Sunday 20 December 2009



phantom cop
with a real sub-machinegun
watches me slouch by as
spy-cameras switch and focus,
three suits tap lap-top encrypts
through Starbucks glass at me

tracking suspect poems
in my head, thermal-imaging
for unwise sympathies,
subversive syllables spooling
from my pockets,
incendiary thoughts
leaking in DNA-streams

of breath
as Cromwell watches pennants
across Westminster shadow
‘the only good war is no war
the only bad peace is no peace’

but hey, Oliver,
if al-Qaeda don’t get me
the state will…


black mass throbbing square
in motion, if not in Movement,
ancient imperial streets still vibrant
with warm meat of new life,
paved with pizza-
pack, fast-food wrap

and a guru on the Northern Line
stands his turn in sandals and saffron
queuing in line for nirvana…

Published in:
‘VAN GOGH’S EAR no.4’ (USA/ France – January 2005)

Saturday 19 December 2009

Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451'


Review of: ‘FAHRENHEIT 451’
with Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack
(1966, DVD Universal Pictures UK, November 2003)
‘…A Novel Of A Strange And Weird Future…’

The opening paragraph punches home the shock. The fireman is hosing ‘venomous kerosene’ from his brass nozzle. It brings you up sharp. ‘kerosene’? Francois Truffaut’s only English-speaking film adapts Ray Bradbury’s classic sci-fi novel in which the Fire Brigade is not there to put out fires, but to burn illegal collections of books wherever they discover them, hidden behind false-front TV’s, concealed in radiators, suspended in Perspex light-shades, or ‘a veritable well of words’ stashed in secret loft-space. Fahrenheit 451 is ‘the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns’. So your Kindle is presumably safe! To thirty-year-old fireman Guy Montag, with the symbolic ‘451’ numerals on his beetle-black helmet, ‘it was a pleasure to burn’. In a form of gleeful pyromania he considers himself as ‘some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history’. And Oskar Werner plays this fireman, who learns to love the books he’s employed to burn.

The book is a strange mix of retro, and historical futures. The brass pole down which the firemen slide, and the eight-legged robo-hound, a precursor of Neal Stephenson’s ‘Fido’ cyborg-dog in ‘Snowcrash’ (1992), and let’s leave K9 out of this, OK? The 24-hour robot bank-tellers predict ATM’s. In fifties SF-terms there’s a sketched-in back-story of ‘we’ve started and won two atomic wars since 1960’, leaving maybe a starving radioactive world beyond America’s national borders. Nobody knows for sure. They’re now on the precipice of a new war as ‘bombers crossed the sky and crossed the sky’ above them. There’s also a kind of dystopian Political Correctness that conforms more to the fifties idea of orderly social homogeneity. ‘The tyranny of the majority.’ The ‘Little boxes on a hillside’ thought-control leveling down embodied by the three caricatured wives with their mindless harpy-inanities. As Montag’s wife uses her ear-thimbles, a kind of radio iPod, and interactive three-wall TV with its endless soap-opera ‘relations’. Truffaut has Montag offered promotion. When he’s asked ‘am I right?’ he replies ‘absolutely’, deliberately replicating Linda’s auto-response to her wall-cousins. Kurt Vonnegut also used SF as a medium to satirise this stultifying conformity. Future Graphic Novel Lawman Judge Dredd also confiscates banned books. Books offend minorities, and ‘there are too many of us, he thought. There are billions of us and that’s too many’, and with more people, there are more minorities to offend. African-American’s dislike ‘Robinson Crusoe’. Jews don’t like Nitzsche. We must be happy. So we must all be alike. Books raise awkward questions about freedom and individuality. Questions create dissatisfaction, with ‘silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words’. As if to vindicate his position Captain Beatty (Cyril Cusack) brandishes a copy of Hitler’s ‘Mien Kampf’. Books are subversive. Rebellious. ‘A book is a loaded gun’. ‘If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him, give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget…’ Of course, it’s a metaphor. As much of a metaphor as the old-fashioned salamander fire-truck they drive, or the phoenix for suave boss Beatty. Book-burning is a mark of intolerant totalitarianism from Nazi pyres to Ku Klux Klan to the burning of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ on the streets of Bradford. Like the Taliban, Truffault shows in a neat sixties, touch how conformist forces also shear long-haired youths. And Bradbury conjures this situation forced into extremis. In an increasingly inhospitable world, he shows the survival of literacy, of sensitivity, of solitude, of quiet thinking. A situation more so now than it was then. Are books dying? Small bookshops maybe, but not if you visit Waterstones. Is the internet killing off newspapers, are they ‘dying like huge moths? Are postal charges eliminating the viability of small-press publishing? Now there’s even more background noise of inconsequence. More roaring dumbed-down trivia.
Montag imagines himself to be more-or-less content until, the same evening his wife Mildred (Linda in the film) overdoses on sleeping pills, he encounters the strangely disturbing beauty of Clarisse McClellan, ‘seventeen and crazy’. In the movie she’s ‘loopy crazy’, and Julie Christie has the dual role of playing both women, implying that although they may have started out with equal potential, they evolved into two very contrasting people, despite ‘Time’ magazine claiming her portrayals differ ‘only in their hairdos’. Linda has long hair. Clarisse has a bob. In an artfully contrived subplot Clarisse even pretends to be Linda on the phone. Clarisse is a flower-child before there are flower-children. A social misfit because she asks questions where others merely accept. She’s the beautiful irritant that insinuates herself into his disquiet, into the dissatisfaction he scarcely realizes he feels. The ‘stirrings of unease’. Medics come and impersonally replace his wife’s blood so the following morning she’s unaware of the whole near-death incident. Charted in their dislocated aimless conversation. He ruminates that, along with the new blood, if only she could also be the recipient of ‘someone else’s flesh and brain and memory. If only they could have taken her mind along to the dry-cleaners and emptied the pockets and steamed and cleaned it and reblocked it and brought it back in the morning. If only…’

His life comes apart. Even the fireman’s pole rejects him. ‘Do you ever read any of the books you burn?’ asks Clarisse. ‘That’s against the law’ he laughs. But the woman at the house on Elm who burns herself to death with her ‘secret library’ Tower of Babel books sets him thinking. ‘There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house.’ There is a tantalising seep of unacknowledged quotes – ‘time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine’, which is from poet Alexander Smith’s ‘City Poem: Dreamthorpe’. Montag reads an excerpt from ‘that evil political book’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. There are two verses complete and uncredited of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”. In the film you strain to catch book-titles as they burn, ‘Catcher In The Rye’, Jean Genet, Kafka, Brendan Behan, ‘Moby Dick’, Henry Miller’s ‘Plexus’, De Sade’s ‘Justine’, ‘Lolita’, an issue of ‘Mad’ magazine. ‘The World Of Salvador Dali’ burns in a long page-flickering sequence.In a Truffaut in-joke he burns an issue of ‘Cahiers Du CinĂ©ma’.

Clarisse vanishes. Is she dead? Montag has salvaged a book and brought it home. More, he has a stash of books hidden above the vent. Truffaut portrays him reading ‘David Copperfield’, he reads aloud, following the lines with his finger. Because he’s unfamiliar with book-reading he even methodically reads the imprint. Do Beatty’s loaded comments mean that he knows? Escaping, Montag links with a poetry-quoting retired English Professor called Faber – named rather obviously for TS Eliot’s publisher. On-screen there is no Faber. Instead Montag has a dream in which it is Clarisse who burns. Then, no, it is her house which is purged, but she escapes through a skylight. Montag assists her to destroy an incriminating list of subversives. In both versions Montag’s last call is at his own house, betrayed by his wife. And the act of burning his own home becomes the act of burning his past self. Better illustrated in the book where he torches their bed ‘with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain.’ He turns the flame-gun on Beatty and incinerates him too. Then there’s the pursuit through the night city, the coordinated surveillance from every house simultaneously. Montag is deliberately almost run down by joy-riding feral teens. And where Truffaut has him drifting by punt as his pursuers use curiously-animated jet-packs to hunt him down, Bradbury uses the robo-hound. Eventually they both make his way to a secret rural commune, the outlaw custodians of literary lore, the ‘walking camp’ where members spend their days memorising books. In this way, even though the physical volumes may cease to exist, the books will not die. One of the memorised books is ‘The Martian Chronicles’ by Ray Bradbury.

The tale told in Bradbury’s evocative rapid poetry of ‘the warm-cool blowing night on the silvered pavement’ is re-told by Truffaut in elegant photography. Bradbury uses fire as a motif. ‘If he was fire, Faber was water.’ Beatty has an ‘alcohol-flame stare’. The sun burns time. And fire is the first thing Montag sees of the camp, which the film switches into a bleak autumnal railway carriage. For a screenplay focused on flame, Truffaut makes it a very chill film indeed, partly by deploying colour values, which critic Philip French describes as ‘beautifully shot by Nicolas Roeg’. There are colour-filter title-frames with voice-over credits. There are reds and greys which predominate. The screen is drenched siren-red for calls. And he effectively conveys the idea that each time a book is incinerated, it is an act of murder. John Brosnan, in his ‘Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’ entry is less convinced, ‘the film is more ambiguous than Bradbury’s original’ he argues. Where Bradbury is sharp, Truffaut is more ambiguous, more questioning. ‘Truffaut seems not altogether to accept Bradbury’s moral simplicity. This is particularly evident at the end, with the book-people murmuring aloud the words they are committing to memory, while plodding about the snow-covered landscape like zombies.’ With the boy learning Dickens by rote from his dying grandfather, a deliberate echo of the monotonous chanted times-tables that washes around Montag in the corridors between the classrooms of Clarisse’s school. The aesthetic, as opposed to the literal survival of literature still seems to be in balance. As a humorous parting shot Brosnan observes ‘Truffaut might have been less dispassionate with a story of a future where all films are banned!’ A little unfair, as Truffaut was always a literary director. And the film reflects his genuine love of books, opting for a straightforward linear adaptation of the novel, while re-crafting it in ways unlike anything a British or American director would have done. For Bradbury, there’s none of Truffaut’s cleanly appropriate reunion with Clarisse. Only the strange apocalyptical leveling of the cities Montag has left. The momentary vision of Mildred lost and alone without her comforting wall-cousins as the power fails and she’s left facing only her own reflection. Both book and film use the joke ‘as you can see, you can’t judge a book by the cover’. But only onscreen Montag becomes Poe’s ‘Tales Of Mystery & Imagination’. Clarisse becomes Louis de Rouvroy’s ‘Memoirs Of Saint Simon’.

A French ‘New Wave’ activist, he’d begun as an influential critic and ‘auteur’ movie-theorist. Until, from ‘The 400 Blows’ (1959) to his third movie ‘Jules Et Jim’ (1962) which also starring Oskar Werner, his reputation took him outside the French market. For Truffaut, his only English-speaking film proved a major challenge, not only because it was also his first foray into color, and because the large scale Pinewood production contrasted with his more usual small crews and budgets, but largely because he scarcely spoke English himself. Like his some-time collaborator Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Alphaville’, his future is suggested by selective shots of brutalist towerblocks. The one future-concession is the overhead monorail where robotic commuters read wordless picture-papers. A dysfunctional people caught in the sharp vignette of a man in the park who appears to be embracing a lover, but is actually caressing himself. Truffaut’s deliberately stylised artificiality is offset by the musical lyricism of the Bernard Herrmann score – longtime collaborator of Truffaut’s idol, Alfred Hitchcock. Yet unlike many filmic adaptations from literary sources, the book and film reinforce and complement each other, both bringing out and developing suggestions from the other. Building into an impressive cross-media continuity. Martin Scorsese rates the film as ‘underrated’, and claims it as an influence on his own work. Another Bradbury-derived film – ‘The Illustrated Man’ (1968) followed by other hands, with Rod Steiger taking the star billing in a portmanteau of three linked tales. Again, it’s an SF film for people who don’t necessarily like SF films, thoughtful and evocative with little of the flash-SFX and blockbuster zapping pace more usually associated with the genre. Truffaut died 21st October 1984, aged 52.

And, of course, paper does not spontaneously ignite at Fahrenheit 451. In fact, different brands of paper ignite at different, and generally higher temperatures. Ray Bradbury later admitted he just liked the number.


‘FAHRENHEIT 451’ (Anglo-Enterprise & Vineyard Universal, 1966. DVD Universal Pictures UK, November 2003) 112-minutes. Director: Francois Truffaut. Producer: Lewis M Allen. Screenplay: Francois Truffaut & Jean-Louis Richard (with additional dialogue by David Rudkin & Helen Scott) from the novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury. With Oskar Werner (as Guy Montag), Julie Christie (as Clarisse & Linda Montag), Cyril Cusack (The Captain), Anton Diffring (Fabian & Headmistress), Jeremy Spenser (Man with Apple), Bee Duffell (Book Woman), Alex Scott (Book ‘The Life Of Henry Brulard’), Michael Balfour (Book: ‘Machiavelli’s The Prince’), Denis Gilmore (Book: ‘The Martian Chronicles’), John Rae (Book: ‘The Weir Of Hermiston’), Mark Lester (Schoolboy), Anna Palk (Jackie), Noel Davis (TV Personality ‘Cousin Midge’), Gillian Aldam (Judoka Woman). Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg. Special Effects: Bowie Films, Charles Staffel. Music: Bernard Herrmann.

‘FAHRENHEIT 451’ by Ray Bradbury (USA Ballentine paperback original, 1953, Rupert Hart-Davis hardback 1954, UK Corgi Paperback, 1957) original short story “Bright Phoenix” in 1947, but only first published in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ in 1963. Meanwhile, the original short story was reworked into a novella as “The Fireman” published in ‘Galaxy Vol.1 No.5’(February 1951). The novel then serialised in ‘Playboy’ in three parts (March, April & May 1954)

Herman's Hermits DVD

DVD Review of:
LISTEN PEOPLE 1964 – 1969
(2009 – 120 minutes – Reelin’ In The Years Productions)

Sobering thought now that while Velvet Underground were sneaking out their paradigm-shifting debut album virtually unnoticed, one of the biggest bands in the world was this toothsome quintet from Manchester. As the Beatles and Stones matured upwards Hermania slotted in neatly beneath them soaking up all that unbridled undiluted ‘Teenbeat’ training-bra pubertal-adulation. With a respectable string of UK hits Peter Noone cracked it even bigger in the States where his fun-caricatured English charm took the charts to the bank. This DVD tells the story, through new interviews with Herman, Karl Green (bass) and Keith Hopwood (rhythm) and full original performance-film of no less than twenty-two hits.

Peter Noone had launched into show-biz as Len Fairclough’s son in ‘Coronation Street’, then fronted Peter Novack & The Heartbeats. An astute Mickie Most signed them up ‘on the strength of Herman’s face’, rejigged and renamed the line-up, with Barry ‘Bean’ Whitwam on drums, and bespectacled Leeds-born Derek ‘Lek’ Leckenby on lead (he died 4 June 1994, aged 51). The DVD opens with the Hermits at the Cavern doing “Fortune Teller”, which decades later would be done by Robert Plant & Alison Krause. In retrospect, Herman generously concedes that a group is more than just the singer, it is ‘an accumulation of things’. One of those things was producer Most who ‘heard the end product complete in his head’ before they’d even begun recording it. He brought them Earl Jean’s American single of Goffin & King’s “I’m Into Something Good”, an immediate first no.1 for them. A sequence shows the group in the studio with Most conducting them through “If You’re Thinking What I’m Thinking”, closing by telling them ‘right, come and get your money!’ Other vital elements in the Hermit’s discography include regular session players such as Jimmy Page and John-Paul Jones. As the hits gained momentum, they benefited from the cream of sixties writers too. Carter & Lewis for “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” – an American no.3 unissued in the UK, Graham Gouldman for “Listen People” and the northern kitchen-sink epic “No Milk Today” (with a John-Paul Jones arrangement), Ray Davies for “Dandy” – Mickie Most apparently turned down “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion” on the group’s behalf, then PF Sloan turned up for their first New York sessions at the RCA studios, and sat in on guitar as they recorded his “A Must To Avoid”. Things began to get seriously silly when they took half-an-hour out to record “Mrs Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” as a last-minute novelty album-filler, and it topped the American charts, ‘people bought that stuff in those days’ shrugs Herman dismissively. They revived and accelerated Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World”, and if no-one bought into the fantasy of Sam Cooke as a school-student, they could believe Herman was. It all comes into perspective when they appeared on the ‘NME Poll Winners Concert’ stage, with Keith Moon’s drumkit standing behind them, anticipating an altogether more explosive next set.

Some time around late-1967, within the time-span of this DVD, I was staying in Herne Bay – where my father was living with his wife, Stella. I walked into the lounge bar of ‘The Royal St George’ to find tousle-haired Peter Noone playing darts there in his small-check high-collar jacket. Herman was never – how to phrase this tactfully?, the coolest of Pop stars. But I managed to tell him I quite liked “You Won’t Be Leaving”, largely due to its vaguely sensual ‘the candlelight throws shadows of your figure on the ceiling’, which he now confides wasn’t the biggest of his hits due to BBC disapproval over the seductive suggestion of her staying the night. Tut, Tut. He obligingly chatted, signed me an autograph, before returning to his interrupted darts game. Turns out he’d bought the twenty-bedroom hotel from royalties, for his parents. They drove it into bankruptcy within two years after getting through some £23,000, a lot of money, worth more then than it is now. There was never any plan with Herman’s Hermits, beyond having a hit record, then having another one. They were a young, fun group which no-one took particularly seriously. As Herman relates, John Lennon snubbed him, and a paternalistic Keith Richards threatened to beat him up if ever he went near drugs. It was an image that denied them the ability of developing, and once their American shelf-life expired, it was pretty much over. Their final major UK hit, “My Sentimental Friend”, a No.2 in April 1969, was a song originally intended for MoR dullard Englebert Humperdinck, and you can tell, although Herman manages to invest it with a measure of plaintive charm. It closes the DVD. Later, Herman reverted to Peter Noone for his last chart appearance, in 1971, as he took neglected songwriter David Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Thing” into visibility, a Hunky Dory thing to do (even though he whimped out by changing ‘bitch’ to the ‘Earth is a beast’)! But watching this DVD now, there’s a sneaking suspicion that when the Ramones do ‘second verse, same as the first’ in “Judy Is A Punk”, they are consciously echoing the race-memory of Herman’s “I’m Henry The Eighth I Am” – the Hermits daft take on Harry Champion’s turn-of-the-century music-hall turn, even if they’d retrieved it from Joe Brown’s version. All enjoyably light-weight disposable Pop. Yes, but it’s still here.