The Thames near Cliveden.
The Thames near Cliveden.
The most striking novelty of the American landscape today, to anyone who knows it pretty well, is a little box about as big as a prairie schoolhouse. These boxes are trim and white and you see them every thirty miles, as rhythmic as telegraph poles, as you cross the country, whether you go by the south, the three middle routes, the two northern routes across 3,000 miles. They are the microwave repeater stations, that pick up and carry the television image into the laps of the next section of the people. The result last season was that the number of television sets in this country jumped from about 19 million to now over 30 million – that’s one set for every five people, or two sets for every three families, covering 252 stations. We used to think – and unhappily, the movie boys used to think – as late as three years ago that it would be years before people in the Rockies and the Sierras and the desert would have television.
I have a feature in the Express on “Denial”, the compelling new film about the David Irving vs Deborah Lipstadt libel trial.
When Richard Rampton rose to deliver his opening statement he was blunt: “My Lord, Mr Irving calls himself an historian. The truth is, however, that he is not an historian at all but a falsifier of history. To put it bluntly, he is a liar.”
Denial shows how Lipstadt herself had major doubts about some parts of the strategy.Some potential Jewish donors to her campaign made it clear they thought the whole trial could only give Irving publicity. Not only did Julius not want her to testify he also refused to allow any Holocaust survivors on the witness stand. For Lipstadt the idea seemed almost perverse. Julius, though, insisted that it would be a mistake to give Irving – who was representing himself – a chance to ridicule or humiliate elderly survivors. In the end, Lipstadt agreed it was the right decision.
One of the characters I mention in passing is Fred Leuchter (he pronounces it “Loocher”, btw, not in the German style used in the film) the execution equipment manufacturer – yes, really – who eventually became a minor celebrity in the Holocaust denial industry. I interviewed him about his business many, many years ago, and still have the two pens he gave me as a memento.
Often, even in court, one had to pinch oneself to realize the enormity of the events we were discussing. Much of the time, however, merely to keep oneself from becoming uncontrollably angry, it was necessary to erect some kind of emotional curtain between the court proceedings and the death camps, to distance oneself from the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka… Before going into the witness box to be cross-examined by Irving, I had two pieces of sound advice which constituted in fact the only kind of coaching I received from the defence. “Remember, Richard,” said Anthony Julius, “you’re on the stand for two and a half hours without a break, so don’t take too many sips of water from the glass they give you; it would be embarrassing to have to ask the judge for a comfort break while you go to the loo.” I followed this as closely as I could, though the dry atmosphere of the air-conditioned courtroom obliged me to have frequent recourse to the water-glass all the same, and on or two occasions it was touch and go.
The other piece of advice was from Robert Jan Van Pelt, who went into the box before me. “Don’t look Irving in the eye,” he said, “it’ll just make you angry.”
Afternoon walk: the Thames at Cliveden.
It is said children still have a sense of wonder, later one becomes blunted. Nonsense. A child takes things for granted, and most people get no further; only an old person, who thinks, is aware of the wondrous.
Audra McDonald, Leicester Square Theatre, Jan. I’ve always found her studio recordings too icily perfect, but her personality came through loud and clear in front of a basement full of musical theatre fanatics.
Charlie Hunter, Ronnie Scotts, Nov. A perfect balance of blues and seat-of-the-pants improv from the American guitarist.
North By Northwest Live, Coliseum, Dec. Hitchcock, Cary Grant and the ENO Orchestra: a perfect cocktail.
Natalie Douglas, Crazy Coqs, Feb. A fabulous singer paid homage to Stevie Wonder, Joe Williams, Nat “King” Cole and Sammy Davis Jr.
National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland, Proms, Aug. Exploring the music of Duke Ellington and Iain Ballamy. The finest late-night Prom in years.
Youn Sun Nah, Union Chapel, Sept. Sometimes she sounds like an avant-garde jazz singer, sometimes she can be a non-histrionic version of Ute Lemper.
Dillie Keane, Oxford Playhouse, March. Out on her own without Fascinating Aïda, reflecting on love and death and sex.
Steve Gadd, Ronnie Scott’s, Oct. A less-is-more drumming masterclass.
Bill Burr, Colston Hall, Bristol. Cantankerous, curmudgeonly and one of the world’s great stand-up comedians.
Kamasi Washington, Proms, Aug. Jazz’s visionary new saxophonist? I was hoping I’d see the light at last, but this bloated, meandering concert left me even more baffled.
Baaba Maal, Festival Hall, Jan. Not for the first time, the Malian superstar seemed to be lost in a bland no-man’s land.
Pet Shop Boys, Royal Opera House. Bland tunes, ludicrous choreography and easily the most pretentious programme note of the year.
Best open-air venue. A strip of beach in the Indian Ocean that served as home to the Sakifo festival. Getting to Réunion involved a long, long flight, but it was worth it.
Best films. It seemed a stronger year than normal, or maybe I was just lucky. “Captain Fantastic”, a story about idealism gone wrong, reminded me of Paul Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast”. Jeff Bridges was memorably grumpy, wizened and cynical in “Hell Or High Water”. Two men who had next to nothing in common made memorable small talk in “Nixon & Elvis”, while the low-budget drama “Race” deserved more praise than it actually got for its unfussy re-telling of Jesse Owens’ triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “My Nazi Legacy” was a sobering documentary about war crimes, conscience and selective amnesia.
Best theatre. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a play as much as “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour”. When I managed to get a ticket for a mid-week performance, I went along assuming that the raves I’d read were just another case of well-meaning theatre critics getting carried away. Wrong, wrong, wrong. After wincing my way through the revival of August Wilson’s creaky but much-praised “Fences” a couple of years ago, I wondered whether “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” would be as exciting as it seemed when it first came to the National decades ago. Well, it definitely was, regardless of that slightly melodramatic final scenes. Two comedians shone too: Nina Conti proved that ventriloquism is alive and well; David Baddiel presented a gloriously irreverent tribute to his later mother in “My Family.
The one I haven’t been able to stop listening to.
Best books. “Motown: The Sound of Young America” brought a glorious era back to life, author and fan Adam White giving the company the glossy coffee table book treatment. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” Alan Light’s biography of Nina Simone made for exceptionally painful reading at times, but it didn’t skirt awkward facts in the way that the Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name did. (Here’s my take in The Times.) Muhammad Ali’s complex, shifting relationship with Malcolm X was brilliantly dissected in “Blood Brothers”. (Here’s my Times review.)
Biggest disappointments. “The Martian” was formulaic and infantile beyond belief. Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis was a ludicrous, would-be tough guy roaming the mean streets of New York in “Miles Ahead”. Good music though. I still can’t quite figure out how a novel as over-cooked and one-dimensional as “The Sellout” won the Man Booker. “The Underground Railroad” was almost as over-hyped (my Times reviews of the books are here and here). And “The Maisky Diaries”, acclaimed just about everywhere, turned out to be very dry stuff. Lots of intriguing tit-bits for students of diplomatic history, perhaps, but one of those books that will spend more time looking impressive on the shelves than actually being read.
And, as usual, I re-read Patrick Hamilton’s “Hangover Square”.
Best cartoon. From Paul Noth in The New Yorker. Published in the summer, when a Trump victory still seemed an impossibly long way off.
Leipzig dominated the conversation at the Steinitzes yesterday. A married sister of the wife lives there. When the warning came, the couple ran down to the cellar, the bombs started exploding, and most of their house collapsed. They were rescued, both without clothes, even underwear, quite stripped and naked. They were given 500DM for the time being. Frau Steinitz also talked about a huge cold storage plant, which was hit. A river of thousands upon thousands of smashed eggs flowed out, likewise a river of melted butter and margarine. Russian prisoners, deployed to fight the fires, had stuffed the fat into their mouths with their hands until they were sick. Soldiers had fallen upon stores of wine, knocked the necks off bottles against the nearest wall, and gulped down the contents… Whole streets are said to have been flattened. The number of dead, once recently given as 28,000, once as 18,000, was now reduced to “only” 1,200. Frau Steinitz talked with unutterable fear of the possibility or even likelihood of an attack on Dresden.