Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘London’

war-of-the-worlds-by-h-g-wellsThe War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)

You don’t read some books: you live them. Treasure Island (1883) is like that; so is The War of the Worlds. Both books appeared before true cinema, but they have the vividness of films and more besides, because cinema can’t evoke scent, smell, taste and sensation as language can. Words create worlds in your head and the best writers, like Wells and Stevenson, can make the real world grow dim while you read. I first read both books as a child and both have stayed with me, so that every time I re-read them I can remember how it felt to read them that first time.

Or rather: I can remember how it felt to live them. I had heard the rustling feathers of Long John Silver’s parrot in Treasure Island; I had tasted the bitterness of the red Martian weed that smothers large parts of London in War of the Worlds. Both books are written in the first person and they’re both full of twists and surprises. That first person – the constant “I, Me, Mine”, as George Harrison put – helps explain why they’re so vivid, but it took much more than that. Stevenson and Wells were literary geniuses, masters of creating worlds from pure imagination.

After all, Stevenson had never lived in the eighteenth century and gone sailing on a treasure-hunt. Wells had never experienced an invasion by Martians. But you will if you read War of the Worlds. Wells captures the way it might have been with great skill and subtlety, from the mysterious lights and flashes seen by astronomers on Mars to the landing of the first cylinder containing Martians. Every time I re-read I know exactly what’s coming, but the narrator never does and I experience the story through him, so that it never fails to seem fresh and exciting.

Or horrifying. The Martians are like red octopuses, but they seem harmless and even pitiful at first, struggling to cope with the stronger gravity of Earth. Then suddenly they turn into death-dealing monsters, with a military technology far in advance of Victorian England’s and the will to use it without mercy. Or does “mercy” apply to creatures from another world? That’s one of the questions faced by the narrator when he sees the Martians at work, whether they’re slaughtering humans with their heat-rays and poison gas or capturing humans for food. The Martians aren’t men and our standards don’t apply. We matter to us, but why should we matter to them?

Because I’m living through the narrator, the ending of the story still seems surprising. Man was helpless, but Mother Nature wasn’t, as the narrator suddenly learns. Wells is good at shifts of perspective that make you see human beings and the world in a new way. Arthur C. Clarke learned that from him, but Wells was a greater and more grown-up writer. Today we know that Mars isn’t likely to invade, but The War of the Worlds remains an excellent adventure story and a continued warning about the “infinite complacency” with which men go “to and fro over this globe with their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (“The Coming of the Martians”).

Read Full Post »

’Vile Vibes

In Plain Sight The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dan DaviesIn Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, Dan Davies (Quercus 2014)

’Seventies nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Britain has reeled again and again at revelations about the sex-crimes committed by famous entertainers from that ever-more discredited decade. Gary Glitter, Jonathan King and Stuart Hall have all gone to jail. Rolf Harris will probably die there. But the biggest nonce of the lot got clean away:

Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, OBE; Knight of Malta, Knight of the Vatican, ‘Special’ Friend of Israel; Honorary Royal Marines Green Beret, Honorary Doctor of Law and Honorary Assistant Entertainment Officer at Broadmoor maximum security psychiatric hospital; miner, scrap metal merchant, inventor of the disco; racing cyclist, wrestler and marathon runner; pop Svengali, radio DJ and Top of the Pops presenter; charity fund-raiser, highly paid business consultant, hospital administrator; confidant of prime ministers and princes. (ch. 2, “Frisk Him”, pp. 18-9)

Savile got a lot done in his eighty-four years, but the public didn’t know the half of it. He was born poor and sickly in Leeds in 1926 and died in the same city in 2011, rich, famous and laden with honours. I didn’t live in the UK at the height of his fame, but I saw some episodes of his famous children’s programme Jim’ll Fix It, on which he made dreams come true for a lucky few of the many thousands of children who wrote to him every week: some “got to fly with the Red Arrows, blow up water towers or sing with The Osmonds” (ch. 2, pg. 13). I didn’t like Savile or his programme, but I always reasoned that he couldn’t be a paedo because he looked and acted so much like one.

That was Savile’s bluff: as Davies puts it, he was hiding in plain sight. After his death it gradually emerged that he had committed sex-attacks on children for decades, relying on his fame, cunning and peripatetic life to keep himself out of jail. He had narrow escapes and was even interviewed by the police, but he got to the end of his life unscathed. That’s why his highly expensive grave in Scarborough bore the jeering epitaph: “It Was Good While It Lasted”. Not that the jeer was immediately apparent: Savile was buried with honour and acclaim. But Davies opens this biography by describing what happened to the grave when the toxic truth got out:

The three 18-inch thick slabs of dark granite it had taken eight months to craft and to polish and to inscribe had been taken to a yard in Leeds where the fourteen hundred letters were ground down and the black granite smashed into tiny pieces for landfill. Nothing was to be left of the headstone and nothing was to be left to mark the spot where the coffin was buried beneath the earth. It was good while it lasted. (ch. 1, “Apocalypse Now Then”, pg. 8)

The title of that first chapter, “Apocalypse Now Then”, is a good example of what you’ll find in the rest of the book: black humour and bathos. There’s also a series of impossible-to-answer questions. What made Savile tick? How did he fool so many people for so long? You could ask the same questions about Tony Blair, a criminal on a much bigger scale, but there are two big differences between Savile and Blair. Unlike Blair, Savile was highly intelligent and a self-made man. Blair got to the top by serving powerful interests; Savile got to the top under his own steam. I’d also say that while Blair is a narcissist, Savile was an exhibitionist.

Long before Savile’s death, Davies saw through the exhibitionism and glimpsed the depravity beneath. At the age of nine, he attended the recording of an episode of Jim’ll Fix It “at a television studio in Shepherd’s Bush, west London” (ch. 2, pg 13). After watching Savile’s performance as a zany, dream-fulfilling jester, he came away with an uncomfortable feeling that “there was something remote and cold and untouchable beyond the façade”. Later, he read Savile’s autobiography, As It Happens (1974), and was disturbed again:

As a child of the Seventies and Eighties, I had heard all the playground rumours about Britain’s favourite uncle; we all had. Jimmy Savile was a weirdo and possibly worse; a poofter, a necrophiliac or a child molester. [When I was an adult] Friends thought I was joking when I spoke of my ‘Jimmy Savile’ dossier and how I was going to use it to bring him down one day. (ch. 2, pg. 15)

The rumours may have been completely true. Savile was a Charlie Chester who preferred girls but also molested boys. And he spent a lot of time with corpses during his unpaid stints as a “celebrity porter” in various hospitals. Davies didn’t get to bring him down, but his uneasy fascination with Savile never went away. After he grew up and became a journalist, he conducted some lengthy interviews with his “bogeyman” for a magazine called Jack (ch. 2, pg. 17). He never got to the truth: Savile was too clever for that. But his uneasiness grew and the interviews are the basis of this book. Savile speaks at length, relishing the battle of wits with Davies and revelling, no doubt, in the thought that his words would acquire their full feral-and-fetid meaning only after his death.

I was struck by the strangeness of his language. This is how he described a narrow escape from death in a plane:

“It was all a bit of fun. You’re gonna die, you didn’t die, very good. I had plenty of time to think about it because I was up in the air when we ran out of fuel. It didn’t bother me because I’m a bit odd. One minute you’re here, the next minute you’re not.” (ch. 15, “Didn’t Die, Very Good”, pg. 117)

That’s English, but it’s “a bit odd”. If you know Savile’s voice, you can hear him speaking as you read. There’s something unsettling about the words and syntax he uses, not just the tone and manner that must have gone with them. I can’t point to exactly what it is, but I wonder if his language was influenced by brain damage or some other neurological abnormality. There was certainly something very odd about Savile’s brain, whether he was born that way or suffered a brain injury later, perhaps when he was hit by a collapsing roof during his time as a coal-miner (ch. 8, “The Power of Oddness”, pp. 65-6).

He claimed that he was “concussed”, but Davies couldn’t verify any details of the accident, not even the year it happened or whether it happened at all. Savile lied and distorted constantly, so nothing is certain about long stretches of his life. But something that suggests to me that he was brain-damaged later in life is the early photo of him that opens the book. He’s standing with his family as a boy, smiling happily and candidly at the camera. He’s the least odd-looking person in the photo. In fact he doesn’t look odd at all: just an ordinary, cheerful kid, albeit a clever-looking one.

In his photos as an adult, he definitely looks odd. The photo that opens Part Four is chilling: he’s sitting alone in a camper-van, dressed in dungarees and peering out of the window at a busy street with a blank, calculating expression on his face. You can’t put your finger on exactly why the photo is chilling, but it is. It screams “Nonce!” And many people besides Dan Davies were suspicious of Savile during his decades of fame. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t one of them, but it took her a long time to give him a knighthood, because her civil servants kept saying no: “Under the headings Benefactions, we have again considered the name of Mr Jimmy Savile, whom you have of course considered on previous occasions. We have concluded that he should not be recommended.” (ch. 53, “I am the boss – it’s as simple as that”, pg. 404)

The civil servants were right, Thatcher was wrong. But she had more excuse than the police and the BBC, who both come out of this book very badly. They missed numerous opportunities to stop Savile’s crimes and the BBC tried to maintain a cover-up as long as it could. Nevertheless, Savile was indeed a master manipulator, committing sex-crimes for decades against both sexes and all ages in TV studios, schools and hospitals up and down the country. He secured powerful friends and even managed to get an important position and unsupervised access at Broadmoor, the country’s most notorious psychiatric hospital. It was through Savile that Princess Diana seems to have got access to Broadmoor too. Diana was another fascinating fake who combined ostentatious charity-work with ghoulish interests, but she wasn’t a sex-criminal or a self-made woman and she didn’t achieve a fraction of what Savile did.

So how did he get away with it and fool so many for so long? His high intelligence was undoubtedly part of it, but so was his extraordinary energy: he lived like a blue-arsed fly, never staying long in any town or city, making and raising millions of pounds for himself and for charity while recording TV and radio shows, courting or fending off the media, and running dozens of marathons. Like Thatcher, he doesn’t seem to have needed much sleep or time for recuperation.

And like Thatcher, he is very interesting from the point of view of HBD, or human bio-diversity. What were the physiological and genetic bases of his intelligence, energy, will-power and dominance? What was his precise ancestry? We should be able to answer those questions one day. Other questions about Savile may never be answered, but Dan Davies does an excellent job of capturing the black comedy, bathos and chutzpah of his strange, sordid and sinister life. If you want to be right repulsively entertained, In Plain Sight will fix it for you.

Read Full Post »

Killers The Origins of Iron Maiden by Neil DanielsKillers: The Origins of Iron Maiden, 1975-1983, Neil Daniels (Soundcheck Books 2014)

Are Iron Maiden the nadir of naff? I would say so. That’s one of the things that interest me about them. Why has a band that seems so bad to me been popular all over the world for so long? I can admire their hard work and dedication, but their music is like cheap beer, harmful to both head and stomach. And I don’t even like dear beer. If a Harris was going to succeed in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, it should have been Sean, the singer in Diamond Head, not Steve, the bassist in Iron Maiden. Both bands share in the ridiculous side of heavy metal, but the boys from Stourbridge have had good tunes to go with it. Iron Maiden haven’t.

But they have been the most influential and successful band of the NWOBMH. Not influential on Metallica, though, I used to think. Metallica said they wanted to combine the grandeur of Diamond Head with the simplicity of Motörhead. They succeeded. Their opinion of Iron Maiden was, I assumed, found in the outro on Garage Days Re-Revisited (1987), where they play “Run to the Hills” out of tune and out of time. But on page 62 of this book Lars Ulrich says that Metallica are Maiden fans and that he himself was inspired to start a band by them.

Metallica have far surpassed Iron Maiden in songs and sales, but there are still a lot of people who will be interested to read this story of the Londoners’ early days and their first four albums: Iron Maiden and Killers, with vocals by the maniacal Paul Di’Anno (born Paul Andrews in Chingford), and The Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind, with vocals by the affable Bruce Dickinson, recruited from Samson. I skimmed and skipped, but it was interesting to see how so much is uncertain and disputed about who did what where, when and why. A lot of things weren’t photographed in the 1970s and 1980s and the web was a long way off. You can understand big history better from small history: if facts and people melt into mist even in the late twentieth century, what were earlier times like?

But Iron Maiden are small history only by big standards. They’ve not been as important as Josef Stalin or Isaac Newton, but they’ve still been part of millions of lives for decades, with fans in every nation from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. And the fans are dedicated: Iron Maiden inspire loyalty like a football team. Steve Harris himself is a fan of West Ham United. I wish his band sounded the way his team play. Unfortunately, they’re school of schlock, not school of science.

Read Full Post »

Sinister Sinema

Scalarama: A Celebration of Subterranean Cinema at Its Sleazy, Slimy and Sinister Best, ed. Norman Foreman, B.A. (TransVisceral Books 2015)

The Scala Cinema. Long gone, much lamented. By Garry Guggan, TransVisceral C.E.O., among many others. He was a regular attendee at this London locus of the teratic and tenebrose. So he’s asked another regular attendee – Norman Foreman, B.A. – to compile a book of interviews and reminiscences for the benefit both of those who share fond memories of the Scala and of those who never had the chance to become acquainted with its unique mixture of the sleazy, the slimy and the sinister. As a taster for the book – due out next year – here are some extracts from an interview Norman has conducted with Phil Barbarelli, an actor from New York who was a dedicated member of the Scala Tribe…


Norman Foreman: The Scala has legendary status among keyly committed core components of the counter-cultural community. Can you explain what contributed to its feral appeal?

Phil Barbarelli: A trip to the Scala felt like a trip back to a 1950s 42nd Street “grind house” or ’60s Soho sleaze sinema or a below-the-Mason-Dixon-line drive-in or a back-room stag-film fest. It had a sticky floor, stale popcorn retro vibe that was catnip to outré film aficionados. It was a place where you could see an all-day festival of British nudie cuties and naturist films. Or a rare bargain-basement biker or slasher film. Where else would I have had the chance to meet the legendary Pamela Green or question the director of Tom Jones Meets Lady Godiva? Going to the Scala was a guilty pleasure. The only time I felt uncomfortable there was when they showed without warning a mercifully short bestiality film among some soft-core films. They should have warned us. I sensed that most of the audience felt that we had been compromised and our trust abused.

Norman Foreman: What was the Scala audience like?

Phil Barbarelli: The audience was mainly what were then (early ’90s) known as “slackers”. Hey, who else could afford to spend an entire workday in an itch house watching Grade-Z slasher films? Or spend an all-too-rare sunny Saturday in a smelly, dark room watching British naturist films? There were also out-of-work actors (is there another kind?), musicians and the occasional dirty-mac wearer. The latter were bound to be disappointed by the relatively tame material. And, I saw a few City Gents complete with bowler hats and rolled umbrellas.

The audience was almost entirely male with a few bored/bewildered chicks dragged along on dates. The behaviour was the same as you’d see in any cinema. But on special occasions, e.g. Q&A sessions or book-signings, people would be a bit chatty. But most folk were anxious to maintain a “hipper than thou” aloof demeanour. Did I dream it or did some of them watch the films with their sunglasses on? Most dressed in black or T-shirts decorated with the names of bands you never heard of.

Norman Foreman: You are of Italian heritage and had a Catholic upbringing. How far do you think this has fed into your purulent passion for the teratic and tenebrose?

Phil Barbarelli: Speak English! But, yes, Roman Catholicism does tend to warp a young man’s mind. It’s full of guts and gore and it taught us that sex was dirty while at the same time making us obsess about it. It was a nun who asked us at the age of seven if we ever had impure thoughts or had committed impure acts with members of our family or animals. Well, I certainly hadn’t thought about it until she gave me the idea. And, I’m happy to report that incest and bestiality remain outside my ken.

But, I was also influenced/damaged by seeing old-fashioned Coney Island freak shows. And, by growing up in the very lurid atmosphere of 1950s Brooklyn. Read Henry Miller and look at the photos of Weegee to get an idea. It was technicolor, violent, vibrant, funny, sexy, beautiful, ugly – all at once.

But, I find that kitsch and trash are often more entertaining and instructive than middle-brow crap. Case in point: Henry – Portrait of A Serial Killer is a more frightening, powerful and truthful film than The Silence of The Lambs. Guess which I saw at The Scala? So, I enjoy and continue to nurture my interest in all things off-beat. And, the Catholic rule to not look/read/listen to something spurs me to look/read/listen to anything I like. So there.

Norman Foreman: You mentioned seeing a genuine autopsy film on a big screen in NYC. Please say more.

Phil Barbarelli: A hipster cinema in Tribeca showed a film called Autopsy. It was a B&W film of an actual autopsy shot by one of the first “under-ground” filmmakers, whose name escapes me. He had a friend who worked in a NYC morgue and that friend arranged the filming with the stipulation that the corpse remain anonymous. In fact, the dead person may have been a “John Doe”. It was interesting to see how few of the hipsters lasted through the film. Several ran for the toilets, retching as they ran. Imagine if it had been in colour. The same thing happened at The Scala when it showed a double bill of Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Henry. This was the un-edited version of Henry and not cleaned for general viewing.

Massacre was a giggle. Henry was truly terrifying. The “not so tough” trendies headed for the exit.

Norman Foreman: You’ve talked about the “Catholic gaze”. What about the “male gaze”? Didn’t you see something interesting at a strip-show?

Phil Barbarelli: I saw many interesting things at strip-shows. (Ba-da-boom.) I think you mean the demonstration of the male desire to see what he should not. I was at a strip-show on 42nd street in the era of the film Taxi Driver. NYC was at its sleaziest. The strippers would end their act by putting a dirty rug/mat on the front of the stage floor and lie down on it and spread their legs showing everything they had. You could see their tonsils. They would often masturbate or pretend to. Some would allow men to come up and taste their charms for an additional fee. This was a popular pastime for Japanese tourists.

But, directly upstage of them was a door leading to the dancers’ dressing room. Sometimes as a girl was downstage displaying her charms this door upstage would open. When it did, every man in the audience would take his eyes off the woman’s vagina to sneak a look at what he was not supposed to see in the back room.

Norman Foreman: How often in New York did you see films with gimmicks, like The Tingler?

Phil Barbarelli: My childhood (’50s and early ’60s) was the heyday of the gimmick films made by William Castle and others. I was too young to see House of Wax starring Vincent Price, which was the first major 3-D movie. But, my brother gave me his 3-D glasses and told me how things seemed to jump off the screen. There were also 3-D comic books that came with a set of glasses. Trying to read these comics without the glasses was an early psychedelic experience.

All the kids in my Brooklyn neighborhood would go to the “pitchers” on Saturdays to see triple bills with the main movie almost always a horror film.

We got the Hammer films and many low-budget British horror films – X – The Unknown, Horror of The Black Museum – “filmed in hypnovision”. This movie seriously terrorised a generation of children. It’s the only horror film I saw that I think should not have been shown to anyone under 18.

When the skeletons flew over our heads in The House on Haunted Hill we threw things at them. We wore special glasses to see the ghost in 13 Ghosts and we loved The Tingler.

In the late ’80s, an art house in Tribeca showed The Tingler with the original buzzers attached to the seats. They gave a very mild shock, akin to the joke hand-shake buzzers.

By coincidence, in 2013 I was in a terrible play in the West End that was supposed to be a comic homage to Castle and the gimmick horror films. We squirted the audience with “blood” in the dark and threw “insects” on them. My character was loosely based on Castle. I made an oblique reference to The Tingler. This line got a very few knowing laughs. It was obvious that this genre of gimmick film was not well known enough for a comic homage to work.

Read Full Post »

Front cover of In the Seventies by Barry MilesIn the Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture, Barry Miles (Serpent’s Tail 2011)

This book needs an ad break. Barry Miles didn’t have adventures: he made ventures. And pretty dull ones. Which is disappointing, when you consider that Serpent’s Tail have previously published counter-cultural colossi like Stewart Home (Thighway to Mel: Six Years, Eleven Months and Eighteen Days as a Terrified, Traumatized and Tearful Toy-Boy Tonguing the Tepid and Toxic Tvotzke of Top Social Conservative Melanie Phillips), radical researchers like Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (Doubled Slaughter: Barbarism, Brutalism and Bestial Bloodlust in the Music(k) of Simon and Garfunkel, 1965-2010) and visceral visionaries like David M. Mitchell (A Sustainable Future: Fourth Annual Report to the Welsh Parliament on Renewable Energy Resources). But Miles isn’t a key/core component of any of those communities, i.e., he’s not a counter-cultural colossus, a radical researcher or a visceral visionary. Serpent’s Tail have been a bit dishonest too. The Clash are prominent on the front cover and are named first as “Legends of the Decade” on the back cover. But they don’t get a lot of space inside and Barry Miles doesn’t make them look very good:

I saw them a lot, at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, the Roxy in Covent Garden, in recording studios and rehearsal rooms. They never seemed to have any money. I was struck by the fact that after they played three sell-out nights at the Rainbow Theatre, I saw Bernie Rhodes pull away in a car with personalized number plates reading CLA5H, while Mick Jones was waiting for a bus outside. … Joe [Strummer] certainly went along with the posing and pouting – none of the other punk bands came anywhere near the Clash in terms of [where’s an Ex-term-in-ator! when you need one?] adopting classic rock ’n’ roll poses as soon as a photographer removed their lens cap, and the music rags were happy to print the pictures of the Clash looking moody in front of burnt-out buildings, in front of bare brick walls, the Clash in camouflage fatigues in Northern Ireland, the Clash posing in the same way that all of the pop groups of the sixties posed, in fact. Never a smile; they were masters of the moody profile, particularly Paul Simonon, who became a real pin-up in punk circles.

It paid off eventually, of course, and they went on to become one of the most successful bands of the era, a seventies equivalent of the Rolling Stones, until Joe took Bernie’s advice and sacked Mick Jones. With the only musically talented member of the band gone, the Clash degenerated into a parody of its old self and folded. (ch. 15, “1976: Punk”, pp. 229-30)

That The Clash ever degenerated is news to me. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible. Miles does say good things about The Damned and The Ramones – “I particularly liked the Damned because they injected humour into punk, something sadly lacking with bands like the Clash” (pg. 232) – but they get less space than The Clash, unfortunately. So do Paul McCartney and Patti Smith, also “Legends” on the back cover. Little space for Patti Smith is fine by me. None at all would have been even better. As for Ian Dury: he’s on the back cover but doesn’t seem to appear at all in the book. He’s not in the index and I didn’t come across him as I read. I could easily have missed him, because I skipped a lot, but it looks as though Serpent’s Tail promised something and didn’t deliver. In Ian Dury’s case, I’m not complaining.

However, I’m definitely dubious about this bit, where Miles describes a robbery he suffered while living in New York:

Inevitably, given where we lived, it was not long before we were robbed. One day we came back from the A&P supermarket at 8:30 in the evening, walked up the stairs to apartment 4C and, just as I was fiddling with the key, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked round to see the stubby barrel of a handgun held by a large black man. His partner was holding Ann [Buchanan, Miles’ girlfriend] against the wall at knifepoint. (ch. 4, “1970: Chelsea Days, pg. 61)

That was disturbing to read. I mean, is the so-called race of a so-called criminal ever relevant? And why does Miles have to say that he was “very scared” that “they might rape Ann”? That’s pandering to a vicious stereotype about blacks. Okay, it’s an accurate stereotype, but what does accuracy matter? Just because blacks commit a heck of a lot of violent crime doesn’t mean people should say that they do. If we stopped saying it long enough, perhaps they’d stop doing it for a bit. Or stop enjoying it so much. It seems unlikely, but it’s worth a try, surely. They’re driven to it by racism and injustice anyway. What else could it be?

But the black robber doesn’t get a lot of space either. No, Miles writes most about working as a kind of secretary-cum-archivist for Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. This is where the dullness really kicks in. Or nods off. I don’t like the writing of Ginsberg or Burroughs and their eccentric behaviour and lives – sorry, lifestyles – don’t do anything for me either. But if you’d like to hear about Allen’s long phone-calls to New York from the countryside and about how Bill’s flat in London got cold in the evenings because that’s when the storage-heaters stopped working, go ahead and make your own day.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Outsider Always Almost Never Quite I by Brian SewellOutsider: Always Almost, Never Quite: An Autobiography, Brian Sewell (2011)

Brian Sewell is an English art-critic who discusses works of art using another work of art: his own voice. His articles for The Evening Standard in London can be entertaining too, but Sewell is rather like Cary Grant or Orson Welles: his voice is the most memorable thing about him. Fluting, melodious and absurdly posh, an instrument of both waspishness and wit, it was acquired, he says, from his unmarried Catholic mother during a childhood in which he had little contact with other children. His real father, the composer Peter Warlock, died, possibly by suicide, before he was born in 1931 and he didn’t acquire a stepfather until much later. His mother refused to give him up for adoption, but she found life difficult with an illegitimate child. Sewell also found life difficult with an unmarried mother, which is perhaps part of why he suggests that she supplemented her meagre income by genteel prostitution.

After that isolated childhood and difficult relationship, he went to a semi-private school in London called Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hampstead School, which was, he says, less exotic than it sounds. He discovered his talent for English and art there, learnt that he could not understand science or mathematics, and experimented with homosexuality. Then he did National Service in the army, where he learnt to drive, grew mentally and physically tougher, and was raped by a corporal on his own bed, his “yelps, if any, muffled by the pillow” (ch. 6, “National Service as a Squaddie”, pg. 83). He then re-entered civilian life to study art history and work under the Gormenghastly roof of the London art-dealer Christie’s, where he participated in traditions like

…Ridley Leadbeater’s circus at the Front Counter, the distribution of Christmas birds to every member of staff. Ridley had a stake in a smallholding or poultry farm near Nether Basildon and had a contract with Christie’s for the delivery of perhaps a hundred geese and turkeys labelled with our names, but in no discernible order, alphabetical or departmental. This disorder led to bad temper, even panic… and the performance, thoroughly Victorian, perfectly encapsulated the hierarchy of the firm, the lordly directors on the stair looking down on the scramble as though the staff were terriers rat-catching in a barn. I wonder if any of them ever noticed Ridley snatching opportunities to grope the upturned bums presented on these occasions? He was an inveterate… groper of both boys and girls behind the counter, his favourite trick the vicious jabbing of a pencil at the anus of a boy leaning forward to attend a visitor… (ch. 11, “Christie’s in 1958”, pg. 221-2)

It sounds an interesting, if occasionally painful, life, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, I didn’t find this an interesting book. There are memorable paragraphs and boring chapters. And a lot of grammatical mistakes. Sewell rambles, spends too long on trivia and says little about what was, after his relationship with his mother, the most important relationship in his life: that with the art-historian Anthony Blunt (1907-83), Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and dedicated Soviet agent. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood after he was exposed, but he never lost Sewell’s love and respect. Perhaps that’s why Sewell writes relatively little about Blunt and why he himself has never received a knighthood. But there are other explanations for the lack of honours: Sewell has been a gleeful gadfly to the art establishment for decades, mocking the pretensions of the Turner Prize and deriding the work of “Young British Artists” like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. That’s why I was disappointed by this book: I admire Sewell’s championing of classical art and his old-fashioned disdain for women’s contribution to it. He is indeed an outsider, but I don’t think he’s a misogynist: he’s simply objective and honest. Nor has he been exclusively homosexual. This is from one of the memorable paragraphs amid the longueurs, when he is seduced by a middle-aged American woman in Paris:

I had no wish to tell her I was queer and it says something about the weakness of a young man’s will and the overwhelming strength of his sexual triggers, that she so easily had her way with me. I remember more clearly than all else the interruption of pleasure as her diamanté spectacle frames occasionally plucked a pubic hair… (ch. 9, “Student Life”, pg. 161)

But his sexual will was strong enough to keep him celibate for years after the army, he says, while he considered training for the Catholic priesthood and began his career in art-dealing and art-history. Then he chucked over the Church and plunged into promiscuity, clocking up what he estimates “might amount to a thousand fucks a year” (ch. 13, “Abandoning God”, pg. 263). This candour explains why he writes a warning at the beginning of the book:

I have no doubt that many who admire me – my “doting elderlies” as an old woman friend once dubbed them – will be disgusted. So be it – truth is nothing if not whole. (“Prelude”, pg. xiii)

But Sewell should have remembered another aphorism too: le secret d’ennuyer est celui de tout dire – “the key to being a bore is to say everything”. He writes too much of the truth and doesn’t, in any case, tell the whole truth about his relationship with Blunt. Not that I was very disappointed about that: I would have preferred more about art and artists and less about art critics and art-dealers. But Sewell does convey the genuineness of his scholarship and dedication. Here are two more memorable passages:

In two glass-fronted cupboards flanking the fireplace [at the Courtauld Institute] were his [Roger Fry’s] examples of ancient and ethnic pottery that, for reasons traditional but never understood, the students’ President and Secretary were required once a year to wash. I shall never forget the horror of feeling an unglazed pot of Assyrian antiquity dissolve into a muddy sludge slipping from the fingers of my left hand. (ch. 8, “The Courtauld Institute”, pg. 112)

[The German art-restorer Helmuth Ruheman] believed that cleaning should be thorough and thrust small swabs of solvent into our hands, bidding us swab and swab until we were through the accumulated dirt and varnish and the bright nakedness of the paint layer was revealed. If our swabs were eventually tinged with colour – as they were from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (the tondo version NG. 1033) – he was not in the least perturbed, for his view was that what came off could as easily be put on again. (ch. 10, “A Second Intermezzo: 1957-1958”, pg. 161)

If you wince reading things like that, you will understand why I was disappointed by this book. Sewell himself is interesting and has done and experienced interesting things, but he crowds all that out with trivia and excessive detail. He’s in his eighties now, in poor health, and expresses doubts that he will live to write a second volume of autobiography. I hope he does but if so, I also hope he says more about the encounter with Salvador Dalí I can remember hearing him discuss once on the radio. I had a recording of it, now lost, alas, though apparently he made a TV programme about it for Channel 4 called Dirty Dalí: A Private View (2007). Television has made Sewell nationally famous since I first encountered him in print and on the radio and that is why he has so many “doting elderlies”. I don’t watch TV if I can avoid it, but without his late fame he might never have written this book. Disappointing as it was, I’m glad to have sampled it. The whole truth about Brian Sewell is that he isn’t always entertaining or amusing, but the diamanté pubic plucking, the dissolving Assyrian pot, and the untinctured Botticelli are flashes of his anecdotal skill and help explain why he’s famous. And why people want to read about him.


Proviously post-posted:

Art-BanditOutsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)

Read Full Post »