At Home With The Drinker

The Drinker puts his Roger Whittaker LP on the radiogram and hopes she’ll be impressed … (photo by the late, great, Julius Shulman, used with abject apologies, etc.)

I recently visited some neighbours down on the second floor of Drinker’s Towers for some tips on the management of space. (The flats are nice but they aren’t huge.) This particular couple are a pair of architects and whilst the layout of their flat is in almost all respects identical to mine, the effect on entering is totally different. For a start, every time of furniture, every objet, has obviously been the subject of considerable thought and discussion, as opposed to being rescued at the last minute from a skip. My £5.99 bottle of Aldi Pinot Grigio seemed to shrivel in my hand as I surveyed a pristine vision of luxe living in an unlikely south London postcode, like a meticulously styled spread in The Modern House brochure sprung to life (fortunately without the pretentious, soft-sell copy). Why doesn’t my flat look like this?, I asked myself, then immediately provided the answer: because my flat is stuffed full of crap. Nick Drake’s evocative phrase about the illusory security of ‘all the books and all the records of your lifetime‘ sounds more resonant and mournful as the years wear on. I have over a thousand books and at least as many LPs, CDs, cassettes, minidiscs, DVDs and VHS videos. I even have some 8mm home movies, not to mention my personal archive of a lifetime’s photography (a trunk in my living room contains the corpse of my photographic career). The other night I watched a video tape of Double indemnity that I had taped off BBC2 in 1990; before the film started I glimpsed a youthful Jeremy Paxman wrapping up Newsnight with a characteristically trenchant analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s position following the challenge to her leadership of the Tory party. Nostalgia, eh?

My sister correctly diagnosed the problem: ‘You are trying to recreate the certainties of adolescence.’ She’s right, of course. And whilst I am well aware of the problem, I still perpetuate it. The other day I treated myself to a new turntable and promptly dug out records that I bought when I was young and culturally ambitious. It was a terrible mistake. Do I really derive any pleasure, any enjoyment at all, from listening to that (unaccountably worn) LP of Le Marteau Sans Maitre? Can I really be arsed to clear those 1970s photographic magazines off the armchair and sit through an entire Mahler symphony, or, for that matter, John Coltrane’s Ascension: is that really something I want to sample over a glass of corner shop red wine? Wouldn’t I rather watch Dr. Pimple Popper instead? Yet still I hang on to these things. An even bigger problem is all the stuff that I have inherited: an African tribal shield fashioned from a giraffe’s neck, something my father picked up in Africa in the late fifties. An entire cabinet of decorative glassware; a prop sword; my mother’s set of willow-pattern serving platters and unidentifiable kitchen equipment; a variety of imposing Thames And Hudson coffee table volumes (e.g. Great Cities, The Cradle of Civilisation, The Renaissance, etc., with introductions by the ubiquitous Arnold Toynbee and ‘tipped-in’ colour plates that have all since tipped out) … the list goes on and on. The problem is that my flat is like the inside of my head: crammed with partially-digested cultural influences, too many ties to the past, and a style of presentation which is as au courant as the House And Garden Annual, 1963.

I suppose that the psychology of collecting or, God help me, hoarding, is connected in some sense to the need to build a bulwark against death. In that sense, my flat is a bit like a Roman general’s campaign tent, pitched in some wet field in Provincia Britannia but arrayed with reminders of Rome and the spoils of victory: tokens of luck against a nasty fate at the hands of some gnarly Pict or Celt. And when the time comes to move house, I suspect that many of these things will simply be abandoned, like the family heirlooms jettisoned by desperate 19th century American settlers heading west across the Sierras. Seeing treasured (or just familiar) family possessions out in the street is genuinely disturbing; but, ultimately, it is all just stuff. Yet there are few things more depressing than walking into someone’s home (especially if the occasion happens to be a date) and encountering a default modern interior. Plantation shutters, recessed downlighters, beech laminate flooring, a flat screen TV over a cold function-free fireplace, repro posters from IKEA, ‘inspirational’ quotes plastered over lemon/beige walls in peel-off acrylic letters (‘Live, love, laugh’, ‘No dancing – except on tables’, etc.), an occasional, unsurprising book – a Booker Prize winner or a Nigella tome – and an overall sensation that life’s essentials have been carefully subtracted from the space. It isn’t just a question of taste; it seems to me that it is a fear of introspection, an aggressive wish to live a modern life as a modern person, which is just as much a denial of mortality as, say, owning the complete Laurel and Hardy on DVD. (I have it, I never watch it.) The socially approved, tastefully furnished yet numbing interiors on show in Francois Truffaut’s underrated 1968 film of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (filmed in Britain) seem prophetic: comfortable spaces where thought and memory are prohibited.

As it happens, I am currently away from Drinker’s Towers, dog-sitting in distant Metro-Land whilst a friend is out of the country. Here, where the Metropolitan Line trains still toot their toy-like horns as they pass, it is sad to see Deco houses being made-over into identikit modern homes, with front gardens grubbed up to make way for dual car ports with recessed floor lighting, sashes replaced with steel black-framed windows, and fitted with those weird front doors that look like entrances to public toilets in small hotels. But I can’t worry too much about that, I am faced with yet another stash of things, as I promised my absent friend that I would try to straighten out her place whilst she was away. This has proved to be a daunting task. The volume of her possessions has grown, exponentially, to fill the available space, which happens to be a three-storey Edwardian house. Impressive collections of books, furniture, china, paintings and drawings, photographs, shoes, etc., fight a losing battle against five cats, two dogs of excitable temperament, dead Amazon packages, out-of-date food, chewed slippers, and a sea of laundry, paperwork, turds, and balls of fluff. The gardeners are due soon and I have to clear the lawn of dozens of doggy jobbies before they arrive. Pets, like small children, are a great leveller when it comes to aspirational decor. That Eames recliner looked great before the French bulldog pup sank its chops into the plywood shell (which now looks like a chunk of reclaimed driftwood). The carved apron on that astral glazed bookcase was exquisite until he bit right through it. And I’m not going to touch that lumpy yellow stain on the rug, I don’t know what it is or how long it’s been there. I haven’t spilled anything; but if I stick to white wine and spill that, she will think it was cat piss, so I’m in the clear either way. Cheers.

Lush life in Metro-Land …

A Drunk at the Flicks

Margaret Rutherford and Stanley Holloway in ‘Passport To Pimlico’. (No, not really.)

The recent and untimely death of the director Roger Michell seems to mark the end of an era. In a career that straddled theatre, television and film, Michell specialised in mature, mainstream dramas about the problems of grown-up folk written by the likes of Hanif Kureishi, Joe Penhall, Ian McEwan, not to mention his grounding in Osborne, Beckett, Pinter, etc.. Such dramas look increasingly out of place both on screen and in the theatre: a bit lacking in adrenaline, perhaps, or not socially committed enough maybe; it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Michell generally catered to a thoughtful, greying audience that is quietly dying off. But one item on Roger Michell’s CV stands out, anomalously, from the rest: Notting Hill, his 1999 international smash-hit from Richard Curtis’s script. 

You don’t need me to tell you about the crushing success of Mr. Curtis’s brand of light comedy; nor do you need me to tell you that Notting Hill features an unlikely romance between Hugh Grant’s bookseller and Julia Roberts’s Hollywood star, played out in an atmosphere of self-deprecating privilege. My chief memory of this film is inextricably linked with a personal one. One evening, nearly twenty years ago, my sister and I returned from a visit to the pub to find my sister’s lodger watching Notting Hill on television. My sister’s lodger was a young woman in her twenties, a good fifteen or twenty years younger than myself or my sibling, and she was watching the film with touchingly rapt enthusiasm. Our interruption was ill-timed. We walked in at the end of the dinner party scene (the bit that aficionados refer to as the ‘brownie scene‘), just before the moment when Gina McKee’s wheelchair-bound character confesses that she and her partner will never be able to have a baby. At this point, I am afraid that my sister and myself erupted in booze-fuelled laughter, grotesque, immoderate, hysterical laughter, to the genuine distress of the poor girl who had been enjoying the film. She said that the pair of us were ‘evil‘ and went up to bed. I would not wish anyone reading this to think that I come from a family of ghouls: our reaction was a simple and honest (albeit slightly pissed) response to a shabbily manipulative bit of screenwriting. The only reason that character was disabled was so her physical impairment would act as a counterweight to the unexamined entitlement that constituted the entire project: un-earned gravitas tossed onto the prevailing frivolity like olives on a pizza. (Curtis also used a deaf character as a ‘heartwarming’ prop in Four Weddings And A Funeral, so one wonders what other long-term medical conditions he might employ in future projects. Psoriasis perhaps? Lots of jokes there. Tourette’s? Trigeminal Neuralgia? Piles?) But plenty of people loved it, so what do I know? I’m just an old soak who shouts at the TV. And who only writes film criticism when drunk. 

In 2008 Mike Leigh’s film Happy Go Lucky was released, to a decidedly mixed response. There was a lot of rapturous press about it but there were also murmurings of disquiet. Was the film really that good? There was a sense of critics having to get in line to support it: Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review read as if it had been written at gunpoint. Prompted by the gnashingly furious reaction of a friend who had endured it, I decided to see it for myself. However, I made the mistake of taking my girlfriend and my daughter along with me to the Curzon Soho, so I was forty quid out of pocket before we’d bought any popcorn or hard liquor. That was obviously a bad move, so I was not in the best of moods before the film had even started. The film is a love letter to Sally Hawkins, who plays a London teacher of such artless goodness – to the extent of suggesting actual cognitive impairment – that one dearly wishes to strangle her and everyone else in it (except Eddie Marsan, who essays a terrific turn as a bitter driving instructor). We emerged slightly stupefied, rational thought dispelled as if we had been subjected to a Stasi-sponsored hymn to the state. A few days later I tried to express my thoughts on Happy-Go-Lucky in an email to Sight and Sound. I had been reading that venerable organ of record whilst sitting on the toilet, and its lavish and obsequious coverage of Leigh and his film unleashed a wellspring of rage. Fired up by more than just a few drinks, I sat at my laptop and wrote my magisterial take-down of the country’s most successful auteur in a state of gin-soaked certainty. Dilys Powell I was not. Drunk in charge of the Internet – what could possibly go wrong? Well, they printed the damn thing, with my name attached (my real name, that is), as Letter Of The Week in the following issue, prompting quite a flurry of replies. One correspondent – who turned out to be the then-chair of BAFTA – said, in response to my letter, ‘Let me leap to the defence of Mike Leigh – he is our Almodovar, he is our Bunuel.’ (Yes, he really said that.) Drunk or not, I had obviously hit a nerve: Sight and Sound itself reported that box office for Happy-Go-Lucky, initially buoyant, tailed off as word-of-mouth on the film spread. I just wish I had used another name when signing that email: ‘Stephen Poliakoff’ perhaps. Anyway, it followed me around for quite a while; I was even cited in university theses on British cinema. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

With sober hindsight, both films seem weirdly ominous in their complacency. The films of both Curtis and Leigh have exported well, purveying a set of British stereotypes to an international public. This is hardly new – look at the beloved output of Ealing Studios in the forties and fifties – but, post-Brexit, both Notting Hill and Happy-Go-Lucky seem loaded with hubris, in much the same way as Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics now seems painfully ill-judged. In their differing ways, both films evince blithe faith in the idea of British level-headedness, a notion that has since been demonstrated to be utterly false. The Ealing films were made at a time of national reckoning – post-war impoverishment, loss of empire, the struggle to adapt to the modern world, etc. – so films like The Titfield Thunderbolt or Passport to Pimlico may be seen as attempts to put on a brave face against the onslaught of disorienting change (whereas Dead Of Night, The Ladykillers, or Kind Hearts And Coronets have their own, more insidious, purposes). If films inform a nation’s sense of identity – and, drunk or not, I would say that they do – then it is not too much of a stretch to wonder how a persistent (and persistently successful) glibness of tone contributes to national exceptionalism. Richard Curtis’s confections of entitlement and Mike Leigh’s caricatures of working class life feed the same beast. We muddle through. Upper or lower class, we know we’re the best, really. After all, we’re so funny.  

So what now for Richard Curtis and Mike Leigh? I read somewhere that Curtis wants to do a post-Brexit, post-Trump sequel to Love, Actually. Good luck with that. That film, which Curtis directed himself, was the moment the wheels started to come off his project. Mike Leigh seems to have gone quiet after his 2018 film about the Peterloo massacre. But, diminished or not, they remain looming, windswept monuments on the cinematic landscape. To pursue another dodgy metaphor, are they still the twin popes of British cinema? (With Michael Winterbottom as The Archbishop of Canterbury?) Discuss.