Monday 30 March 2015

Joseph Heller's Catch 22 - a book for all seasons

“Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window, and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all.”


The 100 best novels: No 80 – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
This acerbic anti-war novel was slow to fire the public imagination, but is rightly regarded as a groundbreaking critique of military madness

Robert McCrum
Monday 30 March 2015

In 1962, writing in the Observer, Kenneth Tynan saluted Catch-22 as “the most striking debut in American fiction since Catcher in the Rye.” Within a year, he had been joined, in a chorus of praise, by writers as various as Harper Lee, Norman Mailer and Graham Greene. More than 50 years later, this brilliant novel still holds an unforgettable comic grip on the reader.

“It was love at first sight,” Heller begins, setting the tone for everything that follows. “The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”
Bombardier Yossarian is in a military hospital with a pain in his liver that’s not quite jaundice. Hinting at the famous “catch” of the title, Yossarian can be treated if he’s got jaundice, but discharged if he hasn’t. If neither, then he’s in a Kafkaesque limbo, where he’s at the mercy of fate.

This anticipates the notorious conditions under which a combat airman can be grounded: you have to be insane before you’re excused flying combat missions, but if you don’t want to fly any more missions that proves you are not insane. The OED defines this “Catch-22” as “a difficult situation from which there is no escape, because it involves mutually conflicting or dependent conditions”, which is a very dull way to describe the absurd crux whose mad logic exhilarates every page of one of the greatest war novels of all time.

Bombardier Yossarian, who is at odds with his own side as much as with the enemy, is an unforgettable second world war Everyman, whose cat-and-mouse relationship with a cast of deranged oddballs – Milo Minderbinder, Major Major and Doc Daneeka – is played out, amid mounting absurdity, on the island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean. It’s 1944, and Yossarian has figured out that “the enemy is anybody who is going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on”.

Inevitably, the high comedy with which the novel opens eventually modulates into a darker, bleaker humour, and movingly, it’s the tragic death of rear-gunner Snowden which reminds us that Heller’s merriment is the kind of gallows laughter that’s inspired by the horror of war.

A note on the text

Heller first began to write the novel that became Catch-22 in 1953, while working as a copywriter in New York. Once he’d found the famous opening – “It was love at first sight” – he had the voice he needed for the narrative.

The rest followed slowly in manuscript, and by 1957 he had about 270pp in typescript. Eventually his literary agent Candida Donadio sold an incomplete version of Catch-22 to Simon & Schuster, where it was taken up with enthusiasm by a young editor, Robert “Bob” Gottlieb, who would eventually move to Alfred A. Knopf. Gottlieb, who is now retired, after a distinguished career that included editing the New Yorker, oversaw all aspects of the novel’s appearance, and was instrumental in its launch. Heller later dedicated the novel to him as a “colleague”.

Gottlieb’s enthusiasm inspired him to send out advance copies, a strategy that (as so often) did not always work. Evelyn Waugh wrote back: “You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches – often repetitious – totally without structure.”

Structure aside, the main pre-publication debate was to do with Heller’s title, which had at first derived from the opening chapter of the novel, published in magazine form (next to an extract from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road), as Catch-18in 1955. Subsequently, Candida Donadio requested a change in the title, to avoid confusion with another recently published second world war novel, Mila 18 by Leon Uris, who was a bestselling literary name at the time.

Initially, Catch-11 was proposed, but then the release of the Hollywood movie Ocean’s 11 (1960) raised more anxieties, and this was also rejected. So was Catch-17 (deemed too similar to the film Stalag 17), and also Catch-14. Apparently, Simon & Schuster did not think that “14” was a “a funny number”. Eventually author, agent and publisher settled on Catch-22.

Joe Heller’s first novel was officially launched on 10 October 1961, priced $5.95 in hardcover. The book was not a bestseller in hardcover in the US. Despite selling 12,000 copies before Thanksgiving, it never entered the NYT bestseller list. However, Catch-22 got good notices (and bad: Heller later said that “the disparagements were frequently venomous”).

There were positive reviews from the Nation, which saluted “the best novel to come out in years”; the Herald Tribune (“A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book”), and the New York Times (“A dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights”). Elsewhere, for example in the New Yorker, there was critical rage: attacks on a book which “doesn’t even seem to be written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper... what remains is a debris of sour jokes”.

Nevertheless, it was nominated for the National Book Award, and went through four printings in hardcover, selling especially well on the east coast. The book never established itself nationally until it was published in paperback, and benefited from a national debate about the pointlessness of the Vietnam war. Abroad, Heller had better luck, and in the UK his novel did become a bestseller. During the 1960s, the book acquired a cult following, especially among teenagers and college students. Although Catch-22 won no awards, it has remained consistently in print and, since publication, has sold more than 10m copies.
Three more from Joseph Heller

Something Happened (1974); Good As Gold (1979); God Knows (1984)

Friday 27 March 2015

Terry's Home!

Celebrate in your own way, why don'tcha?

Thursday 26 March 2015

The Return of The X-Files: The Truth Is Still Out There - maybe...

The X-Files featuring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson
The X-Files to return to TV after 13-year absence
Six-episode series will begin production in the summer, with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson back as Mulder and Scully

Jasper Jackson
Tuesday 24 March 2015

The X-Files is set to return to television screens for the first time in 13 years, with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson resuming their roles as Mulder and Scully.

The US broadcaster Fox has confirmed that a six-episode series will begin production in the summer. The broadcast date has yet to be revealed.

The series creator Chris Carter described the show’s absence as “a 13-year commercial break” and added: “The good news is the world has only gotten that much stranger, a perfect time to tell these six stories.”

The six-episode run is shorter than most US TV series, and Fox described the X-Files return as an “event”. Dana Walden and Gary Newman, chair and CEO of Fox Television Group, said: “We had the privilege of working with Chris on all nine seasons of The X-Files – one of the most rewarding creative experiences of our careers – and we couldn’t be more excited to explore that incredible world with him again.

“The X-Files was not only a seminal show for both the studio and the network, it was a worldwide phenomenon that shaped pop culture – yet remained a true gem for the legions of fans who embraced it from the beginning. Few shows on television have drawn such dedicated fans as The X-Files, and we’re ecstatic to give them the next thrilling chapter of Mulder and Scully they’ve been waiting for.”

The original series was cancelled in 2002, although Duchovny and Anderson returned for a feature film, X-Files: I want to Believe, in 2008. Rumours of the show’s return have swirled around the internet for years, and in 2013 Anderson and Duchovny generated much excitement when they hinted during an online discussion that another X-Files film might be in the works.

Such was the on-screen chemistry between FBI investigators Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in their quest to explain the unexplained that Anderson and Duchovny themselves became a story – according to the press at various times during the height of the show’s popularity, they were having an affair, hated each other or both.

This year Anderson told the Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone: “I mean, yes, there were definitely periods when we hated each other … Hate is too strong a word. We didn’t talk for long periods of time. It was intense, and we were both pains in the arse for the other at various times.”

Since the last X-Files series, Anderson has starred in a string of literary adaptations – as Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, Miss Havisham in the BBC’s Great Expectations, and Mrs Castaway in The Crimson Petal and The White – and more recently she played Supt Stella Gibson in murder drama The Fall, which has been recommissioned for a third series set to air next year.

Anderson also received warm reviews for her performance as Blanche in a feted Young Vic revival of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

Duchovny found further success in the US with Californication, which finished a seven-season run last year. This year he published his debut novel, Holy Cow, in which a cow called Elsie, a pig called Shalom and a turkey called Tom escape a farm in upstate New York in search of a better life.

Mulder and Scully at San Diego Comic-Con: the 13 best X-Files episodes ever
David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are reuniting for an X-Files 20th anniversary panel in San Diego this week. To celebrate, we look at the some of the best episodes of the series

Erin McCann
Thursday 18 July 2013

We're living in a bit of a golden age of television right now, practically drowning in high-quality scripted shows. Think back to 1993, though: Quantum Leap was still on the air. So were Saved by the Bell, and Perfect Strangers. Walker, Texas Ranger and Beavis & Butthead made their collective debuts. It was a strange time, and the quality was spotty at best.

It was into that world, on 10 September, that Fox – desperate to secure a spot as the fourth major broadcast network in the US television market – launched The X-Files. The show would last nine seasons, 202 episodes and two feature films and cement the careers of series creator Chris Carter and actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. (Not to forget writer Vince Gilligan, who will be at Comic-Con with the final season of Breaking Bad.)

And on Thursday morning, Carter, Duchovny and Anderson will join many of the show's writers – Gilligan, David Amann, Howard Gordon, Darin Morgan, Glen Morgan, John Shiban and Jim Wong – in ballroom 20 at San Diego Comic-Con to reminisce. I'm pretty sure the line outside is already packed.
Pilot, 10 September, 1993

I was 12 then, and at school the next morning learned I had been one of two kids in my entire eighth-grade class whose parents allowed them to stay up past 10 to watch this new science-fiction show on Fox. So thanks for that, mom and dad. I think I've only recently stopped having nightmares about aliens in the woods.

"First and foremost, what I wanted to do was scare people's pants off," says series creator Chris Carter in the interview below. "I wanted Mulder, the male, to be the believer, the intuiter, and I wanted Scully to be the skeptic, which is usually the male role."

Squeeze, 24 September, 1993

The third episode introduces Doug Hutchison as serial killer Eugene Victor Tooms, one of the series' most memorable monsters. (The two episodes in which Hutchison appeared cemented his "oh, that guy" status as a mostly forgettable American TV actor, until a decade later when he would show up on Lost and then marry a teenager less than half his age, at which point "oh, that guy" took on a decidedly more alarmed tone.)

But back then, he was just this ageless mutant with a taste for blood who emerges every few decades to commit murder. Squeeze was the first of the show's monsters-of-the-week episodes, which stood apart from the overarching mythology that was to be its incredibly confusing undoing years later.

The episode also reinforces one of the central conceits of the Mulder-Scully partnership: how, exactly, do two FBI agents collect evidence to prosecute criminals – which is ostensibly what their job is supposed to be about – when the evidence includes 100-year-old fingerprints belonging to the ageless mutant sitting over there in the interrogation room?

Bonus: Donal Logue co-stars as the Baltimore FBI agent who calls the team in.

Ghost in the Machine, 29 October, 1993

The 1990s were a funny time in computer culture. We were all getting online, but most of us were confused about what, exactly, was going on inside those big gray boxes. This was the era of Hackers, of The Net, of Lawnmower Man, films that exploited our fears of the machines. Ghost in the Machine exploits those same fears by presenting an artificial intelligence that has started killing people at a tech company Alexandria, Virginia. Mulder and Scully investigate, apparently showing no fear in the face of a deadly, deadly elevator.
Eve, 10 December, 1993

From The Shining to The Ring, cute little girls are easily exploited to nightmarish effect in the horror genre. The X-Files' entry into this canon is Eve, a cloned child with superhuman intelligence who likes to kill grown-ups.

Possible deduction of points: the episode inspired the name of the band Eve 6, which is 90s nostalgia writ wrong.

Darkness Falls, 15 April 1994

The X-Files liked to play off our fear of technology, but what happens when you're so far into the woods that none of the technology works? The car's acting up, and there are no phones, no radios – and suddenly no lights because your power generator is failing and these weird firefly-like moths that may or may not be killing loggers are now closing in on your one-room cabin?

Mulder and Scully have been sent to investigate the disappearance/deaths of a crew of loggers who are illegally taking down ancient trees in the Pacific Northwest, one of which happens to have been home to 500-year-old bugs that are now unleashed upon the camp. The team end up nearly dying, cocooned in the moths' web inside a Jeep as their escape attempt fails.

Home, 11 October, 1996

The first episode of The X-Files to receive a viewer discretion warning for graphic content and the only to have carried a TV-MA rating upon broadcast.
See here:

Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man, 17 November, 1996

Pity the poor Smoking Man, a rejected, disgruntled writer who was forced – forced! – to cast his dreams aside and become the head of a secretive shadow government determined to keep the truth from Mulder.

The episode reveals Mulder's nemesis/slash/mentor as something of a Forrest Gump of American government conspiracies, firing the shot that killed Kennedy, assassinating Martin Luther King, making the Bills win a Super Bowl, and orchestrating the US hockey team win during the Miracle on Ice by drugging a Soviet goaltender. All along he just wanted to write.

Bonus: more Lone Gunmen.

Unusual Suspects, 16 November, 1997

Proof that I don't hate all mythology episodes, look! It's the Lone Gunmen, meeting Mulder for the first time at a computer security conference in Baltimore. And who's that over there? Is that Munch from Homicide? Yes, it is. Hi, Richard Belzer.

Basically, the US Defense Department is storing an untested gas in asthma inhalers in a warehouse in Baltimore, and a mysterious woman is being tracked by a chip in her tooth, and Mulder strips naked and has hallucinations about aliens, which, let's face it, could be what the whole series has been about anyway. Vince Gilligan wrote this one. Again.

Bad Blood, 22 February, 1998

As scary as the show could be in episodes like Home, it could also showcase a wickedly wry sense of humor. Vince Gilligan also penned this monster-of-the-week episode in which Mulder kills a teenage boy who thinks Mulder is a vampire. Like many of the standalone, non-mythology episodes, it's decidedly more humourous.

Gillian Anderson herself recently told Huffington Post that Bad Blood was among her favorites, saying: "I just have to think about that episode and I start to laugh".

Bonus: Luke Wilson.

The Pusher, 23 February, 1996

Yep, it's another Vince Gilligan episode, this time about a "pusher" who can talk people into committing crimes or killing themselves. Slate recently plucked this episode out as the one to watch if you're looking to get into the series anew:

And here's where The X-Files remains, in some ways, ahead of its time, even now. Despite the central mythology's very bad men planning very bad things, the show focuses on an idea of evil as essentially banal, accessible, part of our everyday world.

Post-Modern Prometheus, 30 November, 1997

A black-and-white, comic-book-themed standalone episode, this is the X-Files at its absolute very best. It was nominated for seven Emmys in 1998, is based heavily on Frankenstein, stars Jerry Springer as himself, and was written by Chris Carter himself as an ode to Cher. And it ends with Mulder and Scully dancing together.

Chinga, 8 February, 1998

Throughout the show's run, plenty of famous writers took a crack an an episode. This is Stephen King's, and it's about a horrifying evil doll patched together from parts of other dolls and determined to scare the crap out of a little girl and those of us watching the episode.

Improbable, 14 April 2002

As might be obvious here, the show's later episodes were but a pale flicker of light compared to the earlier seasons. Duchovny left, and Anderson scaled back her appearances, and the show added Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish as Not Mulder and Not Scully. One of the few beacons in this dark time was this final-season episode in which a killer … um … uses numerology? To kill people? Whatever, Burt Reynolds plays God.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Clive James - Sentenced to Life

Clive James: ‘I’ve got a lot done since my death’
Two years after reports suggesting his imminent death, Clive James still has plenty of life left in him. Ahead of a new collection of poetry next month, the polymath and former Observer TV critic discusses the poems written to his wife, his place in history and ‘dying by inches’

Robert McCrum
The Observer
Sunday 15 March 2015

When Clive James, who is 75 and in poor health, says “the end is nigh, but not that nigh”, he’s defying gravity, as usual. It’s something he’s got rather good at lately.

About two years ago, prematurely, the world’s media gave James the last rites: with valedictory interviews, hushed bulletins, sombre satellite appearances, and Australian TV anchors flying to his doorstep. “My obituaries were so fabulous,” he twinkles in an opening gambit, “I felt more or less obliged to walk the plank.” In a spooky echo of his own last chatshow, it seemed as if he had become “the late Clive James”.

That was a dark season for a writer who instinctively prefers to shine. When we met in 2013, he was living in a kind of internal exile, from family, from wellbeing, and even from his beloved mother country. Darkest of all, he was putting the finishing touches to a translation of The Divine Comedy while suffering a fate that Dante might plausibly have inflicted on a recent admission to one of hell’s training circles: leukaemia, emphysema, and a mixed bag of carcinomas.

James, believing himself to be virtually defunct, co-operated with these obsequies, watched himself being “safely buried”, and then found the inevitable joke. His next volume of memoirs, he declared, would be Prelude to the Aftermath, a title he lifted from his second volume of memoirs, Falling Towards England. But then, in a cartoonish twist of fate, he wasn’t “a goner”, as he’d thought, after all. He was the Comeback Kid from Kogarah, New South Wales. This, he concedes, is “all a bit embarrassing”.

Last week, at home in Cambridge, a terraced house full of paperbacks and NHS palliatives, he met with the Observer, the newspaper that gave him his first big break back in the 1970s. With a new book of poems in the offing, the conversation defaulted to his afterlife, a subject he treats with characteristically sardonic merriment. “I’ve got a lot done since my death,” he says.

Many writers half his age and twice as fit would be thrilled to be so productive. As well as publishing his verse translation of The Divine Comedy and a collection of essays, Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 (Picador), with another volume in the works, he has made so many “farewell appearances” (first in London and then at the Cambridge Union) that his friend, PJ O’Rourke, has advised him to “soft-pedal this death’s door stuff because people will get impatient”.

Well, maybe. We are, however, obliged to report that there’s only one problem with this game plan: its star player. Vivian Leopold (aka Clive) James has not yet, apparently, tired of himself. Far from it. Some people treat the appearance of Mr Reaper with resignation, shuffling off this mortal coil as if discarding an old coat, or settling an overdue gas bill. But for James, his trip to A&E was an alarm call that perked him up no end. He responded to being in extremis with all the equanimity of a drowning man. Above all, he got serious. “I am restored by my decline,” he writes, “and by the harsh awakening that it brings.”

Ever since 1958, he has always written and published poems, with a strong bias towards entertainment. The Book of My Enemy has Been Remaindered is a classic of light verse. But suddenly, fulfilling his claim that he is “a late developer”, he had a big subject, perhaps the biggest, his own last exit. The best blooms from this late flowering will appear next month in a new collection, Sentenced to Life, a title that shows James will never miss an opportunity to flash a bit of skirt. But these poems are older, sadder and wiser, the work of a clown who has found his circus inexplicably dark.

Clive James, however, is an Australian “larrikin” with a megaton of inner resource, and whose glass is never less than half full. He says he divides his poems into “lovelies” and “funnies”, which sometimes take shape on the page so fast, he says with a laugh, “that it would be giving away a trade secret to admit how swiftly they can get written”. In Sentenced to Life, there are just two “funnies”, cabaret turns, “about death, doom and destruction”. More typically, the title poem describes “a sad man, sorrier than he can say”, who confesses that “my sin was to be faithless” and who describes seeing himself afresh “with a whole new emphasis”. Occasionally, James the poet steps back to consider himself from the point of view of a literary critic, his most reliable alter ego:

What is it worth, then, this insane last phase
When everything about you goes downhill?
This much: you get to see the cosmos blaze
And feel its grandeur, even against your will,
As it reminds you, just by being there,
That it is here we live, or else nowhere.

(from Event Horizon)

Some of these late poems have struck a chord with poetry readers. Japanese Maple went viral in 2013. Montaigne once observed that we laugh and cry at the same thing, and James is an old master at playing both sides of the street. Japanese Maple caused him some embarrassment, he says, finding the joke in his situation again. “It more or less promised that I would only live till autumn [2013]. But then autumn came – and there I still was, thinking, ‘Shucks!’”

Another potential source of awkwardness, to which he seems finely attuned, is the curse of sentimentality. How does he deal with that?

“You’d just better hope that you’re Puccini,” he replies, cheerfully. “Puccini spent a lot of time being told he was sentimental. To which he muttered in Italian: ‘Who gives a fuck?’. You can’t deal in feelings without running the risk of being sentimental,” he instructs. “‘Sentimental’ really means ‘an excess of feeling without sufficient cause’. I think there’s plenty of cause in my work.”

Which brings us to the central theme of Sentenced to Life, the poems written to his wife, Prue, the beloved dedicatee of the collection. This strand in the book comes with another health warning. When we last met, husband and wife were estranged and James was in the middle of a campaign for reconciliation which, characteristically, he conducted in print. The introduction to his Dante translation was more or less a love letter to Prue, who happens to be a distinguished Dante scholar. Some of the best poems in the new collection are for her, again. Balcony Scene, riffing on Romeo and Juliet, closes with this appeal:

Be wary, but don’t brush these words away,
For they are all yours. I wrote this for you.

He says he is “under sentence of execution” if he speaks of “family matters”, but it’s clear that his domestic circumstances are improving. “Negotiations continue,” he says discreetly, changing the subject.

Tom Stoppard, an old friend and longstanding fan, says that James’s poetry “is open to being under-esteemed because he is accessible”. Stoppard adds that he detects “a Graham Greene-like dichotomy between the entertainments and the more heartfelt, serious stuff. Some of his early poems should be in The Oxford Book of Light Verse. These later ones gravitate more naturally towards The Oxford Book of English Verse.” Stoppard identifies James’s melancholia as a source of inspiration: “I hope he goes on rowing against this current.” Apropos the poems addressed to Prue Shaw, Stoppard observes: “One of the most moving chords ever struck in English literature is the sound of a man falling in love with his wife.”

We don’t need to get too misty here, because the poet himself has his own splinter of ice firmly in place within. “There’s a dilemma,” he says. “I hope that she [Prue] is pleased, and I hope she likes them. But finally, the poet writes for himself. I think that what Prue likes about my poems is that they are written for myself. Maybe she thinks my ‘self’ has improved... ” A mischievous chuckle. “Careful now!” he admonishes. We tiptoe around this a bit more, and move on.

James has always had other fish to fry. He has worked in so many genres, and also sold himself to television, which paid the bills. He has no regrets about his years working inside “the crystal bucket” and strenuously denies that he squandered his talent on the tube. “Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world,” he says, combatively, “is probably just afraid of the world.” In the 1980s, his TV “postcards”, he insists, were “as good as anything I’ve ever done”.

Ask him what kind of a writer he is – critic, novelist, poet, memoirist, translator, or journalist – and he’s likely to say, with earnest flippancy, that he’s running a mixed business. “In Australia,” he explains, “it’s the one shop in the suburb that sells a bit of everything: fishing line, frying pans and flypaper. It’s quite a hard thing to run.”

Part of this “mixed business”, now that he’s stepped back, for the moment, from death’s door, is the second volume of Cultural Amnesia, his compendious collection of biographical essays from Akhmatova, Borges and Camus to Wittgenstein and Zweig, provisionally subtitled “The Wrath of Darth Sith”. There are also some more “lovelies” and “funnies” in the pipeline, and maybe another volume of memoirs. Oh, and he’s fretting about getting his website (with his voluminous backlist) in order.

The phone rings. It’s Addenbrooke’s hospital, booking him to check the “wound” on his scalp. (He’s just had another carcinoma cut out.) “This stuff happens all the time,” he says, seeming temporarily lowered by the irruption of medical concern, and then returns to the conversation, with a reference to the 19th-century French novel. “As a writer, if you can arrange it,” he jokes, “it’s good to be Victor Hugo.” A beat. “I’m a natural inhabiter of the limelight,” he continues. “It’s a character weakness. I may as well treat it as a strength, but it’s a character weakness.” Speaking now of the character who haunts the pages of Sentenced to Life, he claims that he’s “the same kid who wrote Unreliable Memoirs. That kid was full of melancholy and fear, beneath a lot of self-confidence. I wouldn’t want to lose him. Maybe he’s my meal ticket.”

Surely, at this late stage, as the object of so much attention, he must have a choice about how to live in the antechamber to oblivion? “That’s the strange thing. I got confined to…” He gestures round the kitchen in which we are sitting: “To my burrow, but the lights haven’t switched off.” Now he perks up again. “It’s very gratifying. The condition of most writers is to be forgotten, and while they’re alive, too. That must be tough.” He preens imperceptibly, comparing himself en passant to Madonna. “Luckily, I’m a story.”

Does he think about posterity? “Posterity?” he challenges. “It’s here. I’ve always thought that it was here. If you play to the gallery, that’s posterity. The best you can hope for is another gallery after you’ve gone, but you won’t see it. Statistically, it’s unlikely that much of what one does will be read for ever. It may just be one or two poems. For example, my Japanese Maple poem is famous among people who own a Japanese maple.”

James’s appetite for the limelight is only a small part of the explanation for the show he’s putting on in Sentenced to Life. He is too steeped in the classics to be ignorant of the Roman ars moriendi (“The Art of Dying”), advice on how to “die well”, though even he would think it bad form to refer to it. Another part, I think, is a characteristically Australian two fingers to British reticence.

Ever since he landed here in the icy winter of 1962, James has been engaged in a raucous, self-centred and highly entertaining argument with British cultural conventions, a dispute complicated by the awkward truth that he also loves British culture to bits. In the process, he virtually invented TV criticism at the Observer, infuriated the poetry establishment, and reminded the British reading public, which has always been curiously partial to the Australian voice, what could be done with the English language if you had been raised in the Sydney suburbs and had the good luck not to go to Eton or Winchester.

In short, he found a voice. For some writers, Tom Stoppard for instance, “that wonderful tone of voice was so refreshing. There was nothing else quite like it.” In consequence, Clive James has been celebrated, parodied, acclaimed, patronised, lionised and disparaged – but never ignored. He admits he’s taking an “unconscionable time to die” and reports, wryly, that Germaine Greer has briskly declared her intention, when the time comes, to make her exit with “a lot less fuss”.

James cannot help himself. In his Observer days, he became Sunday’s must-read columnist – a vertiginous mix of literary exuberance, show-off allusion, topical wisecracks and fuck-you Aussie irreverence. Who can forget his picture of the Formula One commentator Murray Walker describing every grand prix “as if his trousers were on fire”?

The best of James’s observations – for instance, that “Perry Como gave his usual impersonation of a man who has simultaneously been told to say ‘cheese’ and shot in the back by a poisoned arrow” or that Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron resembled “a brown condom filled with walnuts” – had an unequalled, surreal hilarity that, in the words of Charlie Brooker, made “your brain yelp with delight”.

By the mid-70s, James had become that literary phenomenon, as rare as the hippogriff, a critic who might put Rambo and Rimbaud in the same sentence, and somehow get away with it. In fact, he’d probably done that already, and we hadn’t noticed, being too distracted by his comparison of Beowulf to Jaws or his fascination with Martina Navratilova. By his own standards, this conversation is possibly rather undernourished, merely referring, in passing (in addition to Puccini and Victor Hugo), to Byron, Brecht, Antonioni, Catullus, House of Cards, Pushkin, Jenson Button, Freud, Sartre, George Steiner, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Clive James is an a omnivore, and some of his appetites have got him into trouble. “When I do die,” he wrote years ago in his memoirs, “and come to that checkpoint inside the gates of hell, it will be no secret between me and [Satan] that I suffered from an inordinate susceptibility to female beauty.” His ongoing negotiations with his wife derive from the revelation that his love for down under had included a long affair with a bottle-blonde Australian former model named Leanne Edelsten. But that was in another country and now, finally, it’s his frailty that keeps him close to Addenbrooke’s, marooned in the UK.

Like many postwar Australians, he first came to Britain to get closer to the source of a culture with which he was mildly obsessed. He claims to have followed the example of the journalist Alan Moorehead, but was otherwise simply joining the herd. “I was remarkably stupid,” he says. “I did it because everyone else did. It was as dumb as that. And when I got here I ran out of money and couldn’t go back. It was 16 years before I had enough money to get home. The Observer flew me home to do an assignment.”

In the interim, he had gone up to Cambridge as a graduate, and discovered a taste for mixing erudition with performance. He’s been showing off ever since. Tom Stoppard cherishes this side of James. “He writes so generously about other poets,” he says. “‘Erudite’ suggests narrow and deep, but Clive is wide and deep.”

The glow of the Cambridge Footlights was not bright enough for the young autodidact, who was in a hurry. From the ivory tower, he gravitated to the pub, the Pillars of Hercules in 70s Soho, at that time the centre of New Grub Street. Here, he revelled in the patronage of three great editors: Ian Hamilton (the New Review); Karl Miller (the Listener) and Terry Kilmartin (arts panjandrum at theObserver). It was Kilmartin who commissioned the TV column that would shape his career. Of course it wasn’t just about television. “I used the column,” he says, “to analyse British culture.” Or, to put it another way, to wrestle it to the ground for a closer interrogation.

He says he is not “a natural rebel”. As an outsider, he sometimes hankers to be part of the plot, on the inside track. In the 1970s, having made friends with the mafiosi of the New Statesman (Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, among others), he floated the idea of reviving what FR Leavis (one of his bugbears) liked to excoriate as “the modish London literary world”, and suggested that this metropolitan cabal should meet for a regular lunch. “The fun at the time,” he remembers, “was to make it part of a conspiracy. But it really wasn’t. It was just lunch.”

The convivial, and conspiratorial, James became notorious for trailing his cultural coat with exquisite references to Pushkin and MallarmĂ©, allusions to Mandarin poetry, and snatches of Ovid and Catullus. He’s not lost that knack, though it has become braided more seamlessly into the texture of his late life’s work. Sentenced to Life contains a poem of homage, Compendium Catullianum, whose title was cooked up for him by his neighbour, the classicist Mary Beard. From memory now, he begins to recite some of the Latin (Catullus’s Carmen 101, written in memory of the poet’s dead brother) that inspired his own poem.

“It goes on,” he says, “to that famous last line: ‘atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale [And for eternity, my brother, hail and farewell.]’.” He glances out of the window towards the Japanese maple in the garden. “I learned a lot of Latin poetry here,” he says. “That’s the great thing about a place like Cambridge. So many great minds. It’s like being in Los Alamos.”

Breaking cover in the closing poem of this collection, he admits himself to be “dying by inches”. This, more than the ironic bravura of his latest platform appearances, seems to represent the real Clive James, a writer whose commanding voice contains a constant variety of colour and tone. Regretting his frailty, he has become, he says, “the echo of the man you knew”. Momentarily sombre, he agrees that death, as much as love, is the true lyric inspiration. “I think I’m writing better now than I ever did. That’s where lyricism comes from. The love lyric is always full of approaching sadness.”

Almost wistful, he returns to talking about Australia, “the land of my youth, the land of permanent youth. I think about it all the time and,” he gestures to his laptop, “I follow it continually, too.” He adds, quite matter-of-fact, and hardly boastful, that he is “one of Australia’s much-loved sons”. Another twinkle. “That’s a category, you know.”

Putting aside, if he can, these areas of regret, there’s the relentless tick-tock of failing health. At least he’s in no pain. “What I’ve got doesn’t hurt. I’ve been lucky. The treatment has been benign. I don’t know if I could concentrate if I was in pain. I’ve never had to stop.” He gets his immune system rebuilt every three weeks through a process of immunoglobulin enhancement. “It’s quite restful. I sit there all afternoon. I can read a book, and even write something, while they pump in stuff through a tube.”

His leukaemia had been in remission but now, he says quietly, “it’s still there, and has just reared its head again”. A recent bone-marrow biopsy has been a sharp, unwelcome reminder of this underlying condition. “I’m about to have some more chemo,” he says, “which I haven’t had in years. I always knew that leukaemia would catch up with me.”

Is he ever moved to tears? “No.” He seems taken aback by the question. “No,” he repeats. “I’m surrounded by too much joy from my family.” One of his two daughters lives next door, with Prue nearby in the family home. “We’re a funny bunch,” he says. “We are more likely to be moved to tears by House of Cards, when my favourite reporter got pushed under a train at the start of series two.”

A small silence intercedes. “What will happen when I go?” he wonders aloud. “I don’t know.” He pauses. “I’ll be glad to be remembered at all.” Another pause. “I’ve seen some very gifted people destroy themselves.” Pause. “I’ve had a lucky life. That includes five years I didn’t expect to get.” A final pause. “I’ll be 76 this year, I think.”

Meanwhile, awaiting another rendezvous with Addenbrooke’s, he is reflecting on all the fine words that “poets and philosophers have used to mark the path into the killing ground”.

His own last lines run on:

No supernatural powers
Need be invoked by us to help explain
How we will see the world
Dissolve into the mutability
That feeds our future with our fading past:
The sea, the always self-renewing sea.
The horses of the night that run so fast.

(from Sunset Hails a Rising)

Sentenced to Life by Clive James is published by Picador (£14.99)

* Through many nations and many seas have I come
To carry out these wretched funeral rites, brother,
That at last I may give you this final gift in death
And that I might speak in vain to silent ashes.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Rats in Chinatown, Newcastle

And by way of a nod to St Pat's Day, let's point out that this is a stone's throw away from The Tyneside Irish Centre

Sláinte mhaith, indeed!

Sunday 15 March 2015

Memories and Imaginings: Blade Runner - Ridley Scott's Timeless Classic...

Tears in rain? Why Blade Runner is timeless
One of the greatest science fiction films ever made is about to be screened across the country in its definitive version. With its towering cityscapes, dreamy Vangelis soundtrack and nods to film noir, the movie offers a vision of a dystopian future devoid of human emotion

Michael Newton
Saturday 14 March 2015

It’s entirely apt that a film dedicated to replication should exist in multiple versions; there is not one Blade Runner, but seven. Though opinions on which is best vary and every edition has its partisans, the definitive rendering of Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian film is most likely The Final Cut (2002), about to play out once more in cinemas across the UK. Aptly, too, repetition is written into the movie’s plot (there are spoilers coming), that sees Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) as an official bounty hunter (or “Blade Runner”) consigned to hunt down, one after the other, four Nexus-6 replicants (genetically-designed artificial human beings, intended as slaves for Earth’s off-world colonies). One by one, our equivocal hero seeks out the runaways: worldly-wise Zhora (Joanna Cassidy); stolid Leon (Brion James); the “pleasure-model” Pris (Daryl Hannah); and the group’s apparent leader, the ultimate Nietzschean blond beast, Roy Batty (the wonderful Rutger Hauer). Along the way, Deckard meets and falls in love with another replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), as beautiful and cold as a porcelain doll.

In Blade Runner, as in all science-fiction, the “future” is a style. Here that style is part film noir and part Gary Numan. The 40s influence is everywhere: in Rachael’s Joan-Crawford shoulder pads, the striped shadows cast by Venetian blinds, the atmosphere of defeat. It’s not just noir,Ridley Scott also taps into 70s cop shows and movies that themselves tapped into nostalgic style, with their yearning jazz and their sad apartments; Deckard even visits a strip joint as all TV detectives must. The movie remains one of the most visually stunning in cinema history. It plots a planet of perpetual night, a landscape of shadows, rain and reflected neon (shone on windows or the eye) in a world not built to a human scale; there, the skyscrapers dwarf us like the pyramids. High above the Philip Marlowe world, hover cars swoop and dirigible billboards float by. More dated now than its hard-boiled lustre is the movie’s equal and opposite involvement in modish early 80s dreams; the soundtrack by Vangelis was up-to-the-minute, while the replicants dress like extras in a Billy Idol video, a post-punk, synth-pop costume party. However, it is noir romanticism that wins out, gifting the film with its forlorn Californian loneliness.

It is a starkly empty film, preoccupied as it is with the thought that people themselves might be hollow. The plot depends on the notion that the replicants must be allowed to live no longer than four years, because as time passes they begin to develop raw emotions. Why emotion should be a capital offence is never sufficiently explained; but it is of a piece with the film’s investigation of a flight from feeling – what psychologist Ian D Suttie once named the “taboo on tenderness”. Intimacy here is frightful (everyone appears to live alone), especially that closeness that suggests that the replicants might be indistinguishable from us.

This anxiety may originally have had tacit political resonances. In the novel that the film is based on, Philip K Dick’s thoughtful Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the dilemma of the foot soldier plays out, commanded to kill an adversary considered less human than ourselves, yet troubled by the possibility that the enemy are in fact no different. Shades of Vietnam darken the story, as well as memories of America’s slave-owning past. We are told that the replicants can do everything a human being can do, except feel empathy. Yet how much empathy do we feel for faraway victims or inconvenient others?

Ford’s Deckard may or may not be as gripped by uncertainty about his job as Dick’s original blade runner. In any case, his brusque “lack of affect” provides one of the long-standing puzzles of the film: is he, too, a replicant? Certainly Ford’s perpetual grumpiness (it sometimes seems his default acting position), his curdled cynicism, put up barriers to feeling that suggest it is as disturbing for him as it is for the hunted Leon or Roy. Though some still doubt, it seems clear that Deckard is indeed a replicant, his imaginings and memories downloaded from some database, his life as transitory as that of his victims. However, as we watchBlade Runner, Deckard doesn’t feel like a replicant; he is dour and unengaged, but lacks his victims’ detached innocence, their staccato puzzlement at their own untrained feelings. The antithesis of the scowling Ford, Hauer’s Roy is a sinister smiler, or someone whose face falls at the brush of an unassimilable emotion.

After all, none of the replicants that are Deckard’s quarry are older than four; it should hardly be surprising that they act like kids, too. (“Gosh,” murmurs Roy, as he gazes at a menagerie of living puppets and dolls, “you’ve really got nice toys here.”) It’s as children that we perhaps learn to warm to them, for all their chilling potentiality for violence. They are children, too, in relation to the man who created them: Tyrell, the Frankenstein-father to Roy’s outcast creature. In this regard the film’s psychologically dark and patricidal energies are inescapable: when pressed about his mother, Leon replies “let me tell you about my mother”, and blasts the inquiring blade runner in the groin; when Roy demands of Tyrell, “I want more life, fucker”, it’s the first and only swear word in the film, all the stronger for it, and for being addressed to a “father” who has unfeelingly engineered him, and not out of love fathered him at all.

Tyrell is the Murdochian head of the Tyrell Corporation; one of the good guessesBlade Runner made about the future is that it would not be governments, but corporations who would really run things. Indebtedness to commercial power depersonalises the people in this film: more even than dispensable workers, the replicants are not makers of the product, they are the product; otherwise Deckard is a man scoured out by being a functionary on behalf of what he himself names “the business”. Against this dehumanisation, first the replicants and then Deckard strive to create ways that will restore the personal to their lives. Leon attempts to do so by clinging to photographs; one of the key things that Ridley Scott brings to Philip K Dick’s story is an attention to film itself, and to how it makes meaning for us. Leon’s sentimental snapshots are lit like the paintings of Edward Hopper, though in them the human figures are almost absent, obscured by gloom, hidden in mirrors. Film would hold on to such fugitive moments, screening remembrance for us. Otherwise memories are lost, as Roy tell us, “like tears in rain”; but are his memories real or artificially implanted ones? Are the photographs that decorate Deckard’s piano authentic or fake?

Yet Blade Runner does not gloss over the fact that film can also participate in the dehumanising procedure, turning others into objects for our voyeurism. Our own resistance to this process can be measured in our responses to the replicants’ deaths. Wearing a stripper’s bikini and a see-through plastic mac, Zhora is murdered in a soft-porn, slow-motion spectacle, played out to sad music; but is sadness for her what we feel? When Pris dies, she does so like a beetle thrashing and screeching on her back; the strangeness of it repulses sympathy. Yet minutes later, we shall see Roy mourning her, her death not a matter of disgust but of lament.

Deckard’s own path away from cruelty and disconnection occurs, equivocally enough, in his rejecting the values of the “business” and allowing himself to fall in love with Rachael. There are three love scenes between them in Deckard’s apartment, each played with gathering closeness: the first is hardly a love scene at all, the two stalk in different rooms, doors close between them; the second, just after Rachael has saved Deckard’s life, shows him disturbingly violent towards her, bullying her into saying that she loves him, forcing the words into her mouth. The last scene achieves at last both tenderness and reciprocity; he awakens her from what really might be death, as in a fairytale, with a kiss. “Do you love me?” he asks. “I love you,” she replies. “Do you trust me?” “I trust you.” After these words, Deckard denies his role as blade runner; the two of them end the film on the run, as Pris and Roy have been, their unrelenting mortality running with them.

Feeling connection to the beautiful Rachael is one thing; coming into connection with brutal, terrifying Roy is quite another. Since Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin (arguably the first detective), sleuths have solved crimes by putting themselves in the position of the criminal, by becoming what Poe called a “double Dupin”. For much of the film, Deckard refuses to identify himself with his prey; after all, that might make him no better than an organic machine. Yet throughout, the replicants are busy trying to make him feel as they feel, to share the unnerving experience of “living in fear”. In one of the film’s most brilliant sequences, Roy and Deckard pursue each other through a murky apartment, playing a vicious child’s game of hide and seek. As they do so, the similarities between them grow stronger – both are hunter and hunted, both are in pain, both struggle with a hurt, claw-like hand. If the film suggests a connection here that Deckard himself might still at this point deny, at the very end doubt falls away. Roy’s life closes with an act of pity, one that raises him morally over the commercial institutions that would kill him. If Deckard cannot see himself in the other, Roy can. The white dove that implausibly flies up from Roy at the moment of his death perhaps stretches belief with its symbolism; but for me at least the movie has earned that moment, suggesting that in the replicant, as in the replicated technology of film itself, there remains a place for something human.

• Blade Runner is on general release from 3 April.