Archive for the ‘Selected Articles’ Category
Monday, May 6th, 2013
Decades ago, when I first got to know Melvyn Bragg, I kept hearing in my mind a quote from Freud: “A man who has been the indisputable favourite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror.” Now he has written a novel about his mother that reveals, among other things, that Sigmund saw Melvyn coming.
Back in the day, I knew he was an only child, but that was about all. It was his manner that made me assume he was loved and supported by a strong mother. Generous yet maddeningly self-involved, impulsive yet transparently calculating, charming yet also slightly distant, he always seemed to be the magnetic monopole of any room he was in. He wasn’t spoilt, exactly, he was just, as Freud said, a conqueror — but one riven with paradox.
None of this mattered to me, as he was, when not being a public figure, immense fun. After one heavy lunch at Le Caprice, I got a call from a producer at The South Bank Show — “What have you done to Melvyn?” My condition was considerably worse. And he was a good sport: he took the shoulders and I took the legs when a distinguished author had to be carried out of the Groucho Club and tossed into the back of my car. He only ever seemed to hear 50% of what I said to him, picking out the useful bits, but I was always comfortable in Melvyn’s company. He induced in me, and still does, a serene feeling of utter anonymity.
Now we are in the darkly furnished front room of his Hampstead house. Apart from his navy blue cardigan, he refuses to age. He is 73, but slim, upright and still with that astonishing spun-sugar hair, the one thing I never dared ask him about. He asks me how I am — we have not seen each other for a while — doesn’t seem to hear much of my answer, then we’re off on the subject of his very autobiographical new novel, Grace and Mary.
“I thought, ‘I am on this track now, I want to tell the truth as I can see it through fiction — which is what I can write.’ I couldn’t write memoir, I’d just stumble. I’m not a historian, probably because I don’t know enough. But I can write fiction, and autobiographical fiction has been some of the best fiction I have read, but for some reason we all seem rather embarrassed about owning up to it.”
His previous novel, Remember Me…, came out in 2008. It was the fourth and final book in a series — The Soldier’s Return — that borrowed heavily from Melvyn’s own life. This one covered his first marriage, which ended after 10 years when his wife killed herself. The experience seemed to destroy his ability to write fiction.
“I scribbled lots of ideas, but they never turned into anything. I must have been depressed. I think the business of writing Remember Me…, all the business about these things being therapeutic, wasn’t the case for me. It was the opposite, it just stirred everything up again. I think sometimes the best thing is to cover it up, forget about it. It’s risky letting everything erupt.”
Grace and Mary is about his mother (Mary) and grandmother. The heart of the matter is that Mary is illegitimate, as was Melvyn’s mother. It was a heavily stigmatised state in his home town, Wigton, in Cumbria, so it was concealed. Oddly, the story was revealed in a newspaper article in 2007. “This bloke tracked down people’s lives without permission. I was outraged. It was a total invasion of privacy in a small town.”
“It was a strange relationship, because my mother was always distant from me. At the same time, we were very close. Those two things are equally true. When my dad was in the war, we slept in the same bed.”
The article had coincided with the first stages of the Alzheimer’s that was to kill his mother last year. That long, agonising decline, combined with the unravelling of the mystery of the past of his mother and grandmother, form the plot of the novel. The central character, John, travels back and forth between London and the nursing home in Cumbria, as did Melvyn.
“It was the idea of somebody with dementia being visited by an only child. The dialogue between them comes out of five years of visits. I never made any notes, because I didn’t want to do that, I didn’t want to at all.”
Melvyn was born just one month after the start of the war, and soon afterwards his father went away for the duration. He was alone with his mother. The relationship was very close but also distant, a paradox that says much about Melvyn himself.
“It was a strange relationship, because my mother was always distant from me. At the same time, we were very close. Those two things are equally true. When my dad was in the war, we slept in the same bed. She split her jobs so she was always there to make tea, but she was wary all the time. She never paid you any compliments. She didn’t want any prominence for herself, and she didn’t want you to have any prominence, either.
“She was attentive, but she didn’t kiss you and never said, ‘I love you.’ I miss her terribly. I used to phone her every day. I will always be close to her.”
He pauses, tears in his eyes.
Not surprisingly, he has been thinking about his own death, and this has brought him to a further paradox. He longs for his mother still to be alive, no matter what her condition — to be alive, in effect, for him. But for himself, he longs for an easeful death and has laid his plans. He sees a right to assisted suicide as a right to be fought for, a removal of a further stigma, like his mother’s illegitimacy.
“We can’t keep sending people to Switzerland or the Netherlands. I think we should say, given certain conditions, it’s fine. It’s happening to my generation — they see what happens when people get close to death, and we’re saying, ‘We don’t want that.’”
He reckons when he gets to 80 — his family seems to be long-lived — he will tell a close friend to reveal any sign of dementia. He will then inform his three children of his plans, take about three months to sort out his affairs and arrange an assisted suicide. I point out that this is currently illegal. “Legal or illegal, I will do it.”
Though he is strongly pro-religious by temperament, and though his elder daughter is an Anglican vicar, he expects nothing more than oblivion. He says he can’t call himself a Christian, as he does not believe the Creed; he is, however, angry and impatient with the militant atheists who actively want to suppress faith.
“The intellectual slackness and terrorism of these atheists, people who I otherwise respected — Richard Dawkins as an explainer of zoology is peerless, and AC Grayling is a great explainer of philosophy. But when they start discussing religion, it’s disgraceful. Religion is basically a great body of knowledge, and we don’t have many bodies of knowledge. It has sustained people for 1,500 or 2,000 years. You’ve got to be interested in it. Their arguments become really offensive when Dawkins says teaching children religion in schools is child abuse. It took your breath away.”
In truth, he thinks religion is slightly more than a great body of knowledge. There seems to be a chink in his unbelief through which you can see something beyond. “I do think there are things we will never know, and we do have intimations of those things. I suspect many people feel ‘surprised by joy’. It’s not an intimation of a little green man on a distant planet, sending messages, but something else, something not necessarily beyond physics, but a sense of something more, and that there is more knowledge available, and that knowledge will give us different dimensions in our lives of a world we have not dreamt of. I think that is bound to be true, looking at the development of the history of thought.”
As for the Melvyn career, it’s almost as consistent as the Melvyn hair. He may have had a fiction gap, but the nonfiction has continued to pour forth. He does six South Bank Shows a year and an awards show for Sky, he does the extraordinary and defiantly cerebral In Our Time, on Radio 4, he has books on the go and books planned, and he is doing a range of documentaries for the BBC. Ah, the BBC…
Melvyn said he did In Our Time as a way of saying “Bugger them” to the Beeb after it sacked him from Start the Week: Blair’s blessing of a peerage was seen as making him too partisan. (I once asked him why he, a leftie, was a supporter of such a right-wing, authoritarian, militaristic government, but he could not come up with an answer.) The show says “Bugger them” precisely because it is simply what he wanted to do, and he was vindicated. Thursday morning at 9am was known as the “death slot”, and the show was expected to last for six months. It is now in its 15th year.
He launches into a pretty brutal assault on the current state of the BBC that he says is off the record, but he gave the gist of it in public a few days later — clogged management structure, a wonder it could make any programmes and so on. He could, of course, have been one of the big broadcast players. He has the gifts. He is both a great survivor and a great committee manipulator. On the whole, he gets what he wants. But he always swerved away from the big jobs, preferring his carefully balanced portfolio approach.
“What I am doing allows me to do what I always wanted to do, which is to write.” And he really is good at it. Grace and Mary is intense, accomplished and purposeful.
We part, making dateless promises about lunch or dinner. But those days are gone. As I leave, I look back to see him silhouetted in the dark hallway, his extreme slenderness and big hair making him look, appropriately enough, like a giant microphone. The same house, the same hair, the same work, the same paradoxes: Lord Melvyn, the Freudian conqueror, is a still point in a turning world, and for that I am, I reflect, grateful.
Monday, April 29th, 2013
We should be sceptical when reading books about the future. We should be outright incredulous if the authors expect to make money out of it. Eric Schmidt, co-author of this particular look ahead, is the executive chairman of Google and Jared Cohen is the director of Google Ideas.
On top of that the first two pages of their book consist of lengthy and euphoric endorsements by, among others, Richard Branson, Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. This is not just hype, it’s a sign that the global establishment wants us to believe in the Schmidt-Cohen vision or, at least, to accept its inevitability.
In fairness, once you have got over these potholes on the road to credibility, the book is serious and informative, though written in very bad, personality-free prose. Furthermore, the book bends over backwards not to sound like a corporate mission statement. In this, it finally fails — I’ll come back to that — but there is enough darkness in this vision to convince the reader that even if the future is Google, it is not necessarily bright.
The introduction and first chapter are more or less what one would expect, an evocation of the gadgets that lie ahead. Virtual reality will make “the online experience as real as real life, or perhaps even better”. Everything will be personalised, tuned to your habits, desires and goals, and “people will have a better way to curate their life stories”.
A description of the average day of a “young, urban professional” in America a few decades from now includes a back massage as you wake, translucent screens that follow you round the apartment and house robots with a programme of chores to be completed while you are out. Unfortunately, one prediction — that “haircuts will finally be automated and machine-precise” — points to the problem with all this. It sounds horribly lonely.
But then everything becomes much darker. The key to this is, I assume, Cohen, who is a wonk, formerly at the State Department and now at the Council on Foreign Relations. As a result, the remainder of the book is a generally sober assessment of the next few decades. On the one hand are the changes that seem to be built into web technology (loss of privacy, mob action rather than deliberation); on the other there are the misuses of technology that are likely to occur as, thanks to the internet, expertise finds its way into the wrong hands.
So for example, in the first category, the authors speak of the end of heroes. The arrival of the mass media and stories such as Watergate began the process of ripping away the veil of public grandeur; the internet takes that up several million notches.
“The fallibility of humans over a lifetime,” they write, “will provide an endless series of details online to puncture mythical hero status.”
The terms and conditions are simply ways for the internet companies to disclaim any responsibility for anything. We have to sacrifice our privacy, which is, after all, an aspect of freedom, on these terms or become outlaws
Not just heroes, of course, but all of us will be vulnerable to cyberexposure, and, should we wish to check out by going “off-grid”, I’m afraid that will only make matters worse. In their chapter on terrorism, the authors point out that governments will be suspicious of anybody who strives to be “online anonymous”. Travel restrictions and — is this even possible? — even more rigorous airline screening will ensue.
States, however, might prove more adept self-isolaters. What the authors call “virtual multilateralism” may emerge as ideological or political solidarity demands the creation of local internets, cut off from the rest of the world. Koryolink, North Korea’s mobile-phone network, already achieves this and Iran is working on the idea of extending this to the internet. Locked inside such a system, users would only be able to see and interact with what was deemed suitable by their rulers.
On the bright side, the future seems less bloody. Instant global communications will, the authors believe, reduce actual bloodshed, but at a price. “We believe that…massacres on a genocidal scale will be harder to conduct, but discrimination will likely worsen and become more personal.”
The internet, they say, will aid tribalisation and the marginalisation of “disliked communities”.
Sound stuff, but, as I said, they don’t quite succeed in not puffing their own product. It’s a subtle sell. On page 66, for example, they say that the central truth of the technology industry is that “technology is neutral but people are not”. On page 112 they say: “Technology companies export their values along with their products.” The latter is definitely true, the former is not, but it helps Google to make that claim and not to resolve the contradiction.
Equally, they say people have a responsibility to read all those terms and conditions. But why should we? If we don’t agree we don’t get the goodies and, if we don’t get the goodies, we may find airport security rummaging in our body cavities. The terms and conditions are simply ways for the internet companies to disclaim any responsibility for anything. We have to sacrifice our privacy, which is, after all, an aspect of freedom, on these terms or become outlaws.
Hard to read as it may be, this is an important book, partly as an account of what may happen, but mainly as a picture of the present mind-set of Silicon Valley. As such, its undeniable seriousness is undercut by a touch of parochialism and a lot of, perhaps unconscious, intellectual confusion, primarily hinging on that issue of the neutrality or otherwise of the technology. Read but never forget that Google wants not just to sell you stuff but also to make sure you have no choice but to buy.
Sunday, April 21st, 2013
We could only see the distant profiles of the mighty from the gallery in the south transept of St Paul’s. Without Twitter, the press pack would have missed the big news of the day — the tears that streaked down George Osborne’s cheeks during the sermon by Richard Chartres, Bishop of London.
It was the story of the nine-year-old boy who wrote to Margaret Thatcher asking if she had done anything wrong and her moving reply that sprung open the chancellor’s tear ducts. He didn’t do what most men do, make desperate efforts to conceal his weeping and, as a result, the tears hung there unwiped just long enough for the big lenses to zero in.
“Blubbing George Osborne cried for his dead heroine,” jeered the Daily Mirror the next day. Nick Clegg rode to the rescue at a tricky moment for the coalition — “You’ve got to give any man or indeed woman the liberty to cry,” he said. It was an odd kind of defence because, as any real crier — and I am one — knows, you have no choice in the matter, the tears flow whether or not you are given permission.
But why was it a story at all? Because we still feel, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that men don’t or shouldn’t cry. Perhaps we feel that even more about Osborne, a rather stiff man whose political destiny is to be the nation’s prime meanie, the cold cutter and the heartless squeezer.
He didn’t do what most men do, make desperate efforts to conceal his weeping and, as a result, the tears hung there unwiped just long enough for the big lenses to zero in
In fact, his real problem is that he was born 250 years too late.
“The cultured European elite of the 18th century thought crying a sign of the moral worth and exceptional sensitivity of the crier,” writes Tom Lutz, an American literary critic, in Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears.
Back then, Osborne would have flamboyantly dabbed at the tear with a lace-trimmed cambric cloth. He could have gone on dabbing well into the 19th century, when the Romantic era gave precedence to emotion and sensitivity rather than rationality. He would even have got backing from science. Charles Darwin described weeping as one of the “special expressions of man”. Many claims have been made for animal tears, but the consensus seems to be that they don’t happen. Perhaps because Homo sapiens is the only animal that knows it is going to die, it is also the only animal that cries and, of course, laughs.
High Victorian imperialism closed all this nonsense down. Men could no longer cry and, if they did, they should make strenuous attempts to conceal the fact. Osborne’s tears were a story precisely because, in spite of feminism, the New Man movement, metrosexuality, emotional intelligence, in spite of all the attempts to get men to unburden themselves in public, we are still in the grip of that strait-laced injunction. One survey last year found that 81% of men would be embarrassed to cry in public.
Speaking as a serial funeral attender — Diana, the Pope, Jade Goody, Thatcher — this is a great consolation. The comedy of watching men trying to conceal their tears has often kept me going through the boring bits. At St Paul’s there was the usual epidemic of men seeming to get something in their eyes, hastily putting on unnecessary glasses or becoming strangely hunched over their orders of service. At Diana’s do, when Elton John sang his ghastly rewritten version of Candle in the Wind, the entire male press pack went into a flurry of tear-denial. A few feet away, Michael Barrymore was letting it all hang out with a series of mighty sobs, noisy seizure-like inhalations. I think we feared it might be catching.
President Barack Obama sheds a tear (Jason Reed)And so our inhibited age sees male tears as a story. Nobody makes lists of women who cry in public — it is just something women do and are allowed to do — but lists of men who cry are commonplace. Here is one: Andy Murray, Paul Gascoigne, Tiger Woods, Carol Thatcher’s boyfriend Marco Grass, George W Bush, Barack Obama. John Boehner, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, let rip a “sob heard round the world” when the Republicans retook the House. He is, in fact, a serial public crier. Respect, Mr Speaker.
But my favourite is King Muhammad XII (Boabdil as he was known), last ruler of the Moors in Spain. In 1492, as he retreated from Granada, he looked back at the shimmering hilltop glories of the Alhambra and wept. His pre-feminist, pre-metrosexual mother from hell crushed him with the words: “Thou dost weep like a woman for what thou couldst not defend as a man.” Perhaps if Boabdil had had a more caring upbringing, Spain would still be half Islamic.
All tears, however, are not equal. In Man: A Paper for Ennobling the Species, a wise but anonymous 18th-century pamphleteer drew a distinction between genuine and counterfeit tears. “Moral weeping proceeds from, and is always attended with, such real sentiments of the mind, and feeling of the heart, as do honour to human nature, which false crying always debases.”
So what is false crying? Well, we know Robert Maxwell was a false crier when he sued Private Eye for libel — he had evoked deaths of his family members in the Holocaust — because he boasted afterwards that he could turn on tears at will. It is not easy to classify Ed Balls’s tears. He said he had cried watching Antiques Roadshow when some family heirloom was found to be worth thousands. The other evidence that Balls is an emotional man is conclusive, but this seems to topple over into false — in the sense of sentimental — tears.
At a more elevated level, Abraham Lincoln was said to use crying to persuade, though he did suffer from real depression and came up with the shocking and profound remark, “I laugh because I must not cry, that is all.” This raises questions about Obama’s tears after the Newtown school shootings — were they counterfeit, political tears? And, if so, did they debase human nature?
Sports tears are also a bit dodgy. Paul Gascoigne wept in 1990 after he was booked in the World Cup semi-final against Germany — this meant he would not be allowed to play in the final. (The issue was, of course, academic as England lost in a penalty shootout.) Columnists said Gazza had made it OK for men to cry but, as we now know, he hadn’t, and, anyway, these were very self-serving tears. As, indeed, were those of Andy Murray last year when he lost to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final. Such crying is fine in a therapeutic sense, but the tears are like blood from a cut, physiologically ordinary rather than spiritually fine.
Andy Murray cries after losing out at Wimbledon (Gavin Rodgers)Tiger Woods crying in 2006 after winning the British Open a couple of months after the death of his father seems nobler, and it points to a general oddity about tears — male and female — which is that they come in both joy and grief. Men almost always cry when they first become fathers — that survey last year found that 76% of men thought this was OK. This raises the question — if we cry when we are happy and when we are sad, what’s the point?
Science is of little help here because crying is such a baffling phenomenon. Babies’ tears are fairly easy to explain. All humans are born prematurely, it’s just how we evolved, and, as a result, our offspring have to have a powerful alert signal to call for help — hence that gasping “a-la, a-la!” wail that seems to signify respiratory stress and terrifies first-time parents. But why does that persist into adulthood?
In different ways Westminster Abbey, where Diana’s funeral was held, and St Paul’s are, like all great works of art, machines for making you cry
There may be a simple medical reason. Psychologist and neuroscientist Robert Provine points out that tears contain NGF (nerve growth factor), which has a healing effect and may be an antidepressant. Some claim that crying is a form of communication, designed to assert the depth and authenticity of our feelings — or to deceive rivals. Psychologists often see it as a beneficial form of release, and this idea seems to lie deep in folk wisdom — “having a good cry” is popularly seen as a sort of gate through which the grieving and the distraught must pass.
The trouble is that when there are a lot of explanations, you can be pretty sure there is no explanation. Indeed, this seems to have been the conclusion in a paper from the University of South Florida in 2008. Surveying the literature, psychologists found that there was little or no evidence that crying did anyone any good, a finding that appears to threaten the whole edifice of psychodynamics and contemporary therapeutic thought — essentially, the view that expressing negative emotions liberates you from those emotions.
Speaking as a seasoned crier — I am an embarrassment to friends and family — Osborne’s tweet after the Thatcher funeral gives a clue to the real meaning of crying, or, at least, of the best and noblest crying.
“A moving, almost overwhelming day,” he tweeted.
“Overwhelming” is the crucial word. In different ways Westminster Abbey, where Diana’s funeral was held, and St Paul’s are, like all great works of art, machines for making you cry. They confront you with all that is most complex, unknowable and, yes, overwhelming about human experience. Crying is, for reasons unknown, the natural response to being overwhelmed by the direct experience of all that we are. There is, at such moments, nothing to say and only tears suffice.
But there was a difference between Diana and Thatcher’s services. The first was like a soap opera, it luxuriated in its own emotion. The second was elemental, austere, a celebration that stuck to the bare facts of the Anglican liturgy. The tears there were purer and stronger.
Osborne’s fell at the tale of the little boy, mine at the last line of a great hymn — “Lost in wonder, love, and praise!” Exactly. Tears signal that we are lost, whether in grief, joy, fear or ecstasy. They are a sign of contact with something that may or may not lie beyond anything we can say. They are an expression of humility and that, coming from a stiff chancellor, was quite something.
Monday, April 15th, 2013
Back in the grim but glorious days of 1978, a young Dutch photographer named Anton Corbijn arrived in Los Angeles. It was his first trip to America. He took a taxi to the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard. Stepping out of the cab, he found Tom Waits sitting on the sidewalk.
“It was,” he recalls, savouring the memory, “a Hollywood dream come true.”
He shouldn’t have been surprised. The Tropicana, now sadly gone, was to LA what the Chelsea Hotel was and is to New York — rock’n’roll central. There’s no point in listing the people who stayed there because everybody stayed there. Tom was a permanent resident; he lived in a bungalow round the back.
Anton knew exactly who he was, because he’d sneaked backstage at a concert in Amsterdam and dashed off a few shots. They were grainy, vivid and they showed a man with an astonishing, haunting face that seemed to express everything and yet nothing. Above all, this man was cool.
“He always looks,” says the film-maker Jim Jarmusch, “so f******* cool.”
Tom didn’t remember Anton, but at the Tropicana they started a friendship that has now lasted 35 years. “I thought he was a doctor,” Tom recalls, “he had a kind of air about him. He’s very dignified very measured and, in some ways, he’s very calculating and very curious, quiet, studious, controlled. I’m more jerky and impatient.”
They were grainy, vivid and they showed a man with an astonishing, haunting face that seemed to express everything and yet nothing. Above all, this man was cool.
The contrast between the two was fortuitous because, as Tom says about his own marriage, “if two people know the same things, one of you is unnecessary.” He says a lot of things like that and he sings many more.
Starting with those shots in Amsterdam, Anton compiled an archive of photographs of Tom. Even though it covers almost four decades, the style is consistent. Everything is shot on film — Kodak Tri-X, the grainy drama of which defined the black-and-white images of the Sixties and Seventies.
“Grain feels like life,” says Anton, “there’s something in there…”
‘There is something about Tom, something non-rock’n’roll. There’s a life in there’
He took pictures each time they met — only of Tom, nobody else ever appeared. There’s something loving about the photos. Anton says little about how he sees Tom. On principle, he wants the pictures to speak for themselves. But Tom is fulsome in his own strange way about Anton.
“He waits for a photo to come… he is like a surfer waiting for a wave, or a highway patrolman, or a spider waiting for a fly or a hunter or a nature photographer, waiting for two lions to copulate in the wild.”
They’d play around and Tom would sort of pose, often twisting his angular body into strange shapes. He is naturally theatrical. He played with his body as he plays with words when we speak.
“A lot of people love to photograph him,” says Anton. “There is something about Tom, something non-rock’n’roll. There’s a life in there. It’s interesting that when Tom was younger he tried to look older. Now he’s trying to look a little younger.”
OK, for the young, ignorant and, if they haven’t heard the entire oeuvre, terminally uncool, here’s the story of what was really going on here. Bob Dylan may be the greatest American songwriter of the postwar era but Tom Waits is up there; he is certainly the most extraordinary and, in so many ways, the most authentic. Like Dylan, he breathes in the whole history of American song and breathes it out in new and strange forms.
Also, like Dylan, he is way outside the mainstream, a point he celebrated with typical withering charm when, in 2011, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Like Dylan, he breathes in the whole history of American song and breathes it out in new and strange forms.
In fact, it’s not really clear which stream he swims in. There are two Waits phases: ’73 to ’80 and ’80 to now. The dividing line is not an album, a song or a change of label, it is a wife. He met Kathleen Brennan on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s film One from the Heart. She is a musician but, for Coppola, she was working on scripts. It was — I hate to say this, but in this case it’s true — love at first sight. They married at a 24-hour wedding chapel and, ever since, at any opportunity Tom finds new strings of metaphors to describe her glory. I got my own special instant poem.
“She opened my eyes, she’s a real trapeze artist. She’s my headlamp and my road map and my hood ornament, my sunglasses and my spotlight, she’s all that.”
His devotion is legendary, exotic. The music journalist and critic Robert Christgau describes Tom as “the most uxorious American this side of Barack Obama”. But it is also professional. BK — before Kathleen — Tom was an inspired but only erratically acknowledged singer-songwriter. Martha, from his first album, was covered by Tim Buckley, and Ol’ 55 was covered by the Eagles and that made him sort of famous, as did his first commercially significant album, Small Change. But it was all a bit ragged. He moved into the Tropicana in 1975 and acquired a drink problem.
“Everybody had a drink problem then,” he said. Fair enough, it was the 1970s and there was lot to get drunk about. His songs were, however, superb. Some still say this was his best period. But AK — after Kathleen — things changed. She introduced him to the work of Captain Beefheart, rock’s most avant-garde star, and Kurt Weill and, together, they produced the wildly odd album Swordfishtrombones. They have worked together ever since.
Their collaborations can be startling, both intimate and improvised. There’s a song called Pontiac in which, to the sound of traffic noise, Tom acts the old guy, recalling every car he’s ever owned. It’s about Kathleen’s dad and she recorded it as they were driving along and Tom had slipped into one of his idle, improvised riffs. This guy, as I find when we speak, sings when he talks.
As if that wasn’t enough, they have three children, and their two sons play drums and guitar when he goes on the road. Tom is a family business. But there’s another family member who looms just as large in Tom’s imagination: Jesse Frank Waits, his father, who, after divorcing his mother, moved out of the family home. He was named, appropriately enough, after the outlaws Jesse and Frank James. Tom pined for him ever after.
Though he was exactly the right age — born in 1949 — he was never, you see, a hippie. He was a beat, a child of the Fifties rather than the Sixties, who had first been formed by reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road
“I would wait by cars that were the same make and model as his like, you know, a dog by his food dish, and imagine that he would come out of that office building and we’d get in and drive off together.”
He did see Jesse, who had moved to New Mexico, and they did drive together and this, perhaps, offers one very big key to a door into Tomworld: the American road.
Though he was exactly the right age — born in 1949 — he was never, you see, a hippie. He was a beat, a child of the Fifties rather than the Sixties, who had first been formed by reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the beat bible. Some of his most moving songs — notably Ol’ 55 and (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night — are all about cars, about movement.
“Kerouac? God, yeah, sure. I wanted to be on the road. I wanted to be famous like Robert Frank’s photograph of Highway 85 going through New Mexico: a dramatic black-and-white photo with the highway going to a vanishing point. It was like a sign for me. If I’d seen that when I was 16 I would have decided to drive a truck for a living. Yeah, away is the place to go for me…
“My favourite highway recently is the Interstate 5. It runs through Oakland and all the way to Los Angeles. It’s just flat and really dramatic, it’s so empty, it’s like being in the middle of the ocean. I’ve been driving a lot lately. I don’t like to take planes because I have too many things in my pockets and it’s too confusing in the airports. I have a lot of things in my pockets they disagree with in security.”
Note the sudden digressive swerve. I may have found a key, but he’s not going to let me unlock anything. “You sing a lot about cars,” I say, trying to encourage him.
“Yeah, well, nobody’s perfect,” he mutters, ready to change the subject.
OK, did he regret never being a big pop star? This produces a vintage Tom riff.
“I guess I’ve been ambiguous about that from the very beginning. It’s like being in a restaurant and ordering the most expensive thing on the menu, and you realise it’s hog jowls or deer genitals. Things are always more interesting when we imagine them than they actually are. I didn’t want anything to slow me down. It’s OK to be 40ft tall until you get caught in bed with the babysitter.”
Hmmm. I try a Bob Dylan quote he’s fond of, “Fear and Hope: always sounds like a comedy team to me…”
It’s like being in a restaurant and ordering the most expensive thing on the menu, and you realise it’s hog jowls or deer genitals
“Well, you know, some day Bob will get the attention he deserves. In the meantime he’s just going to have to work in obscurity. Nobody will really acknowledge him until he’s gone.”
This, in case, you hadn’t noticed, is irony.
He divides his songs into bawler and brawlers; the first sweet and lyrical, the second defiant, wounded and often sung in an epic, throaty growl, not unlike that of Captain Beefheart. Simon Schama, the historian, says Waits’s voice is “one of the great sound instruments of American art”, and describes the growl mode as “the raspy ruins of a voice that is itself like a building shattered by shellfire and coated with befouled sand”.
“I guess I only have two categories,” Tom says in less elevated terms, “I need you and leave me alone.”
He is more revealing when he starts a strange riff about the need to write songs.
“It’s something you do compulsively, like people who are always looking for bottle caps on sidewalks, always looking for quarters behind the sofa. They say trees only create fruit to nourish themselves. The fruit is the absolute perfect compost for the tree. The fruit is not for you, it’s for the tree”
“You mean,” I say, “the songs are for you?”
At the end of the book, after Anton’s photos, appear some of Tom’s. They are startling, strange, ragged fragments of a life, of a mind constantly wandering — a coffee-stained sheet of lyrics, a few crows, a landscape scribbled with arcane annotations, a few items from his collection of found objects, things you pick up on the road.
But perhaps most revealing are Golden Jack Rabbit and Oil Can Harry. They are his muses, they have walked with him through life. The only shot of the rabbit is when it was caught, glowing old in his car headlights, but there are many Harrys: oil stains that form into the shape of a man. He’s been collecting Harrys since he was a child.
“I’ve always seen things that are not meant to be seen, particularly with stains on the ground. That’s something that’s been with me since I was a kid. And the thing is, they just go away. Go back tomorrow and they’re gone…”
Tom Waits embodies the unsettled soul of America. This is the dreamed life of a great artist, captured in its fleeting moments by Anton’s lens. It will never be completed because the road, like the songs, goes on for ever. “You know it’s hard to imagine the world will go on without you, but it will do nicely. Think of all the people leaving behind unfinished songs. Your whole life is going to be an unfinishing song… It’s not neat and tidy for anybody. We’re all going to die in the middle of a sentence… Right…?”
Monday, April 8th, 2013
There is only one basement in Bedford Park, the enchanted suburb that lies between Chiswick and Acton in west London. It slipped through the local conservation net. I doubt there will be any more. Basements, as everybody knows, are for very rich folk who need to add a bowling alley/swimming pool to their London home. These costly subterranean extensions now form a series of alarming voids beneath Kensington and Chelsea. There’s only one void in Bedford Park.
In 1875, Jonathan Carr, a cloth merchant and property developer, bought these 24 acres of land to build houses for the rising middle classes, who wanted greenery, fresh air and easy access to central London and the City. The nearby railway line provided the access — it was quicker then than it is now — and Carr did the rest. He built what is rightly seen as one of the most influential urban developments in the world. It certainly influenced me. For the past five years, I have been writing a novel in an attempt to capture my feelings about the place.
Bedford Park is, as John Betjeman wrote in 1960, “the most significant suburb built in the last century, probably the most significant in the western world”. In 1904, the German architectural historian Hermann Muthesius wrote: “Soon Bedford Park became a sight which no American passing through London could miss seeing.” My fictional hero is an American who is just “passing through”.
He built what is rightly seen as one of the most influential urban developments in the world. It certainly influenced me
Carr, with the aid of, among others, the architect Richard Norman Shaw, invented the garden suburb and co-launched the “garden cities” movement. This was to be a little paradise, away from the filth and poverty of 19th-century London. Carr banned basements from his houses because he associated them with servants and sick children living in darkness. In 1882, his development was proudly advertised as “the healthiest place in the world”.
It worked. Bedford Park soon became a haven for intellectuals and artists, for the pretentious and the gifted alike. In the years before the First World War, these islands were speckled with the bright lights of artistic genius on a scale never seen before or since. This was the high point of our civilisation. Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Stephen Crane, HG Wells: the list is endless, and it includes, crucially, WB Yeats, one of the greatest poets of our time, who twice lived with his family in Bedford Park.
One aspect of Yeats’s story illustrates the magic that still clings to the suburb. It is a decisive moment in my book and in the history of Bedford Park. On January 30, 1889, a hansom cab drew up outside 3 Blenheim Road. It was the home of the Yeats family. They clustered at the doorway as an extravagantly dressed woman wearing slippers stepped down from the cab. It was Maud Gonne, often described as the most beautiful woman in the world; she was certainly the most dramatic. Yeats said it was at that moment “the troubling of my life began”. She toyed with him for decades.
Another great writer, GK Chesterton, was equally seduced by the place. His extraordinary novel The Man Who Was Thursday opens with a dazzling scene in Bedford Park, though he calls it Saffron Park. He captures both the enchantment of the suburb and the comedy of its artistic and political pretensions. And politics ensured that the radical chic residents embraced the Russian revolutionary Stepniak, who had killed the chief of secret police in St Petersburg. On December 23, 1895 he came to an equally violent end — killed by a train on the level crossing in Bedford Park.
They clustered at the doorway as an extravagantly dressed woman wearing slippers stepped down from the cab. It was Maud Gonne, often described as the most beautiful woman in the world; she was certainly the most dramatic
After the Great War, the suburb went into steep decline. Peter Murray, secretary of the Bedford Park Society, says that, by 1939, bus conductors would announce “Poverty Park!” at nearby bus stops. After 1945, the decline continued; the future of the area looked bleak until the society was formed in 1963. Thanks to that initiative, in 1967 the importance of the place was officially recognised and, in the biggest listing ever, almost 400 houses were given Grade II status. Shaw’s houses are all extraordinary, and his church and pub are cosy, quirky English masterpieces. Even the works by lesser architects show a startlingly high level of decorative sensitivity. If that isn’t enough, nearby, still in the suburb, there is a house designed specifically to reject Shaw’s red-brick domesticity — 14 South Parade, built in 1890 by another architect of genius, CFA Voysey.
Protected by the listing, the area began to return to healthy affluence. A new threat emerged, however, in the late 1990s, when it was discovered by the new rich of the City, who are not well known for their taste. “Did,” I ask Murray tentatively, “the newcomers appreciate their new homes?” “No,” he replies. “Buyers were told that, though the outside was listed, they could do what they wanted on the inside. This wasn’t true.”
Society members began to examine skips for signs of discarded Shaw detailing. Then they came up with a better device to protect their heritage. Each house was given a distinguished-looking log book, outlining its history, past residents and architectural significance, as well as its planning history. “We wanted to make them feel as they would if they had bought a classic car,” Murray says.
It worked brilliantly: buyers now demand new log books if old ones are lost, and the idea has been copied in conservation areas round the world. As a result, Bedford Park looks as good as it has ever done, and 3 Blenheim Road, where William met Maud, is valued at £3.3m.
I knew of the place, of course, but I first became aware of its strange magic 10 years ago, when I drove down Stamford Brook Road. As it became Bath Road, I noticed that the dull Victorian terraces, semis and villas had given way to something quite different. Houses suddenly took on lightness, elegance and playfulness. Unlike the Victorian developers’ tat, these were meant to lift people’s spirits. As I drove further in, I began to laugh. The strange balconies, the odd compositions of the facades and the unique “palisade” fencing made me want to study every house. By the time I reached the core of the development formed by the church and the pub, I thought I had entered a dream world. Reading Chesterton soon after, I became convinced that that is exactly what had happened.
My novel tries to describe that dream world. It is about an American — Calhoun Kidd, a name stolen from a Chesterton story — who falls in love with Maud Gonne at the same moment as Willie Yeats, and later settles in Bedford Park.
This suburb was a product of the Aesthetic movement, which aimed to redeem ordinary life with brightness, beauty and playful invention. At Bedford Park, it succeeded. It is a dream of England as she might have been and might be again, a place where basements are banned.
Monday, April 8th, 2013
Last Wednesday the novelist Iain Banks announced on his website that he had less than a year to live. Calm, brave, medically precise — cancer is rioting through his organs — and devoid of self-pity, his statement said more in 480 or so words than most people can manage in whole books. Banks would have left any sensitive reader praying that when their time comes they will be that dignified, that noble. And that funny.
“I’ve asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow,” he wrote, adding that “we find ghoulish humour helps”.
Terry Pratchett, another distinguished author, was equally funny. In 2007 he also posted online the news of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, describing it as an “embuggerance” — a fine word, apparently emanating from the Ministry of Defence during the Falklands War — and saying he would “prefer it if people kept things cheerful”.
With a touch of authorly exaggeration, Pratchett told me that after the announcement he had had more requests for interviews in six months than he had in 25 years.
“And I’ve sat on sofas on television studios that my arse would never have graced if I’d just been Terry Pratchett who’d sold a lot of books,” he said.
Banks would have left any sensitive reader praying that when their time comes they will be that dignified, that noble. And that funny.
Equally the Banks announcement has been a big story. People, it is clear, want to hear about death and increasingly — thanks to the internet — they can. Over the past 20 years there have been many other examples of big names choosing to die in public. The internet provides the opportunity. Banks and Pratchett both went online and adopted a distinctively webbish style — public yet intimate, upsetting yet consoling.
But the internet is mere technology. What human desire has created the contemporary appetite for this detailed disclosure of the facts of our mortality?
Not long ago such announcements would have been unthinkable. Talk of death or dying would have provoked a shudder of distaste and the speaker would have been ostracised. In the 1960s the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer noticed that people he knew were offended by his decision to go into mourning after the death of his brother.
“They clearly no longer had any guidance”, he wrote, “from ritual as to the way to treat a self-confessed mourner; and, I suspect, they were frightened lest I give way to my grief and involve them in a distasteful upsurge of emotion.”
In his 1965 book Death, Grief and Mourning in Contemporary Britain, he concluded that death had become to his generation what sex had been to the Victorians, something unspeakable: “The natural processes of corruption and decay have become disgusting, as disgusting as the natural processes of birth and copulation were a century go.”
Medicine helped, of course, by ensuring that the typical death was in the antiseptic privacy of the intensive care unit, the patient pierced with tubes and doped out of all possibility of serenity or regrets. This, it was thought, was the discreet way to go, the way of the future.
But it wasn’t. Less than 50 years later birth and death are filmed, blogged and tweeted about, announced and dissected. It all began in the 1990s. In April 1994, for example, Channel 4 broadcast a Melvyn Bragg interview with the great television writer Dennis Potter on the subject of, among other things, the pancreatic cancer that was killing him — he died two months later.
Medicine helped, of course, by ensuring that the typical death was in the antiseptic privacy of the intensive care unit, the patient pierced with tubes and doped out of all possibility of serenity or regrets
Throughout the interview Potter drank from a flask that contained morphine to dull the pain. Plainly the intent — both Potter’s and Channel 4’s — was to deliver the whole raw truth of the dying process.
In 1997 the journalist John Diamond was diagnosed with the throat cancer that four years later was to kill him. From the first he decided to write about his illness in what he called his “jaunty weekend column” in The Times because, he said, “it was the only thing I could write about”. He asked to see his tumour. It was photographed and is now easily seen on the internet, a holy relic — but of what?
At one level it is simply a relic of Diamond’s brisk, brave, no-nonsense approach to his predicament. His accounts of his dying were big media and literary successes, not least because of his tough-minded personality — he went to some lengths to trash the claims of “alternative” therapies. This was the breezy account of a secular man in a deconsecrated world. This is all we are, he seemed to say, but let’s celebrate that by being honest and open about it.
Ruth Picardie, another journalist, wrote about her treatment for the breast cancer that killed her in 1997. Her account was as clear-sighted as Diamond’s, but not so breezily masculine. She said her children were “the meaning of life” and wrote of her sadness at being unable to see them grow up — “How do you write the definitive love letter to a partly imaginary child?”
Also in the 1990s there was Oscar Moore, a gay writer who died of Aids in 1996. In the two years preceding his death he documented his decline in a column The Guardian called PWA — Person with Aids.
No one can say whether such accounts were the cause or a symptom of a change in our attitudes to death and dying. Probably they were symptoms because the same change was already so visible elsewhere. The YBAs — Young British Artists — the great popular art movement of the 1990s, were on to death before the journalists.
It was, for example, in 1992 that Damien Hirst’s shark in a tank of formaldehyde, entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, was first exhibited and the artist’s entire career has been constructed from various forms of the old idea of the memento mori — a reminder of death.
Marc Quinn, meanwhile, drained about eight pints of his own blood to make Self (1991), a frozen sculpture of his head. Again, as with the shots of Potter and the picture of Diamond’s tumour, the message seemed to be “this is all we are”.
Now discussion of death and dying has become entirely acceptable. It has certainly impinged on my life. I have found myself in deep discussion with Clive James about the progress of his own devastation at the hands of leukaemia and have listened to Maurice Saatchi’s grief-stricken account of the agonising death of his wife Josephine Hart.
We have also been kept closely informed of the dying of the journalist Christopher Hitchens from oesophageal cancer. This, in many ways, was the most triumphantly secular of all these deaths. Hitchens, a passionate atheist, used his condition to emphasise yet again his own unbelief.
The screenwriter Nora Ephron, who died last year, was more discreet. She simply put a few clues in her last book, I Remember Nothing, which were only fully recognised after her death. And, one final example, Julian Barnes has just published Levels of Life, a harrowing account of his grief at the loss of his wife Pat Kavanagh.
We are even more secularised now but the need for ritual to celebrate or cope with our rites of passage is a human constant. This creates a void in the secularist world view
There is one necessary but not sufficient explanation for the success of these works and announcements — ghoulishness. People have always been drawn to suffering, blood and gore. If they are inadequate people, it becomes obsessive. Either way, like it or not, the appetite is there.
Then the internet comes along to amplify all possibilities — queasy, ghoulish impulses included. Again this may be necessary, but it is not sufficient. Why this particular possibility or impulse?
The answer, I think, lies in Gorer’s observation that the friends who were repelled by his mourning lacked any “guidance from ritual”. In the rapidly secularising Britain of the 1960s he could find only a few pockets of surviving rituals — notably among Orthodox Jews. The fully secularised, having no rituals, could find nothing to do or say and so sought refuge in denial.
We are even more secularised now but the need for ritual to celebrate or cope with our rites of passage is a human constant. This creates a void in the secularist world view that tends to be filled by reclassifying funeral ceremonies as celebrations of a life rather than as occasions to mark the immortality of the soul of the departed, or to ease their passage into a new state of being. This leads inexorably to unconsoling banality.
So we have, unnoticed, begun to invent new rituals in which we are all drawn into the dying process. Banks, for example, is setting up a website “where friends, family and fans can leave messages for me and check on my progress”.
These books, announcements, interviews and so on are pre-mortem funeral ceremonies to which everybody is invited and, of course, millions turn up. A similar impulse lies behind the millions of memorial sites — electronic graves — now to be found on Facebook. In both cases death is validated by becoming a crowd, rather than an individual, phenomenon.
These rituals are based on the revelation of what Banks calls “the full extent of the grisly truth”. They aim to find consolation in the sharing of the hard facts. It might work, or it might turn us all into ghouls, demanding revelation even from the reluctant. But perhaps, for the moment, we should just celebrate the life of Banks while he is still with us and, according to last week’s announcement, already enjoying his honeymoon with his widow-to-be Adele.
Monday, April 8th, 2013
Let us be frank: the Tate or the Science Museum in the midst of the school holidays are not places for the delicate, the thoughtful or the faint-hearted. “Hordes of foreign schoolchildren eating crisps,” one sensitive soul remarks. “It’s noisy and impossible to see anything. They’re never interested in the exhibits, they’re only interested in their crisps and each other.” Yet the teachers and parents are satisfied. Throw the brats at art or engineering, they think, and one or two might stick to the wall. Even more satisfying is the fact that, in the midst of insanely costly London, these things are free. There’s no admission charge and, if you don’t exit through the gift shop, you need never part with the readies.
Can we go on like this? In the midst of austerity, more and more critics say that offering access to our greatest artworks for nothing is an extravagance we can ill afford. But charging or not charging is, in fact, an issue that goes to the heart of how we define British culture.
Free admissions were a point of pride for new Labour: they were reintroduced for the national museums in 2001. And in terms of raw numbers, it worked. Admissions to museums that had previously charged rose from 7.2m then to 18.4m now. Even previously free museums such as the British Museum, the Tate and the National Gallery saw an 18% increase in the same period. But these numbers don’t quite do what they say on the tin. As early as September 2002, research from Mori revealed that the visitor profile was barely changed. The poor and previously excluded weren’t visiting, as intended; the middle classes were just coming more often, and in greater numbers. There are also, of course, the tourists: of the 44.5m annual visitors to key national museums in 2011-12, no less than 18.8m — 42% — were foreign. We are effectively offering education and edification to the world as well as to British taxpayers.
Yet the teachers and parents are satisfied. Throw the brats at art or engineering, they think, and one or two might stick to the wall
So, taking into account the visitor experience — the excess of crisp-eaters — and the continued absence of the working class, it would seem that free admission has not worked. Add in the brutal cuts in state funding to which the museums have been subjected and the argument for reinstating charging appears overwhelming. Indeed, many have been calling for charges as preferable to shabbier buildings or the selling off of the nation’s treasures. But it’s not that simple. With museum charges, it never is.
Many politicians are thinking about charging, but don’t dare say so. Labour hung its hat on the policy, and doesn’t want to remove it, and the Tories fear that restoring charges would provide further evidence that they are a toff government for the benefit of toffs. In opposition in 2007, David Cameron sacked another old Etonian, Hugo Swire, from his position as shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport for daring to suggest that charges should be restored. These days, Maria Miller, DCMS secretary, is more on-message: she has said in private meetings that free museums are an important tourist draw for London, presumably because everything else is so expensive. But I hear that Ed Vaizey, minister for culture, communications and creative industries, is off-the-record pro-charging. (He didn’t respond when questioned.)
The institutions themselves are divided. Some museums — I am told the Science and the Natural History — are exploiting the official government enthusiasm for free admission by threatening to charge if the cuts continue. Yet the British Museum, the key player in all this, would not deploy such tactics, simply because everybody knows they would have to step over the dead body of Neil MacGregor, its director, to do so.
You may think this is a small matter. You would be wrong. “Free admission is part of the identity of the museum,” MacGregor tells me. “It’s a fundamental idea about freedom of information. And it’s part of British identity, like the BBC, or public parks and libraries. It’s about a citizen in a free country having free access to the best information.”
Museum charges have, for decades, been a battleground. The present phase started in 1974, when Edward Heath insisted the then free national museums should start charging. This lasted precisely three months, until Labour returned to power and reversed the decision. In the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher, some museums began to charge: the V&A, for example, instituted a sort of voluntary charge in 1985, but even this led to a 31% fall in admissions over the next three years. In 1997 Labour promised to reinstate free admissions, and in 2001 it did so. What next?
“Free admission ipart of British identity, like the BBC, or public parks and libraries. It’s about a citizen in a free country having free access to the best information.”
Well, first, it is necessary to dispatch one persistent falsehood. Britain is not the only country in the world to have free museums. The National Gallery in Washington DC is free, as are the Smithsonian Museums. Technically, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, is, too — but that one may surprise you, as on entering the museum or visiting its website, you will form the clear impression that there is a $25 (£17) charge. In fact, this is voluntary. You can pay anything — a penny, if you like — and you will be admitted. (This arrangement is being challenged by a class-action lawsuit that accuses the museum of defrauding the public by concealing the fact that the charge is voluntary.) The Met’s arrangement brings in $40m a year, and the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is known to be drawn to the idea.
Still, museums that do charge can be quite expensive. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, costs $25. The big European museums tend to be cheaper — €15 (£13) at the newly reopened Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, €14 at the Prado, in Madrid, €11 at the Louvre, in Paris — but these are high enough prices to make people stop and think.The impact of the coalition’s cuts makes these numbers tempting: after the next round, these will amount to about 30%. Yet MacGregor points out that when he arrived at the National Gallery in 1987, government funding covered 98% of spending: now, at the BM and other comparable institutions, the figure is about 50%. So a 30% government cut is effectively only a 15% drop in the total revenue. Nevertheless, cuts are causing visible stress. Pursuing private money is the right’s favoured solution, but 80% of giving to the arts is to London institutions, so the regions would lose out with an increased emphasis on philanthropy. We could say that foreigners must pay, but that would involve expensive bureaucracy — and, as far as EU visitors are concerned, would certainly be banned as discriminatory by Brussels.
The real problem for the social idealism of the anti-chargers is finding that free admission does not bring in new types of visitors. This is, in fact, a dirty little secret in all the arts. For all the egalitarian, right-on determination, the middle classes remain the prime beneficiaries.
“I think the increase in visitors is evidence of the middle classes going many times, not new visits by the poor,” says Colin Tweedy, the man behind Arts & Business, which successfully promotes corporate giving. He is writing a report, due to come out at the end of the summer, on the audience for the arts. “The poor and the disadvantaged and the socially excluded are simply not going to the arts,” he says. “The people who go already are going more often.”
This is, in fact, a dirty little secret in all the arts. For all the egalitarian, right-on determination, the middle classes remain the prime beneficiaries.
Yet if the pro-chargers are to make any of the above arguments, then they must make them in the face of MacGregor. After death, “free admission” will be found inscribed on his heart. He bases his position on the foundational principles of the British Museum. It was established in 1753 as an entirely new kind of museum: belonging to the nation, open to the people of the world and free. It represented the highest aspirations of the British Enlightenment and it was guaranteed by
parliament, which ever since, he says, has had a moral responsibility not only to preserve and protect the collection, but to make it freely available to all comers. I point out that other countries don’t have these arrangements. “In other countries, museums aren’t parliamentary creations. They are totally different. No other country has the BBC, few countries have the equivalent of the Open University, and it was Britain that pioneered the free internet.”
All the national museums, he says, can unite around the central principle that parliament has created a clear line of responsibility for these institutions. “Clearly the point of these collections is maximum public benefit, and that means the maximum number of people coming in to see and study. If you reduce the number of visitors by charging, you are diminishing the public benefit. Charging therefore impedes you from fulfilling your statutory function.”
MacGregor’s genius, as always, is to make the politics and contingencies of the moment appear trivial, potholes in an otherwise smooth and rational process. He is an idealist but one so rigorous that you barely notice. Yet the pressure on the museums right now is not primarily political, and it is certainly not intellectual: it is financial. Austerity’s grip is tightening and options are narrowing. Either the government means what it says about free access, and provides enough money, or the museums will have to step over MacGregor’s dead body and charge.
Sunday, March 17th, 2013
Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier
Allen Lane £20/ebook £11.99 pp384, Sunday Times Bookshop price £16
To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist by Evgeny Morozov
Allen Lane £20/ebook £11.99 pp432, Sunday Times Bookshop price £16
Enslavement to the machines we have created is, in a nutshell, the theme of these two formidable books. Both are utterly convincing assaults on the ideals, ideologies, delusions and even the engineering of the Silicon Valley elites that aspire to remake the entire world and its inhabitants as machine-readable code. Yet they are two quite different books.
Jaron Lanier is a valley aristocrat, a leading engineer, a creator of virtual reality and one of the team that produced Microsoft’s Kinect gaming system. He is also a gentle soul, a warm, understanding man whose criticisms are regretful rather than angry. Evgeny Morozov was born in Belarus and is now an academic and policy wonk in America. He is not a gentle soul, he is angry and he goes for the throat. Where Lanier starts from engineering shortcomings, Morozov starts and stays with intellectual incompetence. This is, in short, a clear case of the good-cop, bad-cop routine.
Gentle as Lanier may be, his alarm is apocalyptic. Hyper-unemployment, even greater levels of wealth inequality, negative growth and social unrest will be the price we pay if we persist with the current design of the digital world, he says. In essence, the digital economy is based upon an act of theft with which the victim enthusiastically colludes. The stolen goods are the information that is acquired daily from each of us as we interact with our oh-so-seductive gadgets — “trinkets tossed to the crowd”, he calls them. So the primary asset of the great internet companies — Google, Apple et al — costs them nothing and does not, therefore, enrich the rest of us.
As a result, the economy is being hollowed out. The wrecking ball of internet technology has already destroyed the musical middle class — the engineers and so on who used to make records — and is now threatening to do the same to all forms of publishing.
Furthermore, the process, Lanier points out, has barely begun. Healthcare, transportation and, ultimately, the entire economy will soon be taken over by information-stealing software. More jobs will be destroyed and wealth will become even more concentrated in the top 1% of the population. Our present technology produces shrinkage rather than growth.
It need not have happened. Lanier argues convincingly that the design of the net is at fault. It is a one-way system, so the user cannot actually see what is going on. In a two-way system you could, in theory, see everything — every theft of your information, every time your mortgage was traded between banks, and so on.
So the good news is, it can be fixed. One way would be the collapse of the present system. Google may be eating its own tail — by making information free to itself, it will impoverish the targets of the advertising that is its revenue lifeblood.
the economy is being hollowed out. The wrecking ball of internet technology has already destroyed the musical middle class — the engineers and so on who used to make records — and is now threatening to do the same to all forms of publishing.A better way would be an agreed re-engineering of the system. But can it happen? Under the present dispensation, the answer is almost certainly no.
This brings me to the big link between these two books — their profound distaste for the underlying, quasi-religious ideology of Silicon Valley. For Lanier, this begins with the superstition that it is a law of nature that information must be free and that the whole notion of privacy is 20th-century nonsense. But this is because free information is what the machines like and privacy is what they hate. The valley is, above all, pro-machine and anti-human.
But it is also, to turn to Morozov, profoundly stupid. His book is, among other things, a brutal assault on the ideologues who affirm the righteousness of the valley way. Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Eric Schmidt, Ray Kurzweil and countless others are picked up, examined and then tossed aside.
Morozov’s great strength is his range. He sees the world-transforming dreams of the valley for what they are — a new version of the scientistic, technocratic, utopian fantasies that have periodically surfaced over the past few centuries. Perhaps the most grotesque and laughable of these current versions is the Seasteading Institute, a project part-funded by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and prime investor in Facebook, to establish a government-free zone on an island 200 miles off the coast of San Francisco. This is apparently a libertarian enterprise, though, as Morozov shows, the liberty involved is only for a tiny elite.
The valley elites are — Morozov does not use the term but Lanier did in his previous book — neo-Maoists. They believe in the extirpation of the past, the better to embrace the inevitable arrival of the machine-made future of which they dream. Like Mao, they believe this because they are convinced they are in possession of a higher truth. This truth is embodied in the utterly daft but surprisingly mainstream idea of the singularity, the moment — in a couple of decades, say the geeks — at which machine intelligence takes over the world and all the tribulations of human politics and decision-making are forgotten. And it all looks so easy and so inevitable as we lap up the ever more intimate and insinuating gadgetry that will make it possible.
“It’s never been cheaper to act on one’s stupidity,” Morozov observes with typical mordancy.
Resistance is necessary but difficult, as we are so gleefully allowing ourselves to be seduced into making ourselves as dumb as our machines want us to be. The trick is to smarten up — on this both Morozov and Lanier agree. The former wants machines that don’t just tick away invisibly in the background of our lives, but which challenge us to think for ourselves; the latter wants machines that defer to human specialness; that are, in fact, our slaves.
I find Lanier a touch more convincing, perhaps because he knows in detail how the machines are connected, but Morozov’s intellectual onslaught is essential to the anti-valley cause. Preferably you should read both, because stopping the march of the machines is the most urgent task of the moment.
Sunday, March 17th, 2013
Ever bought a self-help book? Neither have I. The idea is just too ridiculous. If you have to read a book, then you’re not helping yourself, the author is doing it for you. On the other hand, where do you get help from if not from a book? If religion has turned into politics, your country is in a mess and parents don’t understand the world in which you live, a book is your only hope.
“Self-help books are huge in Asia,” says the author Mohsin Hamid. “There’s been a shift, an enormous dislocation is coming to people. They haven’t seen a computer before, their parents married someone from the same village, where they have had the same occupations for centuries, but now people are doing things like recycling plastic bottles. In this huge dislocation, people are looking for guidance, and their immediate circle of friends may not be able to offer it. The only other place they may look is religion, but that’s become more about identity and conflict between groups, and less about addressing the discomfort of one’s situation.”
So Hamid has written a 12-step self-help book called How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. It is full of handy advice under headings like Move to the City, Learn from a Master and Be Prepared to Use Violence. Well, all right, it’s not really a self-help book — it’s a novel, which is a bit weird. But it is, first of all, a joke at the expense of certain literary attitudes in the West. “There’s a self-help element about how we discuss literary fiction — read this novel about China, it will be good for you because you will learn about China, it will fulfil you, make you less alone, uplift you. This self-help aspect is present in marketing and the culture.”
Weirder still, it is a novel in which nobody has a name, the hero is addressed as “you” and the heroine is known only as “pretty girl”. The second person is used throughout; it is, says Hamid, a form that can be both intimate and very grand. And, the final weirdness: time seems to have stopped. The hero grows from childhood to old age in a continuous present. How Hamid arrived at this cocktail of weirdnesses takes some explaining.
You have to start with the movie, out soon, made from his enormously successful novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, published in 2007; his first novel, Moth Smoke, came out in 2000. He is, he points out, speeding up, if only slightly. “My books take a long time because I don’t know how to write them. When I start writing I have an idea, but I find out very quickly that I am unprepared to do it. I spend a few years throwing away drafts, seemingly going nowhere, but actually teaching myself to write the book. It’s not because I’m a perfectionist, but because the only book worth writing is the one you don’t know how to write.”
The film — directed by Mira Nair and starring Riz Ahmed, Kiefer Sutherland and Kate Hudson — is very different from the novel. The story is of a Pakistani man who succeeds as a management consultant in New York. This is, in outline, Hamid’s autobiography. But the novel has a mysterious ending; the film, a much more literal one that more or less resolves the mystery. “Mira told me my screenplay had only two acts, and a film needs a third act. It was interesting for me, because I was watching the film being constructed, and there is a tendency in films to imagine much more than in novels.” This process deepened his sense of the predicament — and the importance — of the novel and influenced the writing of Filthy Rich. “Of course, cinema and TV are the dominant narrative forms today. For someone like me, who works in a less dominant form, it’s interesting to see how this works. It made me conscious of what the novelness of novels was, or could be.”
The point being that long-form TV in particular — think The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad — has usurped the role of the realistic epic novel that aspires to describe a whole society. Cinema has also stolen the novelist’s primary device of showing not telling. You tell by writing, for example, “John was uncertain”; you show by describing his uncertain behaviour. Filthy Rich started out as a description of Pakistani society and ended as a life story in the form of a self-help book. It also tells rather than shows.
In this short- to medium-length novel, Hamid creates a huge range of unnamed characters and a vast city. Neither the people nor the place need be specified; indeed, it is preferable that they aren’t. He points out that Pakistani names now carry a whole baggage of specific associations that he did not want to intrude; and, as he wrote, the city of Lahore was gradually transformed into every vast Third World megacity.
Hamid has the perfect life story for a writer of this kind. “I’ve always been an insider-outsider. Even in Britain and America I was visibly well off, so I wasn’t at the fringes of society. But, in spite of this, I continued to feel an outsider, not just in America but also in Pakistan. It is impossible for me to imagine a particular religious or ethnic grouping in which I can afford the luxury of saying, ‘This is me.’”
He is 41 and was born and brought up in Lahore, but spent six years in America when his father, an academic, took up a post at Stanford University in California. At 18, he moved back to the States to study at Princeton, where he learnt his writing trade from Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. He studied law at Harvard, found it boring and moved into management consultancy at McKinsey. Having negotiated three months’ writing time a year, he managed to produce Moth Smoke, the story of the decline and fall of a rich banker in Lahore.
“I’ve always been an insider-outsider. Even in Britain and America I was visibly well off, so I wasn’t at the fringes of society. But, in spite of this, I continued to feel an outsider, not just in America but also in Pakistan. It is impossible for me to imagine a particular religious or ethnic grouping in which I can afford the luxury of saying, ‘This is me.’”
In fact, he only gave up his day job in 2009. He had kept consultancy going on a three-day-week basis, but finally abandoned it when he moved back to Lahore, from where he spoke to me on Skype. It may be a deracinated career, but it is far from bohemian. Indeed, Hamid rates highly the virtues of domestic stability and peace, and there is no such thing as a bohemian management consultant. He has a wife and two children and is almost struck dumb when I ask him what he does when he’s not writing. “Well, I change diapers… when I am not writing I do many things, but I think I am just living, and it’s very important to do that.”
One of the striking insights arising from his life is that America and London may be in danger of becoming more like Pakistan. Huge inequalities are emerging in the West, and it is extreme inequality that defines Pakistani society. “In Pakistan quite dramatic, terrifying and horrific consequences await those at the bottom, and that creates both the carrot and the stick, which creates this emotional state of great insecurity. In Pakistan, the market is unfettered. There is a bumbling state trying to intervene, but not for the sake of the citizens.
“Unfetteredness makes people nervous, and I think that’s how the system works. Various forms of segregation used to exist to prevent people seeing each other. But now the really poor have TV sets and can watch somebody in Malibu really close-up. It creates anxiety on both sides, the rich and the poor.”
Speaking with what sounds like his management consultant’s mind, he points out that London has been “Dubai-ified”: meaning we have sold it off to the very rich. Manhattan remains a giant living room for its residents, thanks to cheap cabs and restaurants; London is a living room only for the rich. “London’s prosperity in the last decade has been the same as Dubai’s. It has exported its housing stock. The problem is, the housing stays in the country and is not being properly used.”
Meanwhile, even with all the technology giving us close-up views of other cultures, do we really see them? The current popular view of Pakistan is that of a battlefield of the war on terror. Filthy Rich shows something quite different: ordinary people getting along as best they can and desperately trying to avoid the abject poverty that rewards failure. Islamic extremists appear in one chapter in the book, and our hero drifts into their embrace, but then just drifts out again. They are not, as we seem to think, the whole story.
Like the Bosnian Aleksandar Hemon, Hamid writes about disruption and discontinuity. Hemon’s life was disrupted when he was stranded in Chicago while his home city of Sarajevo was besieged by a Serbian fascist army. Hamid’s disruptions are more peaceful, but no less profound. They are the disruptive inequalities of Pakistani society and those appearing in other societies in the midst of economic crisis. But they are also the disruptions — and this he shares with Hemon — caused by a new idea of the human self as a delusion emerging from a discontinuity. “What neuroscience suggests is that what we think of as the self is a kind of fabrication that very complex biochemical processes come up with.”
So the hero of Filthy Rich, ageing in an eternal present, appears as 12 different personas who just happen to inhabit the same body. I think the neuroscience to which Hamid refers is illogical on this point — after all, if my self is a delusion, who is being deluded? — but as a novelist’s conceit it works beautifully. The many selves of You, our hero, form a portrait gallery of a disconnected man in a discontinuous world. Self-help books that aren’t novels try to make sense of all this. And fail.
Sunday, March 17th, 2013
Sir Antonio Pappano has been music director of the Royal Opera House (ROH), in central London, for 10 years. He seldom makes headlines, but he did last week when he suggested that modern singers are weaker and more likely to pull out of productions because of illness. He is angry that the ROH had been criticised for late cast changes. But his real anger is directed at something bigger and much more important. British philistinism, he says, has finally got the better of him.
This is pretty much unprecedented. Tony, as he is universally known, may lose his rag occasionally. But he seldom lashes out on big subjects that go beyond his ROH remit. Today, however, is different. When we meet in his Covent Garden office he takes apart, passionately, one of our least attractive national characteristics — the sniggering inverse snobbery that identifies great art, the supreme expression of the human spirit, as a battlefield in the class war.
It all began last October. Pappano, 53, is also music director of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome and was there opening a concert series with an evening of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony and Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces.
“It was not a populist programme at all,” he says. “In fact, quite the opposite. At the first concert President Napolitano was there with his wife. At the end he came down to the stage and shook my hand and everybody went wild . . .
“On the second night the prime minister, Mr Monti, came with his wife. He also came down and shook my hand and came out to dinner afterwards.”
“Have you ever,” I ask, “had dinner with a member of the British cabinet?”
Anyway, Pappano returned to London to conduct Wagner’s four-opera Ring Cycle, the most complex and difficult task, I would guess, in any art form. George Osborne, the chancellor, and Michael Gove, the education secretary, turned up for the first two, but then their offices let it be known they would not be coming to the next two (they later reversed this). The ROH had been ringed with paparazzi trying to get a shot of two top Tory toffs going to a toff show at this great palace of toffery.
“They were supposed to go to the whole cycle. It just hit me that this is the difference between Britain and Europe and America. These ministers go to West End plays — and that’s OK. But when they are seen in this building, it’s not OK. It’s childish. This [the Royal Opera House] is a building that represents excellence; it should be a crown jewel in British culture and it should be OK for important and busy people to come and experience something that might emotionally and intellectually enrich them. I don’t want to sound too new age and corny but I really believe that . . . There’s a stigma to this building. It’s very disappointing.”
He’s right. If our politicians spent a little of their time in the presence of great art, they would be better politicians. But in Britain class conquers everything. And Pappano is the man to say so. Not just because he has made some of the best arts documentaries for the BBC explaining how opera works. But also because as the son of poor first-generation Italian immigrants, who grew up in a council house in Essex, he is resolutely untoff. “I’m not posh. Maybe I’ve gone up in the world, but you are what you are,” he says with a great Italian-American shrug.
The family moved to America when he was 13, leaving him with a strange Italian-American-Essex accent. He is also a great conductor who has made the ROH one of the finest in the world. He should be a national treasure — appearing on Question Time, dining regularly at Downing Street. But he isn’t because these days opera is seen as the preserve of toffs.
Where does this national habit of philistinism come from? Before the First World War, Britain had almost as many artistic geniuses per square mile — Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Edward Elgar, Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy and many more — as Renaissance Florence. It was the peak of our civilisation. But between the wars Britain started to turn inwards, rejecting continental modernism.
“Loss of empire!” cries Pappano. “Maybe when Britain loses its empire, then you get this necessity to disparage other forms. It’s a question of identity.”
In 1945 Labour came to power with an arts strategy based on the idea that nothing was too good for the working man. This meant the best of opera, ballet and all the arts for the masses. Democracy meant the privileged, the wealthy and the educated should pass on the best of their culture to the people.
“My God! Having any kind of exposure to the arts is a good thing. I keep saying this. Kids now don’t know about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Chuck Berry: they don’t know about the history of rock’n’roll. You need to be exposed to history; your brain will expand at the same time.”
Under Tony Blair, new Labour abandoned this in favour of the people’s art — mainly that of pop stars, who were invited to Downing Street in hordes. High art became the preserve of toffs. And in the final ironic twist to the tale, a government of Old Etonians — Gove is an honourable civilian — comes to power determined to conceal their toffery by keeping away from high art.
What most concerns Pappano is the message this toxic philistine inverse snobbery sends to children: “Greater visibility on the part of ministers in supporting any arts organisation is very important. I wish that would then lead to a greater vision in terms of what school kids need.”
One of Pappano’s greatest strengths is the catholicity of his own tastes. He thinks Beyoncé is “amazing”, his desert island favourite would be the Tony Bennett song But Beautiful, performed with the pianist Bill Evans. “My God! Having any kind of exposure to the arts is a good thing. I keep saying this. Kids now don’t know about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Chuck Berry: they don’t know about the history of rock’n’roll. You need to be exposed to history; your brain will expand at the same time.”
I point to the empty chair next to me and ask him to imagine an average 15-year-old boy sitting there. How would he lead him to opera?
“First I’m going to find out from him what kind of music he likes — I mean specifically — then ask him what he reads and what he looks at on the computer. Then I’d talk to him about storytelling, about my passion for drama and about how watching a play with music on top is such a visceral experience. Basically, we are just telling stories the whole time.”
Much of pop presentation, he agrees, is operatic — just think of Beyoncé’s drop-dead performance at the Super Bowl. Pop videos and opera are doing the same thing: realising music as a physical presence.
The successor to Lord Hall — who has gone to the BBC — as ROH chief executive will be announced on Wednesday. Inheriting Pappano is the best thing that could happen to him or her. But on the philistine issue they’re going to have to be both tough-minded and careful. As Pappano says, the ROH has to retain its glamour.
“The process of demystification is important but I am not going to tell you the opera house is going to lose its glamour. I think it is about accessibility, but accessibility to a place that is special. This building is special; there is a spirit in the auditorium. It’s a balancing act but we have to do it.”
The philistine’s final sneer — that the ROH is expensive — is now wearing fantastically thin. Ticket prices for a West End musical cost £50-£80; to go to a top football match at Chelsea costs from £45. Football is increasingly a rich toff’s sport and, as ever, the poor are being kicked out to weep into their now also fantastically expensive beer. Pappano acknowledges the price problem.
“Look, there is no question that the price of stalls tickets at the ROH always makes news. It is very expensive to run this building and this art is highly expensive. But other entertainments — football, theatre, even gastronomic entertainments — cost a fortune as well. It is in the spirit of our house that the people can get in and, remember, up in the gods [the cheapest seats] you get the best sound.”
The anger of Pappano is exhilarating to watch. He’s a compact bundle of energy and passions, topped by an extravagant and very conductorish hairdo.
British philistinism is a force that is dead but lives on, vampire-like, always ready to suck the blood out of the finest things we do. But here driving a stake through its heart is our very own Essex-Italian-American. Go, Tony!