Movie Review: ‘Performance’ (1970)

A druggie, schizophrenic, S&M ‘A Hard Day’s Night’…and then some

Often cited as one of the greatest films in British Cinema, Performance is a hallucinogenic trip (pun intended) through London’s criminal underworld, the tentative edifice of identity, and the whole glorious mess of psychotropic drug-soaked late 1960s pop-culture when flower-power was beginning to wilt and swinging London was beginning to sway.

Performance Mick Jagger posterCo-directed by renegade screen-writer and uber-bohemian Donald Cammell (White of the Eye, Demon Seed) and helped to manifestation with the guidance of cinematographer turned visionary director Nic Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man who Fell to Earth) the movie begins with Rolling Stone singer Mick Jagger playing Turner, a has-been rock star ensconced in his Notting Hill mansion living a dissolute life of orgiastic decadence having lost his creative daemon. Nevertheless, despite this creative fallow period he adequately entertains himself with the spellbinding Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and exquisitely androgynous Lucy (Michele Breton) in an atmosphere where money floats idly on bath water and psilocybin mushrooms are served for breakfast…until one day Chas (James Fox), an on-the-run South London gangland hood, knocks on his door seeking solace under the guise of being (obviously) a juggler. However, it doesn’t take long for Turner and Co. to cotton onto Chas’s weak ruse and, voyeuristically fascinated by the implications of the violent underworld Chas inhabits, indulge in a bizarre rite where definitions of violence and sexuality are explored, and identity is deconstructed to reveal it’s underlying ontological insecurity (to borrow a phrase from infamous 60s’ anti-psychiatrist R. D. Laing).

“Infamy, infamy. They’ve all got it in for me!”

Shot over the course of 12 weeks in 1968 on a budget of £400,000, the movie has since enjoyed an uninterrupted reign as the monarch of all cult movies, a reputation accentuated by the multitude of stories (by turns lurid and tragic) circulating around the movie’s conception, production, and reception. Indeed, the movie and the millieu that spawned it were so sui generis in almost every respect that it would have been impossible for the studio executives to imagine the project they had green-lit. In fact, many assume that the project was given the go ahead by studio executives who, in seeing the name of a Rolling Stone attached, no doubt envisioned an anodyne film-pop hybrid like A Hard Day’s Night. However, Performance is as far away from a mainstream-courting, tongue-in-cheek romp as you can get. Instead it is a raw and (in more than one sense) adult film which is self-consciously transgressive and deviant in every respect. So try to have some sympathy for the wife of one exec who is rumoured to have vomited at an initial screening while another was apparently heard to say “…even the bath water was dirty”. How much of this is apocryphal remains up for debate but a review printed in the New York Times a few years later articulated the feelings of many when it wrote that “you don’t have to be a drug addict, pederast, sado-masochist, or nitwit to enjoy Performance, but being one of those things would help”. Something of an  inauspicious start, one might say.

Performance bath

Maybe it’s just me…but I never noticed the bathwater :-p

What is sure is that, after various cuts and re-edits, the film was shelved for 2 years after it was finished in 1968, not seeing the light of day until 1970. Saying this, by modern standards this seems a quaint over-reaction: modern pop videos are arguably more sexualised than anything on show in the movie and, as a result, the sex scenes between Jagger and Pallenberg – despite out-takes being shown at adult movie festivals on the European circuit – come across as positively tasteful (although another rumour has it that the sex wasn’t simulated and was indeed real, something which no doubt *cough* annoyed Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who Pallenberg was officially with at the time). Modern audiences may also smirk a little at the depiction of drug-taking in the film which lacks both the glamour of Scorcese-style fistfuls-of-coke-flung-into-the-air as well as the searing gritty realism of films like Christiane F or Trainspotting.

Okay, sure…the film is dated somewhat (even down to the casting of Jagger who, after emerging from his late 60s “Baudelaire phase” and establishment-baiting anthems such as Let’s Spend the Night Together, Street-fighting Man, and Sympathy for the Devil , ended up symbolising mainstream bloated arena-rock and went on to accept a Knighthood in 2003). However, in the same way that we need to remember that throughout the 1960s Jagger’s sexualised druggie androgyny and dirty Blues-inspired rock’n’roll was perceived as a very real threat to the status quo we likewise need to keep in mind that it was films from this period – like Performance – which broke new ground wherein other films would be allowed to follow. Secondly, despite this I would argue that the violence in the first half of the film still actually packs quite a punch today in terms of grittiness, the conflation made between violence and sex, as well as the implications of homosexuality within the gangland world which, it should be remembered, was still a tangible presence in late-60s London owing to the Kray brothers and their “Firm”. Thirdly, it should be noted that for all its explictness, the drug-taking, sex, and violence in the film are merely vehicles for the grander ruminations on identity that are the heart of the film.

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”

Cammell and Fox

Cammell and Fox on set

Out of the directorial duo of Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell it is Roeg who, with the acclaimed The Man who Fell to Earth and the bewilderingly beautiful Don’t Look Now, went onto to establish himself as a director of considerable standing while Cammell struggled to get his various subsequent projects off the ground. Nonetheless, Performance should really be recognised as Cammell’s baby as its content is a clear articulation of the man, his musings, and his fetishes – from organised crime to drugs to threesomes and to the work of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges, in collections like Fictions and Labyrinths wrote short stories in a magical realist style which collapsed the distinctions between imagination and reality and created worlds of confusion which elicit awe in the possibilities that open up. This influence soon pops up in the first interaction between Chas and Turner when Chas is trying to convince Turner that he needs a place to stay because he is a juggler:

CHAS: I’m an artist, Mr Turner. Like yourself.

TURNER: You juggle?

CHAS: Why not?

TURNER: Why, why not? Why not a jongleur? It’s the third oldest profession. You’re a performer of natural magic.

CHAS: …I perform.

TURNER: I bet you do. I can tell by your vibrations…you’re an anti-gravity man! Amateur night at the Apollo. Cheops in the bloody pyramid. He dug a juggler or two, didn’t he? Remember? And the tetrarchs of Sodom…and Orbis Tertius

Borges

Jorge Luis Borges, as seen inside the bullet-pierced skull of Turner

This last reference name-checks the famous Borges story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. The influence can also be found in copies of books by Borges lying in the apartment as well as in the movie’s climatic confrontation when a seemingly possessed Chas enters the bedroom of Turner and Pherber and says “I gotta be off now”. “No, I’m going to talk to you some more” Turner protests.

CHAS: Nah, I gotta shoot off now.

TURNER: I’ll come with you then.

CHAS: (pause) You don’t know where I’m goin’ pal.

TURNER: I do.

(music intensifies)

TURNER: I dunno.

CHAS: Yeah you do.

Chas then fires a bullet which propels us into Turner’s head towards an image of a man. This man is none-other than Borges himself.

Chas is then led out of the house by gangsters who’ve tracked him down (and who are appalled by the hippy clothes, wig, and feminine appearance essayed by the once gruff bloke), into the car which, as it drives off, reveals to us the face of Turner. The two men’s identities have become entwined. Or magically switched places. Or…something. It’s hard to state categorically an end to film which makes it’s raison d-etre the intentional blurring of lines between masculine and feminine, sex and violence, hetero- and homo-, pleasure and pain, self and other. Indeed, Jagger’s girlfriend at the time Marianne Faithful called the production a “psycho-sexual lab” and “a seething cauldron of diabolical ingredients: drugs, incestuous sexual relationships, role reversals, art and life all whipped together into a bitch’s brew” and nowhere was this more apparent in the role of Turner who Faithful urged Jagger to model on a combination of fellow Stone Keith Richards and soon-to-be ex-Stone Brian Jones – further fuelling the aspects of transgressive identity and sex as while Pallenberg was dating Richards at the time of shooting she had originally dated Jones.

Let it Bleed

And while Cammell’s story is certainly the most tragic, it isn’t the only tale of breakdown associated with the movie. In fact, rarely has any movie before or since had such a profoundly disconcerting effect on those associated with it. Anita Pallenberg began using heroin during the filming of the movie (a habit which lasted until 1987) and remarked at the conclusion of filming that she felt “drained” and that “the optimism of the 60s had totally gone for me.” In a similar fashion, Jagger and Fox smoked DMT on set between takes and although neither gained a serious drug-addiction Fox, who up until Performance had been known for playing upper-class gents, had begun hanging around with real-life London gangsters as research for the role and after filming began an introspective spiritual journey leading to him quitting acting for a decade and becoming a born again Christian.

James Fox and Mick Jagger Performance

“Come on lads, enough DMT. Let’s wrap up this take” James Fox and Mick Jagger on set.

So perhaps it could be argued that Jagger escaped the ‘curse’ of Performance relatively unscathed; however, between the conclusion of the filming and its release the Stones would play their disastrous set at the Altamont festival on December 6, 1969. It was here, in a concert Rolling Stone magazine slammed as “the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity,” that Hell’s Angels hired for security purposes stabbed to death Meredith Hunter, an 18-year old concert goer high on meth and himself brandishing a gun during the Rolling Stones’ set. The incident was captured on film and even included in the final cut of the tour documentary film Gimme Shelter. Billed as a west-coast Woodstock the festival proved instead to be the perverse negative, the haggard Portrait of Dorian Gray, and served for many as the literal and figurative end of the 1960s. Shortly after this Jagger threw away all of the books he had collected on the occult which had inspired several Stones’ songs of the period. He also promptly broke off his association with experimental film-maker and practising occultist Kenneth Anger (incurring his ire in the process), for whom he had already provided a soundtrack for the short film Invocation of my Demon Brother and who had already arranged with Jagger to play the part of Lucifer in his magnum opus Lucifer Rising. The Stones were never the same group after that and, depending on who you ask, they were never as good after that either.

The most tragic victim, though, is that of Cammell himself. After Performance he bummed around Hollywood for decades writing scripts and having them rejected. He did manage to direct a couple of films but these were critically panned, the salt in the wound being that the released versions were often hacked to pieces by the studio into forms unrecognisable by Cammell himself. In the end, disappointed by decades of rejection and anonymity he committed suicide with a shotgun to the head. However, death was not instantaneous and he is reported to have walked around for some time afterwards and remarked to his partner, in a curious and morbid reference to the climax of his most well-known film, that he “couldn’t see Borges”.

Quite a catalogue of woe for one film. But perhaps all this is to be expected from a movie where the lead character announces that “the only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.”

Conclusion

As previously mentioned, since its release the movie has ascended to the title of unrivalled King of Cult Movies and always scores well in critics polls of Best British Movies as well as, simply, Best Movies. And likewise, the status of Cammell’s remarkable screenplay and creative vision are more readily accepted. What’s more, however, is that looking back on the movie nearly fifty years after its release it is a powerful historical document of a particular period of the counter-culture revolution (much like Jean Luc Godard’s own 1968 movie featuring the Stones One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil)…but not the tired hippy, “flower-power” guff but a more psychologically and philosophically penetrating treatment of the darker underpinnings of such adolescent idealism. And Performance is such a product of both its times and the unique talent of Cammell that it seems a prophetic awareness of the souring of forbidden fruit tasted by so many, all optimistic for better things but whose visions of the future were soon to be smashed by the Altamont Disaster, the Manson Murders, and the end of the Sixties.

Proceed with caution.

movie_performance-1970 Mick Jagger

Published poetry: The Lord of the Desert

Although not religious, I have always had a deep interest in the concept of gods, angels, demons, bodhisattavas, jinn and any other non-corporeal being you care you mention. In fact, my working definition of a “god” is one borrowed from the writer Stephen H. Flowers who writes of gods as “extrapolated thought forms”. Ever since I read that it has made an intuitive sense along the lines of Jungian archetypes and reconciles for me the contradiction that, even though these entities don’t exist, they can manifest effects in the material world through our collective belief in them. The poem below was written when I was heavily influenced by the philosophy of The Temple of Set and is about the titular deity. In Egyptian mythology, Set was the brother and rival of Osiris, who he killed and dismembered. He later became the god of the desert, of foreigners, and the night and – as such – is an antagonistic deity who would later morph into the Christian conception of Satan (Heb: “adversary, he who opposes”). Sounds creepy, but in actuality Set is revered as a transgressive antinomian deity representing the perfection of an individuated consciousness.


The Lord of the Desert

SetAdorned
with the barren touch of desert winds,
which tear the blue down from the sky,
the dragon roars
through the naked night
disciples of the day despise.
*
Abhorred,
the fallen stars
illuminate
and lay waste the lines of paradise.
Standing over
fields of ash
watered with ravaged women’s weeps,
they pledge cracked lips
to countless condemned kisses.
*
Under weight of raining flame
and execration
old affections lie collapsed;
baptised with stains
disgust
and fear.
                                                                                                                                                            First published in Ygdrasil: A Journal of the Poetic Arts (July 2013)

Published work: The Whore Woken upon the Cross of Death

First published in the June 2014 issue of The Squawk Back, The Whore Woken Upon the Cross of Death is an explicit tale of desperation seeking deviant redemption sought in the liminal space where reality, dream, memory, and fantasy intersect. The protagonist is based on Leah Hirsig, the one-time consort and “Whore of Babalon(sic)” of the infamous British occultist Aleister Crowley. During the first half the 20th Century, Crowley essentially saw himself as the prophet of new Solar-phallic religion set to replace Christianity. The closest he got was setting up (with Hirsig’s help) a small commune-type existence in Cefalu, Italy before Mussolini got wind of it and kicked everyone out. Which leaves us with an interesting quandary: despite proclaiming himself Mega Therion (The Great Beast) as well as being called “The Wickedest Man in the World” by the U.K. press, can a man who pisses off the progenitor of Fascism really be that bad? Either way, my point is that (like my post about the life Thea Von Harbou) as a society we still have a tendency to subsume the achievements of women into the men they were associated with. Click here to read a previous post about the woman and her unusual life.


The Whore Woken upon the Cross of Death

…Leah stroked Aleister’s naked body as he slept. The love they had made had been more frenzied than usual and he smelt strongly of sweat. In one long motion she stroked from his chest down to his pubic hair where she hooked her forefinger and thumb around his penis, and fondled his testicles with her remaining fingers. After a few seconds he grunted and turned over in his sleep, forcing Leah to relinquish her hold. With an air of sanctity she beheld her hand, slowly raised it to her face and took a deep inhalation of the fragrance of sex, rubbed it on her face, before finally sucking her fingers.

She got up from the bed, walked over to the French windows and opened them. She stood, allowing her naked body to bathe in the light of the full moon surveying majestically from the cloudless sky. She looked down at her breasts, glowing white in the ethereal light and heard a voice announce:

‘All ecstasies end in this’.

Hypnotised, she felt a force animating her hands to molest her body roughly. Had she felt the compulsion to resist she would have been unable; but she didn’t. She closed her eyes and abandoned herself to Pleasure.

‘This body is the vehicle of this soul, both of which are dedicated to thee.’ Leah replied. ‘May the utter prostitution of both teach those who follow!’

Immediately she felt hundreds of hands clamouring for space and the privilege of groping her naked body.

‘All ecstasies end in this!’ the voice shouted suddenly. She opened her eyes and beheld the Great Sphinx about four hundred metres in front of her, and the majestic Giza pyramids looming behind. Looking down she saw she was clothed in luxurious red and gold robes, and her arms and neck were adorned with sumptuous cobalt blue jewellery. She felt no disorientation and knew what to do. She began to walk and with each step the ground rushed under her feet, speeding her towards the Sphinx which essayed resplendent full facial features quite different to the worn image which graces the photos of history books. She floated between the paws and turned to face the blazing Sun, flanked by priests who had appeared from nowhere. She raised her hands in worship and began the supplicatory chants those at the Abbey performed every sunrise. A warm breeze began to blow and, alarmed, she watched as her hands began to blow away like ash…

She awoke anxiously and after a moment of disorientation realised that Aleister had begun penetrating her while she slept. Savouring her confusion she immediately clasped his waist and aided him in his furious thrusting. She closed her eyes again and threw her head back as she felt great pulsations of pleasure shoot around her body from her root chakra, but Aleister forcefully grabbed her by the chin and jerked her face back around to look at him. She saw the Giza sun of her dreams in place of his eyes, burning the knowledge she desired into her, and felt the presence of the others in room who began to chant.


To read the rest of the story please pay a visit to the good people at The Squawk Back at http://www.thesquawkback.com/2014/06/rjh.html

Many thanks!

Dear Author

Okay, this post is going to be a bit sour. I know that rejection is part and parcel of wanting to write novels…but I’m started to get a little tired of it. And recently, I received a rejection letter which has annoyed more than any other.

rejectionquotes3

I hate this kind of bullshit.

A little background: at the end of last year I went to a meet-the-agent event organised by a popular writers’ group in London. It was set up to be an informal chat forum where writers at differing stages of submission readiness could openly ask questions. For the most part it was common sense…but I was reassured that what I was already doing was what she suggested people do. The conversation soon shifted to cover letters and what to-say and what not-to-say and, again, I was reassured that a lot of what I was already doing was in the domain of good practice. However, one thing which she emphasised several times was that agents are people too and want to be spoken to like people and, moreso, that they react in the same way as anyone else. Specifically, she mentioned how agents are just as receptive to praise or compliments as anyone else (e.g. if the submitter can congratulate the agent on a recent success etc.) and, conversely, if the writer submitting writes a letter that just sees the agent as a mere cog in a machine ultimately focused on feeding their own narcissistic fantasies of literary greatness then, well, it’s a bit of a turn-off.

Again, all basically common sense…but the fact that she mentioned this several times made me consider that she must actually be getting lots of submission letters of the latter sort. At the end, I was impressed enough by the event to decide to submit to said agent and was obviously very mindful of what she had said. I make a point of doing research on any agent I approach anyway but – with the words of the event in my mind – I made the effort to dig a bit deeper and really tried to visualise the agent’s response as she reads my submission letter.

Overall, I thought I learned something from all that.

Cut to the standard 8-12 weeks later and I get a ping on my phone and see the subject line of the email (RE: SUBMISSION) on the screen. “Another rejection” I immediately thought. Needless to say, it was. No biggy. However, this one started with Dear Author. Now then, out of the countless rejection letters I’ve received none of them were so impersonal as to begin with Dear Author. Even the most curt and summarily dismissive rejections had the courtesy to use my name. So I was doubly disappointed when I saw that it was from the very same agent that had made such a big deal going on about how “agents are people too…agent’s have feelings too…blah blah blah”. Honestly, rejections now are just water off a duck’s back. And even if others had started Dear Author I wouldn’t have cared. But the hypocrisy of this one has gone and pissed me off. So, she requires treatment from people which she doesn’t reciprocate. Definition of hypocrite there. On one level I should be happy that I didn’t get picked up by someone with such a thin veneer of morality. Maybe that sounds a bit much, but it wouldn’t have meant anything if she herself hadn’t laboured the point so hard about feelings and being treated as a person etc.

Now then, I remember when my first novel was routinely rejected and I thought “agents are a bunch of bastards” for a good while. However, after a while I began to chastise myself for this perspective and told myself that if I have that antagonistic attitude towards them then I’m never going to get anywhere. Instead, I should try to understand what their job involves. Motivated by this, I actually did a short work-experience stint for a small publishing house and learned, from my own experiences, that agents “are people too” and saw how they are just trying make a living in an industry they like…and that it’s hard and often thankless work…and that at-the-end-the-day it’s a business etc. This idea was further reinforced by the aforementioned meet-the-agent event and a handful of others like it where agents consistently reinforced this idea that they’re just looking to get the best books into readers’ hands as possible. How nice, I thought. How noble. They’re on the side of the writer but just have a very difficult job. But you know what? Now I think, “f**k that!” Agents are the enemy. They are a class of people who have interjected themselves between the writer and the publishing company and have successfully magicked a case for their own significance into the minds of publishers and would-be writers alike.

Annoyed by this – and wondering just what it takes to please these people – I googled “2017 literary debuts” and got this article from the Guardian. Meet the new faces of fiction for 2017, ooh, so cool, so edgy. Just look at that photo. What promise of literary revelations they hold for the unsuspecting readers.

2560

Well, the article makes no bones about their backgrounds. Out of the nine writers featured in the article the first is Oxford educated; the second is the great-niece of David Underdown (professor Emeritus at Yale, himself educated at Oxford) who worked as an editorial assistant in publishing; the third studied at Trinity College, Dublin; the fourth is a journalist’s daughter whose brother is an actor and who has a sister who is also a journalist; the fifth is another Dubliner, who has acted alongside Peter Fonda, and who is married to an actress; the sixth was even a Waterstone’s fiction buyer(!) before writing his novel; the seventh “has no regrets about not pursuing the creative writing MA route to publication”; the eighth is a former Guardian Film editor; while the ninth is a Cambridge graduate.

Now then, I don’t doubt that each of these writers has laboured over their work, received tonnes of negative feedback and rejection, and had to draw upon reserves of perseverance which they doubted they had. And I don’t doubt that the books in question are well-written and probably interesting reads. But come on! What are the odds that these “top picks” for debut writers for 2017 would all come from Ox-Bridge/Journalism/Publishing backgrounds? And the only one that didn’t had to get a Masters degree to get published – and we all know people don’t do Creative Writing Masters Degrees to learn how to write, they do them for contacts. And that’s what, from my perspective on the outside wanting in, it looks like. You need to have written an outstanding book, demonstrate that you yourself are marketable…and have contacts. Now then, objective cap on for a second, you could say that it makes sense in that people from each of these backgrounds would, by definition, be creative and articulate. Yup, that makes a whole load of sense. But still, the painfully middle-class liberal media nature of these “top picks” is worrying. Now then, before I’m accused of straying into tin-hat territory, I don’t think what we can see happening here is by conscious design. Rather, I think it is a reflection on the risk-averse nature of the industry and the sheer work-load of the agents. Imagine, every day coming in and seeing the slush-pile and assiduously working your way through it. Wouldn’t it be easier if you get an email from an old Cambridge debating society chum who vouches for a friend who has written a novel which he knows you will just love. Is it absurd to think that this email and attached chapters will get read first? Of course if it’s rubbish or not-quite-there it will get rejected like any other. But if it is good and the agent decides it’s worth her energy then the next manuscript on the slush-pile has just missed out because now the agent has mentally assigned the next few months to working with this Cambridge alumnus who it will be just lovely to arrange a drink with.

Maybe I’m wrong about all this. But, I have honestly tried to see the best sides of this situation and, at the moment, find this to be an inescapable conclusion. What it means for me, I don’t know. Am I going to give up? To be frank, I’ve recently thought about it. I’d have to be stupid to blame the whole world and never once think “maybe I just can’t write” or “maybe I can write but my ideas are shit”. But you know what, after deep reflection I think: “no”. My ideas are good and I can write. And most importantly, I like doing it! Whatever else happens, even if I never get a novel published, I know that much.

There must be a way.

2016: a year in reading (part 2)

I tried to get this second part of my 2016 reading posted before 2017…but hey, we all know that the relationship of a writer to deadlines is a strained one. But no matter, following on from Part 1, this is my first post of 2017! Happy New Year to all!


An American Dream – Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer is one of those names who I’ve known about since, well, forever. His Naked and the Dead is supposed to be one of the greatest war novels ever written and the style of writing he is associated with – The New Journalism ­– was a major movement in 1960s and 70s America with names like Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe also being notable proponents. However, all this being said, it was only when I stumbled across a couple of youtube clips of Mailer involved in confrontations on American talk-shows that the name was attached to a person. Then, a fortuitous visit to a second-hand bookshop in Brixton, South London later, and I had a copy of An American Dream.

Actually, I was mesmerised by it. The book is a glorious mess of flamboyant verbiage sometimes teetering on schizophrasic and tells the story of Stephen Rojack, whose life is a sprawling mess. A decorated war-hero he then became a congressman of some potential before jacking it in. When we meet him he is a sensationalist talk-show host with a drink problem and who has hallucinatory fantasies about the moon and killing himself. He is also married to a wealthy socialite and their marriage is marred by bitterness, jealousy, and hurtful point-scoring which goes too far one night and Rojack murders her in a boozy rage. He tries to disguise the murder as a suicide but his ruse fails to trick the detectives who question him between his bouts drinking and getting involved with underground crime figures and sexy singers in seedy jazz clubs. Events then conspire around Rojack making him realise that larger and darker forces than he realised hold the keys to his fate.

Image result for norman mailer an american dreamI will say, though, that the book is a bit messy. This is probably due to the fact that it was serialised in a magazine and Mailer had to complete each section to a deadline. It is also a grimy book in the vision of the world and the “American Dream” that it presents. In particular, feminist critics attacked the book for its representation of women but, to be honest, I’ve never understood this kind of criticism: if you’re representing a seedy underworld then it’s obvious that characters will hold opinions you find disagreeable. I’ve always agreed here with Oscar Wilde when he said “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.” As for An American Dream, I would say that despite sometimes being overwritten, overall I found it hypnotic and enthralling.


I Married a Communist – Phillip Roth

Recommended to me by a friend who rates Roth as one of his favourite writers. I was hesitant to read a book with such a title (being more of an anarcho-capitalist/monarchist myself) – but I have always been a fan of reading outside of my comfort zone so gave the recommendation a go. What did I learn? Well, I was immediately and effortlessly swept up into the nostalgic narrative relayed by narrator Nathan as he reminisces with his former teacher Murray about Murray’s unfortunate brother Ira – the communist of the title. After recognising how easily I had been ushered into the writer’s world I saw that I was in the hands of a skilled craftsman…the problem is that, even though we’re supposed to be aghast at the way the McCarthy era “Red Scare” political machinations interfere with the lives of the characters to varying degrees, I found the protagonist Ira (aside from any ideological difference) to be thoroughly unlikable and I felt no sympathy when events caught up with him.

Saying this though, about half-way through the book – when I realised that, despite enjoying the book, I wasn’t going to gain any deeper understanding of politics, myself, or the world from it – I was aware that had I read this book when I was 19 and impressionable I probably would have allowed myself to be taken up by the barely-disguised Leftist rhetoric of it and immediately gone out and bought everything written by Roth. It’s just that the book has reached me when I was 35 and already politically confident and historically knowledgeable enough to distance myself from the momentum the book generates so well.

All things considered, I think I’ll never rhapsodise over Roth, but I can clearly see him to be a writer of skill and heart and I’ll definitely give another couple of his books a turn (e.g. American Pastoral) before having a definitive opinion on the man and his work.


Metropolis – Thea von Harbou

Image result for metropolis novelI’ve become mildly obsessed with the life and work of Thea von Harbou over the course of 2016. Like most, I’ve seen Metropolis and M and attributed them to the visionary genius of Fritz Lang. But it wasn’t until earlier this year that I learned of the extent of his wife and collaborator Thea von Harbou’s contribution. I dug around the internet a bit and found a noticeable poverty of information regarding her. I’ve written up most of what I found in a blog post about it here which I finally finished not long ago and she served as the inspiration for my poem Woman Among the Ruins which was published in the print Anthology Absent Ginsberg at the end of 2016. I am also planning to expand the poem into a short story soon so that I can explore more of the themes of the feminine daemonic, the existential appeal of totalitarianism, and gender power relations that seem so entwined around and within the story of her life.


Confessions of a Mask – Yukio Mishima

So impressed was I by The Golden Pavilion that I ordered this. When I arrived one of the recommendation quotes from other writers called it “Mishima’s lonely masterpiece”. Now then, “lonely” is precisely the word I used to describe The Golden Pavilion so I was intrigued to see how this would compare considering that it is a semi-autobiographical account of coming to terms with his own homosexuality. Unfortunately, while I enjoyed the book I found that in terms of emotional depth and quality of prose I thought The Golden Pavilion wins out. As to locating precisely why I think so…I’m struggling. I was morbidly fascinated by the description/confession in Confessions… of the protagonist’s discovery of finding the contorted agony of death a turn-on. Similarly, the way the character reacts against his own physical infirmity to idolise the male physical form in its most vital and strong aspect was also a revealing insight into Mishima’s tortured psyche. And yet, for all this bite, I found The Golden Pavilion touched an even deeper spiritual raw nerve.

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Mishima as St Sebastian – he liked that kind of thing

It is also important to consider that the content of the book is still challenging reading in 2016 and a writer ploughing a similar furrow today would still need considerable reserves of courage despite the fact that such a book would almost certainly be critically accepted and sell quite well. So going back to 1949, when it was first published in Japan, and 1958 – in English – and knowing that Japan is a much much more conservative culture than most people realise I came away from the book with even more respect for the man than I had prior – which was already pretty high. I look forward to exploring more of Mishima’s work in 2017.


The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

I picked this up for a pound whilst perusing a book bin at a second-hand furniture shop. I was already aware that the book had won the Booker Prize in 2008 but, honestly speaking, I stopped being impressed by awards a long time ago. Still, I picked it up with no expectations and easily found myself carried along with the story of Balram Halwai’s ascent from humble village boy bound by family obligations through his time in Delhi as a chauffeur to a rich landlord, and finally to Bangalore following the murder of his master for his money. The book creates rich vignettes of various sides of a rapidly developing India with ease and sketches out the conflicts in Balram well as he struggles to extricate himself from his social caste and his duty to his family and emerge as an ambitious, entrepreneurial individual. If I wanted to pick a criticism I would say that the plot arc of the character is stretched out a little bit for a book of its length and felt at points that I was reading something that was “educating” me more than “immersing” me. And yet, this is largely nit-picking, the book has heart – especially in the description of death of the main character’s father early on in the book which is heart-breaking.


The Black Country – Kerry Hadley-Price

9781784630508The Black Country is actually the name given to the area of the West Midlands where I hail from. It is a curious place with no set geographical boundaries and yet somehow clearly demarcated. The dialect is notoriously difficult to understand and is the dialect in the British Isles closest to Old English. The name comes from (some say) the blackened skies from the factories pouring out their smoke and covering everything in soot from the burning fires of the factories that served as the heart of the Industrial Revolution. It is as land-locked as is possible in Great Britain and hasn’t done well after three decades of government neglect. This is the setting for The Black Country but the book, rather than focus on the socio-cultural aspects of the region instead goes for the psychological. The story follows Maddie and Harry, a couple going through the motions of a marriage and each looking to supplement the flagging desire with new experience. After a reunion dinner one night they have a car accident and believe they have killed someone. However, they can’t find the body. Did they kill someone? Are they still alive? Did they imagine the whole thing? The strain of the incident then acts as a catalyst for the disintegration of their relationship and a descent into very dark places indeed.

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The flag of the Black Country, depicting its chain-making heritage

Even though the book is more psychological than socio-cultural, I nevertheless felt proud to be reading something from the same patch of land as me. Call that what you will, but my own relationship to my home-town has been a strained one. For years I despised the place and couldn’t wait to leave – first to London, then Beijing, then London again, then Tokyo, then London again – and avoided visiting family like the plague. Now, however, I am fond of the area, the people, the dialect, the landscape…and enjoy visiting and learning about the area. Age? Maybe. But it seems that the time has come for the inhabitants of the Black Country to begin to articulate their voice (with its distinctive lilt) and it seems that the work of Kerry Hadley-Pryce, Anthony Cartwright, and my good friend the poet R. M. Francis are just the people to start it.


In Praise of Shadows – Junichiro Tanizaki

Actually, my interest in Japan goes way beyond the literary. I study the language and lived in Tokyo for a year in 2012 and have visited (the Kansai region) half a dozen times since. I have had two short stories (Broken Snowflakes and Dead Leaves from the Sea of Trees) as well as a narrative poem (The Sound that Angry Angels Make – about the devastating 2011 Eartquake and Tsunami) published in 2016 and have other stories connected to Japan in the can and also in the pipeline. Something about the place just speaks to me. I should go into it more in a dedicated post someday. But as for this short tract, famed novelist Tanizaki expounds throughout its pages on the essence of the Japanese aesthetic as it pertains to all aspects of Japanese life from high culture and religion to the prosaic concerns of food, lighting, cosmetics, and even toilets and compares the Japanese use of shadow and shade to the Western use of light. It’s a subjective account and would be problematic if viewed as an academic text…but as one writer’s appreciation it offers more than a little food for thought.


Hiroshima – John Hersey

Japan again. No surprise by this point.

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Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Memorial

In May I visited Japan and went to Hiroshima. I had always avoided visiting before because I felt uncomfortable with the potency of the idea that the city was put on the map by literally being blown off it by one of the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan by the US at the tail-end of WW2. However, somehow, this year I felt that should I visit it would be not disrespectful as I felt able to pay adequate respects to the magnitude of human suffering which had happened there. It was a very moving experience. Apart from the peace museum, and the deliberately unreconstructed dome that stands fractured in the centre of a lovely park, the city bears no trace of its horrific past. In fact, it’s a lovely city – possibly my favourite in Japan so far. And yet, after entering the museum, the photographs of children with their faces burned off completely and stones with shadows blasted onto them and rags of clothes preserved from the blast…well, it’s too much to comprehend. Michael Aquino said in an interview once that, from the atheist perspective, the only thing which could truly be considered blasphemous is the use of weapons which split the atom. I couldn’t agree more.

The book is a journalistic account of the lives of several people on the day of the blast and their respective fortunes in the years that followed. One image in particular sticks in my mind: one of the characters comes across some Japanese soldiers hiding in bushes – their eyes have melted out of their sockets. The pain and suffering is unimaginable to me, but this book goes a long way to beginning to communicate it. Another memorable account is of Kiyoshi Tanimoto a reverend who goes on to give lecture tours around America (and is unjustly ostracised back in Japan for being self-serving because of it) and one day finds himself on American TV show This is Your Life where the producers think it would a spiffing idea to bring on the man who piloted the Enola Gay – the plane from which the bomb was dropped – as a surprise guest! Unbelievable. I have embedded the video from youtube below and the time stamp for when they introduce the pilot is 15:49. The expression of Tanimoto as he listens is heart-breaking.

To this day, America has not made an apology for the use of muclear weapons. Even when Obama paid a visit to Hiroshima in 2016 (the first US president to do so). I’ve spoken to Japanese friends about this and there is a large movement of Japanese people who do not expect nor want an apology. Their view is that it is history and it is better not to dwell on such moments of sadness and vulnerability. I understand that and respect it. But nevertheless I still think an apology is owed Japan from America – not that I think it is necessary for Japan to receive the apology (as Japan has already shown itself capable of getting over the event) but rather it is necessary for America offer it. This would be a sign of America beginning to come to terms with the power it wields and the extent of human pain and anguish it has caused.


Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence

I was let down by this. I’m surprised that it actually took me so long to get around to reading any Lawrence as everything I’ve heard (pagan rites and unbridled sexual liberation) had me believe that he would be right up my street. So it’s safe to say that by the time I finally picked up this famed and controversial book my appetite was well and truly whet. Annnnd…I hated it. Yup. Didn’t do anything for me. Again, like I Married a Communist, if I had read this when I was a pent-up sexually frustrated and culturally dis-affected 17 year old then the book may well have been an awakening. Truth be told, I still doubt that…but I’m being generous. The story is basically that a woman married to a rich intellectual paralysed from the waist down (oh, the symbolism) shacks up with the gardener who likes talking about her cunt and her arse. That is essentially it. Apart, that is, from the ruminations on class struggle and capitalism which characters spontaneously break into which just succeed in feeling tacked on for the sake of Lawrence espousing his views.

Oh but you need to view it in context of Britain at a time of sexual repression blah blah blah is always the defence. Yeah, I get it. The book no doubt has an important place in literary history due to the Regina Vs. Penguin Books trial which enabled the book to be published after a 30 year ban and which served as a landmark case in the liberalisation of publishing. But apart from the expletives it really offers little more than Jane Austen in both conceptual and stylistic terms and when viewed against the morbid sado-masochistic homosexual fetish of Confessions of a Mask it seems, well, tame.


The Fall – Albert Camus

Well, you can probably guess that I didn’t like this. I think at this point it’s safe to say that I’m no Camus fan. A former lawyer who prides himself on his virtuous public face realises that he is a hypocrite and ends up dishing out legal advice and moral judgement on those unfortunate enough to be in the same insalubrious bar as him at the dockyard. Conclusion: we’re all guilty. The book is written as if we are participating with the protagonist on one of his sermons – which I must say, at the beginning of the book, does make for a compelling narrative voice – and through which I presume Camus is pointing his finger as if to say “Yes, you too dear reader, are guilty”. Well I’m sorry Albert, but “no”. I felt about this the way I felt about L’Etranger, The Plague, and The Myth of Sisyphus, that basically what Camus thinks about stuff is what we should all think about stuff too. And if you don’t think the same as Camus, well, you’re thick. I can’t believe he got a Nobel Prize. But then again, as I said about the Booker, I stopped being impressed by the mere bestowal of an award a long time ago. Case in point: Albert Camus.


 So that was 2016 in books. A few duds, a few pleasant surprises, and a couple of absolute gems. The breadth of literary movements, styles, and topics of books )both fiction and non-fiction) never ceases to amaze me and leave me feeling humbled by the utter poverty of what I know and have experienced. But with this, comes the excitement of knowing that there is still so much more in store for me to engage with and learn from. Here’s to 2017!!!

2016: a year in reading (part 1)

Not a bad year for reading. To be honest I would have liked to have read more but, well, a whole bunch of things got in the way. Given the obstacles the year has presented I am proud of the short stories and poetry I have had published as well as proud of the draft of The Foreigner which I laboured over. And even given all of this, I still made time to read a nice range of literature which has nourished me in a variety of ways.


Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

I saw the movie when I was about 17 years old and became an absolutely massive fan. Strange then that it took so long for me to get around to reading the source novel. Perhaps I was subconsciously put off by the book being written in a phonetic transcription of a thick Scottish brogue. I needn’t have, though – I slipped into understanding it effortlessly and from there I was right back in there with Renton, Sick Boy, Spud et al as if I was getting to know old mates all over again and watch afresh the eroding of their hopes and dreams through the variety of addictions (drugs, booze, violence) that the group indulge in to manage the brutal reality of simply living.

The book was Welsh’s first and the origins of it in short fiction became evident as I worked my way through it. And this is probably the books greatest strength and also its weakness: strength in that we see our favourite characters fleshed out through the vignettes, but a weakness in that as the book progresses (and the fact that there are more characters in the book than the film) the vibrant panoramic scope of the first part of the book becomes merely fragmented and bitty at the end.

It’s a great book. But I prefer the movie on this one.  


Weird Scenes inside the Canyon – Dave McGowan

I must admit that I spend a lot of my free-time watching youtube videos about conspiracy theories. Whichever way you approach the subject, they’re fascinating. I’ve looked at them all: from shape-shifting reptilian illuminati…to NASA blurring out artificial glass structures on the moon…to MK ULTRA government trauma-based mind control creating Manchurian Candidate-style assassins…to the thing that crashed into the twin towers being a spherical metal alien thing. As a writer, my ability to suspend disbelief and enter into another, vastly divergent, view of the world is an indispensable pre-requisite for such a hobby. Now, I’m not saying I believe them, but I apply a stringently open-minded approach to every topic I investigate (a valuable discipline regardless of outcome) and have learned a lot about history, politics, and the economy from the various background research required to be able to critical engage with the often very persuasive arguments.

However, stumbling across a video one day (embedded) of author Dave McGowan speaking about the manufactured nature of the 1960s counter-culture I was struck by several of the odd occurrences and co-incidences. Why did so many of the musicians come from military intelligence backgrounds? What was the function of the mysterious Lookout Mountain military facility slap bang in the centre of the hippy movement? Why did so many people die in unexplained fires or commit suicide? How did the whole infrastructure (radio stations, live venues) just spring up in an area then not known for music just for the purpose of promoting these new bands? Why did none of the band members ever get drafted?

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Jim Morrison and his high ranking father on-board the ship instrumental in the controversial Gulf of Tonkin

Now, I love that period. In my late-teens and early twenties I defined my whole approach to art and life was inspired by Jim Morrison and psychedelic music, art, and philosophy of the time. So the premise of McGowan’s book really challenged me to set aside any prejudices and, not one to shy away from a challenge, I ordered his book. It blew my mid. I am now convinced that the whole growth of the Laurel Canyon West-coast scene is inextricably bound up somehow with military intelligence operations. This book pulled my personal gods down from their pedestals…and for that, I owe Dave McGowan thanks. Sadly, he died of cancer not long after the recording of the show. Just a coincidence, nothing to worry about.


The Golden Pavilion – Yukio Mishima

The loneliest book I have ever read. Mishima is one of Japan’s towering literary legends – and as famous for his homosexuality, right-wing nationalism, and failed government coup ending in ritual seppuku as much as for his work. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature three times and inexplicably never won it. Well, inexplicable if you overlook his homosexuality, right-wing nationalism and failed government coup ending in ritual seppuku.

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Kinkaku-ji, The Golden Pavilion, in Kyoto, Japan

The book tells the story of a young Buddhist monk who hears of the titular Pavilion, in Kyoto, and before he has even seen it is in love with the beauty he imagines of it. He eventually comes to study at the temple in training to be a Buddhist monk and finds himself ripped in half by a desire to step out from his Buddhist robes and embrace life…but at each crucial moment when such a choice is before him the image of the ethereal beauty pierces him and dissuades him. The conflict increases, as does his unhappiness, and he realises that in order to assert control over his life a dramatic measure is needed.

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Mishima in the bara-kei photography session

Given Mishima’s political stance and obsession with body-building I was expecting the translation to be Hemingway-esque in its brusque manliness. So I was surprised to find the most exquisite prose I have ever read. Page after page is littered with poetry of the most sublime kind. The only other time I have been so moved by the depth and nuance of feeling from a piece of writing was De Profundis by Oscar Wilde. But whereas Wilde adorned himself in purple velvet and silver and hid behind witty epigrams, Mishma’s life was brutal, hard, lonely, and dark. I fully intend to read much more of this complicated man whose soul I can see possessed such beauty and grace despite the cold environs which produced him.


The Sound of the Mountain – Yasunari Kawabata

Another Japanese literary giant. This is a sensitive and closely-observed portrait of an average Japanese family. The head of the family, the aging Shingo, is beginning to lose his memory and experiences mild hallucinatory episodes such as, well, hearing the “sound” of the mountain. Also in his family is his wife Yasuko, son Shuichi, daughter-in-law Kikuko, and daughter Fusako. Relations in the family are strained as it is revealed that Shuichi is cheating on his wife while Fusako has left her husband and returned to the family home with her two daughters. The situation complicates when Shingo realises that from his admiration for the quiet fortitude Kikuko shows in tolerating Shuichi’s affair, as well as her attentiveness around the house, he develops a paternal affection for her greater than that of his own daughter, whose life choices he criticises. As the trials and tribulations tick along Shingo assumes a responsibility for the poor choices of his children and he reflects on his own successes/failures as a husband/father.

And yet, the book is not without consolation. In line with Shingo’s own nature inspired hallucinations, Kawabata’s lyrical style imbues the pages with a down-to-earth simplicity which touches on poetry – albeit a very different, more prosaic sort, than that of Mishima.

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Kawabata in 1938

My only criticism of the book is that each chapter seems to end with a mundane life details described in a way as to feel charged with atmosphere and potent in its implications. At times this is very powerful, but more often than not it feels repetitive. I later learned that the book was originally serialised, and this explains it. Still, this is a small criticism.

Unlike Mishima, Kawabata actually won the Nobel Prize. However, he felt so guilty at receiving it instead of Mishima that he became depressed and killed himself too.


The Plague – Albert Camus

Ah, Camus. I’ve written a lot about the problems I have with L’Etranger and Camus’ whole “absurdist” philosophy as a whole here. Still, I thought the idea of The Plague sounded intriguing: a plague descends on the Algerian city of Oran and the inhabitants have to reconcile living with the ever present threat of death with their inability to leave the town due to the quarantine imposed upon it. Supposedly the book then explores the human condition blah blah blah. I didn’t like it. At all. The main characters all do a stand up job of monitoring the progress of the disease and administrating over the running of the town but that is essentially it. The book is stubbornly un-heroic and unemotional with most of the characters ruminating superficially about the disease and their plight while those throwing caution to the wind or being consumed with desperation or angst are relegated to the background. As a result, the book is…well…dull. However, like my review of L’Etranger, I think the book succeeds in what it sets out to do…it’s just that I disagree with what Camus is trying to do. For me, the whole of Camus’ output has a condescending and anti-human tone which criticises constantly without offering anything constructive because it’s, like, erm, pointless. Later in the year I read The Fall and this opinion was confirmed. Unfortunately though, like L’Etranger, I think it’s a book which serves as a major reference point in the discussion of post-war Existentialism and should be read for that reason.


Lilith – The First Eve: Historical and Psychological Aspects of the Dark Feminine – Siegmund Hurwitz

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Lilith
by John Collier

In addition to drafting and attempting to get The Foreigner published, I am also busy drafting an older book I have written called The Children of Lilith. The book is about a man who finds a murdered body of a prostitute and the shock of it shakes his comfortable middle-class life to its foundations. The Lilith of the title is the fabled first wife of Adam in the Garden of Eden – a complex figure said to have been created at the same time and from the same material as Adam but who was expelled from Eden for refusing to defer to Adam; specifically, she refused to consent to missionary position sex. For this “crime” she was cast into the desert (in some versions, The Red Sea) where she became a malignant demoness who eats new-born babies and seduces men in their sleep. She is associated with the Babylonian and Sumerian goddesses Ishtar and Inanna as well as being the matron of prostitutes.

The book is made up of two parts: the first catalogues historical manifestations of Lilith in both exoteric culture (e.g. in depictions on pottery designed to ward her off in order to protect new borns) as well as describing esoteric interpretations of Lilith such as found in the Kabbalah. The second part of the book is a Jungian interpretation and in the conclusion the writer (who is Jewish) makes the point that Lilith is an integral part of the Jewish psyche and an archetype necessary for Jewish people to encounter in order to individuate. The ethno-centric nature of this conclusion seemed quite at odds with typical academic positions on the psychological relevance of myths (a la Joseph Campbell) that emphasise their universal applicability and even irked me at first as – not being Jewish – I felt the conclusion to be a bit divisive and exclusive. And yet, having thought about it, I can see relevance in such a conclusion: after all, myth structures shape the values of individual cultures so it isn’t really surprising that certain cultures may have attributed a value to a particular myth arc or mythological character as to give it a charged resonance in the psyches of members of that culture that it wouldn’t have in others. All that remains is for me to investigate what figures resonate deep within my own psyche.


The Sacred Prostitute: Eternal Aspect of the Feminine – Nancy Qualls-Corbett

After seeing this book recommended alongside the Hurwitz book I ordered it. As mentioned, Lilith is associated with prostitutes and in particular the practice of Sacred Prostitution. A rarefied concept now, in the civilisations of Sumer and Babylon prostitution was split into profane prostitution (such as we have today) and sacred prostitution whereby the practitioners assume the roles of Gods and the act is symbolic of the heiros gamos or sacred wedding. The loss of this sacred aspect is written into the subtext of my novel The Children of Lilith as a common thread in my work is the loss of understanding we have of an orienting myth structure in our society and the consequent spiritual lost-ness we suffer from.

However, having said that, the book lacks the historical dimension that Lilith – The First Eve had and focuses solely on the Jungian psychological aspect which I often found a bit too subjective. As a result, I didn’t find the book as personally thought-provoking nor as useful from a research point of view as the Hurwitz book.


A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers – Xiao Lu Guo

Image result for xiao lu guo chinese englishI really didn’t like this. In fact, I felt so strongly about it that I dedicated a blog post to the problems I saw in it. Now, I don’t like bashing other people’s work. I know how hard it is to write a book and get it published and have an automatic base-line respect for anyone who has achieved both. But I felt very strongly about both this book and the way the likes of The Independent fawned over it.

In the interests of fairness, I’ll give Guo’s subsequent books a go (and I’m curious to watch one of her documentary films), but I’d be lying if I said I am expecting to become a fan.


Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein

Image result for stranger in a strange landWhilst quite a fan of Sci-Fi movies, I’ve never really been interested in reading Sci-Fi novels. So maybe it’s strange that I ended up reading “the most famous Sci-Fi Fantasy novel of all time”. It’s been on my radar for a while though; since my early twenties when I became fascinating with 1960s cult leader Charles Manson and heard that Stranger in a Strange Land was one of the few books that Manson permitted members of his “Family” to read. However, when questioned in 1981 Manson claimed to have never even read the book. Oh well, nevermind. Regardless of such infernal seals-of-approval the book is well-renowned for offering a penetrating socio-political satire of sex, religion, and contemporary culture through the story of Martian-born human Michael Valentine Smith. Apparently the idea of the book came from Heinlein’s wife who got the idea from The Jungle Book but instead of being raised by animals the protagonist would be raised by Martians.

The first part of the book concerns the legal and political wrangling regarding the status of the Man from Mars and the massive fortune and clout he has at his disposal but is too innocent to know about or comprehend if he did. He is helped in this by the charismatic Jubal Harshaw who ends up, reluctantly, serving to introduce Michael to the ways life is lived on earth and, for his part, Michael excels in his understanding and ability to navigate this strange new world while offering a fresh perspective on the complexities and absurdities of human society that most people are too wrapped up in to realise.

The second part of the book details the cult which springs up around Michael which has some, erm, progressive attitudes to sex which make it understandable what Charlie Manson would have liked if he had read it and did indeed inspire one Timothy Zell to set up a church run along similar lines. At first, Heinlein was asked to cut a lot of this conflating of sex and religion because of its controversial nature and also due to the fact that the submitted manuscript was too long. Heinlein commented that the story “is supposed to be a completely free-wheeling look at contemporary human culture from the nonhuman viewpoint of the Man from Mars…No sacred cows of any sort…the two major things which I am attacking are the two biggest, fattest sacred cows of all, the two that every writer is supposed to give at least lip service to: the implicit assumptions of our Western culture concerning religion and concerning sex.”

Despite reading the chunky full version of the manuscript published in 1991 by Heinlein’s widow I raced through the book and thoroughly enjoyed the characters and was struck by the believability of the Man from Mars’ attempts to understand human society as well as articulate to his curious disciples the philosophy he had grown up with on Mars. I commented in my blog post on A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which I read immediately before this that the two books are essentially ploughing the same furrow…and of the two Stranger in a Strange Land struck me, bizarrely, as the more believable of the two.

Thea von Harbou (1888 – 1954): Woman Among the Ruins

Back in August I was fortunate enough to have three poems included in a print anthology of contemporary poetry by the guys at A Swift Exit. One of those poems, Woman Among the Ruins, was a dramatic monologue inspired by the life of Thea von Harbou – otherwise known as, Fritz Lang’s wife. I was inspired to write the poem as I was saddened whilst reading about the life and achievements of this incredible woman and seeing how, whereas Fritz Lang has all but assured cinematic immortality, her name has all but been erased. As I will mention, despite the part she played in the masterpieces adorned the walls of the Lang mythos, her life has not yet been thought worthy of a full-length biographical treatment. What follows here is a distillation of information I have managed to cobble together from the internet and scattered sources in lieu of this injustice being re-addressed.

Introduction: raise the topic of German Expressionist cinema, and either Metropolis (1927) or M (1931) in particular, with any self-respecting film buff and they will probably break into rapturous praise about the singular genius and incomparable vision of director Fritz Lang. When said film buff pauses for breath, if you interject the name of Lang’s wife and collaborator Thea von Harbou you are likely to get little more than a quizzical raised eyebrow in response. And while it’s true that Lang’s contributions to cinema should not be undersold, the at-best footnote status of von Harbou is something in need of dramatic historical re-evaluation. To date, her life and accomplishments have not been subject to a biographical treatment despite having forged her own way as a respected novelist and short-story writer at a time when it was difficult for women to do so, as well as contributing significantly to the development of German Expressionist cinema, co-writing (among many others) Der müde Tod (Destiny), both of Lang’s Dr Mabuse films, Metropolis, and M.

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Thea von Harbou in 1935

So where did it all go wrong for von Harbou? For many critics, von Harbou sentenced herself to this footnote status in 1933 when she openly aligned herself with the National Socialist party, which came to power under Hitler’s charismatic spell in 1933. Shortly after, Lang fled first to Paris and later America, where he would go on to have immense success in Hollywood and establish the abiding legend of the émigré cinematic auteur. In contrast, von Harbou remained and continued her career screen-writing movies supportive of the Third Reich. Following the defeat of Germany in 1945, von Harbou was first interned in a British prison camp and then worked as a Trümmerfrau– a woman whose job it was to clear the rubble from the ruins of the desolated German cities.

  And yet, if it was this dubious political affiliation that has been responsible for persona non grata status in film history, we should ask why is it that several biographies of Leni Reifenstahl exist? Clearly, there is something else going on here. And the truth may well be far more prosaic than images of jack-booted soldiers marching in line against blazing red flags bearing Swastikas; rather, what we witness with the wild variance in the Lang/von Harbou historiographies may well be simply the emotional fall-out from a relationship disintegrated beyond reconciliation where each partner vies for position as the saintly victim of the roguish other. However, in this case only one party – Lang – partook of public opportunities to disparage the work of the other and as a result von Harbou had languished in silence ever since.


Early life: Thea Gabriele Von Harbou was born in Döhlau, Bavaria, in 1888 into a family of minor Prussian nobility which would later experience financial difficulties. A precocious child, she was educated by private tutors and was adept at speaking several languages as well as playing piano and violin. She wrote from an early age and published her first poems as well as stories about animals – which she loved –from the age of 14. Her first novel, Wenn’s Morgen wird, followed in 1905.

And yet, despite the secure life all but offered to her from this privileged background, von Harbou was always head-strong and keen to forge her own path.  And so, when her family began to struggle financially she threw herself – against her father’s wishes – into both her fiction writing as well as acting in the theatre. She moved to Dresden when she was 18 to pursue these ambitions and, as an actress, travelled around Germany and performed in Düsseldorf (1906), Weimar (1908), Chemnitz (1911) and Aachen (1913). She juggled these twin ambitions well and in 1910, at the age of 22, celebrated her first great literary success with Die nach uns kommen. This success was built upon with serialised works appearing in various newspapers, which with her style of blended melodrama, feminism, and nationalism, helped her to become a popular author of the time.

Following this literary success von Harbou decided to prioritise writing over her theatre work. However, not before meeting the actor and director Rudolf Klein-Rogge in Aachen – the man who would go onto become von Harbou’s first husband (and who himself would later star in several Lang-Harbou films following their divorce in 1920). Von Harbou and Klein-Rogge were married in 1914 and moved to Berlin in 1918, feeling that it would be a more suitable environment in which to market von Harbou’s books.


The move to screen-writing: In 1919, director Joe May enlisted von Harbou to adapt a piece of fiction, Die Legende von der heiligen Simplicia (The Legend of Blessed Simplica), for the screen. This was her first screen-play and thereafter began a prolific and successful period of writing for the screen. Through her association with May, von Harbou met Fritz Lang and together they collaborated on Lang’s next film Das wandernde Bild (The Wandering Image) and began an affair despite both being married. Von Harbou divorced Klein-Rogge in 1920 and, following both the success of Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler) and the curious death of Lang’s first wife, the couple were married in 1922.

 Image result for Dr Mabuse the Gambler posterHer screen-writing work continued through the 1920s and elicited high praise from her contemporaries for work on Murnau’s Phantom (1922) and von Gerlach’s Zur Chronik von Grieshuus (1925). In particular, her dramaturgical skill and ability to think in specifically cinematic terms – no small feat considering the relative youth of the form – were praised by many at the time. However, it is for her collaboration with Lang for which she is most known. Until 1933, when the National Socialists came to power in Germany and Lang fled, she would she co-write every film that Lang would direct – including most famously Metropolis (1927) and M (1931).


Metropolis

 Image result for metropolis novelRather than a novelisation of a film, Metropolis the novel (released a year before the film) was in fact developed from a screenplay written in 1924. As such, the plots between the two are largely similar (albeit with a few stylistic changes on Lang’s part and the film undergoing substantial cuts by the production company, UFA): set in a technologically advanced future, the city of Metropolis is a mass of sky-scrappers and engineering marvels where the upper-classes lounge around in idleness totally oblivious to the life of unrelenting toil experienced by an underground network of labourers whose existence is little more than food for the insatiable appetite of the monstrous machine-city. One such upper-class inhabitant is Freder, who we meet at the beginning idling in ‘The Club of Sons’ among the company of various females and enjoying the many aesthetic distractions available to him. Freder is the son of one the city’s principal architect Joh Fredersen, an emotionless and absent man whose entire existence revolves around ensuring the smooth running of the city by serving it fresh labour.

One day, Freder encounters Maria, who manages to intrude into the pleasure garden of the elite with a group of children belonging to the workers. Maria is soon ushered out but Freder remains shocked by the event and, fascinated by unknown implications suggested by the intrusion, goes to the machine rooms to find her. Eventually he finds her heading an underground assemblage of angry workers expressing their grievances at their lot and on the verge of rebelling violently against Metropolis. Maria placates them, emphasising that revolution is not the answer but rather a figure, a Messiah if you will, who can mediate between the two worlds of the ruling and working class for the betterment of both. Freder makes himself known to Maria, declares his love for her, and announces himself to be the mediator she speaks of.

Another character is the sinister Rotwang (played in the movie by von Harbou’s former husband Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an inventor who lives in a curious old house amid the gleaming futurist vision of Metropolis and which is guarded by an occult seal conveyed upon it by a fabled magician. Rotwang and Fredersen have a long history, with the two men previously competing for the attention of a woman, Hel, who had initially been involved with Rotwang but who changed her affections to Fredersen before she died. The wounds run deep in Rotwang and he is obsessed with “resurrecting” Hel in mechanical form. Fredersen orders Rotwang to give this mechanical Hel Maria’s likeness so that it can soil her reputation among the workers. What follows is an apocalyptic unleashing of primal forces as the false Maria whips up the latent violent descent of the workers into a terrifying and unforgiving mob seeking the destruction of Metropolis. Of course, Freder saves the day and a new order is established with the head and the hands mediated by the heart.

In later years, Lang was very critical of Metropolis and stated that von Harbou’s contributions to the script were hugely over-emphasised and that it was philosophically muddled. Presumably, he wasn’t meaning to imply that it was his contributions that were muddled, which surely would have been the case if von Harbou’s input was as small as he liked to claim.  It is in such comments that we detect traces of the kind of spitefulness characteristic of one’s reassessment of a relationship gone sour. For my part, Metropolis is only philosophically muddled when one is trying to impose a one-dimensional undergraduate anti-capitalist reading onto it. Rather, while the story certainly contains criticisms of capitalism, it is a long way away from the Marxist reading many are keen to layer onto it. One thing for sure though, is that for all its intricacies, it is not a “great” novel. My main criticism is that it is stylistically written in such an impressionistic style (some might uncharitably say “over-written”) that it is often hard to know what is going on. Then, suddenly the tone will change from the high-minded and poetic expression to plot twists and melodrama more suited to the most formulaic of genre books. So while I’m sceptical over Lang’s claims that the movie is philosophically muddled, I concede that the novel is stylistically so.

M

Image result for m 1931 posterVon Harbou’s next major project with Lang was M (1931), a film about a child murderer and inspired by the case of Peter Kürten, “the Monster of Düsseldorf”, during the late 1920s. The movie, Lang’s first “talkie”, betrays its German Expressionist heritage with its representation of aberrant psychological states through the use of contrasting lightness and darkness and unusual camera angles but fuses it with the kind of gritty realism which would characterise the Film Noir genre a decade later. No doubt this realism grew organically from von Harbou’s assiduous following of the news coverage of the Kürten case both in the newspapers and through regular contact with the police headquarters on Alexanderplatz where she was granted access to secret police communications.

The films opens with shots of children playing and a woman setting the table for dinner, and a girl bouncing a ball on her way home. She is approached by a man whistling a tune who offers to buy her a balloon. A few edits later the ball is shown rolling away and the balloon has absconded and flits impotently trapped in telephone lines. It’s a brief and brutal sequence; the perfect introduction to a dark and twisted story.

Following the death of the little girl both the police and the local underworld criminals start manhunts; however, it is the vigilante manhunt that identifies the killer first, marking him in an ingenious manner, and subject him to a kangaroo court where the man (played by Peter Lorre in his first major role) makes an impassioned speech in an effort to win some measure of sympathy from those assembled.  His plea is unsuccessful but [spoiler alert] is saved by the police crashing into proceedings just in time and who take him to face an official trial.

The film is a masterpiece. For my money, I consider it the superior overall film to Metropolis, despite the earlier film’s more spectacular visual aesthetic. Of course, like Metropolis, it is almost impossible to distinguish (from a screen-writing perspective) which contributions owe more to Lang and which to von Harbou, but it is readily accepted that von Harbou was an integral part of the research for the movie as well as an active part in the development of the script.


Personal and professional decline: In 1932, a year before Adolf Hitler came to power, von Harbou joined the National Socialist German Workers Party and a Nazi banner flew over the Lang household, an action largely attributed to von Harbou. In all likelihood this was the case, but some critics have written that Lang was in fact quite tolerant of the Nazis when he thought that he may actually win their approval and it was only following a supposed private meeting between Goebbels and Lang in March 1933, where the Nazi propaganda chief informed Lang that The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was going to be banned, that Lang thought to flee. Of course, this is a long way from claiming that Lang shared von Harbou’s Nazi sympathies, but is nevertheless an interesting counterpoint to Lang’s vehement anti-Nazi position which he espoused once secure in Hollywood’s bosom. There’s much to speculate about here, the scope of which certainly goes beyond the remit of this post, but there are several critics who are confident in stating with certainty that, whatever the respective politics of Lang and von Harbou were, these differences did not contribute to their divorce – a point supported by the fact that von Harbou’s political affiliation wasn’t so much as mentioned once in their divorce papers. Instead, a more likely factor contributing to their divorce was the fact that not long after his marriage to von Harbou Lang became fond of openly pursuing younger women. Lang even went so far as to secure an apartment in his building for one of his mistresses, Gerda Maurus – an actress in Spione – in the same way as he had got an apartment for von Harbou while married to his former wife.

Thea with new beau, Avi

So, given such brazen goings-on, we can be forgiven for a lack of sympathy towards Lang when he returned home early from the set of Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) to find von Harbou in bed with Avi Tendulkar, an Indian student 17 years her junior. Their divorce became final on 20th April 1933 (curiously, Hitler’s birthday) but the real sadness of the story is revealed in a remark von Harbou once made to her secretary that “we were married eleven years because for ten years we didn’t have time to get divorced.” After the divorce Lang and von Harbou soon ceased all contact and while Lang fled Germany von Harbou continued her relationship with Avi Tendulkar and were later forced to marry in secret due to Nazi restrictions on people of her public profile to marry an Indian. Indeed, von Harbou later claimed that she only joined the Nazi Party to help Indian immigrants in Germany, such as Avi, and that her “Nazi sympathies” in actual fact only manifested so far as volunteer welding, making hearing aids, and emergency medical care. An uncharitable assessment would simply be to charge her with trying to minimise her Nazi sympathies to avoid public pressure, but her interest in India seems well attested by her relationship, the influence of India in several of her stories, and a curious side-note that in the 1950s, with her career all but over, she would write in a room adorned with two photos: one of Hitler, and the other of Gandhi.

With Lang out of the frame, Harbou successfully worked as a screenwriter during the Third Reich, collaborating with prominent Third Reich filmmakers such as Veit Harlan, Josef von Baky, Hans Steinhoff, and Erich Engel. Given the Nazi leaning of this output it is not surprising that, following the Allied victory in 1945, none of the projects she was involved with during this time have been widely seen and, what’s more, their mere existence has been enough for film historians to minimise or erase completely all trace of von Harbou from her pre-1933 output.


Post-war years: Following Germany’s defeat in 1945, von Harbou was first detained at a British prison camp in Staumühle from July to October. Whilst here she directed a performance of Faust and upon being released she worked as a trümmerfrau (rubble woman) clearing the streets of the rubble from the destroyed buildings. She later received a work permit and continued to work in the film industry, first synchronizing movies, but later continuing to write scripts. However, despite the unflagging nature of her creative drive through the 50s she would only realise only three more scripts. Despite this change in her creative fortunes, she continued to write and when pain from high blood pressure, migraines, and neuralgia afflicted her she would write or dictate from her bed.

Image result for trümmerfrau

Trummerfrauen, or “rubble women”, clearing the streets in the aftermath of WWII

 

In 1954 one of her first movies – Der müde Tod (Destiny) (1921) – was shown in Berlin. Von Harbou attended as a guest of honour but sustained a hip injury from slipping over when leaving the theatre. A few days later she died in Berlin.


Conclusion: Okay, Nazis: bad. Sympathising with Nazism: not good either. But it seems to me that the historical treatment of Thea von Harbou is at best far off the mark, and at times distinctly unsavoury. Coming from Lang, comments diminishing her and aggrandising himself are, well, understandable – if not necessarily forgivable – given their divorce and the creative and personal investments at stake. However, from film historians whose job it is to document the development of the art form, to wilfully permit – and sometimes actively perform – the erasure of someone demonstrates a chilling psychological make-up akin to the “disappearings” so readily turned to as a solution by those with a totalitarian mindset. Here was a woman of considerable artistic talent and indomitable will, forging her own way at a time when opportunities for women were scarce, and against a backdrop of considerable social and political upheaval. Amidst all of this, her talent is duly noted by her peers and she is able to work along the best names of the era as an equal. Even Lang, several years after von Harbou’s death, directed the film The Indian Tomb which was based upon one of her novels. Disagree with her politics, sure, but her contributions deserve the right to fight their own corner in the marketplace of ideas. Unfortunately it seems that because the stature of her talent and depth of her contributions so often impinge on tenets of the Lang mythos, she has had to suffer the indignity of being silenced all these years. When her fascinating life-story eventually does get the biography it deserves, it will have been both richly-deserved and long overdue.