A centerpiece of Mike Leigh’s acclaimed film, Mr Turner, is the artist’s painting of a once proud Royal Navy ship of the line, the HMS Temeraire, being towed up the Thames on its last voyage. It is heading for a breaker’s yard at Rotherhithe where it will be stripped of its oak and other timbers and sold off to make snuff boxes, householder furniture and a variety of domestic items. The end of the Temeraire is especially poignant as it was credited with saving Nelson’s ship HMS Victory when it beat off an attack from Spanish and French ships at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It has been suggested that for Turner, fascinated by ships and the sea, the demise of the Temeraire reflected in some profound ways his own life. He was a young man at the time of Trafalgar and Nelson’s victory mirrored his own success as a painter: Turner was a prodigy who became wealthy early on his canvasses sought after by rich patrons. At the time of the breaking up of the Temeraire Turner was entering the last and increasingly eccentric phase in his life. He had a sense of the beginnings of his own journey to the breaker’s yard. There was an account in the first biography of Turner of him taking a trip on the Thames with friends at the time the Temeraire was heading for Rotherhithe and this was the inspiration for the painting. This is now generally discounted. But if Turner had clapped eyes on the doomed ship it would have borne absolutely no resemblance to the hulk he subsequently painted. Whereas his Temeraire still has her masts, the real ship had been stripped of them and much else that could be salvaged by the Navy. Whereas Turner sets the scene at sunset, the delivery of the ship to the breaker’s yard was in daylight. Turners ship is towed by a single paddlewheel tug, the real ship was towed by two tugs. Turner’s Fighting Temeraire is not a record of something he had witnessed but a wonderfully romantic creation of the painter’s vivid imagination. Though he spent long hours observing colour and light in his excursions and walks, when he put brush to canvas the scenes he painted were imaginary. In Mike Leigh’s film surely a telling episode would have been to illustrate, with the Fighting Temeraire as an example, how Mr Turner transformed a mundane reality–the actuality of the demise of the once proud ship–into a bathetic vision. Unaccountably, Leigh fails to do this. It is clearly not because he was unaware of the circumstances of the creation of the painting: an article in the Guardian by the lead researcher on the film makes this clear. They knew Turner was not painting something he had witnessed. Yet they went to tremendous trouble and expense in the film to recreate the scene as if it was what Turner had seen. The cameraman, Dick Pope, gave this account of the filming of the episode: "We shot it very late in the evening, just on the cusp on sunset. We were blessed with the most fantastic sunset and the actors and the whole landscape was viewed in this beautiful light. It was almost in the same place as where the painting was depicted, bringing the Temeraire up the Thames to be broken up. Then these magical guys back in London created the moving Temeraire in CGI, which I hope you found completely believable because I did. We provided everything else!" What they had re-created was something Turner had imagined not something he had seen. Leigh wants to emphasise that he was not making a documentary: Mr Turner is fiction, a drama. But why re-create, cinematically, an image from Turner’s imagination? How much more telling to film a recreation of the reality of the towing of the Temeraire and use it to illustrate the way in which Turner transformed the mundane into the magnificent. My guess is this: Leigh has Turner as a working class champion, poor boy made good. The painting is patently nationalistic, nostalgic about a British triumph. If Turner actually saw the Temeraire at sunset, its hull and masts a ghostly vision hauled by a blackened steam tug then he was merely recording what he had witnessed. But by romanticizing the scene Turner was revealing himself as a working class patriot, the kind of “salt of the earth” character embraced by wealthy patrons. What other explanation might there be for the absurd enterprise of recreating a painting that could have been quite faithfully reproduced as an image of the original shot on a rostrum camera?
The release of a film about the one-time porn star Linda Lovelace brings back a not entirely happy family memory. I think it must have been in 1974 when my father was writing theatre criticism for the magazine Encounter that he got an invitation from a man called Jimmy Vaughan to view a film he had imported illegally with the puzzling title Deep Throat. I think he contacted my father because he had written an amusing tongue in cheek ( as it were) review of Oh Calcutta! ( a pun on the French, meaning " what an arse you have"). My father was invited to a screening of the film in a small studio in Wardour Street and he thought to invite a few family and friends along. It was, I have to say, an eye opener. I read journalists now suggesting it was "tame" and we would not be shocked by it now. But it was not tame at all. There was a general sense of unease as the first film reel went through and then the lights went up while the second reel was put up. I don't recall how many of us were there but certainly a few slipped off into street. I remember my father, trying to sound unflustered, saying: " Now I know what it is like to be a medical student." I can't remember now if he reviewed the film, but I think not. Later he was member of the Williams Committee on Obscenity, a public duty he thoroughly enjoyed. His favourite story was of the man who ran a smutty shop somewhere on the South Coast who was asked what sort of people his customers were. He cast his eyes around the assembled dignitaries, which included a Bishop,and said: " Well, very much like the gentlemen seated here.
It is a custom for people who rent out their apartments to holidaymakers to have a few shelves of books that they and their guests have read. And so it is in the charming apartment we have been staying in in Collioure, a seaside town in the Catalan district of south east France. I had brought with me Jonathan Fanzen's Freedom which I tossed aside about half way through, wondering why someone would spend nine years, as the story goes, creating characters he clearly despised. I gave up when I realised I did not care what happened to any of them. Luckily I had also brought Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns which gripped me from the first sentence:more than once, I put the book down with tears welling in my eyes. But when I put it aside, there were a few days to go so I went to the shelves of the holiday apartment owned by an English couple most of whose guests were English. There was a the anticipated range of light, popular fiction. I was looking for something more substantial to follow the wonderful book about Afghanistan. I was pleased to find A week in December by Sebastian Faulks and was looking forward to reading something of substance about modern London. Faulks set out to describe the lives of seven very different characters living in the capital: a hedge fund manager, a Polish footballer, etc. I got no further than the first page before I closed the book and put it aside. The first chapter was entitled Sunday, December 16. " Five o'clock and freezing. Piledrivers and jackhammers were blasting into the wasteland by the side of the West Cross Route in Shepherd's Bush......'" Piledrivers and jackhammers on a Sunday? Maybe, but I doubt it. Never mind. We find Arsenal at home to Chelsea kicking off under floodlights, someone visiting an East End synagogue to pay respects to a relative who " came from Lithuania some eighty years ago. " Then this: " Up the road in Victoria Park, the last of the dog-walkers dragged their mongrels back to flats in Hackney and Bow, grey high-rises marked with satellite dishes, like ears cupped to the outside world in the hope of gossip or escape...." Firstly, it is a lousy image if your readers know what a satellite dish is for and perhaps have one themselves on their roof, hidden,as mine is ,in a district where planning counts for more. Satellite dishes look to me like devices to receive commercial television, sport and films particularly, relatively cheap entertainment. What does Faulks mean by gossip anyway? And escape from what? And why are all the dog walkers council tenants and the dogs mongrels? Is this not a cheap slight, a casual pen stroke by someone who does not have a clue what he is writing about? Has Faulks ever visited Victoria Park? I have never been to Kabul or anywhere in Afghanistan but I found Hosseni's description of the people compelling. Perhaps those who know the place intimately would be critical of his description of the country. But I sincerely hope that nobody imagines that Sebastian Faulks in A Week in December has got to the heart of the astonishing diversity of modern London. Much of the area of Victoria Park is still owned by the Crown Estates. Much of it which was not destroyd by bombs and rockets during World War2 has survived and is very fashionable. The Park itself has been extensivley renovated. It is a very vibrant area. And, though I know nothing about dogs myself, I bet a lot of those walked in Victoria Park have just as fine a pedegree as the Wellington College educated Faulks himself.
One of the brief fifteen minute talks I gave recently at the Southbank Centre as part of its The Rest is Noise festival was on the extraordinary organisation Mass Observation which was founded in 1937 in London. Charles Madge, a poet and journalist, Humphrey Jennings a film maker and Tom Harrisson a self-styled anthropologist decided, as part of a project to monitor the mood of the nation, that the English working classes should be studied as if they were a tribe of savages. Harrisson, a keen bird watcher had got a taste for social observation while living with cannibals in the South Pacific and on his return to England camped in Bolton, Lancashire to live amongst the natives. Known to Mass Observation as "Worktown" it became the focus of some intense scrutiny when volunteer "observers" arrived to study the social habits of the locals. The idea was to publish the results in a series of books but only one, The Pub and the People, got into print before the war broke out. Which is a shame, for Mass Observation's astonishing and eye opening study of the sexual antics of Worktown at play in Blackpool in 1937, which is held in the Mass Observation archive at Sussex University, has only been peeped at by researchers. However, a taste of it can be found in a book by Gary Cross called Worktowners and happily the survey was the subject of an article by social historian Peter Gurney published in 1997 in the Journal of the History of Sexuality. My piece here is based entirely on Gurney's article which begins with a quote from one of the Blackpool observers, John Summerfield: "Walk about a bit; by now observer Wickham and myself are convinced that it isn't just bad luck on our part, it's true, all the girls are ugly, not some but everyone. . . " The following is a description of the unorthodox approach to Anglo anthropology taken by the team of observers who set out to mingle with the Blackpool crowd: "When we began work in Blackpool we expected to see copulation everywhere. What we found was petting, feeling, masturbating one another. Observer units combed the sands at all hours, crawled under the piers and hulkings, pretended to be drunk and fell in heaps on located sand couples to feel what they were doing exactly, while others hung over the sea wall and the railings for hours watching couples in their hollowed-out sand pits below." As Peter Gurney summed up this enterprise : "Thus, Mass-Observation systematized voyeurism and legitimated it as scientific 'observation.' Observers set out, we are told, 'with wild cries.' Eventually the quest was successful. All cases of necking seen in one night were recorded at the height of the season (length of contact was timed with a stopwatch). Of a total of 234 couples, 198 cases of 'em-bracing' were recorded, but only thirty-six couples were lying down. The results were tabulated and it was noted that: 'The most significant fact is that against 234 recorded cases of love-making skilled observers could find only four cases of copulation. It is difficult to say whether this result is not biased on the high side since an Observer was himself responsible for one of the cases considered. 'The observer was one of the few working-class participants, Jack Longford, who sent in a full and lurid report of his sexual encounter (standing up, against a wall) with a married woman from Leeds whose husband was a neurasthenic and who had come to Blackpool in search of 'fun.''" What sort of people were these mass observers? Mostly lower middle class by all accounts and perhaps, as Gurney suggests, the kind of disaffected intellectuals described by George Orwell in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn: " Since about 1930 everyone describable as an "intellectual" has lived in a state of chronic discontent with the existing order. Necessarily so, because society as it was constituted had no room for him. In an Empire that was simply stagnant, neither being developed or falling to pieces, and in an England ruled by people whose chief asset was their stupidity, to be "clever" was to be suspect. If you had the kind of brain that could understand the poems of T. S. Eliot or the theories of Karl Marx, the higher-ups would see to it that you were kept out of any important job. The intellectuals could find a function for themselves only in the literary reviews and the left-wing political parties." The founder members of Mass Observation, Harrisson and Madge, were brought together by the letters page of the left wing New Statesman and Nation. A schoolmaster wrote to say he would have liked to have known what the general public thought of the "sexual situation" of the abdication of Edward Vlll and Charles Madge responded with a reply under the heading " Anthropology at home" that an organisation to find out had just been formed in London. Alongside Madge's letter was a poem by Tom Harrisson, the only one he ever had published, with the title Coconut Moon about the philosophy of cannibals. Harrison contacted Madge and in no time the new organisation Mass Observation was despatching an enthusiastic cabal of film makers, poets and literary critics to Bolton and Blackpool. When war broke out Harrisson kept Mass Observation going and worked with the Ministry of Information to monitor the mood of the nation as the bombing began. Madge and others thought this was a betrayal of their detachment from government, but Harrisson and his observers did not sign the Official Secrets Act and in time he produced a vivid account of the experience of the Blitz in London and the bombings in other towns. After the war the organisation kept going with income from market research and eventually found its home at Sussex University. One strand of its "anthropology at home" was to ask observers to keep a diary for one day, the first being the Coronation Day on 12 May 1937. This has recently been revived and Mass Observation is, to some extent, back in business.
I recorded Dan Snow’s Locomotion: a history of the railway to see what he had to say about Richard Trevithick, the Cornish mining engineer who built the first working steam locomotives one of which carried 50 tons of iron and 70 men nearly ten miles in 1804. But there was no mention of him. Episode one lurched from a stationary steam engine which pulled a cable to Stephenson’s Rocket in 1830. Nothing in between. And everything that went right in that quarter of a century, every innovation was attributed to Stephenson and his son Robert, who was a mere lad when Trevithick visited them in the North East. I spun back and forth to find out if there was an account of the radical change in technology which made the steam locomotive possible. Nothing. Just a vague reference to steam engines evolving. I sat there thinking: this programme is not on the rails. Everything about it was wrong. Where on earth did Snow and his researchers go for their information? The history of steam railways and the steam engine is recounted in a huge number of books and the basics are not in dispute. Snow did not explain that the early steam engines which pumped water from mines and were refined by James Watt and Matthew Boulton and later drove machinery were “atmospheric engines”. Their power was not generated by expanding steam directly but by air pressure: a cylinder was filled with steam which drove out the air creating a vacuum in which atmospheric pressure drove down a piston. Watt’s innovations made them much more efficient in the use of coal and therefore more widely available. Cornish tin miners resented the tariff they had to pay for the use of the Boulton-Watt engines and sought a way round the patent. It was this that inspired Trevithick to construct an entirely new kind of engine which was powered by expanding steam. His first Puffing Devil was a road vehicle that ran on Christmas Eve 1801. It burned down, but he built others, one of which exploded in London killing some of his men. Because what he called “ strong steam” was dangerous, Watt was dead against it and reviled Trevithick for his invention. However, these new engines were more compact than the stationary atmospheric engines and were more suitable for powering a vehicle. Trevithick was thwarted because the existing railway tracks were laid for horse drawn wagons and were not strong enough to carry a locomotive. Wrought iron rails,which were first introduced in the 1820s, solved the problem, by which time Trevithick was otherwise engaged in silver mines in Peru. He was invited to go there because atmospheric engines would not operate at very high altitudes whereas his "strong steam" engines did. In the Snow version of railway history the impulse to create this new form of transport came from the big cotton importers and manufacturers and it all kicked off in 1830. No mention of George Stephenson’s run on a section of the Stockton to Darlington line five years earlier. No mention of the fact that Stephenson was asked to look at the emerging locomotive technology by mine owners concerned about the rise in the price of horse power during the Napoleonic Wars. Did Snow and his team know all this but decided that it would be too much for a popular audience to take?
I was very pleased to receive this cutting from The Independent of a brief interview with the author Terry Pratchett who happened, at the time,to be reading my book about the North American natural ice trade. This pat on the back from the hugely successful Pratchett made my day, and week!