering alcoholic who had once showed some promise and nearly made Hollywood (qv the Coen Bros’s excellent 1991 movie about failed scriptwriters, starring John Turturro, Barton Fink). After googling Hiram H, I was boggled to learn that it was based on one of Gallico’s novels and even more boggled to learn that the sentimental kids’ film The Three Lives of Thomasina starring Patrick McGoohan and Finlay Currie, had been based on yet another Gallico novel.

All this is leading to a fresh faced and wide-eyed revelation on the part of someone born 1950, that the internet really is astonishing in the way it generously even selflessly takes you all round not just the houses but the shacks, shebeens, Doge’s palaces and even the Viking Valhallas, and allows you to discover secrets, surprises and ironic Wonders of the World with an ironically capital W.

To wit:

The slurred psychopath and man of honour, Don Vito Corleone, doting on Hiram Holliday

Stanley Kowalski the explosive Polak, tenderly talking to Wally’s ashes

Mark Antony the treacherous assassin, happy for ever with Hiram

Fletcher Christian, another man of honour, who was just as enchanted by the Veteran

Paul and his ugly savagery in Last Tango in Paris, also adoring his ideal Wally

Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now and from Joseph Conrad, finding love here and nowhere else

(The next post will be on or before Wednesday October 2nd )

BOY MEETS GIRL AND CARAX

BOY MEETS GIRL AND CARAX

The controversial director Leos Carax, is best known for the 1991 The Lovers of Pont Neuf (see my earlier post), a poignant love story about two derelicts living rough by the Seine. One of them is a gifted artist (Juliette Binoche, born 1964) who is tragically going blind, and the alcoholic vagrant who dotes on her (Denis Lavant) is pathologically terrified he might lose her. Less familiar is Carax’s remarkable debut Boy Meets Girl (1984), where Lavant (born 1961) appears as the lead character Alex, a Parisian drifter and would-be film director, who has just been ditched by his volatile girlfriend in bizarre almost farcical circumstances. His lover had kept secret from him that she was deaf in one ear, so that when he said to her one night in the small hours, I love you, lying on her good ear she misheard him accusing her with, You have a lover! Groggy in the middle of the night, she had asked him, How did you know? whereupon Alex predictably goes ballistic at the deceit. Even worse it turns out her lover is Alex’s best friend, whom he accosts by night on the banks of the Seine, and nearly murders with a flick-knife. His enraged girlfriend, who has an infant child, then abandons him to go and live in the mountains, but in her car she loads what she calls all his shitty paintings and crappy poems, and makes a diversion to fling them victoriously into the Seine.

This subtle and finely crafted film works partly via thematic parallels but also by original and provocative anecdotes from its unusual yet thoroughly convincing characters. Just as Alex is being abandoned, not far away a handsome young woman called Mireille (Mireille Perrier, born 1959) who is prone to suicide attempts and is a passionate dancer, is being dumped by her boyfriend Bernard. Bernard is so highly strung just going down into the metro unnerves him, and likewise he instinctively fantasises a bunch of idling cops might be about to arrest him for an unspecified crime. He walks out on Mireille who is frozen with grief by his departure, and later he rings and bitterly complains that at the start his love was far greater than hers. But once their loves had become equal, so to speak, perversely he had found himself losing interest, and even been revolted by her, to the extent that he had told her that her breath stank, when it didn’t. After a long while Mireille rouses herself from the aftermath of his nastiness and begins to tap dance rhythmically on a tray, almost like an oriental virtuoso, and the haunting black and white camera work of acclaimed cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, turns this into a poignant little wordless tableau, reminiscent of the poetic economy of a Bunuel or a Kurosawa.  

The deafness motif occurs a second time, when Alex turns up at a party full of media folk, artists and foreigners, and plonks down on a sofa between an old man who’s fast asleep, and a shy young woman who is evidently his granddaughter. When the old man wakes it is apparent that he is deaf, and he lectures Alex by sign language that young folk nowadays don’t know how to make conversation and make friends, all of which homily has to be interpreted by the granddaughter. He then tells Alex that long ago he worked as a grip in the silent movies, and when there was any love scene on them, the director would urge the male actors to say something romantic (inaudible of course on silent movies) in order to make the subsequent kiss look more authentic. One of these male actors happened to know lipreading, and he decided instead to mouth bawdy obscenities to his female opposite, which explained the curious anomaly of maybe 2 or 3 people inexplicably laughing in all the packed cinemas, specifically because they also could lipread.

But Mireille is also there at the party, and Alex glimpses her when he looks through the open bathroom door, where she appears to be contemplating cutting herself. He is immediately smitten and when she tells him she is from the Loire Valley and has tried several times to kill herself, he is even more enthralled. They talk about their mutual dumpings, but Mireille stays distant and aloof, so that one tactic penniless Alex adopts is to go shoplifting in order to spoil her with presents. In a very funny scene, he enters a record shop wearing his favourite checked jacket of a kind once sported by the fictional schoolboy Billy Bunter. He manages to secrete one LP inside the jacket, but then growing reckless tries a second, a third and crazily a fourth, until the lining rips, the LPs tip all over the floor, and he flees the shop at breakneck speed.

A few words about the film’s innovative, sometimes daring cinematic techniques. When Alex ascends several floors in an old-fashioned open lift in search of Mireille, he hears a couple talking through the walls, in an amplified acoustic manner that is technically impossible. Their dialogue is definitely not inside Alex’s head, and when you listen closely, you realise it is Mireille and Bernard who are no longer together, reminiscing ghostlike about their past and specifically their lovemaking past. They speak matter of fact about oral sex, anal fingering and the like, and the fact that both of them struggle to give each other what they want, and that they irritate each other as a result. And yet for all the raw and uninhibited detail, there is something oddly ordinary, even touching, about such an obsessive yet sober discussion, if only because almost every couple on the planet will go through their variation of it at some time in their life together.

Parallel with that other worldly debate, at the party there is also an American woman Helen (Carroll Brooks), a widow in her 50s, who when talking to Alex claims she is capable of telepathy. Later he finds her alone in another room, sobbing and beseeching her late husband, for whose death she feels painfully responsible. Whenever he went on business trips abroad, Helen said, she had tenderly monitored his well-being, thanks to her gift of one-way telepathy. But then, once and only once, she had become distracted by something or other when he was away, had forgotten to do the telepathy, and the next thing she knew she had a phone call saying he’d been killed in a car crash in Germany. One crucial omission on her part then, and her husband was dead, and the guilt would surely last for ever…

Leos Carax can get his actors to do a great deal with a minimum of words, partly because some of them are physically extraordinary. Denis Lavant, a trained acrobat, is only 5 foot 3 inches tall and with a face so craggy and a nose so broad, you could spend hours just looking at him and never get bored. Ditto Mireille Perrier who with her wide eyes, jet black hair, and permanently haunted visage cannot fail to be mesmerising. These actors are often statuesque and silent for an extended revelatory scene, and this regularly alternates with wry monologues that are funny and poignant by turn. Farcically the day after meeting and falling for Mireille, Alex has to leave for his army service, and he informs her that he tried to avoid conscription, with the ludicrous excuse that he was unable to sleep in a room full of men. He also confesses that he wants to make a mark in the world, and that he is an ambitious film director, when in fact he has never got beyond planning his movies in his head. It is therefore perhaps relevant that the name Leos Carax is an anagram of the director’s real Christian name Alex, and of the name Oscar, the thing that every film director wants. Given his protagonist is also an Alex, and is also an aspiring director, and that Carax was only 24 when this little masterpiece was made, we can assume that a fertile autobiographical resonance is part of its magnetic power and dramatic authority.

The ending is not a happy one, and it is also where Carax takes most risks. By now thoroughly besotted with Mireille and aware she is not in love with him, Alex goes to her flat where to his horror he has to trail through pools of hallucinatory glistening blood that look like the stains of an oil slick. Mireille has evidently botched yet another wrist slashing, but she doesn’t really want to die, and staggering bravely to her feet she begs him:

“Help me…”

It would be admirable at this point if Alex had jumped to it as deus ex machina, but instead he is so nauseated that he faints, falls flat on his back, and even bounces on the spot like a puppet or doll. With this vaudeville antidimax, we are wondering what to feel next, but just then stony, neurotic Bernard who had abandoned her, walks through the door, and hugs Mireille very hard from behind. Unknowingly he drives the knife she clutches even harder into her breast, and the blood seeps through her clothes and the end is definitely here.

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 25th September

CELEBRITY CITY

CELEBRITY CITY

If you move down to London, it is often to get out of your own stifling provincial backyard, and one  consequence of that is, there’s a fair chance you might spot a celebrity, for celebrities shine more in the capital than they do in the sticks, where as a rule they seem quaintly mundane and comically misplaced rather than charismatic. At 68 my own metropolitan celebrity quotient amounts to a dizzy 4, and 25% of those were spotted last week when just a few yards from where I live in Hackney, I observed the actor Bill Nighy (born 1949) crossing the road, and looking reasonably enough, just a little self-conscious to be innocently out and about on his own patch . Nighy with his thin, well-worn and subtly versatile face, has been in countless successful films, including Richard Curtis’s comedy Love Actually (2003), as well as playing an impressively evil bureaucrat Sir Bernard Pellegrin in the truly excellent The Constant Gardener (2005), Rufus Scrimgeour in Harry Potter (2010) and on TV as Baron Arthur Bigge in, I would argue, the extremely overrated royalty series, The Lost Prince (2003). I’d also add that just possibly Nighy has not been given enough credit for the fact he effortlessly portrays hilarious, earnest and downright diabolic parts with equal ease. For my money though, one of his finest roles was on the radio of all places, and BBC Radio 4 at that, which as you know I normally avoid lest I turn into a basilisk repository of too many recyclable facts.  But in 2010 he starred as lead part in an adaptation of Simon Brett’s impressively literate and nuanced comic detective novel Charles Paris, Cast in Order of Disappearance…and at lunchtime no less, when normally R4 fans are looking for something nice and easy on the ears…like that Boys Own chummy hysteria known as Just a Minute.

My first metropolitan celebrity in the flesh was the legendary comic genius, the scriptwriter (Round the Horne, At Last the 1948 Show) and actor, Marty Feldman (1934-1982) who I observed standing alone outside Hampstead tube station in late 1972. You would never mistake him for anyone else, as Feldman suffered from extreme exophthalmia, meaning his eyes literally popped out of his head in a kind of displaced batrachian style, so that alongside that other virtuoso comic Gene Wilder (1933-2016) he was tailor-made for Mel Brooks’s barmy ghoulish comedy Young Frankenstein (1974). The important thing to stress, was that Feldman looked even more startlingly pop-eyed in real life than he did on the screen, and so the ontological gulf between Marty the man and Marty the actor, seemed absolutely unbridgeable. Two years later when I was working at the Wellcome Institute, I saw Alan Bennett (born 1934) the country’s best-known playwright, on a bicycle heading sharpish down the Euston Road, and 45 years on I still recall the mundane fact that he stood up and looked behind him briefly. Finally and preceding last week’s Nighy by a mere 4 decades, in late 1979 and queuing to buy a tube ticket in lieu of an Oyster, I noted sharp-jawed Timothy West (also born 1934) a very fine stage actor who cut his teeth on Shakespeare parts, but has since been in soporific, by which I mean pharmalogically tranquillising soaps, like Coronation Street and East Enders. He is married to Prunella Scales aka Sybil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers fame, and sadly, as of 2014, West admitted that they had been living with the early stages of his wife’s Alzheimer’s.

That said, the inevitable ageing process also has its perks, which can sometimes be spectacular. Here in London I get free medicine prescriptions, free transport on tubes, buses and trams, thanks to the munificent and aptly named Freedom Pass, and, incredibly, the well-stacked Hackney libraries are so generous, that you can borrow their DVDs and CDs for free. So it is that in the last 3 weeks I have enjoyed that finely tuned comedy of naïve young love, the 1965 A Blonde in Love by Milos Forman, the Czech best known for his English language One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Not to speak of that little known masterpiece by Akita Kurosawa (1910-1998) the 1970 Dodeska Den, a kind of Japanese Under Milkwood about a motley if extremely poignant collection of Tokyo slum dwellers, which includes an amiable young simpleton who thinks that he’s a roaring goods train, and bawls dodeska den (Japanese for chuff chuff) in imitation of the shunting engine. Most epic and ambitious of all, was Cannes Grand Prix Winner Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which combines stunning photography of the bare landscape of Eastern Turkey with brilliant laconic dialogue from a squad of cops in charge of a wretched killer who has serious problems in remembering where he buried the corpse.

This Hackneyian generosity when it comes to nourishing food for the heart and mind, extends even further to those like me, who, should you favour hard and fast categories, are what you might call old. I was told when I signed up at the library that DVDs could be had out only for a week, so that after a few days I was puzzled that the computer print off said I didn’t have to return them for a fortnight. When I checked with the library staff, they were equally baffled, until they went away and read the fine print of their manual. It turns out that if you are over 60, not only are the DVDs free, but you get twice as long to read them. Even more impressive, if you take out a clutch of CDs, you have a whole 4 weeks to lie back with your massive glass of pensioner’s bog standard Merlot from Aldi, and blissfully enjoy them.

You could of course read something far from flattering in that double and quadruple provision. To wit, that being old and passing gaga, you clearly need much longer to watch a film, as it might take you an hour or two, or even a decade or two, to bend and switch your DVD player on. Best also to allow a hefty amount of time to stoop down to your CD player, as your woefully shaking hands might take another cosmic aeon to remove the far too small disc from the recalcitrant case.

Recall then the piquant query of the arthritic dotard, bent on his knees to pick something up off the floor, who plaintively enquires of his enviably upright wife:

“Is there anything else I can do while I’m down here?”

The next post will be on or before Friday 20th September

ONCE AGAIN IN LONDON

ONCE AGAIN IN LONDON

Snatches of two far from confidential mobile phone conversations overheard in Hackney, London in the past week.

From an attractive woman with large earrings walking at full speed, and aged about 35:

“So when she got home, she found her husband on top of another woman.”

Two days later, from a lady in her late sixties with a moon-shaped visage, pale faced and with a strong local accent:

“Well she needs to facking well talk to her facking old man, don’t she?”

It only occurs to me as I write this that they might just be both talking about the same woman. Aside from reflecting that pre mobile phones, few blameless sexagenarian women would have said fucking at the top of their voice on a busy street…I can also confirm that you would never overhear conversations like those on the Isle of Kythnos, Greece, where I lived for 6 years before recently returning to the UK. Which is to say that while adultery is as popular a non-spectator sport there, as it is anywhere else in the world (and believe me the whole island, winter population 800, knows all the juicy details, real ones and wondrously baroque fabrications, within minutes rather than days) no one there would share their potent secrets at full volume with the whole world, and for free. Meanwhile I calculated recently that I have spent some 54 out of my 68 years in my native Cumbria, approximately half in my birthplace of the industrial west (think of the Solway Firth and of coastal Maryport, and of the birthplace of the iron and steel Bessemer converter, Workington), and the other half in the beautiful and largely unsung North East Uplands (qv the remote and tenderly exquisite rural hamlets of Roadhead, Bewcastle and Penton). Ditto no one in that sprawling and massive county would broadcast the engaging tale of someone nabbed in flagrante delicto, as if they were some unrestrained BBC Radio 3 Sunday night drama pullulating at full blast for the benefit of those neighbours who have never even heard of BBC Radio 3…

This isn’t the first time I have lived in London. I was here for a year in 1974 which to my astonishment is all of 45 years ago. I lived then in West Hampstead and commuted by tube to Euston Square, and thence to the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, where I was cataloguing their collection of Ayurvedic manuscripts written in Sanskrit. These days everyone over the age of 10 knows about the Ayurveda, but then absolutely no one but myself was studying it outside of India, which if you are 23 as I was in 1974, makes you feel both headily exclusive, and let’s face it, a bit in existential quarantine. By a strange coincidence, the short cut from my flat to the tube station took you past a Zoroastrian aka Parsee fire temple, the only one in the UK, I think I’m right in saying. The Zoroastrian scriptures, including the prophet Zoroaster’s Gathas, are written in a type of Old Iranian called Avestan, and yes, my subsidiary subject at Oxford when I read Sanskrit in the early 70s, just happened to be Avestan (alongside rock cuneiform Old Persian).

In West Hampstead I shared a pleasantly old-fashioned 2 bedroom flat that cost £64 a month, about 3 times what it would have cost in Cumbria. The house of which it was a part, was owned by a very nice old Indian lady who had an elderly Nepali caretaker doing odd jobs around the house. Male Nepalis often wear plant pot shaped hats, and he wore his jaunty version day and night, even though he was a long way from his home town of Himalayan Pokhara. He owned a mangy old dog, a white bellied bitch of about 15, who waddled her way up and downstairs, and would smile at me if I greeted her, but would never approach to be patted. West Hampstead then was conspicuously ungentrified, with no suave wine bars nor pricey coffee houses, and of course not even a sniff of wifi. Nor as now were there phone shops run by exiled Kosovans, for in the 1970s Kosovo was a subdued and impoverished part of Yugoslavian Serbia, where the average income was 40% of the rest of the down at heel province. A friendly young Italian couple ran a dirt-cheap trattoria near the tube station, and their cannelloni was so excellent I never ordered anything else. It cost 35 pence, whereas it might have been 50p or even 60p in far flung Cumbria, but as I only made £1400 a year as a research assistant, I was never able to eat or drink quite as much and as grandly as I would have wished in the sometimes overwhelming metropolis.

Now in 2019 I have discovered lovely Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes, with their winding and dreaming canals, full of romantic as well as less romantic houseboats. The former are painted a heartening sky blue or homely pastel shade, the latter may be up to a mile long and with sumptuous window frames that would cost more than a terraced house in Maryport. Last week, I was warmed to the core to see the copious birdlife on the Walthamstow Reservoirs: mordant little moorhens and flotillas of gliding and plaintive ducks, but there were also flawlessly supersonic cormorants just as you get in the Kythnos port of Merihas, or up in the Outer Hebrides. The first of the reservoirs lies very low and has a brief descent from the grassland above it. Even with the high-rise flats in the background, I could have been on the bare Solway Plain, in that melancholy but handsome land of estuaries and tufted sand dunes. I was inordinately heartened to know that I was in London, and that it was both the metropolis and authentic countryside. For they have Belted Galloway cattle on the Marshes, and yesterday I saw 3 or 4 tractors manned I presume by the Nature Reserve wardens. There were signs up saying what to do if a Galloway approached you aggressively, and they urged you above all not to run. To which I would say, try doing that when they have their young calves about them, and see if you can stay rooted to the spot, to be flattened good and proper by their roaring and bellowing and decidedly lethal mothers…

I love shopping in Hackney as cooking is my passion, and you can get anything here in the way of vegetables, pulses and spices. Most of the shopkeepers are relaxed and friendly Turks, and I love listening to Turkish, even though all I know is bir, iki, uc, meaning 1, 2, 3 and cok tesekurler ederim which means, thank you very much. There is also a charity shop nearby, which boasts world cinema DVDs, including my heroes the Argentinian Ricardo Darin, and the incomparable Javier Bardem. At the same place I acquired a Virago Classic novel, The Holiday (1936) by the poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) the Ministry worker who doted on her beloved aunt, and whose life was turned into the celebrated film Stevie, starring Glenda Jackson. The foreword says Smith was primarily a poet, and that she didn’t like writing prose, and believe you me, it shows. I promise you that I love a tough stylistic challenge as much as the next, but there are a finite number of novelists whose tortuous syntax and impenetrable semantics, I would say, are far more trouble than they are worth. It is heresy to say it, but the elliptical Henry Green (1905-1973, author of Doting and Nothing) is one, and Jack B Yeats (1871-1957), better known as a brilliant artist, is another. With Yeats (brother of WB the poet) and his The Careless Flower, I have to read every sentence 5 times, and I still have no measurable clue of what he is saying, and worse still, if on the 5th reading I do glimpse what he might just be on about, the next clause is sure to make a contrary interpretation and have me reaching half insane for the Montepulciano.

Here is an extract from Chapter 1 of Stevie Smith’s The Holiday

‘I say are you going to Lopez’s party to-night

Ye-es I a-a-am

You are very flip at the parties I suppose?

Yes I am

It is not much good is it, said Caz. ‘Something human’ he said, ‘is dearer to me than the wealth of all the world.’

Oh, yes, that is how it is.

But you remember, Celia, who said that, he was not human at all.

He lived in the black mountains, I said.

No need to cry about it, dear girl

In the black mountains, sang Caz, mimicking and getting rather louder’

Having typed all that with great care down to the very last hyphen, I have just read the whole thing through, but on this occasion only 3 times, before impatiently pushing it aside and calling it a day. I am therefore making a definite personal progress.

The same is true of my falling in love with London, which is certainly far quicker than I had hoped.

The next post will be on or before Thursday, September 12th