Do you fantasise about roadside executions when someone fails to indicate?
Find yourself talking back sarcastically to motorway dot matrix signs talking down to you in HUGE LETTERS?
Abandon all hope for humanity whenever you visit the Hobbesian horror of your supermarket car park?
Hate cyclists when you’re driving – and motorists when you’re cycling?
Are you surprised and hurt when your wise advice and running commentary on your friend/partner’s driving isn’t gratefully received?
If so, then Mark Simpson’s Driven Dotty, an acerbic, confessional exploration of the psychopathology of everyday brum-bruming, the strange lusts and loathings that possess us when we get behind the wheel, is for you.
Or perhaps for someone you know, but wish you didn’t.
Driven Dotty is a last hurrah for the human-driven motor car. Before such silliness was abolished by automation and algorithms.
Driven Dotty, a collection of my blog-musings on the madness of motoring, is available on PDF for download for free on the link below – but a donation would be nice. Say a quid? *flashes headlights in acknowledgement, despite Highway Code*
MORRISSEY HAS ALWAYS enjoyed the last laugh. His entire career has been based on it. Back in the 1980s, when he was in his pomp as the pompadoured front man of The Smiths – and loudly rejecting everything the 1980s stood for – Morrissey was asked if he thought that success was a form of revenge. “Absolutely and entirely a form of revenge,” he agreed. But revenge for what? “Well, for everything, on everybody,” he replied. “So now I can just sit back every night – when Minder is finished – and just chuckle, deafeningly.”
Right now he must be chuckling so deafeningly the neighbours are complaining to the council. Wherever it is he lives these days.
His much anticipated, much delayed, much-discussed eponymously titled autobiography is sweet revenge indeed. Has any book in recent memory not actually about wizards provoked so much interest? Before even its existence was certain? Before anyone seems to have read the thing?
Whatever its contents – and your guess is as good as mine – Autobiography is already stamped with Big Mouth’s trademark scorn. The photo on the book jacket (pictured), offering the world his not insubstantial chin. The apparent absence of review copies, ensuring his critics will have to pay to have their ha’pence worth – and everyone and my mother has an opinion on Morrissey.
But the best and biggest joke of all is that it doesn’t matter what they scribble. Or in a way, what he’s written: Morrissey has succeeded in getting Penguin to put his memoirs out as a Penguin Classic. The Bard of Stretford is somewhere between Montaigne and More. Someone who has always been openly obsessed with turning himself into a “living sign” (and the Amazon blurb mentions the word “icon” twice) – is now officially an instant classic. Penguin say so. So there.
A flabbergasted literary world has rushed to remind Morrissey that he just hasn’t earned it yet, baby. But in actual historical fact he already has.
Before he found something much more rewarding to do, the young, lonely Steven Patrick Morrissey wanted nothing so much as to be a writer. From his box bedroom in his mother’s council house in suburban Manchester this autodidact who left school at sixteen typed out screeds to the NME, and pamphlets about his twin obsessions, glam punk band The New York Dolls and James Dean. His mother was a librarian, and he famously quipped later: “I was born in Manchester Central Library. In the crime section.”
But Johnny Marr came calling and Morrissey became one of the most unlikely, most literary of popsters – using pop music as a giant fax machine to tell the world the story of his life: insisting that his lyrics, which often “borrowed” from the writers he admired, be printed on the record sleeves. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if – and part of me hopes – his memoir turns out to be just his collected lyrics, with some hand-drawn titivation in the margins.
And what lyrics! Morrissey is unquestionably the greatest lyricist of desire – and thus of frustration – who ever moaned. If a young Oscar Wilde, another one of Morrissey’s idols, had heard The Smiths he wouldn’t have bothered writing plays. He’d have formed a band.
But part of the drama of Autobiography, part of what makes his book such an event that provokes such curiosity from all sides, is that despite turning it into great art, and becoming a global star, the actual details of Morrissey’s private life have remained resolutely private. Which is a shocking, almost indecent achievement in a culture as sure of its entitlement to know everything as ours is today.
Perhaps it’s just sour grapes on the part of a writer who was never a pop star, but having created this mystique, this cherished iconic status through his art and through his quaint obsession with old skool stardom in an age of mere celebrity, can it, I wonder, survive confession? Can prose compare to bloody poetry? Will he kiss and tell? Will he settle scores? And has Penguin dared to edit him?
But most of all, will he finally say “sorry” for stealing away the hearts of a generation?
Contrary to what the pop songs tell you, the language of love is not universal. It really isn’t the same the world over or even on the same street. Everyone’s love affair is utterly unintelligible to everyone else. It’s perhaps the whole point of having one.
Which can make reading other people’s love letters a baffling if not slightly pointless experience. Katherine Bucknell’s The Animals(Chatto & Windus), a collection of letters between the famous British-born novelist Christopher Isherwood and his lover the American portrait artist Don Bachardy, who lived together openly as a gay couple in Hollywood at a time when most were closeted, isn’t pointless. But love does speak in animal tongues. Cloying Beatrix Potter animal tongues.Ki
Bachardy, who was just eighteen when a 48 year old Isherwood met him on a Santa Monica Beach in 1952, is ‘Kitty’, ‘Fluffcat’, ‘The Fur’, ‘Catkin’, ‘Sweetpaws’, ‘Dearest Darling Puss’, ‘Sweetcat’, ‘Snowpuss’, ‘Angel Lovecat’, ‘Velvetpaws’, ‘Sacred Pinkness’, ‘Sweet Longed-For Flufftail’, ‘Pink Paws’, ‘Beloved Fluffpuss’, ‘Whitewhiskers’, and ‘Claws’ – the latter epithet being perhaps the most salient to this reader of Bachardy’s waspish missives.
Isherwood for his part is ‘Horse’, ‘Drub’, ‘Drubbin’, ‘Rubbin’, ‘Dobbin’, ‘Old Pony’, ‘Dear Treasured Love-Dub’, ‘Slickmuzzle’, ‘Naggin’, ‘Drudgin’, ‘Drubchen’, and ‘Dearnag’. If this seems an unfair distribution of gushy epithets this is because it was meant to be. As Bachardy wrote in a letter dated 6 Feb 1961:
‘The horse Kitty loves has always been an old grey mare, so sweet and dear and never one of those greedy and faithless white stallions. And besides grey is more becoming to Kitty’s white fur. Two white animals would never do.’
The language of love may be unique to each couple, but one rule of sexual syntax everyone understands: there’s only room for one prima donna in one relationship.
Like many gay relationships, Bachardy and Isherwood’s was open though, perhaps understandably given the large age difference, more so on Bachardy’s side. ‘Dobbin’ often encourages ‘Kitty’ to enjoy strange saucers of cream, but is always anxious that Kitty return to his ‘basket’ and the primacy of their relationship not be threatened: ‘Dobbin is only happy if Kitty finds consolation – ONLY NOT TOO MUCH!’ Many of the letters resulted from separation caused by Bachardy’s prolonged dalliances with others abroad, such as the London theatre director Anthony Page.
Isherwood – who had a pronounced fear of the dark and hated being alone at night – attempts to explain and justify their campy, furry archetypes in a letter dated March 11, 1963:
‘I often feel that the Animals are far more than just a nursery joke or a cuteness. They exist. They are like Jung’s myths. They express a kind of freedom and truth which we otherwise wouldn’t have.’
The irony for the reader is that this is stated in a letter, written immediately after a face-to-face row, which dispenses with the Kitty-Dobbin shtick and stands out as perhaps the most direct, heartfelt and unmannered letter in the collection – and one that suggests that much of the time, like many couples, they are not so free or true after all. As Isherwood writes:
‘Oh – I am so saddened and depressed when I get a glimpse, as I do so clearly this morning, of the poker game we play so much of the time, watching each other’s faces and listening to each other’s voices for clues. I was so happy the other day when you said that about Dobbin having been a jailer and now being a convict…. Masochism? Oh, Mary – what do I care what it’s called.’
In her excellent introduction Bucknell does a skilful and brave job of trying to interpret the lovers’ talk for the reader. Apparently Bachardy reminded Isherwood of his younger self – and indeed there was a remarkably strong, possibly slightly disturbing physical similarity. The letters end in 1970, and Isherwood died in 1986, survived by Bachardy.
But thanks to The Animals Isherwood’s devotion lives on. As a typical sign-off from Dobbin put it:
‘Love from a devoted old horse who is waiting day and night with his saddle on, ready for his Kitty’s commands.’
I’m currently devouring Rupert Everett’s delicious second volume of memoirs Vanished Years, straight after finishing the first, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins. Though it should probably be read slowly, reclining on a queen-sized bed in a silk dressing gown and slippers – as if you were eating very expensive, very naughty bitter-sweet chocolate liqueurs.
It’s scandalously funny. Everett writes like a dream, damn him. It’s always so annoying when people who have lived a full life doing something much more useful and lucrative than writing finally turn their hand to it and are apparently effortlessly brilliant.
But it’s his candour not his skill that makes his memoirs so hilarious. He says all sorts of things that he probably definitely shouldn’t, which is what proper memoirs are for of course. And you can tell he gets a big kick out of doing it. When he recounts his last ditch attempt at resuscitating his Stateside career (sent into intensive care by The Next Best Thing) with a TV pilot for an ill-fated sit-com called Mr Ambassador, starring Everett as the UK ambassador to the US and Derek Jacobi as his PCB assistant (an alternative Vicious?), he really lifts the lid on the always-smiling horror of Hollywood and what’s called in showbusiness ‘the process’ – of getting fucked, no vaseline.
You also get a sense that his friendship with female stars like Madonna and Julia Roberts was probably always based somewhat on the appeal of his ridiculously posh and sensationally sharp English tongue. Bitchery always sounds better delivered regally. They enjoyed, I’m sure his hag faggery, but also that exhilaratingly tart honesty. (Apparently either Roberts or Madonna, or both, I can’t remember which, always smell ‘vaguely of sweat’.)
Disarmingly, Everett is most candid about himself. Recounting an early 90s, pre-HAART relationship with a beautiful Italian bodybuilder called Alfio who was also HIV positive he spares himself nothing:
‘During our late-night calls from the station in Turin I began to disengage. I couldn’t, wouldn’t deal with the very real problems that Alfio had. Finally he cracked one night as a train to Viareggio was delayed, and shouted at me down the line. He accused me of playing with him, of being utterly selfish, and finally of being a typical Catholic, all noise and no compassion.
He was right.’
Everett is also painfully candid about his limited acting abilities and his unlikely leading man appearance. In Red Carpets he admits that he’s far too tall, a huge head on a long neck atop no shoulders to speak of, and talks about how, pre LA gym makeover, when he was playing some highly miscast swashbuckling role in the 1980s he had to have some rubber foam bits made to fill out his costume and give him the appearance of shoulders – and an arse. Vanished Years is also movingly honest to the point of morose delectation (a Catholic bad habit) about ageing, loss and death.
His ad for Millicano coffee currently airing on UK TV, in which Everett in a silk dressing gown (looking oddly like Peter York) reads a scathing review of a performance of his, calling for him to retire from acting, very cleverly plays with all these themes and is as much an advert for his memoirs as gritty instant coffee. The punch-line about his ‘flabby bottom’ (at least he has one now, even if it is gravitationally challenged) is funny but also perhaps aimed at gaining sympathy from (a presumed female) target market, mocking as it does Everett’s mortal flesh in the way that women stars are more traditionally used to.
There has been a rather fetching, doomed quality about Everett since his breathtaking performance as a doomed young Guy Burgess figure in Another Country – his first and still his best film. It was a role too perfectly suited to him, and at the height of his strangely compelling youthful beauty. It propelled him into stardom but he never quite got over it.
But then, who would get over spending the night in young Cary Elwes’ punt?
(Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 2001)
How sexy and right wing is the historian Niall Ferguson? It’s no idle question, since sexy right wing historians can gain fame and fortune, that’s to say – money and power – in the modern world.
The first name is a good start, reading as it does like a Celtic battle-cry. And he’s young. In fact, the half-profile picture of him on the inside jacket is rather fetching and flirtatious, in a rugby-playing New Romantic kind of way (dark, round, inviting eyes, but the flattened nose hints at brutality). The title of course is certainly ‘sexus’, while the subtitle, ‘Money and Power in the Modern World’ practically promises pornography. Just in case we miss this, the jacket blurb tells us that money is ‘the sinews of war’ and that the cash nexus ‘is the crucial point where money and power meet.’ (And yes, there are illustrations).
Unfortunately, The Cash Nexus is a terrible tease, and, for the most part, Ferguson turns out to be not nearly sexy and right wing enough for my cash. Alas, you see, he’s too busy being an historian. The ‘crucial point where money and power meet’ turns out to be a sober, painstaking, somewhat frigid history of taxation, national debt and the bond markets. Diligently researched, full of tables and graphs (many of the latter impressively unreadable), balanced and dispassionate, The Cash Nexus is exactly as sexy a book as you would expect to find emerging out of a year spent in the bowels of the Bank of England Library; the vital statistics Fergie’s interested in are unlikely to raise many pulses outside academe and accountancy internet Newsgroups.
This is not to say that Ferguson’s findings, particularly about the crucial role of financial institutions in spreading the huge costs of war (and the crucial role of war in developing financial institutions), aren’t in themselves interesting or important, it’s just that for much of the book they haven’t been martialed into a cohesive argument, or even into particularly muscular prose. This is one of the strengths of the book as a resource, but not as something you might actually want to read. I found myself begging Fergie to say something outrageous, to stick his rhetorical jaw out and lash me with a reactionary soundbite, to wave a whopping great weltanschuang in my face, choke me on the audacity and arrogance of a sweeping generalisation but, except for the occasional mean-spirited kicking of Marxist historians like Eric Hobsbawn and pinko sociologists like Anthony Giddens, it mostly didn’t happen.
Like many British right-wing historians, Ferguson is too busy being besotted with institutions to be really provocative. For Ferguson it is the superiority of British financial, fiscal, and parliamentary institutions – and above all property rights – which guaranteed British hegemony in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, despite the fact that France wielded a much larger population and paper resources than Britain. Britannia, helped by Mr Rothschild, was better able to make efficient use of her resources and revenues and maintain a much higher level of war debt and ultimately grind the Froggies down (producing over three times as many ships). He may well be right, but it’s really too depressing to think that France was defeated not by Hornblower and the jolly jack tar, but by tax collectors and rentiers.
It isn’t until almost at the very end of the book, after a Long (and dusty) March through the Institutions, that Mr Ferguson finally takes off his bifocals, rolls up his shirtsleeves and begins to get seriously sexy and right wing. Taking on the commonly held notion of ‘overstretch’ and the crude economic determinism behind it, in which Empires are thought to fatally weaken themselves and hasten their downfall by excessive military spending to meet their over-extended commitments, he argues – tightly – that in fact understretch is the real problem. Britain, for example, could, he claims, have afforded to spend more on defending the Empire before 1914 and 1939, and he manfully quashes the slack, pinko consensus that it was inevitably doomed, that we couldn’t have afforded to maintain a land army large enough to deter the Bosch.
By the same token he argues strongly against the idea that the Imperial US is now suffering from overstretch. He shows that Reagan’s military build-up of the 1980s was not as costly for the US as is generally thought and that in fact since the late Eighties the proportionate level of US defence spending has been historically low. On the other hand, the USSR probably did suffer from ‘overstretch’, but mostly because economic stagnation, poor institutional development and a failure to access the bond market meant that the arms race cut into production and investment and thence into production again.
Ironically, Emperor George Bush II has promised to increase military spending but also to finally abandon the US’s post-war role as ‘international policeman’ – the missile shield/security blanket being the symbol of this withdrawal. Ferguson castigates this attitude and argues that the problem with the US is that it isn’t imperial enough. It has churlishly refused to take on the responsibilities that Empire requires, in contrast to stalwart Britain in the Nineteenth Century. The US, for example, should lead an expedition against Saddam Hussein to depose him an install a democratic regime loyal to the West.
It’s an admirably explicit, manfully robust argument which Ferguson manages to present as if it is the product of the same cool accounting and dry, dusty logic that has featured in much of the rest of the book. However, I can’t help but feel that this talk of ‘understretch’ and this apparent appetite for war actually emanates from a more emotional, more passionate place – an almost Roman, visceral horror at the lax and louche enervations of decadence.