Roger Lewis is easily the most accomplished critical biographer in living memory – if not (who can say?) ever. Critical biography is a fascinating genre. Straight-up biography is hard enough – almost by definition, famous people tend to leave behind a mountain of material that must be sifted through to determine a more-or-less objective notion of “the facts” of their life story. The biographer then builds on this to arrive at more subjective assessments as to character and virtue (or lack thereof).
The critical biographer has to make good on both those fronts but must also engage on a third: an artist’s output. And of course the added twist here is that the potential audience for a work of critical biography has often formed an affection for its subject thanks largely to their appreciation of the artist’s best work.
In other words, in a critical biography, the potential for upsetting readers is magnified many times over. If the subject is a screen star, you face an even more troublesome task because our film and television industries are absolutely riddled with shits, bastards and C-words. And nobody really cares to talk about that very much.
That’s one of the ways in which Roger Lewis is exceptional: he rarely flinches from telling it like it is. My favourite Lewis book is The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, published in 1994. Sellars was a right piece of work, rare in the show-business world in that he ticked all three boxes – he was a shit, a bastard and a complete and utter C-word.
Lewis gives us chapter and verse; but he’s also lyrically generous about the best of Sellars’ work. Here he is, reminding us of the charms of The Smallest Show on Earth.
As the story of a crumbling pleasure palace, the Bijou Kinema, its fate and its inhabitants, The Smallest Show on Earth neatly encapsulates the themes of stopped clocks and revenants that I’ve been running off at the mouth about in this chapter. Sellars plays Percy Quill, the projectionist, and he’s one-of-three alongside the veteran Bernard Miles, as Old Tom, the commissionaire, and Margaret Rutherford, as Mrs Fazackalee, the pit pianist during the silent movie days, and now the lady in the box office. The plot, in which Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers inherit the fleapit from an unseen shag called Great Uncle Simon, and do their best to flog it to developers who’ll pull it down and build a car park, need not detain us long…
Luckily, we can look behind and beyond… to take in the true star of the film – the Bijou itself. Whether or not the original audiences, back in the Fifties, were meant to agree that it’s a derelict and worthless place, that’s not how it comes across now. It is a tiny, lost Edwardian paradise, tucked under a railway arch, wreathed in smoke and brimstone from the passing trains. The cinema, a domed and ornate Moorish temple, with barley sugar pillars and gloomy framed pictures of forgotten idols from the infancy of the flicks, seems cut out by scissors from the shadows and black air. “It was a theatre way back; then a music hall; then an electric theatre,” Mr Quill and his cohorts explain; and they are the resident spooks.
The cinema is an architectural fantasia, like Mrs Wilberforce’s villa in The Ladykillers. The mouldering rooms and out-of-kilter staircases, the horn gramophones and fancy gasoliers, the chipped tracery and plaster cherubs falling off the sloping ceilings, link up with [the near-contemporary Ealing comedy] The Titfield Thunderbolt. The puff-puffs, in The Titfield Thunderbolt, are also vehicles of nostalgia; the branch line, threatened with closure by British Rail, is an enclave of whimsy and vanishing Englishness. The ancient locomotives, rattling across the countryside, are large versions of a child’s toy train set, or Rowland Emett’s cartoons sprung to life. In The Smallest Show on Earth, Mr Quill’s projection booth is the footplate of a choo-choo or the bridge of a ferry boat. As he gets increasingly crotchety over the capricious levers and knobs, popping light bulbs and clanking magic lanterns, Sellers’ character feels the need to take sustaining nips from a whisky bottle. The cracked lenses, mis-matched canisters of film and lost spools are the little cinema’s equivalent of a senior citizen’s decrepitude, hearing impairment and dimming eyes; Quill adores his equipment as he would if nursing his own dotard of a relative. He is the only person in the world who can keep this junk going. He is married to it…
In The Smallest Show on Earth, Quill, Fazackalee and Old Tom don’t walk in and out of their scenes and cubby holes; they seem to shimmer, disembodied, from the other side of mottled mirrors; they are at one with the dust and flecks of paint and shadowy alcoves… When the Express whistles across the viaduct, Quill’s apparatus has a seizure; he has to hang on to the flapping projector and humour life back into the dials and gauges. The celluloid snaps and what patrons there are left in the stalls go home in disgust. Quill puts on a record of the national anthem and stands to attention, quite alone. On his way back to his digs, he does a little skip in the street – a silly, perfect detail. Late at night, on another occasion, the three old eccentrics, having the place [almost] to themselves, watch a silent movie, Cecil Hepworth’s Comin’ Through the Rye, of 1916. Margaret Rutherford strums Chopin at the piano, Bernard Miles, on his own in the stalls, strokes the Bijou’s cat and Sellers, transfixed, moves out of the darkness to explain what’s afoot to [a] young couple, who realise they’ve blundered in on magic – “classics, you might say,” says Quill, with tears in his eyes. The caption on the screen in front of him says: When you return this rye will be harvested, and this field as empty as your heart.
Over the last few weeks, many people have been sharing their feelings about their dear departed friend Lou Reed. And now, with the first wave of tribute books arriving just in time for the Christmas market, I feel my own (quite natural) reluctance to participate finally withering away.
I was introduced to Lou Reed by a girl at university. She was called Jordan. Sort of. During the first week of the first term of her first year, she revealed (to her small but rapidly-growing circle of friends) her intention to discard the name she had been given by her parents and to rename herself after one of the characters in The Great Gatsby.
This name-change wasn’t a statement about sexual orientation. She (the Jordan I knew, that is) wasn’t a lesbian. Jordan was always popular with members of the opposite sex. Not that this proves anything, of course. Nor am I hinting here at any form of disapproval of lesbianism. Not in any way, shape or form. Jordan, though, did not wear brogues. Not that there is anything wrong with brogues. And come to think of it, I can’t recall her exact taste in footwear.
Anyway. Jordan was terribly popular because there was a nice sort of mischief about her. Something slightly dangerous, something slightly rebellious, something irrepressible. One spring term she went so far as to wear a French-style beret everywhere she went, held in place at a jaunty angle by a hairpin. This at a time when few young women wore any sort of hat.
As I say, she introduced me to Lou (if I may be excused this affectation of familiarity). The unforgettable encounter I’m recalling came in the corridor just outside the college library. I was exiting the library; she was loitering there as if waiting for someone.
“Hello!” I said.
One of the most endearing things about Jordan was the way she would sometimes affect to be bored with you and look straight through you, blanking you entirely when you went up to her. And yet, of course, even her silence was devastatingly charming.
On this occasion I persisted. “I noticed you weren’t at the Milton lecture this morning.”
She again said nothing – though I could see I had set her thinking.
“I do hope you have not been ill.”
At this point she gave me a strangely quizzical look and was clearly about to reply with vehemence; but she thought better of this and, instead, said rather wearily: “I was bored. If you must know, I went into town and bought a record.
“Oh,” I replied. “Who by?”
“Oh, I say,” I said. “And what is his record called?”
I’m sure she must have told me… but at this great distance in time, this particular detail escapes me. But isn’t that just the way of it?
It will be pointed out to me, I’m sure, that I am not the world’s most natural Lou Reed fan. Bach is certainly more my thing – and I’d also concede, if pushed, that I have never expressed much enthusiasm in the past for pop music of any sort. It might also be inferred that, if it came down to it, I’d be hard-pushed to identify anything from the Reed ouvre.
I’d counter by insisting that this insinuation is far from fair. I found out recently, for instance, that the song featured in the BBC’s much-feted Perfect Day promotion of a decade or more ago was a Reed composition – and I believe he actually appeared briefly in the video. I also believe that he had a record in the Hit Parade in 1973.
But this is all really by-the-by.
I am drawn, time and again, to recall that chance meeting with Jordan in a university corridor, a meeting now etched on my memory, a true meeting (as I realised only belatedly) of minds. A meeting, in short, when I was first enabled, instinctively and yet profoundly, to appreciate Lou Reed’s sheer humanity. And of course the almost savage power of his raw creativity.
I knew then that he was a genius.
And later, that evening, alone in the privacy of my digs, I surely wept.
There. It’s all out now.
A number of Lou Reed appreciations are available for purchase this pre-Christmas, including the profoundly moving Lou Reed: The Life by Mick Wall. There has also been a second wave of moving tributes in newspapers, including this heart-wrenching piece in the Observer. Lou Reed died in October following a protracted struggle with euphemism. He is survived by his wife, Laura Ashley.
Forget 5 and 15 17ths per cent. The awesome number here is 43, the number of seconds between the devastation of 1:55 and the renewed optimism of 2:38.
And this, of course, is the line that closes the deal on the sequel, arguably Hollywood’s greatest unmade masterpiece:
“Frankly sir, I’d like to have you along. You’re a man of nice judgement and many resources.”
The bed has been the scene of many activities other than sleep, love, birth or death; they range from mere authorship to such oddities as making bread or milking cows. Authors who have written in bed include Cicero, Horace, the Plinys, Milton (it is largely in bed that the “old blind schoolmaster hath written a marvellous tale, all about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden,” and there “at what hour soever, he rung for his daughter to secure what came”), Swift (with a bedside fire), Rousseau, Voltaire (of whom a striking portrait shows him still dictating while dressing), Gray, Pope, Trollope, Mark Twain, Stevenson, Proust, Winston Churchill, and Edith Sitwell (“but that,” says the housekeeper who gives the fact to the press, “is supposed to be a secret”). Hogg, in his Life of Shelley, records that “a fussy, foolish little fellow, a banker in a country town” told him that much of Wordsworth’s poetry was written in total darkness, in bed. “Any man who can write verses in the dark must be a genuine poet,” added the banker. Shelley heard of this feat, and tried it, but he usually lost his pencil, or his paper, or both, and the results were illegible.
Elinor Glyn, urgently needing £1000 to meet a rash IOU, given by her husband, contracted to write a 90,000 novel in three weeks – not the novel of that name – and took to bed. Fortified with coffee and brandy, she wrote all day and most of the night, with the haunting IOU lying on her bed-table. She finished the job in eighteen days, and lay back exhausted… Max Beerbohm no doubt wrote in bed, for did he not say that his ideal of happiness was a four-poster in a field of poppies? As for the artists: Fantin-Latour would draw in bed, wearing his overcoat and scarf and top hat, as we know because Whistler has so depicted him. GK Chesterton, himself no mean draughtsman, has said that lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.
Extract from Warm and Snug. The History of the Bed by Lawrence Wright, 1962.
If you hang around for long enough in disreputably bookish circles, you’ll almost inevitably bump into someone who believes (or professes to believe) that A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys is one of the 20th century’s greatest forgotten literary masterpieces.
Here, for instance, is AN Wilson, in a feature on lost classics, published on 4 December 2013, in The Daily Telegraph. “It remains a source of bafflement to me,” he avers, “that John Cowper Powys, author of A Glastonbury Romance, Maiden Castle, Wolf Solent and Weymouth Sands – four of the greatest novels ever written in any language – are not on every university syllabus, up there with Ulysses and The Brothers Karamazov*.”
No wonder AN Wilson is baffled. Indeed, more than baffled. This, surely, is a scandalous state of affairs.
And yet, without wishing to appear immodest, I believe I may be in a position to set AN Wilson’s mind at rest.
A Glastonbury Romance is a book that’s terribly hard to love. Sorry… but it’s just not a classic, forgotten or otherwise. It really isn’t. And indeed the forgotten half of the proposition is just as misleading as the classic bit.
Despite being praised fulsomely by some reviewers when it was published in 1933, it disappeared without much of a trace soon after. Its immediate fortunes weren’t even helped when it became embroiled in legal action in 1934. Not all publicity, it turns out, is good publicity.
It gives me no pleasure to say this. Anyone familiar with the tight parameters proscribed for 21st Century belles lettres will read with growing disbelief the sprawling quirkiness of JCP’s prose. He has a wonderfully distinctive style. For that alone he should be celebrated.
Sadly, it turns out that JCP, the son of a vicar, feels rather too keenly the metaphysical forces coursing through the universe. This is no great fault in and of itself. DH Lawrence’s writing is infused with these forces too. It’s just that, with JCP, these forces are terribly overwhelming. They are the be-all and the end-all.
It’s safe to say that his audience in the 1930s had, at its hard core, the sorts of mystical, evangelical Christians whose imaginations were fired by locally-hybridised mythologies. Mythologies like, say, the legend of Joseph of Arimathea.
It was a small but not entirely insignificant audience. After all, metaphysical posturing was cultishly fashionable – witness the 1936 publication (and the critical appraisals it accrued) of Burnt Norton, the first of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. Or think of Stanley Spencer’s murals.
But it’s also fair to say that A Glastonbury Romance would be languishing in utter obscurity now were it not for the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
New Agers (the grandsons and granddaughers of the mystical Christians of the 1930s) reverenced Glastonbury as a confluence of ley lines – and could be persuaded to buy into anything with Glastonbury in the title, including a half-baked West Country pop festival cobbled together on an ailing dairy farm.
This vaguely-understood phenomenon prompted Picador to include A Glastonbury Romance in its 1975 catalogue and it featured prominently in its distinctive carousels (most notably in University and counterculture book shops) for the next decade.
It sold tolerably well. But sadly for JCP’s literary reputation, few of those who bought the Picador paperback actually finished the book. Partly because it’s 1120 pages long. But mainly for another more cogent reason. It’s shockingly hard going.
The book ends (after the human drama has been concluded, so I’m probably not spoiling too much of the plot here) with a vision of the birth of the goddess Cybele, who slithers out of the Timeless and into our life and times, destined to uphold the cause of the unseen against the seen: “Thus she abides; her Towers forever rising, forever vanishing. Never or Always.”
And yet, because, when you’re dealing with metaphysics, endings are, in a very real sense, a bit like beginnings, we’ll end by quoting from page one. This, dear reader, is the opening sentence of what AN Wilson would have you believe is one of the greatest novels ever written:
At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause which always occur when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe.
I rest my case.
(* I risk public ridicule by pointing out that one of these two titles is also vastly over-rated. And, indeed, rather unread: though, admittedly, not quite to the same degree as A Glastonbury Romance. It’s also worth noting that Ulysses finds it way onto few English literature degree courses. Even when it does, it tends to be taught in partially-masticated bite-sized chunks.)