Sunday 30 November 2014

The Return of the Radgie Gadgie

Photo, I suspect, by Charlie Hedley

Friday 28 November 2014

P. D. James RIP

PD James, queen of crime fiction, dies aged 94
Creator of much-loved detective Adam Dalgliesh was one of the most successful British authors of detective fiction

Richard Lea
Thursday 27 November 2014

The writer PD James, who charted the transformations of British life through bestselling crime fiction starring the detective Adam Dalgliesh, has died aged 94. Her publisher Faber and Faber confirmed that she had died peacefully at home in Oxford on Thursday morning.

Her debut novel, Cover Her Face, was snapped up by the first publisher to set eyes on the manuscript, launching a career that advanced in parallel with that of her fictional police officer, Chief Inspector Dalgliesh. As he found himself promoted to superintendent and then to commander, so James accumulated a host of awards including the Crime Writers’ Association’s Diamond Dagger and the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster award. Many of the Dalgliesh novels were subsequently filmed for television, with Roy Marsden taking the role of the investigator.

James also won a good number of public honours, eventually finding herself elevated to the House of Lords in 1991, where she sat with the Conservatives.

Born in 1920, James left school at 16 to follow her father into a career in the Inland Revenue. She married Connor White at 21 and moved to London, giving birth to two daughters as German bombers pounded the British capital. Her husband returned from the war with mental health problems, leaving James to provide for her young family by working in hospital administration. With her daughters at boarding school and her husband in hospital, evenings become devoted to writing.

It had always been her “intention” to become a writer, and she began writing about a detective partly as an apprenticeship for writing “serious” novels, as she explained to the Paris Review in 1994. James had always loved crime novels, was unwilling to explore the “traumatic experiences” of her own life in fiction and was well aware it would be easier to find a publisher for a detective story. But the genre also appealed to her taste for order.

“I like structured fiction, with a beginning, a middle, and an end,” she said. “I like a novel to have narrative drive, pace, resolution, which a detective novel has.”

Published in 1962, Cover Her Face opens “exactly three months before the killing”, with a country-house dinner party which becomes, “in retrospect, a ritual gathering under one roof of victim and suspects, a staged preliminary to murder”. The new parlourmaid announces her engagement to the manor house’s eldest son at the village fete and is strangled the following night, a mystery resolved by the refined poet-detective Dalgliesh. “I gave him the qualities I admire,” James explained in 2001, “because I hoped he might be an enduring character and that being so, I must actually like him.”

The author’s hunch proved accurate, Dalgliesh trading his Bristol Cooper for a Jaguar as he took on cases in hospitals, nursing homes and laboratories over the course of 14 novels.

The erudition of James’s detective and the focus of her murder mysteries on the middle classes brought accusations of elitism, coming to the boil in 1995 after a radio interview in which the author suggested “you don’t get moral choice” in what she called “the pits of the inner-city area, where crime is the norm and murder is commonplace”. But the writer made no apologies, arguing “the contrast between respectability and planned brutality is of the essence” in a detective story.

“If you have appalling and violent events happening in a civilised place, it’s a great deal more horrific,” she explained.

With second-wave feminism at high tide, James flirted with a tough, working-class female lead. When Cordelia Gray made her debut in 1972’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, she became one of modern crime fiction’s first female private detectives, paving the way for Liza Cody’s Anna Lee and Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski. James managed only one more full-length outing for Gray, abandoning the detective after her television incarnation had an affair and became pregnant. “I realised my character had gone,” James said.

International success came with 1980’s Innocent Blood, in which a young woman discovers the murderous secret at the heart of her adoption. James sold paperback rights for £380,000 and film rights for £145,000 – more than she had earned in 10 years working at the Home Office – and promptly retired. “At the beginning of the week I was relatively poor and at the end of the week I wasn’t,” she remembered.

Writing outside the crime genre, her 1992 novel The Children of Men – set in a dystopian future – was adapted to critical acclaim for the cinema in 2006. She also scored a late hit in 2011 with Death Comes to Pemberley, a murder-mystery sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

James’s apprenticeship in crime fiction became a lifelong commitment, as she came to believe “it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live”. To suggest that the formal constraints of crime fiction prevent its practitioners from producing good novels “is as foolish as to say that no sonnet can be great poetry since a sonnet is restricted to 14 lines”, she argued.

Speaking in 2001 at the launch of Death in Holy Orders, her 11th Dalgliesh novel, James explained that her success was founded on the belief that plot could never make up for poor writing and that authors should always focus on the reader.

“At the end of a book, I want to feel, well that’s as good as I can do – not as good, perhaps, as other people can do – but it’s as good as I can do. There are thousands of people who do like, for their recreational reading, a classical detective story, and I think they are entitled to have one which is also a good novel and well written. Those are the people I write for. They don’t want me to adapt to what I think is the popular market. They want a good novel, honestly written and I think they are jolly well entitled to it.”

Thursday 27 November 2014

Last night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

Ron Elderly: -
Make You Feel My Love
Autumn Leaves
Can't Help Falling In Love

Da Elderly: -
Is It Only The Moonlight?
Love Song
Mellow My Mind

The Elderly Brothers: -
World Without Love
Oliver's Army
Bad Moon Rising
If I Fell
So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)

Another quiet night at The Habit, which perked up later, as often happens. There were 3 or 4 acapella turns, which must be a record, including the Spanish guy from last week.

The Elderlys dug out an old Lennon-McCartney song which was a No.1 hit for Peter & Gordon and gave a first outing to Creedence's Bad Moon Rising.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Lucky Bastard gets Bob Dylan all to himself

Bob Dylan Plays Concert for One Insanely Lucky Superfan
"I was smiling so much it was like I was on ecstasy," says Fredrik Wikingsson. "My jaw hurt for hours"

Andy Greene
24 November 2014

Yesterday afternoon around 3:00 p.m. 41-year-old Bob Dylan superfan Fredrik Wikingsson walked into Philadelphia's Academy of Music, took a seat in the second row and prepared to watch his hero play a concert just for him. "At this point I still thought I was about to get Punk'd," he says. "I thought some asshole would walk onstage and just laugh at me. I just couldn't fathom that Dylan would actually do this."

This wasn't Punk'd, and within 10 minutes of Wikingsson taking his seat, the lights dimmed and Dylan took the stage alongside his touring band. Playing to an audience of one, they abandoned their usual repertoire and played Buddy Holly's "Heartbeat," Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill," Chuck Willis' "It's Too Late (She's Gone)" and a blues jam that Wikingsson has been unable to identify. "I was smiling so much it was like I was on ecstasy," he says. "My jaw hurt for hours afterwards because I couldn't stop smiling."

The incredible concert was part of an ongoing Swedish film series Experiment Ensam (Experiment Alone), where people experience things completely alone that are usually reserved for large crowds. Past films focused on lone people at comedy clubs or karaoke bars. The filmmakers thought a lot bigger for this one and made arrangements with Dylan's camp for the private show, paying him an undisclosed amount of money. "I have no idea how much it was," says Wikingsson. "But it was probably more than he gets for a normal gig."

Wikingsson's friend Anders Helgeson is the director of Experiment Ensam, and when he told him about the Dylan concept he begged to be the subject. "I had an endless series of meetings where I managed to convince people my extreme fandom made me the best candidate for the enviable task," he says. "I'm very passive and I always picture myself as the guy that wouldn't be able to save himself on a sinking ship. I'd just lay down and die. I have no real ability to grab the moment, but when I heard about this I thought, 'For once, I have to stop everything in my life and go for something.'"

The day before the show, Wikingsson, a popular TV personality who lives in Stockholm, walked around New York's Greenwich Village with a camera crew and visited famous Dylan landmarks. On show day, he found himself so nervous he wasn't able to eat. "I was a fucking wreck," he says. "Part of me was thinking, 'Maybe this won't happen and it'll be for the best. I don't want to impose on Mr. Dylan. I don't want him to stand there and be grouchy, just hating it.'"

When he walked into the theater, he had the surreal experience of being able to pick any seat in the house. He went with a seat in the middle of the second row. "I thought the first row might freak him out," Wikingsson says. "I was like a guy picking the next-to-most expensive bottle of wine in a restaurant, which is a very Swedish thing to do. I figured the second row would be ideal. Malcolm Gladwell would probably have all sorts of theories about this."

The light dimmed 10 incredibly anxious minutes after he walked in. "It was completely dark and empty," Wikingsson says. "Then a guy walks onstage and started talking to the lighting guy. Turns out it was Dylan and he nodded at me. There wasn't any ceremony at all. He just started talking to his bassist and drummer about how they were going to start the first song."

Dylan's set list has been remarkably rigid over the past year, centering largely around songs released in the past 15 years. Covers are extremely rare, so Wikingsson was delighted when the show began with "Heartbeat." "I liked Buddy Holly before I liked Dylan," he says. "I felt like Christmas morning."

He broke out into applause when the song finished. "Nobody took notice of me," he says. "I figured that maybe it just sounded phony or weird. During the second song, 'Blueberry Hill,' I realized I had to say something. It was just too weird. I screamed out, 'You guys sound great!' That caused Dylan to burst out laughing. Now, I have two kids and their births were great, but him laughing onstage at some lousy fucking comment of mine was unbelievable."

At the end of "It's Too Late (She's Gone)" Dylan performed a harmonica solo. "I always detest people that automatically holler and applaud every time he breaks out the harmonica," says Wikingsson. "But I found myself almost weeping when he played the solo. He could have just ended the song without the solo, he wanted it to be great."

The show wrapped up with a blues song. "It's still a big mystery to me," says Wikingsson. "This will probably be a embarrassing for me because it might be a well-known blues song. I'm sure when I get the tapes I can figure out what it was. When the show ended Dylan said, 'Swing by anytime.' He was highlighting the fact this was a weird thing that will never happen again. It was just so fucking great."

Dylan played a public show that night, but Wikingsson decided to not go. "It would be weird and nothing could top this," he says. "To be honest, I went to a karaoke bar with the production guys and sang my throat out. I selected all Dylan songs, but they just had these crappy Byrds versions."

Wikingsson's private Dylan show was filmed by eight cameras, and a 15-minute documentary of the event will hit YouTube on December 15th. "Fans might detest the fact that I'm sitting there," he says. "But it's going to be really cool and great looking. The sound was just incredible."

He's also going to talk at great length about the experience on his popular English language podcast, The Filip and Fredrik podcast.

Now that the whole experience is behind him, Wikingsson has one final dream: "I want Dylan to release an official Columbia EP of the concert called Songs for Fredrick."

Now if he's a lucky bastard, you should follow the link and see some of the asshat comments made by 'fans'. Proof, if ever it were needed, that people should be given an IQ test before they can vote.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Richard Ford - Being Frank

Image result for richard ford

John Banville celebrates Richard Ford’s Bascombe books: the story of an American Everyman
We first met Frank Bascombe as a divorced father and frustrated novelist in The Sportswriter in 1986. Now – in the fourth of the hugely acclaimed series – he is approaching old age and has found something like peace

John Banville
The Guardian
Saturday 8 November 2014

If it is true, as Shelley contended, that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, then perhaps novelists are its unacknowledged historians. Certainly many of the mighty ones of the 19th century –George Eliot, Tolstoy, Balzac – wrote as if that was indeed what they considered themselves to be. At the dawn of the 20th century, however, modernism put an end to such grandiloquent notions, in Europe, anyway. However, even if Americans in exile – Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, Gertrude Stein – were some of the movement’s main makers, the great gale of modernism ran out of puff before it reached US shores. As a result, the 19th-century novel is alive and thriving over there on the far side of the Atlantic.

Which is not to say that American novelists are still writing to the European model. As long ago as 1837, in “The American Scholar”, his radical address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, Massachusetts, Emerson declared: “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions, that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests.” That text was nothing less than a second Declaration of Independence, an affirmation that the United States was not an attempt at remaking Europe in the new world, but a new construct the old world could not have dreamed possible.

Emerson is one of Richard Ford’s touchstones – perhaps, indeed, the main one – and is frequently invoked in the pages of his novels. Indeed, Ford’s America is an Emersonian phenomenon. “The world, – this shadow of the soul, or other me, lies wide around,” Emerson writes, in a breathtaking assertion of the hegemony of the self. It would make a fitting epigraph for all of Ford’s work, and especially for the Frank Bascombe series, of which Let Me Be Frank with You is the fourth volume.

Frank is Ford’s Everyman, a disenchanted, rueful and humorous witness to his country’s faltering resolve at the close of the American century and the opening of a new and newly menacing millennium. Back there for a while, after the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of a variety of tyrannies, large and small, it seemed to the generation of America’s baby-boomers, whose entire lives had been lived in dread expectation of the ultimate nuclear boom, that they were in for a period of well-earned peace and quiet. However, humankind cannot bear much tranquillity, and now, a quarter of a century later, in a new Age of Catastrophe, the land of the brave finds itself “crouching,” in Philip Larkin’s shudder-inducing phrase, “under Extinction’s alp”, as multiple empires of evil square up against it.

As if America’s human foes were not enough, over the last few decades Mother Nature joined in the onslaught, with monster volcanic eruptions, skyscraper-high waves and storms of a kind that formerly were only seen in Ridley Scott movies. The latest of these “superstorms” was Hurricane Sandy, which, having battered various Caribbean islands, made landfall near Atlantic City in New Jersey in late October 2012 and with biblical fury laid waste all before it. Nearly 300 people died in seven countries the storm passed through, and in the US the cyclonic winds and giant seas caused an estimated $68bn in damage to property and business.

The action of Let Me Be Frank with You – not, perhaps, the wisest choice of title – takes places in New Jersey and environs in the weeks coming up to Christmas 2012, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, as the country staggers to its feet and woozily begins the task of making good what the storm left for bad. Given the times through which America is living, when all manner of destruction comes flying at it out of the air, Hurricane Sandy, though a nightmare for its victims, was a novelist’s dream. Ford is far too subtle an artist to push Sandy’s symbolic possibilities, yet an air of millennarian dread pervades the book, however jaunty the tone and however good the one-liners.

The book comprises four longish sections, which might be considered as separate but related stories, or as the chapters of a relaxedly organised novel. Late style, in Ford, is loose-limbed, allusive, jokey in a rueful way, and mutedly elegiac. If his country is in deep trouble, Frank Bascombe too has his woes, the most engrossing though hardly the worst of which is the fact that he is getting old – the fact, indeed, that he is old. Also, he is in emotional trouble, as usual. Not big emotional trouble. In the past he suffered through bereavement, divorce, erotic entanglements of varying difficulty, and even, in one instance, a bar-room brawl; now he has reached a plateau of something like peace, though the air up here is shot through with flashes of lightning and a cold rain falls.

We were first introduced to Frank in The Sportswriter (1986), when he was 38 and divorced from the woman whom throughout the book he referred to only as X. They had three children, though one of them died young. Frank had wanted to be a novelist, and in the far past managed to complete a book of short stories that was bought by the movies, allowing him to acquire a large house in Haddam, New Jersey, and a new young girlfriend – “I am pretty certain I’m in love with her (I haven’t mentioned anything about it for fear of making her wary).” Over one Easter, we followed him on various lugubrious adventures until at the close he reached, somehow or other, “this glistening one moment, this cool air, this new living”.

Nine years later, in 1995, came Independence Day, in which we found Frank entered on a confused and difficult mid-life stage, with a change of career and a new job as a real estate agent. The book ended with a superb account, at once funny and desolating, of a holiday outing by Frank and his difficult son Paul that began and went on disastrously yet ended, again, with a sort of affirmation, at that most banal and endearing of occasions, a Fourth of July march – “The trumpets go again. My heartbeat quickens. I feel the push, pull, the weave and sway of others.”

The Lay of the Land appeared in 2006, though it was set at Thanksgiving in 2000, when the country was in turmoil after the controversial presidential election of that year, which many considered was hijacked by George W Bush and his supporters, with the connivance of the US Supreme Court. Frank was now 55 and had a real-estate business in Sea-Clift, New Jersey, and was, this time, in bad trouble. His second wife Sally had walked out on him, and he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Once more, though, old Frank pulled through, and at the end we left him in not such bad shape: “Here is necessity. Here is the extra beat – to live, to live, to live it out.”

Now, in the new book, Frank has retired from the property business and is living still in Sea-Clift with Sally, who has come back to him. Though somewhat content with his lot, he has no illusions about his lifetime’s achievement and his place in the great scheme of things, “since flogging suburban houses on cul-de-sacs that once were cornfields in West Windsor rarely gets you noticed by the folks at the Stanford linear accelerator”. He has also arrived at some clear-eyed conclusions about what it is to be alive and an actor in the world’s ongoing, humdrum performance.

Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that. But nothing else – nothing hard or kernel-like. I’ve never seen evidence of anything resembling it. In fact I’ve seen the opposite: life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end.

This passage of negative dialectics is central not only to this book, but is a crystallisation of Ford’s artistic mode throughout the Frank Bascombe series – throughout, indeed, all his work, from the superb story collection Rock Springs to his previous, non-Bascombe novel, the masterly Canada. His authorial voice from the start has been that of a relaxed existentialist. He recognises the essentially contingent and slippery nature of our being here, and the necessity to manoeuvre our way through the world as best we can. Emerson again, from his great essay “Experience”: “We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.” Ford’s is, of course, an essentially male view of things, and it is no coincidence that he is one of the few novelists nowadays whose work is read by men. You’ve got to be tough to survive, is Frank’s conviction, but the odd joke doesn’t hurt.

In the book’s first section, titled “I’m Here”, Frank is contemplating the awful aftermath of the great storm. The opening pages vividly communicate the exuberant tactility of contemporary American life, as folk go busily about the repair of their homes and their lives. Customers are filing out of the local DIY store burdened like ants, one of them with “an entire front stoop teetering on a giant shopping cart”. Once home, Frank is called up by Arnie Urquhart, a wealthy fishmonger to whom in the boom time he sold his Sea-Clift house for “two-point-eight”, the same house that has now been destroyed. Arnie has been offered half a million dollars for the wreckage and the site, and wants Frank’s advice. Or is it that he wants to blame Frank for what happened, as if Frank might have known Sandy was on the way, all those years before she struck? The episode ends in a wince-makingly comic scene, with Frank locked unwillingly in Arnie’s emotional embrace and with no alternative but to hug him back. Old Ralph Waldo was right, Frank gloomily concludes: “an infinite remoteness underlies us all”.

As so often with Ford, the book consists of a series of encounters, with the hapless and menacing Arnie; with a black woman, “Ms Pines”, middle-aged and erotically interesting, who calls at Frank’s house and tells him an appalling story from the past; with Ann Dykstra, his first wife, formerly known as “X”, who is in the early stages of “the Big P” – Parkinson’s disease – and, finally, in an archetypical Ford tour-de-force, with an old acquaintance from the 1970s, one Eddie Medley, at that time an MIT whizz kid who went into business and made “a shitload of dough”. Frank hears Eddie doing a call-in to a radio show, recognises his voice, and gets in contact, which ultimately proves not to have been such a good idea, since the dying Eddie has something to tell him that he would rather not hear.

The scene at Eddie’s death bed – “So many things can go wrong, it’s strange any go right” – is both hideous and hilarious, and Frank escapes from it with relief into a magically mild December morning and the last encounter of the book. This is with Ezekiel, a fuel delivery man, “a strapping, smiling, shaved-head, spiritual dynamo” who greets Frank cheerfully and, against all the odds, manages to cheer him up just by being what he is, a man, like Frank himself, making his hard way in a tough world and refusing to be defeated.

Few writers could get away with a scene such as this, at once mundane and luminous; Ford does it with consummate skill, tact and grace. In a truly inspired little coup de la page, he has Ezekiel ask after Frank’s surviving son, Paul, but by mistake call him Ralph, which was the name of the son who died tragically young, and whose death probably led to his parents’ divorce. The delicacy with which Frank passes over the sad awkwardness of the moment shows just what a marvellous writer Ford is. “Then he goes. And I go. The day we have briefly shared is saved.”

Frank Bascombe’s Seafaring Foil

Jon Michaud
Monday 24 November 2014

I am a Frankophile—not a lover of all things French but a lover of all things Bascombe, as in Frank Bascombe, the fallible and loquacious protagonist of three novels by Richard Ford: “The Sportswriter, “Independence Day,” and “The Lay of the Land.” I am addicted to Bascombe in the besotted way that is more common among fans of Sherlock Holmes, the Vampire Lestat, and other recurring characters in genre fiction. But, unlike those favorites, who tend to emerge regularly in new narrative clothing, sometimes even after their creators have died, Frank shows up only once a decade or so. To compensate for the long wait, each time a new Bascombe book is announced I go back and reread its predecessors, steeping myself in Frank lore: the loss of his young son Ralph; the breakup of his first marriage; his fling with a Dartmouth co-ed; his decision to quit sportswriting and become a real-estate agent; his often fractious relationships with his two surviving children; his move to the Jersey Shore; his second marriage to the lovely but unpredictable Sally; his musings about “the normal, applauseless life of us all”; and his perambulations around the Garden State, rendering the quotidian into gold dust.

Like many other readers, I thought we might have seen the last of Frank with the conclusion of “The Lay of the Land,” in 2006. Shot by thugs who had come to rob his lottery-winning neighbors, Frank lay in a hospital bed, contemplating the end: “I determined to be buried in powdered form somewhere at sea off Point Pleasant . . . compiled my list of pallbearers, jotted down some basic obituary thought that included how I wanted my assignables assigned, to whom and with what provisos.” Though he ultimately cast these morbid plans aside and announced his desire “to live it out,” there didn’t seem much reason to believe Frank would be back.

So when I learned, earlier this year, that Frank would return in “Let Me Be Frank with You,” a new book made up of four novellas, I set aside time to reread the existing trilogy. But this time I added a fourth title to my list: Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone Around the World,” originally published in 1900. My impetus was Ford’s mention of the book in a Paris Review interview, which was conducted in 1996. In it, Ford said:

When I wrote The Sportswriter, I was writing with a loose understructure that only I knew about and that probably isn’t detectable by the reader. It was Joshua Slocum’s famous book Sailing Alone Around the World. To my brain, there are in my book certain focal points that are closely similar to events in his. Indeed, the whole time I was writing the book, I called Frank, Frank Slocum and not Frank Bascombe.

On first glance, “The Sportswriter” and “Sailing Alone Around the World” have almost nothing in common. Slocum’s book is a nonfiction account of the author’s solo circumnavigation of the world in a thirty-six-foot sloop named the Spray—the first time this feat was achieved. His book is an adventure story, made up of descriptions of foreign ports, stormy weather, and attacks by pirates, but it is also an enduring celebration of American fortitude and self-reliance, very much in the tradition of Thoreau’s “Walden” and “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” Ford’s novel, on the other hand—a work of lyrical realism about a pivotal weekend in the life of a divorced New Jersey sportswriter who takes his girlfriend on a trip to Detroit followed by a calamitous Easter dinner at her parents’ house—shares a lineage with books like Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer,” Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” and Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes.”

But, as Ford said in his interview, it’s not the surface qualities but the “understructure” of his story that is connected to Slocum’s. The two books share themes of loneliness, survival, and renewal. Certain key moments in “The Sportswriter” seem related to events in Slocum’s book. (I linked Bascombe’s disappointing trip to Detroit with Slocum’s treacherous journey through the Straits of Magellan.) The correspondences are nowhere near as choreographed or as revealing as the relationship between the chapters of “Ulysses” and the books of “The Odyssey,” but reading “Sailing Alone Around the World” enriches a rereading of “The Sportswriter” in unexpected ways.

Slocum led a life worthy of the hero of a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson or Joseph Conrad, and he had a seaman’s contempt for the comforts of life ashore—“the land of napkins and cut glass,” as he called it. Born in Nova Scotia in 1844, he ran off to the sea after the death of his mother, when he was sixteen. He sailed all over the world, was naturalized as an American citizen, worked as a shipbuilder, and rose to ship’s captain, taking his first command at the young age of twenty-four. His maturity coincided with the ascendancy of steam, but he remained devoted to sail. (“I was born in the breezes,” he said.) At the pinnacle of his career, he became the commander and part owner of the Northern Light, which he called “the finest American sailing vessel afloat.” His life was afflicted with tragedies. His first wife and three of their seven children died. His crews mutinied. After defending his ship from pirates, he was tried and acquitted of murder. He had a close call with the eruption of Krakatoa. In 1887, his ship Aquidneck wrecked on a sandbank off the coast of Brazil. Using materials salvaged from the ship, he constructed a sailing canoe, the Liberdade, and returned to the United States in it. The tale of that journey became his first book.

By the time he embarked on his voyage around the word, Slocum was broke and washed up. (As he was fond of repeating, he set sail with a Franklin-esque $1.50 in his pocket.) The forty-six-thousand-mile trip made him famous, and his account of it became a best-seller and gave him financial security for a time. He shook hands with Presidents, but couldn’t make a life for himself on land, failing as a farmer and getting into legal difficulties. Slocum plotted another voyage, to South America. But, in November of 1909, he and the Spray disappeared en route to the Caribbean.

The more I read about Slocum, the more I came to see him as a foil for Bascombe. Time and again, Slocum gets himself out of trouble unassisted. Needing money in Australia, he catches a huge shark and charges people to view it. Hounded by “savages” in Tierra Del Fuego, he rigs up a pantomime to trick his pursuers into believing that there are other men aboard the Spray. Frank, by contrast, is feckless. He’s often cold, having chosen the wrong shoes or a jacket that’s too light for the weather; he is forever needing to take a leak; he’s frequently hungry and looking to squeeze in a snack or a meal. He is beset by small injuries. He grasps for structure in his life, inventing phases such as the Existence Period the Permanent Period and the Authentic Self. An uncharitable reader will find him easy to lampoon. You know he wouldn’t last long on the Spray before getting seasick.

This contrast between Frank and Slocum may be unintentional, but it speaks to a running dichotomy in Ford’s work: between the urbane and the rural, the civilized and the wild. On the one hand, there are the Bascombe books and the short stories gathered in “Men Without Women” and “A Multitude of Sins.” On the other hand, there are the rustic, hardscrabble novels “Wildlife,” “Canada,” and the Montana stories of “Rock Springs.” Ford, after all, is the author of an essay on the metaphysics of punching someone in the face, which includes these lines:

Where I grew up, in Mississippi and Arkansas, in the fifties, to be willing to hit another person in the face with your fist meant something. It meant you were—well brave. It meant you were experienced, too…. Hitting in the face was a move toward adulthood, the place we were all headed—a step in the right direction.

Slocum, who rarely backed down from a fight, would likely agree. Bascombe would not. As Ford noted in a recent interview with The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, “Frank is a nicer man than I am. Demonstrably.” Bascombe almost always comes off badly in violent confrontations. In the transit from self-reliant, adventurous Slocum to dreamy, suburban-dwelling Bascombe, it’s easy to see the decline of American masculine ideals. (Salon recently published a piece, by Lydia Kiesling, comparing Bascombe to Tony Soprano.) But the truth is that most of us live in Frank’s world. We don’t need to know how to catch a shark or build a boat. Transplanted to twenty-first-century New Jersey, Slocum might well come across as a survivalist nut job.

Perhaps more than any other writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson is the common ancestor of both Slocum and Ford. Frank cites him and quotes him frequently, and he has a copy of “Self-Reliance” in the backseat of his car during his road trip with his surly son, Paul, in “Independence Day.” Arriving at the Basketball Hall of Fame, Frank thinks that he ought to haul it out and use it to give his son a pep talk. But he lets the moment pass. Later, Paul picks up the book and asks, “What is this supposed to be about? . . . Is this a novel?” He reads passages aloud and then mocks them: “Blah, blah, blah, blah. Glub, glub, glub.” The derision leads to an argument, in which Paul rips a page out of “Self-Reliance” and taunts Frank: “I just took a page from your book.”

One of my favorite things to do while reading “Sailing Alone Around the World” was to use the Maps app on my iPhone to locate the tiny islands Slocum visited: Juan Fernandez, Saint Helena, Keeling Cocos. I would zoom in as close as I could and then try to thumb my way west or north toward the next destination on the Spray‘s itinerary. It was both an attempt to grasp the vastness of the empty waters Slocum sailed—swipe after swipe of blue, blue, blue on my screen—and also to appreciate the difficulty of navigation between these distant points. Slocum used an antiquated method known as dead reckoning to navigate his way with astounding accuracy around the globe. In our age of G.P.S. technology, when we can’t get to Home Depot without satellite-assisted guidance, his feat, performed with an old tin clock, paper charts, and the stars above his head, seems like a kind of wizardry.

Those vast spaces between islands also called to mind Ford’s oft-quoted remark that words have the potential “to narrow that space Emerson calls ‘the infinite remoteness’ that separates people.” What is literal in Slocum’s book—thousands of miles between ports—becomes figurative in Bascombe’s—the inability of people to understand each other. The mariner actually rides the waves in the Spray while Frank is metaphorically “at sea” in his own life. Reading these two books side-by-side is a reminder of the extent to which modern life has become a virtual, figurative experience. On the final page of “Sailing Alone Around the World,” Slocum writes, “To succeed, however, in anything at all, one should go understandingly about his work and be prepared for every emergency.” Words to live by, whether you’re guiding your sloop across the Pacific or driving your Hyundai Sonata home from Piscataway.

Monday 24 November 2014

William Blake - Ten Best Artworks

The 10 best works by William Blake
On the eve of a major exhibition on the printmaker, painter and poet, Fiona Maddocks chooses her 10 favourite works

Fiona Maddocks
The Observer
Friday 21 November 2014

1 The Angels Hovering Over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre, c1805
This watercolour with pen and ink is one of around 80 biblical topics commissioned by Blake’s patron Thomas Butts, a civil servant. It depicts the moment Mary Magdalene visited the tomb of Jesus after the crucifixion and found two angels hovering where the body had lain. Blake’s imagery comes from the Old Testament book of Exodus, when the Israelites make a “mercy seat” flanked by golden angels. The colours are so delicate that the picture is almost monochrome. Aged eight, Blake told his mother he had seen a tree full of angels “bespangling every bough like stars”. The vision occurred on Peckham Rye, one of south-east London’s more ethereal green spaces.

2 The Ancient of Days, 1794

Blake loved this image, the frontispiece to Europe a Prophecy, and made several copies. The old man is Urizen, in Blake’s mythology the embodiment of reason and law and a repressive, satanic force trying to bring uniformity to mankind. (In America a Prophecy, Urizen is the evil god who rules during the Enlightenment.) Here he is seen kneeling in a flaming discus surrounded by dark cloud, hand held over a compass, apparently measuring the black void. A copy was commissioned from Blake during the final days of his life. He worked on it, tinting the colours, as he was propped up on his sickbed.

3 Adam Naming the Beasts, 1810

A youthful Adam, who closely resembles portraits of the curly-haired young Blake, names the beasts after the fall. The serpent is entwined, in surprisingly friendly fashion, around Adam’s left arm. He stares out, as if deep in thought. The animals, behind him, graze in a pastoral landscape, as if still unscathed by man’s transgression in the garden of Eden. Above Adam’s head, an acorn indicates winter, but in Blake’s mythology the oak is also the druidical tree on which Christ was crucified. The fall of man, the serpent, Adam and Eve are central to Blake’s vision. This tempera-on-wood painting is in Pollok House, Glasgow.

4  Newton, 1795-c1805
“Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death,” the visionary Blake wrote. He condemned the scientific trio of Isaac Newton, John Locke and Francis Bacon as sterile and materialistic. Here Newton – the idea rather than a portrait – sits on a rock covered in algae, making calculations with a compass, like Urizen in Ancient of Days. He might be at the bottom of the sea, or perhaps in a black hole. Now in the Tate, the picture is one of a dozen of Blake’s “large colour prints”. Eduardo Paolozzi’s vast 1995 bronze sculpture, inspired by Blake, stands in front of the British Library, visible from Euston Road.

5 Satan, c1789
Satan, who looks like a man tortured in hell, with gagging mouth and rolling eyes, is an undated engraving after Henry Fuseli. The flames of hell, depicted by fine wavy lines, show Blake experimenting with the oval-pointed echoppe needle, a French engraving method of the 18th century. Satan’s flesh is made with “flicks” – tiny incisions enmeshed in the crosshatching in a dot-and-lozenge pattern. Blake was apprenticed to an engraver aged 14. He is regarded a master of the medium, but in 2005 an art historian, Mei-Ying Sung, claimed Blake’s plates show evidence of endless toil, bungles and repeated error.

6 Blake’s Cottage, c1804-10

An angel floats above Blake in the garden of his thatched cottage in Felpham, Sussex, his home from 1800 to 1803: “Away to sweet Felpham, for Heaven is there/ The ladder of Angels descends through the air,” he wrote. Only two of the nine properties in which he lived have survived.The Blake Society is fundraising to buy this house, where he is reputed to have sat naked in the garden reading Paradise Lost to his wife.Among campaigners is the novelist Philip Pullman, who names Blake as a key influence on His Dark Materials. £520,000 has to be found by 28 November; see for ways to help.

7 The Ghost of a Flea, c1819-20

Obsessed with the supernatural, Blake claimed to have seen visions daily since his boyhood. He and his astrologer friend John Varley used to try to summon spirits. This monstrous creature appeared to Blake in a seance, stating that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were “by nature bloodthirsty to excess”. The scaly, vampire-man creature is salivating over a cup for blood-drinking. The curtains between which he stands add drama. Painted in Blake’s own special tempera method mixed with gold leaf on wood, it measures only 214 x 162mm. The art world of Blake’s day assumed he was mad.

8 Songs of Innocence and of Experience, 1789

Songs of Innocence and Experience is a double set of illustrated poems showing “the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”, the childlike and pure versus the angry and disillusioned. The most famous “song of innocence” is The Lamb (“Little Lamb who made thee/ Dost thou know who made thee… ?”), its counterpart The Tyger (“Tyger Tyger burning bright”). Blake’s implied question is how could one God have created both creatures, the one benign, the other ferocious? The Lamb was set to music by Vaughan Williams (who claimed to hate the poem), John Tavener and Allen Ginsberg. The Tyger has inspired songs by Joni Mitchell and Tangerine Dream.

9 The Dance of Albion, c1796

A naked youth, part Christ figure, part Vitruvian man, stands on a rock, casting aside worldly shackles to greet the radiant dawn. Also known asAlbion Rose or Glad Day, and existing as drawing, engraving, colour printed etching and watercolour, this utopian image dates back to 1780: the American Revolution was in mid-flow. Blake had been caught up in a street mob in the anti-Catholic Gordon riots. Albion is the ancient name for Britain and is central to Blake’s own mythology, via his Four Zoas (characters called Urizen, Tharmas, Luvah, Urthona), created by the fall of Albion, obscure to all but the most hardened Blake fans.

10 Jerusalem, c1804

The poem that opens “And did those feet in ancient time” appeared in the preface to Blake’s epic poem Milton. A radical Christian, Blake may be attacking orthodoxy or industry with the phrase “dark Satanic Mills”, thought in part to refer to the Albion flour mills in Lambeth, which burned down spectacularly in 1791. Of the countless references in popular culture, the film Chariots of Fire wins for having borrowed as its title the poem’s most uplifting phrase. Jerusalem is also Blake’s last prophetic book. On its frontispiece, a figure carrying a mysterious orb invites us through a door, as if into the poem, or towards death itself.

William Blake: Apprentice and Master is at The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford from 4 December 2014 to 1 March 2015


Sunday 23 November 2014

Neil Young - Special Deluxe review

Special Deluxe by Neil Young review – ‘The proud highway of second thoughts’
From gas-guzzler to eco-warrior: the rock star waxes lyrical about his love of cars and the open road, then makes a sharp turn

Blake Morrison
The Guardian
Wednesday 19 November 2014

In 1974, the singer-songwriter Neil Young was hanging out in a bar near his Californian ranch – the bar where his future wife Pegi worked – when a friend told him about a car he’d just seen, up for sale at $1,800: a 1950 Plymouth Special Deluxe four-door sedan. Young wasn’t exactly short of cars. But after his recent success as a solo artist, following his earlier success with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash, he wasn’t short of money, either. He went straight out and bought it.

Every car he has owned prompts memories but the Special Deluxe prompts more than most. He remembers his Tennessee bluetick hound, Elvis, taking up residence on a blanket in the back seat. He remembers lending the car to his father, from whom he’d been estranged when his parents’ marriage broke up but who liked to come and hear him perform. He remembers driving it on the potholed roads near his ranch, the wipers beating away the winter rain, the six-cylinder engine firing up whenever asked.

This memoir takes its title from that car though “special deluxe” also applies to the book’s physical appearance: the thick, slightly glossy pages, the handsome typeface, and the author’s colour illustrations of his many cars. For a time Young toyed with a different title, Cars and Dogs, but dogs play only a small part here and as far as he’s concerned cars are the more fully sentient beings. They “live” in the barn he has built and flourish under his care (“Nothing hurts a car more than being ignored”). They “talk” to him and tell him “things about themselves”. They have “soul”. And all too predictably they’re feminine: when Young converts a 1959 Lincoln convertible into a hybrid (part‑electric, part-biofuel), he calls it Miss Pegi after his wife and rhapsodises over its/her womanliness:

Every morning I would polish and clean her beautiful metal and chrome lines, caressing her classic American Metal Dream shapes with soft cloths. She was truly one of a kind, beautiful in form and function … And she was definitely feminine. She loved attention and would do things to get it. Having a lot of guys standing around trying to figure out why she would not do something seemed like it was fun for her. She was unpredictable and predictable at the same time. If you did not do the right thing, she would always let you know.

Young admits he’s obsessive. But without obsession he’d not have written his songs. He’d not have written this book, either. Having published a 500-page autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, only two years ago, he’d be forgiven for running out of things to say, or for saying them all over again. But this book isn’t a retread of its predecessor. At its heart is a fascinating struggle between Young the nerdy, old-style macho collector (of cars, guitars and model trains) and Young the tormented, gentle hippie friend of the Earth, desperate to curtail our carbon emissions before it’s too late.

Where Waging Heavy Peace was sparing in its account of Young’s early years, Special Deluxe recalls them in loving detail. The trips out from the small Ontario town where he grew up to the nearby swamp or millpond, to catch frogs and fish; the long stay in the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, where he was treated for polio; Christmas holidays in Florida; a year spent in Winnipeg, while his parents tried to repair their marriage; the paedophile who invited Young and a gang of friends into his house and whacked off in front of them; the plastic ukelele he got for his 11th birthday; the return to Winnipeg with his mother, when his parents finally split up. It was a peripatetic childhood: always the new kid, he’d been to 12 different schools by the time his formal education came to an end. But he doesn’t bleat about feeling neglected or sit in judgment when his mother hits the bottle. All he owns up to is a sadness that seems as seasonal as snow, “like an invisible, chilly coat I wore beneath my skin”.

Cars release memories: take the brake off, and there’s no stopping them. When Young describes his dad, a journalist, taking him away for the weekend to forewarn him that the family might not stay together forever, he remembers the conversation taking place in a yellow Triumph TR3 convertible. It was after his dad left that Young took up music. At 17, he had his first gig, with a band called the Squires. A single soon followed and the Squires went on the road in a 1948 Buick hearse that became their trademark. Mort, as Young called it, was heavy on fuel but perfect for carrying equipment (for smuggling groupies in the back too). When the first hearse died, he bought a newer model, then an ambulance-hearse after that.

If you can remember the 60s you weren’t there, it’s said, but Young gives every impression that he was. True, he’s surprised, reading old reviews of Buffalo Springfield gigs, to learn how many times he left the band. He’s also baffled to learn that he suffered epileptic seizures onstage. Not so, he says: the problem was anxiety about performing. Sometimes he’d have a panic attack, freeze and stop playing. There were other traits that didn’t endear him to the rest of the band, including a volatile temper (“I had too much energy and didn’t know what the hell to do with it”, “Usually I would just lose it”). But he wasn’t alone in being out of control: “self-indulgence and selfishness were the rule of the day.”

Young isn’t afraid to criticise himself, whether as band member, husband or parent. Why should he be? Confessing to failure won’t alienate his fans, who know he’s had some tough times: break-ups, fires, lawsuits; physical afflictions affecting his children (one son with cerebral palsy, another who’s quadriplegic) and himself (polio, colour blindness); more recently, since completing this book, the end of his 40-year marriage to Pegi. For the most part his artlessness is winning; it’s at one with the rambling style. But there are moments when the memories become too troubling to record. “I guess you might say that I don’t want to talk about it,” he says, of an unhappy period in his life and the desolate album he recorded at the time. More to the point, there’s his compulsion to buy cars, which he admits is a kind of disease. Does it spring from some inadequacy he’s trying to cover up, he wonders, before bottling out: “I won’t go into that.”

Rather than go into it, he recounts his conversion from gas-guzzler to eco-warrior. It came 11 years ago and ever since he’s been waging a battle against US Inc – the oil companies, car manufacturers and climate-change deniers who’re jeopardising the future of the planet. His most attention-grabbing act has been to buy a Hummer, that epitome of waste, pollution and militarism, and to run it on biodiesel, with environmentalist slogans daubed on the olive green chassis. There was also a gasoline-free drive from California to Washington, during which the unreliable Miss Pegi almost conked out several times (to the delight of a US media keen to discredit Young) before reaching the final destination and proving, to the driver at least, that fossil fuels have had their day.

The last quarter of the book is more harangue than memoir. But it’s not as if we haven’t been warned. Even when he’s recalling journeys taken in more innocent times, Young throws in his recent research, as if in atonement. “The gas price was set at 30 cents per gallon, and cruising at 8 mpg … we added 1,153 pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere,” he writes of a trip taken in 1964. Or of another trip, 12 years later: “Gasoline was priced at 57 cents per gallon. And during the journey we deposited 411 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.” As the stats mount up, so does the author’s retrospective guilt: if only he’d known then what he knows now.

Guilt hasn’t destroyed his love affair with the car. On the contrary, he still feels bad about all the vehicles awaiting repair (and conversion) in his barn. Perhaps they’ll come out of hiding one day, just as the many unreleased album tracks he mentions will too. He marvels at their engineering: the leather seats, the stylish lines, the pleasing clunk of their heavy doors, how the great models of the mid-century – Chryslers, Lincolns, Buicks, Packards, Plymouths – symbolise the American dream of freedom. There’s nothing more pleasurable than driving country roads high on good weed, he says. But those days, for him at least, have gone.

Special Deluxe tells a story from “the proud highway of second thoughts”, nostalgically meditating on a 20th‑century icon from the perspective of a new century. Its biographical insights, career anecdotes and generous quotations from his lyrics make it an ideal present for Neil Young fans. And even those who don’t know his work will find it endearingly wacky and oddly wise.

Friday 21 November 2014

Wednesday night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

The Elderly Brothers: -
Crying In The Rain
Oliver's Army
Don't Throw Your Love Away
So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)
I Saw Her Standing There

Da Elderly: -
In The Morning Light

A busy and enjoyable night; The Elderly's, fresh from their previous night's gig at the last Drop Inn, gave a debut outing to Oliver's Army and for once sailed through Lola without a hitch!
There was a tremendous variety of music on show, including a guy from Spain who sang two songs acapella in his native tongue - great voice, went down a storm.
Yours truly was asked to finish off the night with an original song, so I chose one from the new album.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Mike Nichols RIP

Mike Nichols obituary
Film and stage director whose movie The Graduate ushered in a new kind of male Hollywood star

Ronald Bergan
The Guardian
Thursday 20 November 2014

The career of the director Mike Nichols, who has died aged 83, triumphantly straddled Broadway and Hollywood. Most of his movies, plays and musicals were thought-provoking and beautifully crafted, if sometimes ironic and even cruel in their humour. But none of his later work equalled the impact of his second film, The Graduate (1967), which won him the Oscar for best director, and resonated strongly with the baby-boom generation.

When offered the film, Nichols had already made his reputation as the boy wonder of the Broadway stage, where he had directed a string of smash-hit comedies. Two were by Neil Simon, with whom he would have a long association: Barefoot in the Park (1963), which gave Robert Redford his first leading role, and The Odd Couple (1965), with Walter Matthau and Art Carney. Others included Murray Shisgal’s Luv (1964) starring Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, and the musical The Apple Tree (1966) featuring Alan Alda. At the start of the decade he had established a reputation on Broadway in the comedy duo show that he wrote and performed with Elaine May.

Born in Berlin as Michael Igor Peschkowsky to Paul, a doctor, and his wife, Brigitte (nee Landauer), he arrived in the US with his younger brother at the age of seven, having fled the Nazis. His father, who had arrived a few months earlier (Brigitte joined them after two years), changed the family’s name to Nichols. Mike remembered being able to say just two things in English: “I don’t speak English,” and “Please don’t kiss me.” At the time he was totally bald, having lost his hair in reaction to a whooping cough vaccine. (He wore a toupee all his life.)

When he was 12, his father died of leukaemia, leaving the family financially destitute. A bright and ambitious boy, Mike was able to continue his studies thanks to scholarships and doing odd jobs, eventually becoming a US citizen in 1944.

While at the University of Chicago (1950-53), he made a living as a night janitor, hotel desk clerk, and delivery truck driver. It was at university that he first began to perform, and he later went to New York to study acting with Lee Strasberg. However, he was unable to find work as an actor in New York and returned to Chicago to form the Second City, an improvisational group with similarly unwanted performers: May, Barbara Harris and Arkin.

He and May then formed the duo Nichols and May, whose quick-witted comedy got them known as “the world’s fastest humans”. They lampooned previously sacrosanct institutions, becoming part of the satire boom of the period, along with Lenny Bruce, Jules Feiffer, Mort Sahl, and Terry Southern, pioneers in extending the range and subject matter of American comedy. The pair recorded a number of comedy albums, and won a Grammy for An Evening with Nichols and May, a recording of their Broadway show, directed by Arthur Penn (1961-62), after which the two went their separate ways, with Nichols embarking on his work as a stage director.

In 1966, Ernest Lehman, who was producing and adapting Edward Albee’s acid drama of marital non-bliss, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, persuaded Warner Bros to hire Nichols to direct. It was a baptism of fire for the debutant film-maker, who had to control the leading couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. After the three less than convincing films they had previously made together, Virginia Woolf brilliantly restored their credibility as performers,* and Nichols’s essentially theatrical but competent direction was nominated for an Oscar.

Whereas on Virginia Woolf he had been constricted by the starry couple and the confines of the Albee play, Nichols had far more power to exercise on The Graduate. For the title role of Benjamin Braddock, the producers wanted Robert Redford. However, Nichols felt he was too dishy to be convincing as shy with women. He realised he had found the right man when he saw Dustin Hoffman acting off-Broadway.

Hoffman was doubtful: “I don’t think I’m right for the role. He’s a kind of Anglo-Saxon, tall, slender good-looking chap. I’m short and Jewish.”

“Believe me, Benjamin is Jewish inside,” replied Nichols persuasively. Hoffman turned out to be the movie’s greatest coup, ushering in a new kind of male actor in American films. Yet Hoffman was later to say, “If there is any victory in the film, it is not mine. It has nothing to do with me. The film belongs to Mike Nichols. Nichols knew every colour, texture and nuance he wanted and worked like hell to get it.”

Today, it seems stranger than ever that a movie that made no reference to civil rights or Vietnam would be taken as a symbol of counterculture. “I was interested in [Benjamin’s] rejection of a materialistic life in a way that was a little retarded, like young teenagers do until they’re trained away from it,” Nichols commented years later.

The skin-deep rebel had a great appeal among middle-class college kids, and the use of the Simon and Garfunkel songs Sounds of Silence, Mrs Robinson and the irrelevant Scarborough Fair, instead of the usual music score, added to the film’s attraction. The soundtrack album reached the top of the US charts, and arguably started the tradition of marketing movie music.

The most telling symbol of the young man’s alienation, which Nichols lightens and makes funny, is Benjamin standing awkwardly in a rubber underwater suit. A subjective camera, filming through goggles, picks out the inane faces and soundless mouths of his elders as he descends to the bottom of the pool, where he stands silently and alone.

Catch-22 (1969), which could possibly have worked if made by Stanley Kubrick, was shot at a cost of $18m, and failed both commercially and critically. Nichols made the mistake of reshaping Joseph Heller’s bitterly satirical novel of the second world war into an overly arty anti-war movie with unsubtle allusions to Vietnam.*

Further film flops followed, although to their credit they were all rather quirky and unconventional: Carnal Knowledge (1971)** examined contemporary sexual mores; Day of the Dolphin (1973) saw George C Scott teaching dolphins to speak; and The Fortune (1975) starred Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty as dumb and dumber crooks.

Because of these disappointments, Nichols worked almost exclusively on Broadway for almost a decade, collecting a number of Tony awards on the way. He continued to show his affinity with Neil Simon, directing Plaza Suite (1968) and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1972), as well as Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1984) and Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (1986). One of the few classics was Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which Nichols himself translated.

Silkwood (1983) was hailed as his major film comeback, but despite fine performances from Meryl Streep and an interesting decision to concentrate on the daily life of its blue-collar heroine, it ended at the point where the real story began. Similarly, Heartburn (1986) started from promising material – Nora Ephron’s fictionalised account of her marriage to the Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein – but took it nowhere.

It was soon after that Nichols had a breakdown, believing that he was broke and unable to provide for his three children. He left The Last Tycoon during pre-production (Elia Kazan took over) and had a highly publicised on-set dispute with Robert De Niro on The Man Who Looked Like Bogie, abandoning it after several days of filming.

However, in 1988, after marrying his fourth wife, the TV anchor Diane Sawyer, one of the richest and most successful women on American television, everything changed. He took on more mainstream material, starting with Biloxi Blues (1987), a pleasing, workmanlike transposition of Simon’s semi-autobiographical Broadway play.

Working Girl (1988), in which he showed more cinematic flair than hitherto, combined a feelgood romantic comedy with an incisive look at working women in Manhattan, in which a secretary (Melanie Griffith) triumphs over her boss (Sigourney Weaver). As the camera celebrates her moment of victory – in her own office – it pulls back to reveal her as just one of hundreds of office workers in just one of hundreds of tower blocks.

Postcards From The Edge (1990), which dealt with the explosively difficult relationship between a self-obsessed Hollywood star (Shirley MacLaine) and her unstable daughter (Meryl Streep), was directed with a confident sweep. These films were concerned mainly with women’s choices, while the less successful Regarding Henry (1991) and Wolf (1994) were both attempts to examine masculinity in crisis as viewed from New York’s Upper West Side.

Nichols returned to comedy and to Elaine May, who wrote the screenplay, with The Bird Cage (1996), better made than and almost as funny as La Cage aux Folles, the 1978 camp French film from which it derived. Primary Colors (1998), also written by May, and based on Joe Klein’s bestseller about a Clintonesque politician (John Travolta), was sharp without cutting deeply.

By now, Nichols could ask for $7m per movie plus a share of the gross. He had proved himself an astute businessman, having been the first American stage director to insist on a share of the author’s royalties and subsidiary rights, including movie profits.

He continued to embark on theatrical ventures, appearing to acclaim in a London production of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner (1996), and expertly transposed several plays to television and film. Nichols made few attempts to open out Wit (2001), Margaret Edson’s original off-Broadway near-monologue play about an academic dying of ovarian cancer, with most of the action taking place around the heroine’s hospital bed, and Emma Thompson speaking directly to camera in theatrical fashion.

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (2003), described by the author as a “gay fantasia on national themes” was made into an intelligent TV mini-series, and Closer (2004), Patrick Marber’s unrelenting look at two couples who fall in and out of bed and love, showed some of the bite of Nichols’s earlier work. The eclectic director was back on Broadway with Spamalot (2005), a musical based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which later opened in London.

His last feature film was Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), a controversial political comedy starring Tom Hanks as a wily US congressman who gets involved in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In 2012, Nichols crowned his Broadway career with a powerful production of Death of a Salesman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his last stage role, as Willy Loman.

He is survived by Diane, and by three children: Daisy, with his second wife, Margo Callas, and Max and Jenny, with his third wife, Annabel Davis-Goff. His first three marriages ended in divorce; the first of them was to Patricia Scott.

• Mike Nichols (Michael Igor Peschkowsky), director, producer, writer and performer, born 6 November 1931; died 19 November 2014

* Possibly Taylor's only good performance
** No, no, no. Hugely underrated film with great performances - especialy Arkin's - and direction. Wouldn't have worked at all with Kubrick. Not as good as the book, of course, but to paraphrase Heller, what is?
** Another hugely underrated film.

Mike Nichols: a director who found the zeitgeist in every decade
Nichols, who has died aged 83, was an astonishingly versatile and fluent director, who specialised in adult drama which sang because he coaxed such fine performances from his stars

Peter Bradshaw
The Guardian
Thursday 20 November 2014

From Burton and Taylor’s ugly marital war in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1966) right through to Aaron Sorkin’s snappily expressed Washington intrigue in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), Mike Nichols was bringing literate, grownup dramas and comedies to the screen. He had a gift for helping stars bring their performances into pin-sharp focus and teasing out the romantic chemistry and fizz between his male and female leads.

Born in Berlin in 1931, named Mikhail Peschkowsky, to Russian Jewish parents (and a distant cousin to Albert Einstein), he was sent alone as a child to the safety of the United States, where his father anglicised his name. He became a Broadway comic performer with Elaine May and then a much-admired stage director who was to become a member of the exclusive EGOT club (having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony) and in the movie projects he chose he had the knack of finding the Hollywood zeitgeist in almost every decade.

After the exciting if somewhat stage-bound Virginia Woolf, Nichols’s sexually daring The Graduate (scripted by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry) opened things up – and introduced the world to Dustin Hoffman, a veritable standard-bearer for smart, disaffected, pained youth, a representative of the alienated times and yet somehow orphaned by them as well.

He was the spoiled brat with the college degree, floating around all summer in his parents’ swimming pool, embarking on a jaded affair with next-door neighbour Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and realising almost too late that he has fallen in love with her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross). The Graduate got Nichols his best director Academy award and in it he pretty well invented the romcom staple: the last-minute rush to prove your love. (Twelve years later, in Manhattan, Woody Allen made this the last-minute rush to the airport.)

In the 1970s, Nichols again found himself upscale, modish movies which moved with the times. His screen version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1970) again scripted by Buck Henry, chimed with anti-Vietnam sentiment and caught the same wave as Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H that year, and his direction of the Jules Feiffer-scripted Carnal Knowledge (1972) reinforced the seductive charm and celebrity status of its star, Jack Nicholson.

In the 1980s, Nichols was working with the biggest female stars and instinctively found a way for their personalities and feelings to register on camera. His Silkwood (1983), co-written by Nora Ephron, reverberated with liberal America’s growing unease with the nuclear industry and gave Meryl Streep one of her most powerful and memorable roles. The “Silkwood shower” scene dramatised a widespread shiver of fear and disgust at nuclear dangers. Another Nora Ephron script, Heartburn (1986) about Ephron’s relationship with Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, was another opportunity for Nichols to show his expert handling of smart, grownup romance – with Streep and Nicholson.

At the end of the 1980s, Mike Nichols made what for me is among the best of his movies, the rather underrated Working Girl, a terrifically buoyant and effervescent New York romantic comedy with Melanie Griffith as an ambitious secretary whose wicked boss (great work from Sigourney Weaver) pretends to mentor and just steals her business ideas. Nichols makes it all look very easy. In the 90s, Nichols showed how America and the world was beginning to turn away from the yuppie-ism, with his sombre film Regarding Henry, in which Harrison Ford – playing a super-smooth businessman not that far from the one he had played in Working Girl – suffers a brain injury and has to go through painful rehab.

Primary Colors was a coolly efficient movie version of Joe Klein’s sensational bestselling fictionalisation of the Bill/Hillary political partnership, and he was an eminently sensible choice to direct the screen version of Patrick Marber’s play Closer, although there was now probably a generational difference between the sexual-social mores of Nichols’s generation and Marber’s.

Mike Nichols was a kitemark of intelligent mainstream Hollywood cinema – his directorial style was the sympathetic platform for smart writing and great acting performances.

Mike Nichols: 10 of the best, from Virginia Woolf to Charlie Wilson
The director Mike Nichols has died aged 83. Here are clips from 10 of his key movies – and why they’re important

Henry Barnes
The Guardian
Thursday 20 November 2014

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Nichols raised the bar into the stratosphere with his very first film, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s vinegar-sharp relationship satire. Nichols, who had won the best play Tony for his stage version of Albee’s play, needed two actors with hands-on experience of tempestuous relationships, two people who knew what it was like to hate and love your S.O. at the same time. Step forward: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Everyone was nominated for Oscars, obviously.

The Graduate (1967)
A young Dustin Hoffman showed up to the audition for the part that would change his life nervous and insecure. He read as Benjamin Braddock, the virginal college kid who gets a schooling in sex and sophistication from the much older Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Hoffman, auditioning opposite Katherine Ross, said she would “never be interested in a guy like me in a million years”. It was exactly the self doubt Nichols was looking for. The film was a giant hit. Nichols won his Oscar.

Postcards from the Edge (1990)
Scripted by Carrie Fisher and based on her experiences of living in her showbiz mum’s shadow while recovering from a drug addiction. Meryl Streep played fragile Suzanne Vale with a style that would become almost stereotypical, but the real star was Shirley MacLaine as her defiant star-to-the-end mum. It’s of its time, but the film’s energy? Still here.

Catch-22 (1970)
Nichols spent two years hammering out the kinks in the script for this tricky adaptation, based on Joseph Heller’s sprawling satire. M*A*S*H (released the same year) would get the popular vote, but Nichols’ take on the insanity of war found a cult following, partly thanks to a gang-busting performance from his lead, Alan Arkin.

Silkwood (1983)
Nichols’ first collaboration with Meryl Streep (who he would later cast in Postcards from the Edge and the romcom Heartburn) and inspired by the story of whistleblower Karen Silkwood, who died in mysterious circumstances after challenging the safety record of the nuclear power plant where she worked. Streep was due to work one more time with Nichols before he died, this time playing world famous opera warbler Maria Callas.

Working Girl (1988)
Wall Street with a heart. Nichols cast Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill, a naive secretary who wheedles her way to the top of the financial food chain. Griffiths got her only Oscar-nomination to date. With Sigourney Weaver (as Tess’s dragon boss) and Harrison Ford (the moneyed mover and shaker who falls for Tess) Nichols got even more bang for his buck.

The Birdcage (1996)
Based on the stage play La Cage aux Folles and starring Robin Williams as Armand, the gay owner of The Birdcage drag club. He’s in a relationship with Albert (Nathan Lane), who moonlights as “Starina” the club’s hottest act. The pair are asked to pretend they’re not together when Armand’s son brings his fiancĂ©’s ultra-conservative dad for a visit. Lively and touching, Nichols was praised by GLAD for a film that portrayed gay characters as rounded and complex. A rarity to this day.

Primary Colors (1998)

Nichols raked over the mucky business of Clinton-era US politics with the help of John Travolta, who delivered a convincing approximation of the man who had sexual relations with that woman. Nichols’ film helped The West Wing swing (the TV show would debut a year later) and its influence can be seen in political satire since, namely George Clooney’s The Ides of March.

Wit (2001)

An understated drama about genius and mortality. Emma Thompson, who co-scripted the teleplay with Nichols, played Vivian Bearing, a gifted scholar of metaphysical poetry who is diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. The film got a brief festival run before its airing on HBO. Despite the limited release window Roger Ebert named it one of his best films of 2001.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Nichols’ last film showed the director playing to his strengths. A satire, rammed with top quality cast (Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman) and subversive, but fun. Hanks took the lead in the biopic, based on the real-life tale of a hard-partying senator who made moves to increase support for Afghani fighters taking on the Soviet Union. Gave Philip Seymour Hoffman one of his career-defining moments with a raging monologue that makes most other actors look like, ahem, “fucking amateurs”.