Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Michael Holroyd's 600-page biography of the painter Augustus John (1878-1861) is a dense, detailed work that's taken me months to get through. I've stopped and started to move house, write my own stuff or read books on comedy or writing or for work. It’s not a book to dip into; for all the comic moments and celebrity cameos, this portrait merits time.

I loved the brooding power of John's portraits when I first saw them during my A-levels, then discovered the artist lurking in old photos of the Fitzroy Tavern (John first met Dylan Thomas there, says the book). I'd seen the book a few times in remainders and second-hand shops, but been scared off by the size and its strikingly ugly cover.

But John's name and work has continued to crop up in other things I've been reading, and when I was in Cardiff in March, his portrait of Mavis Wheeler at the National Museum Wales was the one that held me transfixed. In a few, simple lines – seemingly dashed off – he conveyed not just a beautiful woman but a tantalising sense of her character: thrilling, smart and naughty.

Mavis was wife of another hero of mine, the twinkly archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler. So I thumbed through the book to see if Mortimer got a mention. And bought the book on the basis of this single line:
“Wheeler, Sir Mortimer: challenged to a duel by AJ, 526-7”
Index to Michael Holroyd, Augustus John – The New Biography, p. 717.
Holroyd tells John's life broadly in chronological order, from his days in fear of a strict father in Tenby, through art school rebellion into established notoriety – as much for his private life as his work. John was fascinated by the gypsy life, learning their language, living among them, wearing big hoop ear-rings. And there's a constant wanderlust in the book; in his last few years he seems especially fidgety because he can't just climb into a young woman's bed or disappear off across the country. There’s the striking image of him, a month before he died, frail and ill, but taking part in an anti-bomb sit-in in Trafalgar Square.

John's the archetype of a particular kind of artist: a beardie, boozy, bombastic womaniser, father of too many children to keep track of, constantly getting into rages and fights. He's not a particularly likeable man – he treats his wife Ida particularly badly – but Holroyd mines his antics for detail, insight and comedy. There's a particular gem of rascally, drunk lechery on pages 289-91 that’s got the feel of Withnail. John sneaks round a friend's house at night in search of his two pretty “secretaries”, gets the wrong room and ends up in the nursery with the governess (a dwarf). In the scandal the next morning, he leaves in disgrace but is pursued by the friend who John takes to the pub to set things right, where they get into a boxing match with a complete stranger. As Holroyd says, the stories about John are much more fun to read than be a part of.

For all his unconventional ways, John mixed with key figures of the period, painting their portraits, getting them drunk and – if they were women – fucking them. Ian Fleming's mum, the wives of both Mortimer Wheeler and Dylan Thomas, his own son's girlfriends (and possibly, their wives) and any number of models are included in the list. This sexual appetite is mixed up with anecdotes about his friendships with Hardy, Bertrand Russell, Lawrence of Arabia, Prime Minister Asquith and the Queen.

The book is often engrossing because of other people's lives – John's wife Ida, his sort-of wife Dorelia and sister Gwen are as much part of the story. But even the smaller roles are vivid. Take the subject of the portrait that made me buy the book. Mavis – really Mabel – Wright had an affair with John before she married Mortimer Wheeler. And it looks like they overlapped long afterwards, too. The first mention of her reminded me of Sarah, Pauline Collins' character in the first series of Upstairs, Downstairs:
“About her background she was secretive, confiding only that her mother had been a child stolen by gypsies. In later years she varied this story to the extent of denying, in a manner challenging disbelief, that she was John's daughter by a gypsy. In fact she was the daughter of a grocer's assistant and had been at the age of sixteen a scullery maid. During the General Strike in 1926, she hitchhiked to London, clutching a golf club, and took a post as nursery governess to the children of a clergyman in Wimbledon. A year later she was a waitress at Veeraswamy's, the pioneer Indian restaurant in Swallow Street”.
Ibid., p. 524.
Holroyd uses these relationships to cast light on John's own work. But I found there was generally little analysis of John the painter. The book reproduces only a handful of his works and though we're told of fashions and fights in the art world, I didn't ever feel the book explained or grouped his work. His portraits are discussed in terms of how much they looked like or pleased the sitter:
“Men he was tempted to caricature, women to sentimentalize. For this reason, as the examples of Gerald du Maurier and Tallulah Bankhead suggest, his good portraits of men were less acceptable to their sitters than his weaker pictures of women.”
Ibid., p 469.
There's even less on the style or composition of his landscapes, and his still life work is almost dismissed out of hand. We’re told he only tried clay late in life.

John’s frustration with his own work is evident – a late anecdote has the old man crying in the street at his own lack of ability. Holroyd details him prevaricating for years over particular portraits, or painting over or destroying work he alone seemed not to like. Despite saying that he didn’t fulfil his potential, Holroyd tells us that John worked hard and continually – the cruel irony being that work wasn’t necessarily improved in proportion to the hours devoted.

I'd have liked more on the traditions he worked with in, the tools he used, the kind of brushwork and marks on the canvas. Holroyd seems to agree with critics who claim (and did so at the time) that John never quite realised the promise of his early work, but doesn't venture an opinion on why or what he should have done.

It's a rich and rewarding biography of the man but not the artist.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

AAAGH! goes swimming

AAAGH from Doctor Who Adventues #230 by Simon Guerrier and Brian Williamson
Another AAAGH!, this one from Doctor Who Adventures #230 and featuring Craig the Sea Devil, a cat nun, a Cheetah person and a Hath. Written by me, illustrated by Brian Williamson and edited by Natalie Barnes and Paul Lang - and reprinted here by kind permission. Next time: Let's kill litter!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"All you do is quote fact and figures..."

"'After all, we are in the entertainment business.'
- Ruper Murdoch on the Hitler diaries”

Quoted in Robert Harris, Selling Hitler, p. 293.

The Dr picked up Selling Hitler – The story of the Hitler diaries for 90p in a charity shop. The book was first published in 1986 and this battered paperback with Alexei Sayle mugging on the front was brought out in 1991, to coincide with, says the back cover, “the major five-part ITV drama series, starring Jonathan Pryce, Alan Bennett, Barry Humphries” and Sayle. Yet the true story of a huge publishing swindle seems particularly relevant now: how News International and other publishing companies were so consumed by commercial pressures that they, fatally, ran a major scoop despite serious questions about the source.

It's a fascinating story, Harris detailing the huge market in the 1970s for Nazi-related material. On telly there was Colditz and Secret Army, the papers were tracking down former SS officers to interview and/or bring to justice, and a trade in illicit knick-knacks that the Fuhrer might have touched was commanding ever higher prices – and ever more outlandish fakes. I was also struck by the context in which Hitler's diaries are set.
"It was clear that the only author who might remotely be compared Adolf Hitler was Henry Kissinger. His memoirs had been syndicated across the globe in 1979 in an intricate network of deals, simultaneous release dates and subsidiary rights, which was a wonder to behold. Hitler was probably bigger than Kissinger – 'hotter', as the Americans put it.”

Ibid., p. 210.

Forger Konrad Kujau produced a pile of diaries, hundreds of paintings, notes and manuscripts – most as if by Hitler, but also corroborating details from those in his inner circle. His previous forgeries had been already spotted by – or embarrassed – other historians and publishers. If the German magazine Stern and the other publishers had been more open with their haul and sought more opinions, the whole fraud would have collapsed much sooner.

Harris is good at explaining the slow erosion of the experts' doubts and hesitance. The reputation of Lord Dacre (Hugh Trevor-Roper) was seriously damaged by his authenticating the diaries as genuine, but we see how he was given little time and little access, and was apparently lied to. Those with the skills and experience to make judgments – scientists, historians, those who'd dealt with forgeries, journalists who'd seen this kind of thing before – were not let in on the secret or only in limited ways.

But even as the deals were being signed, on Wednesday, 20 April 1983, Philip Knightly at the Times listed his own concerns, based on having seen the costs incurred by faked Mussolini diaries in 1968. His concerns perfectly spell out the errors being made under commercial pressure to rush out the exclusive:
"Questions to consider:
  1. What German academic experts have seen all the diaries? Has, for instance, the Institute of Contemporary History seen them?
  2. What non-academic British experts have seen all the diaries? Has David Irving seen them?
  3. How thoroughly has the vendor explained where the diaries have been all these years and why that have surfaced now: the fiftieth anniversary of Hitler's accession to power.
The crux of the matter is that secrecy and speed work for the con man. To mount a proper check would protect us but would not be acceptable to the vendor. We should insist on doing our own checks and not accept the checks of any other publishing organisation.”

Quoted in ibid., p. 290.

I've quoted Jacob Bronowski before describing Nazism as a faith not a science because it preferred certainty not awkward questions. The history of Agent Zigzag showed that the Nazi secret service were less effective than the British because the Nazis could not admit weaknesses of intelligence information. The same thing seems to be going on here – the various editors and management people were so keen on the publishing event of the century that they trapped themselves in the story. They wanted to believe so they ignored the doubts.

As it is, David Irving became the unlikely sceptic-hero who wouldn't stop asking awkward questions and pulled down the whole house of cards. A little like, I thought, Hugh Grant suddenly becoming the moral arbiter on phone-hacking, or John Prescott this week on Question Time being criticised for always bringing up “facts and figures” to support his case.

But I've also been fascinated by the insight into the culture at News International so soon after Murdoch had taken over the Times.
"In the spring of 1983 ... [Murdoch] ruled his empire in a manner not dissimilar to that which Hitler employed to run the Third Reich. His theory of management was Darwinian. His subordinates were left alone to run their various outposts of the company. Ruthlessness and drive were encouraged, slackness and inefficiency punished. Occasionally, Murdoch would swoop in to tackle a problem or exploit an opportunity; then he would disappear. He was, depending on your standing at any given moment, inspiring, friendly, disinterested or terrifying. He never tired of expansion, of pushing out the frontiers of his operation. 'Fundamentally,' Richard Searby, his closest adviser, was fond of remarking, 'Rupert's a fidget.'”

Ibid., pp. 263-4.

With publishing and broadcast subsidiaries, Murdoch was in prime position to fully exploit the diaries. Harris says Murdoch could be furious and sweary as well as ruthless. He was explosive when Stern reneged on a deal for the diaries after they'd shaken hands. And he refused to be played off against the buyers from Newsweek – instead, making a deal with Newsweek to buy the rights together and share them out to mutal advantage. When Stern tried again to bump up the price, Murdoch and Newsweek walked out – and Stern were forced to pursue them and offer a much lower price. It's an astonishing, shrewd and wily bit of dealing. And all, of course, in vain.

If there's one criticism of Harris' book, it's the lack of notes or references. A lot of his material comes from publicly accessible reports and inquiries that followed the swindle being exposed. But he also says in his acknowledgments that,
"Almost all this information came to me on the understanding that its various sources would not be identified publicly.”

Ibid., p. 9.

So we have to take his story on trust.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Events, dear boy, events

I've reviewed Project Nim for the Lancet. It's slightly informed by a post here a while back about Baboon Metaphysics.

Will resist the temptation to link ape behaviour to the events in London and round the country this week. On Monday, we could see the fire in Croydon from our house - smoke and helicopters in an otherwise clear and moonlit sky. We followed it on the news until the news stopped having anything new to say. Over the next couple of days we saw lots of police cars and vans whizzing about and my train was a bit delayed on Monday.

On Tuesday, we thought we get out of the house for lunch and wandered up the hill to the nice coffee shop. A small number of women and children were running towards us, terrified by reports of rioters coming our way. We turned round and walked back down the hill - and the reports turned out to be untrue. Tesco was busy with people as we bought lunch, with lots of people on the tills trying to serve customers quickly (truly a sign of the End of Times). The staff were also lining up trolleys in front of the shop windows, building a barricade. And there was a palpable sense of terror - all anticipating the worst.

And yet outside it was sunny and quiet and people were getting on with their lives. It was all a bit strange and surreal - and unsettling - but there's not a lot to report. Had to do some extra work yesterday as a result of the riots, but even that was pretty quiet.

So, other stuff...

I'll also be talking about the Tomb of the Cybermen and Tutankhamun with Christopher Frayling and John J Johnston at the free Cybertut event next month. Do come along. There will probably be wine.

And the new issue of Doctor Who Adventures (#230) features another AAAGH comic strip by me. I helped out at at a DWA event at the Doctor Who Experience last week - and got to sneak round the exhibition too. It is cool. There is a Zygon and an Ice Warrior and even, if you look for it, the swimming pool robot from Paradise Towers.

Otherwise, caught up in a bundle-load of writing, which I must get back to...

Thursday, August 04, 2011

AAAGH! - The Romancing of Mrs Tinkle

I've been back at Doctor Who Adventures recently, and written four more AAAGH!s. This one is from #228, which was a Cyberman special.

AAAGH and the Cyberman
Script by me, art by Brian Williamson, edited by Natalie Barnes and Paul Lang - and posted here by kind permission. Next time: Craig the Sea Devil.

Also, I'll be joining the DWA gang at the Doctor Who Experience tomorrow to explain how we make the mag and its comic strips. Do come along.