Fighting the apartheid machine: reading Andre Brink’s classic ‘A Dry White Season’

Like the hero of his novel in ‘A Dry White Season’, Ben Du Toit, the late South African novelist Andre Brink was considered a “veraaier” (traitor) by his own Afrikaaner people by taking the side of those fighting against the National Party’s evil apartheid regime.

The novel, which jolted me back in time with a dose of dark nostalgia, tells the story of Du Toit, a middle-class suburban school teacher who finds himself pitted against the apartheid machine, and its “special branch” or “security branch police, when he begins investigating the deaths of Gordon NcGubene, a gardener at the school where he teaches, and Gordon’s young activist son Jonathan.

Prior to his fateful decision to pay a visit to John Vorster Square, the notorious Johannesburg police headquarters, to politely inquire about what happened to Gordon on the initial naïve belief that it was all a “mistake”, Du Toit was comfortably ensconced in his suburban home and the routines of white Afrikaaner family life.

His desire to “help” Black South Africans is well-meaning, but cast within the “master-servant” apartheid dynamic – the Du Toits have been paying Jonathan’s school fees provided he stays out of trouble and does well academically. This rids them of their guilt at being part of the oppressive system, without ever really taking a stand or getting involved in the struggle for equality.

This is a position I knew well from my own experiences growing up in South Africa in the 1980s, where I was surrounded by quasi-liberal adults doing “well meaning” gestures for the Blacks that cleaned their houses or bathed their children, but who were happy not to rock the boat and enjoy luxuries that came with being white and privileged.

Ben’s apolitical but good-hearted position starts to shift when first Jonathan dies in police custody in the cells of John Vorster Square, and then later his father Gordon, when Gordon persists in trying to find out what happened to his son and where he was buried, marking him as a troublemaker in the eyes of Special Branch.

Ben’s change into becoming a veraaier is fueled by an inquest which shows the judges to be in cahoots with the police after they find Gordon to have committed suicide. Soon after the trial he meets young, liberal journalist Melanie Brewer, who through stories of her own terrible experiences, encourages him into the light.

“And now it was inside of him, it was happening, the sudden loosening like a flock of pigeons freed from a cage…he allowed it to flow from him spontaneously, all the years he’d cooped up inside of him. His childhood on the Free State farm, and the terrible drought, after which they had lost everything…He told her about Gordon, about Jonathan…and his visit to John Vorster Square.”

While Melanie becomes his confidant and ally, Ben’s growing activism does not resonate with his more conservative wife Susan, who as the novel progresses grows more and more agitated and fearful as her husband becomes obsessed with proving Gordon was murdered by Special Branch, and did not as they claim – and the court found – kill himself.

These subtle, but inexorable shifts in character, which Brink writes so well, plays out in an early scene when Susan implores Ben, lost in troubled thoughts in his study, to come to bed. According to Susan, all Ben needs is a good night’s rest to rid him of his worries.

But Ben resists, even at the “subtle promise of her breasts and belly” seen between the loose folds of her house coat.

“After she had gone out he could hear the gentle dripping of the gutters again. The small and intimate wet sounds of the departed rain.

“Tomorrow he would go to John Vorster Square himself, he thought. He would talk to them personally. In a way he owed it to Gordon. It was little enough. A brief conversation to correct a misunderstanding. For what else could it be but a regrettable, reparable mistake.”

The visit to John Vorster Square takes Ben into the belly of the apartheid beast, and under the radar of cruel Afrikaner men like Captain Stolz, a gleeful torturer of black men considered “terrorists” in the eyes of the Apartheid state.

Ben’s obsession with discovering the truth takes him to the “other” Johannesburg: the impoverished sprawling township of Soweto, a world he scarcely thought about until his political conversion.

Ben becomes acquainted with the larger-than-life township character, Stanley, who moonlights as a taxi driver whilst arranging clandestine resistance meetings in the townships and on trips across the border. As Stanley educates him on the terrible things being done to Black South Africans and as Ben grows closer to the journalist Emily Bruwer, he starts to drift away from his wife and family and the comfortable middle-class life he once enjoyed.

Similarly, Andre Brink, through his writing, pitted himself against his birthright that of a descendent of 18th Century Dutch settlers, who became the Afrikaaner boers (farmers) and later the National Party that developed the inhumane policies of segregation.

The 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when more than 50 black people protesting peacefully against Apartheid laws were murdered by the South African police, opened Brink’s eyes to the monstrous policies of his “people” and set in motion novels like ‘A Dry White Season’ which pitted good against evil and those who seek and tell the truth versus those who lie and distort.

“No Afrikaans writer has yet tried to offer a serious political challenge to the system … We have no one with enough guts, it seems, to say ‘no’,” said Brink in 1970, nine years before he finished “A Dry White Season”, his most famous book.

“All I know is that I must do something,” Ben Du Toit tells the young Reverend Bester in the novel, echoing Brink’s belief that as a writer he must tell the truth.

By comparison to the other South African literary heavyweights – J.M. Coetzee, Damon Galgut (read my reviews of his novels here) and Nadine Gordimer among them who were more allegorical in their novels, Brink writes in a far more journalistic style and employs the techniques of reportage. In his retelling of the life of Ben Du Toit, his re-birth as a seeker of the truth is mostly told through diary entries handed down to someone else.

It’s a powerful book about the price one must pay for taking a stand, but also the liberation of the soul that comes with doing it. Brink’s message is universal and just as potent today amid the dark forces shaping the world.

(Make sure you read the book before you watch the Hollywood movie, which in my opinion is a vastly inferior interpretation of Brink’s work. This is despite an impressive cast including Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando and Zakes Mokae)

The horror and futility of war: Reading ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’

Before watching the award-winning Netflix movie ‘All Quiet on the Western Front‘ I decided to first read the famous book by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque, which was published in 1929.

There’d been some criticism of the film – German critics had panned it for turning a beloved literary classic into an Oscars spectacle, while historians had slammed its apparent historical inaccuracy – but beside that, I wanted to take in the story in its original form (and use my own imagination), before watching the latest on screen adaptation.

Interestingly, the book’s famous and oft-used title (usually quoted without the irony) was coined by an Australian soldier and Oxford scholar Arthur ‘AW’ Wheen who fought in the Great War and who was awarded three military medals for bravery.

The original German title ‘Im Westen nichts Neues’ translates as ‘Nothing New on the Western Front’. But Wheen, who went on to translate a number of Remarque’s novels, was so profoundly moved by the story that he coined the more poetic English title. This along with his well-received translation of the book played a key role in its enduring success and hallowed status nearly 100 years after being published as one of the great First World War novels.

An often times mentally grueling read, Remarque condenses all the horror, tragedy and futility of the Great War into just over 200 pages of terse, diary-style entries narrated by the brave and philosophical young German soldier Paul Baumer.

Paul, just 19-years-old but already a veteran of the conflict, is part of a close-knit group of five school friends – Tjaden, Muller, Kropp and Leer – and their 40-year-old leader, “shrewd, cunning, and hard-bitten” Stanislaus ‘Kat’ Katczinsky who are stationed a few miles from the front, where the sounds of gunfire and bombs never stops rumbling.

It is 1918, and the soldiers pray that the war will end soon, that the rumours of Germany’s surrender will come true, and that they shall survive.

One of the great strengths of the novel is the way Remarque combines both the horrors of the trenches with the more mundane, but also poignant experiences of a soldier’s life to give a fully rendered impression of those times.

Away from the battlefield, we join Paul and his friends as they enjoy the simple pleasure of receiving mail, sharing extra rations or stretching out in a grassy meadow where they find joy in “wonderfully care-free hours” as bumble bees drown out the ominous rumbles from the front.

These are the quiet moments when their youthfulness resurfaces and these battle-hardened soldiers can be, hopeful men again. Not knowing when they shall meet their end, they immerse themselves in the brief respite and try to forget about the return to front where they will once again become part of the terrifying war machine.

Remarque, who was a war veteran himself, was able to draw on the horrific scenes he witnessed whilst fighting in the trenches to put the reader right there among the mud, rats, mustard gas and wounded, dead and dying.

Remarque’s novel takes you right into the horror of the trenches.

We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell-hole… we see men without mouths, without jaws, without faces; we find one man who has held the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death. The sun goes down, night comes, the shells whine, life is at an end.

In another horrific scene, Baumer writes of the terrible screams of horses injured by bombs and gunfire, the belly of one “ripped open the guts trail out” as it rises to its feet but then falls over, tripping on its own intestines.

“Torches light up the confusion. Everyone yells and curses and slaughters. The madness and despair of many hours unloads itself in this outburst. Faces are distorted, arms strike out, the beasts scream; we just stop in time to avoid attacking one another.”

If the horror of the book was not enough, midway through reading descriptions like this, I felt compelled to look on YouTube for archived footage of the viscous battles Remarque was writing about.

One video segment depicted the total chaos on the battlefield, as mortar bombs exploded, bodies crumbled and soldiers fired at one another, then charged with bayonets that sliced into bellies. Because of the jerky motions, the scene felt almost cartoonish.

I also came across a scene of soldiers making their way through the nightmare landscape of barren hills and deep craters. Shot from behind them, it showed one soldier advancing on foot, with another behind him who appeared to be crawling. Only he wasn’t crawling I soon realised, most of his lower body had been blown away and he was dragging himself along the ground by what remained of his torso. (The video is titled “Verdun is a human slaughterhouse“).

It was utterly horrific, and just so incredibly sad. I wished I’d never seen it. But it did highlight that there was no hyperbole in the descriptions of Remarque’s young narrator, Paul. While All Quiet on the Western Front is a fictional story, the experiences endured by Paul and his comrades are accurate and true.

The power of Remarque’s storytelling is that he not only manages to capture these unimaginably awful things that happen in the trenches and among the craters and barbed wire entwined battlefields, but the mental anguish of those caught up in the fighting and the futility of it all.

This is brought most horribly to life in a devastating episode where Paul is forced to kill a French soldier who falls into a pit he is hiding in after taking cover from the incessant shelling and relentless machine gun fire.

Paul watches as the soldier’s young life slowly seeps away in front of his eyes.

Paul starts to question why this young man, whom he discovers had a wife and child, had to die. They are a similar age and in another time might have been friends.

He ends up making a futile vow to write to the dead soldier’s wife after finding a picture of her and their daughter in his wallet.

“Comrade,” I say to the dead man, but I say it calmly, “to-day you, to-morrow me. But if I come out of it, comrade, I will fight
against this, that has struck us both down; from you, taken life–and from me–? Life also. I promise you, comrade. It shall never happen again.”

Paul is the philosophical voice and conscience of the millions of young men, who if not killed, were traumatised beyond hope from the things they did in the fight for survival.

For me the most moving and tragic episode, and which illuminates the mental devastation of the war on young soldiers are the scenes when Paul is given a 17 day leave pass and journeys back to his home village, to see his family.

Remarque captures so perfectly the feeling of both being at home among your loved ones, but also that terrible realisation of having left everything you once knew far behind, of being utterly and irrevocably changed and of never ever being able to make that journey back to what life once was.

I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and to-day. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had only been in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.

Finishing the book, I realised I knew so little about the First World War, especially when compared with Second one that broke out just 20 years later.

The reasons for the Great War, as I have since read are so much more complicated.The famous assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo merely the spark that lit the fuse.

Industrialisation, power struggles, inequality between nations and inbred racial hatred all played apart in the greatest ever mobilisation of millions of young men to fight and die in the trenches.

This was a war where armies were so large and so easily replenished that no one could ever really win, resulting in loss of life so huge and horrors so terrible they are hard to fathom, even as new atrocities emerge in the Ukraine war, fueled by similar forces: power, greed and hatred.

All Quiet on the Western Front is Erich Maria Remarque’s poetic and visceral reminder that there are no real victors in war, only victims.

Will the new movie do justice to that message? (I’ll report back).

Laughter, banality and the elephant in the room: reading Billy Connolly’s autobiography

By strange coincidence, the day I picked up a copy of Billy Connolly’s autobiography “Windswept & Interesting” I saw on social media that the “Big Yin” had just turned 80.

It was quite a milestone for one of Britain’s most famous comics, actors and travel show hosts, and it seemed even more fitting that I should now be reading about his life.

I’ve long been a fan of his, enjoying his his hilarious storytelling stand-up comedy, entertaining travel documentaries as well as his more serious acting in movies like ‘What we did on our Holiday’.

He’s certainly a very talented individual, and from reading his book, comes across as warm-hearted and lovable person in his private life. This is in spite of many difficulties experienced in childhood including physical and sexual abuse and a later problem with drinking (no doubt caused by this trauma).

The title of his autobiography, which he wrote during lockdown, refers to the way his flamboyant appearance was described to him by a friend early on in his entertainment career.

It’s a moniker Connolly revels in and believes is an accurate description of a type of person he identifies with: someone with their own individual style and who doesn’t give a fuck (excuse my language, but I am paraphrasing Billy) what anyone else thinks.

“Being windswept and interesting is not just about what your wear,” writes Billy.

“It’s about your behaviour, speech, your environment and an attitude of mind. It’s perpetually classy – but it’s not of a particular class. It transcends class.”

Later, he says: “Once I’d realised that I was windswept and interesting, it became my new religion. It was such a delightful contrast to the dour and disapproving attitudes I’d grown up with. Instead of cowering under the yoke of ‘Thou shalt NOT!’ , I found a new mantra: ‘Fuck the begrudgers!'”

It’s an attitude of mind that runs throughout the book, fueling his success first as a musician (a career I knew nothing about) and then as often outrageous and daring stand-up comic. Without this psychic armour, Billy might never have made it out of the gloomy Glasgow tenement flat he’d grown up in and which he describes so well in the early chapters of the book.

As with many people of a certain age, the pandemic provided the opportunity for reflection and the time to sit down and think about their lives. He does so in a self-deprecating, warm way, that only sometimes veers off course into somewhat uninteresting (for me anyway) banalities and trivia, such as his favourite TV programs.

To this I am sure Connolly would say: I don’t give a fuck, it’s my story and I’ll choose what I write about. Fair enough, I would not want to be the “fucker that begrudges him”.

Billy Connolly’s story begins in a tenement flat in Anderston on the unloved south western outskirts of Glasgow, where he is raised by his aunts, one of whom is the sadistic Mona, a nasty woman who takes particular delight in physically and verbally assaulting her wee nephew.

Connolly finds himself in this unhealthy domestic situation after his mother runs off with another man, and his father is posted overseas during the war. Later, when his father returns, Connolly is forced to share a bed with him, and his horrifically and inexplicably abused.

It’s a shocking thing to be abused by our own father, but Connolly devotes only a few paragraphs to this incident (one of the surprising aspects of the book), leaving this dark chapter to be dissected by his second wife, the actress turned psychologist Pamela Stephenson, who wrote in more detail about it in her biography, Billy.

Connolly only mentions it again fleetingly, though other memories of his father surface such as family holidays. He only return to the very painful and confusing topic when his father dies.

It is of course a sign of Connolly’s strength of character, his tenacity and warm-heartedness that he does not allow such awful events to dominate his life, though those dark memories do fuel his excessive drinking.

In many respects the book is a chronicle of the people he met along his journey to self-acceptance, those individuals that impacted his life and his career in a positive and creative sense.

Among them were the welders he met while working as an apprentice on the Glasgow shipbuilding docks,

“The shipyards were full of patter merchants. That’s where I first really understood you could be incredibly funny without telling jokes,” recalls Billy.

Billy Connolly with Gerry Rafferty in their days as “The Humblebums”.

He discovers he has a gift for making people laugh through his storytelling, a skill he gets to practice on stage before and in between gigs as a banjo and guitar player.

Of this musical career, I was blissfully unaware and so had no idea that Connolly teemed up with famed pop star Gerry Rafferty of “Baker Street” song fame to write music and tour as the folk band the Humblebums, to a fair degree of success.

While Connolly is keen to point out Gerry Rafferty’s far superior musical talents, there is certainly no doubt that Billy became by far the more famous and successful of the duo.

I also learnt to my surprise and astonishment that Billy does not prepare material for his stand-up shows, but pretty much just gets up on stage and starts talking.

It’s quite a gift, but no doubt gave his stand-up shows a daring, unexpected quality, as well as their freshness and spontaneity.

He writes of his first time of being onstage without Gerry as giving him a “lovely sense of freedom, just talking, singing and being myself”.

It’s the pleasure and enjoyment of storytelling, of being himself, which makes his autobiography so enjoyable for the reader, and especially the fan. There are also plenty of laugh-out-loud moments such as the hilarious “murdered my wife” joke he told on an appearance on the Michael Parkinson show in the 1970s (You can find it on YouTube).

Now an octogenarian living with Parkinson’s Disease and half his hearing gone, it’s good to know that Billy Connolly has turned into less of a grumpy old bastard and more of a opinionated cuddly bear, fond of swearing at the TV, but always eager to learn and discover new things, even in his sunset years.

Throughout it all, he’s remained true to his calling: windswept and interesting.

Exquisite prose: reading ‘A Single Man’ and ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’ by Christopher Isherwood

If there was a poll of the finest writers of the 20th Century, surely Christopher Isherwood would be near the very top of that list.

Over the last few months I’ve had the pleasure of reading three of his novels, starting with the highly autobiographical Goodbye to Berlin, which inspired the hit movie Cabaret and which I have already reviewed on this blog,

After that I read Isherwood’s short novel ‘A Single Man’ (made into a successful 2009 movie by fashion designer Tom Ford) and another set in Berlin, ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’.

It’s been a delight to read such a lyrical and psychological writer, who with a few beautifully formed sentences can bring a scene to life in the reader’s mind and recreate the inner mental workings of his protagonists.

This ability to penetrate deep into the psyche of his characters is evident in A Single Man, a short novel that chronicles the final day in the life of George, a severely depressed gay college professor mourning the loss of his lover Jim.

It’s set in suburban Los Angeles in 1964. Isherwood, who was also gay, emigrated to the US and moved to California in 1939, to escape the more repressive society in his native England.

The extremely compact timeline for the book allows Isherwood to really focus on the inner workings of George’s depressed, but also buzzing mind as he navigates the challenges of the day and deals with his grief and the people and places that trigger memories of Jim.

The opening of the book is quite startling, and reveals another strength of Isherwood’s writing: his creativity. It begins with George waking up in a discombobulated state – an “it” trying to identify the “I” – as he looks at his tired and sad self in the mirror.

“What it sees there isn’t so much a face, as the expression of a predicament. Here’s what it has done to itself, here’s the mess it has somehow got itself into during its fifty-eight years, expressed in terms of a dull, harassed state, a coarsening nose, a mouth dragged down by the corners into a grimace as if at the sourness of its own toxins, cheeks sagging from their anchors of muscle, a throat hanging limp in tiny wrinkly folds.”

It’s just one example of Isherwood’s marvelous descriptive powers and the poetry of his writing.

By the the time the “it” has gotten dressed, spent some time on the toilet from where he observes the quiet suburban streets and some of his neighbours below and eaten some breakfast, George is himself again and ready to set off on the first challenge of the day: the commute to the work.

Throughout the novel, there is a sense that George is trying to swim back to the surface of the here and now, to reconnect with people and the world, even as memories of the past and what he has lost drag him back down.

On his way to teach an English class at a community college, George’s thoughts drift elsewhere as he drives along Los Angeles’s busy highways on auto-pilot.

“And now as he drives, it is as if some autohypnosis exerts itself. We see the face relax, the shoulders unhunch themselves, the body ease itself back into the seat. The reflexes are taking over…”

As he is now free to direct his attention elsewhere, George engages in a fantasy that involves unleashing a virus against homophobes, and then going on a killing spree. Then his vengeful daydream is ended by his arrival at the campus as he “rapidly puts on the psychological make-up for this role [of well-liked, suave English professor] he must play”.

Amid all the despair, and the sense of hopelessness, there is also fleeting pleasure and the meaningfulness it means to George.

There is the homo-erotic pleasure of watching two young men playing tennis in the heat, the “exhilarating” pleasure of watching the students in his class smile back at him with those “bright young eyes”, the pleasure of conversation with a young, male student called Kenny (with whom he is infatuated), the pleasure of revenge, when visits the dying Doris, with whom the late Jim had an affair, and the simple pleasure of companionship and getting drunk when George changes his mind and decides to accept a dinner invitation from his friend Charley, a single mother and fellow Brit.

In a sense then, George’s story is life-affirming: through the veil of immense grief we can still find space to enjoy those moments that give life a quite rich meaning.

I am alive” George says to himself as he drives back from visiting Doris to a workout at the gym.

“And life-energy surges hotly through him, and delight and appetite. How good to be in a body – even this old beat-up carcass – that still has warm blood and live semen and rich marrow and wholesome flesh.”

Mr Norris Changes Trains is a more traditional plot-driven suspense novel, but still showcases Isherwood’s ability to create fascinating characters that intrigue and beguile the reader.

Set mainly in Berlin, it tells story of the friendship between a young English tutor called William Bradshaw (the story’s narrator, and a kind of fictional alter ego for Isherwood whose full name was Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood) and Arthur Norris, a charming and rather posh older gent fond of using phrases like “My dear old boy”.

The pair meet on a train travelling from the Netherlands to Berlin when William encounters Arthur in a highly agitated state as they await the arrival of immigration officials and surmises that Arthur is mostly like a smuggler.

William soon learns that Arthur is entangled in all sorts of shady and clandestine activities amid the backdrop of a looming war in Europe

Like Isherwood’s ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ much of the action unfolds as Berlin finds itself at the crossroads of two great epochs: the end of its famous decadent, free-spirited and Golden era of music, art and cinema and the rise of brutal fascism under dictator Adolf Hitler’s Nazi movement.

Bradshaw, who earns his living as a tutor, is drawn into Arthur’s exciting and dangerous world attending rowdy communist party gatherings, bearing witness to his strange business dealings (where Arthur is threatening by his evil business associate Schmidt) and joining Arthur’s bohemian entourage at Berlin’s rowdy bars and night clubs.

On one occasion Norris disappears from the party, and Bradshaw, goes in search for him only to find him engaged in a sado-masochist ritual, which he at first mistakes for Arthur (whom he can hear crying out “Nein, Nein! Mercy!”) being robbed.

“The first person I saw was Anni. She was standing in the middle of the room. Arthur cringed on the floor at her feet. He had removed several more of his garments, and was now dressed lightly, but with perfect decency, in a suite of mauve silk underwear, a rubber abdominal belt, and a pair of socks. In one hand he held a brush, and in the other a yellow shoe rag.

Olga towered behind him brandishing a leather whip. ‘You call that that clean, you swine,’ she called in a terrible voice. ‘Do them again this minute. And if I find a speck of dirt I’ll thrash you till you can’t sit down for a week. As she spoke she gave Arthur a smart cut across the buttocks. He uttered a squeal of pain and pleasure and began to brush and polish Anni’s boots with feverish haste.

Both comical and shocking, it’s one of the many delightfully entertaining episodes in the book that Bradshaw describes without judgement as he drawn deeper into Arthur’s intrigues, plots and plans.

Arthur Norris as I have since found out is based on Gerald Bernard Francis Hamilton, whose friends included Winston Churchill, the American actress Tallulah Bankhead and the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, who was his landlord in London in the 1930s. Hamilton, who became known as “the wickedest man in Europe” – was a “fixer” for notorious communist Willi Munzenburg and someone who sold secrets for a living.

Hamilton was also imprisoned for bankruptcy and indecency. According to an article in The Spectator magazine, Hamilton lived a “long and disgraceful life” where everything he did was for money, rather than for political reasons.

Regardless of the nature of his clandestine activities, Hamilton clearly cast a spell over Isherwood who turned him into the more genial, but still Machiavellian wig-wearing conman Arthur Norris.

The novel was a critical and commercial success, but Isherwood later condemned it at making light of the suffering of the people he depicted in it.

Whether or not this is fair critique, is largely irrelevant in my mind as you can, like me, read ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’ as if it were purely historical fiction and revel in the curiously fascinating character of Mr Norris and his affect on a young, naïve English tutor.

It reminded me of the British noir classic, The Third Man by Orson Welles. ‘No doubt Mr Norris Changes Trains’ would make a brilliant movie in the right hands.

Booze, sex and philosophy from the gutter: Reading Charles Bukowski’s ‘Women’

“I never pump up my vulgarity. I wait for it to arrive on its own terms,” says Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski the fictional alter-ego of legendary boozehound writer and  “laureate of American lowlife” (as Time magazine dubbed him) Charles Bukowski in his 1978 novel “Women”.

I’ve read many of Bukowski’s brilliantly irreverent novels – written in a parsed down, forthright and highly entertaining style – and Women is by far the most graphic, indeed almost pornographic in its depiction of Chinaski’s innumerable sexual encounters.

(“I got down there and began licking…the cl*t came out but it wasn’t exactly pink, it was a purplish pink,” is how he describes one of these episodes.)

The semi-autobiographical novel (one can only assume some of his sexual exploits are exaggerated, though perhaps not the prodigious drinking) begins with Chinaski, 50, telling the reader that he has not had sex for four years.

“I had no women friends. I looked at them as I passed them on the street or wherever I saw them, but I looked without yearning, with a sense of futility.”

This drought is then broken by a period of romping that would have made Don Juan proud. It begins with half-crazed divorced mother of two Lydia Vance (the fictional version of Bukowski’s real-life girlfriend, the sculptor and playwright Linda King), whom Chinaski meets at a poetry reading:

She put both hands on the edge of the table, bent over and looked at me. She had long brown hair, quite long, a prominent nose and one eye didn’t quite match the other. But she projected vitality – you knew that she was there. I could feel vibrations running between us.

Woman, Charles Bukowski

Their relationship is full of wild sex, described in intimate detail by Chinaski – “I heard her breathing heavily, then she moaned” – and violent breakups due to his excessive drinking, visits to the racetrack, and infidelities, none of which he apologises for. Chinaski is who he is and the world can go to hell if they don’t like it.

“I walked into the bedroom with just my shorts on. I was conscious of my white belly lolling out over the shorts. But I made no effort to suck in my gut…”

At face value, Women is simply a recollection of Chinaski’s (or Bukowski’s) various relationships with women. These include Lydia, but also brief encounters with star struck fans who are seemingly served up on a platter to the horniest 50-year-old in LA.

It’s also a daily tally of his prodigious alcohol consumption of mostly cheap wine and beer. In between all the boozing and bonking – “Fucking was the best cure for hangovers. It got all the parts ticking again” – we accompany Chinaski on his often hilarious trips to college campuses around the country where he gives readings.

But as with all his writing, Bukowski manages to convey something more profound and meaningful than the sum of his adventures across bedrooms, bars and college campuses.

It is to champion the other side of Los Angeles in the words of his biographer Barry Miles: “Not the LA of ranch homes in the Hollywood Hills with the breathtaking views…” but the LA of tarnished dreams, of dead end jobs, of hookers and workers in the sex industry, of beaten down, damaged and dysfunctional people”.

Miles adds: “Bukowski loved the corner bars, the tawdry fast-food outlets, the sex shops and brothels, the graffiti on the walls…”

Sure Chinaski is the hero of the story, but he is no superman in a cape. He is very much the Bukoswki you see in those grainy black and white poetry readings on YouTube. a disheveled anti-hero with a pockmarked face who says what he thinks, never holds back and for whom nothing is ever taboo.

Chinaski in Women is very much a mirror – if perhaps a distorted and exaggerated one – of Bukowski at the height of his powers and fame: when after decades of struggle, eking out a living and working dead end jobs, he had finally established himself as a figurehead in American literature: the dirty old man of American letters.

Chinaski is not searching for some deeper meaning to life, or for the woman of his dreams. Life is simply about the experiences that happen to him – whether its winning big at the track or walking away broke, having a raging hardon or being unable to perform in the sack because he drank too much, talking to prostitutes or college professors – everything finds its way, uncensored into the book.

And while Chinaski is vulgar, and driven by his baser urges, he can also be sweet and loving. He is not a manipulator, nor does he pretend to be anyone else. And he despises pretentious, fake people.

Most importantly – and perhaps a key reason why I enjoy his books so much – is the poetic nature of his writing: short, descriptive sentences that hit their mark without ever saying too little or too much (a style that would have impressed George Orwell).

If you are a fan of Bukowski other books, or a writer like Raymond Carver who though not as vulgar, employed a similar parsed down style of storytelling, you should definitely give Women a read. (Just don’t leave the book anywhere near young children!)

Bidding adieu to the great Inspector Morse (and the greatest ending to a TV show ever)

Near the end of the final episode of Inspector Morse, we find the great British detective sitting outside an Oxford pub with his faithful sidekick Lewis drinking a beer despite strict doctors orders.

His health failing, and two months out from a forced retirement, that will involve listening to Wagner, reading the classics and pursuing his newest hobby: birdwatching, Morse is feeling melancholy and regretful.

Trying to cheer him up, Lewis tells Morse to look out at the sun setting majestically like a Turner painting across green English fields behind them. Morse looks, pauses for a moment to think, and then recites, with a feeling of impending doom, the final stanza from his favourite poet AE Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright:

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
    Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
    Falls the remorseful day
.

The final three words of Housman’s marvelous poem, which seems to convey everything I love about the show (what other TV detective could recite melancholy poetry and not sound like a nonce?) is also the title of Morse’s final caper: a series of murders linked to the bludgeoning death of a wealthy socialite and nymphomaniac.

Not wanting to spoil it for those who have not watched it or are still making their way through the series, I won’t reveal the show’s final moments.

However, I can say, that I don’t think I have ever been more emotionally affected by the ending of a fictional television series. It left me in a state of profound and palpable melancholy, like I was saying good bye to an adored uncle, whom I would never see again.

Such was my dismay at reaching the end of the show, that I briefly thought about starting the series from the very beginning. Eventually my dark mood lifted, though I obsessively kept on reading and reciting the Houseman poem. (You can read it in full here).

Part of this melancholy I am certain had to do with John Thaw, the wonderful actor who played Morse, and who in his personality and manner was in many ways a mirror of Morse – a deep thinker, a lover of classical music, a decent man.

There is also the added tragedy that Thaw sadly died in 2002, just two years after the final episode aired. and only 60 at the time.

Soon after I watched the final episode of Inspector Morse, I listened to John Thaw being interviewed way back in 1990 on Desert Island Discs, the classic BBC radio program and podcast in which guests talk about their lives, whilst revealing their eight favourite pieces of music they would take with them if stranded on a desert island.

All of Thaw’s musical selections, apart from a song sung by his wife (the acclaimed actress Sheila Hancock) in the musical Annie, are classical or operatic works, a selection Morse himself would have no doubt enjoyed (though, no Wagner!).

Introducing Thaw and summarising his highly versatile career to that point, Desert Island Discs host Sue Lawley notes his two most memorable roles were playing the “troubled, but likeable” Morse and “rough, tough” Jack Regan in London police drama The Sweeney.

Given Thaw’s preference for a quiet life laced with classical music, Lawley suggests to him “there’s rather more of Morse in you than Regan?”

“Oh most certainly, yes,” Thaw agrees in his soft, purring voice.

Thaw says he got his love of classical music from his friend and fellow acting great, Tom Courtenay, whilst both were students at RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London. Struggling with the part of Mephistopheles in a production of Faust, Courtney encouraged Thaw to listen to the 1st Symphony by Sibelius.

Casting aside his prejudices (“What a load of rubbish, I thought”) Thaw says he was “utterly transfixed”.

“It changed my life, [listening to Sibelius] that day.”

Thaw was 48 at the time of the interview, coincidentally the same age as I am now.

Thaw jokes that the crew who worked on Inspector Morse thought he was a lot older, and that’s certainly how I felt when I watched the white haired, often curmudgeonly great British detective work at solving the latest baffling murder.

“I was born old or looking old, ” says Thaw.

“I started to go grey during The Sweeney and then went totally white. It’s a hereditary thing.”

Asked what he considered his best professional work, Thaw says it has to be Morse.

“It’s a quality product, I acted pretty well and we get good scripts, yet it is also very popular with the public” he says

“All those things coming together would give me the most pleasure.”

I was extremely late to the joys of Thaw’s chief inspector Morse, who made his on-screen debut way back in 1987, driving around the narrow streets of Oxford in his classic red Jaguar Mark 2, and resembling my father somewhat in appearance.

I bought the first couple of seasons on DVD, but as they were pricey, ended up watching the majority of the 33 feature-length episodes (based on the books by Colin Dexter) on YouTube over the last 3-4 years.

It has been a very private pleasure: my wife finds the show slow and boring and Morse annoying in his old fashioned habits and so I have watched the entire series on my own.

The final episode, The Remorseful Day, was released on November 15, 2000, and watched by 12 million Britons. Around the world over a billion people have enjoyed Morse cerebral brilliance, penchant for classical music and cryptic crosswords and for sharing his astute insights into criminal behaviour over a pint or two of good English ale.

Because each episode is feature-movie length – about 90 minutes – they allow for the story to unfold slowly, for the parade of suspects and motives to be investigated by Morse and Lewis, whilst providing scope for a couple of obligatory trips to the pub.

 “Think? That’s why I want [another drink] – to think. I don’t drink for pleasure!” is Morse’s annoyed reaction to Lewis’s suggestion in the final episode that maybe another beer is not a good idea.

For me, part of Morse’s charm is his complex and paradoxical character: easily angered, often short-tempered and with zero tolerance for fools, he is also by equal measure kind, compassionate, patient and sensitive.

A seemingly confirmed bachelor set in his ways, Morse is nonetheless always on the lookout for romance, and tends to find it in troubled and doomed relationships.

His tempestuous relationship with Lewis, a working class Geordie copper trying to climb up the detective ladder, is another delight of the show. (Kevin Whately starred in a successful spin-off of Inspector Morse called Inspector Lewis which ran for nine seasons).

Detective Sergeant Lewis: Still, at least we can make one arrest.

Chief Inspector Morse: Who’s that?

Detective Sergeant Lewis: This Sophocles chap.

Chief Inspector Morse: Lewis, Sophocles died two and a half thousand years ago.

Often annoyed at Lewis’s ignorance of history, the classics, art and philosophy and unsympathetic to Lewis’s desire to manage his family life at home, Morse nonetheless becomes a kind of father figure to Lewis, educating him in the wiles of human nature and taking obvious pleasure when Lewis surprises him with an educated answer or brilliant idea.

“Well done Lewis,” Morse says on many an occasion.

As the show progresses, their relationship evolves significantly to an extent that it is Lewis, who becomes Morse’s educator, especially in the ways of modern technology, whilst remaining steadfastly his loyal confidant and defender.

Died too soon: John Thaw, a monstrous talent

Of course there is also the writing – Colin Dexter’s classic crime novels, full of false leads, red herring, and of course Morse (based on Dexter’s own tastes) are brilliantly translated to the small screen by many talented screenwriters including by people like Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr Ripley, The English Patient) Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) who would all go on to become award-winning Hollywood movie directors.

Also key to the pleasure of Inspector Morse is the location: the university town of Oxford with its glorious medieval buildings, hallowed halls, alcoves and passageways, where Morse must often venture inside to interview suspects, as well as his frequent trips out to grand country estates and manor houses.

(Funnily enough, one of my favourite episodes, The Promised Land, is mostly set in Australia, as Morse and Lewis journey Down Under to locate a police informant).

Each episode is intriguing beyond just the excellent whodunnit aspect (it is almost impossible to pick the murderer), focusing in on the very human flaws of those caught up in treachery and tragedy. In this regard, Morse, who has keen sense of morality, is frequently appalled by the greed, pain and misery he uncovers. Despite his intuition, Morse professes genuine bewilderment at the actions of those he apprehends.

Morse: I’m old and unmarried, and I don’t understand human nature. What does it matter?

Lewis: How old are you?

Morse: I forget, Robbie.

Watching all 33 episodes of Inspector Morse has been a personal, almost secret pleasure of mine, often enjoyed with a glass or two of wine, whilst the family slept.

There have been some terrific endings to TV series – some of the best being Six Feet Under, Mad Men and Better Call Saul and some terrible ones – Killing Eve come most strongly to mind.

But none have concluded a story better than the final adventure of Inspector Morse. No finale has been more fitting to the greatest detective of them all.

RIP Morse and John Thaw

Murdering the ratings: Why Jeffery Dahmer got two hit TV shows

“The only way I’ll ever get a television series made about me is if I become a serial killer,” I told my wife sarcastically, as we started watching a new Netflix show “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story” a dramatised retelling of the crimes of one of the world’s most infamous (and revolting) mass murderers.

“Do I need to be worried?” she replied.

“Maybe….”

We’d watched about 40 minutes of the first of 10 episodes, when we both decided we’d had enough.

An African American man had been lured to Dahmer’s dingy Milwaukee flat, where he’d been partially drugged, threatened with an enormous knife and forced to sit on a blood-stained bed, while awaiting his hideous fate. A huge blue, industrial vat sat ominously in the corner of the room and the atmosphere was oppressive, almost unbearable.

“I don’t think I am in the mood to sit through 10 episodes of this,” I remarked, at which point my wife nodded in agreement and we stopped watching and found something distinctly lighter to enjoy with our cups of tea and biscuits. (For the record it was “Julia” about the life of the famous American television chef Julia Child, an excellent show).

And then what did I do a couple of weeks later?

Undecided about what to watch while my wife gobbled up episodes of the Walking Dead – I can’t handle the tension of that show, nor the constant gargling sounds of zombies – I started watched the other Dahmer show, the documentary series “Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes”.

Based around previously unheard taped interviews with Dahmer and Wendy Patrickus, who was his defense attorney, the three part series travelled back and forward in time, cutting from grainy, homemade videos of Dahmer as a sweet, fair-headed child to those grisly scenes at the notorious Milwaukee apartment block as the barrels of human remains were carried down the stairs by crime scene investigators. In between we heard excerpts from the tapes in which Dahmer confesses his crimes and tries, unsuccessfully to explain his actions, and interviews with detectives, psychologists and former friends and neighbours.

There have been plenty more of these shows that have kept me mesmerised. I’ve watched dramatisation of the life of Ted Bundy (starring Zac Efron), a BBC series about London asphyxiator John Christie (played by Tim Roth) and another London killer Denis Nilsen (played to perfection by David Tennant) plus numerous documentary series about Richard Ramirez AKA The Night Stalker, David Berkowitz AKA The Son of Sam and. Peter Sutcliffe AKA The Yorkshire Ripper.

I’ve also watched another Netflix documentary series about Ted Bundy (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes), while there’s another documentary series on my “must watch list” about the American serial killer Wayne Gacy ( who terrifyingly dressed up as a clown at children’s parties).

I don’t there is anything particular wrong or unusual about this viewing behaviour – I’m certainly, to calm my family and friends, not trying to pick up any tips. The truth of the matter is that everyone is part fascinating, revolted and intrigued by the “evil that men do” particularly of the psycopathic kind and especially when the monster looks like Dahmer: a normal, even somewhat handsome young man.

With 856 million hours of combined viewing and counting, The Jeffery Dahmer Story has been watched more than 95 million times from start to finish. Only Squid Game (1.65 billion hours) and Stranger Things Season 4 (1.35 billion) have been watched more.

Alongside the success of the dramatised series, the Jeffery Dahmer documentary series has also been a minor hit for Netflix, racking up millions of hours of viewing time.

No doubt Netflix executives must be delighted, though that might be tempered with the disappointment that there can be no second season. However, you can be certain someone at Netflix HQ is working on the next series and accompanying documentary about another sadistic mass murder.

While The Jeffery Dahmer Story has been lauded for its superb acting, disturbing and compelling storyline, and gritty realism, it seems to have emerged for no real purpose except gaudy entertainment. Dahmer was captured in 1992 and murdered in jail by a fellow inmate in 1994. Many would wish his name never be mentioned again.

But rather than forget about him and his reign of terror, Netflix has brought Dahmer’s vicious killing, dismembering and cannibalism spree back to live in vivid colour. In the process, their huge success has created fresh torment for the families of the 17 boys and young men who would have been alive today were it not for his unfathomable compulsions.

The same could be said for the documentary series though at least this provides fresh insights – these tapes have never been heard before – and gives the viewer a sense of the terrible impact his killing spree had on the Milwaukee community and the families of his victims.

(Incredibly, Dahmer could have been stopped after his very first killing – that of hitchhiker Stephen Hicks in 1978 when Dahmer was just 18 – had the police officer who stopped him to perform a drink driving test taken the time to look at what was in the garbage bags on the backseat, instead of believing Dahmer’s story that they contained animal remains).

Not surprisingly, the release of “Dahmer – Monster” has been met with rage, anger and disbelief by the family’s of his victims who were apparently not consulted about the making of the show, and which has reignited the grief they have had to live with for more than 30 years.

“It hurts. I shed tears. They’re not tears of sorrow, and it’s not disbelief in the Lord. The tears [are] tears of hurt because it hurts. It hurts real bad. But you have to trust and pray and just keep going day by day,” said Shirley Hughes, the mother of Tony Hughes, an aspiring male model, who was just 31 when Dahmer killed him.

The show’s writer Ian Brennan (who also wrote the hit musical series Glee) has defended his work as an “objective” portrayal, though professes amazement at its success:

“I think we show a human being. He’s monstrously human and he’s monstrously monstrous and that’s what we wanted to sort of unpack,” Brennan told news website Page Six at its premier

Also coming to its defense has been journalist Nancy Glass, the last person to interview Dahmer.

She perhaps gave the most telling and obvious reasons for the show’s success and many other similar shows”

“I know that that may seem bizarre, but I think it’s more about morbid curiosity than romanticism,” she told the New York Post.

One wonders what Dahmer himself would thought of a 10-episode dramatisation of his life and a three-part documentary series more than 30 years after his capture. Given his manifest inability to control his urges, it would be entirely plausible to think that he’d have “gotten off” on watching it all happen again. One can only but shudder at the thought.

“It was a compulsion. It became a compulsion,” he said in his last interview (watched 35 million times on YouTube).

In these interviews, Dahmer is softly spoken, articulate and appears highly intelligent. He also had a by all accounts happy childhood, and is described by his parents as a loving child, though one who took an interest at an early age in dead things.

Somehow this morphed into an obsession with the male human body, though why he then went on to murder, dismember, eat and preserve parts of his victims, even Dahmer cannot fathom.

Perhaps it this potential in everyone, to come apart at the seams, that drives our own fascination with true crime and violent killers.

No doubt Netflix and the other streaming platforms are well aware of this and have plenty more similar shows up their sleeves.

Making peace with the past: Reading Alan Cumming’s memoir ‘Not my Father’s Son’

I have enjoyed Alan Cumming’s acting for years, most notably the pushy campaign manager Eli Gold he played to perfection in the television drama ‘The Good Wife‘ and his small, yet memorable role in the James Bond hit Goldeneye, where he portrayed geeky Russian computer progammer Boris Grishenko.

Also a Thespian with a huge range, Cummings has appeared in major dramas and musicals including a one-man adaption of Macbeth on Broadway and as the master of ceremonies in Sam Mendes’s West End adaptation of Cabaret. His trophy cabinet includes two Tony Awards, theatre’s equivalent of the Oscars.

Against this backdrop, I decided to listen to his interview on Desert Island Discs, the legendary radio show and now podcast where guests talk about their lives and musical tastes via the selection of seven favourite recordings, a book and a luxury item that they would take with them if they were marooned on a fabled desert island.

It was only while listening to the podcast that I learnt about Cumming’s tragic childhood, where he felt the almost daily wrath of his abusive and vindictive father, Alex at their home on a 14,000 acre forestry estate near Carnoustie on the Scottish north east coast in the 1970s.

 “I could tell by the clack of his boots, I could tell by the way he opened the door… often it would be to do with my appearance or my hair,” Cumming told Desert Island Discs’ host Laura Laverne of the impending humiliation or beating to come.

Cumming talked a lot about the book he had written about his childhood ‘Not my Father’s Son’ and when I saw it in the local library, felt compelled to read it.

The title refers to his father’s long-held belief that his wife and Cumming’s mother, Mary Darling, had had a brief affair whilst the couple were on holiday and that Alan was not in fact his child, but a product of this betrayal. Choosing to believe this, Alex Cumming used it to justify his abhorrent behaviour (though he was equally cruel to his older brother Tom whose fathering he did not dispute).

So it’s not that every second of my childhood was filled with doom. But every second was filled with the possibility that in an instant my father’s mood would plunge into irrationality, rage and ultimately violence.

Alan Cumming, Not My Father’s Son

Divided into short, snappy chapters, Cummings’ carefully observed memoir moves back and forth between tales of his abusive and fearful childhood in Scotland in the 1970s and a tumultuous time 40 years later when was the subject of the BBC documentary series “Who Do You Think You are?” whilst also filming a movie in Cape Town.

The documentary series sought to solve a great family mystery: what happened to Cumming’s grandfather Tommy Darling, a decorated war hero, who survived the brutal 1944 battle of Kohima in northern India against the invading Japanese, but who later died in strange and sad circumstances in a village in Malaysia aged just 35 where he was serving after the Second World War.

There’s also another personal mystery to be solved: was Cumming’s really his father’s son?

Alan Cumming’s parents on their wedding day

This waiting for the results of a DNA test is played out with great tension and emotion, as Cumming deals with the possibility that he may have entirely different father and a family he has never met.

A major celebrity figure, Cummings’ memoir is remarkable for being refreshingly devoid of ego. It is a book about survival, love (especially for his mother and brother), forgiveness and finding a way to move on.

It’s also part travel journal as Cumming and the BBC crew filming the documentary head off to different parts of England as well as Malaysia to talk to war veterans and historians in an attempt to unravel the mystery around his grandfather’s “shooting accident”.

Cumming is heartbreakingly honest throughout the book, happy to confide in his reader when making many startling discoveries about his grandfather and his family. His successful acting career helped him escape his father’s wrath, but money and fame cannot solve childhood torment.

Like the podcast interview on Desert Island Discs, the memoir exudes warmth and it is not surprising that so many people have praised it.

I finished reading it with a great deal more affection for Cumming. Despite being obscenely multi-talented (who else can act, sing, dance and write?) he remains a down-to-earth person and most importantly values his family, friends, partner and fans above all us.

(You can watch excerpts of the Who do you think you are? episode featuring Alan Cumming on YouTube, though I advice to finish the book first, to avoid “spoilers”.)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tart: a very long, but engrossing book about a lost boy and a small painting

The Goldfinch is the third novel by American writer Donna Tartt, considered by many to be a literary genius.

Tartt’s two other books are The Secret History, an “inverted detective story” about a college murder, which was published to huge acclaim in 1992 when she was just 29.

This was followed by The Little Friend a mystery adventure novel set in Mississippi in the early 1970s that appeared in book stores in 2002.

The Goldfinch – an epic novel spanning 864 pages – was published in 2013.

By that you can tell that Tartt, who is now 58, painstakingly completed a book about once every 10 years (and we should expect no.4 soon!).

It also suggests an astonishing level of self-confidence and cerebral stamina – you really have to believe in what you are doing to keep going on with the same story and characters for a decade!

However, each monumental effort has paid off. Not only are Tartt’s books best sellers and generally admired by critics, but they have won numerous prizes: The Little Friend won the WH Smith Literary Award while The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

“A beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart,” said the Pulitzer Prize judges of The Goldfinch.

It’s a pretty good summary of the novel, which begins in a hotel room in Amsterdam as 27-year-old Theodore Decker’s fever-ridden thoughts return to a fateful stormy morning in Manhattan 14 years ago and the last few hours he spent with is beloved mother.

When a storm descends on them, they seek shelter in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a terrorist bomb kills his mother a short while later.

Tartt’s description of the violent explosion and its aftermath are exquisite as she brings the terrible chaos and destruction to life on the page as if the reader is also there. Buried in the rubble, Theo finds himself in a “ragged white cave” with “swags and tatters dangling from the ceiling” and as the ground “tumbled and bucked up with heaps of a gray substance like moon rock”. It is descriptive writing at its finest.

Just as powerful and heart-wrenching are the scenes where Theo makes his way back to their empty, darkened apartment, to wait in vain for his mother, “her coffee cup, green glass from the flea market, with lipstick print on the rim” a reminder of her terrible absence.

Also a reminder of his mother, and a vital connection to his last moments with her is the The Goldfinch, a small painting by the 17th century Dutch painter Carel Fabritius that Theo has carried out of the wreckage with him.

The painting is of a “yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle”. Just before they were separated, Theo’s mother told him this little painting was “just about the first painting” she ever loved. There is also another parallel: Fabritius also died tragically young, caught in an explosion at the gunpowder magazine in Delft in Southern Holland.

I stepped back, to get a better look. It was a direct and matter-of-fact little creature, with nothing sentimental about it; and something about the neat, compact way it tucked down inside itself – its brightness, its alert watchful expression -made me think of pictures I’d seen of my mother when she was small: a dark-capped finch with steady eyes.

The Gold Finch

The intriguing little painting, which uses an art technique called “Trompe l’oeil” (French for ‘deceive the eye’) to create the illusion that depicted objects exist in three dimensions, becomes a kind of living and breathing character in the life of Theodore Decker as he navigates his way as a lost young boy through adolescence into adulthood.

The painting connects him to the last conversation he had with his mother, and so he holds onto it tight over the next 14 years, keeping it hidden as first he lives with the Barbours, the wealthy, dysfunctional family of his bullied school friend Andy, before his absent father – a failed actor who mistreated his mother – appears on the scene with his girlfriend Xanadu and whisks Theo away to a housing estate on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

Here he experiences the vast desert skies and becomes best friends with another of Tartt’s marvelous creations. a delinquent, enigmatic Ukrainian boy called Boris who entertains Theo with tales of his time in Humpty Doo in Australia’s Northern Territory and introduces him to alcohol and drugs.

The Goldfinch by Fabritius

Written in the first person, Tartt’s ability to get inside the head of a guilt-ridden 14-year-old boy dealing with the monumental loss of his mother and his bumpy journey towards adulthood is truly remarkable.

Thankfully though at 864 pages The Goldfinch is not just the story about a boy and his obsession with a painting that reminds him of his mother.

It also focuses in on relationships, and how we need people to get us through trauma, be it the muddled advice of Boris, or Hobbie, the quiet and patient Greenwich Village antique furniture dealer and restorer who becomes a pseudo father figure and mentor to Theo, when he makes it back to New York, after yet more traumatic events.

The Goldfinch may be long, but like Hanya Yanagihara’s epic, “A Little Life” it’s never dull. Each adventure is part of Theo’s journey towards lifting himself out of despair and to the realisation that “maybe even if we are not always glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway”.

Goodbye to Berlin, the autobiographical novel that inspired ‘Cabaret’ and warned of the Nazis

Goodbye to Berlin was the first book I read written by the celebrated English-American novelist and diarist Christopher Isherwood.

Published in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, it was the inspiration for the Bob Fosse movie ‘Cabaret’ , released in 1972, and starring Liza Minnelli as the flamboyant night club singer Sally Bowles. (Isherwood also wrote A Single Man made into the 2009 movie by Tom Ford starring Colin Firth).

The highly autobiographical novel is set in Berlin in the early 1930s as the city’s famed reputation for art, music, design, drink and decadence had begun to fade, as economic ruin started to descend on everyday lives, and as Nazi violence starts to assert itself on the streets whilst Hitler began his march to become Fuhrer.

Beginning in Autumn 1930, we find Isherwood living in a “large, dingy flat” above a busy street of shops, where prostitutes gather beneath his window. The flat is owned by Fräulein Schroeder, who was once fairly well off but like so many other Germans has fallen on hard times.

She calls Isherwood “Herr Issyvoo” and takes a keen interest in his life, and that of her other lodgers.

Such is her poor financial situation, that Frl Schroeder has had to take in five lodgers, leaving her without a room of her own. Instead, she “sleeps in the living room, behind a screen, on a small sofa with broken springs”.

Frl Schroeder is just one of the many eccentric and colourful characters Isherwood brings to life on the page. Another is fellow lodger Frl Mayer, a musical hall yodler, actress, proud Bavarian and “ardent Nazi” whose natural enemy is Frau Glauterneck, the Galician Jewess who lives in the apartment below theirs.

Coming into the living room yesterday morning, I found Frl Schroeder and Frl Mayer lying flat on their stomachs with their ears pressed to the carpet. At intervals they exchanged grins of delight or joyfully pinched each other, with simultaneous exclamations of ssh

Goodbye to Berlin

Another is the flamboyant American singer and wannabee actress Sally Bowles whom Isherwood meets one evening, early in October, dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her shoulders “and a little cap like a page boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head”,

Isherwood notices her emerald green nails, her nicotine tainted hands and “very large brown eyes”.

Bowles was based on the 19-year-old cabaret singer Jean Ross. Whimsical, flamboyant, stylish, promiscuous and dreamy (and not overly talented despite her ambitions), she is symbolic of the free-spirited Jazz Age in Berlin that flourished in Weimar-era Germany before the Nazis snuffed it out.

Isherwood is immediately drawn to Bowles, and she to him; their platonic friendship a sharp contrast to Bowles’ many lovers.

It is not hard to understand why Isherwood moved to Berlin. A gay man from a wealthy and conservative family from the north west of England, he would have found the German city’s plethora of gay bars, cabaret and experimental theatre alluring alongside its acceptance of homosexuality.

But he arrived there as this tolerance and acceptance was about to crushed by the Nazi regime, and as anti-semitism and intolerance becomes part of the chatter of everyday Germans looking for scapegoats for their economic woes.

Christopher Isherwood – taken in 1938

Indeed many of the people Isherwood formed close relationships with during his time in Berlin, would have been prime targets for the Gestapo such as the gay couple Otto and Peter, who we find the author living with in a beach house on Rügen Island in the summer of 1931.

There are perpetual little rows going on between Peter and Otto, yet I cannot say I find living with them actually unpleasant

Goodbye to Berlin

Then there are the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family, who own a Berlin department store. Isherwood befriends their precocious 18-year-old daughter Natalia, whom he accompanies on outings where they discuss art and literature He also forms a friendship with their cousin Bernard, a gay man, and a target for the Nazis.

Indeed Isherwood himself would have been in great personal danger had he chosen to remain in Berlin after the Nazis rose to power. He fled Berlin in May 1933 spent some time back in London and China, before emigrating to the US in 1939 and living in California.

I enjoyed being taken into this now long gone, but exotic world that Isherwood brings so vividly to life with his stories and anecdotes. He was a gifted storyteller with an ear finely tuned to the nuances of speech and character and well worth checking out for those looking for a fly-on-the-wall journalistic literary experience, that warned of the horrors to come.

 “’Concentration camps,’ said the fat man, lighting a cigar. They get them in there, make them sign things… . Then their hearts fail’”

Goodbye to Berlin