Archive for August, 2008

Crown and Empire: the Early Plantagenets by Guy Fraser-Sampson

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

 I’d like to use my final blog post this week to tell you about my new narrative history of the Plantagenets, to which the latest Picnic Author Update referred.

 

I am writing the book for the best of all reasons: I have been looking to buy and read it for thirty years, but it does not exist! Like most of us, history at school always seemed to stop with the Norman Conquest and start again at the battle of Bosworth and I was always left with a sense of emptiness caused by not knowing what happened in between. This book (or rather, two books, since it will almost certainly run to two volumes) tells that story.

 

It is written very deliberately as narrative history as it is aimed at the general reader, not the historian, and thus there are no footnotes, and no references to primary sources. It has been written largely from memory, as over the years I have devoured all the books I could find on the period, most of which deal with a specific person or event, and many of which are out of print; one of my bookshop finds some years ago, for example, was a biography of Philippa of Hainault published in 1910. I have however gone back to my bookshelves repeatedly to check facts, dates and names, most notably from the wonderful Oxford History of England series.

 

It is the story of a largely dysfunctional family. At one stage, all four of Henry II’s legitimate sons were in rebellion against him, and his wife tried to flee disguised as a man to join them (she was caught and held prisoner for twenty years). John personally killed his own nephew, quite possibly having had him blinded and castrated first. Edward II was deposed by his wife and her lover. From Richard II onwards, first legal murder and then just plain murder became commonplace. If the narrative were fiction nobody would believe it, but it isn’t – it’s fact.

 

The working title is Crown and Empire, though suggestions would be welcomed, and the author is feeling very depressed as he has just killed off Henry II. I have no doubt that you will hear a lot more about this project in the months ahead.

 

Finally, it only remains for me to say how very much I have enjoyed posting on this blog over the last week, and to thank Picnic once again for their generosity in allowing me to plug a book that is actually being published by someone else. Hopefully no such accident will befall the Plantagenets.

 

I am leaving you in the capable hands of Brian Landers, a director of Penguin Books, who’s Empires Apart: the American and Russian Empires from the Vikings to Iraq will be published by Picnic, 2 April 2009.  I will stick with the Plantagenet Empire. Much sin but no spin.  It did not pretend its missiles were good for you.  And, of course, it lasted longer . . .

Major Benjy by Guy Fraser-Sampson

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

 I have heard writers say many times that their motivation for writing a novel is difficult to explain. If so, how much more so when you are actually writing a novel in somebody else’s style and using their characters?

 

For me with Major Benjy I think the reasons were partly general and partly specific. The general ones were admiration for the writer and a desire that the world should have another “Mapp and Lucia” book to enjoy. Specifically, I wanted to fill in a key gap in the narrative (including the total disappearance without trace of one particular character) and flesh out the supporting cast (an acknowledged issue with Benson’s writing). It’s not for me to say how well I might have succeeded, but thankfully the reviews to date have been very kind.

 

It is probably worth mentioning a few words about the copyright situation, since I know others may be considering writing sequels to well known books or series. The rule in the UK at the moment is that copyright runs for 70 years from the end of the year of death; thus Benson, who died in 1940, goes out of copyright in the UK at the end of 2010. Not in the US, though, since they have a different rule which operates for 95 years from the date of publication of the work, and there is currently much discussion about the US rules being adopted in Europe (but no word on what might happen to books which would fall into a hole (i.e. would have gone out of copyright and then would apparently go back into it) if that were done. This is an important point since I know many enthusiasts like to write fan fiction and post it on the net. This is actually in breach of copyright and you are putting yourself at risk should the relevant estate choose to do anything about it.

 

For my part, though my written agreement covers only Major Benjy, there is a gentleman’s agreement with the estate that I will also be writing two more: Lucia on Holiday and Au Reservoir. However that can only happen if Major Benjy is a success. Nobody (not even Picnic!) is going to publish a book which is unlikely to be commercially successful, so please run out on 1st September and order it (preferably supporting your local bookshop in the process).

 

In my fourth and last post, I will be telling you about my new narrative history of the Plantagenet family, the infamous “devil’s brood” who ruled England for three and a half centuries, but spent most of their time fighting amongst themselves.

Major Benjy by Guy Fraser-Sampson

Friday, August 29th, 2008

 E.F. Benson died in Rye, which he had made his home for the last twenty years, in 1940, having written over one hundred books: a diverse mix of history, biography, fiction, plays, and books on ice skating, of which sport he was a pioneer. The vast majority of these books are today known to us only by their titles, and that is probably no bad thing since their quality is very patchy. There is growing recognition though, that the best of them, of which the Mapp and Lucia series would probably be the best known examples, are very good indeed. So good, indeed, that a major re-appraisal of Benson’s stature as a writer is probably long overdue.

 

Benson was both well-known and well-connected during his lifetime, numbering Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Henry James and Queen Mary (wife of King George V) amongst his acquaintances. He was widely read by the likes of W.H. Auden, Noel Coward, Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh; I personally believe that Major Benjy, whom we first encounter in Miss Mapp, coloured the character of Apthorpe in the latter’s Sword of Honour trilogy. In other words, his influence as a writer was much more widespread and important than many might today suspect, particularly since he also found time amongst his hectic writing schedule to be a very active reviewer of other people’s books.

 

His ghost stories are said by those who know about such things to stand comparison with Dickens and M.R. James. Some of his novels such as Paying Guests and Secret Lives have survived in print on a stand-alone basis, while The Blotting Book is an excellent courtroom drama. It is the Mapp and Lucia series, however, by which he is inevitably best-remembered.

 

There is a great deal of evidence that he originally conceived both Queen Lucia (1920) and Miss Mapp (1922) as one-off books. He revived Lucia for Lucia in London in 1927, but it was not until 1930 that he had the stroke of genius for which we will all ever be grateful and brought these two hilariously dreadful creations together in Mapp and Lucia, following that with two more books, Lucia’s Progress and Trouble for Lucia, the latter being published just a few months before his death.

 

The central theme of these last three books (the true Mapp and Lucia series) is a battle for social supremacy in the fictional town of Tilling, which was in fact the Rye Old Town which Benson knew in real life. No deception is too devious, no lie too monstrous, no stratagem too outrageous in this ongoing duel. A glorious supporting cast includes the effeminate Georgie, a compulsive embroiderer and doily maker, the rumbustious, bibulous Major Benjy, the unconventional artist Quaint Irene, a vicar from Birmingham who speaks determinedly with a Scottish accent, and Susan Wyse MBE, who wears furs on even the hottest of days and negligently leaves her medal in full view whenever friends come to visit.

 

Part of the reason for Benson’s reappraisal is being driven by gay fiction courses in the States. There is no doubt that he was gay, living openly with different men at various times and in the early books both Georgie and Quaint Irene are clearly signposted as gay characters, but these references are dropped abruptly in the later books – was he warned off by a friendly word of advice, and, if so, by whom? Such studies are probably unhelpful. Nowhere does Benson’s fiction depend on any gay plot device, and in any event Georgie is camp rather than gay, while Irene is also hinted to take a healthy interest in male anatomy.

 

The true scale of his achievement, however, lies in the simple fact that his books have endured for the continued pleasure of a consistently loyal fan base in a way in which no others have, apart of course from the Jeeves and Wooster stories, and here there are clear parallels, with their highly stylised characters, and high drama woven from what are actually fairly mundane happenings, albeit of highly charged social importance. None of his contemporaries writing supposedly humorous fiction have survived to anything like the same extent, no matter how wildly popular they were at the time; Dornford Yates would be a perfect example.

 

So, if you have not been fortunate enough so far to have been introduced to these wonderful books, please go out there and get reading. In my next post, I will be talking about my own modest contribution to the canon.

Major Benjy by Guy Fraser-Sampson

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

 In the first of my blog entries here on the Picnic authors’ site I really should start with a huge apology, since by some unaccountable oversight I am not actually a Picnic author at all, at least not yet. My new “Mapp and Lucia” book, Major Benjy, is in fact published by Troubador in Leicester (already out in the US, out in the UK on 1 September). However, the good Major has sent Picnic a very sweet letter acknowledging that this was not the conduct to be expected of an officer and a gentleman and that he will try to do better in future.

 

I have a theory that all good writers (and I know that Picnic only take on good writers!) start off as good readers. After all, what greater motivation can there be for wanting to write a book than an existing love of the things, usually coupled with cardboard boxes scattered around various locations full of old friends from which we really cannot bear to be parted, because to take a few to the charity shop, as our partners frequently urge us to do, would feel uncomfortably like boiling a beloved golden retriever down for glue.

 

This was certainly true in my case. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house without TV and therefore would begin reading a book when I woke up in the morning, and would continue until it was time to go to bed. Even there, the story did not end, because I used to take a transistor radio to bed with me, hide under the bedclothes with it turned down as low as possible, and listen to “A Book at Bedtime” on Radio 4. It was in exactly this way that, at the age of ten, I first made the acquaintance of the redoubtable Mrs Philip Lucas (as she then was) when I experienced Queen Lucia. Even though I now think (as probably most Benson fans do) that this is probably the weakest of the “Mapp and Lucia” books, I was captivated and resolved to get them out of the library one by one.

 

There was a slight problem here in that they were in the senior library whereas I only had a ticket for the junior library next door, but my mother rose to the challenge and insisted that I should be issued with a full ticket six years early with the simple but effective argument that I had in any event already read everything in the children’s library at least once.

 

The books have been firm favourites since then (there are also two sequels by Tom Holt which are now sadly out of print, as seems to have become a badge of honour for good writers), and they are looking at me now as I write this from the couple of shelves I keep for books which I re-read over and over again (The Alexandria Quartet is also there, but I will leave you guessing about the others – a man must have some secrets).

 

For those poor few unfortunates who have not previously encountered the “Mapp and Lucia” stories, take heart! You still have the pleasure of reading them for the first time (there are six by Benson, the first couple of which you could safely ignore and come back to later, plus two by Tom Holt and now Major Benjy by yours truly)! Briefly, they tell the tale of two absolutely frightful ladies who end up inhabiting the same genteel seaside town, which Benson calls Tilling, but is actually Rye where he lived in Lamb House, as he has both Mapp and Lucia do in turn (though in the books it is called Mallards), and where he was twice Mayor, as he has Lucia be.

 

Neither can bear to be anything other than the acknowledged number one in any matter affecting Tilling, but of course there can be only one absolute ruler, and so the books may be compared to two prima donnas in constant search of the same role. The stratagems, untruths, and downright deception that attend these efforts have ensured that the books have endured as acknowledged comic masterpieces in a way which is rivalled only by Jeeves and Wooster.

 

Later in the week, I am planning to tell you more about Benson the writer, and attempt to place him in context. Then I will write specifically about Major Benjy and what I was trying to achieve when I wrote it. Finally, I will tell you about my next project, a narrative history of the Plantagenets which, a little to my shame, is where Picnic enter. But now, dear ones, I shall collapse positively drained by the effort of it all, and retire with a nice cup of Earl Grey.

Enemy Within by Roger Cottrell

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

 Discussing the original IPCRESS FILE with a personal friend of Len Deighton’s recently, we both concurred how difficult it is to get hold of classic British movies of a certain era.  When I was doing my PHD, I used the BFI in London but they don’t hire out and it’s a killer going down to the big bad smoke -where bed and breakfast gaffs are around 70 quid a night – to watch a movie in a cubicle. More recently, I’ve been acquiring some gems through my mate, Dave Collins, the half Iranian co-author of my Iranian political thriller SACRED WINDS which was taken to the Cannes Film Festival this year by a London producer whose name escapes me.  Dave’s got a cousin in Paris and it so happens that CANAL PLUS have bought the rights to a number of British and American classic films.  Thanks to this Parisian connection, I have recently obtained VILLAIN, with Richard Burton, Paul Scharder’s THE SORCERER, Stacey Keach in THE SQUEEZE and a whole rake of goodies – particularly including Lindsay Anderson’s IF with Malcolm McDowell.
       This is fortuitous as Paul Mitton and myself are currently working on a street history retrospective that is almost like a sequel to IF.  And guess what, it’s a street history that doesn’t have a working class protagonist.  Neither does SACRED WINDS for that matter.  Am I selling out?  I don’t think so but I’ll come back to my own proletarian credentials in a moment. For those who don’t know, IF is a surreal story of an insurrection in a public school that would seem partly inspired by George Orwell’s essay, SUCH, SUCH WERE THE JOYS.  My mentor in the film business, Peter West, worked as an editor on this movie which was filmed AFTER the formation of the March 22md movement in Paris but immediately before the Sorbonne events with which it has been subsequently identified.  A good account of the film’s making and significance can be found in Ian Raikoff’s book, INSIDE THE PRISONER: RADICAL FILM AND TELEVISION IN  THE 1960s.  Raikoff was the South African Trotskyist who wrote the Prisoner episode where Patrick McGoohan found himself in a wild west town and was big mates with Nick Roeg and Donald Cammell of whom more in a minute.
      In our pseudo sequel, FAT BOY, a character loosely based on that of Malcolm McDowell, does serious time for shooting up a vile public school and killing his PE teacher Diggins.  This customer has gathered around him a bunch of FLASHMAN TYPES known as Diggins’s lads, some of whom are killed in the insurrection of 1968.  A decade or so later and Diggins’ lads are still Flashmans, but part of the Thatcherite economic counter-revolution by which finance capital asserts its primacy over manufacturing industry.  In league with East End gangsters – overlapping the territory of THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY and EMPIRE STATE - they seek to develop the East End as a financial centre but having been snubbed by the US/Italian mafia, their principle source of finance is Russian.  Meanwhile, the kid who shot up the public school with his 1968 mindset very much intact, is released from prison with a new identity and is looking for revenge.
       As well as IF, this story draws on THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (my  second favourite film after GET CARTER) and EMPIRE STATE, which opened out some of the themes of THE LONG GOOD FRDAY in a rather didactic and one sided way.  It also draws on the themes in some of Joseph Losey’s movies (particularly including THE SERVANT by Harold Pinter)  but also Donald Cammell’s PERFORMANCE (with Mick Jagger and Edward Fox) in which a weak aristocratic character finds himself manipulated by a kind of proletarian Leviathan – a working class bad boy rebel turned bad who now parasites on the community from which he was derived. 

In this way, the later movies of Anderson and the crime movies (like Performance) to which I refer prefigured a trend in Thatcherism whereby it supplanted old ruling class old money (and their patrician values) as it created a dog eat dog society through false populism.  Thatcher and her ilk were far nastier than Old Etonians like Harold MacMillan who preceded them.  This isn’t to say that Stuart Hall, Martin Jacques and the Stalinist rabble that ran Marxism Tody were justified in abandoning working class politics, in the building of the broadest possible of fronts against Thatcher.  It does mean that while the working class was the principle focus of Thatcherite attack (particularly during THE MINERS’ STRIKE with which ENEMY WITHIN deals) other layers of society also lost out once the workers were defeated and the new Coercive State form was consolidated.  This was signalled early but rendered manifest when the Special Branch raided the BBC Glasgow studios over Duncan campbell’s SECRET SOCIETY programme and at the Battle of the Beanfield. 

What makes this salient today is that only by politically refounding the labour movement can the present Thatcherite regime which persists under the coercive state, whichever passle of Tories wins the next election, can only be defeated by politically refounding the labour movement but that its unlikely it will reconstitute itself around the traditional miners’ strike battles of the past.   Rather, it needs to refound itself around issues of democratic rights.  It’s also likely the professional middle classes and intelligensia might be part of this process as they’re getting damn all out of the present order of things as well.

Finally (because this is my last blog), there’s the issue of race and etnicity.  This has GOT to be a focus for STREET HISTORY and realist drama and literature today.  This cannot be done, however, by following the post-modernist or post structuralist fetish (eg in SCREEN) for emphasiising identity at the expense of class.  Arguably, this is a problem with films like JASMINE and BRITZ.  In our society, ethnic identity politics proliferate because of the political defeatc of the working class and suppression of the left.  This applies to fascism in the socially excluded white working class and to islamic Fundamentalism.  What we see in ethnic identity politics is a manifestation of primitive rebellion in the sense that the term is used by Geoff Pearson (editor of the British Journal of Criminology) to refer to “authentic but limited proletarian responses” to a deepening social crisis.  Again, it’s all rooted in alienation which is the core theme of kitchen sink and street history alike.
        

And again, it’s a case of the left participating in its own demise.  By scabbing on the anti-fascist struggle – eg in Brick lane – and leaving the Asian community to stand alone, the SWP and ANL contributed to the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism before ever Salman Rushdie wrote THE SATANIC VERSES or the collapse of the USSR SEEMED to render Marxism redundnat.  This again is a theme of COOL BRITANNIA – the sequel to ENEMY WITHIN – set during the 1990s. 

Thank you for staying with the blog this week.  It has been fun. I will be here again when PICNIC publishes ENEMY WITHIN in Spring 2009. 

Finally, PICNIC bloggers will know it is custom for the outgoing blogger to introduce the incoming. I have asked PICNIC all week to whom I am handing over -it works out its Blog Rota months ahead - so I could prepare something welcoming to say in advance.  But I kept being fobbed off.  Now I know why: our publisher, has been having some fun . . .       

So, it is farewell from this Old anti-capitalist Trot and, as of Monday, welcome to GUY FRASER-SAMPSON of Cass Business School, founder and partner of a dedicated European Venture Capital Fund of Funds, previously with the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, and author of the best-selling PRIVATE EQUITY AS AN ASSET CLASS, the only definitive textbook on the subject in the world.

It gets worse: GFS will be blogging on his new book MAJOR BENJY – the further adventures of the character from the much loved Mapp & Lucia series based on characters created by E.F Benson.  It is endorsed by Gyles Brandreth – ‘What Joy! What Bliss’ – I WARNED you it got worse!

Therefore, it is now definitely Au Reservoir, as the Major might say, from Roger Cottrell and ENEMY WITHIN.

                                                               

 

 

 

Enemy Within by Roger Cottrell

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

 I’m starting to get some comments on my blog and so I’d like to acknowledge these, before launching into today’s tirade.  Firstly, thanks to Kim Fleet for her interesting comments on how the decline of British crime fiction has been complimented in a similar decline of British comedy.  This is both important and true and I’ll come back to it in a minute.  I also want to thank my good buddy Stuart Christie down there in Brighton and to plug David Douglas’s important new book on the miners’ strike that Stuart is publishing. 

GEORDIES WA’ MENTAL is a realist account of the miners’ strike by a Geordie anarchist that sort of compliments my own book, ENEMY WITHIN – a crime thriller that occupies similar space and territory or at least moves through it.  I’m told that David (whom I’ve never to my knowledge met) wants to review ENEMY WITHIN and that of itself is worth a plug.  You can look his book up on Stuart’s BRIGHTCOVE site which is on google.  Basically, we’re back to the relationship between the realist novels of Alan Sillitoe and the crime thrillers of Ted Lewis (again) with the one being the alter ego to the other.  I think we’ve covered this in a previous blog.
        

For those who don’t know who Stuart Christie is let me introduce you.  In the 1960s, when he was a young lad of 18, he was involved in a courageous but not very well thought through plot to assassinate Franco in Spain.  Having served actual time in a fascist prison, he returned to the UK just as things were hotting up in 1968.  All of this was before my time of course but it is visited in my self publsihed book, HOLLYWOOD BOWL, the ISBN for which is ISBN 978-1-4092-0565-4   You can order this from [email protected]//www/lulu.com/content/2720961   But I digress. 

Stuart was framed as a member of the Angry Brigade who also feature in my book as fictionalised characters.  As my novel is total fiction, I have the whole Angry Brigade manipulated as part of an Italian style strategy of tension during the Cecil King military coup plot against Harold Wilson which in this novel actually happens.  It’s parapolitical street history, OK, and was the reason that Stuart and I came to know each other.
      

Basically, I sent Stuart a copy of HOLLYWOOD BOWL which he liked.  He DID reprimand me for representing several members of the Brigade as middle class hippy flakes (particularly Hillary Creek and Anna Mendelson) and I’ve apologised for this since, particularly to John Barker – another former member of the Brigade.  Nonetheless, Stuart liked it enough to commission me to adapt his anarchist memoir , GRANNY MADE ME AN ANARCHIST, published by AK Books in Edinburgh, as a vfeature film.  I’ve since written this script and have to say that both Stuart and myself are rather pleased with it.
       

On Kim’s remarks about comedy, I am in agreement – the last really good comedies I can remember on British TV were RAB C. NESBIT and RED DWARF although I’m a sucker for STILL GAME on BBC2 about those two old boys on a Glasgow housing estate that looks like my ex brother in law’s gaff in Paisley.  In the early 1990s, when I’d been fired as a provincial journalist for being a Trotskyist git and wasn’t really cutting the mustard as a freelance, I had a sortee into the world of financial services and for a time (based on this experience) was working on a TV series called SCUMBAG HOLIDAYS with a stand up alternative comic from Worcester called Shane.  It never came to anything.  The premise was that a dodgy holiday firm was being run by a failed spiv in a provincial West Midlands town whose catch phrase was “there’s money to be made in this game” and who drove around in an MOT failed 1970s Ford Cortina which looked like it had been in too many car chases back when the Sweeney was still being filmed in Dulwich.  All his employees are total rejects and losers who’ve only taken the job because they’re under threat of having their giro pulled.  The best scene, for me, was when this Jack the lad was trying to sell a dodgy timeshare deal on the street to a well heeled elderly couple in Solihol.  Next moment, along comes FASHION CASUALTY COLIN, his drug dealer, armed with a shotgun and demanding money with menaces.  Fashion Casualty Colin, I should add, is a white guy in an Afro who was still wearing flares in the early 1990s and mimed to Barry White in his bedroom mirror.  I have to admit I think I’m better at thrillers than comedy but then again, I’m trying to get some work on the new MINDER and some of the SCUMBAG HOLIDAY sketches would work in Arthur Daley land.

Final blog tomorrow folks.  It’s been fun. x

. . . .

MESSAGE FROM ADMIN:  I have seen the final blog.  I thought he was leading up to saying he’s now a Tory.  But nah, he’s not. But then again, he did mention Peter Hitchens in an earlier blog . . .

 

Enemy Within by Roger Cottrell

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

 You can’t blame a chap for writing something and not making it available elsewhere – particularly if he has a nightly blog to write.  Below is the letter I have just written to the IRISH EXAMINER in a shameless attempt to promote ENEMY WITHIN: I made it clear it was also being posted on this blog.  I will be blogging ‘properly’ again tomorrow. 

. . . . .
Dear Editor,
I read with bemusement the attack on Cork Socialist Party Councillor Mick Barry (whom I know quite well) in THE IRISH EXAMINER of August 21, 2008 by Pat Corkery and with much greater alarm the letter by Desmond FitzGerald from Canary Wharf in London, no less.  As Desmond FitzGerald’s letter is the more serious I will start with this first.
        According to Fitzgerald, any ethnic Russian living in Georgia or any former part of the USSR should be repatriated to Russia in what is quite starkly an advocacy of ethnic cleansing.  What an outrageous suggestion!  Is Mr. Fitzgerald aware of the history of this kind of reasoning in eastern Europe after World War One and (more recently) in the former Yugoslavia?  From 1918 the Radeks in the Ukraine claimed that Soviet power in Red Ukraine was invalid because some of the workers who’d voted to align themselves to the Russian Federation were ethnic Russians.  These Radeks were the same pro-white forces that massacred 30 000 Jews and have been venerated as heroes by the present nationalsit and capitalist-restorationist government in the Ukraine.
        Pat Corkery has a point that some of the Left operate with double standards, where Russia is concerned, as against their more consistent opposition to US led policy in Iraq.  In opposing the war in Iraq, Mick Barry is in fact one of the more principled of socialists because he doesn’t resort to the Brit bashing, Israeli bashing anti-Semitism of some of the Irish Left and doesn’t try and present either Saddam Hussein or al-Qaeda as freedom fighters.  He does recognise an illegal Imperialist war in Iraq when he sees one.  Although the strain of international Trotskyism that Mick belongs to (the CWI, deriving from the USEC) were always far too soft on Stalinism for my liking, I can’t see him supporting a Russian nationalist regime that has tried and failed to restore capitalism, endorsed gangsterism and decadent accumulation, as well as state sponsored murder and embarked on genocide in Chechnya and clearly has cynical motives in Osettia and Georgia.  But what about the fact that NATO enlargement and this defence shield nonesense is cranking up the situation in the Caucasus and the fact that the Georgians attacked the ethnic Russians of Osettia, first?
        During the war in the former Yusoslavia, the position of most surviving Trotskyist groups from the 1970s and 1980s was none too brilliant.  My novel, ENEMY WITHIN, set during the miners strike, reveals that these days I’m non too big a fan of democratic centralist groups.  Most of them fought shy of attacking Serbian fascism and genocide because they saw Serbia as a last bastion of the old Stalinist order that they had critically supported during the Cold War.  The SWP even supported the UN arms embargo against Bosnia that disarmed the country in the face of 5 million Serbian soldiers and irregular killers under arms.  The position of the Militant was not so crass but fell well short of the support for Bosnia that was required.  It was reluctance to break with the Cold War certainties of the Fourth International’s Stalinised past that condemned most of these groups to oblivion.
         But Croat fascists carried out atrocities in Mostar too and so, today, have the Georgian government!  As for Desmond FitzGerald, is he suggesting that the Bangladeshi community of East london, where he lives (or even the Irish!) be reptariated?  I hope not.
 
ROGER COTTRELL    

Enemy Within by Roger Cottrell

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

 A couple of months back there was a really interesting article in THE GUARDIAN about Alan Sillitoe’s appointment as visiting lecturer in creative writing at Ruskin College, Oxford.  As someone who briefly attended the hsitory workshops at Ruskin, when I was doing my A Levels at Worcester Technical College, I was briefly taken back to the lectures I’d attended by EP Thompson, Ralph Milliband and John Saville, how my history teacher had wanted me to be a Labour MP (he was mayor of Worcester at the time) and how I joined the Workers Revolutionary Party instead.  This however is not what I want to write about today.
        According to Alan Sillitoe (the founding father of post war realism in the sense that post war realism is about alienation) his only “story” is his own and he still writes most of his stuff from personal experience.  This seems to be a characteristic of most kitchen sink writers and I know for a fact that Gary Mitchell from Rathcoole in North Belfast is the same.  This is the same Gary Mitchell, by the way, who demolishes the facile view of the Northern Ireland Loyalist working class held by guilt ridden and IRA besotted English liberals and one of the best exponents of kitchen sink today.  Trevor Griffiths meantime drew on personal experience for a lot of his stuff as does Shane Meadows, in giving us film masterpieces like THIS IS ENGLAND.  In the US, the same would seem to apply to the excellent crime novels of Jason Star, whom I met in Belfast a few years back. 
          When it comes to generic fiction meantime the story is very different.  Attending a signing that Ian Rankin did for his novel A QUESTION OF BLOOD in 2003 at Waterstones in Dublin, I found him saying that he had no experience of law enforcement or crime and had set out rather to “write about what he didn’t know.”   Ian was one of the judges who short listed ENEMY WITHIN for the Dundee Book Prize in its first rough draft (written in six weeks before I started my PHD in 2004) and so has a special affection with me.  He’s also my  favourite MAINSTREAM crime writer (unless you consider Martyn Waits as mainstream since he started the Joe Donovan series).  Since I saw and chatted with Ian about my crime movie, REDEMPTION SONGS, in Dublin ahead of the Rolling Stones gigging at the RDS, he did an interesting program on DR. JECKEL< AND MISTER HYDE for BBC4.  Here, he points out that Rebus is very much his own alter ego, almost a Dr. Hyde to his Jeckell, and even inhabits the flat opposite where Ian lived as a student.
         Some literary critics would say that what Ian Rankin is engaging in here is “ethical distancing” of the type favoured by Brecht.  This may be true.  Sadly, this kind of Brechtian argument was also used disengenously by the Stalinist cultural critics in publications like SCREEN when they were denouncing Jim Allen’s view of Labour History (in DAYS OF HOPE in 1975) and the whole engagement with alienation as a theme in both kitchen sink and the underworld crime thriller of the 1970s.  Of course, what they really meant was that they didn’t like the representation of the working class (and of alienation) in these narraives.  Later, they pressed certain kinds of feminism into service to denounce the genre as misogynist or made the valid point that there weren’t many black people in 1970s kitchen sink or underworld crime fiction.  Of course, these were the same people who’d never read Clara Zetkin or Rosa Luxembourg on women’s emancipation, who never fought the fascists on the streets and who (like Martin Kettle) ended up advising New Labour to support racist immigration controls as the only way to kerb the rise of the BNP.  All of their criticism of kitchen sink were rendered invalid by the fact that their classless efforts to build a broad front against Thatcher led to a pro-Thatcherite agenda within New Labour within 10 years.  But I digress.
         Should those who use generic fiction to open out the themes of kitchen sink or deal with other issues (like state repression or parapolitics) try to write from personal experience or – like Ian Rankin - create alter egos to distance themselves from their subjects.  I think there’s no easy answer to this but that it’s likely to be a bit of both.  In my self published novel, HOLLYWOOD BOWL, for example, whose ISBN number is ISBN 978-1-4092-0565-4  and which you can access on http://www.lulu.com/content/2720961  I’m clearly not writing from first hand experience.  I wasn’t even born when the 1940s Hollywood sequences happened and was only a small kid when the Cecil King coup plot (the core of the novel) was taking place in 1960s Britain, against Harold Wilson’s government.  I was never a member of the American or any Communist Party (too right wing for me!) although some of my description of Communist Party life at the time of McCarthyism is informed by the same experience of British Trotskyism that I use directly in ENEMY WITHIN.  My character is based on Dashiel Hammett and my sources included Otto Fredricks CITY OF NETS and James Ellroy.  I was assisted by the fact that I’d taught American Crime Fiction and Film Noir at Queens University Belfast.
          When it came to the Wilson plots I’d been studying these for some time, mainly mediated through what I’d read in LOBSTER and done a couple of projects for the late great Peter West, my mentor in the British Film buisiness, who tragically died of the MRSA bug in 2005.  Himself from a Unionist background in Enniskillen, Northern ireland, Peter had been active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s before serving his film apprenticeship with Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson.  He had been a fellow traveller rather than a member of the WRP and a good friend of the guy with a walking stick who REALLY WAS thrown down the stairs at the Central Committee meeting described in ENEMY WITHIN.  It was for Peter that I wrote the five part TV history of Northern Ireland Loyalism that later appeared (in part) in Lobster, a film script about the Moro kidnap and murder and a biopic of Bridget Rose Dugdale.   HOLLYWOOD BOWL emerged from my speculation as to what might have happened if the Angry Bruigade had been manipulated as part of a strategy of tension (as in Italy) as part of the Cecil King cop plot, if Bridget Rose Dugdale had joined the Angry Brigade rather than Eddie Gallagher’s crowd and if her father had hired an American private eye (who’d done time in a Kentucky prison for being a Communist) to track her down.  In other words, in this case, the creative process wasn’t about my own story (as with Sillitoe) but mediated through my own experience in a number of ways.  Ths same applies to ENEMY WITHIN.
         My most recently written novel is about football hooliganism, Brit pop and police corruption in 1990s Birmingham.  It’s also the sequel to ENEMY WITHIN and features dodgy black cop ALAN KEMP (a minor character in ENEMY WITHN) as a protagonist.  Just how much of it derives from personal experience I’ll write about another time.  As THE CLASH say, London Calling and I was there too.  And you know what they say. Well SOME of it’s true.

Enemy Within by Roger Cottrell

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

 I’ve got to admit this – I’m fast becoming an ITV4 addict!  I mean, come on.  THE PRISONER, MINDER, THE SWEENEY and THE PROFESSIONALS.  What’s a poor boy like me to do except succumb? 
         I’ve already explained, in previous blogs, why I think the convergence of kitchen sink realism with the underworld crime thriller produced much of what was best in British film, literature and TV during its golden age.  I don’t want to repeat myself too much here.  Beyond the sociological reasons that I have cited in previous blogs, I remind myself that much of what is best in British film was always rooted in British TV and if the latter goes into decline so will the former.  Mike Hodges worked on World in Action before switching to drama and his first movie, SUSPECT, was a TV film for Euston Films.  It was on the strength of this that he was hired to make GET CARTER.  This was not just the best British film of the 1970s but the best film of the 1970s.  I mean, the yanks produced some masterpieces during the same time frame.  THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, ATTICA, SERPICO and, of course, Scorsese’s canon, culminating in TAXI DRIVER.  I’m fairly sure that Schrader’s remake of THE WAGES OF FEAR is a 1970s movie as is BLUE COLLAR (also by Schrader).  lately, I’ve been watching THE FRENCH CONNECTION a lot as I get my head around a car chase sequence in the TV film of STRAIGHT TO HELL - based on my own novel.  But GET CARTER – man, what a film.  
          This symbiosis between TV and film making in the UK also explains why the closing down of English Regional Drama at BBC Pebble Mill in Birmingham was such a blow – I’ve already slammed the axing of PLAY FOR TODAY on previous blogs.  Without Philip Martin’s GANGSTERS (which launched the careers of Paul Barber and Saaed Jaffrey and was the first generic series in Britain to have a predominantly non-white cast) Stephen Frears would not have been able to adapt MY BEUTIFUL LAUNDERETTE in 1986 in quite the way he did.  Along with THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY and DEFENCE OF THE REALM this was one of the best British movies of the 1980s.  But by the late 1980s the cultural depository that generated these great works was gone.  To my knowledge, BOYS FROM THE BLACK STUFF was one of the last things to be made by English Regional Drama and Trevor Griffiths (who gave us MADE IN BRITAIN, by Alan Clarke, and OI FOR ENGLAND) was working for the Open University as an academic by the end of the decade.   In the 1990s, the best British movie was FACE by Antonia Bird, which had similar roots in her excellent TV work, including CRACKER.  But was it the best movie of the 1990s, when the Americans were bringing us stuff like NARC – probably my favourite 1990s film?   In TV, too, HBO often steal the march on what is best on British TV, e.g. with THE SHIELD and THE WIRE – a point well made by Irvine Welsh in The Guardian recently.  This saddens me in no small measure when the best film director working in Hollywood (Paul Greengrass) is actually British.
        I’m also indebted to ITV4 in other ways.  In my PHD thesis on British Crime Fiction (which I’m hoping to publish as a book) I largely laud praises on THE SWEENEY for challenging hitherto sanitised images of the police on TV while dismissing THE PROFESSIONALS for justifying para-state forces that operate outside the law.  I still sort of agree with what I wrote but with qualification.  There were 55 episodes of THE SWEENEY and some were patently better than others.  Troy Kennedy Martin and Ranald Graham generally wrote the best scripts.  But Ranald Graham ALSO wrote for The Professionals and these scripts are generally a cut above some of the others.  The one where Body is framed as an assassin is a case in point and there was another on ITV4 this week that was a peach.  It concerned the abduction of an Israeli goverrnent minister by criminals who wanted to sell their prize to the highest bidder.  Looking at the opening (which I had never seen before) was exactly like looking at the film of my own script based on the Aldo Moro assassination – almost frame by frame.  Of course, the abduction in THE PROFESSIONALS episode was probably based on the Moro assassination, right down to the involvement of the Mafia and Comerra but not (in this Professionals episode) of Italian Army Intelligence, P2 and the CIA.  For that you’ll have to wait until I get a producer for the Moro piece – the previous one tragically died of the MRSA bug in 2005!
          Watching the aforementioned episode of The Professionals also reminded me of a draft script I was asked to write about a year back to re-make the Len Deighton thriller, THE IPCRESS FILE, starring Michael Caine.  In my version, the abducted scientists were British Asians working in the defence industries (similar to those murdered in the 1980s) and the culprit a fictionalised BCCI.  Palmer becomes a cop investigating the abductions because the idea of a conscript in coldwar Berlin being involved in the black market, then coopted by Army Intelligence and MI5 doesn’t work in a more contemporary setting.  The cop in my version is approached by an Asian British gangster whose privately educated son (groomed to be part of the British establishment in his father’s place) has gobe feral and become an Islamic Fundamentalist.  He’s involved in the kidnappings and the father wants the cop to track down the son before the US led crackdown on leaks in the British defence industry leads to his son being killed.  It has occurred to me that with a little reworking, this storyline could explain how a character based on Martin Shaw’s DOYLE in the original Professionals came to be working for CI5.
          As for the Body character, he’d have to change, too.  I’m currently working on a storyline  (for which I thought SPOOKS on BBC1 might be a natural home) in which an Asian British soldier banged up for killing his race attackers in a Didcot type scenario is recruited to infiltrate al-qaeda in a privatised rendition centre in Eastern Europe.  It has occured to me that this could be the new Body character in a new Professionals – or is this so far from the original as to constitute a new series.
          I’ve heard from my contact at ITV that there are indeed plans to resurrect MINDER (with Shane Ritchie as Arthur Daley) and THE SWEENEY (with Ray Winstone as Jack Regan).  Part of me welcomes this while another part asks why original new series aren’t being made instead.  When I proposed MCGREGORS BRIEF to the BBC, about a dodgy ex-RUC Special Branch cop working as a down at heel private eye in Birmingham, blackmailed by MI5 to carry out their deniable operations, I was told it was too much like Murphy’s War to warrant development funding.  My idea of the wife of a bent cop working as a private eye solving crimes with the help of her husband’s criminal contacts was deemed too Linda LaPlante.  Sometimes you feel you can’t win.  If resurrecting the prestige series of Britain’s golden era offers a window of opportunity to writers like myself then bring it on.       

Enemy Within by Roger Cottrell

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

 In my last blog I mentioned the significance of the kitchen sink tradition and its relationship to the underworld crime thriller in contemporary street history.  In particular, I argued that revisiting the high point of post war British literature, TV and film (the 1970s) enabled us to reconnect with themes like alienation that were relentlessly purged from British popular culture from the 1980s.
          There were very definite reasons for this.  In the 1980s, reference to alienation (along with other kitchen sink themes) was closed down on TV and in film.  This was partly due to Thatcherism, to censorship and the threat of privatisation levelled at the BBC after it was shamefully accused (by Thatcher) of treason furing the Faliklands War.  By raising questions in the House of Commons about Bleasedale’s THE MONOCLED MUTINEER, Thatcher paved the way for our present (Thatcherite) government transforming the Hutton Inquiry into a witch hunt against the BBC.  Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of a 10% share in ITV also harks back to the days the monopolies commission waved his purchase of the Times (in exchange for his supporting Thatcher) and bodes ill for the future of British drama.
         But Thatcherism alone didn’t undermine the relationship between kitchen sink and the underworld crime thriller that put the Great in British fiction.  As with rock music, all that was best about British TV, literature and film was about alienation and this kind of theme was purged as much by Stalinist cultural criticism as anything else.  By this I refer to the wholly negative influence of the journal, SCREEN, to Althussarian interpretations of Marxism, to post-structuralism and post-modernism.  Not only is this kind of cultural criticism offensive rubbish, it has been significantly propagated by the very people who used to write for MARXISM TODAY, who then became the DEMOS think tank and contributed directly to the rise of NEW LABOUR.  From renouncing the class struggle in the 1980s in order to build the broadest of possible fronts against Thatcher, they went on (following the collapse of the USSR) to take Thatcherism to the heart of the Labour Party enabling the New Labour clique to hijack the party in violation of its constitution.  This is a direct consequence of the Stalinist method of the Popular Front.
          It has consquences for drama and literature.  Writing in SIGHT AND SOUND in 1988 Julian Petlet remarked that much of what was significant in British TV drama in the 1980s was about the central institutions of the British State.  This was signifcant at a time when a new state form (the Coercive State) was being founded on the basis of the political defeat of the working class.  This conspicuously applied to the best thing that ever appeared on British TV in the 1980s namely EDGE OF DARKNESS by Troy Kennedy-Martin.  But something characterised even the best of drama about state repression in the 1980s.  In 1972, when THE GUARDIANS appeared on British TV it very openly connected repressive tendencies in the state to a crisis of capitalism and to the class struggle.  So too did the canon of John Gould such as THE DONATI CONSPIRACY and STATE OF EMERGENCY.  Dramas like DEFENCE OF THE REALM and IN THE SECRET STATE (however admirable and remarkable) did not.  As with the whole business of alienation, this amounts to a purging of class themes from British literature, television and film that it is the duty of street history to refound and reestablish – as part of its counter hegemonic mission.