Archives for category: Literature

Norman Mailer claimed he was “imprisoned with a vision” which would “settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.”  Unfortunately for Mailer, he was far too good a writer to ever do that.

The writers who have achieved  such a “revolution” have always produced poorly written and unrelentingly dull books.  Marx and Hitler may have changed history, but ‘Das Kapital’ and ‘Mein Kampf’ will never be page turners, let alone literature.

As for Mailer, he wrote over 40 books, a dozen of which are important works of literature.  No small feat when considering how often Mailer was reckless with his talents. Now Joseph Mantegna has directed a documentary film, called ‘Norman Mailer: The American‘, which examines the life of the great novelist, journalist, film director, and actor and promises to reveal the man behind these multiple lives, with unseen footage, and interviews from his wives, his children, his lovers, his enemies.

When Martin Amis unflatteringly compared Mailer and his legacy to the ruins of Ozymandias‘ two vast and trunkless legs of stone, languishing in the desert, Amis failed to appreciate how Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s poem had made the great King immortal.  Mailer’s life and books don’t need a Shelley, but it’s certainly about time someone assessed the great man’s life and work, and thankfully it looks like Joseph Mantegna has stepped up to the plate.


James Kennaway was a brilliant, talented writer, whose career spanned best-selling novels, block-busting screenplays and Oscar-winning movies.   More than forty-odd years after his death, he remains one of Scotland’s most enigmatic and unacknowledged literary heroes.

Born in Aucherarder, Perth, in 1928, Kennaway first came to prominence with his 1956 novel ‘Tunes of Glory‘.  An instant critical and popular success, it was made into a powerful film with Alec Guinness and John Mills in 1960.

In 1962, Kennaway adapted another of his novels for the superior psychological thriller ‘The Mindbenders‘, starring Dirk Bogarde (who was just at that cross-over point in his career, from “cheesecake” to serious actor), Mary Ure, and Wendy Craig.  Later in the decade, another of Kennaway’s novel, ‘Household Ghosts’ about an incestuous relationship between brother and sister, received the big screen treatment starring Peter O’Toole and Susannah York in 1969.

Kennaway’s other books include ‘The Cost of Living Like This’, ‘Some Gorgeous Accident’ (the last published during his lifetime), and the filmic and beautiful novella, ‘Silence’.

Kennaway was an Oscar nominated screenwriter (‘Tunes of Glory‘) who also wrote the screenplays for ‘Violent Playground‘ starring Peter Cushing, David McCallum and Stanley Baker, as well as a successful adaptation of Morris West’s ‘The Shoes of the Fisherman’ and Len Deighton’s ‘The Battle of Britain‘, starring Michael Caine and Robert Shaw.

His short story ‘The Dollar Bottom’ was made into an Oscar-winning short film in 1981 with Rikki Fulton and Robert Urquhart.

Tragically, Kennaway was killed in a car crash in 1968, at the very moment he seemed destined for greater success.

A theatrical production of ‘Some Gorgeous Accident’ will be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, this year.

Derek Marlowe copyrght Paul Gallagher 1984

Someone, somewhere, has probably written a thesis on fan letters, showing how the turn of phrase, spelling, sentence structure and language, reveal the psychology of the writer.  I can guess the flaws my intense three or four fan letters reveal about me, both good and bad.  That said, the replies were always pleasing – a signed photo, a message from a secretary, a written response.  The reply that meant so much to me, in my mid-teens, came from the brilliant author, Derek Marlowe.

Marlowe inspired me to see the beauty of writing and the power a novelist has in telling their tale.  His books took me away from the comfort of Sherlock Holmes, Alistair MacLeans, and dog-eared ghost stories, into a world of shifting ambiguous, complex relationships, through dark, witty stories told in beautiful language.

Marlowe’s response to my Biro scribbled missive was a typed, two page letter, in lower case and capitals.  It is a letter I still cherish, for it gave me a sense of what can be made of a life – for Derek Marlowe was more than just a novelist, he was a successful playwright, a screenwriter, and an award-winning writer for television.   In the letter he explained about his life and career, how he had started after being sent down from University:

“I was thrown out of Queen Mary College, London, for editing and writing an article in the college magazine.  The article was a parody of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ reflecting the boredom of college seminars.  Not very funny or special but times were odd then. Besides, I hated University and I think I’d made that rather too clear.

“I began writing plays since I had started a play for the College which took a surprising course.  Continued with plays for about four years, went to Berlin, came back and then I realised, after writing DANDY (I was then a clerk) that I preferred prose to theatre. Besides, the person I was sharing the flat with and had done for six years, seemed better at theatre than me.  He was and is Tom Stoppard.”

‘A Dandy in Aspic’ was Marlowe‘s first novel, and the one that launched him onto his successful career.  It was the story of a double-agent, Eberlin, sent on a mission to assassinate his alter ego.  ‘Dandy’ was made into a a so-so film starring Laurence Harvey, Mia Farrow and Peter Cook, of which he wrote:

“Regarding the film DANDY.  The director, ANTHONY MANN died during the filming (a superb man and great director) and it was taken over by Laurence Harvey, the badly cast Eberlin.  He directed his own mis-talent, changed it and the script – which is rather like Mona Lisa touching up he portrait while Leonardo is out of the room.”

Rather than follow the expected path of genre-writing, Marlowe followed up his debut novel, with ‘Memoirs of a Venus Lackey’, the disturbing tale of a roue, who examined the sins of his life from Hell.

Next, an historical novel ‘A Single Summer with L.B.’, which focussed on the fateful meeting in 1816, when Mary and Percy Shelley spent a summer with Lord Byron and his doctor, Polidori, a gathering that inspired the writing of ‘Frankenstein’.  In the book, Marlowe gave thanks to Ken Russell (amongst others), who would later make his own particular version of these events in ‘Gothic’.

Marlowe returned to thrillers with ‘Echoes of Celandine’, which dealt with the loves, infidelities and obsessions of a melancholic hitman.  Of this he wrote:

“ECHOES OF CELANDINE has just been filmed, starring Donald Sutherland and John Hurt (as Atkinson), David Warner (as Burbage) etc.  It’s very good but held up by squabbling producers.”

The film wasn’t what I had expected, its location moved from Britain to Canada, and I found it too ponderous, and filled with an imposed alienation. Yet, there was still something of Marlowe in the film.

“About the novels.  All characters are close or have been observed in some element of truth.  One book went too far and I was sued for libel – but I shan’t reveal which one it was.  Loner and anti-hero?  Loner, certainly – even though I am married with four stepchildren and one son of my own – but not anti-hero.  I’m for heroes, though if not Lancelot or Tristan, heroes appear out of the mould of the time.”

He followed ‘Echoes’ with ‘Do You Remember England?’ – a haunting novel about a doomed love affair.  Reading it, I thought this book closest to who Marlowe was.  The character of Dowson had the mix of his parentage – a Greek Mother, a Cockney father -and I sensed that like Dowson, in some way, Marlowe was a man who belonged to a different century. For Marlowe seemed a true Romantic, and to an extent a dandy, but I doubt he would have agreed with that.  Yet, it should be noted that one of his heroes was Beau Brummell, whose biography he penned for the Dictionary of National Biography.

Another hero was Raymond Chandler, and it was Chandler who inspired Marlowe’s 1974 homage ‘Somebody’s Sister’, about a washed up PI, Walter Brackett.  Then the haunting ‘Nightshade’ in 1976, about a mis-matched couple on a dark and disturbing holiday to Haiti.  Of the central character, Marlowe wrote:

“Edward in NIGHTSHADE is an aberration in my character.  I was going through stage of mysoginism (sic) and even misanthropy.”

At the time of writing he had just completed ‘The Rich Boy From Chicago’ and a 9-part series on Nancy Astor for the BBC:

“My next novel to be published in the winter in hardback, is called THE RICH BOY FROM CHICAGO – a five hundred pager, I’m afraid – but I think in this novel you will see the quintessence of all I have written.

“If you read RICH BOY FROM CHICAGO, you might detect in the charcater of Freddie, the protagonist and the life of Bax, a combination that could be me, good or bad.”

‘The Great Gatsby’ was Marlowe’s favourite book, and Fitzgerald’s influence can be seen in ‘Rich Boy’ and, more importantly, throughout Marlowe’s work.  Both writers were incredible stylists, both were Catholics and both captured the time they lived in perfectly.

After his divorce, Marlowe moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote for TV (series and films as diverse as ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Jamaica Inn’).  His final work for TV was an episode of ‘Murder, She Wrote’ – ‘South by South-West’.  Tired with LALAland, Marlowe planned to return to England to finish his tenth novel, ‘Black and White’, but he contracted leukemia and tragically died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 58, in 1996.

Sadly, Marlowe’s genius as a writer has been nearly lost, as none of his novels have remained in print.  But through the internet, it is easy to find second-hand copies of his work, and I urge you to do so.

I kept in touch with Marlowe for the next five years, eventually meeting him for an interview in 1984.  The cliche is never meet your heroes, but I am glad I did, for Marlowe was more than any fan could have expected – kind in his attentions, generous in his support, and always funny.

In his advice to a teenage wannabe writer, he wrote:

“Remember books last longer than reviews and the most boring part is typing the damn thing afterwards and planning beforehand.  Never think too hard about what you are going to write – just jump in.  I’ve never known the end of my book, nor even the middle until after I am halfwat through.  And ignore anyone who says you can’t make a living out of writing.  You can if you don’t limit yourself to novels in England alone and don’t want a Rolls immediately.  I have never known a writer over thirty who has got the stamina to be poor.  Talent doesn’t make for success.  Courage does first.  But above all, if you want to survive, heed Nabokov’s remark: I write for myself – but I publish for money.”

Derek Marlowe 1938-1996

Happy Birthday Ken Russell

Happy Birthday Ken Russell.

Few British directors have been as successful or as controversial as Ken Russell.

With the exception of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, few directors have managed to produce a body of work that has appealed to mass audiences across such diverse genres as science-fiction (‘Altered States‘), espionage (‘The Billion Dollar Brain‘), musicals (‘The Boyfriend‘,’Tommy‘, ‘Listzomania‘), biography (‘The Music Lovers‘, ‘Savage Messiah‘, ‘Mahler‘, ‘Valentino‘), drama (‘Whore‘), comedy (‘French Dressing‘), horror (‘Lair of the White Worm‘, ‘Gothic‘), historical drama (‘The Devils‘), and literary (‘Women in Love‘, ‘The Rainbow‘, ‘Salome’s Last Dance‘).

Like the greatest of cinematic auteurs, Russell has created his own distinctive visual language that makes his work instantly recognisable, unforgettable and artistically important.

If this weren’t enough, Russell produced an outstanding body of television films, which has yet to be equalled for their intelligence (‘Delius – The Song of Summer‘), artistry (‘The Debussy Film‘) and controversy (‘Dance of the Seven Veils‘). Indeed it was Russell who devised the bio-pic or drama doc with his BBC film ‘Elgar‘, a form that has been relentlessly copied since.

Today Russell turns 83, and as we wish him a very Happy Birthday, we hope that he is encouraged and supported to produce more of his wonderful, inspiring and idiosyncratic films.

You have to ask, what were they thinking?  What was going through their minds?

By what process did the admen behind this advert think of using ‘Invictus’ – William Ernest Henley’s beautiful short poem – to sell a Bank?

Did they not understand what the poem was about?  Did they think banking would somehow make us master of our fate?

‘Invictus’ told of the author’s nobility and courage in his near-death fight with tuberculosis.  How this could ever be confused with the dubious ethics that inspire financial greed, shows how much literature and art is ultimately used to maintain the status in the quo.

Henley was 12 when he fell ill with tuberculosis of the bone.  By his late teens, the disease had spread to his foot.  Though Henley coped bravely his life was ultimately marked down by the disease.  By the age of twenty-five, physicians told Henley the only way they could save his life was to amputate his leg below the knee.

His leg was amputated in 1875, and Henley successfully went on to live a full life until the age of 53.

But as the young poet lay in his hospital bed, suffering the pain, considering the loss of his limb, and the continuing threat of death, Henley wrote a poem that took his own personal suffering and sacrifice, as an example for others to follow, in order to achieve self-autonomy.  That by courage and strength, we may all be captains of our souls.

Originally titled by its dedication ‘To R. T. H. B.’ (the patron Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce), Henley’s poem was retitled ‘Invictus’ (Latin for ‘unconquered’) when it was included in ‘The Oxford Book of English Verse’.

Sad to say, Henley’s noble sentiment is considered out of date in our self-serving and litigious world, but its true meaning is a something we should all take to heart.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gait,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.



It’s strange to think now, but back in 1989, Salman Rushdie‘s novel ‘The Satanic Verses‘ was published to mixed reviews.  Let’s be honest, it isn’t exactly gripping reading, and would, no doubt, have clogged up the remainder shops, had it not been for Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who issued a fatwa over the book’s content. Rushdie went into hiding and a rather so-so book became the symbol of western liberty.

The fatwa marked a major shift in cultural relations between the West and the MIddle East. But more importantly for literature, the fatwa led Rushdie to writing his novels on a computer.

Rushdie described how working on a computer made his writing “tighter and more concise” as he no longer had to perform the mechanical act of re-typing endlessly. This meant all the time taken up by the mechanical act left him free to think.

But this change also created a new problem that affects museums, archivists and literary historians to this very day.  For “born-digital” materials — those documents or artefacts initially created in an electronic form — are far more complicated and costly to preserve than was ever anticipated.

Why?  Well, this is because all electronically produced writing is ultimately just a series of digits — 0’s and 1’s — which are written onto floppy disks, CDs and hard drives, and surprisingly, all of which degrade far faster than good old-fashioned acid-free paper.

But that’s not the only drawback, for the relentless upgrading of technology means older equipment and software, that could make sense of all these zeros and ones, simply no longer exists.

However, Emory University has been working towards solving this problem of archiving Salman Rushdie’s computer files and have started displaying some of Rushdie’s work.

Even so, as these discs primarily contain corrected and revised versions of work, this raises the question as to whether future archivists and historians will learn anything of value from Rushdie’s, or any other writer’s creative processes?  You know the kind of thing: the development of themes, characters, and drafts, scribbled on old cigarette packs, the backs of envelopes, or even just in good old notebooks – all of which reveal the thought process by which an author creates. Whether we like it or not, corrected copies on an old floppy disc will only give us the answer, and not the question.


“Hey, Johnny, What are you rebelling against?”
“What’ve you got?”

Strange to think now, but back in 1954 ‘The Wild One‘ was considered such a serious threat to British society that it was banned by the Board of Film Censors for 14 years.

It was believed that Marlon Brando and his band of slovenly bikers would give youngsters “ideas on how to brutalize the public”. More understandable once you know the film is loosely based on a real event, when a band of bikers took over the town of Holister in California in July 1947, during the Gypsy Tour Motorcycle Rally. Around 50 people were arrested, mainly for drunkeness, fighting, reckless driving, and disturbing the peace. 60 people were injured, 3 seriously. Even so, it’s hard to picture how the chubby Brando and his non-sensical mumblings could have inspired anyone.

Afterall, Britain wasn’t America, as John Lennon later found out when he went to his local fleapit to take part in the alleged riots inspired by Bill Haley and his Comets in ‘Rock Around the Clock‘. Instead of seat slashing and fighting in the aisles, Lennon was dumbstruck to find orderly youngsters appreciatively watching the screen.

If the film did inspire any rebellion, then it was in the imagination of a young poet called Thom Gunn.

Gunn saw ‘The Wild One‘ in America, where it inspired him to write the generation defining poem ‘On the Move‘.

“On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boy,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt–by hiding it, robust–
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.”

Gunn’s poem critiqued the film’s sensibility, its search for purpose for meaning, while noticing the underlying homo-eroticism, contained within the denim and leather of its biker heroes.

“Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.”

‘The Wild One’ presented a portrait of a world where the individual could control their own destiny.  This appealed to Gunn, who was a young gay man at time when homosexuality was a criminal offence in Britain.  To the poet, Brando and his rebellious cohorts presented a sharp contrast to the gray and repressive world Gunn inhabited. .

“A minute holds them, who have come to go:
The self-denied, astride the created will.
They burst away; the towns they travel through
Are home for neither birds nor holiness,
For birds and saints complete their purposes.”

Gunn’s analysis inOn the Move‘ provides a literal manifesto, that later became the poet’s own.

“At worse, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.”

For Gunn never kept still. He followed his lover to America, where the tolerance he found in San Francisco changed his verse style from English tradition to American idiom; from strict form to free verse. In the same way Gunn by day was a disciplined intellectual and by night a physical hedonist, who cruised for sex and indulged in drugs.

However, the excesses of his personal life never detracted from the discipline of his poetic vision. He was once described as “the only poet to have written a halfway decent quintain while on LSD.”

Gunn used his experiences as material with candour and sympathy, which led many to believe he “seemed to hold no small number of life’s mysteries and meanings within his grasp.”   A truth that is more than evident when you read his brilliant, beautiful and inspiring poetry.