Monthly Archives: April 2014

Has the Grosvenor Estate Lost its Way?

It isn’t very often that I agree with the French.

The majority of the working population are an unruly lot who by and large are hard to govern.

The street is notorious for dictating government policy, and the French Revolution is a glaring testament to this inherent characteristic which seems embedded in their culture.

But having read over the weekend a headline in my Daily Telegraph which states ‘French traders celebrate sending duke away with a flea in his ear’, it brought a smile to my face absent for so long as a result of a combination of unexpected personal events that marred my normal state of joie de vivre.

The story responsible for my smile, which some would term wickedly satisfying, concerned Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, the sixth Duke of Westminster and Britain’s eighth richest man, who has just bailed out of a nine-year battle against French dealers from two of the most celebrated antique sections of the one-hundred-and-thirty-year-old market, the world’s largest, with five million visitors a year.

In 2005, the duke paid €50 million for its high-end Serpette and Paul-Bert sections. Last week, it emerged that he had sold the lot at a reported €20 million loss, sparking a jubilation of victory cries over ‘Perfidious Albion’ from a band of Gallic dealers who accused him of ‘reigning over his subjects like a feudal lord’. Since then, ‘an air of Astérix-style triumph was palpable among the covered stalls, selling a dizzyingly eclectic array of objects from bric-à-brac paintings and period furniture to stone lions and a stuffed Bengal tiger’.

‘As a member of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, supposed to promote the spirit of chivalry, re-establish justice and protect the weak, Monsieur le Duc treated his subjects very badly,’ said Bruno Malet, the chairman of the association of dealers in the Paul Bert and Serpette markets.

Sitting under an 1880 bronze and crystal chandelier in his Serpette stall full of old books and twentieth-century paintings, Mr Malet smiled triumphantly. On his left hung a 1920 oil painting of the Avignon bridge by Eastern European painter Hans Wagner; to his right a 1948 nude by French cubist Louis Latapie.

‘He treated us like la merde, so we returned the compliment by treating him like the badly brought-up aristocrat that he is,’ he sniffed. ‘Good riddance.’

Dealers said they had high hopes when they learnt that a cash-rich English aristocrat with a supposed love of antiques was taking over.

But the entente cordiale proved short lived. The duke was accused of unfair rent hikes and lease changes and of failing to grasp the market’s cherished eccentricities.

And the accusations go on and on – and one can smell bitterness in the air as a result of a rancorous experience most stall holders have had with the duke.

I am not in the least surprised. The Grosvenor Estate is not highly prized for the treatment they dish out to their tenants. They are run shabbily by staff who should be tutored in the art of public relations as a first step before their graduation to higher and most responsible posts.

The duke should be more hands-on to ensure that his public image does not suffer such a calamity as his latest venture in France. He can ill afford to be tarred with the same brush as his minions.

But who knows? Could it be that with such wealth he has become immune to such minor irrelevancies?

Intimacy and Solidarity Walk Hand in Hand

What have Francois Hollande and David Cameron got in common?

Nothing to speak of. Both lack charisma and are notorious for their choice of people they appoint to serve them in key and sensitive positions.

Hollande’s first spin doctor was pushed aside after a series of blunders and his second resigned amid corruption claims and reports that he had ordered officials to polish his shoes. Perhaps he mistakenly thought he was in Saudi Arabia but was stunned to find out he wasn’t.

David Cameron had Andy Coulson, who is now being tried in an English court for his involvement in a phone hacking conspiracy and had to resign in disgrace from his post at Downing Street.

In the meantime, President Hollande’s third director of communications is making all the wrong headlines over photographs in which he allegedly smoked pot in front of a bookshelf that featured two works entitled ‘Hitler’.

Gaspard Gantzer, thirty-four, who has only been in the job for two days, showed that he has a lot to learn by leaving the pictures on his own unprotected Facebook page. They have now gone viral on French websites.

It is impossible to say with certainty that the rolled-up cigarette in Mr Gantzer’s hand during a party six years ago contained cannabis.

An experienced spin doctor would probably have claimed that it contained nothing more illicit than tobacco, but Mr Hollande’s PR guru dug himself into a hole by saying he had ‘no idea’ what substance he was smoking in the photograph.

France has one of the toughest laws on cannabis in Europe, with sentences for up to a year in prison for possession.

 

Mr Gantzer should now seriously consider crossing over to Britain. We are no doubt the most drugged-up nation in Europe.

If he is as cool as his picture shows then he will be the toast of the town and will have his pick of all the lovely fashion models whose habit of sniffing white powder is widespread and makes them as bonkers as one could hope for.

Some even revel in licking the armpits of their girlfriends.

How about that for a kick, Mr Gantzer? Your beloved France can never match that.

An Act of Redemption

On Good Friday, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, when Christ was crucified with two criminals, one on each side of his cross, a moving story of forgiveness caught my eye in one of the daily papers.

The dictum of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life, was I’m glad to say cast aside in favour of the ultimate sacrifice – i.e. to pardon a killer on his way to the gallows.

And this took place in a country where such a noble act of reprieve is hardly contemplated or practised.

Blindfolded and screaming for his life, a convicted killer, as is the custom in Iran, was at the mercy of his victim’s family. As they prepared to kick the chair from under him and let the noose do its deadly work, it seemed the culprit would become the latest person to suffer a public execution. That was the case until his life was dramatically spared in an act of forgiveness by the mother of the man he stabbed to death.

Instead of kicking the scaffold chair away, she walked up to him and slapped him across the face before her husband removed the rope from around his neck.

The killer’s own mother then ran over to her and wept tears of gratitude as the two women embraced.

Police and guards who surrounded him in the makeshift scaffold cage could not believe their eyes and looked in total amazement as the compelling drama unfolded. This awe-curling scene was captured by a photographer from the Iranian Ishna News Agency, who recorded the moments before and after what should have been the country’s two hundredth execution this year.

A multitude of people including children have gathered to witness this kind of primitive justice still employed in some Muslim countries.

The twenty-four-year-old killer, named Balal, had been on death row for several years after stabbing Abdollah Hosseinzadeh, eighteen, during a street fight in the town of Royan in the northern Mazandaran province.

Under Sharia law, the victim’s family take part in the execution by kicking away the scaffold chair so the rope tightens. They can also, if they wish, spare the killer’s life.

The victim’s father said: ‘Three days ago, my wife saw my elder son in a dream telling her that they are in a good place and for her not to retaliate. This calmed my wife and we decided to think more until the day of the execution.’

Her actions were even more remarkable because the couple had already lost a son in a motorbike crash at the tender age of eleven.

Recalling the day of the stabbing Mr Hosseinzadeh said: ‘My son Abdollah was taking a stroll in the bazaar with his friends when Balal shoved him. Abdollah was offended and kicked him but at this time the murderer took a kitchen knife out of his socks.’

Mr Hosseinzadeh, who believes Balal did not kill their son deliberately, added: ‘He did not know how to handle a knife…he was naive.’

Balal fled the bazaar but was later arrested and sentenced to death. But the Hosseinzadeh family repeatedly deferred the date of the execution.

Although public figures in Iran had already called for a reprieve, what happened was extremely unusual. It is now likely that Balal will be given a jail sentence instead. Mr and Mrs Hosseinzadeh, who also have a daughter, have no say in this.

It goes to prove there remains a few people in this world whose goodness and ability to forgive and forget are a lesson to us all. The nobility of their spirit, despite their grievous loss, is a shining light where revenge and tit-for-tat are replaced by a rare serenity which will give their life a new meaning and a peaceful glow.

Their place in heaven is thus assured.

An Initial Encounter That Went Wrong

I was much anguished to read last weekend about the serious illness of Hugo Williams in an interview he gave to Sameer Rahim to coincide with the publication of his book of poetry, I knew the Bride (Faber).

I feel particularly sad because of an encounter with the young poet that ultimately misfired when he came to interview me for Time Out in March 1982.

The article caused me no end of embarrassment at the time, although I am now convinced that it was not deliberate but rather lacking the necessary research and relying mostly on idle gossip that had no factual basis.

The article appeared with a grim-looking but forceful picture of myself, seated with a cane in my hand, beneath which, in bold lettering, was the title: The Smile on the Face of the Tiger.

It was eye-catching, to say the least, and given the rather forbidding aspect of the picture, quite dramatic.

The article itself started off well enough and had the poetic turn of phrase to be expected from its author. As a prelude it had the following paragraph in italics:

‘After a long and difficult journey, the tigress arrives in Tiger Heaven. From the build-up of her relationship with Eelie the dog and Harriet the leopardess, through her early attempts at eating a porcupine and her surprise encounter with a bear to her first kill of a Sambar fawn, the reader will be spellbound…’ So goes the blurb of Tara, A Tigress, one of the tiger books published by the Palestinian entrepreneur, Naim Attallah. It sounds like Attallah’s own story, with Eelie the dog played by David Frost, Harriet the leopardess played by Mayfair jeweller John Asprey, the porcupine by Times Newspapers and the bear by Lord Grade. The Sambar fawn is clearly Anne Smith, the unfortunate editor of the Literary Review, whose sacking last year won Attallah a marzipan pig from Women in Publishing for “outstanding services to sexism”.

From that point on the article lost its way, relying on fantasy and recycled gossip rather than properly researched facts. I might have contemplated buying The Times newspaper and supplements when they were for sale, as the article speculated, but would never have suggested removing John Gross, the editor of The Times Literary Supplement, to replace him with Anne Smith. The notion was preposterous beyond the realms of fantasy. I happened to be a great admirer of John.

Far more than by this sort of nonsense, however, I was exercised by a repetition of the old canard that I had swamped the Literary Review with pro-Arab propaganda. The article had its interesting side, but this outrageously untrue and easily disproved assertion demeaned it as a whole.

There were other inaccuracies relating to the dispute with Anne Smith and the supposed ‘sacking’ of my close friend Stephanie Dowrick from the Women’s Press. These finally robbed the piece of any charm and authenticity it might have possessed and provoked me into contemplating legal proceedings against Time Out.

It was still a dilemma for me, since I liked Hugo Williams for his wit and nerve, but I could not let these grave accusations go by. Fortunately common sense prevailed and eventually Time Out printed an apology detailing the main inaccuracies. Stephanie was also naturally incensed and the editor of Time Out reproduced in full the letter she wrote from Australia:

There was much to object to in your article about Naim Attallah (TO604). However, I will narrow my complaints to what directly concerns myself. Not only was I not dismissed as managing director of the Women’s Press by Naim Attallah but I have found him to be, in the five years of our business partnership, an intensely loyal man, capable of putting friendship ahead of all other considerations. When I discussed with him my current sabbatical his support was immediate and has been utterly consistent. Perhaps this kind of loyalty is difficult for your reporter to understand? For the record: Naim Attallah and I continue to own the Women’s Press jointly. I continue as a director of the company. Ros de Lanerolle is in a permanent position as managing director of the Women’s Press. I will return to the Women’s Press in the summer in a chiefly advisory capacity while I continue to write.

Over the years Hugo Williams and I have bumped into each other from time to time. He still remembers the unfortunate Time Out incident, but we have both mellowed and our meetings are friendly and warm. What on earth he had in his mind about me in the conclusion he gave his article is still a mystery:

Attallah once nearly produced an £8 million biopic of King Abdulazzid al Saud [sic], Lawrence of Arabia’s old adversary. ‘It’s the most marvellous story,’ he told me. ‘Can you imagine anyone else in this century founding a nation with the sword?’ A tiger smiled at me over his shoulder. ‘Why yes, Naim. You.’

Looking back on the incident I can only deeply regret my overreaction to the article and wish I had not made such a fuss as to its inaccuracies.

However, the past is past; my only comfort today is to pray for his total recovery and hope that we can meet again in happier circumstances – and embrace à nouveau in total reconciliation and comradeship.

David Cameron on a Perilous Slope

Tony Caplin, a crony of David Cameron, is the latest casualty at 10 Downing Street.

Put in charge of a £60 billion quango by the PM himself, he was dramatically fired over Easter after it was revealed that he was declared bankrupt in May 2012 for not paying his taxes.

You might well say that David Cameron is at least accident prone, or most likely a man hard to define.

He seems to have no tangible beliefs in anything apart from what he considers to be politically desirable in order to remain in power.

He surrounds himself with people who are no threat to his leadership and merrily makes statements that in the main do not advance his standing as a political heavyweight.

On the contrary, he pokes his nose in trivial matters that make him look ridiculous and out of touch with real issues that concern the nation.

Expediency to him is more important than principles. He changes tact and embellishes a policy which he believes will win him votes.

In fact, despite being the head of a coalition government that is likely to run its proper course, he still remains an unknown quantity and is only credible up to a point. That’s thanks to a Labour party who are yet to learn historical lessons as opposed to dogmatic policies that have passed their sell by date.

Jan Moir writing in the Daily Mail on Good Friday described, in my opinion, what the majority of people think but are reluctant to say for fear of appearing to be letting the side down as far as the Conservative party is concerned.

Here’s what she had to say:

‘I know that David Cameron needs some quality time with his family. I know that his hairless knees and hideous curd-coloured calves need their annual airing before they petrify, like tree stumps, under his Westminster suits.

I know he believes in God, even if God might have a job believing in him.

Yet the fact that he is out in Lanzarote does fill me with foreboding. With UKIP marching on his flanks, jets being readied for Russia, an election in the offing and the Scots massing on the border, I hope he knows what he’s doing.

It is nice that he can relax – but can we?’

Of course we can’t. There are many other things that I personally find disturbing. How can he pretend to be religious when he made a mockery of the sanctity of marriage by championing the gay marriage legislation?

Simon Heffer, whose views I respect, wrote the following in his column on Saturday:

‘Does the emergence of David Cameron as a religious figure – something unknown when, against the teaching of all known churches, he spearheaded the case of homosexual marriage – have anything to do with the imminence of the euro-elections, and the realisation that many traditional Tories won’t be voting Conservative?

I’m reminded of an old Private Eye cover, just before the 1979 election, showing James Callaghan, the then prime minister, and two of his grandchildren. One says: “I didn’t know Granddad believed in God.” The other replies: “Once every five years he does.”

Mr Cameron’s cynicism is nauseating, and I trust no one is taken in by it.’

This religious fakery of having the cake and eating it is appalling to say the least.

Even Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is having sleepless nights over gay marriage while Lord Carey, the former Archbishop, in a hard hitting article accuses politicians of having treated shabbily the sanctity of marriage.

Yet David Cameron seems to be proud of all his misdeeds and expects the public to catapult the Conservatives to a new mandate under his leadership.

Dream on, I say, for the omens are not encouraging.

 

A New Pop Star is Born

Tove Lo

They call her a Swedish pop star in waiting, and what an apt description for a rebellious young lady who at the age of twenty-six is attracting a great deal of attention, not only in her native Sweden but throughout the music world.

A rock star, songwriter and musician, who lives in Stockholm, is making headlines with her debut EP Truth Serum, released in March of this year.

As a young girl Tove Lo started writing poetry and short stories, and later on studied at Rytmus Musikergymnasiet, a music school. From there she joined a band called Tremblebee for a short period before leaving to concentrate on a solo singing and songwriting career. In 2011 she collaborated with Max Martin and his songwriting team.

As many of her own generation of pop stars, she led a hectic life, often drugged up, and with failed relationships that drove her to the brink of despair, yet inspired her to turn these failings into pop gold.

In an interview with the BBC about her unflinching lyrics, and the correct way to pronounce her name, her revelations about herself are strikingly heart-warming. On the final track of her EP, her song ‘Out of Mind’, haunting throughout, reaches a climax where some bore is telling the singer ‘time will heal’ her broken heart; the music suddenly vanishes into a black hole, and she yells: ‘Are you kidding me?’ Mark Savage, the BBC News entertainment reporter, describes that moment as ‘pained, bruised, thrilling and glorious. A moment where meaning and musical intent align perfectly’.

Lo’s reaction is equally haunting. ‘I’ve always wanted my music to have that desperation,’ she says, ‘where you just want to strip your clothes off and run down the highway. I want the feeling where you don’t really know what to do with yourself – in the vocals, in the production, in everything.’

Her EP is a stark and courageous document of a failed relationship. ‘Not my first,’ she says, ‘but certainly the most intense.’

‘Out of Mind’ establishes her as a songwriter who is not afraid to bare her soul in such a lyrical and vigorous outburst of feeling that’s likely to take your breath away.

I felt the pain, the despair, the sadness the song conveys, as an experience of rare and intensifying power that lingers long after the song reaches finality.

As a new pop star on the horizon, with a charismatic presence and oodles of talent, she will go far in achieving the realm of musical excellency that only the few can confidently attain. Her rising star is there to stay and will shine more brightly as time and maturity intertwine.

John Updike’s Confessions

A new biography just published by Adam Begley on John Updike, who claimed that he wrote faster than he read, brought back scintillating memories of my encounter with him in 1989.

I particularly wanted to interview him since, in my view, he was the American writer of his generation with the most distinguished and prolific output, who had dissected the suburban sexual mores of small-town America. The snag was that he then rarely gave interviews.

As André Deutsch was his publisher in Britain, I asked him if he thought he could persuade Updike to meet me. André said he would do what he could but could promise nothing. Eventually he came back and said Updike would be willing to see me in Boston, but had stipulated that the interview must be restricted to forty-five minutes.

I naturally gibbed at this impossibly meagre concession, but André said, well, it was either that or nothing.

I flew to Boston specially and Updike came to my hotel room as arranged. Once he got going, our conversation went on for almost two hours. In his own memoirs he had described himself as malicious, greedy for a quota of life’s pleasures, an obnoxious show-off, rapacious and sneaky. This did not really match the public perception of him, I suggested.

I think anybody who knows me would agree with all those adjectives. I was an only child who never had to compete with a sibling, and my parents were both, in their way, very loving and indulgent. Just the fact that I had the presumption to become an artist is rather ridiculous, isn’t it, with no qualifications except that I felt treasured as a child.

When my mother died, among the things in the attic was a scrapbook containing many of my drawings done when I was three or four. Not every child gets that kind of attention. The good side of it is that I have a certain confidence, and by and large I’ve acted confidently in my life and had good results. The bad side is that I like to be the centre of attention.

As for being malicious, I think I am more than unusually malicious. That joy, that schadenfreude we take in other people’s misfortunes, is highly developed in me, although I try to repress it. I detect within myself a certain sadism, a certain pleasure in the misfortunes of others. I don’t know whether I’m average in this or whether it’s exceptional, but I’m interested to a degree in the question of sadism. People who are sadistic are very sensitive to pain, and it’s a way of exorcizing the demon of pain.

I’m so aware of my enviousness that I try not to review books by contemporary Americans. I’m not sure that I would really give an honest opinion, and that’s sneaky. People who are cowardly and don’t especially enjoy confrontation or battle tend to be sneaky.

In this unflattering self-characterization, though, I was no doubt just doing my Christian duty of confessing sins. Human nature is mightily mixed, but surely all these malicious and cruel aspects are there along with everything else.

I then raised the question of a reviewer of his novel Couples calling him ‘the pornographer of marriage’. Did he resent this tag, I asked.

Not too much. I wasn’t trying to be pornographic. I was trying to describe sexual behaviour among people, and the effect was probably the opposite of pornographic. Pornography creates a world without consequences, where women don’t get pregnant, nobody gets venereal disease and no one gets tired.

In Couples I was trying, to the limits of my own knowledge, to describe sexual situations and show them with consequences. Without resenting that phrase, I don’t think it describes very well what I was trying to do…

I think Couples was certainly of its time, just in the fact that it spans very specific years and refers to a lot of historical events. In a funny way, the book is about the Kennedy assassination. It’s also about the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the fact that the danger of getting pregnant was almost entirely removed and that a certain amount of promiscuity resulted directly from this technology.

It also turns out that it was the pre-AIDS, pre-herpes paradise, so it was a moment that’s gone, a moment of liberation which broke not upon a bunch of San Francisco hippies, but upon middle-aged couples, yet it was a revolution of a kind. It is very much of its historic moment.

I thought his confessions were unbelievably stark and more soul baring than one would expect from a great writer of his standing.

In many ways, he was a troubled thinker whose horizons stretched beyond the familiar boundaries of a perceptive novelist of great flair and feeling – a prodigious one, perhaps?

The full text of the interview appeared in my book Singular Encounters,which is still readily available from Quartet Books.

 (My next blog post will be after Easter, on Wednesday 23rd April. Happy Easter everyone.)