Best of 2021

FILMS

After Love : Aleem Khan
Copilot : Anne Zohra Berrached
Limbo : Ben Sharrock
Never Gonna Snow Again : Małgorzata Szumowska
Nomadland : Chloe Zhao
Petite Maman : Celine Sciamma
Power of the Dog : Jane Campion

BOOKS :

A Ghost in the Throat : Doireann Ni Ghriofa
Fidelity : Susan Glaspell (First published, 1915)
Jack : Marilynne Robinson
Lean. Fall. Stand. : Jon McGregor
That Old Country Music : Kevin Barry
The Night Always Comes : Willy Vlautin
The Night Watchman : Louise Erdrich
Real Estate : Deborah Levy
Scratched – A Memoir of Perfectionism : Elizabeth Tallent
The Vanishing Half : Brit Bennett

POETRY :

Magnetic Field – The Marsden Poems : Simon Armitage
Country Music : Will Burns
Learning to Sleep : John Burnside
New Hunger : Ella Duffy
If You Want Thunder : Ruth Valentine
The Last Dinosaur in Doncaster : Sarah Wimbush

ART :

Mohamed Bourouissa : Goldsmiths CCA
Helen FrankenthalerImagining Landscapes : Gagosian Grosvenor Hill
Helen FrankenthalerRadical Beauty : Dulwich Picture Gallery
Margaret Mellis Modernist Constructs : Towner Eastbourne
John Nash : The Landscape of Love & Solace : Towner Eastbourne
Ben NicholsonFrom the Studio : Pallant House
Wim WendersPhotographing Ground Zero : IWM
Breaking the MouldSculpture by Women since 1945 : Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham


“The Maltese Falcon” 80 Years On

It seems not just unlikely but a little crazy that after 80 years [Yes, 80. Count ‘em] John Huston’s film version of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, re-released by the BFI, should be as absorbing and, in its portrayal of characters caught up in a maelstrom of sex, violence and betrayal, recognisable today. Only the stakes and the levels of betrayal have changed.

Huston wrote the script, sticking very closely to the original, so that much of the dialogue is more or less straight from the novel; one thing that is different, of course, what the film adds, is the fleshing out of the supporting characters – and in Sydney Greenstreet’s Kaspar Gutman, often filmed from below to emphasise his impressive girth, fleshing out is the appropriate term. He and his co-conspirator, Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, seem never to have quite decided if they are playing comedy or something altogether more dangerous and sinister, and its greatly to the benefit of the film that they manage both, simultaneously. 

Sydney Greenstreet & Peter Lorre

Their other function is to offset the stubborn seriousness of Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, who, through it all and despite the temptations of Mary Astor’s femme fatale and a share of the wealth the Falcon represents, stays true to his code. 

“When a man’s partner gets killed you’re supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when of your organisation gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organisation, bad for detectives everywhere.”

And Hammett should know: he worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency before turning to writing.

The lines above are delivered to Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whom Spade is convinced was responsible for murdering his partner, Miles Archer, whose body was found in an alley after being shot at close range.

“Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years experience as a detective to be caught like that by the man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was as dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb. …. But he’d have gone up there with you angel … He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”

Mary Astor & Humphrey Bogart

When, with increasing desperation, Mary Astor/Brigid attempts to use his feelings for her, his attraction to her, as the means for letting her, literally, get away with murder, he is adamant that whatever those feelings might be, he is neither going to be taken for granted, nor made a fool of.  “I won’t play the sap for you,” he says. “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it.” And, with macabre humour, “I hope they don’t hang you, angel, by that sweet neck.”

In the film’s final scenes, Brigid is taken into the lift by the police and we move to a close-up of her face behind the bars of the lift’s inner door, before the outer door closes, shutting her deeper inside and as the lift begins to descend – she’s, literally, going down, Bogart/Spade walks past towards the stairs with the Falcon in his arms.

If I do have a problem with the film, it’s quite believing in the Bogart/Astor relationship. David Thomson [no less] says “it’s the love story that is riveting” and refers to a “lovely crisscross of screwball and noir”, whereas it seems to me that description is far more accurate if applied to the other famous Bogart private eye film from the forties, Howard Hawk’s 1946 version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, built as it is around the relationship between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which was first revealed on screen two years earlier in the same director’s To Have and Have Not

Here Bogart’s hero, Philip Marlowe, is as hard-headed and hard-hearted as Sam Spade where necessary – towards the film’s climax, and without compunction, he sends the gambler Eddie Mars off to a certain death at the hands of his own gunmen – but he’s also portrayed as someone who can charm the birds out of the trees and, in the famouses bookstore scene, the glasses from Dorothy Malone’s nose. And the scenes between Bogart and Bacall are brilliant examples of sex by inference and innuendo – each one sparking back and forth against the other. Look, speak but don’t – quite – touch. At least, not until the director has called ‘Cut!”

Best of 2020

BOOKS

Fiction / Non-Fiction

Stand By Me : Wendell Berry
The Falconer : Dana Czapnik
Some Kids I  Taught and  What They Taught Me : Kate Clanchy
All Among the Barley : Melissa Harrison
Long Bright River : Liz Moore
Olive, Again : Elizabeth Strout

Re-reading …

Anne Enright
Kent Haruf
Thomas McGuane

Poetry

Country Music : Will Burns
When the Tree Falls : Jane Clarke
New Hunger : Ella Duffy
Yes But What Is This? What Exactly? : Ian McMillan
How I Learned to Sing : Mark Robinson
Sweet Nothings : Rory Waterman
Squid : Matthew Welton

FILMS

The Perfect Candidate : Haifaa Al-Mansour
Rocks : Sarah Gavron
The County : Grimur Hakonarson
Da 5 Bloods : Spike Lee
A  White,  White Day : Hlynur Palmason 
Portrait of a Lady on Fire : Celine Sciamma
So Long, My Son : Wang Xiaoshuai

MUSIC

Albums

From An Old Guitar : Dave Alvin
Ballads : Paula Cole
Time : Jess Gillam
Piano 2 : Pete Judge
Bach, Goldberg Variations : Pavel Kolesnikov
Monk – Palo Alto : Thelonious Monk
Winter Hill : Liz Simcock
Avenging Angel : Craig Taborn

Tracks

The Oil Rigs at Night : The Delines
All in the Past : Dave Ellis & Boo Howard
Straight Back To You : Everything But the Girl
Angry All the Time : Tim McGraw
Inside : Bill Morrissey
Wichita : Gretchen Peters
Angels & Acrobats : Rod Picott
You Tattooed Me : Tom Robinson
Old Chunk Of Coal : Billy Joe Shaver
Flowers on Valentine’s Day : Liz Simcock
Sister Mercy : John Stewart
Tryin’ To Hold the Wind Up With a Sail : Jerry Jeff Walker

Resnick on Radio …

I’ve always relished the opportunity to write for radio, whether adapting another writer’s work – I’ve been fortunate enough to be let loose on such as Graham Greene, A. S. Byatt and Paul Scott – or dramatising my own. The process of reducing a novel or short story to its essentials before beginning the process of building them up again in a different form is a task I’ve always enjoyed. A task for which I was unknowingly prepared by all those grammar school English lessons in which we were called upon to summarise a longer and usually very dull piece of writing into something succinct that captured its essence – the art, in other words, of précis. [I doubt, nowadays, if even the idea of it is allowed through the school gates. Though I’d like to be proved wrong.]

Having stripped the story down to its bare bones, its skeleton, the next task is to build it up again in a manner which does as much justice as possible to the original author’s style and intention; a task which, a certain amount of voice over narration and the occasional internal monologue aside, is achieved almost entirely through dialogue. Dialogue which has the function of revealing character and situation while propelling the story forward.

Where bringing Resnick to the radio is concerned, I was fortunate to work throughout with an experienced and sympathetic producer, David Hunter. We began in 1995 with a 2 part dramatisation of the fifth Resnick novel, Wasted Years, and then, a year later, a triple episode version of the third novel, Cutting Edge. Slow Burn, broadcast in 1998, was from an original two-part script, set in and around a Nottingham jazz club and later published as a short story, and this was followed in 2001 and 2002 by two single plays, Cheryl and Bird of Paradise.

All in all, a fair run, and Radio 4 Extra has been generous in lining them up for not infrequent repeats. Cheryl, in fact, is due to be heard again on Friday, October 30th. And they are all, as from today, October 22nd, available as an Audio Download from BBC Audio with the added attraction (?) of my stint as a guest on Radio 3’s Private Passions.

Quite frequently, repeat broadcasts bring forth a small flurry of questions. The theme song in Wasted Years, for instance: who is the singer and where can I get hold of a copy? And why on earth are there so many different Resnicks?

Last things first. in 1992/3, Tom Wilkinson had played Resnick in the televised adaptations of the first two books – Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment – that were produced by Colin Rogers of Deco Films & TV for the BBC, and he seemed the perfect choice to continue in the role on radio. After Wasted Years, he was pencilled in for its radio sequel, Cutting Edge, but film work interceded and the role went to Tom Georgeson, who was familiar with the character, having played one of a pair of cat burglars in the TV version of Rough Treatment

[Keeping up so far … ?]

Phillip Jackson, complete with authentic East Midlands accent, was Resnick in Slow Burn, followed three years later by Keith Barron, who played Charlie in both Cheryl and Bird of Paradise, reuniting in the first of those with his sparring partner from the long-running television sitcom, Duty Free – the wonderful Gwen Taylor.

Which brings us, finally, to the music in Wasted Years. The lyric and melody were written by the fine folk singer, Liz Simcock, whose demo was the basis for the version heard on the programme, which, appropriately, is sung by Gillian Bevan who plays the singer Ruth Strange.

Wallander, Mankel and Me … a footnote

A quick follow-up to my previous post about re-watching the two series based upon Henning Mankel’s Wallander novels.

At the same time as the second series, featuring Kenneth Branagh, was being made, I was approached by BBC Scotland to see if I would be interested in presenting a documentary examining the world-wide success of Mankel’s novels and the popularity of their central character, both in print and on screen.

Hmm, I thought … a trip to Ystad in southern Sweden, where the stories are set and where Branagh was filming, along with a couple of days in Stockholm and, hopefully, the opportunity of interviewing the rather reclusive Mankel at his home in Gothenburg … why not? I knew the novels quite well and liked them a great deal, admiring Mankel as a socially conscious writer whose strong political values underscored his fiction without it ever coming close to propaganda.

Who is Kurt Wallander? was shown on BBC Four to coincide with the Branagh series, and later made available as an ‘extra’ on the BBC DVD containing the first three episodes. Aside from the embarrassment of watching myself walking through fields of wheat in my baggy linen suit while talking to camera, I was pleased with the finished programme, in particular the interview with a surprisingly relaxed Mankel, in which his intelligence and sense of purpose showed through clearly.

And if that’s whetted your appetite and you’re sitting there thinking, Damn! I wish I’d seen that!, the good news is that a nicely abridged and edited version [complete with Spanish sub-titles!] is now available on YouTube, its central focus the Mankel interview.

“Watching Wallander … again and again …

One of the advantages of ageing – aside from the fact that when travelling via public transport – in the rush hour, say, on the London Underground (when it was safe to travel on the London Underground) or once, memorably, on the delayed 17.57 from Leeds to Hebden Bridge via Bradford Interchange – one, at least, of your fellow passengers will eagerly offer you their seat – will, in fact, be quite offended if, in your embarrassment, you decline – [and I sympathise if, reading this sentence, you are beginning to feel you are clinging on by your very fingertips] – one of the advantages, I suggest – and now, finally, we get to it – is the realisation that the loss of short term memory can, in certain situations, be a blessing.

It is perfectly possible, for example, to rewatch the television adaptations of Henning Mankel’s excellent Kurt Wallander novels as if each were made up from a series of revelatory events, some of which may have faint echoes of a distant past. A somewhat fractured viewing process which has its effects doubly charged by the fact that Wallander himself is haunted by the fear of descending into the same terrifying blankness of dementia that overwhelmed his father. And the fact that there are, as some of you will know, two separate series – separate though using, in the main, the same basic stories – in which Wallander is played by two quite distinct actors – Krister Henriksson in the original Swedish version and Kenneth Branagh in the later British one – serves only to taunt the memory and further contribute to an overall state of confusion.

Kirster Henriksson as Kurt Wallander
Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander

Branagh seeks to bludgeon any suggestion of a growing loss of powers with loud and sometimes violent anger – you can ‘see’ him acting – whereas Henriksson’s denials are more private, more controlled. The scene, late on, in which he smooths aside the clothes hanging in his wardrobe to reveal photographs of his work colleagues taped to the wall alongside their names, is quietly devastating and, once seen, impossible to forget. Whatever else may fall away.

“Rough Treatment” … 30 years on.

 

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It barely seems possible, but thirty years have passed since the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment, was published. I’d like to say it seems like only yesterday, but that would be to belie the truth; with a memory like mine nowadays, I’m lucky if yesterday seems like yesterday. 1990, though – the year, I do remember, that Notts County – the team with Mark Draper and Tommy Johnson [the Jack Grealish of his day?] –  were promoted to the old Division One. Some things just seem to stick.

Rough Treatment, though: a glance at the first page brings it back …

“Are we going to do this?” Grice asked. Already the cold was seeping into the muscles across his back, January he hated with a vengeance.
Milder than usual days, Grabianski thought, you expected nights like these. “A minute,” he said, and started off towards the garage. For a big man, he moved with surprising lightness.

Grice and Grabianski, cat burglars by profession; Grice a small, ratty little man, short on temper and a lifelong supporter of Leyton Orient; Jerzy Grabianski, in both his size and his Polish heritage, a deliberate echo of Resnick himself –  a soft-centred man who will pause in making his escape from a house he and Grice are burgling to give CPR  to the unfortunate house owner who has just had a heart attack, and who will fall in lust with another of their victims, Maria Roy, when she comes across him unawares …

The man was still in the same position, almost leaning against the jamb of the door but not quite. He was a big man, nothing short of six foot and stocky, wearing a dark-blue suit with a double-breasted jacket that probably made him broader than he actually was. He didn’t say anything, but continued to stare at her, something in his eyes that was, well, appreciative of what he was seeing.

Round about this time, I’d been reading, and hugely enjoying, the novels of Elmore Leonard, and my two burglars were a nod in his direction, a combination, hopefully, of humour and criminal – sometimes violent – behaviour. It works, I think, quite well on the page, but perhaps better still when brought to life by Jim Carter and Tom Georgeson, as Grabianski and Grice respectively, in the 1993 Deco Films & TV version for the BBC.

We had a little difficulty, I remember, casting the part of Maria Roy, mainly due to one of scenes I’d carried over from the novel into my dramatisation …

Maria Roy lay back far enough for her breasts to float amongst the scented foam which covered the surface of the water. In the pale light from the nearby nightlight they were soft-hued, satin, the darker nipples hardening beneath her gaze. Harold, she thought. It didn’t help. Softly, she rubbed the tip of her finger around the mazed aureoles and smiled as she sensed her nipples tense again. What kind of marriage was it if after eleven years they only place you had ever made love was in bed? And then, not often.
“Never mind,” she said to her breasts softly. “Never mind, my sad little sacks, somebody loves you. Somewhere.”
And easing herself into a sitting position she gave them a last, affectionate squeeze.
“Never mind, my sad little sacks of woe.”

While some we spoke to, otherwise keen to play the part, drew the line at the above, we were delighted when the wonderful Sheila Gish seized the opportunity with, shall we say,  both hands.

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Daniel Woodrell, Dashiell Hammett and Me

For some years – a period that, for me, encompassed the first ten Resnick novels – Lonely Hearts to Last Rites – Daniel Woodrell and I shared the same publisher in the States, the redoubtable Marian Wood at Henry Holt & Company. Address: 115 West 18th St., New York 10011 – I remember it well.

Whereas Marian would have worked closely with Dan from the first draft manuscript on, with Resnick she would have bought US and Canadian rights to books that already existed in published form. For many publishers that might mean little more than commissioning a new jacket, scouting out some blurbs that would mean something to American consumers, and maybe – just maybe – sending a junior through the manuscript with the task of Americanising those ‘difficult’ British terms which might defeat US readers – ‘elevator’ for ‘lift’ and ‘sidewalk’ instead of ‘pavement’. Not so Marian. She was as eager to get to grips with the text as would have been the case were she the primary editor, and, more importantly, she was keen to make suggestions as to how the series and its central characters might best be developed, pointing out weaknesses that should and could be avoided. When, in Easy Meat, for instance, I ventured to set Resnick up in a relationship with a teacher named Hannah Campbell, Marian argued quite fiercely that I should make her a far stronger character than she first appeared to be, more conscious of the feminist issues of the time.

Most importantly, she championed my books, just as she did Dan’s, in the face of sales figures that would have had Holt’s accountants sadly shaking their heads. We were her authors, her boys, and she believed in us, which didn’t mean she was above putting us in our place if she thought it was deserved; the only reason I can get away with publishing the pair of you, she pointed out on more  than one occasion, is because I also publish Sue Grafton.

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Daniel Woodrell

I first met Dan Woodrell in St. Louis, probably the largest city close to the Ozarks, the vast rural area of Missouri where he had been born and continued to live. Both with new books out – Dan’s Give Us a Kiss (the one that gave birth to the term Country Noir) and my   8th Resnick, Easy Meat – we were due to appear at Big Sleep Books, then under the management of Helen Simpson. I assumed that, in the normal way of things, I would read an extract from my novel before chatting amiably to would-be customers and, finally, signing as many copies as I could lay my hands on – the usual malarkey – and I’d imagined Dan would do the same. But no. Dan doesn’t read, Helen said. He just doesn’t. Ever. He’s shy. Which would have left me showcasing, while Dan sat quietly in the corner, nursing a beer. It didn’t seem right. Okay, I said, tell him if he won’t read then I won’t either. [Clearly, to anyone who knows me, a barefaced lie: given an audience in excess of one I’ll read till someone finally puts out all the lights and jiggles the keys.] To Helen’s surprise, however, Dan agreed. Perhaps he was being polite to a fellow author visiting from across the Atlantic. And, of course, he read brilliantly, bringing out every nuance of the language, every ounce of humour, every frisson of sexuality, and left me thanking the heavens I’d read first!

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Give Us a Kiss is told in the first person, its central character, Doyle Redmond, is Ozark born and bred, a writer who – like so many of us at times – feels his work is both undersold and misunderstood. Dan getting some of his frustrations out into the open. Here’s a couple of examples …

I always get called a crime writer, though to me they are slice-of-life dramas. They remind me of my family and friends, actually. I hate to think I’ve led a “genre” life, but that seems to be the category I’m boxed in.

… and …

I sat up, crossed my legs beneath me. “When I’m dead they’ll say I was ‘passionate and ruggedly self-reliant,'” I claimed.
“Oh, Doyle.” Lizbeth’s lips had that puffy, tenderer look lips get from deep kissing someone new. “They’re not going to talk about you when you’re dead.”
That sealed the end. That comment. This was the sorest spot she could gouge at, my life’s work to this point being four published novels nobody much had read, let alone bought or reviewed prominently. This sore spot of mine had yet to quit oozing since the last book had been met with a great, vicious silence, and for her to stick me there meant it was over for sure.

Some time after our meeting in St. Louis, Dan and his wife, the novelist, Katie Estill, moved, temporarily, to San Francisco, which is where my partner, Sarah, and I got to hang out with them a little. One of the reasons Dan had been attracted to San Francisco was its associations with Dashiell Hammett, a writer he greatly admired; Hammett had lived there in the 1920s, and it was there, in a top floor apartment on Post Street, that he had written the bulk of The Maltese Falcon. So, in honour to both Hammett and his private eye, Sam Spade, we went to John’s Grill, which has long traded on its association with The Maltese Falcon, and ordered the over-priced but tasty lamb chops, as briefly featured in in the novel …

He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a touch cheery face came into the Grill and to his table.
“All set, Mr Spade. She’s full of gass and rearing to go.”

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We also went to Burritt Street, where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was lured to his death by his seemingly innocent client, Brigid O”Shaughnessy, and not shot and killed, as she had claimed, by one Floyd Thursby.

Spade said” “Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years’ experience as a detective to be caught like that by a man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was a dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb …
He ran his tongue over the inside of his lips and smiled affectionately at the girl. He said: “But he’d’ve gone up there with you, angel, if he was sure nobody else was up there. You were his client, so he would have had no reason for not dropping the shadow on your say-so, and if you caught up with him and asked him to go up there he’d’ve gone. He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”

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Your author in younger days

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Finally, before leaving the subject of Daniel Woodrell, it’s worth noting that of his nine novels, three have been turned into films: not a bad ratio. Woe to Live On was filmed by Ang Lee in 1999 under the title, Ride With the Devil; Debra Granik made Winter’s Bone in 2010; and Tomato Red was filmed by Juanita Wilson in 2017. Of the three, it seems to me that Winter’s Bone is the most successful. In part this may be due to the fact that it was largely filmed in the Ozarks, where the novel is set, and Dan, I believe, helped both with the locations and in persuading some of the locals to take part. Without losing on the finer points of atmosphere and characterisation, Granik never allows the pace of the narrative to slacken, and she secures a compelling performance from Jennifer Lawrence in her ‘breakthrough’ role.

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‘Gumshoe’

There it is,  amongst the Top Ten films directed by Stephen Frears as chosen by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, there alongside such excellence as The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things and My Beautiful Launderette, in at No. 10, Gumshoe, Frear’s first feature, working from a script by Neville Smith and starring Albert Finney as a Liverpudlian bingo caller who fantasises about being a private eye.

Neville won a Writers’ Guild Award for his screenplay, which he then – after some persuasion from his publisher, his agent and, quite possibly, his bank manager – turned into a novel. First published by Fontana Books in 1971 to tie-in with the film’s release, it was allowed to drift out of print, and joyfully picked up by Slow Dancer Press when we had a crack at publishing crime fiction alongside poetry in the late 1990s.

Pre-publication, I tracked Stephen Frears down to W8 and talked him into writing an introduction and Neville himself supplied a Coda. All it needed then was a strong and snappy design for the cover, which, as was usual, Jamie Keenan supplied, using a photograph by Trevor Ray Hart.

Gumshoe

And this is how it begins …

He looked like the kind of guy your mother would like to marry your sister. If you had a mother. If you had a sister.
He wore a three-button Italian suit, a Billy Eckstine-style flex-roll, buttondown collar, a slim-jim tie. Neat, flat-cut hair topped the lot off. The perfect brother-in-law, circa 1957. He leaned back with his feet on the desk, bored out of his mind, looking at me sitting opposite in my vintage Grenfell trench coat (Hawkes of Savile Row, W1. By Appointment); I wasn’t bored.

Stephen Frears and Neville Smith first met in 1968 when they were both working for Yorkshire TV. In his Coda, Neville describes it thus …

I was acting in an episode of Parkin’s Patch for Yorkshire Television in Leeds. The director was Michael Apted. Sitting in the canteen, in a powder blue suit, and dripping with gold, was Les Dawson, fidgeting while his wife fetched him a cup of tea. Apted and I took the table next to him, hoping to overhear a few quips.
We were joined by an unshaven chap. He wore tennis shoes, baggy corduroys, a green sloppy joe, and a black jacket, all of which had seen better days. He had a mass of black hair and, like Apted, was handsome.
Very soon he and Apted were drawling away in their posh Oxford accents. It was like listening to Trevor Bailey nattering away between overs. Then Apted said, apropos of nothing at all, it seemed to me, “Was it Nietzsche or Wittgenstein who said that the limits of language are the limits of the world?” The unshaven chap said, “No. It was Fatty Arbuckle.” I laughed, and that is how I got to know Stephen Frears.

It was then, or a little later, as he says in his Introduction, that Frears said to Neville, “Why don’t you write a thriller?”

He … gave me the opening pages of what would turn out to be Gumshoe. I don’t think it then had a title. And I found I’d stumbled on a writer with the grace of Jackie Milburn and the wit of S. J. Perelman.
I had thought he was writing a thriller. In fact he was constructing a self-portrait; a record of what it was like to have been a teenager in the English provinces in the Fifties. “I want to write The Maltese Falcon; I want to record Blue Suede Shoes.” He could describe a life unlike my own yet one I would like to have lived. His world was warm, funny, observant, generous, ironic, scrupulous, complex.

… I’ve never lost my love or admiration for Neville, who is in some ways, I think, the best writer I’ve ever come across. This book – the book of the film – I’ve never read. I couldn’t bear it if I found a job he hadn’t thought of when he wrote the film.

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Albert Finney as Eddie Ginley

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Vienna Again …

 

Of the various things Molly and I wanted to do and see in Vienna, two were triggered by movies: the Ferris Wheel from Carol Reed’s The Third Man of course, in one of the cabins of which Orson Welles defends his illegal sale of penicillin on the black market to Joseph Cotton and makes his famous speech about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock; and the Bruegel room in the Kunsthistorisches Musuem, so central to Jem Cohen’s excellent 2012 film, Museum Hours.

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The Ferris Wheel, as it turned out, was a disappointment, standing as it does on the edge of the Prater Amusement Park, half-hidden amidst a loud and garish collection of roundabouts and rides and fast food outlets, and, thus, sadly devoid of atmosphere. 

Gallery X on the second floor of the Kunsthistorisches Musuem, however, with its collection of eleven of Bruegel’s paintings, more than lived up to expectations. The paintings themselves – which include ‘The Tower of Babel’ and the marvellous ‘Hunters in the Snow’ [but not ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, which is in Brussels] – bristle with life, a kaleidoscope of activity shot through, here and there, with humour, with small moments of scatological delight. And all so true to Cohen’s film – he is basically a documentary film maker after all – that we found ourselves looking round, if not for the museum guard as portrayed by Bobby Sommer in the movie, then, at the very least, to work out where he would have been sitting.

We saw Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial on the first day.  A large, solid construction, it stands at the centre of Judenplatz,  a square of grand houses [like so many in Vienna] which would have been home to Jewish intellectuals and members of the professional classes.

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Also known as the Nameless Library, its walls are cast from library shelves facing outwards and filled with identical books that face inward, untitled and unreadable. It is a testament both to the loss of knowledge and the nameless lives of those who died in the Holocaust.

 

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On the base of the Memorial, in front of heavy concrete doors that will never open, is a brief text in German, Hebrew and English with a Star of David at its centre …  In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945 … and the names of the many concentration camps are engraved at the rear of the plinth and along the sides. But it is the solid weight of the building that impresses most, forcing you to walk around it, stare at its bulk, its walls of forbidden books, a metaphor in concrete that it is hard to ignore or deny. A work of public art with great significance and purpose.

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life