Monday, 30 January 2012

THEODORE ENSLIN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the poet Ted Enslin is up today at the Guardian's website; you can link to it here. Because his passing on 21 November last year went mostly unreported, this appears to be the first large-scale obit anywhere--oddly enough I had written it a number of years ago for the Guardian's files (and went back for some small re-writes and to add the verses today). They also found a wonderful photo which shows him framed by the Maine coastline, which is so important in his work.

I made contact with Enslin through Cid Corman (who died on my birthday in 2004 and which also went relatively unreported at the time) and felt his poems would be a natural for the folded-over six pages of text format I used for the Northern Lights chapbooks. And so it was. We corresponded on the ordering of the Pavanes, and for a while it was a rich back and forth, even after the poems were printed.

Going back through some of the Enslin books that fill my favourite poets shelf, I was amazed at how quickly his voice came back to me, and how much of his work I actually have yet to really discover. He does fit, perhaps too neatly, into my perception as something between Olson and Creeley, though his voice is often more musical but less formal--more like a cross between Robert Duncan and Ed Dorn, if that makes sense. I used to think of him, up in Maine, listening to Mahler while smoking the pipe in front of the wood stove, and somehow transferring the immediacy of his thought into flowing lines on the page. I'm glad the Guardian has given him some of the space he deserves, and glad I was able to write it.

THOMAS FRANK PITIES THE BILLIONAIRE

Thomas Frank is best-known for What's The Matter With Kansas? (retitled in the UK to replace Kansas with 'America') in which he examined the propensity of middle-America to vote against its own best economic interests while supporting politicians firmly committed against those interests. The same thing is writ large in Pity The Billionaire, in which Frank details the way, facing a financial system blow to bit by free market greed and deregulation, the very policies which American voters deluded themselves to believe would help them, America's right has embraced a self-contradictory double-think that blames the collapse on the government and regulation, on social programmes and a few bad apples, and turns the problem on its head.

In case you think this argument far-fetched, go to you-tube and watch the 30 minute attack documentary about Mitt Romney produced by a PAC completely uncoordinated with the Newt Gingrich campaign. Romney ran a company devoted to asset-stripping businesses, putting thousands out of work and reaping huge profits along the way. But although the doc itself plays like something made by the Socialist Workers Party, its conclusions are that, somehow, government regulators and a few greedy men (like Romney) were to blame, and that, left to their own devices, the banks and corporations would have avoided crisis, kept everyone in work, and made America great again for Ayn Rand. Or something like that.

It's enough to drive me back to my college reading of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. As Frank points out, a weird sort of 'reverse Marxism' prevails in America, where the wealthy have become that way because the public is behind their entrepreneurial zeal—wealth is less a sign of God's blessing than that of your fellow God-fearing Republicans. He also notes the increasingly apocalyptic strain of the right wing's politics; that America, as we know it, will simply cease to exist. As Newt himself has said, 'the threat of Obama is as great as ever posed by Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.'

I read a snide review of this book in the New York Times, which mainly criticised it for being 'out of date. Finding clownish examples of, say, Glenn Beck, was, according to the Times, just sooooo last year. The Gray Lady never addressed any of the substantial points the book makes, which become more and more relevant as the Republican presidential primaries reveal the pandering to a Tea Party platform which, as discussed above, makes about as much logical sense as arguing the world is only 6,000 years old. But then political discourse in America is all about style over substance--which is why the liberal hologram that was Obama swept to victory in 2008, and why most of the Republican pack currently baying after him are unlikely to worry his campaign strategists.

The sad fact is,however, most of the book will not come as news to those who are drawn to read it. Which makes the most interesting parts the analysis Frank gives of Franklin Roosevelt's battle against the Great Depression, and his detailing of where the Obama administration has Hoovered the crisis, rather than moved to escape it. In that sense, the absurdity of America's far-right has been doubly-counterproductive. Not only to those who embrace it, but as a way of deflecting the centrist liberals from actually dealing with economic realities and economic problems. Why take on an obdurate, more aggressive, and more efficient Congress; a rightist mainstream media whose agenda is set by an Australian billionaire's whims, and that large chunk of disillusioned America, when you can sit back on laugh at Newt, Mitt, Santorum, Cain, Palin et al? Why worry when Jon Stewart's on once a day?

Frank never adopts that position, though he's sorely tempted. Which is why it's important to consider the ways in which we are being let down, the ways in which we've handed over governance completely banks and corporations, even handing them the right to free speech as if they were individuals. That the victims of all this are being turned into its cheerleaders is a deep irony which Americans don't seem willing to see. I might argue it's the inevitable consequence of choosing the fantasy world of Reagan for the reality of the world offered by Jimmy Carter and his successors, and that American discourse simply moved to the right in the same way Mrs. Thatcher did in this country. In that sense, Obama, and Clinton before him, are far closer to free-market Reaganauts than to the socialist terrorists the Right would have them be. But then, if you believe in fantasy, you need a bogey man to blame when reality hits you in the face as it's been standing in front of you threatening to do.  Brits like to think Americans possess no sense of irony, though they themselves seem to lack it when considering Messrs. Cameron and Clegg. But believe me, Thomas Frank posseses irony spades. It doesn't short-change his book, and it's a shame the book can't be air-dropped across the midwest.

PITY THE BILLIONAIRE by Thomas Frank
Harvill Secker £14.99 ISBN 9781846556029

Sunday, 29 January 2012

STEVE HAMILTON VISITS MISERY BAY

After his Edgar-winning standalone novel, The Lock Artist, (see my review here) Steve Hamilton returns to the familiar ground of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Alex McKnight, his reluctant detective. For Hamilton it's not quite the retreat it is for McKnight; most of the series has involved Alex escaping, healing or both in the loneliness of the winter landscape, and Misery Bay is no exception. Still unable to re-enter his own cabin where he's lost his last girlfriend, he's wintering in a ramshackle guest cabin, rebuilding it around him (Hamilton's ability to extend and refresh the metaphor has been remarkable over the eight McKnight books). Then his old adversary, Sault Ste. Marie police chief Maven, comes to him asking for help. Maven's former state police partner has lost his son, a suicide who hanged himself at Misery Bay, and Maven wants Alex to at least answer the father's questions about why he did it, and who he was.

Of course, this turns out to be the first in a series of suicides and murders of former state policemen and their children, which throws Alex into the middle of an unofficial investigation, caught between the FBI on one side, and the notoriously bull-headed Maven on the other.

As serial killer books go, this one is somewhat slim; Hamilton frames the methodology, but the motive is slow to unravel. The killer himself is revealed in a nice twist which seems to justify all those long hours of introspection Alex spend driving his plow-equipped truck along the deserted and ruler-straight roads of Michigan. But interestingly, the victims are the real focus here, and while McKnight and the FBI search frantically for the link that might lead them to the killer, we see any number of lives with little hope or promise—a bleakness that reflects not just the landscape but the dead or abandoned character of the towns themselves. in that sense, and with so many cop characters, it reminded me a bit of Hamilton's first stand-alone, Night Work (link to that review here)

There's some good writing here, and Hamilton is at his best when the personal emptiness and the darkness of the setting coincide. And it seems that northern Michigan is overflowing with ominous place names, so there will never be a shortage of titles! There are moments of hope, however, as if the story itself were an Objibwa sweat tent. If character is indeed action, Hamilton's McKnight is one of the best.

Misery Bay by Steve Hamilton
Orion £12.99 ISBN 9780752897103

This review will appear also at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

LES DANIELS: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

NOTE: I wrote this obituary of Les Daniels back in November, but it got shunted aside during the holiday season, and two months later has passed its sell-by date for the paper, so it appears here for the first time.

Les Daniels, who has died aged 68, will be remembered best as an historian of comic books, author of official histories of both Marvel and DC Comics, and some of their most famous superheroes. His most important work in the field was Comix: A History of Comic Books in America (1971). Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965) is generally considered the first mainstream comics' history, and Daniels' book came after 1970's fan-based All In Color For A Dime. But Comix was the first to trace comics from their roots in pulp magazines, through the Forties' so-called Golden Age of superheroes, and their doldrums during the 1950s' censorship brought on by psychologist Frederic Wertham's attacks on the industry in his book Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Daniels was particularly telling on this, since his own favourite comics, the EC horror line, were Wertham's prime target. Daniels detailed the Sixties renaissance sparked by Marvel and stoked by the rise of underground comics, or comix. He was the first to eschew gosh-wow nostalgia in favour of a serious, but never academic, appreciation of the medium as art., and showcased artists, among them Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, who would not achieve mainstream acclaim until years later.

Appropriately, given his love of EC comics, Daniels had an equally important, if less noted, career in the horror field. Following the success of films like The Exorcist and The Omen, his 1975 book 'Living In Fear: A History of Horror In Mass Media', approached horror with the same artistic seriousness had comics. He edited a companion anthology, Dying Of Fright, and, with his sister Diane, another anthology, 13 Tales of Terror, designed for teachers.

Soon after, he became a key part of the first boom in vampire fiction, led by Fred Saberhagen's novels about an heroic Dracula, starting with The Dracula Tapes (1975) and Anne Rice's best-selling Lestat series launched in 1976. Beginning with The Black Castle (1978), set during the Spanish Inquistion, Daniels published five novels featuring the vampire Don Sebastian De Villanueva. Mixing horror and apocalyptic history, he placed Don Sebastian in situations, such as the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, or Britain's Imperial Raj in India, where humans wielded greater destructive evil than vampires.

The arc of this peripatetic career might best be ascribed to Daniels' following his own enthusiasms, an urge he traced back to his mother's throwing out his comic book collection when was he was only nine years old. He was born 27 October 1943 in Danbury, Connecticut, and grew up in nearby, rural, Redding. His father, who wrote radio adventures like Jack Armstrong All-American Boy, primed his interest in horror by giving him a collection of Ambrose Bierce's stories. He was so taken with H.P. Lovecraft's tales that he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he earned BA and MA dregres from Brown University, writing his master's thesis on Frankenstein. He would stay in Providence the rest of his life, and in 1970, with artist John 'Mad' Peck, create a four-panel poster of life in that city, playing ironically on streets with names like Friendship and Hope, which is still a local best-seller.

He was also a talented bluegrass banjo player, and hooked up with a Rhode Island School of Design student named Martin Mull to write and perform songs described by Bob Booth as 'a cross between the Foggy Mountain Boys and Monty Python'. They formed The Double-Standard String Band with Sam Tidwell and his bass-playing brother Marc—Tidwell went on to a career as a bluegrass virtuoso, while Mull became a successful comedian and actor in Hollywood. Mull and Daniels reunited on a 1974 album of comic folk songs called In The Soop. In 1998 Daniels and Rick Lee recorded an album called Dr Daniels and Mr Lee, new versions of his Mull collaborations , and followed it with a release of 1966 tapes of a live performance by the Double Standard band. In the Seventies he was hired by Dino DeLaurentis to write an unproduced disco-horror screenplay, and then teamed with comic Rudy Cheeks to write Comediac, about a serial killer obsessed with the Three Stooges. Sadly, it was never made. Daniels also performed in Providence clubs giving comic commentary while horror movies were played on the screen, long before such formats were used on TV.

But primarily he was devoted to his writing, whether introductions for independently-produced adaptations of Lovecraft, or producing authorised histories for the big comics companies. That the same man would be trusted to chronicle two arch-rivals like Marvel and DC speaks to his objectivity, as well as his talent for researching and ordering the chaotic back-story of an industry which never assumed itself to have any value for posterity. He did histories of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, winning an Eisner award for the last, and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award four times. Daniels died in Providence on 5 November, of a heart attack. He is survived by his sister.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

DON WINSLOW REACHES SATORI

Extending the careers of other novelists' memorable characters is a task which has defeated many big-name writers, some (like Sebastian Faulks with James Bond) almost before they've even started. On the other hand, there have been many characters written by ghost writers where no one has, at the time, noticed the difference (Ellery Queen springs to mind).

In the detective field, such franchises tend to be offered to likely suspects; Robert B Parker with Chandler, Joe Gores with Hammett, Max Allan Collins with Mickey Spillane; often writing sequels or finishing material left behind (see my take on Max's Mickey here). Recently Parker's work has been passed on, with Michael Brandman, who produced the Jesse Stone TV movies, writing new Stone novels (see my review here), and Ace Atkins a surprising choice to continue Spenser.

The difficulty is deciding how far to go on the road to pastiche. Can you remain true to the spirit of the writer while taking his character in new directions? Can you write in his style, or is it useless to avoid your own? The more distinctive the writer, and the character, the more difficult the task becomes.

On the surface, Don Winslow may have seemed an unusual choice to produce this prequel to Trevanian's Shibumi. Winslow is an immensely talented writer who has produced some fine, neo-noirish, California stories, a recent series of laid-back surfer detective novels, and two remarkable books centered on the drug wars, the majestic epic Power Of The Dog and the brilliantly bleak Savages. He may have been chosen because Hollywood has caught on; The Death and Life of Bobby Z has been, so to speak, filmed (see my take here); Robert De Niro and Michael Mann were at times attached to a film of The Winter Of Frankie Machine, Oliver Stone is adapting Savages. And you might argue his bittersweet novel Isle Of Joy (see my review here) showed a facility with spy tales that might have appealled to the Travanian estate.

What must be remembered is Shibumi, although Trevanian's most successful book by far, was an outgrowth of his earlier work, straight-forward Bondish stuff like The Eiger Sanction. He moved from them to The Main, a dark police procedural set in Montreal, which may be his best, but wasn't a best-seller, before simplifying his formula and hitting on a character, Nicholas Hel, who is, in effect a Super Hero, pitched beyond Bond and nothing like a Marlowe, Spade or Hammer. Hel beat Jason Bourne into print by a year, but whether there's any influence would be for the reader to decide.

The background was intricate, but the problem was that, as a super hero, Hel would always triumph in the ultimate shoot-out, and this is a dilemma that might constrain your story telling. As this is a prequel, Winslow has to conform to the Hel Trevanian created, but he is afforded some freedom in showing how he got to be who he is, and he uses this freedom well. After all, as the blurbs suggest, Hel is not only the 'world's most dangerous assassin', but a 'mystic, master of language and culture, and the world's most artful lover'--so Winslow gets to provide him with a French courtesan to instruct him in whatever he doesn't know, courtesy of the CIA. The multiple conflicts and contradictions implied are something Winslow has fun with, but his assignment, to kill a Soviet commissioner in China, becomes something more complicated.

This is where he is at his best, outlining multiple betrayals, warring loyalties, and as you might expect from the author of Power Of The Dog, following the drug trade through Asia alongside the budding conflicts in South East Asia. He is constrained, to an extent, by Hel's talents, the fact that he is a Superman, and at times the trying to draw all the strands together can have twists colliding with each other. But he manages to draw it all together in a climax that not only resolves his story but does leave Hel set up properly for Trevanian's own book from three decades earlier.

I think if you're a Winslow fan already you'll be impressed rather than enthralled. If you're a Hel fan you shouldn't be disappointed; the world may have caught up and passed Trevanian's super-assassin in 30 years, but Winslow, while taking him back in time, also brings him forward. The news that Leonardo di Caprio wants to play Hel in a movie makes a lot more sense than his playing J Edgar Hoover, and should help cement Winslow's name. Next he brings back Hel to the Manhattan setting of Isle Of Joy, say in the early 1960s, all hel breaks loose, and the adapters of Mad Men option the film rights.

SATORI by Don Winslow
Headline, £14.99 ISBN 9780755370207 (paperback published at £6.99)

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

A SPIELBERG FOOTNOTE TO DICKENS

In light of what I posted yesterday about Dickens on Film, it was synchronistic that today's Independent would feature an interview with Steven Spielberg (conducted in Paris, where Warhorse was opening) which made much of his child-like perspective, and noted the influence of his father's war stories on his film-making. James Mottram also noted how many Spielberg films, (like fairy tales and indeed, like Dickens) have absent fathers (and, in Dickens, substitute father figures). You can find the interview here.

I can attest to the truth of one part of the interview; the delight Spielberg showed in his newly-born Max (his son by Amy Irving) when I met him in Belsize Park many years ago. He politely asked what I did, and I politely asked what he did.

I did mention a friend of mine who had worked for him, but didn't mention the story she told of quitting rather than go on location for Raiders of the Lost Ark (in Tunisia, if I remember correctly). Her line was, 'how would YOU like to spend six months in the desert with an army of 200 drug addicts commanded by a 12 year old kid?' It was the 70s, after all.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

GREAT ADAPTATIONS: DICKENS ON FILM

The bicentenary of the year of Charles Dickens' birth has proven a springboard to a multitude of events, and, appropriately enough for the man whose novels have been the most translated onto screen of any author, an inevitable surge of costume dramas for a market that seemingly can never get enough of it. Tonight, following up on yet another version of Great Expectations, arguably Dickens' best book, the BBC begins an adaptation of the Mystery of Edwin Drood, which he left unfinished at his death. It's appropriate that the television Dickens should be celebrated, considering how important the 1950s series of adaptations was to establishing the idea of families staying indoors and around the telly when they aired.

Cynicism and easy profits aside, there are reasons why Dickens is such a fruitful source of adaptation. Running the risk of being cruelly overlooked amidst the onslaught of high-scale productions on the terrestrial channels, BBC4 tonight offers a remarkable Arena programme, Dickens On Film, directed by Anthony Wall and written and narrated by Adrian Wooten and Michael Eaton. Launched to coincide with a three-month retrospective at the BFI Southbank, the documentary makes the case for Dickens as a pioneer of film, even though he died in 1870, before the medium was even born.

It's not a difficult case to make, because it has been made before, most notably by two of the giants of the silent screen. DW Griffith attributed his pioneering cross-cutting to Dickens' technique of moving between storylines to build suspense and increase narrative drive and tension. Sergei Eisenstein, in his 1944 essay 'Dickens, Griffith and the Film Today', retells the story of Griffith's persuading his backers such techniques could work in film, and goes a step farther, quoting a 1922 article by AB Walkely, the drama critic of the Times, in which he specifically claims Dickens as Griffith's inspiration, noting he might have seen the same thing in Dumas, or Tolstoy, or any other Victorian novelist—the point being that it was the way Dickens' used it, the power of his imagery and its motion, that was cinematic. Eisenstein also recognised Dickens' appeal to 'sentimental elements', an appeal made all the more moving by the juxtaposition of the sentimental and cruel. It's not just that Dickens uses such techniques, but that the way he used them virtually compelled adaptors to follow. That Dickens was often writing serial literature, and thus faced the same need to keep the audience coming back that the makers of cliffhanging serial movies or modern soap operas would, merely emphasises the point.

In the same sense that modern filmmakers learned their sense of narrative and story-telling from watching movies, on DVD or movie channels, and the previous generation might be said to have learned theirs from TV (and film schools), early-filmmakers learned their dramatic techniques from Victorian literature and the stage. As seemingly apart from Eisenstein as John Ford may appear, and as obviously Shakespearian in his approach to dramatic structure; Ford's sense of his cutting, his use of secondary villains to contrast his often more noble antagonists, has been obviously absorbed from Dickens, if perhaps in part via Griffith.

Yet beyond cinematic technique, it's worth considering Dickens' ability to project his audience into what is often a child's sensibility. He is certainly ruthless about sacrificing children and child-like characters to wring the emotion from that audience, but what makes his descriptions of the dark side of Victorian England so memorable is the way he frames them around the experiences of those whom we consider innocents. If you're looking for a modern equivalent in cinema, one who makes no bones about tackling 'big' issues but who always does so by exploiting their 'sentimental elements' you could look at Stephen Spielberg, whose camera often adopts the perspective of a child, looking up at adults, sneaking peeks into their world. If you're seeking a bridge between the early days of cinema and Spielberg's films, you might consider the work of Robert Stevenson, now much overlooked, but whose early films, like King Solomon's Mines, Tom Brown's School Days, and the Orson Welles Jane Eyre, are particularly Dickensian, and whose work for Disney in the 1950s, films like Johnny Tremain, Old Yeller, Zorro, or Kidnapped (though the last is not a patch on Byron Haskins' 1950 Treasure Island), are small masterpieces of the child's-eye point of view, and full of the picaresque supporting casts of which Dickens was the master.

The Arena programme shows clips from nearly two dozen Dickens adaptations, yet barely scratched the surface. Eaton pointed out that there are around 100 silent movie versions of Dickens that we know about, of which only about a third are known to exist. The earliest on offer is a 1901 Scrooge, called Marley's Ghost, six minutes long with special effects that have been echoed through the decades, even by The Muppet Christmas Carol. One of the silent gems is a version of Oliver Twist starring Jackie Coogan. The production was put together by Coogan's father, eager to capitalise on the talents of his seven-year old son, and features Lon Chaney as a memorable Fagan. Thought to have been lost forever when the original negative was melted down for its silver, a print was discovered in Yugoslavia in the 1970s, and certainly deserves wider exposure.

At the launch of the film, David Nichols, who has adapted the latest Great Expectations, with Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, and Rafe Fiennes as Magwitch, spoke of seeing the novel as something akin to Chinatown, as a film noirish crime story, complete with the 'visit to Hannibal Lecter' scene, though of coure that wasn't Chinatown. It reminds us that crime is at the heart of Dickens, and his catalogue of crime included abuses allowed by society. It's no coincidence that the trailer for the 2002 version of Nicholas Nickelby protrayed Christopher Plummer, as Ralph, as an embodiment of Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko, 'greed is good'. Victorian values, as Mrs Thatcher might say, are good for us all today.

Yet it's also fascinating how Dickens, despite the wide spectrum of characters and settings, remains firmly nailed into his period, the early Victorian. Even that most (late) Victorian figure, Sherlock Holmes, has been transplanted, without too much shock, into the 1940s on film, and with some cleverness into the modern era, yet Dickens' stories resist it (as evidenced, for example, by Alfonso Cuaron's soapy 1998 Great Expectations, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke, or by Joao Bothelo's enigmatic 1988 Portugese version of Hard Times). Yes, Dickens' settings are alive, and yes much of his social drama derives from them. But even the Muppets need that Victorian setting (and A Christmas Carol is one of the most, and consistently best, adapted of all his novels, as if proving Eisenstein's point about sentimentality).

Otherwise the catalogue of films and television (including the Channel 4 broadcast of David Edgar's memorable 1982 eight-hour stage version of Nicholas Nickleby directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird) is spectacular, and the myriad adaptations remind us of the way even small characters provide opportunities for defining performances. In January I'd rush to see Claude Rains in the 1935 Mystery Of Edwin Drood, or, in a more familiar vein, Ronald Colman in A Tale Of Two Cities, directed by Jack Conway in the same year.

But don't miss the Arena programme, which above all else provides a counter-point to the somewhat self-congratulatory tone of the early entries into the Dickensian tribute sweepstakes. It is hard to avoid a certain chauvinistic self-congratulation, a tendency to over-priase well-made costume epics which adapt but don't add to our understanding of Dickens' brilliance. But of course, every time gets the Dickens it deserves, and if David Nichols' Great Expectations is somewhat more prurient and less picaresque, less outre, than previous versions, it may be because we shock less easily, and we are more easily offended.

Then again, if Dickens were alive today, he might take a similar attitude. He probably wouldn't be writing novels, but it is one thing to say his writing of novels as serials translates to the idea that he'd be doing East Enders now. We'd like to think he'd be working in the more creative reaches of the medium, though it's probably not out of line to suggest he might find producing more creative and much more profitable than merely writing. On the other hand, producers nowadays often seem get themselves tangled in the slippery net of trying to be ironic and superior to their material—which is dangerous when it's material as superior as Dickens.

This is material like the BBC's Christmas offering, Mrs Dickens Family Christmas, which seemed aimed at cutting Dickens down to size, since he hadn't gone from Cambridge Footlights to standup comedy to the BBC, which in our modern Victorian world appears to be the path which conveys instant expertise in virtually any field. It's one thing to complain of a lack of 'real women' in Dickens (!) while presenting Christmas recipes, and another to try to bring him down to the level of East Enders, or the Radio 4 News Quiz.

Luckily, Arena serves as an antidote to that, and even the smallest taster of the richness of serious adaptation serves as a reminder of his genius, and more importantly his inspiration. From WC Fields as Micawber to Diana Rigg as Honoria Dedlock, from Valerie Hobson in Great Expectations to Bill Murray in Scrooged, it's a catalogue of genius. All that remains, in this anniversary year, is for the inevitable bio-pic, based perhaps on Claire Tomalin's biography, to cast someone actorly as the writer himself.

Arena: Dickens On Film is broadcast 10 Jan on BBC4
Dickens On Screen is on through March at BFI Southbank

Saturday, 7 January 2012

BORGEN: BBC4'S SARAH LUND REDUX

The BBC have announced they bought the rights to another Danish TV series, Borgen: you can link to the announcement here. The series will air tonight, as The Killing did on Saturday nights, on BBC4. I'll try to catch it on Iplayer, that wonderful tool which for some reason the BBC cant make compatible with the latest version of Firefox (you can watch, but you can't store, suggest, or favourite).

Without pre-judging Borgen, the premise is interesting in a number of ways--the most obvious being that the most compelling part of the second series of The Killing, and almost the most compelling part of the first, was the political drama. In fact, in series two, it was as if the battle within the cabinet were part of a separate show, and though Nicholas Bro may have occasionally over-egged the pudding, his befuddled battle with the 'establishment' and the fights within the ruling coalition, were both extremely well done.

The Danes may be producing the best cinema in Europe right now, and their television seems equally strong. Not that it matters, because Borgen will be something the BBC can market to Sarah Lund fans because it's about a female political leader whose party takes power in a coalition which she heads as Prime Minister. When you consider, despite the strength of Sofie Grabol's performance, how the British response inevitably concentrated on her sweater, you can almost predict that whatever Sidse Babette Knudsen (another fine actress, as anyone who saw the Oscar-nominated After The Wedding can attest) wears is likely to do the same.

But there is far more to Danish film than sweaters and actresses--the country has such talent that even the Swedish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was directed and written by Danes (and if you're looking for a fine political thriller to prepare for Borgen try The King's Game, written by the same pair of writers, Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, and directed by Arcel). So check it out tonight, or on IPlayer, or, if you don't have either, you can buy the Danish DVD with English subtitles on Amazon.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

D.D. GUTTENPLAN'S I.F. STONE: AMERICAN RADICAL

In 1958 IF Stone wrote:
 'For almost two decades we have lived in a stale atmosphere of Fifth Amendment radicalism; no one is a Communist, few admit themselves Socialists, nobody owns up to reading Marx, and practically everybody on the Left claims only to be a Liberal, nothing more; the word 'radical' is avoided as a bad word.'

Reading that passage, it struck me as some measure of how far backwards we have moved in the past fifty years; today virtually no one on the left dares claim 'only to be a Liberal', devalued as that word has become. The real beauty of DD Guttenplan's monumental biography of the man best-remembered for IF Stone's Weekly is the way it tells a story whose themes seem to reverberate constantly with echoes of today.

American Radical is really the tale of two rises to journalistic success, accomplished in two very different atmospheres. Thus it is almost two different books. As someone who grew up during the era of (if not 'with') IF Stone's Weekly (my parents being mainstream Democrats who got their news from Time, Life, and the right-wing New Haven papers, 'balanced' by the Sunday New York Times), to me the story of Stone's early rise was the more surprising. I had never realised just how successful he had been in the mainstream—to the point of wielding (or thinking he wielded) a little bit of influence in FDR's Washington. It was still possible to do that from the Left in those days, and Stone's rise is the more remarkable because he managed to do it while avoiding the in-fighting and back-stabbing which seem to always categorise left-wing politics, and which seem to grow more vicious the more politically irrelevant the groups or issues involved. Stone somehow managed to avoid being caught up between factions, while writing for both mainstream papers and leftish magazines. There was some cross-over; as interesting as Stone's story might be, that of J. David Stern, the crusading Philadelphia newspaper owner who wound up buying the New York Post and turning it into a left-wing daily of some courage, may be more fascinating. Of course the peak of mainstream left wing news in America might well have been New York's afternoon paper PM, for whom Stone also worked, and as it died so too died the progressive dream. But it's chilling to read that in August 1943 PM was already charting the murder of 1.7 million Jews in Europe, while officially Allied governments were refusing to take steps to try to save those who remained.

In the case of the factionalism of the left, it might be easy for Guttenplan's detailing of the many-faceted progress of progressives through the Thirties to lose readers along the way, but I found it fascinating, if in a sometimes anoraky way. The minutiae of esoteric debate and distinction may itself be part of the reason the left found, and still finds itself, so vulnerable to the right in the bigger picture. The right has always been quicker to understand that it's about power, not principle. But it's typically revealing to learn that a group of Republican backers offered Earl Browder, head of the US Communist party, $250,000 to either nominate or endorse FDR in 1936. That gives somewhat more credence to General Smedley Butler's 1934 testimony that he'd been offered, by a similar group of shadowy financiers, command of a fascist army to overthrow FDR. Indeed, Guttenplan's view is so complete that some of the most fascinating stories are often tossed away in footnotes, as when he details Philip Johnson's career as a 'fascist intellectual'. The Johnson & Johnson heir was a huge supporter of Father Coughlin's radio hate-mongering, and started his own band of 'grey shirts' – yet in post-war New York he rose to architectural prominence with no one commenting on his past, much less the wistful totalitarian nature of his design. I was similarly intrigued to discover Corliss Lamont, the Marxist scion of an investment banking family, whose great-nephew Ned tried to rid the political world of Joe Lieberman a few years back.

The better-known story of Stone's blacklisting stands in sharp and touching contrast to this early story of success, and the fact that he built his second career on a self-published weekly newsletter has huge relevance in today's world of internet 'journalism'. It's facile, and largely wrong, to say that Stone would be blogging today—his work was better suited to the weekly, which allowed him to collate research—but he was in a sense a small-scale aggregator, like a number of present-day sites at the sub-Huff level, which mix good journalism with aggregation (eg: Truthdig. Tom Paine). Perhaps the heirs to IF Stone's Weekly are Tom Englehardt's Tom Dispatch or Robert Parry's Consortium News. But it reminds us exactly what a journalist is, or should be. Stone was so successful as a newsletter maverick precisely because he had been successful in the mainstream (and, to a lesser extent, on the left-wing). He had contacts, and more important he knew both how power worked, in Washington and in city halls, and how to find information in the public domain. He had built his sources through hard work, through go-getting of the sort that used to be a journalist's stock in trade. This is the most interesting part of his progression from Isidor Feinstein to IF Stone. He wasn't Studs Terkel or Jimmy Breslin, haunting the working-class bars, but he knew how to work rooms in high places, how to argue policies and principles, and he kept his talent working on behalf of his ideals—he wasn't likely to be Judith Miller'd, even in the service of policies or ideologies he supported.

Guttenplan is very good on such dilemmas—in the protean world of the Depression Thirties, no less than the McCarthyite Fifties, people often tailored their opinions to suit their ideologies. They always have and still do, of course. But more than most, Stone needed to see for himself, and it shows. He was an early and unofficial visitor to Israel, as detailed in his classic book Underground To Palestine, and an equally early proponent of treating the Arab population fairly. He warned of the 'moral imbecility that marks all ethnocentric movements'. When he added a new introduction to the book in the Seventies, the pre-mature neo-Con Martin Peretz denounced him as a PLO stooge. Even in his years of success, nothing had changed.

What's sometimes missing is a sense of the contradictions inside Stone. A devoted husband, he seems to have been simultaneously a devoted but very difficult father. He had some talented people as assistants on the Weekly, but tended to drive them hard and treat them harshly. There's little information and less speculation about his relationships, except when they turn into politicised feuds. The radical lawyer Leonard Boudin was his in-law and friend; Boudin's daughter Kathy was a key figure in the Weather Underground—I wonder what Izzy's reaction was to having an outlaw of the left in the family. I've always wondered why Stone was so adamant about supporting the Warren Commission's whitewash of the JFK assassination: he was perfectly willing to believe in a conspiracy (even involving J.Edgar Hoover and his FBI) in the killing of Martin Luther King. But these are my curiosities.

If the book seems to pick up pace and slide through the years of Stone's return to the mainstream (although interestingly, his sort of political reporting was already being marginalised by television) it may be because we know those political debates too well: Vietnam, the Middle East, the late Cold War, the civil rights movement. It may also be that Stone as a success, as an icon, is less interesting to a biographer than Stone as fallen angel, or maverick outsider. If anything, however, his decision to study Greek and write The Trial Of Socrates deserves even more attention; a remarkable late change of pace. Years ago I went back and read up on Stone, often missing much because the context wasn't fully there. But the over-arching theme was this: that governments could not be trusted to act in the best interests of the majority of their citizens; that official versions were suspect for that reason, and for other, more practical reasons as well; and that the pursuit of profit and power was no respecter of human life or morality. In that sort of context, an analysis of Socrates seems perfectly fitting.

In our own trying times, this book stands as both a blessing and a warning. Guttenplan (whose own claim to fame now may be as the father of a remarkably Brainiac champion on University Challenge) is aware of this, and makes such connections subtly, but unmissably. The greatest danger to the left in the United States has always been the fear that FDR warned us about, the fear that it is somehow 'un-American'. One of Stone's warnings in particular stood out to me. 'Never turn your back on a liberal in a tight corner'. In this tale of one man's stand against the right-wing's force-marching Americans into tight corners, it seems salutary to remember now.

American Radical: The Life And Times of IF Stone
by DD Guttenplan
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2009, ISBN 9780374183936
also published in the UK by Quartet/Charles Glass Books, £25