January is one of those nothing months. Neither mickling nor muckling, Billy Liar might have described it to Councillor Duxbury – although, given the Big Chill that usually arrives, it’s probably more muckling than, say, November or March. It’s the perfect month, in other words, for staying indoors and perusing the news headlines on-line.
It’s not like signing up for half an hour of relentlessly bad news on the telly. This way, you can scan the news quickly, pick a handful of intriguing captions and still retain a modicum of sanity. The bad news is always there in spades, of course, but you can choose where to dig deeper. I tend to go for the human stories rather than the blockbuster items. Yesterday, for example, I selected Wilko Johnson, Jimmy Saville, Pola Kinski and France’s very own Gérard Dépardieu.
Anyone who’s ever enjoyed a Dr. Feelgood record or, better still, Julian Temple’s marvellous documentary, Oil City Confidential, is likely to cherish Wilko Johnson and be saddened by the news of his diagnosis with terminal pancreatic cancer. I was only a passing Feelgood fan and never had the pleasure of seeing them live, but I loved Wilko’s choppy rhythmic guitar style. The film revealed a pensive, troubled, but hilarious individual who speaks with the same kind of breathless, manic energy that characterised his stage act. Dressed in black and doing that jerky thing that ballroom dancers do with their necks, Wilko would prowl around the stage with his guitar like a dog-walker trying to follow the whims of a headstrong puppy.!(upload://8zjEx5R62h4oh7eIZhazwAPXwdj.jpg)
Looking these days like a bald version of the Addams Family’s butler, Lurch, Wilko has apparently chosen not to receive chemotherapy. He will carry on touring till the end comes. His manager issued a statement in which Wilko offered his thanks ‘for all the support he has had over his long career, from those who have worked with him to, above all, those devoted fans and admirers who have attended his live gigs, bought his recordings and generally made his life such an extraordinarily full and eventful experience’. It’s quite something that you can look back at age 65 on a full and eventful life, but it’s very sad all the same. I only hope that, when the end comes, it comes swiftly.
Wilko Johnson could have been a national treasure. While he was in his prime, that prurient peroxide-blonde self publicist, Jimmy Saville, was busy fooling the general public into believing that he was a national treasure. Naïve and ingenuous as I can often be, I’m happy to say that I could put my hand up in class and say, Sir! Sir! He didn’t fool me. Even as a young child watching early Top of the Pops, it was apparent that the guy was a prat. However, prats don’t generally ruin lives. Now that the perspective of history has revealed the man as an A-list monster, it’s becoming clear just how many lives he must have ruined or at least damaged.
I suspect that Her Majesty probably thought he was a prat, too. Who knows, maybe her inner Boedicea was itching to do something a little less regal with her sword than tap his shoulders when she bestowed his knighthood upon him. Whereas the cycling ruling body can reclaim all the yellow jerseys granted to Lance Armstrong now that we know at last the extent of his subterfuge, I don’t suppose the queen can annul a knighthood. Still, the truth is coming out now in big unsavoury dollops. I like to think that some of Sir Jimmy’s much vaunted work for ‘cherridy’ was born of a guilty conscience. But the good wife of La Poujade Basse – whose instincts about people are usually unerringly correct – reckons that he didn’t even have a conscience. It may be many years too late for the man’s victims, but it’s surely better late than never.
Human monsters have an awful capacity for ruining lives and inspiring fascination. At least the German actor, Klaus Kinski, didn’t pretend that he was anything other than what he evidently was: a raving nutcase. Any fan of Werner Herzog’s visionary films will know that Kinski was tailor-made to play the parts of Nosferatu, Aguirre (Wrath of God) and other deranged madmen. My Best Fiend, the gripping documentary about Herzog’s volatile relationship with his star, reveals how the actor’s psychotic megalomania very nearly drove Herzog to murder.!(upload://pVwZmU0HkNfA1zWWvZBOZrekiAf.jpg)
The thought of such a loose cannon siring children is enough to make one shudder. It wasn’t just her role in Paris, Texas that made me think that Nastassja Kinski was a troubled soul. She played opposite Kinski in Aguirre and there was something disturbing about the on-screen relationship with her father, an unhinged gold-obsessed conquistador, that suggested real-life unspeakable practices. Now her older sister, Pola, has just claimed ahead of her imminent autobiography that her father subjected her to repeated rape, abuse and violence during her childhood. Of course, as monsters often do, he showered her with expensive gifts and led her to believe that this was the kind of thing that fathers the world over do to their daughters. Like so many victims of this kind of abuse, she couldn’t tell anyone for years, because she didn’t think they would believe her.
Which leads us to a complex artistic issue, one which academics might call the Wagnerian Paradox. It’s easy enough to express a distaste for Jimmy Saville. Unless you’re an inveterate fan of Black Lace or Pickettywitch, you can easily turn off a Top of The Pops repeat. When it comes to great art, however, you can find yourself impaled on the horns of a moral dilemma. Once I discovered, for example, that Charlton Heston was president of the American National Rifle Association, I declined to watch his films out of principle. Except for Orson Welles’ A Touch Of Evil that is, which will remain a great film despite a tinted Heston playing a Mexican lawyer.
Even after discovering the extent of Kinski’s evil, I won’t let it stop my enjoyment of his greatest film roles. Aguirre, Wrath Of God, for example, will remain for me one of the ten greatest films ever made. It’s helped by the fact that Kinski usually plays someone deranged and utterly unlikeable. It would be a much more uncomfortable experience to watch a film where he plays a kindly father of vulnerable young children.
Meanwhile in France, another recent revelation has reared its ugly head. It’s just over a century since the Dreyfus Affair divided the nation and brought to the surface all the virulent anti-Semitism that had been simmering for some time. L’Affaire Dépardieu is unlikely to divide opinion quite like the case of the villified Jewish army officer who was imprisoned on Devil’s Island on a trumped-up charge of treason. When I discovered that Degas was a rabid anti-Dreyfusard, it put me right off him as a man, but hasn’t spoilt my appreciation of his paintings.
The thing about Dépardieu, though, is that he’s neither a political catalyst nor, as far as I can tell, a monster. That he’s happy to become the citizen of a repressive autocracy simply because he’s been offered a favourable rate of taxation suggests a rather sad individual whose love of money is paramount. Any friend of despots is no friend of mine. I don’t like the man or his increasingly mannered acting, but that won’t induce me to turn off Manon Des Sources or Jean De Fleurette next time they come around.