Monday, 27 June 2016

Max, D.H, Fred

'Poor D.H. Lawrence. He never realised, don't you know - he never suspected that to be stark, staring mad is somewhat of a handicap for a writer.' That's Max Beerbohm (nearly always a sound judge) talking, as quoted in Joseph Epstein's acute and enjoyable little  book on Fred Astaire (Yale, 2008).
 Epstein thinks that Max, as depicted in his early self-portrait cartoons, is the nearest thing to Fred Astaire's 'look' - 'sleek, kempt, elegant'. And also, he might have added, blessed with a notably large head.

'In the pink'

'Tojo can't beat a man who's served time on t' Corporation bus!'
 'Tojo', denoting the mighty Imperial Japanese Army - that's the authentic voice of a soldier of the 14th Army fighting in the Burma campaign. Readers of George MacDonald Fraser's brilliant memoir of his Burmese experiences, Quartered Safe Out Here, will recall that he and his comrades invariably refer to the enemy as 'Tojo'. It cuts him down to size in typically British manner.
 The soldier quoted above was one of those featured in an affecting documentary on Channel 4 last night, Messages Home: Lost Films of the British Army, built around a cache of filmed messages from soldiers, mostly Lancastrian, of the 'forgotten army', recently rediscovered by chance in Manchester.  A film unit had given the men the chance to speak to their loved ones, who would, with any luck, be watching when the footage was shown in a Manchester cinema. In the documentary, we see the reactions of the men's descendants - and a couple of veterans - watching today. The emotional moments are lingered on rather, and it would have been nice to have a bit more on the campaign itself - but the messages themselves, messages from what now seems like another world, were given due prominence.
 Naturally they are often stilted - these men were not used to being filmed - and they are invariably upbeat, despite the horrors they had lived through in this extraordinarily brutal campaign. The same phrases keep cropping up - 'In the pink', 'Keeping well', 'Best of luck to you all', 'Well, cheerio for now' - phrases that date the film, not just by their language but by the chin-up attitude. These men, who have been through hell, put on an extraordinarily cheery show. At one point they even treat us to a song - what else but Lassie from Lancashire (as performed here by the incomparable Sam Sherry).
 When they finally came home - those who did - these men never said anything about what they went through. No post-traumatic stress counselling for them. They resumed their lives without a word, job done.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

To Die in Interesting Times

Ralph Stanley, veteran of the first generation of bluegrass musicians, died last Thursday at the age of 89. Amazingly, in the midst of all the referendum brouhaha, his death got a mention on the BBC news (on radio at least). Stanley was performing well into his 80s, his career having been given a new lease of life when his version of the Appalachian dirge O Death was featured in the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' Oh Brother Where Art Thou? It even won a Grammy.
 Here he is, in good voice, looking forward to the life to come. RIP Dr Ralph.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Picture of the Day

The first Lord King, Lord Chancellor of England, broods atop his monument (by Rysbrack) in All Saints, Ockham, the symbols of his office at his feet.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Roth

The above photograph of Joseph Roth is surely one of the great author portraits of the 20th century. It is almost, indeed, a portrait of the 20th century in all its tragedy and suffering, the weight of which seems to bear down on the shoulders of the dejected figure sitting on his luggage waiting for who knows what, the next train to who knows where. He is the eternal refugee, the man in transit from his own world, and the chalked-on freight truck behind him has an all too obvious resonance, post Holocaust.
 Poor Roth saw it all coming, and long before almost anyone else - certainly before his long-suffering friend Stefan Zweig. 'We German writers of Jewish extraction,' Roth wrote in 1933, 'are the first to have been vanquished for Europe.' On the day Hitler became chancellor, Roth boarded a train from Berlin to Paris, and never returned. 'We are headed for a new war,' he wrote. 'I wouldn't give a heller for our prospects. The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.'
 
'Let me say it loud and clear,' he wrote in November 1933.  'The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination.' Happily, he was not entirely - or finally - right, but he was righter than he could bear. He had drunk himself to death by May 1939. Zweig killed himself three years later, having completed his masterpiece The World Of Yesterday

The Day, the Shame

So, the Great Day has come at last. Here in London, the weather gods have been making their feelings very clear with spectacular electric storms, incessant torrential rain overnight, and more to come. I fully sympathise.
 I was finding the whole referendum farrago dispiriting but just about bearable - until that fateful day last week when the MP Jo Cox was murdered. This was a horrific and terrible event, but clearly not one that had anything at all to do with the EU referendum; the killer was a lone whackjob whose views on the In/Out question are not known and who was certainly not acting on behalf of any Brexit campaign. However, the Remain camp was soon spinning furiously and shamelessly, to such effect that suddenly a vote for Brexit would seem like an insult to Jo Cox and an encouragement of the dark forces that, unleashed by the Out campaign, had killed her.
The spinning that has gone on ever since Ms Cox's murder has recalled the very worst excesses of the Blair/Brown years, and might well be perpetrated by the same grubby, scruple-free operatives. And it has probably worked; a Remain vote is looking more and more likely. If the Remainers do swing it and get a majority, it will be on the back of a campaign so shameful and squalid that they should take no pride in their victory. And that, I hope, is the last I'll have to say on this topic. Happily, I shall be church crawling in deepest Surrey when the result becomes known tomorrow.

 But here is something to gladden the heart. Kris Kristofferson turned 80 yesterday - eighty! It doesn't seem possible. To honour the anniversary, here he is - just five years ago - giving a lived-in, rough-edged performance of his most beautiful and touching song. He was not thinking of the referendum when he wrote 'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose'...

Monday, 20 June 2016

The Awful Truth

In the absence of Antiques Roadshow last night (and the presence of a truly dismal footie game - France v Switzerland), I reached for a DVD I'd recently bought but hadn't got round to watching: The Awful Truth (1937) starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, with Ralph Bellamy, a strong support cast and a brilliant wire-haired fox terrier called Skippy playing 'Mr Smith'.
 It's a stagey affair, with a mostly predictable story arc - the Warriners (Grant and Dunne) are planning to divorce, but you know they won't and it's perfectly clear why (they love each other and are a perfect fit). A screwball 'comedy of remarriage', then, along the lines of The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, My Favourite Wife, etc. But what makes it a classic is the sheer quality of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne's performances - both of whom come across as phenomenally gifted natural comic actors at the top of their game.
 Oddly, however, this was not the case, and getting The Awful Truth made was an uncertain and often troubled process. Grant was unhappy with his part and with the director Leo McCarey's instinctive, improvisational way of working. At one point, Grant even wanted to switch roles with Ralph Bellamy, feeling he'd be more at home as the third point of the love triangle. Happily McCarey stood firm, stuck to his methods, and worked with Grant to create the comic persona that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his career. He even encouraged Grant to copy many of his own mannerisms (McCarey looked rather like Grant).
 The comic genius of Cary Grant, then, emerged from the messy business of lashing together a film with which he was by no means happy. None of which, of course, is apparent on the screen, where Grant seems to be sailing through a part that is second nature to him. As does Irene Dunne, who deservedly won an Oscar for a performance that is at least on a level with Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Rosalind Russsell in His Girl Friday - which is about as good as it gets. Dunne, however, did not for a long while see herself as a comic actress, preferring musicals and straight dramas. Indeed, she had made 20-odd films before she tackled her first comedy (Theodora Goes Wild) and found she rather enjoyed it. Incredibly, The Awful Truth was only her second comic role.
 It goes without saying that both leads are every bit as elegant as they are funny. The script - at least as long as Grant and Dunne are together - sparkles and crackles, and the dialogue is all the more effective for its rough edges (the result of McCarey's working methods), moments when they speak over each other or when Dunne keeps up a running commentary to what Grant is saying. They really do seem like a couple talking to each other, not a pair of actors speaking lines.
 The whole production is visually gorgeous - Grant's suits and Dunne's dresses alone are worth the entrance fee, but we are also treated to a range of fabulous, no-expense-spared Thirties interiors. It's always a joy to look at as well as to listen to. Is it still funny? Oh yes, I'd say so - it certainly had me laughing, especially towards the end, when Dunne hits new heights of comic invention and sets the action spinning towards its inevitable, and deeply satisfying, end. And the whole thing comes in at under 90 minutes - they knew how to edit in those days.