The truth and Truman Capote

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In his introduction to an anthology of New Journalism, published in 1973 and now out of print, Tom Wolfe lampoons the appalled reaction of the old guard to the blend of literary technique and newspaper reportage which made his name as a feature writer.

“These people must be piping it, winging it, making up the dialogue… Christ, maybe they’re making up whole scenes, the unscrupulous geeks…”

It turns out the stick-in-the-muds had a point.

Ronald Nye, the son of a Kansas lawman involved in the investigation of the brutal murders described by Truman Capote in his ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood, is to publish his father’s field notes which he says contradicts important elements of Capote’s groundbreaking account.

“Capote had a fact here, and a fact there, and filled in the gaps with literary licence,” Nye said.

In 1959, two drifters, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, were convicted of murdering Herbert Clutter, his wife and their two children. The pair were hanged in 1965 after a manhunt and trial which gripped the United States. Capote’s account of the senseless slaughter of a family and the search for the killers had an equally powerful impact. As Wolfe points out, Capote was a respected novelist and his account ran as a serial in The New Yorker before it was published as a book. Capote’s book, along with Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, established the non-fiction novel as a genre worth taking seriously. In Cold Blood, Tom Wolfe wrote, was “a very meticulous and impressive job”.

That wasn’t the reaction of Harold Nye who worked at the Kansas Bureau of Investigations for 20 years. His son says his father threw Capote’s book across the room in disgust, calling it “garbage”.

Capote made no notes when he interviewed people for his book. He later claimed to have “near-perfect” recall. In his account, KBI agents raced to interview the parents of one of the murderers following a tip off and smartly extracted incriminating information. But according to Harold Nye’s detailed records, investigators visited the house five days after the tip off, by which time the killers had fled to Florida where they would be implicated in another killing.

Nye suggests Capote played up the role of KBI investigator Alvin Dewey who gave the novelist access to key witnesses and also to the convicted murderers.

Of course, journalist have always shaped their material to make it more readable. Hunter S Thompson made no bones about the fictional framework that held up his manic accounts of presidential elections, boxing matches and an off-road race near Las Vegas.

But it is one thing to pepper a colour feature with twisted scenes of drug-induced mania and another to exaggerate and invent incidents in an account of the murder of four members of one family.

The legacy of New Journalism can be found in the tedious features detailing a writer’s tube journey to interview a movie star, the colour of the hotel carpet and the quality of the canapés. More seriously, it can tempt a writer to play fast and loose with the facts.

The journalist Johann Hari was suspended by the Independent newspaper when it was discovered that he had plagiarised material previously published by his interviewees. He was also accused of exaggerating his use of Ecstasy and of falsely claiming to be present at the death of an anti-capitalist protester during the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa.

Hari later apologised but the damage had been done. The editor of the Independent, Chris Blackhurst, told the Leveson inquiry that Hari’s behaviour had “severely damaged” the newspaper’s reputation.

No doubt to some practitioners of New Journalism, Hari’s faults probably seem marginal at worst.

Tom Wolfe wrote: “One of the greatest changes brought about by this new breed of journalists has been… that the proof of one’s technical mastery as a writer becomes paramount and the demonstration of moral points becomes secondary.”

There is no doubting Capote’s technical mastery and In Cold Blood remains essential reading. But if you want to read an accurate report of an event, you should probably avoid the literary lion in favour of someone with decent shorthand.

This article was first published by The Guardian on December 5.

Why a stand up comedian says she’s nothing special

Francesca Martinez

Ropetackle Arts Centre

Shoreham

October 30

When Francesca Martinez was born, medical professionals told her parents that their new-born daughter was physically and mentally retarded. This is patently not the case, as she told the audience at the City Books event, as she doesn’t read The Sun or vote UKIP.

The actor-cum-comedian is on tour to promote her new book “What the F**** Is Normal” which describes the pleasures and pitfalls of growing up wobbly. Her brain was deprived of oxygen at birth causing cerebral palsy. But Martinez is not one for misery memoirs. This was an evening of joy, laughter and at times anger as Martinez, interviewed by fellow comedian Jen Brister, delivered her very straightforward message – don’t let others define you – with charm and wit. She even had a good word for Russell Brand as one of the few celebrities willing to stick their neck out and say that all is not well with the nation’s political leadership.

Not that Martinez wishes to be seen as a role model. “It’s not inspirational it’s common sense!” she insisted as she dissected the needs of others to judge her based on the way she looks and talks – and the fact she likes Frank Sinatra.

She raised a big cheer from the audience when she declared: “Accepting who you are is an act of civil disobedience.”

Catch her when you can – just don’t call her inspirational, ok?

This article first appeared in The Argus on October 31 2014

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Tweets of endurance: Peter Jukes publishes new book on phone-hacking scandal

Rebekah Brooks arrives at the Old Bailey

Rebekah Brooks arrives at the Old Bailey

The phone-hacking trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson, and five others, at the Old Bailey in London, was billed as the trial of the century. It was never going to live up to such excitable claims and for many of the reporters and broadcasters covering the legal wrangling, it came to seem more of an endurance test than a thrilling joust. Between the sensational revelations were hours of legalistic longueurs.

But one man documented every detail and in the process reinvented court reporting and established a possible new way of funding journalism.

Author and screenwriter Peter Jukes began blogging during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. It is fair to say he later became consumed by the scandal over the so-called ‘dark arts’ of tabloid journalism in the UK.

He was initially dubious about asking complete strangers to fund him to sit in court every day after day tweeting the progress of the trial, yet that is exactly what they did. Using a crowdfunding website he raised £4,000 to keep him at the trial until the end of last year, followed by a further £14,000 which allowed him to carry on until the verdicts, and sentences, were delivered this summer.

Last night, in a unseasonably warm venue in south London, he launched his account of the trial in a more traditional format – a paperback book. Beyond Contempt is published by Canbury Press, founded by journalist Martin Hickman who co-wrote Dial M for Murdoch, another account of the criminal behaviour at News International.

“I am very proud to be the publisher of this book,” Hickman told the 100-plus crowd at the Mernier Gallery. “When Peter told me about his the idea I thought he’d be gone a few days.  But he is a dramatist and this trial was full of drama. There were 21 barristers in the court – it was the most bewigged trial I have ever seen.”

Peter Jukes paid tribute to Guardian journalist Nick Davies whose lonely and obstinate investigative journalism chipped away News International’s denials until the truth emerged.

Davies could not attend the launch as he was giving a lecture in Verona (a reporter’s life is not always spent meeting shady characters in waterfront locations).

Jukes said his book is dedicated to Alastair Morgan whose brother, Daniel, was murdered in south east London in 1987. Campaigners claim that police corruption prevented the case being solved despite six separate investigations.

Jukes said: “This was the cradle where the dark arts were born. Alastair has been fighting for justice for 27 years.”

Big names behind Brighton’s small screen start-up

Crime writer Peter James is backing Brighton's new TV station

Crime writer Peter James is backing Brighton’s new TV station

The boss of Brighton and Hove Albion football club  has thrown his support behind the city’s fledgling television station.

According to documents filed at Companies House in April, Tony Bloom, chairman at the Championship  side, has bought shares in Latest TV. Other shareholders include best-selling crime writer Peter James and local businessman Mike Holland.

Brighton and Hove is one of the first cities in the country to be awarded a 12-year local TV licence.

The station launches this week and will broadcast from it studios in Manchester Street on Freeview Channel 8 and Virgin 159 seven days a week and up to 24 hours a day.

Among possible projects under negotiation is live coverage of Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s games.

A spokesman for Brighton and Hove Albion said: “We’d like to wish those at Latest TV the very best with the new station. It will be great for the city to have it’s own TV station, alongside an already thriving local media scene. For our fans it will mean they can enjoy even more in-depth coverage of the club and Albion in the Community’s activities across the city.”

Peter James said: “I believe that next to London, Brighton is today the most iconic – as well as the most diverse – city in the UK.  Until now, I don’t think Brighton has ever been well served by any of the past regional television stations, where has received an occasional mention in the context of it being part of the South East region, rather than being recognised in its own right as a major hub.   It is long overdue the professional and informed dedicated television station that Latest TV shows every sign of becoming.”

Mike Holland said: “There are many great things to celebrate in our city. However, until now the one thing we have been lacking is a proper terrestrial TV station. This is all now happily about to change with the launch of Latest TV. As a shareholder in the company, I am immensely excited at the prospect of the benefits this will bring to the city we all love so much.”

David Cameron knows we have no chance against his tie and crest

What a catalyst you turned out to be...

What a catalyst you turned out to be…

It is every unruly pupil’s fantasy to run riot in the classroom and Mick Travis, the anti-hero in Lindsay Anderson’s If …, takes schoolboy rebellion to the limit. This razor-sharp satire eviscerates the British establishment, and Malcolm McDowell relishes his role as the public-school refusenik at war with the society that created him. This was McDowell’s debut, and his work with Anderson was to be his best. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange made him a household name, but the rest of his career was spent playing minor-league heavies.

McDowell’s roles in Anderson’s loose trilogy comprising If …, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital do not trace the development of a single character. Mick Travis is a shape-shifter whose circumstances and attitudes differ according to Anderson’s purpose. The disaffected public schoolboy in If … , the innocent chancer in O Lucky Man! and the investigative reporter in Britannia Hospital share the same name but little else. Each is a cipher through which the director projects his conflicted vision of the state of the nation.

You don’t have to be an old boy from Eton, Harrow or even Cheltenham College (one of the locations where If … was filmed) to sympathise with Travis’s alienated spirit – my own (distant) school days were spent at a Catholic comprehensive in northern England – you just need to share his belief that the game has been rigged so you might as well trash the rules. It’s a nihilistic vision that preceded the negative energy of punk by 10 years, but Travis is no Johnny Rotten dancing to a fashionista’s tune. The school uniforms at the fictional college are deliberately anachronistic, blending Edwardian jackets and pre-revolutionary Russian headwear. There is no groovy soundtrack to set the movie in a specific time frame and nobody mumbles existential one-liners in the style of Marlon Brando.

Street fighting man

Street fighting man

The film was released in 1968 when students in the US and Europe were taking their protest to the streets, but it shares none of the soixante-huitards‘ utopian optimism. McDowell is no student philosopher leading his followers towards a better dawn. His thinking, such as it is, could be based on DH Lawrence’s lines: “If you make a revolution, make it for fun …”

The mood darkens from poking fun at pomposity to murderous rage. It draws its considerable strength from the fact that many of the absurdist elements of the story have roots in reality. The Lindsay Anderson archive at Stirling University contains the school memorabilia he made use of to create his disturbing characters. Anderson claimed that the nonsense spouted by the headmaster was taken verbatim from a 1967 book called Eton – How It Works.

If the rebels have any cause, it is the Maoist belief that change must come from the barrel of a gun so, goaded by their superiors’ idiocy, on school speech day Mick and his cohorts mount a confrontation armed with bazookas. But what are the school kids rebelling against? The bête noire of adolescents through the ages – duty, conformity, the terrifying prospect of growing up and turning into the people you hate. Anderson takes a surrealistic approach to the story, but there is one element that is grimly realistic: the forces of power fight back against the threat to their authority with every weapon in their arsenal. In the end, Mick Travis is no match for the big guns.

Travis stands in a long line of doomed romantic heroes from Beethoven to Russell Brand. The school revolution he leads is bound to fail, but boy is it exhilarating while it lasts. Maturity may bring the realisation that you don’t make the world a better place by shooting all your elders, but it is hard not to sympathise with the view of Anderson that British society is a con trick played at the expense of most of the population.

Apparently, David Cameron once nominated this scathing film as one of his favourites. It is of a piece with his similarly odd statement that the Jam’s Eton Rifles is a regular on his iPod. No doubt the eternally angry Travis would agree with Paul Weller’s question after David Cameron named Eton Rifles as his favourite song in 1998: “Which part of it doesn’t he get?”. It goes to show that you can kick against the pricks all you like, but turning rebellion into money has always been the prerogative of the powerful.

 

This article was first published in The Guardian on July 29, 2014

 

Which songs feature on the soundtrack of your life?

I blame Nick Hornby. In High Fidelity, a tale of mix-tapes and tangled relationships, the soundtrack as semiotic signifier reached a high-water mark. Movie directors now like to think that each significant moment in a character’s life can be encapsulated with a few bars of a song that happened to be climbing the charts in the period concerned.

Back in the early 70s, however, American Graffiti set the template for the use of music in the bildungsroman movie and did so beautifully, as kids cruised the streets of Modesto, California, with the radios blaring. Thank God, it was set in 1962, so we are treated to Fats Domino, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, in contrast, served up the turgid work of Aerosmith, Deep Purple and Alice Cooper. Linklater’s Boyhood promises us a journey that spans the years between Coldplay’s Yellow and Arcade Fire’s Deep Blue. But do any of us actually know when this was?

More subtle directors know our memories are not shaped by the top 40, but by the sound coming out of a neighbour’s window, the song your first love’s mother played non-stop, the tune that a best friend left behind when they moved to another country.

The subtle and often contradictory associations carried by specific tunes – what the good people in the mood-music industry call its “topology” – are deeply subjective. Mike Nichols, the director of Regarding Henry, no doubt thought Walking On the Moon summed up the disabled state of his protagonist. But if, like me, you can’t think about Sting without wanting to break furniture, then the mood will be soured.

Quentin Tarantino understands that a counterintuitive approach works best when matching music to his characters’ personalities. Everyone remembers his infamous use of a jaunty Stealers Wheel number in Reservoir Dogs, but there are many other examples. When John Travolta and Uma Thurman take to the dance floor in Pulp Fiction, the director could have plumped for something on trend by Snoop Dogg or Prince. Wonderfully, the couple don’t dance to a hip tune, they dance to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, making the tune they are dancing to hip. Tarantino pulls off the trick with even greater aplomb in Inglourious Basterds, when the anachronistic use of David Bowie’s 80s hit Cat People perfectly signals the intent of a wartime heroine.

Similarly, when Scorsese piles up the bodies in Goodfellas to the lyrical backing of Layla, or employs Be My Baby to sum up Harvey Keitel’s tortured soul in Mean Streets, we go along with the artifice. We understand that in real life the hard men of Little Italy would probably rather listen to Billy Joel, if they listen to anything, but we are in search a greater truth.

One director who has a tin ear for an apposite soundtrack is Baz Luhrmann. He loads his movies with hip-hop superstars, cool brands and fashionable tracks until the whole enterprise collapses under the weight of its own self-regard. His ham-fisted mishmash of electronica, rap and rock in The Great Gatsby put me in mind not so much of a doomed lost generation as the addled crowd at kicking-out time in Ibiza.

 

This article was first published by The Guardian on July 9, 2014.

How Motown superstar Diana Ross helped Nick Lowe clean up

Nick Lowe: tapping into a rich musical heritage

Nick Lowe: tapping into a rich musical heritage

In 2011, singer-songwriter-hitmaker Nick Lowe told the New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten that waking up in a bad way in a bathroom caused him to clean up his act.

He said: “When I woke up in this bath, I had a terrible hangover. It was lunchtime, and I’d been up all night, carousing and talking bullocks(sic), and I looked at this bathroom covered in limescale, this rock star’s stupid bathroom, and I thought, This is a real metaphor for what has happened. I got out of the bath and caught sight of myself in the full-length mirror, and it was such a miserable sight, this unhappy cornered creature—it was like a thunderbolt: Right, today is the day everything changes. And it did.”

At the Komedia in Brighton on May Day, he regaled the audience with a anecdote about how a cover version of one of his songs by Diana Ross helped pay for a new bathroom. The same one in which he had his road-to-Damascus moment? Who knows?

Here is the review of the gig I wrote for The Argus newspaper (published May 6).

 

No waves rose in the 1970s that didn’t have Nick Lowe cheerfully surfing their crest. The veteran of pub, punk and power pop turned 65 in March, but when he sailed into the Komedia this bank holiday he politely declined the audience’s invitation to take a genteel cruise around familiar ground.

“This is a quality set, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Four hits and more glorious misses.”

Among the hits were “I Knew The Bride (When She Used to Rock n Roll)”, “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding” (which he wrote for Elvis Costello) and “Alison” (which Elvis Costello wrote and Lowe produced).

The highlights on the night included a mordant performance of “I Trained Her To Love Me”,  a powerful rendition of “Ragin’ Eyes” and “I Live on a Battlefield”.

This last song, Lowe told the crowd, was covered by Diana Ross whose lacklustre performance nevertheless shifted enough units to buy him a new bathroom.

The tale sums up Lowe’s down-to-earth attitude to the surreal side of his career. His knack for sweet melodies and bitter lyrics has stood him in good stead and proved a crowd  pleaser on this occasion, with the full house hollering for more.

 

 

And here he is in full-on rock star mode from 1978