Having finally finished the first draft of the novel about London, Like Fire Unbound, it’s refreshing to forget about it for a while and instead go back to obsessing about Ford Madox Ford and his 1915 novel, The Good Soldier.
I can’t think how many times I’ve read this. It’s the novel that is lodged most firmly inside of me and finally I’ve decided to embark on a new project based upon it. This will involve a line-by-line examination of it, which I’ve already started, the typed notes on my iPhone already yards long.
Most people know of the two most familiar descriptions of The Good Soldier: a) it is the novel about passion b) it is the definitive example of the “unreliable narrator”. There are of course plenty of other ways of looking at it – is it a modernist classic or an impressionistic harking back to Henry James? – and now I’ve started to think about it properly and read more widely, I’m more overwhelmed than ever by the scale of Ford’s achievement.
Graham Greene, who was a big fan of the novel, once said something along the lines of, reading it is rather like watching the construction of the most beautiful Gothic cathedral, brick by brick.
For those who haven’t read it, the novel tells the tragic tale of two doomed couples in early twentieth century Europe, one British and one American, whose intertwined lives leading up to the outbreak of World War One end in the most unimaginable hell.
The novel is constructed as a disjointed first-person account by our unreliable narrator, the America John Dowell. Ford uses this mechanism to build an unbelievably complex text which belies its fiendish complexity by a seemingly simple narrative. The text is so complex that it has produced a whole ream of semiotic interpreters, some of whom have even identified a subterranean novel lying within it which actually sets out a murder story entirely absent from the surface storyline. It is one of the few novels where almost every sentence contains at least one clue deliberately planted by the author. It is utter genius.
Writing of it in 1927, Ford said: “Great Heavens, did I write as well as that then?”
Yes he did. And so now it’s head first into FMF land and who knows what will emerge at the other side?
The last few weeks have seen the wonderful Antonioni retrospective at the BFI Southbank. So far I’ve caught the extraordinary The Passenger with Jack Nicholson from 1975 (seemingly quite a rarely seen film today which is just bizarre given its remarkable quality and Nicholson’s brilliant performance), and tonight hopefully catching up on the second of the 1960s trilogy, La Notte. The first, L’Avventura, I saw a week ago and am still overwhelmed by it.
The only Antonioni film I’ve seen before is Blow Up, which everyone’s seen. That didn’t prepare me for L’Avventura, two and a half hours of utter bliss where not a lot happens in the most unforgettable way. And the one actor doing not a lot in such an intense and dynamic way is Monica Vitti whose performance is genuinely spellbinding. Antonioni lets the camera just gaze at her for what seems like minutes while each muscle of that beautiful face twitches and turns as she plays out about a hundred different tragic scenarios of ennui, culminating in an extraordinary scene towards the end where she lies in bed, unable to sleep because she suspects her lover is up to no good, and all she can do is count, writing down ascending numbers on the cover of a trashy magazine. One, two, three, four, five, six…It’s genius.
Antonioni’s films demonstrate how language, the written and spoken word, must sometimes be relegated to a supporting role if the truth of an artistic vision is to be achieved. His cinematic language, which as he says he used to show how morally ill-equipped his contemporaries were to deal with the modern world of 1960, is so much more eloquent than any words could achieve. For anyone who spends their time rooting around with words, it is a salutary and entirely fulfilling lesson.
Am eking out the Xmas period still, down in the Ashdown Forest and almost at the end of all 800 pages of the magisterial London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. It’s part pure pleasure, part also of the mulling around the novel I’ve been working on for almost a year now about the city (55,000 words so far, slow bugger that I am).
Ackroyd is one of those writers whose absence would severely diminish our cultural landscape: he is unique, extraordinary, flawed, limitless in his ambition, vulnerable, a joy to read. London is not set out as a history but as an attempt to write the biography of this character, London, whom we all struggle to identify. Ackroyd is not so foolish as to think he can nail it but he has such fun in getting as close as anyone might.
The book is packed with remarkable people: the defrocked ecclesiastic who stalked the streets of Shoreditch and drugged young women of wealth to marry them off to ne’er-do-wells, who went under the name of The Bishop Of Hell; the fraudulent bailiffs whose punishment was to be led through the city towards the stocks with a turd in their mouths; the pitiful children who were enslaved to chimney sweeps who were never washed but who once a year were allowed to dress up and dance in the streets.
This is a London more fantastic than any fiction and should remind us to treasure those rare talents like Ackroyd (from whom the critics inevitably tend to keep their frigid distance) who remind us what it is to be alive and living in the metropolis.
I’ve got a new novel out today: English Arcadia. It’s available from The Word Machine here or Amazon here.
Its subject is one particular strain of left-wing English history in the 20th century, that of the Common Wealth party of the 1940s, which won remarkable byelection victories during the Second World War on a leftwing platform of the common ownership of land and the means of production.
In 1988, I travelled to Devon to interview Sir Richard Acland in his house which stood on the lands of the Killerton Estate which he himself had given to the National Trust in 1944. He was 82 at the time and graciously agreed to be interviewed by me on the subject of his latest book, Hungry Sheep, an attack on the individualistic political philosophy he identified in all contemporary parties. He was a truly remarkable man: in the 1940s, he led Common Wealth, the ultra-left wing political party which won byelections against both Conservative and Labour oppositions only to founder with the Labour landslide of 1945; in the 1950s, with Harold Wilson, he formed War On Want and subsequently championed Harrison Brown’s seminal green document, A Challenge for the Future. In later years, in his own words, he believed that “good causes will founder and evil causes will prevail unless moral and religious forces are brought in on the side of the good.”
I have thought about this decent, determined, kind and intelligent man for thirty years since that meeting, which is perhaps why he has served as the inspiration for the fictional character Sir Zachary Frome in this novel. The novel and the characters portrayed in it are entirely fictitious and the extended Frome family bear no relation to any people alive or dead, but I would simply like to express my thanks to Sir Richard Acland for indulging a curious young man all that time ago with such sincerity and humour.
If you are curious to find out more about Acland and Common Wealth, you can start with the official Common Wealth archive at Sussex University here.
Here’s a new short story which will form part of a forthcoming collection called Pictures From Life’s Other Side.
I’m spending a lot of time in the cemetery. You know the one, up on Santa Monica Boulevard. Hollywood Forever, that’s what they call it. It’s a beautiful place. You wouldn’t think that if you walked down the Boulevard, which frankly is a shithole: a four-lane piece of beaten-up asphalt with used car lots and overhead electricity cables. A couple of blocks down from the entrance to the cemetery, there’s a Chinese food supermarket and on the other side of the road, empty-looking sand-coloured office buildings with no windows.
That’s the thing with Americans, isn’t it? They’re not sentimental, not like us Brits, drooling over some piece of the past we’ve misremembered. Just because there’s a fucking gorgeous cemetery with Rudolph Valentino and Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland buried here, it doesn’t mean they have to make the street outside look nice. They don’t care. You want to go see the cemetery? Take a cab.
But once you’re through the gates, it’s different. The sprinklers keep the lush trimmed green lawns in emerald health and there’s a silence here which calms me down. If you stand on one of the roadways inside the cemetery and look back out through the other gates, you can see the Hollywood sign up there in the hills, the wonky white lettering gazing down on the dead.
I’ve been coming here for a few weeks now. I take a cab from Downtown and I sit in the traffic on the overhead freeway thinking about what to do about them. I never know what I’m going to do about them, so I end up here walking around the gravestones.
If I don’t work out what to do about them…Anyway, that’s why I started coming up here, to the cemetery. It’s the closest I’m going to get to an estate agent’s now. I was going to buy a nice plot, except I can’t afford a plot, so it had to be one of those weird little crypts in the mausoleum, the ones with the glass front and the stuff inside. They’re pretty cheap. They can burn me, put me in a nice urn.
OK, let’s walk down this path. Neat gravel and the edges of the grass on either side have been cut very nicely. Who’s that? Leonard B Ravelstein. 1922-2001. Good long life, Leonard. Doesn’t say much on the stone about him. Had a loving wife and was a great father and grandfather. What did he do? Something to do with the movies, lots of them were. Maybe not though. Maybe Leonard was in insurance. Maybe he escaped the Nazis and came over here before the war and walked up and down the streets in old Los Angeles knocking on doors and selling insurance policies. Good for you, Leonard. I bet you didn’t owe anyone a dime when you died.
Marjorie Blatsky. Hello Marjorie. Phyllis Stoops. Bernard de la Reine. What kind of name is that, Bernie? Do you try and lord it over your neighbours here, with your de la Reine thing? I don’t think Phyllis is impressed. George Nash. George was in the movies, look: ‘And cut!’ Very funny, George. You must have been a wag on the set. Were you as funny when you got home? I hope so.
I haven’t been funny for quite some time. Or maybe I have. Americans use that word differently. Back in London, if you were funny, it meant you cracked jokes outside the pub before you got the late train back home to some Godforsaken semi-detached house in Surrey. In LA, funny is different: funny is like being a wiseguy. Funny means not on the level. I was never funny in London, but I’m funny now.
The palm trees line the edge of the cemetery and their leaves stand out against the blue sky like a line of eyebrows looking down on me. It’s hot, there’s hardly anyone here in this midday heat. There’s a fat Chinese woman cleaning dead leaves off a stone just over there. Is it her husband? Her sister? Or is she paid to do that? Even when the old sod died, she still has to go and clean up. There’s a couple over the other side posing by the Joey Ramone gravestone, the one with the statue of him standing over it with his guitar.
If I’m honest, I don’t even really remember London. Ten years now I’ve been here. Never been back. You can disappear, you know, if you really need to. Why don’t I disappear again? Because I can’t this time. They won’t let me.
Gareth Fishburn. Weird name. ‘Left for a greater adventure.’ You sure about that Gareth? I hope so. Donald Bright. My Dad was called Donald. He and my Mum are side by side in a grave in Yorkshire. I’ve made him turn a few times over the years, I suppose. Flipped Dad over, round and round, but there’s nothing he could do about it, stuck inside that freezing Yorkshire mud, trying to mouth insults at me through the cheap wood of his coffin.
It won’t be long. I know that.
Here’s the mausoleum. Front door’s always open when I come here. It’s very grand but honestly, the prices were pretty good. When you stand inside, it looks impressive, the long parallel lines of glass-fronted crypts stretching down the never-ending corridor. I think they shot a movie in here, some horror thing.
It’s quiet. My footsteps echo on the cream-coloured marble floor. Who’s in here? Daisy Fortune. Haven’t seen you before Daisy. You sound great. She’s got a brass urn in the little box behind the glass, and a pair of ballet shoes. Dancer, Daisy. Good for you. I bet you were cute. I bet there was just one thing that you always wanted to do and that was to dance and you went ahead and that’s exactly what you did. Now you’ve hung up your shoes.
Bit further. What’s that up there? Someone’s actually put a teddy bear in with their urn. That’s a bit sad, isn’t it? It doesn’t even look that old. Oh, kid died aged twelve. That explains it. That’s no good for people, is it, kid dying at that age? Then you’ve got no-one to mourn you, when you go. No-one at all.
Here we are. I’m pleased with it, actually. My crypt. I bought a ten-year lease. That’ll do. After that, they can just take the urn out and kick the ash into the gravel on the driveway. But ten years here, with everyone, hanging out. That’ll be nice. There’s no name on mine, they said I couldn’t have a name until I’m actually using it. But I’ve had my urn put in there, empty at the moment, and after a lot of discussion – they kept saying it wasn’t usual, whatever that means – they’ve let me leave a couple of things. I told them that I couldn’t be sure the undertakers would remember, so I wanted to make sure. Anyway I won, so there’s my gold signet ring which I took off a couple of weeks ago and put inside together with a little black and white photo of Ricky, my dog. Someone will look after him, he’ll be OK. And I’ll like having him there with me.
Last week I went to see the premiere of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which was followed by a Q and A with the director. As interviewer Mark Kermode elicited from him during the post-film conversation, this is probably the film of which Jackson (Lord of the Rings etc) is most proud.
The technical achievement alone was remarkable. He gave insights into some of the feats: employing lipreaders to work out what soldiers in the 1914-18 Imperial War Museum footage were actually saying so that contemporary actors could overdub; Jackson himself locating the original script of a battle instruction in a library in the Midlands; the painstaking colourisation work carried out by an American team aligned with the justification of so many different film speeds in the originals.
The film manages like nothing else ever seen about the war to humanise it, to give identity to the men who fought, died and survived. And one of the most fascinating insights, which again Jackson concentrated on in his talk, was the theme running through so many of the survivors’ testimonies: not only had they looked forward to going to war, but many of them actively enjoyed the whole experience. One described it “like being on a camping trip although with a little more danger thrown in”.
When the survivors returned home in 1918 (and Jackson points out that the million who died were not able to give their own postwar testimonies) they found a country largely embarrassed by their presence, neighbours and workmates and families who simply didn’t want to hear their stories of bloodshed and horror.
But the fact remains that many of them did look back on their experiences with what one can only call nostalgia. For those years as they survived together, they lived a life which gave them meaning, direction, hope. Back in 1982 when I was reading the submissions pile for publishers Robert Hale, I used to read endless autobiographies of men who had served in World War Two. I suppose at that time, many of them were hitting retirement and so wished to set down their memories. The same theme ran through all of those autobiographies: the men – and we are obviously talking about men – who served in the Second World War looked back on the existential freedom which war provided them with a huge sense of loss. Some admitted in their typescripts to horrific levels of violence on the battlefield but none evinced the slightest sense of regret. All clearly saw their war years as the time when they most felt alive and all to a greater or lesser extent struggled to match that sense in the years that followed.
This contrasts significantly to the fascinating descriptions in Max Hastings’ new history of Vietnam, which I’m just getting to the end of, where he describes the breakdown in discipline amongst the American troops from about 1969 on. Amidst a blur of cannabis, heroin and booze, American men began to turn on their own officers, killing them with grenades and fragmentation bombs as the nightmare of that country’s involvement in Vietnam staggered to its inevitable and tragic end. American men didn’t come home from Vietnam in the early ’70s with any kind of regret, they came home confused and angry, so much so that the wounds from Vietnam in America’s politics have yet even to begin to heal.
Perhaps WWI and WWII were the last conflicts which still took place within a social ethos of obedience, respect for authority and straightforward patriotism. It remains fascinating and shocking, watching Jackson’s brilliant film, to see and hear for the first time how men could regret the passing of a war.
Just got to the end, exhausted, of Alfred Lansing’s 1959 account of Shackleton’s 1914-16 Imperial TransAntarctic Expedition which ended up with the famous and quite improbable rescue of his men after a 650-mile sail on the meagre James Caird to seek help. I listened to it in the car, read very ably by Simon Prebble.
There are so many things to take from this never-to-be-repeated adventure, or folly, depending on your viewpoint. Shackleton himself was an extraordinary character: ambitious and materialistic on land, heroic on water. He left a wake of failed businesses after his death and never seemed able to control his impetuous nature; indeed, many have subsequently accused him of endangering the lives of his men by ignoring the advice of the Antarctic whalermen who urged him to wait a season before setting off to cross the polar continent, as the ice in 1914 was the worst in living memory.
But having brought his men to the freezing edge of mortality, his heroism and leadership qualities thereafter ensured that not one of them would die. It simply beggars belief but the faith he inspired in them was so strong that they all believed he would save them.
Endurance left Plymouth on the 8th August 1914; on 27th October 2015, Shackleton ordered his men to abandon ship and as they set up camp on the ice that had trapped the vessel, they watched with horror as the monstrous slabs closed in and crushed the boat. The bulk of the men were not rescued until August 2016 – they survived for almost a year by living on seal and penguin meat.
Throughout the ordeal, with one or two very minor exceptions, his 28 crew never once complained nor did they fall into gloom, despondency or despair. In fact, their diaries – which Lansing makes much use of in his brilliant book – display an unwavering optimism, often illustrating a jaunty delight in the challenges which they faced.
I was telling a friend of mine about how remarkable the attitude of those men was. He, a retired Army officer, looked at me with surprise and said, ‘Well, it’s not good to whinge, is it?’
I’ve been listening to Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho on Audible, read with a nice intensity by Nick Landrum. It would be interesting to debate on the different approaches to the novel, ie between reading it and hearing it; I found Landrum’s reading of it to be pretty much as I think I would have experienced it as a reader.
Anyways, onto the book. I’ve wondered about this book for years, having nudged into it here and there in the zeitgest but never having read it. I found it fascinating.
First off, Ellis is a great writer. Let’s just get that down; hearing his pleasure in language is a genuine joy. He’s a great writer.
So why did I stop listening after the first third and instead sneak over to Wikipedia to read the plot outline? Fundamentally because a brave and intelligent and skilful and in many ways beautiful interrogation of what it meant to be alive in the late ’80s is actually really dull. First off, there are no characters; I defy you to pick out Courtney or Macdermot or Evelyn or all the others from the most basic of NYPD identity parades – you just can’t tell the difference between any of them, because Ellis isn’t interested in any of them.
Second, in order to accentuate the psycho in American Psycho, Ellis – because he has chosen that first person narrator model which postmodern lit crits will tell you at creative writing classes is the only serious way to go – has to give us lists. Lists of clothing designers, lists of music genres (he has the immense good humour and grace to tell us in a later interview that his editor hated the chapter on Genesis albums), lists of workout regimes. Like, yeah, I get it, he’s a psycho.
So for me, the novel fails. In saying that, I feel slightly like I’ve turned into that weird Irish guy on X Factor, dismissing a pale and ineffectual German entrant called Franz Kafka for coming on and writing a story about a fucking spider. Come on Franz, entertain us!
But inherent in American Psycho – and perhaps this is where Ellis’s brilliance really lies – is the inherent death of the Western novel, which began in the 16th century when Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. Perhaps that’s really what Patrick Bateman was slashing to a bloody mess with his axe: the English novel.
On a recent sail down from Plymouth to Newlyn (supposedly en route for the Scillies, but that idea was scotched by 55mph winds bringing the heatwave to an end) I read Sir Francis Chichester’s memoir of his solo race across the Atlantic in 1960, the race he won on Gypsy Moth III.
What a story and what a man. He took to sailing late in life and was in his 60s by the time he attempted this race. The man’s immense practicality, stamina and resourcefulness is quite remarkable, particularly viewed from today’s perspective. On our sail last week, it was easy for us to reef in the foresail when the wind got stronger, because the rolling reef system just lets you pull on a rope. On Gypsy Moth, Chichester had to get up in the middle of the night, crawl on deck, take down the foresail, roll it up, bring out a different-sized one, put that up, and an hour and a half later go back downstairs to bed.
He suffers from seasickness so is often to be found skipping supper and opting instead for a large glass of whisky and two SeaLegs tablets. He has three crates of Guinness on board which provide his lunchtime beverage and in classic solo sailer style, he anthropomorphises various items on his boat, particularly the redoubtable Miranda who is his self-steering mechanism which he built himself before leaving Plymouth.
If ever there was a book to inspire you to keep on keeping on, it’s this. Pithy, entirely lacking in any kind of self pity or regret and full of excellent humour, it’s a delight from start to finish.
Two additional pleasure on this short trip: one the sunrise in the east at 5.40am as we sailed westwards past Fowey which followed the equally beautiful moonset an hour before in the west.
The second was finding Frenchman’s Creek in the Helford River estuary, the creek made famous of course by Daphne du Maurier. As I walked down the overgrown path towards the creek itself, with branches creating a roof for the path and huge tree roots lying exposed in the mud of the creek itself, it reminded me what a brilliant storyteller she was: the place looked precisely as she had described it in her great novel about the dashing French pirate and the independent English gentlewoman.
So on we go, ploughing through the novels first read about a million years ago. Like with Death Of The Heart, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 has been an Audiobook experience, listened to up and down the motorway between London and Cornwall the last few months.
As usual, credit to the inexhaustible narrator, this time @mrtrevorwhite. Boy, did he have his work cut out. But his subtle depictions of Colonel Cathcart, Aarfy, Milo, Yossarian and all the rest are truly memorable, and worth way more than the ticket price.
Anyway, on to the book. It’s a reminder of so many things. Firstly, the sheer incomprehension of the nature of war, as memorable now as ever it must have been since first publication in 1961. The skilful elision of brute and inhumane bureaucratic process with the daily imposition of death. The fantastical but probably not as unlikely as one might think speculations on the potential for the Great American Dream (in economic terms) to invade the military machine: remember, this was published in 1961 and joked about Milo Minderbinder bombing his own troops because the diktats of the market required him to do so – hmm, what might Richard Branson’s Virgin empire be prepared to do in the name of privatising previously publicly-owned assets?
So if anything, the novel pleased me more than I might have hoped, the endless repetition of key dialogue tropes – “You bastard!” “What? I can’t hear you?” “I said, You Bastard!” “I still can’t hear you.” ad delightfully infinitum – creating a compulsively dream-like world where horror and humour live together. Snowdon, the dying rear gunner who features so strongly in the film version with Alan Arkin memorably as Yossarian, here features more profoundly as a brief and horribly tragic ghost.
It is, without question, one of the great novels. Inevitably it must have been a collaborative process with Robert Gottlieb’s editorial team at Simon and Schuster working long hours with Heller to shape the final version. And in many ways, the final published novel could still have been edited further, with its payoff at the end of the revelation of Orr’s escape to Sweden and Yossarian’s frankly weak final commitment to escape himself delivering a watered-down ending to such a magnificent work.
But it’s there. And in the week when Phillip Roth died – could he have even considered Portnoy’s Complaint had it not been for Heller? – it’s worth both remembering the greatness of Catch 22, its author Joseph Heller and the importance of paying appropriate respects to a 20th century masterpiece.