Thinking Nollywood – Icons In A Wasteland

A woman with milky white irises stares blankly towards the camera. A human hand protruding from her mouth, like the tail of a calf trapped in the jaws of an anaconda. An old woman sits by a barred window, in a rocking chair, two golden coins resting in her eye sockets. Her fee for the boatman to ferry her to the underworld. But she doesn’t look dead.

A badly burnt body rises from a car wreck and a vampire taxi driver cradles his latest fare. While a man sits dressed in black, with a black top hat. White paint coated thick around his eye’s he seems to resemble Baron Samedi the voodoo master of the dead, giver of life and healer. He sits, the king of his own domain amid the empty Total oil barrels and rotting mattresses.

These are images created and photographed by professional photo-journalist Pieter Hugo and are partly inspired by Nollywood, the trail-blazing Nigerian film industry whose shoestring budget and dynamically creative sensibility is taking the continent by storm. The compositions also owe a large amount to Nigerian myth, character and a visionary imagination, fired by a parched, empty landscape that helps give man-made images more potency. As Pieter highlights “I wanted to use the Nollywood aesthetic as a starting point; its theatrical and performative quality, the spectacle of it. Fictional reality presents us with opportunities of reinventing ourselves. That’s beauty.”

Nollywood, is the third-world successor to its decadent father on the Californian coast. It is the third largest film industry in the world, producing nearly 1000 films a year for the home-video market, with an annual turn over of nearly $500 million. Some of the films are made in as little time as a week, with limited budgets, on location on the streets, in real homes and offices, among the people. Script errors are left in, the storylines are often shockingly convoluted and the picture quality is questionable.

Nevertheless, it’s got the excitement of Hollywood in the thirties. The industry is booming and Nigerian stars are in the ascendant. The centre of the industry is an area called Surulere, a dusty bedraggled, district, buried within the Nigerian capital Lagos. You are more likely to find open sewers than a star lined boulevard, but the area serves the same purpose as Hollywood’s chic towers. Surulere’s fading colonial leftovers, hide a melee of casting couches and thousands of young hopefuls mill around waiting for their chance.

The country has always had a strong film industry by African standards and government help has always been available in one form or another. The National Film Corporation was set up in 1979 and promoted distribution, and more importantly implemented a system where cinema owners had to show at least one Nigerian film for every ten foreign films presented. This helped create an audience for home grown cinema and ensured that Nigerian film did not go unwatched in favour of more glamorous fare from foreign shores.

The western reaction to Nollywood is confusion and Pieter’s book will play a role in the continuing discourse. Is it art? Or just throw away soap-opera? “Nollywood doesn’t give a fuck about art” says Stacy Hardy, who contributed an essay to a book that presents the Nollywood photos. “It doesn’t even care if you think it’s art. Nollywood is it’s own medium of corroboration, a means of self affirming and self-creation, speaking up. It decimated Western divisions of hi and low culture of creation and enterprise, of production and distribution.”

Nollywood confounds the expectations of the western view of film making. To us the film is still sacred. It’s an art-form passed down from Marnau to Chaplin from Capra to Cassavetes. Whatever taboos we break, films are still presented around the same basic rules of script, setting etc. No matter how crude, they have a particular quality. They must ultimately respect and be reverent to the fact that they will play upon the “big screen”. The Nigerian industry has no reverence for our traditions but then again why should they?

Interestingly, one of Pieter’s pictures shows a naked man, alone in the empty, barren, Nigerian landscape, wearing only a Darth Vader mask. A famous western cinematic symbol upon a body totally unhindered by western decadence, representative of an African culture that intends to be influenced by the west but not so much that it loses touch with itself. Losing its original form to gluttony and obesity.

Horror is another favourite genre for Nollywood and Pieter’s images show their fair share of gore. Vampires appear quite frequently, feasting upon numerous victims, or just staring empty eyed into the camera. These aren’t the vampires of John Polidori though, the suave landed gentry vampires, who go for the genteel lay-dees, who wine and dine them before going for their necks and trolleying them off to the land of the un-dead. No, these vampires are bit more danky, they forego the night at the opera and jump you in the dark alley by the post office.

The vampire myth is taken slightly more seriously in parts of Africa than it is in the west though. As recently as 2003 there were riots in the African country of Malawi over fears that the government was colluding with vampires. One man was stoned to death and reports of alleged vampire attacks swept the country. Nollywood and Pieter’s use of them is of course a nod to the role they still play in the African occult, but there is also much deeper reasoning behind their usage.

Stacy Hardy describes them as “slippery creatures” who jump between the boundaries of the living world and the afterlife. They have no respect for longstanding lines and rules, they hop between them and confound expectations like Nollywood itself. Stacy writes in the book “ The obsession with strictly defined boundaries haunts Western conceptions of subjectivity, perhaps the vampire, the figure who lives crossing lines, messing with those boundaries, tells us something about how they are made and how they can be ripped down.”

They also perhaps represent our, the Westerners relationship with Africa. We are often voyeurs to African suffering. We gaze at our television screens at images of slaughter and genocide and half turn away, but keep one eye on the screen. “Urgh isn’t that kind of barbarism ugly” we think to ourselves, but will we, personally act to stop it. Of course not, we are just craning our necks to get a good view of the car crash, having a good look at the body before the police arrive.

We keep one eye on the screen because we are witnessing how the other half lives, it’s a million miles away from our comfortable lives and we thank heavens we are not with them. It is after all only natural, we are interested in witnessing it and stuffing our charity envelopes, but from a sensible distance. We are still intrigued, fascinated even by the “black continent”, but it’s the Rivera still for our holidays. We refuse, as bloated, recklessly moneyed, western nations to salvage Africa, to write off debt. We invest yet we ensure a healthy amount of the profits return home. We quite happily feed off Africa’s struggling body, so are we the vampires? Possibly.

For years and years we have been bombarded with images of African butchery, civil war after civil war, famine after famine. These are now old images. Things do change. Situations do improve dramatically. Just the fact that Nigeria has a film industry worth millions is an example of change, that an African nation now deals partially in showbuisness and not bullets. But imagine yourself in a suburban middle class British home, telling your suburban middle class British neighbour that you are about to take the children on holiday to Nigeria and what will the reaction be? A howl of derision and furrowed brow? Old perceptions are difficult to overcome.

Hugo’s pictures highlight these responses, these perceptions within us and Nollywood happily mocks our ignorance. As Stacy Hardy says, the photographs “ force us to acknowledge our icky vampirism.” It is up to the individual to decide of course if Pieter’s images, the blood, the gore, the age old symbolism involved,  actually furthers long-held perceptions, by showing images based around age old myth and blood letting.

The Nollywood landscape is often a desolate one, empty, the natural magnificence that springs into the mind of the casual tourist when he thinks of Africa is missing. No this landscape is barren, a wasteland, yet it is full of intriguing figures and dynamic, sometimes unsettling icons. As T.S Eliot says in his poem The Waste Land “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats. And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief. And I will show you something different from either. Your shadow at morning striding behind you. Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.” Thrilling images amid an empty landscape, cheaply made to entertain the masses.  A repressed nation by war, colonialism and poverty, finally finds its voice.

Images By – Pieter Hugo

Listen to Marylebone!

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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.

From Virginia Woolf to Flann O’Brien – A literary patchwork quilt

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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.

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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.

La Valse – Painting Pictures with Music

Let’s for a moment accept all the clichés of what one generally assumes turn of the century Paris was like: tea at Maxims, ladies with parasols, Art Nouveau and the Moulin Rouge. And now imagine a Parisian concert hall in 1894, packed to the rafters for a premier of a new piece of music by that master of classical impressionism, Claude Debussy. The piece being performed is Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune. It is a beautiful symphonic poem which conjures an image of someone day-dreaming away a summer’s afternoon. It brings to mind the feeling of lying in a field listening to the birdcalls, listening to the sifting of moving air through summer leaves, the feeling of the heat of the sun on your face and the momentary desire to have your senses overthrown by nature.

 

 

The piece at the time of its premier was ridiculed, booed at, and dismissed as “darkly crazy, modern music.” You might not think that to hear it now, to the untrained ear it sounds just like any other piece of “classical” music, but this prelude arguably gives birth to the modern musical craft by embracing musical ambiguity and a whole host of combinations of chords, keys and harmonies. Brought together, these notes create lush, convoluted and colourful soundscapes, which transport music from the black and white into Technicolor.

The melting of musical clarity into a hazy intoxicating smoke that Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune represents, came only right at the start of this progression. Ultimately the tonal fences and walls, which had restrained musical experimentation in the past would crumble, leaving music unchecked and able to run free in a jungle of unnatural sound and hallucinatory sounds.

Maurice Ravel’s La Valse is another piece, composed a few years after Debussy’s work, that uses expressive music to paint a vivid picture. The form used is the waltz, which was, by 1920, the year of La Valse’s creation, unfashionable and outdated. Ravel grabs it by the scruff of the neck and breathes new life into it, before demolishing the old form waltz with a brashness that forges new and old together successfully. The music also represents the collapse of the old European order into the horrors of the First World War.

La Valse grumbles and bounces and sways to begin with, bringing to mind a dusty troupe of aged aristocrats, in a neglected ballroom. They are grouchy at first, but then they start to get into it. Society beauties regain their finesse, marquises and counts, regain their gentrified polish. Marie Walewska arrives, in a flourish of trumpets, walks over to the Duchess of Parma and slaps her across the face. She drops her champagne, the glass shatters on the floor and the attendees stop and turn and stare. Then the orchestra kicks in, all powdered wigs and livery, as the aristocracy rises and falls to the traditional waltz. But then the floor starts to shake, the walls crumble, debris fall to the floor and a chandelier whistles from ceiling to ground.

The doors burst open and in pile hundreds of soldiers, Cossacks, bombardiers and Prussian cavalrymen. As artillery pounds, the waltz struggles to be heard, but it fights on, the old order still dance, dresses and shirts blooded. As shrapnel flies into the engines, and the waltz whirls around erratically like the rotors of a downed helicopter, fighting against slashing strings. The bombs fall and the floor cracks and a great dark abyss can be seen, the waltz has one final bristle, one last gust, one last gasp for survival over the din of war and pillage, and then the whole affair tumbles into immortality.

 

 

Constricting Interiors – Chantal Akerman

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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).’

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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.

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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.

Not Made Manifest

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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.

F For Fake – Orson says: ‘Never Trust an Expert’

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Orson Welles and Elmyr de Hory – Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

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.”

Elmyr de Hory - Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy
Elmyr de Hory – Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

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.

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes

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?”

Mark Forgy (left) and Elmyr de Hory (right). Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy
Mark Forgy (left) and Elmyr de Hory (right). Picture courtesy of Mark Forgy

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?

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes

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.

Love Streams

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Susannah? When did I see her last? We’ve been through all this. Haven’t we? Outside Peter Jones. We’d been to Cadogan Hall and she’d just been offered an international tour playing second cello in a Candide revival. We’ve discussed this. I set it up for her. You’ve got to be a fixer in this life, there’s nothing better to be than a problem solver, to take on other people’s burdens seamlessly, confidently, because you have all the answers.

I had all the answers. I scribbled them all down in a notebook. I was one of those insufferable people who kept a notebook, a diary. Chatto and Windus published it and the book topped the New York Times bestseller list. I was a bestselling writer. I sat on the set of The Tonight Show, talking to Johnny in my Brooks Brothers suit, smoking my Lucky Strikes, talking about how Henry Miller had considerably altered my perception of life, even though I’ve never read him. My publisher gave me a gold watch because I’d sold so many copies, all while Susannah was playing second cello in second-rate cities across America. She must have seen my face on the television, she must have, appearing through the static on one of those motel sets as a Missouri cloudburst rattled the metal blinds in her bedroom.

She used to take me to concerts, Mahler and Bruckner and Charles Ives, even though I liked rhythm and blues and only rhythm and blues she insisted that I gave these things a try. They played Mahler’s 5th Symphony and I hated it, apart from a couple of seconds, a bar I suppose, of the Adagietto, about eight minutes in when the strings made me feel like I’d stumbled into a universe full of pillows. So, tired, in other words.

We went to a Venetian coffee bar. After the concert. Did I mention we were in Venice? For her birthday. It was the Feast of the Redeemer, the Festa del Redentore, and there were fireworks exploding everywhere, coloured light licking the top of terracotta steeples and terracotta tiled domes, and it was too crowded. Oh, how I hate crowds, nothing beautiful should ever be crowded, don’t you think? Well, Venice was full that weekend, people were surging through the piazzas shouting and yelling and carrying colourful streamers and all the boats out on the lagoon were blaring their horns.

I said something meaningful to her, like, ‘I’ve never been so happy in all my life’, or some such thing, but she didn’t hear me. I can always say something meaningful amid a clamour, but I can never speak my mind in total silence. Strange that, isn’t it?

We kissed by the Lido. There was too much noise and someone kept tugging at my sleeve trying to sell me firecrackers. We made love in The Gritti Palace. We flew home.

A year or so later her depression set in and I arranged for her to get away and the last time I saw her was after that concert. At Cadogan Hall. Outside Peter Jones, remember?

Funny, every single vestige of that night that I had on my person when we returned to London Airport is still collecting dust on my writing table. The ticket stub for the concert, the receipt from the coffee bar and a couple of matchbooks from here and there, little pieces of a night that I had little recall of and didn’t even like all that much at the time. It all seemed to mean so little to me then, but means so much now.

I’m losing track of things. I can’t remember where I left my cigarettes, my loose change. The love streams of my life have stopped leading anywhere in particular. People still ask me to sign that book, its purple dust jacket increasingly battered in the copies I see these days. Please tell me I haven’t written something enduring, something abiding, I couldn’t cope with that, no, never. Time shows up all dishonesty in the end.