Sunday, 5 April 2020

Philip Marlowe's America is with us today...

The prophetic Raymond Chandler
Chandler’s California is a cultural desert stretching along the western edge of a continental wasteland

Chilton Williamson, Jr.
Spectator USA
24 February 2020

In an age of extreme individualism complicated by racial sensitivity and class resentment, ancestry is an uncomfortable subject. But it remains a fact that a man’s ancestors are never irrelevant to who and what he is, though of course they determine neither.

Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) said that he was conceived here in Laramie, before being delivered in Chicago following the usual interval of nine months. His American father deserted the family and his Anglo-Irish mother took her son to England, to be educated at Dulwich College.

After graduation, Chandler failed in a literary career in London, fought in France with the Canadian army during the Great War, and ended up back in America, where he worked as an executive for an oil company in Los Angeles. A too-fond relationship with John Barleycorn got him fired in 1932, and he began a new career writing stories for the detective magazine Black Mask. These led to his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), and from there to his best work, including Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The Long Goodbye (1953), all written in first-person narrative by Los Angeles P.I. Philip Marlowe.

Ross MacDonald, Chandler’s partner in fictive crime, said he ‘wrote like a slumming angel’, but neglected to add that the angel was determinedly American. ‘I had to learn American,’ Chandler explained, ‘just like a foreign language. To learn it I had to study and analyze it. As a result, when I use slang, solecisms, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself.’ So he studied and got the job done. No writer, including Mark Twain, ever captured the American language of his era more accurately and convincingly than Chandler did, having learned all about it.

But language was not all Chandler knew about America. Almost none of it is flattering, and a good deal is unpleasant. That American readers appear not to have been offended suggests that they are more honestly self-aware at a deeper, perhaps unconscious, level than they know or are given credit for by critics both native and foreign. Chandler’s California is a cultural desert stretching along the western edge of a continental wasteland. ‘No doubt,’ he presciently wrote to a friend, ‘in years, or centuries to come, this will be the center of civilization, if there is any left, but the melting-pot stage bores me horribly. I like people with manners, grace, some social intuition, an education slightly above the Reader’s Digest fan, people whose pride of living does not express itself in their kitchen gadgets and their automobiles.’

And beyond the social and intellectual thinness, Chandler perceived something more sinister: ‘The bitter fact is that outside of two or three technical professions which require long years of preparation, there is absolutely no way for a man of this age to acquire a decent affluence in life without to some degree corrupting himself, without accepting the cold, clear fact that success is always and everywhere a racket.’

Chandler’s view of American culture, which in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties was steadily becoming the culture of modernity everywhere, shows through the grain of all his books. It is developed most plainly and relentlessly in The Long Goodbye, a novel unsparing of the idle, self-indulgent and corrupt rich, of local government and the politicians who run it, and of the gangsters who prey upon and exploit everyone and everything within their reach.

‘Crime isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom,’ Marlowe tells the police lieutenant Bernie Ohls. ‘We’re a big, rough, rich, wild people and crime is the price we pay for it, and organized crime is the price we pay for organization. We’ll have it with us a long time. Organized crime is just the dirty side of the sharp dollar.’ When Ohls asks what the clean side is, Marlowe replies, ‘I never saw it.’

More directly still, Chandler commented in another letter about watching a group of ‘the big boys’ stroll across the Paramount lot after lunch in the executive dining room. ‘It brought home to me in a flash the strange psychological and spiritual kinship between the operations of big money business and the rackets. Same faces, same expressions, same manners. Same way of dressing and same exaggerated leisure of movement.’

In a Chandler novel, corrupt local and municipal government is a constant theme. Yet national politics are hardly referenced at all. ‘P. Marlowe doesn’t give a damn who is president; neither do I, because I know he will be a politician,’ Chandler explained. Another, equally plausible reason is that stories about Bay City, California offered little opportunity for their author to comment about or dramatize events centered upon Washington, DC. Indeed, the only mention of the subject that I have come across occurs in a letter to a critic of detective fiction, James Sandoe, in which Chandler is discussing the Hollywood screenwriters’ legal defense strategy during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of 1949: ‘You say it is forthright. What’s forthright about it? It strikes me as a singularly incompetent attempt…to use the legalistic weakness of the democratic system in order to undermine or sabotage the functioning of that system.’

Raymond Chandler’s America remains recognizable, even familiar, in 2020, in nearly all ways but one: the extent to which American government has advanced from a political-financial racket to an ideological-financial one. The HUAC hearings were the earliest sign of a shift that lapsed into abeyance between Sen. McCarthy’s hearings in the early Fifties, and the mid-Sixties when it returned — for good, it seems — with the civil-rights movement merging with the Marxist, student one. Chandler did not live to see this historic development that neither he nor P. Marlowe would have failed to recognize as the new American racket that it was then — and still is 60 years on.

The earlier system of organized crime and cheap graft that intrudes into the novels has been superseded by an equally organized political and semi-criminal system, grounded in the revolutionary ideology of ‘the Resistance’ that has been waging war against Donald Trump during the three years since the President’s election. Chandler’s two-bit crooks and shakedown artists, operators like Mendy Menendez of Bay City and Randy Starr of Las Vegas, have been replaced by self-righteous liars and legal and political manipulators, typified by James Comey and Adam Schiff, who dominate the news 24 hours a day.

Raymond Chandler was a bit of a prophet, in his way. One wonders whether he saw this coming.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Who was that masked statue?

Dublin, Ireland: The Molly Malone statue (Dan Sheridan)

The Fearless Girl statue outside the New York Stock Exchange (Kevin Hagen)

St Petersburg, Russia: A statue of Ostap Bender, a fictional conman (Peter Kovalev)

Buenos Aires, Argentina: A statue of the musician Astor Piazzolla

Edinburgh, Scotland: The Greyfriars Bobby statue (Jeff J Mitchell)

Kansas City, USA statue of a Sioux Indian scout (Charlie Riedel)

Cremona, Italy: A statue of Antonio Stradivari (Filippo Venezia)

Wuhan, China: A statue of a mother and child

Istanbul, Turkey: A statue of Alex de Souza

Brussels, Belgium: The Manneken-Pis statue (Aris Oikonomou)

Melbourne, Australia: The Three Business Men Who Brought Their Own Lunch statues on Swanston street (Asanka Ratnayake)

Timperley, England: A statue of Frank Sidebottom (Phil Noble)

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Young Rembrandt

Self-portrait in a cap, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, 1630

Young Rembrandt review – how a master learned from his mistakes
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
This absorbing show of Rembrandt’s early work reveals how sweat and dedication turned an error-prone teenager into an artist of unrivalled greatness

Laura Cumming
The Guardian
Sun 1 Mar 2020

Rembrandt is shocked to see you. He reels backwards, mouth open, eyebrows raised in amazement at your startling arrival. You can see the whites of his eyes.

This is the one-two action – you appear, he reacts – of this tremendous etching, made in 1630 when Rembrandt was around 24. It is a portrait of the artist as a young star. All of its quicksilver whorls and curlicues are put to the service of theatre: the image as incident, as mutual encounter. It takes the convention of eye-to-eye contact and transforms it into vital drama.

But 24 is not precocious, in terms of art history. Raphael and Dürer were virtuosos before the age of 10. Picasso, in his own words, could draw like Raphael as a child. Rembrandt is not regarded as a prodigy. Indeed, it is the very novel aim of this exhibition – the largest ever devoted to the first decade of his career, 1624-34 – to show just how hard Rembrandt had to work to become Rembrandt.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Spectacles Seller (Allegory of Sight), c1624
The Spectacles Seller (Allegory of Sight), c1624

Young Rembrandt is filled with unexpected curiosities and rarely seen masterworks. It follows the artist from his teenage beginnings in Leiden to the glory days of Amsterdam, with riches and a thriving workshop. You see him faltering, practising, correcting and even junking work en route. There are duff portraits, where the sitters all look the same, and unfulfilled drawings. The curators do not stint on his failures.

It is unusual enough to see some of Rembrandt’s early Bible paintings, over-coloured and hyperbolic in their melodrama. But it is odder still to have a museum draw deliberate attention to his faults. In an etching circa 1625, The Circumcision, baby Jesus is a stiff toy, the bystanders are badly drawn dolls, and there is no sense of depth or perspective. Look closer and you can see that the artist felt the same. He made several attempts to erase botched lines.

Let the Little Children Come to Me, c1627-8

Early Rembrandt can be blockish, crude and clumsy. Figures may be out of proportion, the composition skewed. He is so variable that attributions remain contentious. A painting called Let the Little Children Come to Me was sold at auction as Dutch School as recently as 2014. It is shown here for the first time as a Rembrandt, and while the artist seems to be here in person, as a compelling self-portrait at the top of an ungainly pyramid of parents and children, the painting is such a pile-up of idioms it is hard to believe that it is not by several different artists.
Rembrandt - Samson and Delilah [1628] | Rembrandt paintings ...
Samson and Delilah, 1628

The shocked self-portrait is reprised in a painting of Delilah shearing off Samson’s hair. Rembrandt’s face is everywhere. Something of him appears not once but twice in the background of a 1626 work called The Baptism of the Eunuch, seriously drawing attention away from the holy moment itself. And there is a dark-eyed and tousle-haired self-portrait – as recognisable as it is flagrantly unexplained – in the mysterious image known only as History Painting. This is the young Rembrandt as you first see him at the Ashmolean.

Self-portrait, 1620

Three self-portraits greet you at the door: each surprisingly small (fame seems to enlarge them in mind) and equally astonishing. From Munich comes the haunting young artist as a lone soul in the forests of the night, eyes blacker than the shadow falling over them. He is perfectly positioned at the boundary between darkness and light as to seem almost unreachable – until you notice the eyes look straight back at you.

An ink drawing, watchful and open-mouthed, and an etching of the artist with a tangled lovelock and wild eyes come from the same phase, circa 1629. Painting, drawing, print: Rembrandt is working in all three media at once – and in hybrid. He used a split-tipped drawing quill to work the copper plate (nobody had done it before, and he never did it again). His experiments are so extensive and radical.

What is wonderful about this presentation is the way it takes your eye directly into his shifting thoughts. Rembrandt uses an etching plate like a sketchbook, working all over it, turning it round and round to get a good clear patch for a new and better vignette. If he doesn’t like a drawing, he cuts it up and recycles the pieces. One captivating sequence of prints shows the artist changing his mind on the plate as he goes. A portrait of his father starts as a head and shoulders, expands to include the body and finally closes right in on the head, deleting all the rest: the mind is what matters.

A red chalk sketch of this elderly parent, deeply asleep, seems to have received a brown wash when his father died in 1630. It acquires a memorial solemnity. And the several portraits of Rembrandt’s ageing mother, so lined and creased, with her distinctive nose, are equally affecting.

Portrait of his father, 1628-9

Rembrandt van Rijn (Leiden 1606-Amsterdam 1669) - An old Woman ...
An old Woman called 'The Artist's Mother' c.1627-9

She is doing exactly what her son asks of her – sitting very still, quietly waiting while he depicts her in all her humility. Her character is revealed in these passing moments as much as her appearance: the patience she gives to her son.

Rembrandt worked incredibly hard to become an artist of Shakespearean dimensions. The 140 works here are barely a fraction from a decade of continuous revolution, in which he is constantly finding new ways to convey the profundity of our human drama. By the third gallery of this exhibition, he is painting himself as a potentate of theatrical grandeur, with fancy dress costume and props to match. The paint – lavish, darting, radiant – rises at every level to the performance.
Rembrandt, Portrait of Aechje Claesdr | ColourLex
Portrait of Aechje Claesdr, 1719

There are too many works by his friend Jan Lievens in this show. And you arrive at Rembrandt’s “mature” style via a room full of his students’ homages, before seeing what it was that actually inspired them. (The National Gallery, coincidentally, has a show by one of those pupils, Nicolaes Maes, inventor of an eavesdropping scenario in which one character in a painting urges you to listen to another in the next door room: piquant rather than profound.)

By 1634, Rembrandt had painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp and other renowned masterworks that are not in this show. The object is to follow the steps, and missteps, of his journey along the way. You will have the strongest sense of the streets around him – of hawkers and beggars, comical dogs and overfed burghers copiously peeing – as much as the imaginative empathy of his visions; Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem as in some floating nightmare of grief; a later print of The Circumcision, now condensed to the scale of a sonnet, in which the Christ child screams.

A Man in Oriental Dress (‘The Noble Slav’), 1632

What this show reveals, too, is an exceptional sympathy with old people in one so young. A nearly life-size portrait of a woman aged 83 shows the marks of woe as much as experience. And perhaps most magnificent of all is the painting long known as The Noble Slav, on loan from New York’s Metropolitan Museum. It shows an elderly man in a feathered turban and oriental costume. The brushwork is dazzling, mimicking the glitter of his gold chain, the translucent sheen of pearls and the shimmer of silk with a thousand different strokes. But rising out of all this is Rembrandt’s monument to the man himself: proud and resolute, even as the light fails.

Young Rembrandt was at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 7 June

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Scarred for Life: Growing Up in the Dark Side of the Decade

Here's a really enjoyable and, at times, eye-opening book to appeal to people of a certain age; people who grew up in the 70s and watched some bizarre television - often aimed specifically at kids - or who read some very odd comics, including things you'd be lucky to get away with now. In fact, American comics aside, do kids even read comics any more? Some of the featured shows are, of course, a throw over from the 60s (European imports, for example) and not all were aimed at children (the BBC's M R James adaptations, G F Newman's Law and Order, for example) and we can only hope that someone writes another volume on that period...
Scarred for life: How the pop culture of the Seventies had such a lasting effect on children
The seventies was proliferated by public information films warning of polished floor man-traps, human sacrifice on afternoon TV and ultraviolent comics, says David Barnett

David Barnett
The Independent
Tuesday 30 May 2017

‘Scarred for Life’ is a traumatic reminder of just how scary the Seventies were for kids.

Stephen Brotherstone will be 47 next month, but every time he comes to a road he stands well back from the kerb, looks right, looks left, and looks right again, and only crosses when it is clear.

“I can’t help it,” he says. “I had the Green Cross Code burned into my head as a kid.”

Brotherstone, from Liverpool, is a child of the Seventies, and thus was educated in the ways of safety and sensibility by the public information films that proliferated in the decade. As well as knowing how to cross the road, he is fully aware that you never climb an electricity pylon to retrieve a kite, that if you put a rug on a polished floor you might as well set a man-trap, and that the fool-hardy child who plays near open water will fall victim to a hooded spirit voiced by Donald Pleasence.

“I honestly think the public information films are the last great art form waiting to be recognised,” he says. “They’re wonderful, like complete horror films distilled into 30 seconds.”

The films have a place in a new book written by Stephen and Dave Lawrence called Scarred for Life, and they are just one piece of the rather horrific puzzle that was 1970s popular culture aimed at children. Last month the Daily Mail lambasted Jeremy Corbyn for the leaked Labour manifesto that would “take us back to the 1970s”. They were thinking more about renationalisation, tax hikes and strikes though, not the relentless and often disturbing cavalcade of entertainment that left a generation ever so slightly traumatised.

We are talking the likes of TV’s Sapphire and Steel, the otherworldly agents played by David McCallum and Joanna Lumley who investigated the stuff of young nightmares – people trapped in photographs, spooky nursery rhymes. We are talking 1977’s kids’ TV series Children of the Stones, which got youngsters’ anxiety levels radged right up from the moment the wailing theme tune began. We are talking the ultraviolent Action comic, which gleefully replicated all the X-rated movies kids could not watch in comic book form, until Frank Bough ripped up a copy on TV in a righteous fury and it was pulled by the publishers. It is all in the book, and much more besides.
At more than 730 pages, this is a labour of love and a traumatic reminder of just how scary the Seventies were for kids. Put more than two 40-somethings in a room and sooner or later they’ll talk about the pop culture of their day, and how it was so often inappropriate to contemporary mores. Which is exactly how Scarred for Life came about.

Brotherstone works in the Liverpool branch of the comics-and-geek-culture chain Forbidden Planet, and one day got talking with regular customer Dave Lawrence about the TV shows of their youth. He says, “Everything we remembered seemed to be horrific and bleak in some way. As soon as I got home I started looking on the internet for books on the subject, but I was pretty amazed that although I could get books about space hoppers and glam rock, there was nothing that really looked at all this stuff from the Seventies which was massively scary.”

A colleague suggested he write one himself, which he laughed off. But when Lawrence offered to co-write and research, he thought again, and together they embarked on a three-and-a-half-year journey to document their childhood scares, which has just now borne fruit.

Brotherstone and I swap memories of shows that freaked us out. “Remember The Feathered Serpent?” he says. I did. ITV’s attempt at a historical drama for kids, set in ancient Mexico. “They had human sacrifice and all sorts at 4.30 in the afternoon!” he adds.
But what was it about the Seventies that produced such weird, eerie and horrifying stuff for kids? Brotherstone’s theory is that it was a hangover from the permissive Sixties. “At the end of that decade the shutters sort of came up and film-makers and artists started doing a lot of stuff that they felt was free of censorship,” he says. “I think they felt so free that they just went for it in a big way, there was possibly an element of naivety in what people thought was appropriate for kids. These days there are so many guidelines about what children should and shouldn’t be exposed to, and that sort of thing wasn’t in evidence much back in the Seventies, which is why we had a lot of stuff that looks really scary and disturbing today.”

Young people prepare to yawn, but it was a different world back then. We knew we should not talk to strangers or the terrifying bogeyman of “the dirty old man” (both Brotherstone and I realise that back then we assumed parents meant “tramps” rather than today’s more ubiquitous paedophile), but we still went out all day without letting our mums and dads know where we were going. We roamed the bounds of our territory, and occasionally beyond, without the safety net of a mobile phone if we needed to speak to home. We scuffed our knees and ripped our clothes and carried big sticks.

“It all didn’t do us any harm,” says Brotherstone, laughing before adding, “God, that’s such a cliche. But it feels so different today.”

One thing that has also changed is the way we consume our culture. In these days of catch-up TV, binge-watching box-sets and downloading movies, it is perhaps hard to conceive of the immediacy and transient nature of TV especially back then – which is why Brotherstone thinks we remember stuff from the Seventies with such clarity.

“These days a young person will be watching a TV show at the same time as being on their phone or doing something else; they know they don’t have to give it their full attention because they can catch up and watch it again anytime,” he says. “But in the Seventies we really, properly watched stuff. You had to. So you’d sit down in front of the TV and you’d tell everybody to be quiet and you’d concentrate, because it was your one and only chance to see the show. It wasn’t going to be repeated, we didn’t have video recorders, we couldn’t just watch it again.
‘Children of the Stones’ has been called ‘the scariest programme ever made for kids’ 

“And I think that’s why we remember the adverts and the public information films so clearly. We couldn’t fast-forward through the ads so we had to sit through them while we were waiting for Magpie or whatever to start again, and they just stuck in our heads.”

Scarred for Life does not just focus on horror and science fiction flavoured TV and films, though it does so lovingly and exhaustingly, but also looks at toys, sweets and light entertainment shows of the decade, for example The Black and White Minstrel Show. If you do not know what that is, it was essentially a bunch of white people wearing blackface for song and dance numbers. And no-one batted an eyelid.

One of the nice touches of the book is that it views Seventies culture not as an academic treatise, and not even with adult nostalgia, but through the lens of the children that Brotherstone and Lawrence were at the time.

“We originally intended to cover the Eighties as well,” says Brotherstone, “but it soon became apparent we would have far too much material. So we’re doing a second book, and we’ll be looking at that from the perspective of us becoming teenagers in that decade.”

While the Eighties had its share of inappropriate consumer culture, being the decade of the video nasty for example, it will also heavily focus on the Cold War that dominated and the very real threat of nuclear extinction. Brotherstone vividly recalls having his first anxiety attack – though he did not know what it was at the time – over the thought of everyone he knew and loved dying in a nuclear holocaust. “I was 13,” he says. “That’s going to come into volume two a lot, how that fear influenced culture, from the terrifying Threads to ‘99 Red Balloons’.”

But that is a work in progress, and it is book one of Scarred for Life with its sometimes quaint, sometimes paralysingly horrifying portrayal of the 1970s through its child-focused culture, which should be on everyone’s shelf, no matter how old you are. Rush to get your copy now, but remember: look right, look left, and look right again. And only cross when it is safe to do so.

Scarred for Life by Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence is available for £16.99 from