September 2007

‘He’s just a boring old fart,’  

The opening speaker at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival paused and gazed quizzically at the man at the edge of the stage who was signing his words. 

‘Do you do fart?’ 

The man smiled and made a short thrusting gesture with his right arm while at the same time opening his hand.

The speaker repeated the gesture – grinning broadly. ‘I would never have guessed it!’

Surely this can’t be Alastair Campbell, the manipulative doctor of spin, the arrogant scourge of the media, the meddler, the power behind the throne – the organ grinder to Blair’s monkey?   This man is relaxed, confident, open, tolerant and funny!  He answered the questions put to him by the hapless Baroness Lockwood, who clearly hadn’t done her homework, with patience and a finely tuned sense of humour.

‘You mentioned in the book that you went to Bradford Grammar School in 1962. What influence did Bradford have on you?’ 

‘Did I write that?  My book is about my time with Tony Blair.  It doesn’t start until 1994.  And Bradford Grammar School had very little influence on me.  I was only there for a term.’   

‘Yes, well, I see.  And after Bradford Grammar, you disappeared.’

‘Well, I didn’t disappear.  I went to Leicester.  I might as well have disappeared, but I didn’t.’

But Campbell soon outpaced the brave Baroness, who was becoming more embarrassing with every utterance.  Questions from the audience proceeded in their usual halting way, and the Baroness was just about to end another enthralling evening in the King’s Hall, Ilkley, when Campbell took control,  ‘No, no, there are still lots of people who have got their hands up.’ 

Grabbing a board, he noted down all the questions and then went through them one by one, like he might have done at a press conference. 

One questioner suggested that Blair was over influenced by the Americans over Iraq.

‘Not at all.  I was with Tony Blair at the TUC conference in Brighton on 9/11.  We left immediately and on the way back to London, TB wrote down what they needed to do;  protect the airports,  protect Jewish communities and Iraq/WMD.  The available intelligence convinced him that Iraq posed an enormous threat.  But he was guided by his intelligence.  It wasn’t some religious zeal and it wasn’t pressure by Bush.’

 He clearly likes TB, who by return has called Campbell his best friend. He told us that Blair embodied the three ‘p’s of politics; principle, pragmatism and policies. 

‘In politics, you have to get on with people.  Your principles cannot be compromised but they must be tempered with pragmatism.  Britain has always punched above its weight and we would never been able to have the influence we have unless Tony had cultivated good relationships with the world’s only superpower.’

Another asked him what could be done to make people less cynical about politicians.  His answer was very interesting. 

‘In 1974 – not a good year for British Politics – only one out of every four political articles were negative.   In 2003, it was 18 to 1.  No wonder people are cynical.  But there is a triangle in British politics between the media, the politicians and public.  The public is too passive.  It  needs to have more of a voice if it not going to be manipulated.’ 

‘What can politicians do?’, somebody shouted. 

‘Keep their promises.  Look up the 1997 manifesto.  Not the most fascinating read, I grant you, but you will see that almost everything in that document has been done.  The Blair government has achieved a tremendous amount: devolution, more support for the health service,  an elected mayor for London,  power sharing in Northern Ireland, a stable economy.’ 

What do you think of the current opposition?

‘The conservatives have got it wrong.  They assumed that when Gordon became prime minister, Tony would stay.  The had this fixed idea of a prism. Tony had no intention of staying.  Cameron has modelled himself on Blair.  Now that Blair had gone and a different style of leadership is here in Brown, his attitude looks redundant.  The Labour party are united and strong.  The conservatives are split and in disarray. But I would still advocate caution in deciding a snap election.’       

Campbell is forthright.  He has strong opinions about people.  This has got him into trouble at times. 

‘Boris Johnson for Mayor of London?   Just a joke!’ 

Ken Livingstone?  ‘Tony did all he could to block him, but he’s actually done a good job.’ 

Clare Short?  He shrugged. ‘What can I say?  I would not have employed her!’ 

Cherie?  ‘The media went after her. I tried to protect her and the children but she thought I was interfering.  We get on fine now.’  He smiled knowingly. 

Campbell is not at all worried about what people think of him.  In politics you have to cultivate a pretty thick skin. ‘I want to be liked by the people that matter. Otherwise I just want to do a good job.  You could never do the job I had, if you worried about what people thought of you.’   

Is there anything you regret?  ‘Not getting on well with the media.  After all, I was appointed Tony Blairs press officer, responsible for good relations with the media and I didn’t get on with them.’

Had he ever knowingly lied to the media?

‘No, not  knowingly, but there may have been times when I had got things a bit mixed up.

A good answer.  What else could he say?

Campbell is impressive. He is sharp and professional; a man, who is at the top of his game and is reaping the rewards.  His insouciance has not been acquired without years of experience at the highest level.  Campbell knows what he is talking about.  He has been a political journalist for many years and press officer to Tony Blair for nine more years.  It is easy to see how he and Blair would have made a great team.  Both were open and quick; they would have sparked each other off.  Gordon Brown, by contrast is plodding, dogged and defensive.  I can’t see Campbell getting on with him at all. 

In the past, he had the reputation for being an alcoholic and a depressive. He also had a fiery temper.  He didn’t suffer fools.  Now he has cleaned up his act.  He has been teetotal for years, he appears happy and relaxed and he is very fit for a man of 50.  He even runs triathlons for charity.                       

I liked Campbell.  He was charming, highly intelligent and could engage as easily with presidents as with Yorkshire hill farmers.      

He once asked Clinton what it was like to have everybody in the world talking about your sex life. 

‘Oh, it’s allright’, he replied,  ‘as long as they don’t all talk at the same time.’

Michael Ondaatje is contained.  His shape is compact.  His clothes are Canadian casual; cotton trousers and a blue cheque shirt. His beard is neatly trimmed.  His blue-eyed gaze is direct, calm.  His voice is a soft, gentle fusion of English and Canadian with hints of the orient.  Only the shock of white hair, an occasional wild look in his eyes and a slight twitch of his mouth like he is sucking on a painful tooth, betrays the darkness and chaos that is tamed by his writing. 

He has come to Ilkley to read from his new novel, ‘Divisadero’, which docments the trajectory of the three main characters, the two sisters, Anna and Claire and the enigmatic young farmworker, Coop, after their makeshift family is riven by the violence that explodes when the girl’s father discovers Coop’s relationship with Anna  Anna comes to rest amid the calming landscape of South West France, where she delves into the story of the previous occupant of the house she occupies, a story that echoes her own history.  Claire and Coop pursue their independent course in a present rough-hewn from the ruins of the past.       

Ondaatje captures the footloose loneliness of the disconnected; the emigrants, the travellers, who find themselves propelled by fate or circumstance into situations and relationships, which alter their lives.  Think of Hannah and Kip in the English patient, washed up by war in a ruined and deserted villa in the Apennine Hills. Think of the English patient himself – or is he English?  There is an enigmatic, dream like quality in Ondaatje’s novels, a feeling evoked by Ondaatje himself.  

Ondaatje lived for the first 11 years of his life in Sri-Lanka where he never read a book but was the recipient of a rich oral tradition of stories and myths.  Then the family emigrated first to England, where he went to school, and then to Canada.  It wasn’t until he went to Canada that he began to read anything he could lay his hands on.  Later he became interested in poetry and he started writing poems rich in philosophy and imagery.  Novel writing came later; In the Skin of a Lion (1987), The English Patient (1992), Anil’s Ghost (2000).   Ondaatje is also a photographer, he edits film – he has written a technical book about it – Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002).  

Ondaatje’s novels are rich in technical and specialist detail, whether it is of bomb disposal, forensic anthropology and the writings of Herodotus as in The English Patient, or the techniques of bridge building and the deceptions of playing poker in Divisadero.  Ondaatje needs to know about how things work and the detail not only contributes a richness; it helps to contain the emotion.  It grounds the narrative in fact and place.    

It takes Ondaatje 5 years to write a novel and he cannot write anything else while he is doing it.  He has to maintain the focus.  He doesn’t know where the novel is going at first.  He starts with an idea for the characters and the first chapter and it just grows from there.  But it doesn’t grow in a linear form.  Ondaatje’s novels are more like a collage.  The novel is set in California, then in Nevada, then in France.  The characters are introduced and may disappear only to reappear, older and changed.  He doesn’t feel any compulsion to explain what has happened in the meantime.  That is up to the reader.  Like a film maker, he provides the scenes.  His audience will connect them in their individual ways.  And because the readers have to do the work, the book is more likely to be remembered.  The first draft may only take a year to complete. The real work comes in the editing and revising. 

Ondaatje is a craftsman; he pays great attention to detail.  He adjusts the tone and pace.  He makes sure the metaphors are right, the echoes work and the characters are credible.  It’s the adjusting and readjusting that takes the time.  He does the first two or three revisions himself.  Then he sends the book out for friends to read and revises it again.  Finally he sends his work to a publisher and works on more revisions with the editor. 

 Listening to Ondaatje is a strangely calming and moving experience, not unlike meditation.  His writing conveys a kind of acceptance, a containment of passion of violence, a comfort in a disturbing world.

Do you remember building sand castles on the beach and watching the sea come in and slowly wash it away?  Have you ever constructed a den out of branches or made pyramids of stones?   The artist, Andy Goldsworthy has never lost his innocent  fascination with natural forms.  It is the mainspring of his creativity.  His work reaches the child in all of us;  but for those lucky enough to grow up in the country, it has a special significance.   

Goldsworthy was brought up in the western suburbs of Leeds where town meets country.  He played in the woods and the bogs close to his home.  In his teens, when his parents left Leeds, he lived and worked on a nearby farm.  Our impression is of a thoughtful and somewhat solitary boy, who found meaning and purpose in trees, stones, mud and holes – always holes;  living cavities as refuge from social and family tension.      

Goldsworthy has raised a child’s fascination with the material of the countryside to an art form.  That is its appeal.  His installations in the Underground Gallery of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park are a celebration of human inventiveness at its most fundamental.   He has plastered the walls of one room in a mixture of clay, which he dug from a pit in the grounds of the park and human hair, collected in bags from local hairdressers and then closed the doors.  As this latter-day daub dried, it cracked into a repetitive pattern of irregular shapes, like the mud on the bottom of a drained lake, but raised, bent and textured to a surface, on which we project our imagination.         

Another room has been transformed into the roofs of series of ancient dwellings by overlapping curved slabs of limestone, capped with a single round slab with a hole cut in the middle.  The result recreates the surface of Skara Brae, a Bronze Age  commune burrowed into a midden of sea shells in East Orkney.   

The next room takes us further back.  You enter by via low doorway into a large dark squashed dome lined by the writhing muscular limbs of trees.   Were it not for the absence of human detritus and the central hearth, we would be looking at the interior of the hut of a Mesolithic tribal chieftain.  Instead, it seems more like the inside the muscular body cavity of some large living creature; the empty stomach of a whale.  Outside in the yard, the brick red coils of a long extinct pleisiosaur break the surface of the raked gravel.     

There is an timeless magic at work in Goldsworthy; he explores the natural world like a hobbit,  beating water with a stick to create rainbows,  burying himself in a pile of leaves with a just a hand emerging,  diving head first into holes at the base of trees and then like a hornbill, narrowing the aperture with mud.  His work evokes the constructions of animals; the dams of beavers,  the papery nests of wasps,  the galleries of termites,  the mud and saliva cradles of house martins, and the curious symmetry of a spider’s web.   

Goldsworthy is a white aborigine.  He unsettles the complacency of commodity with long forgotten images of ancestral dream world.  You can look but you cannot enter.  His alternative dimension is protected by a magic screen of chestnut leaf stems, pinned together with blackthorns, and the only way in, a black hole, two feet in diameter and ten above the ground, is quite inaccessible to mere mortals.

It’s official.  The scientists agree.  The world is heating up.  By the end of the century the average global temperature will be 4 degrees warmer.   The ice caps will have melted.  Sea levels will have risen by 2 metres and many of our coastal cities will be underwater.  Billions of people will have died.  The world as we know it will be destroyed.  So why aren’t we more worried about it? 

Not so long ago, the voices predicting global warming could be safely ignored as gloom and doom merchants.  There were more reassuring voices telling us this was just part of the normal oscillation in climate that has taken place for the last few million years.  But not now.   Climate change is with us.   England has just experienced the warmest spring and the wettest summer for at least 50 years.  And 2006 was the warmest year on record.  The frequency and severity of tropical storms has increased.  The arctic ice cap is thinner and breaking up, and polar bears are drowning.  Whole islands off the coast of Bangladesh are disappearing.         

So it’s not that we don’t believe it is happening; it’s more that we don’t want to believe it.  After all, if we were to really take climate change seriously, we would all need to get rid of our cars, buy ourselves bikes, insulate our house more efficiently, cut down on the use of electric lighting and power, stop traveling by air and install solar panels on our roofs and windmills in our gardens.  We would also need to move away from the coast, change our jobs,  educate our children in the use of sustainable energy and even have no more children.  The implications are enormous, the sacrifices too great.  And, we might reasonably argue, there is little point in any one of us making these sacrifices unless everybody else does it.   

Only governments can introduce measures that would make a difference.  They could tax the use of cars so heavily that people would have to use public transport, they could penalize home owners that utilized too much energy, they could cut own on street lighting, limit air travel, but such measures would probably make them unelectable.  And what would be the point of a country like Britain bringing in all of these changes unless it was matched by America and China.  It seems that billions would need to die of drought, flood, famine and disease before the world finds its political will.     

Governments, like the people they serve, are putting their heads in the sand and hoping that climate change will go away.   But it won’t.  Al Gore has listed the measures that would need to be taken to reverse global warming.   They need to be instigated right now if they are to have any effect at all.  The longer we ignore the problem, the less likely we are to get away with it.  Indeed, some scientists believe we are already beyond the tipping point where such measures will be effective.      

We are all in denial about this.  Of course we are.  We have to be.  If we weren’t we would give up or go mad.  The only thing that keeps us sane in the face of impending disaster is hope; a blind faith that it will be alright in the end. The alternative is too dreadful to contemplate. If we lose that hope, then we lose the will to live and just give up. 

In medical terminology, people who lose hope are suffering from depression.  And depression is the commonest illness afflicting civilized man.  Many more people, however, seem to be able to retain hope even when things seem impossible.   It’s what keeps them alive.  When the Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe, went to Naples in 1888 to help with the devastating cholera epidemic raging in that city,  he observed that people were engaged in an orgy of sex, as if in the presence of death there was a desperate urge for life.   Mountaineers, skydivers, some soldiers only seem to find that sense of affirmation they call life in the presence of disaster.   The anorexic is so intent on the survival of their independent will,  they ignore the reality that their body is being starved to near death.  The smoker ignores the ever more dramatic death messages on the backs of cigarette packets.  It can never happen to them.     Death for many of us is something abstract that happens some time in the future.   And even when we are old and death is round the corner, we still ‘rage against the dying of the light’.  It is too big to face.  Those who have religion can only face death by believing in a much better life afterwards.     

The way we look at impending disaster is like the way we look at death.  It is distant.  It doesn’t affect us.  So when, in an episode of Only Fools and Horses, Del Boy asks Rodney what he is so upset about,  Rodders responds with insouciance;  ‘Oh you know, the poles are melting, the rainforests are disappearing, millions are starving in Africa and Cassandra hasn’t spoken to me for weeks.’  We are more concerned the proximal, the here and now, because that is the only thing we can engage with.   

Every day we are read about death and disaster in our newspapers.  Every night we watch it entranced on our television screens.  There is no good news.  But we don’t really engage with it.  We can’t.  If we did, it would drive us mad.  I have patients so worried about the possible implications of the symptoms they experience in their bodies, that their life is a living hell.  The solution is not to be found in the tablets that never work nor the futile quest for the one doctor who will understand and cure their condition.  It is to assert a confidence in their body, a faith that they can control their symptoms, a belief that they are not going to die painfully of cancer.   

So when faced with the knowledge that the world as we know it will end within the lifespan of our children or grandchildren,  we have to keep the faith that it will not happen – or else we will indeed go mad.  This indeed requires a healthy sense of denial; the question is what form this takes.  Do we just carry on with life and ignore what is happening?   Do we pray for salvation?  Or can we indeed develop the collective political will to confound the predictions?               

And so, the tide of public sympathy for Gerry and Kate McCann is starting to ebb.  Hair from the decomposing body of their daughter has been discovered in the boot of the car they hired three weeks after her disappearance; traces of her blood on the lock.  It is all rather conditional, but it looks as they might have used it to dispose of her body.   

But how, in the name of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, can that be?  Kate is so fragile and beautiful, a tragic heroine for our time.  Gerry is strong and determined.  And they are doctors, and God fearing Catholics to boot.  It was so much easier for us to condemn the shambling figure of Dr Harold Shipman, hiding behind his beard as he administered a shot of narcotics to an elderly widow.  But the McCanns?   Surely not.  They are a decent couple.  Kate is soul in torment.  Gerry is struggling to stay strong.       They have a beautiful blonde family.  Our hearts go out to them. They are symbolic of all that is hopeful in a dark world. But inch by column inch, the doubts are beginning to stack up. 

Let’s for a moment just think the unthinkable.  Suppose Kate McCann had administered an overdose of sedatives.  Or worse; suppose she had lost her temper and shaken her to death.  Such events are quite possible.  Even the most patient of parents can feel desperate with the demands of infants and toddlers and Kate had three of them.   She would have yearned for a relaxing night out with friends without crying children to contend with.  Any mother would.  As a family doctor in a foreign country she would have brought a medical kit with her.  This might well have contained sedatives.  Even responsible doctors can be quite cavalier when treating their own families.  Infants are very sensitive to the sedatives that adults take. 

Suppose they had inadvertently caused the death of their beloved daughter. What would they do?  The McCann’s are trained to deal with life’s crises.  They would know that the Portuguese police would arrest them, split them up, take their twins away, keep them in prison for months before trial and then in all probability find them guilty of manslaughter or the Portuguese equivalent.  The prospect was devastating.  The life of one child had been lost.  Why make it three?   They would have to cover it up. 

Deception is a kind of theatre.   If the play is to convince the audience, the actors have become the roles they create – so much so that they become them.   If the McCanns are guilty, then their fiction would have been a blessed refuge,  a place of pity rather than condemnation.   Only by embracing this, could they hope to maintain their sanity. 

If you’re going to lie, lie well.  Live your life as if it were true.  Organise publicity, set up a search fund, contact experts, co-opt celebrities, get an audience with The Pope.  ‘Surely’, you cry, ‘they would not have done all that if they’d killed Madeleine themselves.   Not true.  ‘Surely they would!’  The McCann’s are highly intelligent doctors,  more intelligent, it would seem than the Portuguese police.  They take cool decisions about life and death.  They can devise complex strategies.  And let’s not forget this; the stakes for them were very high – no less than the lives of each other and of their twins.  It would have taken the inscrutable presence of Hercule Poirot to detect the truth.  

Unless the McCanns break down and confess or Madeleine is found, dead or alive,  we will probably never know the truth.   I hope we never do.  Would society be served by bringing Kate and Gerry to trial?   And if – and that is by no means certain – if they were found guilty, would anything be gained by sending them to prison?   Surely that would just compound one tragedy with another.  The McCanns will never escape the torment of what happened to Madeleine.  It will remain with them for the rest of their days.  So it would be wrong to condemn them for their gross deception in a fury of self righteousness.  There but for the grace of God …..

She sits on the bench, leaning forward over crossed legs, cradling a glass of wine – hiding her body.   She is wearing a pretty smock dress, printed with green leaves and white flowers, over a pair of utilitarian jeans and open-toed sandles.  Her voice is posh, home  counties but her sentences are peppered with obscenities.  Her hair spikes from her head in straight black tufts, like exclamation marks.   Her lips fold into a cute smile, both quizzical and seductive, but her eyes remain alert, fearful.  ‘I write better when I’m pissed,’  she says taking another gulp of wine.  ‘Poets are either drunk or depressed.’    


Catherine Smith, celebrated poet, short story writer, editor of The New Writer, is seeking discipline. She has become interested in poetic form.  ‘Free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.  I need more rules.’     

Smith’s poems are funny in a way that is disturbing.  Her humour shines a searchlight into  the dark corners of human nature.   They are her way of dealing with disappointment.   When she was young, her mother was depressed.  Her father was away a lot.  Her brother was a child prodigy.  She was ignored.  But she found she could lose herself in her head.  Poetry protected her from mum’s depression and gave structure and meaning to her pain.  Her first poem was published in Teaching World at the age of 7.  A few years later, she won a childrens’ literary award, sponsored by the Daily Mail.  She then developed an eating disorder and the poems stopped. 

She lost her virginity at 16 while gazing up at the photograph of David Cassidy above her bed.  Mechanical, sordid, devoid of romance and meaning,  her boy friend rolled off her and went downstairs to watch Match of the Day with her brother.  Her poem written some years later, invites laughter, but the scene it describes is traumatic.   Catherine Smith is as paradoxical as Wendy Cope on Prozac.  She drinks snake-bite and black, a mixture of cider, lager and blackcurrant, on the swings in the park and compares it to incest and country dancing.   Ms Smith writes of bad sex,  body parts, death, childbirth and freak shows.  She cuts open the hypocritical skin of life and lays bare guilt and guts, pokes fun at sinew and shame.   You can’t ignore Catherine Smith.  She grabs you with eyelashes like Venus fly traps and fucking-well makes you  take notice.             

She agrees with Hemingway when he advised aspiring novelists to ‘write hard and clear about what hurts’.  ‘Poetry helps you laugh at yourself.  It’s a form of therapy. It helps you deal with the pain by engaging with the ridiculous.’

She’s now writing a novel.  ‘Rhymes with hovel’, she quips.      

What has happened to Nigella Lawson?   Is this really the same sharp, sassy personality, the finger-licking Goddess of gastroporn,  who hosted Nigella Bites in the nineties – the seductress who with bedroom eyes taught us how to break eggs, fondling the yolk in her hand while the white glistened and slipped between her fingers?  Then she was subtle, suggestive, her eyes hinted at much more than dinner. Food had never been so sexy. 

In her latest series, Nigella Express, which commenced on BBC2 last night, she doesn’t so much bite as wobble. She has become a caricature of herself.  Her superior 32G-cup breasts strain for release,  her bottom protrudes like a bustle as she waddles – yes waddles – at high speed around the kitchen of her new pad,  like Donald Duck in a pin-ball machine.  

I realise that this series is about fast cooking for busy mums,  but seduction even with food, cannot – repeat cannot – be done quickly.  If you want efficient fast food, ring Delia, not Nigella.  Nigella’s appeal lies in the looks held just that second or so too long, the well crafted turn of innuendo, the lingering lick of a finger, the caress of a fish.  Speed it and the result is ridiculous. 

Remember that advertisement for the new Megane with the big boot.  Nigella Express treats us to a veritable feast of gluteal oscillation.  This isn’t about fast food; it’s about fast sex.  Look side ways at camera – bat eyelashes – shake hair – get squid from the fridge, look at camera again – closer,  shake squid in polythene bag with cornflour, bicarb and ‘tangy American allspice that I bought in Dallas’ – suggestive look at camera – heat oil – shake coated squid into it – deep fry until brown.  Grab jar of mayonnaise from the fridge – chop garlic – mix – wipe finger in it – lick finger – sexy look at camera. And there you have it, crunchy squid with mayonnaise – wonderful for a quick fuck – I mean snack!    

Nigella tries to come across as a busy mum, but it doesn’t quite work.  The fact is she is married to one of the richest men in England,  she has a purpose build kitchen apartment in an industrial estate on the South Circular and she goes by taxi to shop in the supermarket and keeps the meter ticking.  ‘There! Just five minutes’.  Her father, the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer’, is coming to dinner.   

There is an arrogance about Nigella these days, a faceitiousness about food.  No worries over fat; butter, cream, just pour it on!  Cut the fatty skin off the pork?  No way!  It’s the best bit.  Nigella is a voluptuous girl with enormous appetites and she just doesn’t care if the butter runs down her chin.   

She meets her friends for a night out, applies her mascara in the car, but can’t wait to get back. For what? An hour of hot sauce with Charles?  No!  Caramel croissants; the best thing after a night out!  She looks sideways at the camera and rolls her eyes like an erotic actress at the moment of penetration.  Such a good thing to do with your stale croissants! 

First, put on a silky black kimono. Then heat sugar in water in the pan until it turns amber, tear the croissants into chunks, plunge them in, add a pot of cream and bake in the oven – 180 degrees for 20 minutes.  ‘That was wonderful’, she moans as she opens her eyes wide, looks sideways at the camera, pushes back the locks of dark hair that have fallen all over her face and pulls her kimono together. 

The credits start to roll as I stretch, breathe out at last and make to get up.

 But, she pleads, ‘you haven’t seen my poussins yet!’

The house, built in 1812 of grey limestone, slumps square on a low hill beside the Clun Valley.   On each elevation, there are three tiers of windows, buttresses on the corners and two gables topped by stone pinnacles.  A red open top Alvis with white wheel hubs stands in the forecourt. And two chocolate Labradors, Barnum and Bailey, and a Springer Spaniel, called Offa bark enthusiastically as they race around the sculpture of a nymph, who, in a classic Pirelli pose, is raising her gown to reveal superior buttocks.  A man, tall, hirsuit and thin as a lath, stands framed by the gothic arch of a leaning, castellated porch.  He is dressed for effect in straw boater, tilted at a quizzical angel, striped blazer, cheque shirt and floppy red cravat.  His narrow trousers, the colour of over-ripe aubergine, end three inches too high above the ankle revealing red socks patterned with green frogs and a pair of white trainers.  His left hand clutches a bottle of Dom Perignon, while with his right, he makes an expansive gesture, spilling champagne from a silver tankard.   His whiskery grin reveals false teeth but real pleasure.  His voice is deep, resonant and a little camp.  ‘Welcome, my darlings, to Chateau Calamity.’       

This scene would have greeted house guests arriving at The Hurst in 1990.   John and Helen Osborne had moved to Shropshire from Kent just 4 years earlier.  Many had been surprised.  John, the angry young man of British theatre, had gone soft, they said.  Helen, ten years younger and one time drama critic and Arts editor or The Observer, had sacrificed her power and influence too young. But for others who knew them better, there was no mystery;  it was simply a matter of love.  

I went to the farm by the river below the house to meet Joyce Williams,  the Osborne’s nearest  neighbour.   She was 73 and had the vivacity of a girl from the Welsh valleys; sparky, quick and direct with the kind of look that can see straight through you.   Her hair was sparse and dry and dyed the colour of winter hay.  She was close to Helen Osborne, particularly after John died.  There was a bond.  Joyce had lost her husband at about the same time.  Her son, Andy, was the Osborne’s general handyman.  He lived up at The Hurst and still does. 

I asked Joyce what she thought of the Osbornes when she first met them. 

‘They were different, weren’t they?  The previous owners had been landed gentry. We knew our place, but they were boring.  The Osbornes were more down to earth, but they brought some excitement to the valley’.

She looked inward and smiled.  ‘I remember when we first met them.  They had only been there a day. We were summoned to the house for drinks.  We were nervous.  I told Roy to wear a suit.  Helen came to the door.  She was small – petite, I suppose you’d call her – and feisty.  John stood like a bearded giant behind her.  She gave no introductions, just waded straight in,  ‘Now what are we going to do about this fucking roof.’   Roy nearly dropped through the floor!’ 

I asked her how John and Helen got on.  She paused, looked directly at me; then wiping away some moisture from the side of her right eye, said,  ‘Helen was devoted to John.  There was never any other man for her.  You must have heard the story.  She won first prize in a writing competition when she was still at school.  John had presented her with a copy of ‘Look Back in Anger,’  in which he had inscribed,  ‘To Helen, with great expectation.  With love, John.   God, he was such a handsome man back then.  No wonder she fell for him.  Twenty years later, when they were married,  Helen returned the gift, in which she had added.  ‘I always expected it would be you.’

‘But John could be difficult’, she added, looking at me, assessing whether it was safe to continue. ‘He could be so charming and cheerful at times.  Andy would tell me how on sunny mornings he would hear this roaring from the woods and there was Joan, striding down the hill like King Lear, the dogs snuffling and slavering behind him, the earphones from his walkman jammed into his ears, while he sang an aria from Don Giovanni at the top of his voice.  But then he could fall into a depression and you wouldn’t see him for weeks.’ 

But perhaps he had no choice. John Osborne was the Pete Docherty of his day.  Much  further out on the left field than others dared to go and with a dangerous intelligence, he terrified politicians and unsettled the rest of us. Look Back in Anger was not so much a watershed, it was a techtonic shift, an earthquake that shattered the polite cleverness of Noel Coward, the cosy mysteries of Terence Rattigan. Osborne was visceral. He had guts.  He was quite prepared to evacuate all the shit that threatened to poison his mind and dump it on the complacency of post war Britain. He was the inventor of kitchen drama.  If the action wasn’t in the sink, it was around the ironing board.

For a decade, he surfed the tidal wave that he alone had created.  He wrote other plays that enacted the painful aspects of his life with the same disturbing realism.  Hotel in Amsterdam worked in all the violence, the shocking aggression of the break up of his fourth marriage with the actor Jill Bennett. The Entertainer describes in harrowing detail the decline of celebrity.  As John Heilpern commented in his 2006 biography.  An undertow of melancholy seeps through all of Osborne’s plays.  It’s about growing older and the sting of the bitch goddess of success.’

But just ten years after he elbowed his way into the gentleman’s club of British theatre by the tradesman’s entrance, he exited via the revolving door. He wrote no  plays of note after 1965. The endless rumination on the dark side of his own celebrity had ceased to have relevance for his audience.   

By 1980, Osborne’s career was in terminal decline.  ‘I want simple, familiar English comforts’, he wrote to a friend.  Six years later they bought the Hurst on an impulse. They were already in debt and could not afford it, but that never stopped John.  They continued to entertain their theatre friends on a lavish scale, celebrities like Maggie Smith, Peter Bowles, Edward Fox, Anthony Howard, Sylvia Sims, Dirk Bogard and Peter Nichols,  author of The Diary of Joe Egg were frequent visitors.  Joyce remembers how John would sit on the couch just inside the drawing room, the door propped open with one of his Oscars.  ‘He would throw his arms wide and greet his guests in turn as if they were his children just returned from years in the wilderness and then after a few well chosen words send them back into exile with a dismissive wave of his hand and beckon in the next.   It was a skilful performance.  You couldn’t take offence.  But when he’d met everybody, he would rise and go upstairs to his study and not come down again for the rest of the evening.’

While Osborne could affect an arrogance the size of the millennium dome, his writings revealed a devastating self loathing.  It was as if all the anger of his youth had now turned in on itself and was destroying him.  Company of friends could lift him for a while, but there were times when he refused to get out of bed.  When that happened, Sue Mercer, their housekeeper, who now works in the gift shop in Clun, remembers Helen rolling her eyes and saying, ‘Don’t go into the bedroom today, Sue,  John’s having one of his days.’ In 1993, he refused to leave the refuge of their king-size bed  from Christmas until Easter.  

John Osborne was a devil-may-care diabetic. He would forget to take his Insulin or he would take too much and then not eat.  And he absolutely refused to curb his drinking.  More than once, Helene had woken to find him not breathing properly and had saved his life by forcing him to take sugar.  ‘It was so hard on Helen.’  Joyce commented,  ‘He could be so awkward.  When he was depressed and that was quite often, he’d refuse to see the doctor. It was almost as if he wanted to die.’  

Joyce explained that Helen did everything around the house. ‘She organised the repairs, paid the bills, employed the staff and she did all the cooking. Helen’s shepherds pie was to die for, but she refused to cater for guests who were vegetarian. – too much trouble!’    

Helen built her life around John. She was the jealous custodian of the Osborne reputation, maintaining the myth of the angry young man in the face of overwhelming reality. Numero cinque was his secretary, typist, proof reader, and even his writer.  He could do nothing without her, but did he love her?  Joyce pursed her lips and looked through the window.  ‘Who knows? I am sure that when he wasn’t depressed, he found contentment with her. They were inseparable.  And they had so much fun together. The called each other names.  She was ducky; he piggy!  They loved dressing up and entertaining or going to the races. And they both had such a finely developed sense of the ridiculous, even when things were sad and painful.’  

According to Heilpern. when John Osborne died on Christmas eve, 1994, the village undertaker, Ron the Box, lost his body somewhere between the house and the mortuary. The poor man was so scared that Helen would be devastated. Quite the opposite. When he summoned up the courage to admit his carelessness, she clapped her hands and cried.  ‘Wonderful.  John would have loved that.’     

When reports came out a year or so ago of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott’s affair with his secretary, I could not imagine how someone so corpulent, rough, and irascible  could ever be considered sexy.  I’ve changed my mind. Jean-Louis Coulloc’h, the actor who played Parkin, le guard du chasse, in Pascale Ferran’s ‘Lady Chatterley’, pulls it off!  

Who can forget the scene,  straight out of Edwardian peep show, of his short stocky body running naked in the rain, arms outstretched, lips vibrating, as he chases the screaming Connie through the woods?   But is this just a frivolous comic interlude in Parkin’s taciturn reflections?  Not at all!  Ferran cuts through the ridiculous to get to the careless joy of two people, who find freedom in their love for each other.  Marina Hands, who plays Connie has a beautiful body, Coulloc’h less so, but it doesn’t matter. 

Only a French director could have the insight to portray the sexual tension without recourse to titillation.  The lingering shots of Connie’s thighs, embellished with dark spots, as Parkin first unclips, then rolls her stockings down, or the way he decorates her pubic hair, umbilicus and breasts with flowers,  are deeply erotic without being pornographic.  Even the clumsy, grunting scenes of copulation are beautiful in the genre of a wildlife documentary.  I could let my mind slip and imagine David Attenborough’s breathless voice-over. 

Lawrence’s story is familiar.  It is 1921.  The war to end all wars is over.  The survivors or what remains of them have returned home.  Sir Clifford Chatterley is paralysed from the waist down.  Constance mourns the death of their marriage.  Trapped by a sense of obligation, she whiles away her days.  Her walks in the forest bring her into contact with l’homme des bois, Parkin, a sensitive, gruff kind of bloke, who leads a life a self imposed solitude after a devastating marriage.  Their relationship begins awkwardly, but the sensual awakening that they both experience instigates their journey back to life. 

The film is a French take on a very English story.  Wragby Hall and its cottages are more Lorraine than Nottinghamshire, the East Midlands accents are replaced by subtitles and the obligatory commentary in the final scene has a softly detached dream-like quality.  But none of this matters; the exquisite photography of the woodland trees, flowers, bird and animals set the tenderness of the love scenes.  As depiction of the restorative powers of love and nature, about life after psychic death, it works.   

And if it helps us see our hapless ex-Deputy Prime Minister as less the clown and more the sensuous lover, well, I guess he would also chuckle at that.