London Town. There’s always a rush returning to London although, with age, the rush becomes disturbing as well as exhilarating. Our first stop is Holland Park and tea with our landlady Victoria Gray (aka Tory Rothschild). I’ve known Tory since she was a 14 year old schoolgirl at the Perse and I was an 18 year old undergraduate at Trinity. As she and Flavia chat I have a memory flash: it is 1968 and I see Ben Lloyd leaning against the wall in the Bridge Street hostel, groaning with lust as the young Tory slinks down the street in her school uniform.
Our paths have crossed so multiply over the decades that it would need a novelist to disentangle all the threads but the most important by far is that her husband the playwright Simon Gray was the brother of Piers one of my very closest friends. Both now dead. Piers more than 14 years self slaughtered by alchohol, Simon just two years ago from an embolism which struck when he had just received news of a reprieve from cancer. To talk of people “getting over’ death always strikes me as particularly stupid, you never get over the death of someone you love but you do begin to weave their death into your life. I am struck by how well Tory looks as she greets us.
For breakfast the next morning I sally forth into the roar of Holland Park Avenue. I am enjoying the klaxons and the overwhelming exhaust fumes as I munch through a breakfast outside Patisserie Valerie when my reveries are interrupted by a whacko. Ever since they let them out of the asylums some thirty years ago London has become whacko city and handling the mildly insane is a necessary part of every Londoner’s repertoire. I gaze into the middle distance as my upper class ( whackos come in every class) companion pours out the history of his time at business school. Suddenly a direct question “ What do you do?” “It’s a bit early in the morning to tell” “What Club?”. I’m buggered if I going to discuss the Gunners at 8 o’clock in the morning and I gaze into the middle distance. Luckily my friend’s attention is distracted by what looks like another whacko. “What club?” he barks.
Without breaking stride the new addition to our conversational group bellows “White’s” and I realize in retrospect that the question addressed to me had not been about football. “What about the Garrick?” shouts my friend. This brings the perambulating whacko to an abrupt stop and he turns, retraces his step and leaning close to his interrogator hisses “The Garrick is for actors, White’s is for gentlemen”. He then sets off again at a brisk trot before turning on his heel once more and running back to import more information “ White’s is for shits, the Garrick is for degenerates”.
You couldn’t make it up.
London Town. There’s always a rush returning to London although, with age, the rush becomes disturbing as well as exhilarating. Our first stop is Holland Park and tea with our landlady Victoria Gray (aka Tory Rothschild). I’ve known Tory since she was a 14 year old schoolgirl at the Perse and I was an 18 year old undergraduate at Trinity. As she and Flavia chat I have a memory flash: it is 1968 and I see Ben Lloyd leaning against the wall in the Bridge Street hostel, groaning with lust as the young Tory slinks down the street in her school uniform.
When I was producing the phone never stopped. Maybe Christmas Day, but certainly not holidays. Now I sit undisturbed by the phone in the beauty of a Tuscan summer except when one of the children wants money. I thought I might miss the telephone junk, the adrenalin, the talk, the frantic rush for the missed call but I don’t. And then the phone rings with Paula Jalfon from Australia where ahead of the game as usual (this time about 8 hours ahead) she has read that the government has abolished the United Kingdom Film Council. It is no exaggeration to say that institutionally the Film Council was created over my dead body, (and devoted readers of this blog even have a graphic account of my demise) so to say that I was delighted by the news really doesn’t quite get it. According to my family, although I have no recollection of this myself, I did a little victory dance around the table. What is more certain is that the phone then did not stop ringing and that joy was unconfined amongst the righteous. And that I got very pleasantly drunk and determined to celebrate this day each year as “The Day of Total Political Victory”.
I would love to think that my Prospect article of December 2009 (see below for the second time in this blog) was the final nail in the reptilian Woodward’s coffin but my sources indicate that the real killer was when someone who hadn’t had their brain removed by Woodward and his spinners looked at the books and, quite rightly, couldn’t believe their eyes
In November, the UK Film Council issued a consultation document for its future strategy. This came on the heels of a press release in August from the department for culture, media and sport stating its intention to merge the UKFC and the British Film Institute. What both documents actually signalled was the total failure of a key plank in new Labour’s cultural policy.
When the then secretary of state Chris Smith set up the UKFC in 2000 the aim was to create a “sustainable film industry” in Britain. Out would go the world of production companies living hand to mouth making small films, and in would come an industry to rival Hollywood. The national lottery would provide subsidy on a scale to dwarf anything that had gone before. The BFI, a world-class organization, was stripped of its production activities and deemed an “educational” body, although all its innovative educational experiments were abandoned. A new organisation, the UKFC, was established, to provide the strategic vision and investment that would create a gleaming new profitable future.
There were some voices even then—and mine was one of them—who claimed that a sustainable film industry was a fantasy. Moreover, it was a fantasy that had failed to materialise in every decade from Alexander Korda in the 1930s to David Puttnam in the 1970s and 1980s.
Film plays a very different role in Britain, both culturally and industrially, than it does in the United States. For complex historical reasons, both theatre and television occupy a much more dominant position in Britain. In addition, the fact of a shared language with the US makes our industry a branch campus of Hollywood. This means that inevitably the film industry is a hodgepodge of small production companies and big studios that make their living on the margins of the American film and the British television industries.
Until the creation of the UKFC, all the existing forms of subsidy in the British film industry recognised this fact—from the venerable British Film Institute Production Board (which funded very low budget experimental films) to the more recent British Screen (which provided additional monies to commercial films) and the completely new “franchises” scheme, through which lottery money was put directly into production companies.
New Labour appointed John Woodward to make their new institution a reality, and he has run the UKFC ever since as its Chief Executive. Woodward swept away all the existing arrangements and deemed that all subsidy would now flow through this single body. And what subsidy: in less than a decade, the UKFC has spent more than £300m on film (at least five times previous subsidy regimes). But there is still no sign of a sustainable British film industry.
Lest I be thought a neutral judge of this experiment may I note, for the record, that one of Woodward’s first acts was the abolition of the BFI Production Board—which I headed from 1985-89, and whose future I thought I had assured—as well as the abandonment of the graduate school that, as the BFI’s head of research and education from 1989-98, I had thought would ensure the future of the BFI itself. Two decades of work were trashed in a year and without any debate. But that was long ago and faraway, and if Woodward had succeeded in kick-starting a new industry perhaps the game would have been worth the candle.
He didn’t. And while it was inevitable that economic and cultural realities were going to ensure the failure of this new Labour folly, the UKFC could have failed with grace. But it has failed gracelessly. In preparing this article, I have talked to many producers and have been startled by the level of venom I have encountered. For the UKFC’s aggressive commercial strategy, completely at odds with comparable European bodies, has gone hand in hand with the frequent contractual request that they have final cut on a film, overriding both the producer and director. Moreover, as a senior executive of one the most established production companies told me, “it uses the tactics of a Hollywood studio and its monopoly position to bully producers out of decent equity positions.”
It is here that we touch the kernel of the fantasy of the sustainable British film industry. What everyone has dreamed of is a Hollywood studio in Britain, with its boss firing off curt memos with all the brutality and panache of a Jack Warner. But if the failures of Korda and Puttnam were tragedy, Woodward has repeated them as farce. Despite talking the talk of an experienced industry insider, Woodward has never walked the walk. He has neither produced a foot of film, nor raised a pound of finance for a specific film.
Unsurprisingly for the chief of a new Labour institution, Woodward learned his trade as a lobbyist for industry bodies. He is a master spinner and the UKFC expends a considerable amount of energy spinning to the government not on the industry’s but on its own behalf. The Council pours money into genuine events like the Independent awards or the London Film Festival in order to attract sufficient celebrities, whose photos in the paper the next day are shown to officials and ministers as proof that it is doing a magnificent job. More alarmingly, its patronage in effect suppresses dissent. Rod Stoneman, former head of the Irish Film Board, says “nobody will criticize the UKFC publicly because they are convinced that will damage their chances of future funding.”
Of course, the UKFC has done some good. Its one unqualified success, praised by all, has been the tax credit system for the film industry, which it has championed. With so much money, it has also co-financed some great British films, like 2009’s magnificent Fish Tank. But its successes have not matched those of the cash-strapped bodies that preceded it and its failure rate is far worse. It has rolled out a digital screen network that the industry was unwilling to fund, yet it does not have the ambitious distribution policy that would turn this network into a real national resource. It has poured money into training, where the results have been mixed at best. To take one spectacular example, the Film Business Academy, which launched its courses at Cannes in 2007 with much beating of the drums, has decided to ditch those same courses on the basis that they were “neither educationally valid nor commercially sustainable.” When I asked insiders to tell me what the Council does very well, even apologists only became enthusiastic about First Light, a scheme set up in 2001 that has helped the production of over 800 films by “budding young filmmakers.”
One area where Woodward has succeeded is in setting financial records for the quangocracy. A DCMS written reply this summer confirmed that four executives are earning more than a cabinet minister (that is, more than £144,520). Others argue that, if bonuses are included, the figure is actually seven. These figures bear no comparison to salaries in the industry itself: the head of development is on a cool £165,000 a year, at least three times the industry norm. Given these salaries, it is not surprising that the last four year’s accounts show overheads running at a staggering £8m—more than the total government funding for the bodies the UKFC replaced. The accounts also show that these overheads make up 25 per cent of the income that the Council derives from its lottery income. In 2008, for example, the UKFC received £29.7m in direct lottery grants and another £5.7m in recoupment from previous lottery investments. Besides spending £8m on itself, the UKFC put not one penny of its return from films back into film production itself, a feat it has managed every year that it has existed.
Whatever happens, government expenditure is going to have to be slashed in the very near future. Now is the moment to think of reforming in combination with cutting. The Tory leader David Cameron keeps on saying that there is an immense amount of wasteful government expenditure. If he wants to demonstrate that he means business, then having a businesslike look at the UKFC would be an excellent first step. The moment could not be more propitious. The proposed merger of the UKFC and the BFI allows a real review of film policy. Initially it was proposed as a simple takeover of the BFI by the Council, no doubt designed to provide some cover for an institution that has no basis in statute or public political debate. The fact that the BFI has a royal charter—which enshrines its mission to “encourage the development of the arts of film, television and the moving image throughout the UK”—must offer tempting security to UKFC executives fearful that their gravy train might be about to hit the buffers. But, after a decade, the BFI worm has finally turned. With Greg Dyke as its new chair and a board that shows more spirit and intelligence than its predecessors, the BFI has proposed a reversal in which it takes over needlessly duplicated functions from the Council, such as education.
One further activity must be taken over by the BFI. At the moment, the UKFC acts as the research body on which the government relies for its industry statistics. But the statistics we see tend to reflect rather too well on the Council. The most egregious example was the much touted claim that 15 per cent of films seen on world screens last year were British. No breakdown of this figure was given, making it impossible to distinguish between Hollywood studio pictures made in this country, like the Harry Potter films, and those films actually made by British independents. No government can make policy on such misleading statistics. It is, of course, the case that British actors, in particular, and talent in general continue to attract Hollywood. This is a delight and has been true since Charlie Chaplin; it owes little or nothing to the Council.
Shorn of these superfluous functions, the UKFC could finally focus on how best to fund films. The key figure here will be Tim Bevan, its newly appointed chair. Unlike his predecessors, Bevan is a producer. Indeed he is not only the most successful producer of his generation but also, arguably, the most successful British producer of all time. Twice nominated for Oscars and with many of his films having set box office records, his nearly 100 film credits include My Beautiful Laundrette, Four Weddings and a Funeral, United 93, Elizabeth, Shaun of the Dead and the Bridget Jones films. Throughout the 1980s, before his company Working Title signed up first with Polygram and then with Universal, Bevan worked as one of those small producers who have been so downtrodden and patronised by the UKFC in this decade. His hand can be seen in the new consultation on the UKFC’s future. From now on, producers are guaranteed favourable equity positions; now, too, all film revenue will go back into production.
But Bevan has two problems. The first is his Chief Executive, Woodward, whose credibility may be undermined if he has to mouth policies that contradict everything he has said and done in the past ten years. The second is that Bevan has publicly expressed belief in the failed model of the Council itself. How long his belief in a publicly funded monopoly will last is anybody’s guess. The consultation certainly understands that there is a problem, promising a plurality of “gatekeepers” for the public funds on offer. But such promises mean little if these gatekeepers are all within the same institution. The real question is whether the money should be distributed through franchises or whether we should revert to previously successful models. It remains to be seen whether Bevan will crown his career as a producer by devising a new and lasting settlement for the public finance of film.
Back again to Cambridge for the Keywords project meeting. Some weeks earlier Stephen had told me that Frank Kermode has terminal cancer. I told Stephen that if Frank wanted to see me I would be pleased, but that I did not want to impose and that I would not be in any way offended if he did not. I was surprised at how delighted I was when word came back that he did want to see me and how pleased I was to see him when he opened the door to his apartment. He was also visibly pleased to see me and our clumsy half embarrassed American clinch turned into a half embarrassed English kiss. When I first met him 37 years ago, Frank looked rather old for his age; to my eyes he hasn’t aged at all and doesn’t look ill. We talk with Stephen and his daughter Deborah for more than an hour. Happy talk and I say I will come and see him again in the autumn. Little more than a month later Stephen rings me in Italy to tell me he is dead. This is what I wrote about him
In early 1974, as a young research student at Cambridge, I applied for a Research Fellowship at Emmanuel College. I had just returned from a year studying at the Ecole Normale Supérieure where I had worked with the philosophers Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida. I had also sampled Parisian intellectual life to the full: attending the huge operatic lectures of Jacques Lacan and a small intimate class with Roland Barthes. I did not have great hopes of being successful in my application for a highly competitive and privileged position, as the thinkers I was using in my study of Joyce were then barely known in the English speaking world. To my surprise and delight I was elected a Fellow of Emmanuel and my career was given a turbojet start. My surprise was diminished and my delight increased when I learnt that Emmanuel had asked Frank Kermode to evaluate my work. For Kermode then bestrode the world of English literary criticism like a Colossus.
An only child born into a poor family on the Isle of Man located 80 mikes from the mainland, Kermode harboured an eternal feeling of being an outsider but in his time as a lecturer at Reading University he quickly established himself as a leading critic and scholar. Above all he found an intellectual home in the Warburg Institute in London. The Warburg was founded in 1933 when the great library that Aby Warburg had collected was shipped from Germany to escape Hitler. The library had been constituted around the ways in which the canon of classical antiquity, the great texts from Homer to Virgil, from Plato to Cicero, had been interpreted and reinterpreted in the European Renaissance. This focus on the afterlife (nachleben) of texts was Kermode’s abiding intellectual concern.
It was on the resources of the Warburg that Kermode drew for his first great work published in 1954: an Arden edition of The Tempest that made the play a contribution to the European debate about the nature of the “savage men” who had been discovered in the New World. This placing of Shakespeare within these debates is now commonplace but it was then revolutionary and Kermode immediately distinguished himself as the leading scholar of his generation.
The deep influence of Warburg also meant that Kermode had no attachment to the fixed meaning of texts and that he was remarkably open in the late sixties to the thought of Barthes and Derrida with their emphasis on the instability of meaning. By the early seventies Kermode had established himself as the leading literary critic in the country, particularly with his magnificent. The Sense of an Ending and it was inevitable that he would be offered the Regius Professorship at Cambridge when L.C. Knights retired.
Thus Kermode’s arrival at Cambridge as the senior professor coincided with my starting my professional career as a young Research Fellow. It is impossible to convey to anybody outside the rather insular world of Cambridge English what an exciting moment this was. I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis had made Cambridge the preeminent English School through the middle decades of the twentieth century. But by the early seventies it was desperately in need of rejuvenation both in terms of range – to include above all the study of film – and in terms of method – to use the vast new resources being opened up by linguistics and anthropology. Kermode’s arrival meant that a host of the most promising young teachers there ranging from Jeremy Prynne through Gillian Beer and John Barrell to Stephen Heath saw Kermode as the man who might, with Raymond Williams, lead the Faculty into a new settlement between the canon and popular culture, between the ethical judgment of texts and the interests of new theory.
But these efforts foundered and instead Kermode found himself the target of the superannuated Leavisites who had been rendered intellectually irrelevant and professionally redundant by the developments of the sixties and seventies. Kermode became for them the focus of all their hate and ressentiment. A scholar, a London man of letters interested in theory were already sins enough, but Kermode was also a Fellow of King’s, the college which Leavis had identified as marked with the sign of the beast.
By now I had obtained a junior lectureship in the Faculty of English and I had moved from Emmanuel to become a teaching Fellow at King’s, the college that Kermode had chosen when he came to Cambridge. Unlike Kermode who was astonished at the seething caldron of emotions that he discovered in the English Faculty, I had been raised in the purple of that rancourous institution. Even so I was astonished by the level of hatred that Kermode attracted. His comments in Faculty meetings, and this from the most mild mannered and kindly of men, were booed and hissed in ways more appropriate to the most venomous of political meetings. Kermode minded all this intensely but he worked away producing in The Classic a definitive rejection of Barthes’s oversimplistic characterization of classic and modern and in The Genesis of Secrecy a theory of how interpretive traditions are formed and how they are always necessarily exclusive. But then in 1981 Cambridge exploded. I had come up for tenure and in an extraordinary process that stretched over six or seven meetings, lasting as many hours and with many moments of melodrama including an ambulance call to ferry out a faculty member who had collapsed from exhaustion and emotion, I was denied tenure. Within the traditions of the English Faculty I should have withdrawn to my Fellowship in King’s College and waited the 5 or 10 years before I was finally appointed to a tenured appointment in the faculty. That was what Leavis, and others, had done. I had no such intention. The collapse of the hopes of the mid-seventies meant that I had no desire to marinate in the hatreds of Cambridge and besides if in l974 I had had only one ambition which was to become a Cambridge English don, by 1981 I had conceived another burning ambition – to produce films. I was thus happy to let my supporters make the row public by calling for a debate that asked the University, in effect, to suspend the English Faculty. When I agreed to my supporters’ demands, I thought I was ending my career as a university teacher. But the incredible stupidity of my opponents, a slow month in the newspapers and the way in which my fate played into a more general debate between ancient and modern in the study of English meant that I became a media event and the “MacCabe Affair” enabled me to leave Cambridge trailing clouds of glory and an over inflated reputation.
But in fact it had been a “Kermode affair” and it was Kermode who had always been the principal target. The resentful mob which booed and bayed Kermode had found a leader in Christopher Ricks, whom Kermode had counted a friend. Ricks had arrived at Cambridge in the same year as Kermode and might have been expected to revel in being in a Faculty of all the talents. However I have never met a man so ill at ease in his own skin and who oozed jealousy and envy at every pore. In particular he seemed seized by an almost pathological hatred of Kermode’s superiority as a scholar and critic. To say that all this affected Kermode is to understate. An only child from a deprived and isolated background, he was very sensitive to social slight and rudeness. He resigned his chair in a period that was clearly the most unhappy of his life. Indeed our own friendly relations became somewhat strained. He wrote me several letters of great unhappiness in which it was clear that he wished I had not made the affair public and his own life unbearable. But he solved his problem by resigning his chair in the English Faculty and although he remained a Fellow of his much loved King’s, he abandoned the English Faculty to its insular fate.
But the mind kept working. By 1988 in History and Value he produced what is to my mind the single greatest contribution to literary theory in English. One half of this work investigates with astonishing subtlety and grace what it is to try to understand that most complex of intellectual constructions of a period, and the other makes an unanswerable argument for the importance of the canon which, while perpetually open to revision, is an absolutely necessary search engine if we do not want to simply to be overwhelmed by the infinite library of the past.
Kermode’s erudition and astonishing analytic skills were always elaborated in a prose style as graceful as it was powerful and this writing was used to great effect in his memoir Not Entitled which among other things will certainly come to be counted, with Brian Aldiss and George MacDonald Fraser, as one of the great memoirs of the Second World War.
Many obituaries have talked of Kermode as the greatest critic since Leavis. However, no one but the scholars will read Leavis’s rebarbative and angry prose in the future. You have to go back to Arnold or Coleridge to find an English critic with whom you can class Kermode. But Kermode was not simply an English critic. He was as at home in Harvard or Columbia as he was in Cambridge or London. And in America his most immediate and obvious predecessor is Lionel Trilling with behind him the figure of T.S. Eliot.
In the last twenty years of his life Kermode wrote many of his most powerful essays against the developments of the theory that he had championed in the seventies. What had been exciting and new then had become the most disastrous academic orthodoxies which astonishingly persuaded many university teachers of English that their pedagogic task was to teach their students to hate literature. Such beliefs could only flourish by ignoring the world outside the university completely. In this period and particularly following the death of our close friend Tony Tanner, Kermode and I were reconciled and when we met we would always enjoy some bitter laughter at the latest excesses of the theoretical Taliban. We shared a particular loathing for Stephen Greenblatt’s egocentric biography of Shakespeare. I was particularly pleased when Kermode contributed a review of Brian Cox’s poetry to the 50th anniversary issue of CQ. Kermode was a courteous and kindly man but to say that he had a melancholic view of the world is to understate. Tony Tanner’s nickname from him was Eeyore, after the donkey in the Pooh books, and it has to be said, like many of Tanner’s insights, it was as accurate as it was amusing.
When I went to say goodbye to him in June we even managed the sort of clumsy kiss that is as close as Englishmen can get to an expression of emotion. But much of the conversation was taken up with Kermode’s astonishment that his great friend Wynne Godley had received in his ample obituaries, what in Frank’s view was vastly overstated praise for his abilities as an economist. Hoping to get the conversation onto more positive ground I introduced the topic of Tony Tanner’s Collected Prefaces to Shakespeare which Harvard University Press had finally bought out with an encomium by Frank on the back cover. Frank rather reluctantly conceded that there were good things to be found in the book but deplored those “all boys together” bits of the book which he estimated at about a third. Even more surprising, and here he warmed to his theme, the superlative review in the New York Times had particularly praised those elements. Astonishing. One thing you could say about Frank is that he was just as hard on himself as others. I introduced a discussion of The Classic, a book I had just taught and marveled once again at its command of the theme of empire in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Frank looked mildly disgusted “ Not a very good book” he opined. I was desperate to tell Frank how much I had learned from him and how my admiration for his writings had increased in the decades since I left Cambridge. I made a final try with praise for History and Value. Frank relented a little “ A bit better than The Classic”.
But it was a happy meeting. Kermode was being looked after by his daughter Deborah and their evident affection for each other was more than touching. He also took great solace from the presence of Stephen Heath, his only real friend from the days of Cambridge English and the only person who I heard him talk about or treat as his intellectual heir. He had obviously achieved the necessary acceptance of his approaching death
Kermode’s enduring importance as a model is that he was always committed to both the most complex ideas and the necessity to make that complexity available to a wider public. And a man, whose emotional life was extraordinarily complicated, knew one simple and enduring love: literature. He devoted his life to aiding others to share that love. In this he was successful and, if the young students I teach are any guide, he is going to be even more successful in the generations to come. For there is a tide in the affairs of men and Kermode has died at the very moment when the promising research students in English are desperate to find again the virtues which he always championed: to use the most advanced thought and the most rigourous scholarship to render more approachable and enjoyable the greatest works of literature.
All examiners meetings are a little formal. If you were to take a rigourously functional view of the proceedings, this is because certificating is really all that teachers do, so as examining is what really guarantees us our salaries we take it very seriously. More charitably a little formality is essential for a moment at which potentially life changing decisions are made. I am touched by the expressions of gratitude both by Zyg Baranski, the director of the course, and Martin Ruehl the Chair of Examiners. They are partly a ritual formality but they make me feel that I have contributed to the launch of this new degree.
Afterwards we lunch very pleasurably. I knew that Zyg was a world expert on Dante but I didn’t realise that he was a Manchester United fan so dedicated that he had, on occasion, flown back from Australia to catch a game at Old Trafford. It is always a great pleasure for me to see David Trotter who was one of the driving forces behind this new degree. I have known him since we were both Research Fellows at Cambridge. His work is always of interest mixing incredibly wide ranging scholarship with pertinent and incisive comment. At the end of the lunch I am given DVDs of Dreyer and Murnau. A good day’s work
To Cambridge for my fourth and final year external examining their new Masters degree in film. Cambridge in Midsummer is beautiful as it was when I first saw it when I came for interview in September 1966. From that first sight I had only one ambition: to be a Cambridge don. I lunch in Emmanuel where I achieved that ambition in l974. Barry Windeatt is my host, Derek Brewer’s successor both in college and university, and I enjoy returning to the college where I knew only happy times and the birth of two children.
Afterwards I walk down to Trinity where I was a student and then back along the river to King’s where I became a Fellow when I was appointed to a Faculty job in l976. I look up to H staircase in the Gibbs building where I worked so hard teaching myself linguistics and the history of the language one week ahead of my lectures. For 12 years Cambridge was an endless intellectual feast but when in l979 I took stock in Paris on sabbatical with Black Dog at my throat, I knew that I had to leave. I had learned all that I could and the intellectual and political projects that had legitimated my earlier ambition were bankrupt. I often wonder if Cambridge’s last and most precious gift was to make me leave. Could I have made the break from so comfortable a world without the spur of the English Faculty’s decision not to upgrade me to full lecturer? It is true that the option of staying on as a Fellow of King’s did not appeal. I was personally touched when Bernard Williams assured me the college would keep me on for a further year and I knew that the college teaching fellows, David Simpson and Norman Bryson were both on the verge of leaving for the States, so lifetime employment beckoned. Mentally, however, I had already left. My last two years, when I returned from Paris, were the first that I did not follow courses in logic or linguistics and even my conversations with Bob Rowthorn on economics did not compel as they once had. And there was an increasing feeling that I had missed the boat, that my contemporaries in London were now learning much more valuable lessons.
But if it was easy to leave intellectually, emotionally I was sick with passion. When I first went back to give a lecture two years after I had left, I understood why nostalgia started life as a term for a disease that could be fatal. If Cambridge did not haunt my thoughts in Glasgow, London or Pittsburgh, every return was raw. Over the years the pain of returning lessened but it was a full twenty five years before it finally evaporated
Whether it was simply time or whether official appointment as an external examiner worked some symbolic magic, but it was in autumn 2007 that I experienced balance. Cambridge in the summer sun is attractive enough but it is the time of undergraduate parties and vacation. The real Cambridge is the Cambridge of bitter cold winter and intense learning. Walking down Trinity Lane with the beauty of a Cambridge night sky spread above me, past and present aligned. All the pleasures of the time when Cambridge treated me like a prince of the blood surged through me with no regret that those pleasures came to an end. Now visiting Cambridge is a simple joy.
Another Cannes. Like last year the numbers are down, which is pleasant. But the films are nowhere near as good. Last year we watched masterpiece after masterpiece. This year even Ken Loach turns in a terrible dud with Route Irish, a film about mercenaries in Iraq with a convoluted and implausible plot and the unsurprising message that mercenaries are both brutalizing and brutalized. A rare high point is Xavier Beauvois’s Of men and Gods which is set in a Cistercian priory in Algeria in the mid-nineties as the full scale civil war between fundamentalists and the government becomes ever more savage. The fundamentalists warn the monks that they must leave, their neighboring villagers beg them to stay. The action is slow and deliberate as the monks debate what they should do, but the pace pays off in a final deliberation which is deeply moving.
Unlike last year I do have some minimal work to do. The London Consortium is starting a Master’s in Curating in partnership with the London Film School and we are launching the degree at Cannes. However, by and large I spend all my time watching films. At night I read myself to sleep with histories of the British Empire preparing for the conferences that will end the AHRC project. My dreams are full of blood and dead men.
Last year I got Filipa Cesar down to encourage her to join the world of film. This year she is down on her own steam with a great project and rushing from meeting to meeting. In principle I’m delighted, the downside is I find myself spending the three days of her visit as a reliable assistant, finding contact numbers and printing scripts. No good deed goes unpunished.
One of the pleasures of Cannes is that if you get fed up with the offerings of contemporary cinema, there is always plenty of the greatest films of the past on show. This year the centerpiece is Visconti’s The Leopard. I’m not Visconti’s greatest fan. The word operatic is well applied to him and a screening of Senso at Lyons earlier this year left me impressed but cold. The Leopard is different. The astonishing beauty of Delon and Cardinale; the startling performance of Lancaster as the Prince; the power of Lampedusa’s story, all this adds up to one of the greatest of films as a historical era and a man’s life wane in concert. Miraculously Delon and Cardinale ,50 years older and the last survivors of the cast and crew, are there to introduce the film, Delon still shockingly beautiful at 80, Cardinale as full of giggles as a young girl. Time passes both on screen and on stage.
The last film I see before I leave is Apitchapong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee who can recall his previous lives. The opening shots are of a water buffalo slipping its halter to wander into a forest from which its owner then retrieves it. The beauty of the images are immediately overwhelming as one enters into a world where the distinction between animal and human, living and dead begin to lose their significance. Uncle Boonmee has come to the country to die and amongst those who gather to witness his passing are his dead wife and a son who has become a spectacularly hairy monkey. No description of the film can sound anything but ludicrous ( particularly an unbelievably touching scene when a catfish and a princess make love) , but watching it is not a ludicrous but uplifting process. Its images star with me over the nect two days, long enough for me to be overjoyed to learn that it is has won the Palme d’Or. To my knowledge the most avant-garde film ever to have won Cannes but a great choice in a poor year. Perhaps not surprising as all that if you remember that President of the jury Tim Burton made Big Fish.
I have come back to a Britain in full election swing. It’s one thing to read on the bottom of page 6 of the New York Times that Cleggmania is sweeping Britain, it is another to come back to a country in which that overgrown public schoolboy is treated as a grown up. I have cast a postal vote for the Liberal Democrats. There is no Cleggmania in this vote but I hate New Labour from the bottom of my heart and I cannot vote Conservative. I have hoped for a hung parliament for the last three elections, this time I vote for one. During the day I feel unexpectedly sad that I have not been able to join my tribe. This is not any weakening in my feelings about New Labour – indeed my contempt for Gordon Brown has increased as his final speeches have bellowed beliefs that he has betrayed everyday for the last fifteen years. But Labour is my tribe and elections are tribal gatherings.
I think all day of my father for whom election nights were the high points of his life but I decide at my age I must be in bed by two at the very latest. I finally get to bed at six. A minority Conservative government and an election in six months. And another marker of my own insignificance. I was not the only ageing left intellectual to have voted LibDem – the vast majority of my friends have made the same decision. Even so, we would appear to have had no impact, the Lib Dem breakthrough has not happened. Although, on reflection, electoral politics make it very difficult to determine impact. The Lib Dem vote held up in the closest election for thirty years.
The bitterest of winters has been transformed into the most beautiful spring. I drive down to Washington through the Laurel Mountains and Maryland in bloom and bud, interrupted by the half mile interchange between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the interstate 70 – a purgatory of strip development and indigestible food. When first in the States I would see Christopher Hitchens three or four times a term – in New York, in Pittsburgh, in Washington. Now I travel less and his speaking fees are more than Pittsburgh can afford. But each spring I drive down to Washington or fly to Stanford. I arrive to find Christopher, and Carol his wife, sitting in what used to be Christopher’s office but which now looks like a lumber room or rather the set for a particularly despairing Beckett play. It only becomes clear slowly that they are sitting in this scene of bleak desolation rather than their delightful apartment next door because they have taken up smoking again. Ravaged by self-punishment they have banished themselves to what will soon be a remodeled dwelling but is currently a dump.
I go out shopping with Laura Antonia, my goddaughter, who has a sharp eye on the world. We talk mainly of university, to which she must apply soon, and I am struck by how much she knows about the various American schools. It also strikes me , as I sing the praises of Pittsburgh, that the most crucial thing about any university, your cohort, is inevitably unknown when you apply. We also talk about Cannes, to which I have , since she was a little girl, promised her a visit. It seems clear that next May , as she approaches high school graduation will offer a window of opportunity.
Christopher is one of the great talkers and I have often sat up all night listening to him but it is not only age that ensures an early bed. For Christopher has advance copies of his memoir. Despite the unpromising title, Hitch 22, I am keen to read it even when I have established that my own appearance in it is distressingly brief. I am pondering my own memoir and wonder how Christopher manages this very dangerous genre. The opening chapters are both extraordinarily well written and very moving as he remembers his parents. However, if I thought it might be a bit difficult to make the politics of the sixties and seventies interesting, then my suspicions are confirmed. Indeed it is in this rather drear section, in Portugal in 1975, that I make my walk on appearance in the saga . The Socialist Party rally where Christopher remembers me voicing grim foreboding about the Stalinism of the Portuguese Communist Party is memorable to me for another reason as well. When I graduated from Cambridge in 1971 I went and worked for BBC Radio Birmingham as a journalist. Although I had returned to Cambridge for a dissertation on Joyce, I had continued to do some free-lancing and still then thought of journalism as an alternative career. Indeed I was in Portugal as a correspondent for the Morning Star, the paper of the British Communist party. There was violence in the air that spring in Lisbon as there had been an attempted counter coup the month before. The rally in a bull ring was an extraordinary event not least because it was a deliberate show of muscle by the Socialists against the Communists. To say I was overwhelmed does not capture the state of fearful paralysis that gripped me. As Mario Soares’s speech ended, Christopher leapt from the box we were in to the box from which Soares was speaking ignoring both the terrifying drop and the heavies gathered around Soares in order to get the leader of the Portuguse Socialist Party to answer a couple of pertinent questions. It was at that moment that I realized that ,I lacked the requisite courage to be a journalist. Ten years later the opening sequence of The Killing Fields provided me with the simplest image of what Christopher had and I lacked. A group of Europeans are sitting around the table when a bomb goes half – half the table flees from the explosion, the other half, the journalists, run towards it.
Indeed that is what I learn from the memoir, something I already know – that Christopher is completely fearless.
However if British politics in the seventies seems as dull as I remember it, Christopher’s account of his literary London in the same period is even duller. In one extraordinary section he compares his world with Bloomsbury but leaving aside Woolf, Forster, Keynes and suchlike comparisons, the whole point of Bloomsbury was that for the first time men and women mingled in intellectual discussion. The Friday lunch where everybody sat around laughing themselves silly over what happened when you added “in bed” to your Chinese motto sounds like the last gasp of the gentleman’s club.
Jennifer Keating, a former student of mine asked me some nine months ago to make up a panel at the NEMLA in Montreal. I’m very fond of Jen, I’ve never been to Montreal and Denis’s daughter Laura is starting as undergraduate at McGill. What could be more pleasant than a weekend in Montreal. Nine months later I stand freezing waiting for the airport flyer cursing the fact that a) the temperature has dropped 40 in the last four hours and I am dressed for summer b) that it will take six hours and a layover to fly the short distance to Montreal thanks to the fact we are no longer a hub airport and c) that I have been fooled by the young temptress Keating into participating in a panel on pedagogy ( perish the word as well as the thought).
One of the reasons I agreed to the request was that I had written a short paper for an internal department seminar. On re-reading I wonder how suitable it is for public consumption as it deliberately challenges a whole number of idees recus in a way that is easy enough when you know all the people you’re talking to but may well go down very badly with a crowd of strangers. To my surprise it is very well received and I wonder if perhaps the appalling weight of political correctness is finally lifting.
In the evening Laura and I go to the Montreal- Toronto hockey game ( a sort of re-run of the Seven Year’s War). Suddenly the visit to Montreal seems to have been a very good idea.
The short paper was entitled On Certitude:
The original request to talk about certitude and secularity in the classroom came with reference to difficulties experienced by some teachers with students who are fundamentalist Christians, I confess that these are not problems that I have encountered very often and I deal with them by asking of the student at what church they pray. My next question is for them to describe to me the history which links that church to the one established by Paul in the first century of the common era. This discussion raises enough questions about texts, and their transmission through institutions, for most pedagogic purposes that I can imagine. I confess that my slightly mischievous argument comes from that least mischievous of divines Richard Hooker who when confronted with those tiresome Puritan preachers who went on about the direct relation to the deity guaranteed by the sacred Scriptures, asked the Puritans what agency divided the canonical books of Scripture from those apochryphal texts which offered no access to the divine. The answer is of course a human institution – a Church.
But the question of certitude in the classroom has bothered me considerably since I first arrived in America and heard people state unselfconsciously and unironically that “my politics is my teaching”. This concern has been exacerbated by overhearing students talk of authoritarian feminists and bullying Marxists. Of course, there is one sense in which teaching is obviously political. Some of the most beautiful passages that I know on the role of the teacher come from Andre Bazin where he talks of the teacher in relation to his community as the most conservative and the most radical of figures. Conservative because it is the teacher’s duty to preserve and continue the most ancient of traditions, radical because those traditions must be brought into continuous dialogue and opposition with the most modern developments within society, developments against which many of those traditions must break.. But Bazin is there talking about the political form of teaching, he is certainly not talking about a political content.
John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, a book which he wrote with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill and which he tells us in his dedication to the book “belongs as much to her as to me’ says that “ Truth gains more even by the errors of one who , with due study and preparation , thinks for himself than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think. Not that it is solely, or chiefly to form great thinkers that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much and even more indispensable to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of.. There have been , and may again be, great individual thinkers in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere an intellectually active people “ (pp.33-34)
I fear that this general atmosphere of mental slavery is currently very widespread in the universities and I want to take two examples where it seems to me to hold back not simply thought but the possibility of thought that might help to improve the world. The first is the question of the difference between the sexes. I want to advance the argument that the physiological difference between the sexes and, perhaps more importantly, the genetic differences which are the grounds of those physiological differences make it initially plausible that there are essential differences between men and women at the sociological and psychological level. I want to advance that argument, not because I know it to be true, but because it is an argument which I have never heard advanced by any serious scholar in the humanities or social sciences in the last 40 years. Mill argues that it is impossible unless you have thrown yourself into a position of those who think differently from you to know the doctrine which you yourself profess. It seems to be that much of the discussion of sexual difference suffers from an almost total ignorance of the features of physiological and genetic thinking which should be an essential component of any argument about sexual difference.
In l965 Daniel Moynihan published a report entitled the case for national action in which he argued that many of the problems confronting African Americans stemmed from systemic failure in the black family and particularly of the failure of black fathers. I first became aware of this report when I arrived in the United States in the early eighties to realize that the problem of race was of a different order to any that I had experienced in Europe. I was also made aware that in university circles to refer to the Moynihan report was already to label oneself racist and that to assume that Moynihan’s report had anything to contribute to the subject of race was to rule oneself out of any discussion. Much as in the previous case, independently of its final correctness, it is absolutely essential to consider Moynihan’s arguments in relation to a problem which has in many ways got no better in the intervening 40 years and to which Moynihan’s analyses are arguably more pertinent now than they were then.
I have taken these two examples of where the problem of certitude comes not from the students but from the university but I think they have some relation to the problem of fundamentalism. By abandoning the search for truth in favour of the most mealy mouthed intellectual consensus, the university has offered no model of reflection on the relation between individual death and species life which underpins all religion. Born-again, as an adjective, is a term which only dates back to l961 and while as a Marxist one can only congratulate George Bush and his co-believers on their immanent critique of capitalism ( the first time round obviously wasn’t good enough), the modern phenomenon of fundamentalist Christianity relates, amongst other things, to the current inability of traditional liberalism and humanism to confront and analyse its own incertitude.
Frederique has brought me a present of Antoine de Baecque’s monumental biography of Godard. Monumental because its 900 pages contains no bibliography, the scantest of filmographies and is printed in particularly small type. I calculate that it must be at least 400,000 words long; more than three times my own not inconsiderable tome. De Baecque was a good friend to me when I was writing my own biography in Paris and I went more than once to the Liberation offices, where he was then editing the cultural pages, for his advice. Even more invaluable were his books – both the Truffaut biography that he wrote with Serge Toubiana but best of all the first volume of his two volume history of Cahiers du cinema. I say “I think’ because to call de Baecque prolific is to understate the matter. A historian by trade he has penned substantial academic works of history as well as many volumes on the cinema. When I saw him at Liberation he was not only editing Liberation’s cultural pages but also writing a history of French cinephilia. When I asked him how on earth he did it, he said that any day he didn’t write a few thousand words “je ne me sens pas propre” Well he must have been feeling pretty clean the last three years as he powered through this biography. The book is full of detail but slightly disappointing. Whether the two previous biographies (mine and Richard Brody’s) had done too good a job, or whether de Baecque is just discreet, there is little really new information – no new topics, no further insights into the most important relationships. But there is plenty of detail; detail piled upon detail. Most interesting to me are the pages on the offices of Godard’s production company in the early to mid sixties and one gets a real flavour of Godard at the height of his worldly success which is not available elsewhere.
My first real shock comes when I make a small appearance myself as Godard is preparing to relaunch himself into cinema after a ten year’s absence in 1979.
It was then that I was asked by the BFI to edit a small pamphlet that would bring together articles on Godard’s then practically unknown post 68 work. Godard has shunned any media spotlight for more than ten years but I hoped that I might get an interview to go with the essays. I talked to Simon Hartog who knew Godard from Mozambique and he told me that if I wanted Godard’s attention I should go armed with a cheque. By great good fortune another part of the BFI wanted to acquire the British rights to Godard’s television work and so I traveled with a contract and a $2,000 cheque in my pocket. My meeting with Godard was at the train station in Nyon and the business was concluded in an incredibly brief three minutes. I then stammered out something incoherent about a book. To my surprise his response was a question “is it a proper book?” “Yes” I lied “If it is a proper book then you can come to my offices, I will give you your interview and you can come to the set of the film I am about to shoot”. To say I was dumbfounded is to understate. Here was the reclusive Godard welcoming inquiry and attention. Within 24 hours, and almost as many phone calls, I had a proper book contract and I spent most of the next year writing a book Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics which was published to coincide with the UK premiere of Sauve qui peut in the autumn of 1980. What became clear to me as I wrote the book and saw the film take shape was that Godard’s surprising response had been part and parcel of his decision to return to the cinema that meant also a return to the world of publicity and promotion. It wasn’t however, until more than two decades later when I was finishing my own biography that I understood how much energy Godard had put into the launch of the film and how unsurprising was his reaction to the possibility of a proper book to tie in with the release of the film.
De Baecque’s version of this has Simon Hartog as the director of the BFI (he never worked for it) sending me as an employee (something I only became much later) to write a book that I never finished in time (he obviously doesn’t realize that I wrote two books on Godard). These factual errors surprised but did not upset me although I should say that my scholarly amour propre is shocked that de Baecque did not know about my first book on Godard. But I was deeply upset when he quotes me as saying that Godard had “manipulated” me. This was not what I felt at the time nor subsequently. My dealings with Godard were always straightforward and he was both generous and helpful to me on numerous occasions. I am surprised at how strongly I feel about these minor errors but fortunately de Baecque e-mails the same night that I finish his book so rather than letting resentment smolder, I tell him how upset I am. He says he merely wanted to show how I was caught up in a wider strategy, something I have no quarrel with and indeed had set out in my own biography. There seems little point in continuing the argument but I am surprised how much I mind.