AMPLIFY! offered a cosmopolitan menu of feature films and documentaries to nourish the soul: this collaboration between FilmBath, Cinecity (Brighton) and Cambridge and Cornwall Film Festivals took viewers out of their Netflix comfort zone into the quirky joys of world cinema. With my 10-film pass I chose films from Ethiopia, Mongolia, Czech Republic, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Chile, Mexico and Ireland.
Running Against the Wind is the first film I’ve seen in which the characters speak in Amharic, but its’ cinematic language is universal. With its stunning Ethiopian landscapes and cityscapes this is a heart-warming coming-of-age tale: two childhood ‘brothers’ who run together for fun meet again years later after following very different paths.
The stark mountains and plains of Mongolia provide the backdrop to Veins of the World, another bittersweet rites-of-passage tale. As his family struggle to hold onto their home and way of life in the face of bereavement and a greedy gold-mining company, young Amra tries to hold things together. Chosen to appear on Mongolia’s Got Talent, he sings Golden Veins, a traditional folk song which becomes an anthem to his homeland.
The Mole Agent (El Agente Topo) will resonate with everyone, especially those whose loved-ones are in a care-home. The premise of this Chilean documentary is a private detective’s investigation into the possible neglect of a client’s mother. It starts with an audition for the titular undercover spy in which assorted octogenarian volunteers are baffled by the workings of a mobile phone. Dapper and gentle widow Sergio Chamy gets the job and we wonder what grim abuse he might discover. But as he touches the lives of the care-home’s residents the film becomes a moving and deeply human meditation on friendship, old age and loneliness.
By contrast, Caught in the Net (V síti) exposes real life online sexual predators. In this shocking and disturbing Czech doc three adult actresses pose as 12 year-olds with Skype accounts. Over the 10 days of filming they are contacted by 2,500 men, most of whom want to use them as sex aids. After a jarring parade of pixelated penises we marvel at the actresses’ ability to stay in character. These encounters boggle the mind with their casual depravity.
The filmmakers disguise the predators by masking their faces, with only the eyes in focus. This has the effect of making them look like sickly bogeymen from a horror film. There is, though, one exception, a young man who is like a beacon of light in the gloom, contacting girls to warn them about the dangers of talking to online strangers.
Were kids happier before the internet? In Las Niñas (Schoolgirls) we learn that Spanish convent girls in 1992 had quite enough to worry about without all this techno torment. And those teenagers with old fashioned hobbies such as violin-playing don’t get much joy either. In The Audition (Das Vorspiel, Germany) a talented young musician is mentored by a music-teacher, whose relationship with her own son becomes toxic. The directors in these films aren’t afraid to use silence to create atmosphere and show character.
This European sensibility is also on show in Rose Plays Julie (Ireland), a slow-burn psychological revenge drama elevated by luminous cinematography and a Greek-chorus score. Ann Skelly is haunting in the main role and Aiden Gillan adds another ‘charming bastard’ to his rogues gallery CV.
Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) has been called the first portmanteau horror film, in which three tales are told via a framing device, paving the way for such anthology films as Dead of Night (1945), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and Tales from the Crypt (1972).
Showing as part of the online Cambridge Film Festival in a digitally recombined and restored version, this silent German Expressionist classic is more fantasy than horror. Waxworks does not have the eerie power of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the 1919 trailblazer that featured similar sets and one of the same actors (Conrad Veidt), but it is more obviously aimed at entertaining its audience, with memorable star performances, flamboyant production design, striking technical effects and humour.
The film opens with a writer (William Dieterle) visiting a funfair, where he accepts a job offer from a waxworks showman to write stories about three of his exhibits: Harun Al-Rashid (Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) and Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss).
His first story transports us to the world of the Arabian Nights, in which Harun, the Capliph of Baghdad falls in lust with a baker’s wife (Olga Belajeff) and attempts to bed her while her husband (Dieterle) is on a mission to prove his manhood by stealing Harun’s wishing-ring.
In his introduction to Waxworks, composer and silent film accompanist Neil Brand claims that the film was a groundbreaker when it came to sex. The sensuous and alluring Belajeff admires herself in a mirror, provoking her baker husband to cup her breasts with his dough-kneading hands. “Your lack of clothes does not disturb me in the least,” Harun tells her later (via the English version’s titles), “my casket of honey.”
There are curves everywhere, from slipper-toes to the sickle-moon peaks of Baghdad’s buildings – pizza-oven mounds which, as Brand points out, reflect the Caliph’s fat body. His snake-charmer’s basket of a turban befits the ego of a man who has a different wife for every night of the year. And the climactic chase through Dali-esque tunnels and holes feels like we are inside some enormous organism.
Desert mounds become the onion domes of Moscow’s Kremlin in Waxworks’ second story, as the film’s mood changes from fairy-tale to nightmare. It features a chilling performance from Conrad Veidt as the sadistic Ivan the Terrible, whose mad staring eyes are like those of Rasputin. ‘Ivan was a blood-crazed monster on a throne,’ read the writer’s words, ‘who turned cities into cemeteries. His crown was a tiara of mouldering bones, his sceptre an axe. ‘His council-room was a torture chamber, with the Devil and Death as chief ministers.’
Waxworks’ last Jack the Ripper (or Spring-heeled Jack) segment is only six minutes long, but director Paul Leni crams it with visual effects such as superimposed images and ghostlike hologram characters, as a knife-wielding killer (Krauss) pursues the writer and his girl through wonky scenery and zigzag shadows. It all feels a bit rushed but reflects the fact that Leni ran out of time and money and had to drop a story in the script about the film’s fourth waxwork, Rinaldo Rinaldini, the Robber Captain.
Rubika Shah’s timely documentary tells the story of the Rock Against Racism movement in 1970s Britain. As a time capsule it is fascinating and frightening. These were ‘dark and hard’ times in which the National Front ‘kicked their way into the headlines’ with their skinhead following and won votes with their promise to repatriate the ‘wogs’ and ‘coons.’ RAR began as an antidote to this ‘racist poison’ whose job was ‘to peel away the union jack and reveal the swastika.’
Film footage from the time seems like ancient history, but the historical echoes are hard to miss, with institutional police racism and brutality rife. Director Shah also nudges us to see explicit links between the NF and the Brexit movement. The inspiration for ‘Take Back Control’ sovereignty could be a banner seen behind the NF leaders: ‘IT’S OUR COUNTRY. LET’S WIN IT BACK’.
And looking at dough-faced Martin Webster and his awful goons, it’s hard not to think of our current shitshow of Leave-supporting loons. By contrast, the optimism and good humour of ordinary young music fans attending 1978’s ‘Carnival against the Nazis’ feels like a ray of sunshine, reminiscent of 2019’s EU marches.
Also uplifting in all this is the rebel music of the era and the courage of grassroots activists like RAR founders Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, Jo Wreford, Pete Bruno and others. In a world without social media, mobiles or computers a group of like-minded music fans managed to mobilise hundreds of thousands of other music fans against racism. They politicised the punk generation at a crucial time when many bands, such as Sham 69, had racist followers. As someone in the film says, ‘punk could have gone either way.’
Rock Against Racism was sparked by the anger felt by Saunders after Eric Clapton drunkenly pledged his support for Enoch Powell during a Birmingham concert in 1976. Also making fascist noises at the time: David Bowie and Rod Stewart. White Riot shows how, via a letter published in the NME, Saunders and co started a movement, organising multi-racial gigs in London which eventually spread nationwide. Sample slogan: Black and white unite and fight! They published a revolutionary fanzine, Temporary Hoardings, which ran for five years.
The film often adopts punk’s DIY cut-and-paste visual style, with rapid-fire collages of art, photos and clips. But it is a serious and sober documentary. It gave me the shivers, but not in the way I was hoping for. As a teenager who went to many RAR gigs in Cambridge (The Ruts, Misty in Roots, The Pop Group, Patrik Fitzgerald etc.) I expected spine-tingling concert footage, perhaps unearthed in recent years. But music-wise White Riot was something of a disappointment. This is probably down to licensing constraints. It felt like the usual suspects, clips we’ve all seen before in many music docs. The Clash and Jimmy Pursey doing White Riot at the 1978 Victoria Park carnival felt a bit panto at the time.
Perhaps, though, Rubika Shah’s film is right to downplay its musical content; RAR’s moral and political cause is more important here. Among the many talking heads is producer and musician Dennis Bovell, then member of reggae band Matumbi, who describes what it felt like to be black in London in the late 70s: ‘you were warned by your parents not to stay out after 10 o’clock. The police could arrest you for being black.’ He explained that he was imprisoned for 6 months in Wormwood Scrubs for a crime he did not commit. Black and Asian kids had to go to school in groups for fear of getting beaten up and spat at.
This was a time when some of mainstream British popular culture was overtly racist: The Black & White Minstrel Show and Love Thy Neighbour (‘a nig-nog moved in next door’) were on primetime telly. According to an inside source, ‘you wouldn’t believe the amount of senior policemen who support the National Front.’ No surprise, then, that there were riots in places like Lewisham when the NF tried to march through it and met with massive resistance. Red Saunders: ‘This was a gang of street thugs out to terrify you. The campaign was life and death for many people.’
In Christopher Nolan’s time-bending, mind-boggling blockbuster the director is in playful mood, peppering the script with sly messages to the audience. “Don’t try and understand it,” says one character early in the film. “I don’t understand it,” says another later, “it’s backwards.”
“Does your head hurt yet? asks Neil (Robert Pattinson) after some indigestible explanation of events. “Yes,” replies the Protagonist (John David Washington) and most of the befuddled audience. In other words, don’t bother trying to keep up with Tenet’s plot. Just buckle up and enjoy the thrilling ride.
In fact, the whole plot could be one big McGuffin, one of Hitchcock’s fabricated but meaningless props to get from A to B. Where is Nolan taking us? He is playing with the concept of time and the outer limits of what cinema can conjure for its audience. “James Bond on acid,” as someone has described Tenet, is only half-right. Its’ muted colour palette and corporate mood is the opposite of psychedelic. But the spirit of Disney’s sorcerer’s apprentice is evident in the fun Nolan has opening his Pandora’s box of technical tricks.
In an opening sequence that will delight those who are tone-deaf to classical music a gang of masked terrorists attack Kiev National Opera House and smash up the orchestra’s instruments. They fight a running battle with guards, who include our unnamed Protagonist. He is caught and tortured before swallowing an odd-looking round metal pill.
Waking up on a ship off the coast of Oslo, he is told by his handlers (who include Pattinson) that he is now working for a secret organisation called ‘Tenet’, whose mission is to save the world from “something worse” than a nuclear holocaust. Like Bond, the Protagonist is shown futuristic gadgets and whisked around the world, from Talinn to Vietnam and Mumbai, via Italy’s Amalfi coast. He bungee jumps off skyscrapers, has some brutally exciting fights and is involved in magnificent car chases.
There’s also a statuesque blonde (Elizabeth Debicki from The Night Manager) and a dastardly villain, the Ukrainian Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who describes matter-of-factly what his men are going to do with the Protagonist’s balls: “It’s very gratifying to watch a man you don’t like try to pull his own balls out of his throat before he chokes.” Branagh is electrifying here, playing against type; any ‘luvvie’-ness has gone the same way the afore-mentioned testicles. Imagine what Charlie Brooker will look when he delivers his verdict on 2020 at the end of the year: that’s how intense and angry Branagh is here.
There’s plenty to enjoy and admire in Tenet. The wonderful John David Washington is still “as fresh as a daisy” here after his breakthrough performance in BlacKkKlansman. ‘Dressed’ by Michael Caine’s city gent, he looks effortlessly cool in a posh suit. But even Washington’s deadpan delivery of some long-winded explanatory dialogue (there’s quite a lot of this in Tenet) can’t quite stop us scratching our heads or yawning. The film does go on a bit; two hours would have been enough and the repetitious tedium of the massed battle at the end felt like watching Attack of the Clones.
For brainy puzzle-solvers, there is an algorithm, temporal inversions galore and the ‘grandfather paradox’ to keep your brain ticking like the clock in Dunkirk. If you pay attention Ludwig Göransson’s Zimmer-like score even contains reminders of those mythical ‘backwards’ messages alleged to be hidden in the run-out grooves of vinyl albums back in the late 60s/early 70s.
Invigorated by a new haircut and tattoo, Helen Macdonald was on sparkling form as she discussed her latest book, Vesper Flights, with author and journalist Patrick Barkham. Writer of the award-winning H is for Hawk, Macdonald is a also a poet, naturalist and historian of science. And, said Barkham, “a talented artist”, a TV presenter and a qualified falconer. A Renaissance woman, in other words, but one who wears her many talents lightly.
Macdonald is a fluent and engaging speaker, by turns funny, surprising, forensic and moving. During a warm conversation with Barkham we were made to forget that this was a virtual Zoom chat between someone in Suffolk and someone else in Norfolk. It felt instead like a proper literary event with an audience. The only thing missing was the applause.
Vesper Flights, said Barkham, was a collection of essays “that will delight” the reader with their “astonishing range,” from swifts to mushrooms, to woods in winter to the Empire State building. Its name comes from the Latin for evening, explained Macdonald: the term is used to describe swifts’ flights, in rising columns, to heights of up to 8,000 feet, “precisely at nautical twilight to orientate themselves. They can see clouds on the distant horizon 100 miles away.”
In the book Macdonald writes: “Swifts are my fable of community, teaching us about how to make right decisions in the face of oncoming bad weather, in the face of clouds that sit like dark rubble on our own horizon.” In order to work out what we’re doing next, she says, we need to follow suit – look further, call in the experts. But the point of Vesper Flights, “is not to be polemical, but to display the astonishing beauty of the world … to bear witness … and ask why we value some creatures and not others.”
Barkham and Macdonald bemoaned the staggering loss of diversity in the British countryside, where glow-worms were once an everyday sight and hedgerows were full of life. This was a loss of “emotional and imaginative worlds” as well as one of species and environment.
Barkham: “Your subject is love for the non-human life around us. Also, I thought, ‘air,’ – migration, travel, flight. One essay that struck me was the one about the Empire State building. Tell us a bit about that.”
Macdonald: “I went up there at night – it was a brief from the New York Times magazine on very high buildings. My mind was blown … there’s so much stuff up there … tons of insects in spring in the middle of the great migration. Through binoculars it was the most impossibly moving thing … birds up-lit by the lights of the tower like slow tracer fire, desperate will pulling these creatures onwards.”
Although she was not religious Macdonald said that the air granted “a sense of the divine … I’m drawn to little epiphanies in the natural world … there’s something else going on. The air is a very special place for me.”
PB: “What are DVCs?”
HM: “It’s a cars/law term – Deer Vehicle Collison. Deer always surprised me when I saw them … before, they were magical to me … we owe it to ourselves to know as much about a creature as possible. The stuff on YouTube is pretty grim … I was just watching animal death. My parrot came to give me a hug … I’m always impressed by deer hunters’ knowledge of the animals they kill.”
PB: “… like the position you take as a nature writer … you offer a more nuanced view. You’re interested in falconry … the tension between bird fanciers and birders.”
HM: “I find all nature fascinating … it’s not free of class or racism … the Romany community keep bred caged birds … a lot of what’s going on is about class … as usual it’s the elite that get away with it all … our class consciousness is imported into what we do with nature.”
PB: “Bird hides – the weird behaviour you get, the snobbishness. How to you feel, as a woman, entering these places? Do you feel patronised?”
HM: “I don’t care anymore … the judging relates to expertise, rather than gender … these spaces are very charged along the lines of expertise … it will always be like entering an ultimate cage fighting thing.”
PB: “You did a huge amount of touring with H is for Hawk …”
HM: “I’ve always been an introvert … on the big tour I met readers who had experience grief and dark times … it made me kind of love people in a much more honest, big way. I used to love the natural world more. Now I love them equally … it was a massive education into how to be a proper person from my readers.”
Before reading a second extract from Vesper Flights Macdonald introduced us to her 17 year-old parrot, Birdoole, who looked cuddly and even has his own Twitter account. But when interviewed on the Today programme earlier in the day, Macdonald had confided: “I have more scars from this parrot than I ever had from any bird of prey.”
Selected questions from the audience:
What is your next long book?
“Midway – it’s about mid-life and the end of the world. Specifically, it’s about Midway atoll, an ex-naval base 1500 miles from Hawaii where I went as a volunteer albatross counter … I’m very excited to start it … in Hawaiian folklore it’s a place where souls come from and return to … wings brush your face at night … it’s like being in the afterlife.”
Which winter migrants do you most welcome?
“Fieldfares. I love them. The rattling flocks … they smell of snow and fjords, carry the Arctic with them … weirdly skittish. And waxwings … unpredictable birds, you see them in rowan trees in car parks and it feels like they’re in the wrong place.”
Are you choosy about the TV programmes you take on?
“I don’t have time to do certain things. But the TV programme (BBC4’s The Hidden Wilds of the Motorway) has been a joy to me. Writing is a very lonely occupation … you miss working in a crew, like being in a musical group … working their asses off to get something made.”
Are you a fan of rewilding schemes?
“We need as much diverse life as possible wherever we can … we are so starved of hope.” Macdonald mentioned Knepp farm in West Sussex, where rewilding has happened very fast and there are now “clouds of butterflies” She cited Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a .book about the world of botany as described and explored through Native American traditions. “What would it be like if we felt the world loved us back? Rewilding is part of that conversation. Yes, I’m a fan.”
How can we keep nature in the forefront of our minds?
“Hurricanes are directly linked to climate change, as are the storms in California, the lightning that causes wildfires. It’s hard to see individual events as connected to the climate emergency, but they are. We need to get our act in gear … get out there and start shouting.”
The love of nature felt by many during lockdown -how can we keep it up?
“Watching birds in the garden. Just sitting here and watching the natural world. We can take enormous solace from it. A spider over my oven with an egg sac – what’s life like for her? Do an exercise in your head, imagine yourself as something completely different. Lack of empathy is one of our great problems.”
Barkham admitted that Vesper Flights “brought me to tears reading it” and pointed out that “the subject that underlies everything you write is love and loss/grief.” Macdonald:“I had a twin brother who died just after I was born.”
“I discovered that if I held a falcon egg close to my mouth and made soft clucking noises, a chick that was ready to hatch would call back. Hello there! Hello new thing.”
This hugely enjoyable spy adventure feels like a sixties update of John Buchan’s ‘man-on-the-run’ classic The Thirty-Nine Steps – first-class escapism for our constricted times. I devoured it in a handful of sittings.
As in Buchan’s 1915 ‘shocker’ Lionel Davidson’s debut novel starts with a narrator who is bored with life in London before unfolding events test his appetite for excitement. As we might expect from a thriller set at the onset of the Swinging Sixties, there’s more sex in The Night of Wenceslas, more enlightened attitudes (none of the casual anti-semitism found in The Thirty-Nine Steps) and a giddy sense of emerging freedom.
Davidson’s crisp and witty prose style is a delight and his more colourful characters such as Vlasta, a voluptuous giantess with “bomb-like” breasts, anticipate Pussy Galore et al from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels: “I watched her leave with a somewhat mixed and fearful anticipation. She was certainly a lot of girl.”
Just as Hitchcock added a female lead and sexual tension to his 1935 film version of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Davidson blows away the cobwebs of convention. His snowballing plot is alive with an intoxicating sense of new horizons, of hidden talents in his characters. Perhaps the most exhilarating part of reading The Night of Wenceslas is the transformation of feckless waster Nicolas Whistler into someone who can do stuff, a man of action, if not exactly an Action Man. If he can be brave, we think to ourselves, then maybe we can. Maybe we’re all better than we think.
In both books a secret message is of crucial importance. Scudder’s notebook contains a code that could avert a world war: Richard Hannay must stay free to fight for our freedom; he must outrun and outwit the British police and the German spies of the Black Stone. The stakes do not appear to be so high in The Night of Wenceslas: Nicolas Whistler ends up as an unlikely spy in Cold War Prague, the bearer of a cigarette paper with a formula written on it that might avert a nuclear war. He, too, is hunted down relentlessly by a shadowy organisation – the Czech state security police or SNB (Statni Narodni Bezpecnost).
Both protagonists are forced into situations where they must become quick-change artists. In The Thirty-Nine Steps Hannay dons the guise of a roadman; he also gives an election speech as a Liberal candidate. To evade the clutches of the SNB Whistler becomes a ‘parky’ sausage seller, later dressing up in Czech national costume after claiming a stranger’s clothes at a swimming bath. Both men disguise themselves as milkmen to escape enemy pursuers.
But Hannay and Whistler are very different characters, products of their time. The former is older, an ex-soldier and mining engineer in South Africa. He is a tough, worldly-wise, a professional adventurer. Whistler is a rather aimless and lazy boy-about-town who cares most about his MG sports car. Hannay’s quest is more obviously heroic, while Whistler’s nightmarish journey is mostly navigated and motivated via the instinct for self-preservation.
He might be selfish, but Davidson’s character is the more likeable, flawed hero. He’s droll and smarter than he thinks, and we enjoy his coming-of-age in The Night of Wenceslas. Whistler’s rebellious individualism feels like part of a cultural shift:
“It should be obvious I didn’t care about the formula. Why should I care about it with my life at stake? There was some great mass delusion in this insane country. They all thought alike. Maybe this was how their own nationals would behave. Hanging on at all costs to the formula, the slogan, the message, the chant.”
The times they are a-changin’: for Nicolas Whistler (and Lionel Davidson) the sixties’ counter-culture starts here.
Cambridge Literary Festival celebrated the culmination of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet with an online ‘illustrated conversation in a lockdown landscape’ between Smith and journalist Alex Clark. We were promised a “unique event using images and voices, curated by Ali Smith and filmmaker Sarah Wood.”
Wood’s images, both moving and static, provided a restful backdrop to the literary chat. Switching between Cambridge and Kilkenny, Smith and Clark’s respective homes, the audience could browse their bookshelves and paintings before moving outside to admire their tomato plants and Smith’s sleepy black and white cat. A refreshing change from Zoom’s relentless in-your-faces.
“You’ve done it!” began Clark, “you’ve got to the end!” Smith said that when she began writing Autumn (published 2016) she was as unprepared as everyone else for the seismic shocks of Brexit and Covid 19 that would inform her four novels. But she remains hopeful: “the novel will always tend towards the humane.” Smith believes that all art forms are about internal and external renewal, that “the novel form, in particular, is about structure, consequence … continuance. It will always be about society, the ways we relate to each other over time.”
Smith read an extract from page 7 of Summer, in which Grace and her daughter Sacha argue over a quotation for a school essay: “Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.” Sacha doesn’t much care who wrote it (Hannah Arendt) or that she got it from a website called ‘Brainy quote’, while her mother cares about attribution: “Context. It matters.”
Clark responds by asking “who do we trust? What is the voice of authority? Do you write something because it sounds good? How do you know what the truth is underneath?”
Smith said that she had a writer friend in Orkney who “shouts out each sentence, so that he gets the rhythm right. Rhythm is around us – the information-led madness whose rhythm is like a heartbeat way over the level … you need to calm down … you need a beta-blocker … Sacha is on her own rhythm, while her mother’s is not her own … a reflecting rhythm – with dialogue life starts to happen. As the short story writer Grace Paley said, the source of life is in that dialogue. There’s something excitingly electric about it. And we long for it.”
Clark: “You’ve written about isolation, aloneness, climate change … surveillance and you allude to all manner of arts across the centuries …”
Smith: “The unprecedentedness at this global level [of the pandemic] … has brought out divisions and hierarchies … who’s got the money to do anything, notions of political division are bristling away … the number of people who are losing their lives … this is a really nasty virus [but also] a complex gift from nature … the clear skies of the lockdown showed that if we needed to change things, they could be changed.”
“Writing at the end of January, something wasn’t quite gelling … then this. It’s about understanding that there is a rhythm happening beyond this time. And if we listen back we can hear the rhythm of the future too.”
Clark: “We now talk about the ‘before times’ … the pandemic has created immense division. For example, over the liberty of wearing a mask. How far can these books go out into the world and show people what life is like?”
Smith: “I began this before Brexit was a word and I’ve ended it now Covid is a word. This novel continues to relate a story of a people at a time … it’s a very hopeful form … (there will be a time after) … allows you to open a stone and make the light come through it … it’s been an extraordinary revelation working with another shape.”
She read another extract from Summer: In the 1940s Daniel is taken off to an enemy alien camp on the Isle of Man, ‘the poor man’s Riviera.’ Through the wire he talks to a boy who doesn’t understand why he is there because he’s not a German. “A prison is always a prison, even in August when the sky is blue.”
Clark: “There are lots of artists in your books. Tell us a bit about Lorenza Mazzetti.”
Smith: “She was an Italian who came to London in the 1950s, part of the Free Cinema movement [with Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson] … She talked her way into the Slade School of Art by standing there and shouting ‘I’m not leaving until I see the Director. I want a place at this school because I’m a genius!’ The Director agreed and she got in … the first thing she did was find a cupboard full of filming materials and started making films. She hadn’t done this before … Her film Together won a prize at Cannes in 1956. Mazzetti was one of the mould-breaking Brit Postwar filmmakers.
She died this year. Have you heard of her? Almost no one has … she was also a painter and puppeteer … one of those people who breaks the mould. This book has the friendship of her images throughout.”
Clark: “You’re fascinated with makers of art …”
Smith: “None of the art forms exist without others; they flow into each other like a massive river … its’ source is such as giving source … I aspire to the point at which all art forms meet. No novel exists without previous writers … we constantly renew ourselves … the force of hope keeps us going.”
Clark: “This Quartet is an enormous achievement …”
Smith: “Thank you for shepherding me through it … we’ll do this again. We are human and we continue. I’m sending love to everyone out there now.”
Ali Smith finished by reading Clark’s favourite extract from Summer:
But that’s summer for you. Summer’s like walking down a road just like this one, heading towards both light and dark. Because summer isn’t just a merry tale. Because there’s no merry tale without the darkness.
And summer’s surely really all about an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something. We’re always looking for it, looking to it, heading towards it all year, the way a horizon holds the promise of a sunset. We’re always looking for the full open leaf, the open warmth, the promise that we’ll one day soon surely be able to lie back and have summer done to us; one day soon we’ll be treated well by the world. Like there really is a kinder finale and it’s not just possible but assured, there’s a natural harmony that’ll be spread at your feet, unrolled like a sunlit landscape just for you. As if what it was always all about, your time on earth, was the full happy stretch of all the muscles of the body on a warmed patch of grass, one long sweet stem of that grass in the mouth.
The Oxford Guild hosted a Q&A session with George the Poet as part of its Infinity Diversity Speakers Series. George Mpanga, better known by his stage name George the Poet, is a renowned spoken word performer, social commentator and recording artist who has received great acclaim for his work on exploring and explaining the black British experience and discussing major issues around systemic injustices.
A Cambridge graduate born to Ugandan parents in north-west London, George released a critically-acclaimed hip hop album on Island Records in 2014, before choosing poetry and spoken word as a more effective medium to communicate with his audience. His podcast series Have You Heard George’s Podcast? won ‘Podcast of the Year’ at the 2019 British Podcast Awards.
Host Abbas Kazmi began by asking George about his journey into the spoken-word form. George said he was “rooted in rap music, specifically grime,” and that the transition to poetry happened after he went to university. For him, rap was “an autonomous space for a group of disenfranchised people to tell their truth,” an artform that emphasized the “importance of your life experience,” and one that had empowered a whole generation. It was “hard to unpack [rap] in an academic context.”
Diversity – what more should be done to improve representation?
“It’s about the spaces … supporting and facilitating the talent, as opposed to co-opting the talent. Spaces need to be made more attractive to the incoming crop of students … it’s about being proactive in remedying a lot of the things that have gone wrong before the UCAS form.”
The recent pulling down of statues – why was this so important?
“It’s the tearing down of a story, the ultimate symbolism of our direction of travel … a paradigm shift … it’s all about rethinking the narrative.”
In response to the quote ‘white people want our culture but they don’t want us’, George said that “the popularity of our culture contrasts with the ignorance and lack of interest in countries where black culture is thriving.” His ‘dream’ of young people becoming more politically engaged was starting to happen now, with the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement: “that’s when governments, institutions and markets have to respond … it’s encouraging to see the corporate world shaken … middle England awakening to the idea that there is an alternative narrative.”
Are you reaching out to new markets?
“I just rhyme. I mine conversations for diamonds and make those rhyme … I see the value of these experiences … it’s a sweet deal.”
The history of Colonialism – how can educators teach it?
“Policymakers have to see the value to it first. What is our country missing out on? The common wealth is an ironic phrase. What is it? We are the richest region in northern Europe but we are also home to some of the poorest .. this inconsistency makes it hard to achieve democracy.”
The following questions were among those submitted by the virtual audience:
What do you make of the recent controversy surrounding Wiley?
“Black Lives Matter has taught me that the translation of our struggles is a job in itself … on Question Time there was a question about US racism vs. UK racism. I had to explain that this question was ridiculous … what matters is that there are people who don’t know [that]. My job is to take the hit and to educate.
When the Labour Party was accused of anti-semitism I started to pay attention. I didn’t know about the history … by the time Wiley’s going off on one I now have the background … it was irresponsible what he was saying. He needs to take responsibility for what he’s saying. Everyone needs to take responsibility for what we don’t know.”
Who are your role models?
“Muhammad Ali, a fighter with a brain. Malcolm X – also a fighter with a brain. Tupac. Nas … I’m drawn to people who could articulate themselves and weren’t afraid to fight back.”
Is it possible for descendents of immigrants to be proud to be British?
“I’m proud to be British. But I turned down an MBE because I’m not proud of the British Empire … but there’s something to be said for reconciliation. I grew up around a lot of Indian kids … saw a model for social mobility … I was able to finesse the system. I will be proud of my Britishness on behalf of any kids who will benefit from it.”
Inspiration from black writers / literary figures?
George said he was more influenced by mainstream TV and music. He cited Jay Z, Beyonce, Jordan Peele, Michaela Coel and Noel Clarke, amongst others: “they are the key players in the field.”
Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? (Jennifer, University of Manchester)
“Stick it out, Jennifer! You could write your own story … I got it at Cambridge, at school aged 11, as a rapper … I [had to live] with determination, self-determination.”
What’s your view of the sexism in rap and grime?
“It has a massive problem. It was why I left … rap was born of a new crop of drug dealers in 1980s New York City … rap was a retelling of these crazy stories of making crazy money … which engrained in them a problem of accountability in a hyper-capitalist environment in which business is the only way to be rewarded by the market … now we have an inability to have a proper conversation … at 19, I was pissed off in this space.
Kanye, Drake, Kendrick and others have expanded [rap’s] emotional range. But one constant is misogyny. In business terms this is unsustainable.”
… the recent issues of discrimination, can the Labour Party ever recover?
George thought there was a crisis of ideology, in which the extreme politics of the Right had gained the upper hand through appealing to the street, to people’s selfish instincts – “which is why people fear there’s a scarcity of resources. The Tory party has gained a foothold in the North because it positions itself as a defender of Britain’s interests in a way that Labour has been unable to do.
“After Corbyn I don’t know where the big ideas are coming from … they’re not offering a route out of poverty … remedies to inequality is not the same. I want clever strategies to undermine [inequality] … the next clever people – it’s probably going to be one of you – sorts it out over the next 10 years.”
How do we combat the rise of nationalism?
“Don’t combat it, you undermine it. At 29 I don’t have the patience to enter the political arena and try to argue with all the populism, xenophobia, austerity that comes with right-wing politics. What I can do is increase the value of my interactions with my audience … [create] a public intellectual space to share … undermine it by enriching the interactions I have in my life.”
How do we preserve Britain as a tolerant place?
“Black Lives Matter showed the value in coordinating … raising our voices sets the tone … we can become tyrannical and bullying; however, it is important to speak up. We need to be honest with ourselves. There’s no substitute for being useful. We are a minority. We don’t have a robust comms stystem or central authority … this undermines our position at the negotiating table … we don’t have enough clout, leverage to pressure the authorities.
We need to ensure that our productivity is evolving … make something that can be brought to the bargaining table.”
How do we create change as individuals?
George spoke about the importance of innovation, of overcoming setbacks when you discover that “people have done it before. I thought I could change what it was to be a man as a rapper at 16. But Nipsy Hussle was doing it already … Nas, Tupac as well … over time my attentions shifted to poetry. There were too many rappers for me to really stand out.”
“The second thing is audience building. It doesn’t have to be big … the right audience … what 5 people need to hear what you’re saying?”
How can you get white people to dismantle a system that benefits them?
George emphasized the importance of leverage in negotiating change. He saw himself as self-employed and hardened by experience. “On what terms are you going to get what you want? The alternative to negotiation is conflict. In Uganda the gripes and grievances of the people are taken a lot less seriously [than in Britain]. The president, Yoweri Museveni, has been in charge 34 years … bloodshed is needed to overthrow him. Someone’s got to die.”
“Past the explaining, we’ve got to negotiate. We have to be pragmatic.”
Any regrets about leaving Island Records and your rap career?
“No. It was a very abusive space in which there was lots of psychological abuse and coercion of young talent. On the outside this leads to successful outcomes, but … mental dissonance, emotional dissonance … I was able to remove myself.
My podcast is an innovative offering … I gave myself free range. Under a business model you are never going to have free range to do what you want.”
How do we take action against the government in light of recent scandals such as Windrush?
“Do you believe it is in your MP’s power to transform British society? That major parties have enough influence or sway to change course? I don’t believe that … from the arts, yes – as a poet I say that – there are affected, agitated pockets of people … have to build a broad church of consensus beyond traditional politics, that will allow you to come to the negotiating table with leverage.”
What are you most proud of?
My followers – they are a great reflection of me and what I put out there. Look at the quality of the questions here. You guys are my confirmation that I’m not wasting my time.”
“I’m going back to school. Details TBC.”
What are you working on in the coming year?
“To do what I did in audio in TV … innovate and introduce new voices, people who want to be me, who have stickers on their walls.”
George said that he was “deeply in love” with the “therapeutic” Why Nations Fail (by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson), an analysis of how institutions evolved and created democracies and dictatorships.
From Third World to First: The Singapore Story by Lee Kuan Yew.
Decolonising the University (Editors: Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, Kerem Nisancioglu)
The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy by Mariana Mazzucato
Are you still optimistic for the future?
“Problems can be opportunities. Be strong. Anticipate that you’re going to have the time of your life figuring out this mess.
Britain will be more mixed, unless Brexit means kicking out foreigners … inequality will come to a head – it will be hard to hide that. I’m going to make it hard to hide and something’s going to give.”
Advice to your younger self?
“Listen. Listen. Life is a dialogue, not a monologue … only everyone has all the experience. Let’s continue to protect the spaces dedicated to listening … our best ideas and innovation in the spaces where they can be most impactful.”
By way of introduction the Guardian’s chief books writer, Lisa Allardice, summarized Jeanette Winterson’s literary career so far, saying “she has dealt with some of the biggest questions of the age and what it means to be human. Her latest novel, Frankissstein, a gloriously entertaining, erudite and exuberant” retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic, imagines an AI future of human interaction completely separate from the body, in which sex robots are the plastic embodiment of gender, identity and religion, recurring themes in Winterson’s novels.”
Interviewed via Zoom from her Cotswolds garden which Winterson later said gives her “a deep and centred happiness,” she exuded her usual warmth, wit, playfulness and free-ranging intelligence. The following questions were a mixture of Allardice’s own and those sent in by members of the audience.
How are you coping during lockdown?
“It’s not too different from the rest of my life … I love the buzz of cities and people-watching, but my heart is in nature, the solitary place where everything can be done.” Winterson would have shown us the writing shed in her garden, but her “coal-powered internet” was too precarious.
She said that she had been reading the New Scientist for years, wanting to understand what was going on and where AI was leading us. With the new cutting-edge technology it was now possible to conceive of the idea of a “provisional self,” which can be uploaded and downloaded, or a “core self that can be retro-fitted.” Winterson sees in this dialogue echoes from myths and legends in which the self is shifted into another dimension.
Are you scared that AI robots will supercede us humans?
“AI is a tool that we are using. It’s better at data work but not the other stuff such as the multi-sense world around us.” We were at a crucial stage in evolution, confronted with what it means to be human. Further into the future, would we “begin to merge with AI like Steve Austin (the bionic man)”? Would we be cognitively faster and stronger, able to scan and upload the content of our brains? It was an exciting prospect, “but we could all blow ourselves up or die of the plague.”
“People have always wanted to be free of biological constraints, especially as you get older. Previously, only heaven or hell” awaited as a way of getting out of here. “We’d like to change what we don’t like (death) if we can … we’re a smart species, but we’re also so fucking stupid (Trump, Bolsonaro).” It felt like we were in a video game, a battle between light and darkness: “will we get there in time? Will we be able to move forward to another iteration of what it means to be human?”
Why sex robots?
“They made me laugh. As the crisis hit sales of sexbots went through the roof. The bloke ones are awful, though … like wrapping your dick in clingfilm.” Winterson encouraged viewers to take a look at the latest models on the internet. “You can fuck them off the planet … every hole works and they don’t talk back.” It was the combination of their ludicrousness and the seriousness of the issues surrounding them that appealed to her – what does this say about our relationships? Would it be better to not bother with flesh and blood and just have silicon instead?
What will our gender be when we can choose?
This was the exciting bit, said Winterson – the end of the binary. A lot of robot helpers are really cute and you will probably become attached to them; this will upset our ideas of what the binary is, throwing up interesting philosophical and personal questions.
Allardice talked about gendered voices, how the Guardian building’s fire alarm started out with a reassuring Alexa-type woman’s voice, changing to a male voice when an emergency situation occurred.
“There are lots of behavioural nudges,” said Winterson, “Google, Facebook, Amazon … are part of a more sinister dystopia. We are easily manipulated by interested parties.”
Ry is a trans character in Frankissstein. Do you see yourself as double?
“Yes, a lot of people feel it. We are brought up to repress it, suppress multiple-choice possibilities and trying out new things.” As we get older we run away or have an affair because “we can’t fit into the small space we were forced to be in. I want more, not less, imaginary chances.”
Did you do much research for your trans character, Ry?
Winterson said that the response from the trans community had been good. She wanted to portray someone who was authentic and complex, who really existed but was also a bit tricky: “I’ve never been interested in heroes and villains.” She took the characters from Frankenstein and “moved them through a mirror into the present. Mary Shelley became the young trans doctor, Ry.” The 200 year-old book was “like a message in a bottle” and “we were the first generation to read it in a completely different way. It was as if Shelley had foreseen a new species.”
Winterson went on to praise another Nineteenth-century pioneer, Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace, who also foresaw the future in her work on computing. She cited the film Hidden Figures which showcased the unsung work of women working at NASA, whose mathematical calculations were labelled ‘clerical work’ only because they were women. Today, only 20% of tech workers were women, an indictment of a systemic road block, the “stupid idea” that girls can’t go into maths or computing. More gender confidence was needed.
Do you see a future utopia where class, origin and gender become insignificant?
“We need to find ways to be optimistic but also realistic. There are huge problems at the moment. But all of us Guardian readers need to say ‘these things matter’. We’ve been walking towards it [progress] since 1945. We can’t let it go now.”
Frankissstein has a subtitle: a love story. All of your novels are flirting with boundaries and desire …
Love is the highest value – it allows us to be heroic … it is the best of us.
You’ve written your memoir (Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?) Are you onto your second life now?
“Second chances are possible. You get another chance. No one is so terrible … there’s always hope and redemption. Having escaped my crazy upbringing and survived battles in the 1980s I came to a full stop – I’d always run so fast from the fire … [Now] I’m very healthy and busy. I get a sense of how time is short in this crummy world that I love and despair of in equal measure … the bigger battles – there’s no quiet life for us now. The golden days are gone. These are the battle days. We have to be ready for them.”
What are the best ways to comfort a bruised soul?
“Get out in the garden because nature is good for us. Read poetry – the best words in the best order; they speak to us quickly and are a reminder that everybody somewhere is struggling with something – this is part of the connection.”
Do you still ‘write from the wound’?
“Yes, we all have one wound or several. This is an idea that runs through the western canon, from Christ to Harry Potter. Use it as a source of creativity and self-awareness …offer yourself to others. We are often a jigsaw with pieces missing, but we offer ourselves anyway.”
Do you still want to change the world?
“Of course. But not by marketing or algorithms … you shouldn’t manipulate people like Dominic Cummings, who wants to win by any means necessary. It shouldn’t be about winning by creating factions … power by lies and manipulation. I’m pleased we have a very switched-on young generation – they will be questioning all of this.”
Allardice: It makes me feel old that it’s 35 years since 1985, when a slightly gobby girl from Accrington burst onto the scene. You’re now part of the literary establishment and have played a significant part in changing the culture. What has been your greatest achievement?
“It was a strange first 10 years. I didn’t know enough about feminism, politics, patriarchy – it was a rude and brutal awakening … It’s fabulous that you can help people who are younger than you.” Winterson was excited that so many women are now writing and getting published, but was keen that they kept challenging themselves to write beyond their own lives, to push the boundaries of language, form and imagination.
Diversity discussions …
“We’re on it! It’s wonderful to have been part of this. You can change everything about yourselves these days, but you can’t change the time you’re born into. You just have to work with what we’ve got … try to change it for others. The Renaissance builders never expected to finish everything they worked on … we should be patient.”
Will there be a pandemic-centered novel?
“No. As my friend Val McDermid said the other day, ‘it’s bloody changing too fast.’ I’ve got no formula. Never know what’s going to happen next. I’ve got essays on AI and something for TV – that will take me to the end of the year. I’ll do my best to make it interesting.”
How’s the musical of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit going?
[In an amusing Freudian slip, Allardice first called it ‘Annie’, then apologized – “I got my red-headed orphans mixed up there.”]
“The delay is my fault – I’m building up to the point when Mrs. Winterson is a presence again in my life. I have to be ready for it.”
Favourite lockdown read?
“I have a giant shelf of poetry and just pick out a book and read from it … Carol Ann Duffy’s poem about King Kong [‘Queen Kong’] will make you cry.”
Wrapping things up, Alladice said “it’s Thursday, the 8 o’clock clap, so I’ll clap for you.”
Novelist David Mitchell talked about his new book, Utopia Avenue (out on July 14th, 2020) at Hay Festival Digital, in conversation with John Mitchinson, head of research for BBC’s QI series.
Set in the world of rock music in 1967-8, featuring real people such as Francis Bacon in walk-on parts and iconic venues such as the Marquee Club in Soho, the title of the book is the name of a (fictitious) band. It must have been “immense fun researching and writing it,” said Mitchinson, observing that Utopia Avenue “is a David Mitchell book, but also something of a departure.”
“I had enormous fun,” said the author. “I want to make my books different from each other. This was an era we’re familiar with, or overfamiliar with. I thought I was … legends get in the way – our collective cultural memory obscures grottier truths that the legends have grown out of.”
The core of the book is how the band comes together – four “waifs and strays,” found by a manager figure. Mitchell didn’t want too much “Spinal Tap or testosterone,” so he has created female vocalist Elf Holloway, blues bassist Dean Moss, guitar virtuoso Jasper de Zoet and jazz drummer Griff Griffin.
Each of the chapters is named after a song and has the point of view of the band member who wrote it, and for each one Mitchell listened to that particular style of music while writing. Mitchinson was surprised to learn that the novelist had never been in a band. “No, I’m not a musician. Took some guitar and piano lessons and still continue with the piano.” But most of the ‘authenticity’ in the book comes from speaking to people who had been in bands a lot – he “harvested IWATHs (‘I Was There’s’)” from them. He also watched “some great documentaries and interviews, read some music memoirs.”
Mitchell talked about the term “scenius”, coined by Brian Eno, the idea of genius being embedded in a scene, rather than a person. This could be applied to the late ‘60s, when “art and business, media, socioeconomics combined in one geographical location. Soho was a “bizarre, sordid, provocative psycho-geographical square mile of London … not on any administrative map, it is a place and isn’t … an idea and concept, as much as a place you walk through. Utopia Avenue was his attempt to “build a time machine” and travel back to this era of “great music.”
John Mitchinson marvelled at the 18 months between The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and White Album. To him it was “inconceivable that anything so seismic could happen again.” What must it have been like to live in that time and hear Sergeant Pepper for the first time? Or hang out in the Colony Room with Francis Bacon? “Luckily it’s within living memory,” said Mitchell, who was able to call on his ‘IWATH’s.
Utopia Avenue has been described as ‘the great rock and roll novel’ (Tony Parsons). What were the other contenders? Mitchell mentioned Kill Your Friends by John Niven and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet. But there weren’t many – why? Mitchell quoted “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (attributed variously to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello and actor Martin Mull). “Music is an art form beyond language,” said Mitchell. “How to capture it? It’s an oxymoron … ooh, it’s hard. It takes a Houdini-esque feat of escapology to produce a description of a live band … a poor, meagre imitation of the real thing.” Most novelists don’t even try, because “they have more sense than me.”
Were any supernatural elements retained in the new book?
Mitchell: “if you’ve read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or The Bone Clocks, yes (Jasper de Zoet shares a name with Jacob), but if you haven’t read anything the answer’s ‘no’.”
What comes first, characters story or physical place?
“When and where – the physical world. I start with the world, plot and characters work in tandem. I require the one to catch up the other. It’s a kind of walking race between plot and characters.” This question was “a pint of beer and half-an-hour question.”
Mitchinson: “David Bowie makes a couple of important appearances in the novel. He has important truths to impart to Jasper …”
Mitchell: “He needs to do something, not just be eye-candy. But he can’t have a pivotal role either … all these people are no longer with us, but they have families …
If you could choose a supergroup which musicians would be in it?
Lisa Hannigan as singer; David Gilmour on guitar; Neil Peart or Ginger Baker on drums. Or Charlie Watts or Mick Fleetwood; Geddy Lee from Rush on bass.
Mitchinson: Music obviously matters to you, it’s a genuine passion …
Mitchell: “Tunes can allow you to overlook less inspired lyrics. Songs are mysterious things: life-enhancing, mood-shifting, politically-rallying. The book of love has music in it … some of it is transcendental; some of it is really dumb.”
Who would be your dream music writer to talk to you about this book?
“I almost wouldn’t want an eminent music writer … would prefer to talk to Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon or McCartney and ask them how they do what they do, this mysterious thing.”