My Intellectual Heroes

As I’ve got older, I’ve come to read an increasing proportion of non-fiction. And within that, I’ve veered away from biographies and history towards the heavier stuff as time has gone by. Not that I ever shied away from a good thick doorstopper as a teenager. It sometimes tickles me to remember reading Peter Hennessy’s magisterial Whitehall, on the history, incumbents, current (1988) structure and performance of the British civil service, or The Development of the British Economy, 1914-90 while I was fifteen, for example. I always was an insanely ambitious reader (you can interpret that as “massive geek”, if you prefer).

Nowadays I have found my bearings intellectually with those I regard as my main influences. Oddly enough this process only began when I was at university: prior to that I was mostly literary, my favourite writers perhaps being James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and William Burroughs. But once I started reading the political and economic thinkers, that’s when I found my bearings. So here is a history of my heroes.

Karl Marx

I’m not going to apologise for this, either for its tabloid shock value, nor for its student trendiness. Marx remains a staggeringly powerful thinker and one well worth reading. (I was going to say “worth studying”, but as with any thinker, you should be able to engage with them for fun). Encountering Marx was something of a revelation – throughout my adolescent years I’d formed strong opinions on what I didn’t like (Christianity, “family values” types) but never found anything broader on which I could base it all. Upon hearing the main tenets of Marxism – that capitalism is inherently monopolistic, that the middle-class will be swallowed up, that economic development is the engine of history, and so on – I suddenly thought, “Holy shit! That’s just what I think!”

I was never, let me stress, a Rik from the Young Ones student revolutionary, nor was I ever into the Socialist Worker Party, the Trots or even the Scottish Socialist Party. My engagement with politics has always been intellectual rather than active. You might think I’m a lazy-do nothing arse if you’re a busy activist, but hey, that’s just the way I am. The political aspect of Marxism I never bought, insofar as talking about a vanguard party, dictatorship of the proletariat or the future withering of the state; it seemed (and still seems) absurd, and anyway is often more of a Leninist development according to his political opportunities. But the materialist conception of history, and the dialectic, and the view of history as a series of class struggles, were electrifying, illuminating, ideas. I feel a great deal of fondness for the eccentric old boy, and forever grateful to him for clarifying and sharpening many of my muddled thoughts. If you’re really not familiar with Marx either as a thinker or as a real person, try his biography by Francis Wheen, which is a highly readable delight.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche is another endlessly-misunderstood thinker and writer. Bastardized and misquoted by his anti-Semitic brother-in-law, unable to defend himself once he became helplessly insane in 1889 aged just 44 (the suspicion being it was caused by syphilis), Nietzsche did however tempt fate with his the overblown furious prose of his late works. His contempt for Christianity, his belief in an “Superman” and his disdain for the “slave mentality” – well, you can see where people would get the wrong end of the stick. Read the right way, though, without assuming that Nietzsche was arguing against types of people and seeing that it was against modes of thought, and Nietzsche is an invigorating, positive, indeed affirmative (one of his favourite words) thinker. (In some ways, he’s quite close to Buddhism). But rather than having a sustained, totalizing philosophy, I always feel that Nietzsche is best read as a coiner of provocative epigrams and thoughtlets. Have a browse through Twilight of the Idols, rather than the preposterous Thus Spake Zarathustra, for example.

Jean Baudrillard

Though Marx is of course hugely powerful and enlightening, I always felt – as many people feel – him better as a critic of capitalism than suggesting a positive program. And even then, his critique of capitalism is naturally suited to the classical Victorian capitalism of his era. Marx did, of course, foresee the development to the knowledge economy, but you really need to be within that context of that era to see the developments and implications of what is going on. I knew that, but where to go with that, how Marx could be updated to the (post)modern era, I couldn’t figure out.

Then one day I took Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers by John Lechte (a stunningly good book) out the library, and when I got to Baudrillard – BAM! POWEE! SHAZAAM! Fireworks went off, synaptic connections snap, crackled and popped, and I felt that immense intellectual excitement that you either know or you don’t. Baudrillard essentially works through Marxism into a semiotic perspective, and there you have it – Marxism synthesized into postmodernism. Baudrillard’s trajectory did take him to an almost Derrida-esque (Derridean?) obscurity, which is irritating. But his early works, on the object and the consumer society, and his more groundbreaking works, on simulations and networks for example, are staggeringly prescient and utterly fascinating. Read and never think the same way again. For me his The Consumer Society remains his best work.

JK Galbraith

I discovered Galbraith via Baudrillard, as The Consumer Society is in large part a critique of Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. In comparison to the above, Galbraith may seem rather conventional. (You thought I’d be extolling Noam Chomsky or Edward de Bono, I bet). Certainly he was a paid up member of the “Establishment”, a lifelong academic at Harvard, ambassador to India under Kennedy, highly garlanded. Nonetheless, his analysis of modern (i.e. post WWII) capitalism, the behaviour of business, the imperatives of capital, his explication of the role of the state in advanced economies, the necessity of planning and the implications of this, the reality of competition, the desire for vertical integration, all advanced or built on what I understood of the economy as it actually operates. One of the oddities of American capitalism is that it provides little theoretical understanding of itself as it actually words (I’m sure the real smart people have this understanding, but the political narrative of our era operates against it). The founding-myth of the individual farmer/landowner struggling alone and making his own fortune is still so strong that it sets the terms of debate within the US: self-reliance, standing on your own feet, “freedom” etc etc. No matter that the (sub)urban experience (as lived by 82% of Americans) is entirely different from that, or that the modern economy, where large corporations and government control the majority of economic output. The degree of interconnection, institutionalisation and wage-labour, rather than independent small capitalists, makes it an entirely different world. Still, the founding-myth carries on, so that American politics (on the right) has a strong libertarian bent, denying any communality. This might be alright for the farmer in New Mexico, but for the urban population in Cleveland or Bakersfield or Jacksonville, it surely runs counter to their experience.

Galbraith is in fact the great analyst of the corporation, its needs, drives and behaviours, and how it interacts with the state. He is a Keynesian, aware of failures in the market (his book The Great Crash 1929 is still a best-seller) and dismissive of simple remedies (he invented the phrase “conventional wisdom”) like tax cuts and cutting regulation to increase economic activity. (This is not to say that I don’t believe that these actions can have any positive effect on the economy, but they are not a panacea). He writes with elegance, wit and irony; he is clear, persuasive, and in masterful control of complex concepts and material.

I first found Galbraith through his book The New Industrial State in 2003 or so, and it blew me away; in its clarity, depth of understanding and analytical rigour it trumped anything I’d ever read before. Here was an ideas-led, sophisticated analysis of the world and the economy, not as it could be or ought to be, but as it is. He is my current, and most long-standing, intellectual hero. I just think he’s the tops, man.

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Best Of, 2012

writing

This blog has been running about 18 months now, and I’ve managed to keep going at about a post a week. Hopefully you can see that the posts I write are mostly quite lengthy (about 1000 words) and so do take time. I haven’t really gone out of my way to publicise it – I don’t even tweet or Facebook most posts, so the audience (you lovely people) has grown slowly, steadily and organically. Thanks to everyone for stopping by, and especially to those who have commented. It really does spur you to keep on writing when you feel there’s an audience there.

To round off 2012, I thought I would simply take a leaf out of Froog’s book and recap on what I feel were the most interesting posts. Here’s six of the best from me to you (again). The order is simply chronological.

1. “Biographies”

Bit of a monster post, going over ten of my favorite biographies (by which I also include memoirs, letters and diaries). Being a lapsed intensive diarist and journal-keeper myself, I find these kind of books fascinating and just devour them. From William Burroughs to Oscar Wilde to Alistair Campbell to Philip Larkin, here are some of my most recurrent interests/obsession.

2. Punk-Rock-O-Rama

Twenty great videos from twenty different punk (in the broadest sense) bands, from X-Ray Spex to The Exploited to 999 to Stiff Little Fingers. Yup! 😀

3. BANGIN’

I like this post for the opening sentence:

I may have given the impression in the blog that I take music waaaay too seriously, that I sit and pore over every last bar and nuance like a lepidopterist gingerly analysing the skeletal remains of a rare and exotic butterfly.

Also a nice and perhaps slightly off-the-beaten-track selection, for me at least. I mean, no Beatles??

4. Favourite Bands Through Time

Interesting to look back in time and see the bands and artists who entranced you. Fortunately, nothing too embarrassing there! My journey through music, from Queen to Tricky to Miles Davis, has been enormously entertaining and endlessly interesting.

5. Three Top British Films

Bit of a monster post here, too, culled from three individual posts from my old blog. Obviously I’m more of a cultist when it comes to films; I just get so utterly bored by films which lack imagination or creativity (hello 2012!). Maybe I should do a Three Top American Films in counterpoint?

6. An Introduction to John Lennon

This is by far the most viewed single post in the blog, though not the most commented (that’s the “I Hate Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings” post, now at 22 comments and counting – they’re still coming in!). It’s the introduction to the putative biography of Lennon during his Beatle years which I have been yearning to write. I think this is probably the best writing I’ve posted.

How about you, dear reader? Were there any posts you liked more than this selection?

Biographies

I am an inveterate reader of biographies. Being (just about) a relative youngster myself, there is something fascinating about being privy to someone’s entire character arc throughout the course of their life. Also seeing how different people handle the various stages and struggles of life is always interesting – I sometimes read through sections of a biography when the protagonist is going through the same kind of scene, if only for motivational purposes! It is always worth remembering that all things have occurred before – this can only reduce any hubris and increase your empathy. (It’s one of the ways that you can always tell people who are well-read, if they read the right books: they have a humane empathy beyond their actual life experiences).

Unfortunately it seems to me there are two kinds of biography: literary, academic biographies, and the bog-standard kind. The former are distinguished (I use the word deliberately) by their intensive footnoting and historian’s evaluation of sources. They are likely to have several hundred footnotes citing sources per chapter, an extensive bibliography, and a critical evaluation of the work of their subject. Proper. Your bog-standard, common-or-garden biographies contrariwise will cite no footnotes, nor cite any sources, and often will rehash commonly told stories or indeed myths. (For example, I must have read a dozen Beatle, Lennon, and McCartney biographies: nearly all state what (if anything) happened between Lennon and Brian Epstein sexually, but not one (not a solitary one!) has ever cited a source for it. And at the bottom of the pile is the clippings job, a hurried book compiled from newspaper sources (“clippings”) rather than interviews or textual research. These are truly the bastard children of the genre.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a great desire to write a biography of John Lennon in his Beatle years (1960-1970), as I don’t think he has yet received the biography he deserves. Ah, if only I had the time – the despairing cry of every half-assed writer to ever live! But wanting to do this has made me try to look at the biographer’s craft more objectively, and to consider which are the cream of the crop.

Wilde: The Biography by Richard Ellman

Hands-down, the best biog I have ever read. The thing about Wilde is that his story is better than most of his written work. To me, only his essays (particularly The Soul of Man Under Socialism), some of his childrens stories (especially The Selfish Giant, which left me awestruck the first time I read it) and The Importance of Being Earnest stand as irrefutable classics. His poems are stews of Hellenic references and overwrought aestheticism (with too many “methinks” for comfort), his other plays successful West End dramas but nothing ultimately memorable. But of course as Wilde said he put his talent into his work and his genius into his life, and the stories of how he conquered London, America, and Paris are rich with wonderful anecdotes and majestic phrases. The drama of his downfall gave Wilde the moral authority to criticise his era no-one else: the 1890s remain the Wilde decade.

This is all captured with magisterial aplomb by Ellman. Magnificently researched, told with acute relish and a gift for  epigram, he tells the story of how Wilde symbolised his age with vast learning and deep humanity.

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs by Ted Morgan

As a rebellious smartarse, I read Naked Lunch (and even The Soft Machine, Junky and Queer) as a teenager. I don’t think any of them are much good these days (though Naked Lunch is the best of them – it has an absolutely ferocious humour), but it has to be said Burroughs lived an absolutely fascinating life. Born in 1914, he studied in Vienna between the wars, lived  in New York (inaugurating the Beats), Texas and Mexico, hunted yage in the Columbian jungle, lived a half-life as a junky in Tangiers, wrote “cut-up” texts with Brion Gysin in Paris, met the demi-monde in London, was feted as a punk precursor in New York then retired, like Dorothy, to Kansas. The salacious content of Burroughs’ life – the William Tell death of his wife, his homosexuality, his drug addiction – is handled with empathy and tact by Morgan, though there are some curious lapses. At one point after Naked Lunch, Burroughs seems to go through some intense heterosexual phase (gasping in a letter that “I must have some cunt”), but what happened to revert things to normal isn’t mentioned. Nor is enough made of “The Yage Letters” to Allen Ginsberg. Despite these, this is a tour-de-force, a fantastic introduction to the Beats, and Burroughs’ central place in the American counterculture.

Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life by Andrew Motion

Larkin’s reputation took a shredding when his biography and Selected Letters came out. Fair enough; he was evidently a racist pisshead, in his latter years anyroads, and his treatment of the women in his life is often unfortunate at best. (Though to be fair he also had a romantic, spiritual side which has been rather occluded in recent years). The interest in this biography is the centrality of Larkin’s writing in his life. Motion as a poet himself understands the way that Larkin’s poetry is formed by and is a response to his experiences, and thus places it in a pivotal position throughout the book, contextualising and explicating with sympathetic insight. So many biographies (the “bog standard” type) fail to put their subject’s work in the context of their life and the broader world – Motion does this with aplomb. Thus, Larkin’s increasingly caustic poetry is seen in the light of Larkin’s deepening gloom, as caused by his fear of death, his painful relation with his mother, his playing two women against each other, and (I would guess) the British post-war decline. All the same, what does emerge is rather a somber portrait – if you read Larkin’s brilliant Selected Letters, you’ll find out that the guy was often deeply hilarious.

Churchill by Roy Jenkins

I am a complete political biography/memoirs nerd. I’m just fascinated by Westminster, the green benches, the bearpit of PMQs,  the battles that echo down the years: the Miners Strike (still in the news); In Place of Strife; Maastricht; the IMF rescue (which turned out to have been unnecessary, didya know?); the Falklands; Thatcher’s routing of the wets; Major’s destruction by the Euroscpetics; Wilson vs Heath, Callaghan vs Thatcher, Blair vs Brown, Benn vs Healey, Thatcher vs Heseltine, Kinnock vs the hard left… they continue to resonate. The best though is Roy Jenkins’ splendid biography of Churchill. Though Jenkins unabashedly admits he hasn’t done any original research, as he says there’s little need, with Churchill’s archive available and all those connected with him who have written about him having had their pieces published. Jenkins writes about Churchill very much through the prism of his own experience, namely as a long-serving member of the House of Commons, a much-stationed Cabinet minister (Churchill became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924, but it took another 16 years before he went one better to actually lead an administration) and a extraordinarily productive writer and journalist.  Being a privy counsellor and thus with access to Cabinet and civil service papers is an terrific advantage for Jenkins, but he makes full use of them. What is also most pleasing about this book is Jenkins’ readiness to evaluate his sources, especially when they conflict, as often happens with a man of Churchill’s preeminence. The prose style is however somewhat flabby, sentences having too many clauses, and there’s also too many Latin tags for my liking. Nonetheless, the book is a magnificent achievement, one which helps me feel close to Churchill’s overpowering personality, his relish, his vigour and his astonishing verbal prolixity.

Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up by Bob Colacello

This is a tremendous book, a biography of Warhol which primarily focuses on the time Colacello worked with him, from about 1968 to 1981, as a reviewer in and then editor of Warlhol’s magazine Interview (originally inter/VIEW – how 60s!). As well as that it’s a memoir of Colacello’s time with him (and these were plentiful, for Colacello often was as much Warhol’s room-worker in their incredibly hectic and ambitious social life), and a portrait of the disco era, as well as the coming of the Reaganite 1980, not to mention a frank portrait of many celebrities, from Elizabeth Taylor to Jean-Michel Basquiat via Bianca Jagger and Imelda Marcos. It’s ambitious in scope, then.

Fortunately Colacello does not get bogged down in all this, dividing the book episodically, and with great detail and amounts of dialogue (he kept a daily diary, and like Warhol recorded his telephone calls). But this means that Warhol’s early life, and in particular the period of the “Silver Factory”, are covered somewhat cursorily, when this is what Warhol is best known for – the underground films like “Empire” and “Sleep”, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground, and his shooting by Valerie Salonis. This is covered in detail elsewhere, so it was more enlightening to read of Warhol’s 50s period as a successful commercial artist and social misfit, as his trajectory and tactics seem to never have changed – always further in, wanting more and more.

The book really acts as a memoir of Colacello’s time with Warhol, and so is a portrait of his 1970s factory – Fred Hughes, Jed Johnston, Pat Hackett – and businesses, where Interview, Warhol’s art and his commissioned portraits combine, sometimes unfortunately but more often successfully. For this period was when Warhol, having conquered the art world, conquered the social elite that he lusted to join. The world of New York’s fashion elite, with their Parisian and Roman counterparts, are drawn with a satirical eye. Colacello, like Warhol, was an outsider entering this world, much like the reader, and he guides us deftly through a veritable torrent of names. (This is not a book to read at one sitting, for the plethora of passing characters can be slightly confusing over too long a period – a minor fault with the episodic narrative).

Colacello shows us how Warhol was driven to reach the top in the artistic, social, financial and political worlds of the time, while maintaining an indifferent facade. But the cost of this was large. Warhol was a huge control freak and he could never reciprocate in his affairs with people – he could only take, never give anyone any real affection, and consequently was unable to have sex or have any real relationship. This soured and poisoned him inside, which only compounded the problem. So, like a tragedy, just when everything seems to reach a peak, it all starts to fall apart. Not only with Warhol – the price of the drug-fuelled disco era shows, with drug busts, AIDS and other illnesses taking their grim toll. The last few chapters, on Warhol’s life in the 1980s (after Colacello departed Interview), have a kind of ghostliness to them, as though Warhol were waiting to die, or perhaps as though Colacello feels that.

This is a wonderful book, elegantly written, with just the right amount of irony to let the name-dropping pass (like when his date was Estee Lauder), politically and culturally sharp, and funny with it too. Anyone with an interest in Warhol, New York in the 1970s, the fashion elites of the time, or in sexuality pre-AIDS, will enjoy it immensely.

Hitler: A Study In Tyranny by Alan Bullock

Amongst my various interests and obsessions is the Third Reich. That such a collective insanity could take place in a country as developed, educated and civillised as Germany (a country for which I have a great respect and admiration) is – I don’t know any words to sufficiently convey it – grimly fascinating, brutally horrifying, morbidly intriguing. This book might not be the most in-depth or detailed on the life of Hitler, but as an overview into his grotesque yet pitiful mind, his strategic triumphs and military-meddling disasters, his dismal private life and hypernarcissism, it’s tough to beat.

Diaries, Letters and Memoirs:

A Life At The Centre by Roy Jenkins

Given Jenkins’ achievements as a biographer (with Attlee, Gladstone, Churchill, Asquith and Dilke only some of his tomes), it should be no surprise that his own memoirs are an entertaining read. This isn’t entertainment in the crash!bang! tabloid sense, but through wit, irony and elegant prose. Compared with Tony Blair’s The Journey, it is rather more elliptic, but also far more sophisticated. (Oh my, but Blair’s writing style is awful). Jenkins is a big man, a man of real substance, and knows it: but then, as someone who was Chancellor, President of the European Commission (still the only Briton to do so), founder of the SDP, Chancellor of Oxford University, prolific biographer and esteemed historian, he’s got plenty to back that up. This is one of the great books where style and content match – Jenkins gives the sense of being a man of great power, wit, learning, and intelligence.

The Kenneth Williams Diaries

Poor bastard. Poor, poor bastard. I’ve read this book a number of times and increasingly the feeling I have towards Williams is pity: the pathos of someone who refuses to let love into his life is acute. Homosexual but intensely conflicted, intensely narcissistic and equally self-loathing, intellectual and yet famous for films which by the 1970s scraped the barrel of flatulent bawdy “humour”, Williams never found happiness in his professional or personal life. And yet his diaries are testament to a man of great kindness (if matched by acts of astonishing rudeness), compassion, intelligence and sensitivity. Naturally the diaries are also filled with pen portraits of many in the UK entertainment business, from Sid James (whom Williams despised) to Joe Orton to Tony Hancock to Maggie Smith, and behind the scenes gossip (Sid James bellowing “I AM A SERIOUS ACTOR!” when Williams ad-libs is utter quality). But the real story is that if you refuse to let others into your life, you are left with an empty shell of an existence. Poor poor bastard.

The Downing Street Years by Alastair Campbell

Simply put, this is top-level politics in the raw. Unadorned, functional prose suits Campbell’s method – this is governance and policy as an endless series of conflicts which he is Rottweiler-determined to win, each and every one of them.

Many cynical political types and naive socialists blame Campbell for creating “a culture of spin”. As should be obvious to anyone who reads the book, Campbell is simply supremely professional in handling the insane demands of a 24-hour media in which appearance is far more important than policy or governance. (Thus the same papers which decry the loss of independence for Cabinet ministers are the same which shriek up “Cabinet Split!” on any occasion of intimations of disagreement, and the ones which position themselves as serious newspapers are as likely to ask inane questions about the Downing Street cat). Of course, Campbell does take this too far, as is his wont – and there still isn’t, to my mind, a satisfactory explanation for the invasion of Iraq – maybe this was deliberately excised and expunged. Similarly, the references to Gordon Brown must have been severely pruned, for he does not really fully feature – there’s rather more about Robin Cook, for example. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant demonstration of the brutal effectiveness of the New Labour political operation, Tony Blair’s masterful people- and strategic skills and Campbell’s scorching dedication.

Diaries: In Power by Alan Clark

He might be a racist neo-Nazi skirt-chasing snobbish misanthrope, but he does have a wonderful turn of phrase. (To wit, “These Nordic tours are a complete fuckface”). There might be something very vicarious about peering into the life of one so privileged (cars, property, etc), but the good thing about Clark is 1. he knows he’s upper-class, and 2. there’s no agonising about it. This is how they live. So all progressive movements are trendy fripperies, all protests due to resentment and bitterness, all other classes swiftly placed and despised.

Also, his account of being a minister is almost gauchely revealing: no bland niceties here. The vanities, the cruelties, the snobberies (Heseltine mocked for “having to buy his own furniture”; absurd aristocratic attempts to claim Thatcher as one of their own, perhaps the miscegenation of a blueblood affair), the day-to-day practises, the immense pressure on the new minister, the politicking, the treachery (his treatment of Tom King really is quite dreadful, but it’s all in a day’s work) – all are laid bare. Governments like to present themselves as benevolent, almost neutral in highmindedly doing what is right for the country. Balls, of course. Like every other large organisation, governments seethe with intrigue and gossip, powergames and human frailty. Seeing behind the bureaucratic wall is therefore a tremendous chance to gawp.

 

What about you?

Three Top British Films

(N.B this, with a little judicious editing, is taken from my old blog.)

I’m not really a film buff. The films I really like I watch over and over again, sucking the marrow out of them as you would with a good album or novel, but rare is the movie which repays that close attention. Generally (but not always), the ones I get obsessed by are British. Not that Hollywood doesn’t produce some good films – Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Chinatown and so on – but the best British films seem to be more truthful, more lifelike, where the best American films seem more stylised. Films like Personal Services, Get Carter, Kes, Scum, Withnail and I, Trainspotting, Wish You Were Here, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, hell, even Educating Rita, capture a reality I relate to far easier than any other films. (I know there are large amounts of British-made pish, but I’m talking about the best ones, as compared with the best American or French films for example. I’m not going to defend The Sex Lives of the Potato Men).

So here then are my top three:

Quadrophenia

This is my favourite youth-orientated film of all-time. It’s the film of The Who’s 1973 concept album of the same name, the story of Jimmy, a mod, who is unsure of his identity and subsumes his own within the mod movement. Mods, of course, were the youth culture of the day, who dressed sharp, took speed in the form of pills called purple hearts and blues, rode Vespa scooters and listened to sharp modern pop. They were in opposition to, and antagonistic towards rockers, who rode larger motorbikes, wore leather and idolised fifties rock like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Being a mod gives Jimmy a sense of identity at a time (he must be seventeen or so) when you are unsure of yourself and need to fit in: but this comes at a cost, as Jimmy eventually finds.

Amongst the numerous qualities of this film is a absolute dedication to the reality of the context. There are no compromises in setting, dialogue or tone. The strong London accents are undiluted, giving some memorable exchanges, such as “Feel asleep on the train and waahnd up in bloody Neasden!” or “The people who ride these things are state, third-class tickets.” Similarly, the setting is unvarnished but completely recognisable as a working-class environment: Jimmy’s home is a plain council house, with crude newspaper cut-outs adorning his bedroom wall and evidently no bath. The scene where Jimmy sleeps out in their shed and just misses his dad leaving for work, with flat cap and wax jacket, is tiny but acutely detailed, which goes for the film throughout.

Despite this verite, there is a depth to the film which is constantly dramatising larger themes. The way it does this using everyday dialogue is just amazing, and a real lesson: you don’t need to be “educated” to have ideas, you don’t need to have upper-class characters to illustrate larger issues. (James Kelman, the greatest writer Scotland has produced since Lewis Grassic Gibbon, was no doubt taking notes). To take one example: we see Jimmy paying another HP installment on his suit (no store cards in those days – and where else have you ever seen such a frank depiction of the realities of consumer spending for the young?). As he pays, another mod and his friend is being measured for a suit, angrily querying the tailor, insisting it be made much tighter and sharper. “Stop fuckin around and bring it in ere!” To which the agitated tailor loses his temper, insisting, “Look here, sonny! You keep that kind of language to yourself! You don’t like it, you can go and get your own suit.” The mod asks his friend what he thinks. “Fucking rent-a-tent, innit.” The tailor looks angry but does nothing; he doesn’t want to lose the sale. There, in a nut-shell, are big themes like Youth Consumption and Generation Clash and Consumerism.

Or to take another scene: a former school friend Kevin, now a rocker (the enemy) pays Jimmy a visit, biking up Jimmy’s garden path. Jimmy is in the shed tinkering with his scooter, and hearing the deep thrum of the bike and fearing assault, picks up a spanner. They talk about why one is a mod, one is a rocker. The conversation is just brilliant:

Jimmy: But it’s not just the bikes, it’s the people. And the people who ride these things [gestures to Kevin’s motorbike] are states, third-class tickets.

Kevin: Do what?

Jimmy: Rockers, all that greasy hair and clobber. It’s diabolical!

Kevin: I don’t give a monkey’s arsehole about mods and rockers. Underneath, we’re all the same, ain’t we?

Jimmy: Nah, Kev, that’s it. I don’t wanna be the same as everybody else. That’s why I’m a mod, see? I mean, you gotta be somebody, ain’t ya? Or you might as well jump in the sea and drown.

Kevin: That’s why I joined the army: to be different. To get away from all this! But wherever you go, there’s always some cunt in stars and stripes who wants to push you about.

God, that’s great. Identity, conformism, ambition, belonging, group identity – all in one completely realistic conversation. (And the irony of going into the army to be different – delivered completely straight-faced, whereas any hamming it up would shatter your belief in the character).

So there’s all that. But I haven’t even mentioned the Brighton scene yet! This must be one of the most visceral scenes in all cinema – those fuckers are really beating each other up on that beach! It’s completely compelling, sheer euphoric teenage kicks: not just the fighting, but when they are “kettled” by the police into one small street, the battle cry of “We are the mods! We are the mods! We are, we are, we are the mods!” sets your hair on end. It’s just electric.

As with speed (which Jimmy is shown taking fairly often), or any stimulant, there’s the rush and then the hangover. So it is with Jimmy. After the amazing climax of Brighton, the rest of the film is an unravelling, as Jimmy finds being a mod can’t support a life. The euphoric camaraderie splits apart as soon as it achieved. Jimmy retraces his steps, unable to let go and clinging on to the mod identity. He returns to Brighton, but what was once alive with mods is now a sleepy resort. And once all his illusions are shattered, eventually he manages to let go. At the end he’s shown walking away from it all, alone.

Other things worthy of attention: the direction is excellent with the camera inobtrusive; you really do get the sense of watching a slice-of-life. It’s not flashy or showy, concealing its artfulness behind a self-effacing realism. The cast are terrific (a show-case for acting talent – Phil Daniels, Leslie Ash, Ray Winstone, Sting, Toyah Wilcox, Michael Elphick, and Benjamin Whitrow) with the characters well-sketched. You really get a sense of the group dynamic, the boys aiming for the leadership of the mod gang, and the top girl knowing it all too well.

Still not sure? Here’s a clip to prove it.

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2. if…

Whipsif… was famously filmed at the time of the evenements of May 68 in France – as the film is an allegory for revolution against the repressive, reactionary old-order, this was entirely fitting. (John Lennon was at the same time writing “Revolution” while meditating in India – clearly there was something in the air). It is also the first film of Malcolm MacDowell, and while he doesn’t steal the show (for a film almost entrely about boys who are actually played by boys, he cast is highly impressive), he does grab the attention.

I said if… is an allegory of revolution – but the school is also an allegory of Britain, with its all from past glories, repression, incompetent, class-based leadership, absurd rules, appalling education, and gross archaic longings. It works remarkably well as a simple story of school boys revolting against repressive discipline (enforced by prefects called “whips” – a magnificent little detail), but almost every scene has a symbolic meaning. For example: one boy confessing to having “dirty thoughts” (presumably homosexual) to the Chaplain, who can offer no real advice – a condemnation of British sexual ignorance and hypocrisy. The new boy being told by a senior boy that “You don’t talk to us” and that the youngest boys are called “scum” – the power of seniority. The chaplain being (literally!) kept in a drawer in the headmaster’s office – the use of religion in controlling and disciplining the masses.

As suggested by the chaplain being in the drawer, the film flips between realism and surrealism. The realism is noteworthy – there’s no idealisation of the boys, who are no Hollywood lookers and the film looks frankly at bullying, public-school homosexuality, beatings, and pretentious pseudo-intellectualism, and the school itself is shabby and past its best. But remarkably this realism is commented upon by the surreality of some episodes, such as the schoolmaster’s wife wandering naked through the school (a comment on sexual repression and longing) and the encounter with “the girl”, especially the tiger-fight between her and Mick (the leader of the rebels, played by MacDowell). Similarly, while the pretty junior boy is realistically portayed as having older boys prey upon him, he is surrealistically seen in bed with one of the rebels, who had actually taken the time to talk to him.

The film itself similarly filps between colour and black and white. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that parts were shot to save money, as parts of the same scenes alternate. It’s another trick to break up the film, a Brechtian “alienation effect”, as with the realism/surrealism dialectic. Both add to and heighten the other.

The rebellion gradually gathers pace, once the school and the characters are established. (Viewers may note the pictures of revolutionaries pinned up throughout the boys rooms, such as Mao and Che – it was that kind of era). The end is obviously allegorical, ending on a freeze-frame of MacDowell raining down shots on the school and the gathered dignitaries. After Columbine this feels awkward to me, but no-one is suggesting that this should be taken literally. It’s a fantasy – that’s why the film is called if...

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1. Performance

OK. The best British film ever is Performance from 1970, co-directed by Nic Roeg and Donald Cammel, and featuring (I’m loath to say “starring”) James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg and some real East End heavies. (Let’s not get too public-school boy/Guy Ritchie excited about that – but they do add to a convincingly brutal opening half of a subsequently psychedelic film). It’s worth noting the directors, too: Roeg made his name as a cinematographer (Performance and his later films such as Walkabout and The Man Who Fell To Earth are highly arresting visually), whereas Cammel was a painter and writer soaked in Genet, Borges, Burroughs and London/Parisian bohemia.

Performance is a film where nothing is as it seems. It questions the various dualities which make up our culture: male and female, nature and culture, fantasy and reality, heterosexual and homosexual, interior and exterior, image and reflection. Obviously this isn’t a straightforward plot-driven film: it’s something of a diptych (a film in two distinct parts, jargon-fans), with a violent gangster opener and a psychedelic mind-fuck closer. The relation between the two sections of the film only gradually becomes apparent; texturally, cinematically, atmospherically they are completely different.

Performance is a master-class of cinematography. It is densely allusive, symbolically rich and eyeball-grabbing visually. I do not exaggerate when I say I have never seen a film like it; although Walkabout has some visual similarities, they are nothing alike in terms of theme and tone. Perhaps the real union of minds in Performance is not between Chas and Turner, but between Roeg and Cammel, the visual genius and the ideas man.

The plot is relatively straightforward (bearing in mind, this is not a plot-driven film). Chas (played by Fox) specialises in “putting the frighteners up flash little twerps” for his gangland boss. When he oversteps the mark and kills a fellow mobster, Chas goes on the run, hiding from “the firm”. He takes refuge in the basement flat of a reclusive faded pop star called Turner, played by Jagger, and his household of two women (played by Pallenberg and Michèle Breton) and one odd servant girl. The longer Chas stays in Turner’s house, and the more he interacts with the residents, the more his boundaries and sense of identity are unsettled, through mindgames and psychedelic mushrooms. But this works both ways, and the similarities between Chas and Turner become increasingly apparent, to the point where both share the same death.

Much of this is suggested visually rather than dramatised. For example, when Chas goes further into Turner’s house, seeking a telephone, this suggests his further entry into Turner’s world and mindspace. This is shown by a juxtaposition of their two faces whilst they talk, which evokes a deeply uncanny feeling.
Chas/TurnerSimilarly, there is a constant use of both mirrors and mirror images throughout the film, to suggest two things. Firstly, mirrors suggest the dualities such as male/female and fantasy/reality which are explored during the film. But secondly, mirrors symbolise the self-projection with which both Chas and Turner are fundamentally concerned, both being “performers”. Performance shows how the gangster and the rock star are all too similar in their masculine, violent displays, suggesting the male ego’s need for dominance and power, whether expressed sexually or through group dominance.

But Performance also critiques this, with Chas undergoing psychedelic initiation, altering his “image”, and having his masculinity and sexuality questioned. Pherber (played by Pallenberg) uses mirrors upon Chas, projecting his face upon hers, and having both faces side by side (see top photo), and asking if he has a male and female half, like Turner. Chas angrily replies, “There’s nothing wrong with me – I’m normal!
Chas/PherberThe film also plays with the androgyny of Lucy (played by Breton) and Turner: at one point we see Chas in bed caressing someone who appears to be Turner; a moment later it turns out to be Lucy. The recurrent tactic of dislocation (further heightened by the extremely jumpy editing) effectively suggests Chas’ disorientated mind.

Further aspects of the film which merit mention for their imaginative use are the music, with some nice early synthesiser work, deep blues, rock and roll (the “Memo To Turner” scene, where Jagger sings to what is more like a conventional rock video, must be the only time where Warner Bros actually got what they wanted), proto-rap, and an eerily unsettling orchestral finale. The editing, as mentioned above, is extremely jumpy, so that you really have to watch the film a few times to understand what’s happening, as scenes intercut rapidly. Camera angles, in case you didn’t guess already, are somewhat extreme. All of which may seem somewhat overcooked, but Performance is one of those rare and happy times where content and method match exactly.

Obviously, Hollywood, this is not: the nearest comparison I can think of is Pink Floyd’s The Wall, a film which is similarly non-linear and told through images and music rather than narrative. But Performance is a far more literary film (with Borges being a major inspiration), where The Wall is naturally more musical, with next to no dialogue. And Performance captures a specific moment in British 60s culture, when the rock/drug subculture met with the criminal world, as embodied by the Kray twins (whereas The Wall captures Roger Water’s alienation and little else). The utopian dreams of 1967 would turn darker and more violent, reaching a deadly apothesis in Altamont in 1969.

Consequently, numerous myths have sprung up around Performance, also prompted by Pallenberg’s subsequent heroin addiction and Fox’s retreat from acting to door-knocking evangelical Christianity. (Jagger, typically, walked away unharmed, like a cat daintily leaving the scene of a carcrash). There was, too, the sticky matter of Jagger’s love-scene with Pallenberg being rather too graphic for Keith Richards, her then-partner. But this is essentially gossip. What we have a film which is both specific and timeless, literal and metaphorical, intensely visual and deeply literary, and ultimately an astonishing piece of cinema. That’s why it’s the best British film ever made.