I recently moved from the near suburbs to the city centre and the change has been louder than I expected. I used to think the idea that the city never slept was a cliché. That if you went to Piccadilly Circus at 4am on a Monday morning then you would find something approaching emptiness.
After two months living in a top floor flat at the upper end of Wimpole Street in Marylebone, I can confirm that the city does indeed never sleep and for a while, until I got used to it, neither did I.
Perhaps the most surprising noises come from the sports cars and motorbikes that seemingly peep their noses out of subterranean garages at midnight and fly down the street at ferocious speeds, seemingly for no other reason that it is easier to get away with that kind of thing late at night.
Then there are the sirens from the ambulances making their way to University College Hospital or even to the mysterious London Clinic at the end of my road, England’s biggest private hospital, where hooded figures limp out of limousines and Range Rovers and into waiting wheelchairs.
There are helicopters, drunks, parties, delivery wagons, late-night road works and a reverberating dial tone from some unknown telephone that projects into the street and echoes down it when someone tries to make a call.
The bells of the St Marylebone Church, two streets away, toll the hour, as well as every half and quarter. They also toll to mark the start of the Sunday service.
There are 63 sets of bells in Westminster, including those in the Royal Courts of Justice, the eighteen bells at Fortnum and Mason and the Swiss glockenspiel in Leicester Square.
In fact, it is nearly impossible to live anywhere in Westminster without hearing bells, especially when Big Ben can be heard all the way to Pimlico.
Imagine living across from a large Swiss glockenspiel that bursts into song every fifteen minutes though. The one in Leicester Square is wirelessly controlled from Derby too, so going at it with a pair of wire cutters isn’t going to get you anywhere fast.
The strange thing is, that after a rocky start, I think all the Marylebone noise is helping me to sleep better. Once all the noises are settled in your mind, they become a kind of scored symphony, a familiar tune, that is able to lull you into sleep.
If a note is missing then the melody is broken and London certainly has many notes to play, with its ‘pulse like a cannon’ as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. London is certainly a city that never goes to sleep.
Changing from one literary world to another can often be a wrench. Quite a lot of time is devoted to reading a book from cover to cover and when the imaginary world that you have invited and invested yourself into caves in and dies on the last page, it is difficult not to feel bereft, especially if the jump from the old world into the new is particularly jarring.
I recently finished reading At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien and started to read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
When it comes to plain facts, these two books have quite a lot in common. They are both heavily influenced by James Joyce’s Ulysses. They both circumvent literary style, moving forwards and backwards in time and switch quickly from the perspective of one character to another.
Swim-Two-Birds is a ford in the River Shannon between Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge, a place where you can cross the river more easily and find your footing. Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse sixteen years after finishing Mrs Dalloway.
And yet, the actual emotional affect on the mind that these two books have couldn’t be more different.
If you jumped from At Swim-Two-Birds to Mrs Dalloway, you go from witnessing Mad King Sweeney be driven insane by St. Ronan’s curse, banished for ever to fly about the Irish countryside like a bird and live in the trees, to watching dead headed summer flowers bobbing up and down in a vase of water in a summer drawing room.
Neither Virginia Woolf nor Flann O’Brien ever wanted those two images to collide and they have done so now purely by chance and will, possibly, never be conjoined again, except in my memory.
These two pictures are now part of a composite patchwork quilt of imagery that one collects over a lifetime of reading. Patch after patch of seemingly unrelated images that come together, ultimately, to form a single garment, which is the backdrop to your life.
The book that links these two novels together, Ulysses, is a book which, like many people, I am familiar with, but have never actually finished. It is seen, perhaps incorrectly, as being the Mount Everest of the literary world. The final peak you have to conquer before you can class yourself as a well read person (with honours).
But Ulysses, much like Everest, has become worn down and overwrought by challengers. Base camp is strewn with rubbish and the old paths to the summit are becoming a little worn and tatty.
There are new, more recent challengers to the crown, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, for example, and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Both fiendishly complicated. Both seemingly never ending.
‘Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home,’ writes James Joyce. No matter how many perspectives a book tries to bury you in, no matter how many complications and twists and turns, you are always going to run into one recurring character, yourself.
Go to the City of London on a Sunday afternoon and you will find emptiness. Street after street of emptiness. Nobody comes to the City, London’s financial district, on a Sunday.
The irony of this is that the City IS London. The boundries of the City are the same that marked the Roman settlement of Londinium, established nearly 2000 years ago. The City is where London first started to breathe and grow and develop into the teaming metropolis that it has since become.
Under the modernist, brutalist layers of the Barbican Centre, lie not only Roman foundations, but Tudor foundations too. It was here, in the bustling Barbican of Tudor times, that Shakespeare lived, in Cripplegate, and wrote Hamlet.
The City is where Londoner’s endured the greatest calamities of the metropolis’s history. The Church of St-Giles-without-Cripplegate, which sits, preserved, within the concrete womb of the Barbican, survived not only the Great Fire of London in 1666, but also the Nazi bombs of the 1940’s, which obliterated the rest of the area.
This church’s canny skill of self-preservation allowed not only Oliver Cromwell to marry at its altar, but also allowed Rick Wakeman to record The Six Wives of Henry VIII, in the church’s nave, a century later.
Today the population of London’s historic heart is just 8,000, out of an overall population of nearly nine million, a number that has stayed static for decades.
It is surprising that anyone still lives there at all, in this cavernous mass of offices and sandwich shops.
There are over forty Eats and Pret a Mangers within the Square Mile and there are probably more on the way. That is one to serve every 200 of the City’s population, which is quite a good ratio of sandwich coverage.
But, civilisation does cling on and people do live there in the penthouses that sit at the top of the ever taller office blocks and in the beautifully appointed apartments of the Barbican.
I once even met someone who lived in a converted flat in the spire of Christ Church Greyfriars, the bombed-out church at the top of Cheapside, which was left partly in ruins as a memorial to those who died in the Blitz.
This is, to say the least, one of the City’s more unusual desirable residences, sitting as it does above the grave of Isabella of France, the so called ‘She-Wolf’ and original femme fatal, who was married to Edward II.
The rise of global finance and the power of the City of London Corporation and Parliament’s reliance on it as the economic engine room of the country, led to the sanitisation of this very crucial slice of London’s history.
The very centre of wider London, sits not in the City though, but under the statue of Charles I in front of Trafalgar Square. The statue of the beheaded King was torn down in the wake of the Civil War and the Roundheads ordered that it be melted down. The canny merchant who bought it though, buried the statue in his back garden and returned it to Charles II on his restoration in 1660.
It is from this spot that the accession of future Kings and Queens of England will be announced, but the monarch too, just like the workers in the City, is a commuter. For long periods of time Buckingham Palace is empty, turned over to millions of tourists, while the Queen reigns from Windsor or Balmoral or Sandringham.
Go to Chelsea or Kensington, or any of the more well healed inner suburbs of London and you will find emptiness too. Street after street of houses bought up by millionaires and billionaires, who use them once in a blue moon whenever they are in the city.
Go to County Hall, the imposing building that sits opposite Parliament, the former home of the powerful and independent Greater London Council and you will find only fish. Tank after tank of tropical fish. It was converted by Margaret Thatcher into an aquarium in the 1980s.
Pretty soon you won’t even find Parliament in Parliament. The Commons and Lords are all set to move to allow a multi-billion pound restoration to take place.
The centre of London has been hollowed out and turned into a playground for bankers and tourists, while the real people, the lifeblood of the city, have been pushed further and further out into the endless outer suburbs.
The pulse of the city can now be found in its extremities rather than at its heart.
As Patrick Keiller, in his excellent 1994 documentary film, ‘London’ writes, ‘for Londoners, the City is obscured. Too thinly spread, too private for anyone to know. Its social life invisible, its government abolished, its institutions at the discretion of either monarchy or state or the City, where at the historic centre there is nothing but a civic void, which fills and empties daily with armies of clerks and dealers, mostly citizens of other towns.
The true identity of London is in its absence. As a city it no longer exists. In this alone it is truly modern. London was the first metropolis to disappear.’
Never, it seems, has a year, in my life time, been entered into with as much trepidation as 2017. Will the celebrity death cull continue? Will President Trump explode the world? Hard boiled or scrambled Brexit?
Well, let’s take each of these issues in turn.
Well the celebrity death craze continue?
Almost certainly, yes. Back in the first half of the twentieth century celebrities were something of a rare species. The world gasped and feinted at Greta Garbo’s every utterance (and she didn’t say much), while John Wayne made a western a week. The generation of big, big, stars started to hit their old age in the 1990s, so you had Jimmy Stewart and Robert Mitchum dying a day apart in 1997 for example, which must have been quite a task to squeeze onto Ceefax.
In the 1960s the notion of celebrity exploded because there were suddenly many more mediums through which to become famous. You didn’t just have to appear in a film anymore, you could also put out a record, or, most importantly, appear on the television. This second, well stocked, generation of celebrities, is now tottering into old age and there are simply many more of them to kill off, hence the spike, which will only continue and, over time, speed-up.
By the time the millennials reach old age, a generation which generates celebrities like a cloud turns out grey rain drops, newspapers (of which there won’t be any in 2070) will require armies of obituary writers just to keep up.
Will President Trump kill us all?
Almost certainly, not. Although Donald Trump is, to say the least, something of an unconventional choice as America’s chief executive, many, if not all, of the more dubious facts of his biography and traits of character have been seen in presidents past. And the world survived all their stints in office. Let’s take a look back through the dirty mists of time:
Billionaire businessmen who earned money via dubious sources?
President Kennedy was the last billionaire president, money he inherited from his father, who was something of a dubious wheeler dealer in the Trump mould. Accusations of anti-Semitism? Tick. Mob connections? Tick. Accusations of Nazi sympathies? Tick. Warren G. Harding was another rich businessman president, who died half way through his first term, surprisingly popular, but now of course, reviled.
Philanderers/ serial abusers of women?
Take your pick. Clinton/LBJ/Kennedy/Eisenhower/FDR all could never be described as ethical men in terms of their relationships with women.
Serial liars with borderline personality disorders?
Nixon, Nixon and Nixon on both counts. Virtually all of them on the first count. He didn’t have sexual relations with that woman? He didn’t sell arms to the Nicaraguan Contras? The facts and the evidence say different.
Non of this makes Donald Trump’s behaviour excusable, it simply makes the point that we have been here before and we came through it, alive, for the most part.
Will he propose unpopular, backward looking legislation? Almost certainly, yes. Will it be opposed, modulated and in-time, over-turned? Of course.
Jumps forward in American history are always, generally, met with a big, fat, step backwards. Just as LBJ’s Great Society and civil rights advances were met with the election of Richard Nixon in 1969, so the social leaps forward of the Obama years have ended with the rise of Donald Trump in 2016. History tells us the pendulum is liable to swing the other way quicker than most expect. Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency and was gone, ensnared in a web of his own lies, by 1974. Not many people expected that.
Many things that appear unprecedented at face value, in all actuality, aren’t.
What type of Brexit?
Well, I for one, feel that it no longer matters. The most important thing that 2016 taught us is not that the worst case scenario happens, but that the world keeps turning when it does.
Your worst case Brexit scenario may well happen, but you’re still going to have to get up the next morning and make it work for you. As someone, somewhere, once said, ‘people will come and go, but the river is eternal.’
I’m not quite sure what that means, or in fact, if I’ve just made it up, but it’s the thought I will leave you with.
Happy New Year!
Je Tu Il Elle
Who was Chantal Akerman? She was a renowned Belgian film maker. She was born in Brussels in 1950 and she killed herself in Paris a few weeks ago.
When a journalist from Village Voice asked Julie Christie, (the actress from Darling and Don’t Look Back and a name to anyone under thirty no doubt just as mysterious as Chantal Akerman) what film she would take to a desert island, Christie replied Jeanne Dielman.
Akerman made Jeanne Dielman , 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles when she was twenty five and the New York Times called it the ‘first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema’. It features the collapse of a woman’s routine over three days, as she attempts to look after her son, while paying for his upbringing through prostitution. The film critic John Coleman said that ‘the film’s time span covers Tuesday (stew and potatoes), Wednesday (wiener schnitzel) and heady Thursday (meat loaf and Jeanne has an orgasm and kills her client with a pair of scissors).’
The film was followed by Je Tu Il Elle, which is about a young woman who lives alone, writes letters and eats powdered sugar.
But this is all biographical information, it doesn’t answer the question…who was she? She had green eyes. Strong eyes. She was pretty when she was younger, a cross between Charlotte Rampling and Doris Lessing. She had a number of nervous breakdowns. Her mother died last year. She had been recently hospitalised for depression.
These are the major things, but we’ll never know the ‘almost nothings’ that made her day to day and together formed the backcloth of her life.
We know she was nomadic, the often labeled ‘Belgian film-maker’ found it difficult to settle down and stay put. She produced work in Eastern Europe, Mexico, China and Israel. She was Jewish and like all people born within its orbit, the Holocaust and its aftershocks were a constant presence in her life and memory. Her mother had survived Auschwitz, while her mother’s parents had perished.
The Holocaust influenced her work, how could it not? In her 1989 film ‘American Stories – Food, Family and Philosophy’ Akerman presents a patchwork quilt consideration of European Jewish culture. It was noted by the American film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, that American Stories was dominated by exterior shots, which was not, Rosenbaum concluded, Akerman’s natural medium. Instead, the critic said, Akerman was much more suited to the constricting interior.
Akerman, the dweller of the concise interior? It is a charge that does appear to stand up to scrutiny. Her films often feature a dark constricted corridor or a small flat bedroom. But, if the physical appearance of her work on the screen is full of barriers and constraints, her narrative style, the way she tells a story and perhaps the way she lived her own life, is much more musical in style.
Every shot lasts as long as it should, nothing feels overwrought or overstretched. An image stays as long as it should stay and then, she cuts, and it disappears.
A sea breeze blew the music charts from a horseshoe of silver stands sending pages of yellowing staves and treble clefs slicing through the air.
I told Greta that clothes pegs might be needed but she begged me to stop concentrating on the tiny details and consider the larger picture. She ordered me into the undercroft of the hall to carry out several stone heads of musical notables that I had to arrange on a four tiered table top, each head facing a different direction, to create the impression of a gaggle.
Nothing is more disheartening than the giving of a concert to an audience that isn’t listening and as I weaved my way around the cabinets at the reception for the Governor of Barbados, the talk was of anything but the music.
Maria, leaning against the curve of the curved room, she said was only there because an empty Sunday would have left her with too much time on her hands and I said I was tired of working. So we took on our roles and she started to talk about flirting, while I adopted the style of a connoisseur, as the cable car ticked from tooth to tooth in the thin mountain air.
The air was cold, we sipped in the cold air, as the sculpted miracle, garlanded with fairy lights, was guided down the steps. The patriarch passed guarded by lines of green dragoons. The sensation in the flesh is never as fascinating as a sensation in the air and nearly everyone saluted as the man of the moment moved through the crowds.
It’s strange, but of all the things I learned that night, the fact that carousel means little battle in Spanish is what still sticks in my mind. The magic of life is in the skirmishes.
Those Kray twins were right bloody bastards weren’t they? With all that filching, cly faking, dewskitching and dollyshop demandering. Should have gone into scrap metal like their old dad instead of always being a few sour moves away from a pair of silver derbies. Ronnie and Reggie were both born in Hoxton, London, which today is sewed together with bordering Shoreditch. Back in those fun filled glamorous days that we collectively term England’s Middle Ages, the body of Jane Shore, a noteworthy tart and one time gumar to Edward IV, you know, that pudgy faced, all cheeks and very little mouth, David Cameron lookalike of a Plantagenet monarch, was dumped in a ditch in the area, leading to the district’s ironic dubbing, or so the highly dubious and historically disputable story goes.
Hoxton and Shoreditch used to be characterised by bustling small industry, factories and workshops, but in the years after the Second World War industry began to move out, leaving behind a great number of empty warehouses and shop floors cheaply available. Because of the large spaces and low rents artists and musicians began to move in, giving birth to a burgeoning creative scene. The cultural bridge between the tail end of the industrial Kray scarred Shoreditch and its early days as an artistic haven in the early nineties was dreamed up, built and cemented by Joshua Compston. Artist, impresario and curator.
Compston is best known for the gallery he set up in a former factory on Charlotte Road named Factual Nonsense. Described as a “cultural think tank” Compston wanted the gallery to aim towards revolutionising the lives of the working classes. In his lovingly crafted new book on Joshua Compston, published in conjunction with an exhibition of work and materials related to Joshua’s career at the Paul Stolper gallery in London, Darren Coffield, a friend and contemporary of the artist, writes of Shoreditch in the early 1990s. Coffield describes the area as “a dilapidated and unpopulated place”, in the wake of another British recession, a place that appeared to Joshua as something of an ‘undiscovered country’, a million miles away from the late-era Thatcherite middle class hedonism that had taken root in London’s west.
Factual Nonsense organised a number of public events that, if one, like a complete fucking buggerlugs, were to analyse Shoreditch’s recent cultural development, would be regarded as key moments in the area’s rebirth. The Fete Worse than Death (1993) was one such event, a kind of art house street party organised by Joshua and located in Hoxton Square around ‘the notorious triangle of Great Eastern Street, Old Street and Curtain Road, a Victorian artisan area famous for its nobler design.” Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst famously dressed up as clowns for the event, producing spin paintings at one quid a pop, just as anyone who has bought a Hirst in the following years should have adopted similar jovial gear.
Gavin Turk did a bash the rat stall, Brendan Quick a pubic hair exchange for those who wished to pluck and barter with their tangled diamonds, Sarah Lucas had an empty stall with a piece of cardboard placed on it reading ‘our thoughts on any matter for 20p’ and James Goff (these are all names of artistic veks who were on the scene at the time, quoted diligently in Coffield’s book) was particularly proud of his tuna fish tail stall. “We went to the bloody fish market and got all these tuna fish tails and then we got this grill and we barbecued together and we sold it. And I remember at the end of the day, we were sweating and stinking and we were selling tuna fish tails for five quid a piece. And Damien Hirst was selling his fucking spin paintings for a quid a piece.” Across the way from Goff’s tuna fish tail stall Tracey Emin was running a kissing tent, 50p for a kiss and by 7pm of the same day you could get a lot more for the same price. Did James Goff of the tuna fish tail stall stop by for a snog on the rot from Jane Shore, oh, I mean Tracey Emin. “No, we were to busy doing the fucking tuna,” he remembers. The Fete ended with the traditional drawing of a raffle (the prize: a bag of dildos) and someone yelling at them to turn the music down.
The Fete was successful in binding together a disparate set of characters into a community, but the cool reputation it garnered as the event fell into crystalline memory began Shoreditch’s transformation into what it is today. “Within a year and half,” Gary Hume notes in the book, “everything had gone up in price. People could no longer be there. A coffee house arrived and another one. The Fete was the beginning and the end of it.”
In the meantime Factual Nonsense continued its pioneering work. There was The First Party Conference (1993), a string of cultural events of the kind that if you remember them then you weren’t really there, the cock and yarbles posters that publicised the programme are fondly remembered, but caused a great deal of controversy when they tried to plaster them down the King’s Road. There was also the Fete Worse than Death II, which Compston said attracted “over 4000 people of different descriptions and denominations, making myth of the area of Hoxton and Shoreditch as an upbeat up and coming cultural zone.”
Compston’s public work, such as the Fete, in many ways foreshadowed some of the recent public artworks by Jeremy Deller, yet aside from the public events, the book also highlights Compston’s more conventional artworks. Coffield praises Joshua’s ‘Other Men’s Flowers’ collection as “one of the most underrated and overlooked artworks of the last twenty years.”
Coffield notes that he and Compston were interested in printed ephemera and says that the two of them would attend ephemera fairs at the Victory Services club near Marble Arch, with Joshua going on to recycle the purchased turn of the century paper curios by sending people letters scrawled on the back of “old ocean liner menus, Edwardian cheques and pre-war public health posters.” Compston’s ‘Other Men’s Flowers’ project saw him recruit a number of leading British artists, old and new, to produce a series of prints, inspired by ephemera and based on old texts, so Mat Collishaw recreated a page from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for example, while Henry Bond contributed a description of Monaco.
The title was inspired by a collection of poems collated by Viscount Wavell, a general in the Second World War, who had the habit of reciting poems to encourage his men on the eve of battle, he was later persuaded to compile these poems into a collected volume, which he titled ‘Other Men’s Flowers’, flowers being an age old term for writing. Compston’s father had given him a copy of the book and he later discovered that the title was not Wavell’s own, but belonged to the French writer Michel de Montaigne, who had written to describe his own collection of other men’s poems, “I have gathered about me a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own.” Which is rather a good description for the stories presented in this fine book, Coffield gathering together and binding up for the sake of posterity the life’s work of a dear friend.
Joshua Compston died in 1996, at the age of 25, and was buried with all the fuss and shenanigans usually accorded a pharaoh or a brave and true conqueror of great panoramas of giant stuff. “Joshua’s funeral, it kind of looked a bit like one of the Kray twins funerals,” writes Coffield, “it was a lot of people.” His coffin was painted with a William Morris pattern and bottles of wine were stashed by his body as crowds of people thronged the East End while Joshua made the journey from Factual Nonsense to his final resting place. “I found the funeral quite strange,” says Andrew Wilson. “I remember thinking, who are all these people? It was a sort of circus and it was, almost, dare I say it, one of the most successful events that Joshua inspired, but he didn’t benefit from it at all.”
London characters come and go, but the city is eternal. Rejoice by the dusty railings around the steps to the pedestal of the statue of this great and incorruptible youf. Rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice.
Factual Nonsense – The Art and Death of Joshua Compston is available now: http://www.factualnonsense.com
All images (except the first) courtesy of the Paul Stolper Gallery, London ©Dosfotos
I am not an expert. I say that with all due consideration to you, the reader, who may well have found this page expecting expertise, thinned and straightened into horizontal lines, ready for you to take up your collective noses like Victorian snuff. We live in the era of the expert. The twenty four hour news media, to borrow an increasingly dreary phrase, screams for, day in day out, and thusly teems with, expertise, battalions of experts eager to validate any newspaper, any news network, any website with their considered meanderings into the anointed topics of the day.
Every statement needs validation. Every argument needs both sides. Two statements of fact. But with more and more statements being made, through countless platforms, mouthpieces and mediums, the clamour for authentication is prompting the bar for expertise to be lowered further and further.
Expertise is overrated. An expert can’t be trusted. Overarching statements and both subjects of Orson Welles’s recently re-released late-period film ‘F for Fake’. The film focuses on two notorious swindlers: Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving, one notorious recluse: Howard Hughes and a whole host of dubious experts.
“In the late 1960s Elmyr de Hory was the world’s most talented and most successful art forger ever,” says Mark Forgy, a writer from Minneapolis and one time assistant to Elmyr. Forgy is, you could say, one of the leading Elmyr experts still living, the holder of the deceased painter’s personal papers, he acted as de Hory’s confidant and bodyguard. When the painter committed suicide in 1976, with the law closing in, it was Forgy who found Elmyr dying from an overdose of sleeping pills.
Forgy certainly boasts all the trappings of the expert, he’s written a book (The Forger’s Apprentice – A True Story) that’s one peg up in the expertise stakes. The book has been turned into a play (directed by Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha, co written and co-produced by Mark Forgy and Kevin Bowen, first performed at the Minnesota Fringe in August 2013). Mark Forgy is even available for lectures. In fact at this juncture you might think it best for me to hand over to Mark Forgy to complete this brief lecture on Elmyr de Hory and the falling stock of expertise in our century, but, to paraphrase Orson Welles: “This isn’t that kind of article.”
Mark Forgy is not the only expert on the life and times of Elmyr de Hory, and he certainly isn’t the most famous, and fame counts for a lot these days. Clifford Irving (whose name you might have heard most often mentioned in regards to Howard Hughes – more on him later) was the first to publish a book on the great Elmyr after spending some time together with him on the island of Ibiza, where Elmyr planned to settle after spending years running from city to city avoiding the police. The book was Fake! and it told the story of how some of Elmyr’s fake Picassos, Modiglianis, Reichenbachs and Renoirs made their way, un-rumbled, into the most prestigious art collections in the world, where some of them may remain to this very day.
But Irving, the writer and momentary expert on Elmyr, had his sights set on becoming the authoritative source on a man even more fleeting and mysterious than the Hungarian born painter.
Howard Hughes was the great mystery man of his age, the Saran wrapped enigma, the man who engineered the uplifting brassiere and the grounded Spruce Goose, made movies and wooed Katharine Hepburn, before disappearing, to some top floor penthouse suite in Las Vegas where he kept bottles of his own urine, padded about with Kleenex boxes on his feet and saw no one. So the stories go. So the experts tell us. Sequestered in the Desert Inn, surrounded by a ‘band of mystery Mormons’, bemoaning that dago bastard Frank Sinatra who had stolen his girl, the world waited for the Hughes comeback, after all, nobody turns their back on celebrity, not in America, everybody comes back to the lights, eventually.
Cliff Irving erroneously believed Hughes had gone for good and should he, Irving, produce a book, an autobiography, a fake autobiography featuring fraudulent contributions from Hughes himself, then the missing billionaire would surely not stir from his rooftop hideout disturbing the desert sands covering his lair, in order to refute Irving’s fantasy. He’d been gone for fifteen years by then, could be dead for all Irving knew, or at the very least the Kleenex stories could be true and the old man would be too crackers to notice.
Hughes was a man desperate for his story to be told, said Irving, they had met in various locations around the world for interviews, including incredulously, on top of a Mexican pyramid, like a scene from a fake de Chirico painting. And why not a Mexican pyramid? Hughes was gaga, so the more outrageous the better. After all if there is one thing people hate more than anything it’s an unfinished story, think Kennedy in Dallas, Princess Grace in the hills above Monaco and Diana in the Alma Tunnel. An unfinished story leaves a void ready to be filled with bunk, scurrilous sculch, which people believe, if it gives meaning to a meaningless end, or in this case, something even more ethereal and infuriating (for the gossip hound) than death, an unexplained disappearance.
The world bought it. Time Magazine bought it to the tune of $250,000 for serial rights to the manuscript while Dell Publishing Company offered a further $400,000 for the paperback rights. But before money exchanged hands, Irving’s big book of lies had to pass muster with the experts. Hughes’s signature on the documents agreeing to the publication of the book had to be authenticated. The best handwriting experts in the whole-wide-world were summoned and pored over the documents like pigs over a trough of satsumas. They huffed and puffed and wiped their sweaty brows and concluded, after much study, that yes, this was the signature of the real Howard Hughes and with the approbation of the sainted experts given, Irving had his scoop, the scoop, bar the (phoney) Hitler diaries, of the century.
Hughes should never have had to stir from his stupor to dismiss the story, there should have been countless experts on hand to do that for him, people in possession of the plain facts. And yet that is exactly was he was forced to do, not physically though, instead his disembodied voice appeared over a phone line to a room full of invited journalists.
“I don’t remember any script as wild or as stretching of the imagination as this yarn has turned out to be,” said the supposed voice of Hughes. “I don’t know Irving. I never saw him. I never even heard of him until a matter of days ago when this thing first came to my attention.”
Despite the fact that it was known that Howard Hughes had used voice doubles in the past, the journalists, who were all supporters of Hughes, concluded that the voice did indeed belong to the dyspeptic billionaire, just as the handwriting experts had identified the hand of a Hughes in Irving’s phoney web.
When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”
When Adam scratched Eve’s name onto the Eden tree, its my guess he didn’t initial it, but for as long as that tree stood, way back in the BC’s I bet there was some knowing character on hand to point out the landmark, and I’m sure that when that etching was weathered off the bark, or the tree was felled, that someone was quick enough to whittle a replacement, so as not to loose the tourist trade.
“It’s pretty, but is it art” wrote Ruddy Kipling, a verse quoted by Welles in F for Fake. You could say that Elmyr’s fakes are pretty, but certainly not art, because of their carbon copy nature. But then again, can’t deception be artful? Irving’s bogus autobiography was certainly artful in its circumvention of the truth. Expertise is easy to fake if you are able to say something well enough.
Speak delicate untruths in an authoritative voice and you will most likely be believed in the heat of the moment. Anything jump out at you when you read earlier: “Fake! told the story of how some of Elmyr’s fake Picassos, Modiglianis, Reichenbachs and Renoirs made their way, undiscovered, into some of the most prestigious art collections in the world.”? Reichenbach? An artist who ranks with the greats? No such person. Francois Reichenbach, the producer of F for Fake, the more likely candidate here. But did you briefly believe in this new artistic master as you skimmed these paragraphs? Were you willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, just for a moment?
Perhaps the more pertinent question, in an age where news and celebrity have become intertwined is should we be more realistic about the outlets we turn to for truth? Anyone who looks towards a blog say, or a tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mail, for example, for hard, provable fact and then screams bloody murder when they are left disappointed is misguided. It is blatantly obvious that the purpose of the Mail, in its current form, is not to inform, but to entertain, in the same way as a Beano comic will.
A character assassination here, a sexing up of the facts there, from the ‘fascist den’ at the Daily Mail to the supposed ‘nest of Marxists’ that comprises the BBC, these aren’t sins against the public, but are the well-meaning acts of a new and fine breed of storytellers, currently residing in the one time impenetrable fortresses of truth and justice that once made up the media in the UK and the US. Ranks of Clifford Irvings, willing to put fiction before the truth for the sake of entertainment, backed by cherry picked experts frothing at the mouth to contribute. And what of it? Why not enjoy the hapless flinging of cream pies that constitutes our national discourse. Just don’t start believing everything you hear, the recorded voice of Howard Hughes appearing out of the ether won’t always be there to dismiss the inexactitudes of the experts. Today, that job is up to us.
And with that the writer drops his authoritative voice, takes off his mask and returns to civilian life.