The Testified and Witnessed Ballad of the Truly Risen Elvis Aaron Presley

MICHAEL YOST is a poet and essayist living in rural New Hampshire with his wife and children. His essays and poems have been published in places like Modern Age, First Things, The University Bookman, Dappled Things, The Brazen Head, and others. He substacks at The Weight of Form.

The Testified and Witnessed Ballad of the Truly Risen Elvis Aaron Presley (As Reported in World News Weekly)

He rises from the purple sheen

    And velvet of his box

His sequined vest aquamarine

    Pomade spread in his locks,


His face unaged, bright red with youth

    As an immortal god.

He’s risen! This I know for truth

    (Although it may seem odd.)


He rocks death’s jailhouse even now,

    From Graceland, where he waits,

To play his last, and take a bow,

    Before the mighty fates.


For when Amurka’s own true king,

    Begins to gyre his pelvis

The juke-box joints will leap and sing

   “Salvation comes from Elvis.”


His golden buckle girding on,

    Likewise his golden shades

The King has come in bronze and brawn

   As our world’s music fades.


And after Armageddon, all

    Will be Banana-Bacon-

Peanut-Butter Sammich. All

     The lost, unloved, forsaken


He’ll shower with amphetamines,

    Cake, Coca-Cola, Jam,

Butabarbital, morphine,

    And piles of honeyed ham.


    Girls will dance naked, all for love

And T.V. sets will ring

    And squawk our songs and praises of

Our Once and Future King.

The Wounded Healer

LUCIUS FALKLAND is the nom-de-plume of a writer and academic from London

The wounded healer

The job description was always very clear:

You have autistic breakdowns, lose control.

Uncertain futures, a general sense of fear,

Takes hold of you and cuts into your soul,

So you palpitate and snap and use a word

That might cut me, but who cares? I’m not you. 

I’m part of unpredictable, absurd.

It comes upon you; I notice every clue.


My job is to absorb it like some spring

Mounted building on a fault line in Peru.

Sometimes you shun me, other times you cling

To me for comfort and I accept that it’s just “you.”

When I’ve got you back to calm and you say “Sorry,”

I feel closer to you then than I can show.

To be avalanched in anger, angst and worry;

I see the “me” of nineteen years ago:


The “me” at the age that you are now

Rejection-fear so strong I dare not send

My writing into journals, scared of how

I would take it. Would I contemplate the end?

Fear of talking about money. If things changed,

I would shout it like some primal, tribal chant,

Infantile and manically deranged:

“I can’t do this, I can’t do this; I just can’t!”


Now, when I hear those words from you,  

I know that only I can understand

The sensations, fear of chaos, fear of new,

That traps you like a foal in mud and sand.


Is our age gap merely a statistic?

Or must love on the spectrum so ensue?

To be soul mates you both must be autistic,

But the young girl will need guiding through

The shattering emotions that transfix her,

While the man, a wounded-healer, like a priest,

Controls his now, and age is an elixir

That mellows; the most frightening pains have ceased.

The job description wasn’t clergyman, but clear:

You have autistic breakdowns, lose control . . .

Prom perfection

Image: Wikimedia Commons
RICHARD DOVE relives a wonderful Last Night

For some it is all about vexillology.  For some the study of the flags being waved defined the evening. For the Daily Mail, the plentiful EU flags were a clear and obvious betrayal of Brexit. But they chose not to notice the quite resplendent union jack blazer on display in a plush box or the St George flag shirt (mine) on display in the stalls.

I had to look up another dominant flag being waved in the hot, sweltering arena. It was the flag of Norway to honour the statuesque mezzo soprano Lise Davidsen. Her voice soared around the Royal Albert Hall as she embraced arias by Wagner, Mascagni and Verdi. She stands tall – indeed, the same height as conductor Marin Alsop even as she is perched on the conductor’s podium. Lise’s dresses (three changes) were wonderfully theatrical and created for her for the evening by Norwegian designer Carejanni.

The programme was diverse, adventurous and traditional. The perfect mix. Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei was played with great sensitivity by star cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who for one piece took up a solo location in the centre of the arena, giving the ardent Promenaders, many of whom had queued since early that morning, a privileged view.

Marin Alsop in action in 2017. Image: Mastrangelo Reino /A2img. Wikimedia Commons

We had three world premieres with the composers present and spotlighted after the performances – James Wilson’s 1922, Roxanna Panufnik’s Coronation Sanctus and Laura Karpman’s Higher Further Faster Together. You felt the strong guiding hand of Alsop in these choices. She is a pioneer of new music and, as she said in her closing speech, gender equality in classical music. She was even brave enough to mention Aberystwyth as a location of a Proms concert next year. She admitted she had been practicing the pronunciation all day. I imagined the maestro stalking the back rooms of the RAH not with a Verdi score but a guide to Welsh place names. Let’s hope Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiligogogoch puts a bid to host one year. Marin will certainly earn her fee.

It was a party atmosphere but tempered by reverence for the performers. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played their hearts out, and the loudest sustained cheers were for the BBC Singers, once threatened with extinction but now sort of reprieved (we must remain vigilant to keep them a going concern). The BBC Chorus was full of gusto for Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory and the concluding Auld Lang Syne when our collective voices drowned out the orchestra. Marin turned to conduct us all as balloons were sent soaring and crackers were set off almost in time to the music. This was a profound, passionate celebration of classical music with the barriers of elitism and traditions dissolved into pure joy.  In one evening we had the soaring wonders of William Walton’s Coronation Te Deum for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the festive and glittering Coronation Sanctus of Roxanna Panufnik composed for King Charles III’s coronation service and the theme from the upcoming film The Marvels by flamboyant US composer Laura Karpman with Marvel Comics celebrating super heroines; very appropriate given Marin Alsop’s absolute control over the proceedings. Super Marin, perhaps.   

Last Night of a distinguished Prommer

MARTIN GODLEMAN witnesses Sir Simon Rattle’s LSO swansong

Sir Simon Rattle. Image: Monika Rittershaus. Wikimedia Commons

I should have had a more pronounced focus on advanced ticket sales of Prom 56 when I casually noticed that Simon Rattle would not only be present at the eight week festival of music, but there to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No.9 [27 August, but available until 9 October on BBC Sounds].

Rattle, himself British-German, was born in Liverpool in 1955, the same year that the International Gustav Mahler Society was established. Needless to say, the concert had sold out almost immediately by the time I had become aware of it. Fortunately, thanks to a generous and industrious benefactor, I managed miraculously to procure a seat for myself just a week before the event.

Mahler, an Austro-Bohemian, actually earned his living at the turn of the 20th century as a conductor of opera, interpreting the stage works of, amongst others, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. His was a career that led to his post as director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. On his days off, most of which he must have spent travelling across the world from concert to concert, he managed to somehow find time to attend to his other passion as a composer, one that brought him little financial success in his own lifetime, but one which, thankfully for us, he never abandoned.

Perfect then that Rattle, whose lifespan covers the years over which Mahler’s reputation as a composer has been established, should conduct him. Equally sublime that Rattle, for whom this is a final UK outing as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, should choose to conduct Mahler’s farewell symphony, the ninth. Rattle himself was knighted in 1994, eight years before becoming principal conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic, then taking on the challenge of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 at his opening performance in September 2002, almost exactly 21 years ago.

Gustav Mahler

I had been fortunate enough to attend Mahler’s ninth at the Proms before in July 2011, when Sir Roger Norrington conducted the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in his final concert with them. The appeal of this piece of music to orchestrate a professional farewell from one’s role as principal conductor of a world-renowned orchestra was therefore not lost on me, or indeed Rattle. Few conductors are recognisable from outer space, but I’d wager that any alien with a penchant for classical music would immediately recognise the white, crimped locks of Rattle, monochromous tonight against his smart black livery.

Rattle takes initially to the podium to conduct the BBC Singers performing Poulenc’s Figure Humaine, a cantata, a hymn to freedom, dedicated to Picasso and composed in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France. The BBC Singers were also behind its premiere in London, in English, on Palm Sunday, 25th March 1945 – the score having been smuggled over to the UK five months before the war ended. A beautiful and intense choral work, chosen specially by Rattle who has described it as ‘profoundly moving; one of the greatest masterpieces that people don’t know.’

It was tonight the perfect appetiser for the evening’s main course, radiant in energy and harmonic, a choral masterpiece against tyranny. Rattle makes a point of leading out Sofi Jeannin, the Swedish chief conductor of the BBC Singers, to share the applause she has paid a central part in promoting. Then, after a short rehydration break, the conductor faces his ‘farewell’ challenge with the LSO, a group of people he has on more than one occasion described as his ‘family’. There is something religious about the falling silent of audience, orchestra and conductor before the onset of a final performance, whether it be of the night, a concert series, or of a career in post.

The ninth is, I would argue, the most self-consciously reflective of all of Mahler’s works, its tone set by the ponderous and lugubrious opening to the symphony, so alien to any of Mahler’s other, bolder dramatic initiations. I am gripped in anticipation by that silence. What a man is Rattle that he can let the whole of this majestic, mysterious and magnificent piece of music inhabit him as he hangs over that silence, ready to conduct.

Through Rattle, Mahler’s work tonight occupies a landscape of sound, narrating a man’s pain as cuckolded husband, unrecognised composer, dying… a man who was intimately aware of his own fate. James Joyce once said that for anyone to be serious about the study of his writing, they would have to be prepared to dedicate a lifetime to the task. For me, this single piece of music cries out for the same attention.

I find myself drawn to the horn section, and tonight the emotion of the opening movement is cradled by the subtlety of their handling of its many hanging moments. With his back to me, I cannot see Rattle’s cheek puffing, his teasing out of the connect between the players and the piece, but I can see them looking up at him, their eyes smiling. His family. The tiny mallets skilfully tap out the ringing of the tubular bells at the edge of that first movement; the climbing and scaling of the players across the terrain that Mahler has challenged them to cove. From the roof of the piccolo to the floor of the contrabassoon, Rattle weaves them in and out of the musical foliage.

It is a wondrous performance, and like the knowledge of death that Mahler hints at across the piece, the experience tonight is ultimately mortal. At the end of the first movement, Rattle nods knowingly in judgement of what we have all experienced, players and audience alike. I wonder at how effective my ears are tonight. Like reading a book at 18 and again at 65, the words, the notes, are static on the page, only ever brought to life by the human experience. As the orchestra move gently, urgently, left and right, I contemplate the cold fact that Mahler never heard or directed this piece himself. It only ever moved in his head, as he wrote it. What would he think about all of this? This performance 114 years on from the writing of it, conducted by someone whose love of the work has given us all this sublime evening. The thought is worthy of something with which to underpin tonight’s unforgettable experience.

Italian light, and Nordic darkness

Image: Stuart Millson
STUART MILLSON (celebrating his 43rd season) reports from the 2023 Proms

‘Where are the Proms of my youth?’ asked Barrie Hall’s now almost forgotten book, The Proms and the Men Who Made Them – a title that would be unlikely to pass the sensitivity readers of today’s London publishers. When I first attended the Proms, one joined a queue (along with all the other sixth-formers and undergrads) for the Gallery or Arena. You paid your few pounds at a little booking-office-type hole on the south side of the Royal Albert Hall and in you went. For the Last Night, people camped outside on the pavement near the Hall’s South Steps for two weeks, just to ensure a place on the front rail of the Arena, or close to it. Today, Promenaders no longer queue up: you book your Arena or Gallery ticket online. And the Last Night camp was abolished years ago, on health and safety grounds.

There have been changes in the repertoire and in presentation: this season, the BBC Concert Orchestra collaborated in a Northern Soul Prom – something that would have been virtually unheard of in the days of past Controllers of Music and Directors of the Proms (although Soft Machine did manage to creep in under Sir William Glock’s radar in 1971). Have such initiatives opened up the Proms to a younger audience? I am not sure. In 1983, the Arena was composed of 75% youth, 25% oldies. The ratio seems to have reversed. So more work needs to be done – perhaps more classical music, less Northern Soul, or at least another type of soul from the North.

Sir William Walton. Image: NPG (Wikimedia Commons)

For the 3rd August Prom, given by the BBC Philharmonic (formerly, BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra), Oldham-born William Walton (1902-83) provided the centrepiece of the concert, in the form of his Violin Concerto of 1939 – a work inspired by the composer’s abiding love for Italy and its riviera. Tinged with Mediterranean sunsets and shadows, and containing many moments of deep lyrical introspection and unbridled romanticism, the Concerto nevertheless provides some ferociously exciting and incisive sections for both soloist and orchestra. Playing the solo part that night was Manitoba-born James Ehnes – a musician renowned for his interpretation of Walton – and one who finds the true measure of a composer too often seen as something of a steely recluse, but who, in his heyday, was a determined, passionate and often avant-garde figure.

The Violin Concerto (like the stormy First Symphony written some four years earlier) has a surprise up its sleeve for the listener – a break from all the heavy preceding passion via a ‘presto’ movement, laced with a dash of jabbing, smirking, sardonic humour; softened by a waltzy, Neopolitan dance rhythm – the effect, like a generous glug of wine tipped into a glass during a fiesta. The movement, though, also broadens out into a serious nocturne: dreamy, intense; the dissatisfied Englishman abroad sinking into his local surroundings, yet thinking (perhaps) of glimpses of home. But for Walton after the Second World War, ‘home’ ceased to be England; with his new Argentinian wife, the composer turned his back on queues and nationalisation, settling on the little isle of Ischia out in the Bay of Naples. Continuing to compose, he produced such fine pieces as his Cello Concerto and a grand opera, but never quite recapturing the ardour and brilliantly-written soundscape of the Violin Concerto. As author Laurie Lee once observed: “All the great hymns to the sun are written in cold garrets.” When you are in the sun, you just… sit in the sunshine.

Image: Daniel Nyblin (Wikimedia Commons)

Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 ended the concert. In a lifespan similar to that of Vaughan Williams, Sibelius lived from the era of empires and Grand Duchies, to the atomic age and world order of the United Nations. Yet throughout the changes remained rooted to a vision – and a physical reality – of an unchanging landscape and heritage. In his music, Nordic deities make brief, spectral appearances through endless pine woods; swans in flight sweep like angels across frozen lakes, on corridors of cold air – and at night, bards tell tales of heroes and worlds gone by. The First Symphony comes from 1900 – or rather, it was revised in that year, because it is essentially a late-19th-century piece, influenced by the dense harmonies of Tchaikovsky, but still (in the opening movement) showing signs of the fleeting, sparkling, supernatural Northern Lights that characterise the fully-individual works that would come – the kind of delicate, subliminal Nordic Impressionism of, say, the Sixth Symphony. Conducted by the Finnish maestro, John Storgards, both Walton and Sibelius found a worthy interpreter.

Just a word about the opening piece, Kafka’s Earplugs (a BBC commission for Irish contemporary composer, Gerald Barry, born 1952). Not even the Kafka title and the composer’s self-described “sense of humour, which I obey” could rescue this ten-minute monotony – and mediocrity. As the piece ended, one member of the audience shouted: “Total rubbish!” Who are we to disagree? 

Good times in Kent

Photo: Drew de F Fawkes. Wikimedia Commons
RICHARD DOVE cavorts to Chic at Rochester Castle

In this year’s Grammy Awards, Nile Rodgers received the rare and prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. He told us last night (6 July) that whilst very honoured, it implies a career end and he announced: “He ain’t done yet.” On cue, his band launched into ‘Everybody Dance’ – and we did.

The grounds of Rochester Castle saw the latest chapter in Nile’s legendary career. His band, Chic, were drilled, tight and in the groove. The thousands of us sprawled on rugs and mats got to our feet (some with difficulty) and threw shapes in the night air. Chic was always Rodgers and partner Bernard Edwards, but he died in 1996 and the band has become Nile Rodgers and Chic. They play hit after hit of their own and Nile’s other work with Madonna, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, Peter Gabriel and Daft Punk, with whom he co-wrote the megahit, ‘Get Lucky’.

Rodgers is now a sprightly 70 and has survived, he engagingly told us, two bouts of cancer. He says music has its own way of healing and we all swing into the infectious groove of ‘Lost in Music’. It is a balmy evening and the ruins of Rochester Castle are illuminated behind the crowd of thousands. The cathedral tower shines a vivid blue into the dark night sky. The audience contains young and old, some wearing that old glitter dress or top found at the back of the wardrobe – a gathering, largely, of the well high heeled.

There is little room for extended solos as the band glide one dance floor hit with another, with the subtle moves of musicians complemented by the sinuous choreography and almost gospel-like singing of Audrey Martells and Kimberly Davis. Chic’s music relies on restrained but virtuosic drumming and bass playing. Ralph Rolle looks as if he was born behind a drum kit, and filling the huge gap left by Bernard Edwards is the heavyweight (in all senses) Jerry Barnes who plays some breathtaking bass lines throughout the evening. He keeps the less mobile in the audience literally on their toes.

Rodgers’ career is that on both a survivor and innovator. He was at the forefront of Studio 54-inspired disco music and then moved on swiftly when the tide turned and disco was regarded as mindless or toxic or both.  His work with Madonna (‘Like a Virgin’, ‘Material Girl’) and David Bowie (‘Let’s Dance’) put him back on track. Along with his Lifetime Grammy award he has also won this year a Grammy for the best R&B song with Beyoncé. He certainly ain’t done yet.

Rodgers dedicates a song to his old band mate, and the backdrop screens black and white photos of Edwards. Astonishingly, Chic has in some form been on the road for over 50 years. It has to be ‘We Are Family’, and we all shout out the words more or less in tune.

Whilst reminding us of his sackful of Grammys, Rodgers remains a modest stage persona with his precise, jaggling rhythmic guitar playing. He confesses he is not much of a dancer himself but encourages us once again to shake our ‘tushes’. I reflect that there will a variety of aches and pains and sprains in the morning. We wave our arms to his and Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ as the moonlight slips across the River Medway. This is a wonderful setting for an open-air concert. Indeed, this is the first of four concert evenings with the Sugarbabes and Soft Cell entertaining the ancient stones of the castle.

How to close the concert? It has to be the beguiling beat and melody of ‘Good Times’, a song that has been sampled by hip hop artists countless times. It dates from 1979 and is still as fresh and energising as ever.

The song is extended allowing some bass gymnastics that his old partner Bernard Edwards would approve. With a ‘Thank you Rochester’ they are gone, and we bounce and shuffle into the night hoping we can recall where we put that parking ticket. As the song says: “Let’s cut the rug, a little jive and jitterbug. We want the best, we won’t settle for less.” Long may Nile and Chic continue. Get out the Voltarol.

Decadents abroad

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Love in a Time of Hate: Art and Passion in the Shadow of War, 1929-39

Florian Illies, Simon Pare (trans.), Profile Books, June 2023, 336 pages, £20

KEN BELL says Weimar-era Bohemians failed to respond to the Nazi threat

On one level, Florian Illies’ Love in a Time of Hate: Art and Passion in the Shadow of War comes over as yet another lockdown volume produced from the writer’s own resources when trapped in his home. Thus, it draws exclusively on previously published sources, presumably pulled from Illies’ shelves at home, with whatever could be found on the internet added for good measure. I have reviewed quite a few such works over the past year, and I suspect that lockdown works have become almost a niche in their own right. That said, this is a work that transcends its lockdown limitations and presents the reader with a lyrical account of bohemian, intellectual life in the decade that ended with the outbreak of war in 1939.

Love in a Time of Hate is not divided into chapters; instead, the whole work is presented in three sections named Before, 1933 and finally After. Josephine Baker features prominently in the first section as a warning sign of what was to come. As a dancer in the 1920s, this Black-American woman was both famous and popular in Germany, yet when she returned in 1929, the press was outraged when she danced with a White German girl. The Volkischer Beobachter, never one to be outdone in the crude attack stakes, described her as a “half-ape”, and SA men then set off stink bombs at one of her performances. By then, the Jewish producers of the show had come under attack, so Miss Baker cancelled the tour and fled back to Paris in the early summer of 1929.

Others, perhaps the majority, were far more sanguine. Christopher Isherwood travelled to Berlin in his Cambridge tie because he knew that the city “meant boys” whose seductive company he longed for. Ruth Landshoff continued to be the good time that was had by all, and introduced Charlie Chaplin to her favours. Ruth loved swinging both ways and had enjoyed a dalliance with Marlene Dietrich, so spoke with authority when she advised one of her casual lovers: “Go for Dietrich. She has legs you’ll want to run your fingers along all day.”

Looking at this cast of characters, the reader is amazed at just how indifferent they seemed to be to the political events that swirled around them. The hedonism on display in a country where the bulk of the population were struggling to survive, against a backdrop of a state that to many people was only semi-legitimate, was not calculated to make them very popular with the average man in the street or his wife. Unfortunately, the role of the bohemian intellectuals in the rise of the Nazis is not a theme Illies discusses.

Of course, 1933 marked the start of the intellectual exodus from Germany, with George Grosz leading the stampede, leaving for the States even before Hitler came to power on the 30th of January. His satirical drawings – “the fat bellies, the top hats, the naked dancers, the madness and the poverty” – depicted Weimar with searing acuity. As Illies notes, “Someone who kept such a close eye on the age is able to sense when it is over.”

Second only to Grosz in the Nazi hate list was probably Erich Maria Remarque, the author of All Quiet on the Western Front, who drove wildly for the Swiss border on the 29th of January and settled into a comfortable exile in his palatial home. By May of that year, his book had been banned in Germany and all copies in private hands had to be handed in to the authorities. Soon after, Remarque moved to the USA where he spent most of his remaining life bedding film stars and barmaids. The Nazis took vicious revenge in 1943 by beheading his sister.

The exodus that began with Grosz and Remarque continued throughout the 1930s, but it is interesting that very few of these exiles ever got involved in anti-Nazi activities. Some did, such as Marlene Dietrich, but she was quite the exception rather than the rule. Most, such as Remarque, just seem to have settled down into a comfortable exile and lived the same hedonistic lifestyle that they had enjoyed in 1920s Germany. Illies should have made that point. Actually, most of the 1920s bohemians would have made a pretty poor example of a resistance movement, but it says a lot about them, that so few even tried to create one.

Of course, the vast majority of writers, dancers and film makers made their peace with the Nazis, and continued to live and work in Germany. Leni Riefenstahl is the one Illies mentions, which may give the impression that she was exceptional; actually, she was the norm, since most people desire a quiet life and go along with whatever governments want.

Florian Illies has produced a mellifluous account of the final days of post-Great War German bohemianism, without fully analysing just what role hedonistic bohemianism may have played in helping to create the terrible reaction. That seems a pity, in what is otherwise a fine work about a doomed world.

Polanski at (nearly) 90

Photo: Shutterstock
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD looks back at an astonishing and controversial career

Temporal landmarks may be purely arbitrary and exist only in our heads, as Einstein and his crew tell us, but it surely still comes down to a case of tempus fugit in the matter of the Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski. Turning 90 on 18 August 2023, he’s seemingly gone from being cinema’s perpetual enfant terrible to its grand old man, albeit with some significant growth pains along the way.

As often noted, Polanski’s own life has the makings of a Hollywood drama, if one with some distinctly noirish twists. His mother Bula, four months’ pregnant, was killed in the Holocaust, and his father Ryszard survived nearly three years in a German death camp. Polanski himself escaped the Nazis, but then spent the rest of his early life under Stalin’s jackboot. He eventually made it to freedom in the West, only for his wife Sharon Tate, also pregnant, to be brutally murdered in the couple’s Los Angeles home in 1969 by members of the so-called Manson family.

That might seem quite enough shadow for one life, but more was to come. In March 1977, Polanski, who was then 43, took a 13-year-old girl to a house in the Hollywood Hills to take photos of her for a magazine. Once there, he gave her champagne and tranquilizers, had sex with her, drove her home, and the following week was arrested. Polanski absconded from court on the eve of his being sentenced a year later, apparently in the belief that he was about to be locked up for life. As a dual Franco-Polish citizen, he was able to settle in Paris, where he remains at liberty to this day.

Before moving on, just a brief note on the judicial proceedings against Polanski in re. his statutory rape of a minor, which these days is increasingly portrayed – not least by Polanski himself – in almost Kafkaesque terms, and more particularly as a case of a vindictive and senile judge – one Laurence J. Rittenband, then aged 72, who presided over the Superior Court in Santa Monica, California – seeking to make an example of the ferret-faced, foreign-born sex predator standing before him in the dock.

Rittenband, it should be noted in this context, already had a long and not undistinguished legal career spanning some fifty years at the time Polanski first entered his courtroom. Of a modest background in Brooklyn, New York, he’s agreed to have been knowledgeable and personally unassuming – in one account, ‘not one of those judges who always thinks he’s in the movies’ (although by the same token, also not above keeping his own press cuttings file). In his memoirs, Polanski implies that Rittenband was star-struck by the 1977 proceedings, and, after initially exercising due judicial restraint (setting the defendant’s bail at a modest $2,500, and even allowing him to travel outside the country ‘should he so wish’), was ‘clearly over-enjoying his first excursion into the limelight.’

This account is not quite fair. In fact by the time he met Polanski, Rittenband had already presided over a host of high-profile Hollywood cases, including Elvis Presley’s divorce, Marlon Brando’s child-custody battle and a paternity suit against Cary Grant. Nor could it be concluded from these proceedings that the judge was in any way prejudiced against his celebrity defendants. In the case of Grant, for instance, Rittenband had made the eminently sensible suggestion that both the actor and the alleged mother of his child submit to a blood test, ‘after which we will determine what to do.’ When the woman in question had failed to appear for her scheduled test, and for two subsequent appointments, Rittenband curtly dismissed her suit. As well as being a stickler both for the letter and the spirit of the law, regularly advising plaintiffs and defendants alike of the need to be ‘decorous’ and punctual in his court, the judge was impressively well read in a variety of fields, which enabled him to make pertinent and original connections in his rulings. Regarding Elvis, for example, he quoted Jonathan Swift, observing to the charismatic but modestly educated ‘Hound Dog’ singer that ‘Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent.’ Looking back on the Polanski case years later, Rittenband puckishly told the press, ‘It reminds me of a line from Gilbert and Sullivan: “I’ve got him on my list.”’

Three final things need to be said about the morals rap that has effectively defined the second half of Polanski’s life.

First, there was – and in some quarters, remains – a certain amount of doubt as to whether the then-widowed director had been fully aware of his victim’s age at the time he had sex with her. It’s true to say both that the child in question, Samantha Gailey, looked significantly older than thirteen, and also that she wasn’t perhaps the naïf widely portrayed by her defenders. In her own Grand Jury testimony on the matter, Gailey noted that she had had sex twice in the year before she met Polanski, that she had been drunk, and that “yeah, once I was under the influence of [drugs] when I was real little.”

However, it should also clearly be noted Gailey was still then a seventh-grade schoolgirl who “had a Spider Man poster on the wall and kept pet mice,” as she recalled in a magazine interview. Born on 31 March 1963, she was fully four years under the age of consent then required by the state of California. Polanski was later asked by the prosecuting attorney in the case how old he had believed his victim to be when he met her. “She was 13,” he said.

Next there’s the salient point of whether Polanski had in fact raped the child, or, conversely, whether, as he later insisted, she had been a ‘not unresponsive’ partner in the act. This is what Gailey had to say on the matter when questioned at the time in front of the Grand Jury:

Q: After Polanski first kissed you did he say anything?
A: No.

Q: Did you say anything?
A: No, besides I was just going, ‘No. Come on, let’s go home.’

Q: What was said after you indicated that you wanted to go home when you were sitting together on the couch?

A: He said, ‘I’ll take you home soon.’

Q: Then what happened?
A: Then he went down and he started performing cuddliness.

Q: What does that mean?
A: It means he went down on me or he placed his mouth on my vagina.

Gailey was asked whether either party had said anything following that point.

‘No.’

‘Did you resist?’

‘A little, but not really because … ’

‘Because what?’

‘Because I was afraid of him.’

Finally, there’s the belief, still widely in vogue today, that Polanski had been railroaded by a corrupt and/or incompetent judge who was apparently about to renege on a formal commitment not to send the defendant to prison following the completion of a mandatory 90-day diagnostic evaluation sentence. Those who insist the director was somehow misled into believing that his plea bargain in front of Rittenband would preclude the threat of further jail time may be interested in the previously sealed transcript of the critical August 1977 hearing at which Polanski pleaded guilty to a single reduced count of unlawful sex with a minor. As part of the process, the defendant was required to answer 62 separate questions posed by the district attorney in the case, among them the following exchange:

Q: Mr. Polanski, who do you believe will decide what your ultimate sentence will be in this matter?
A: The judge.

Q: Who do you think will decide whether or not you will get probation?
A: The judge.

Q: Who do you think will determine whether the sentence will be a felony or a misdemeanor?
A: The judge.

Q: Do you understand that at this time the court has not made any decision as to what sentence you will receive?

A: Yes.

Now turning from the criminal, or depredatory, to the small matter of whether Polanski’s films are actually any good. The director’s first full-length feature Knife in the Water (1962) is a beautifully crafted, if at times noticeably budget-conscious, thriller that offers the classic Polanskian brew of claustrophobia, latent menace, voyeurism, class antagonisms and sexual tension, in this case set aboard a small yacht. Seen today, it still seems as fresh as the moment it was released more than sixty years ago. Among other charms, Knife has some of the most convincing examples of the kind of pure and honest personal hatred that can pass for conversation in a marriage since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? All cult black and white Polish films should be shot on a shoestring, in an increasingly mutinous atmosphere among their cast and crew – that way they might be half as good as this one. Perhaps the best sign of the film’s artistic merits came when its distributors arranged a special showing for members of the Polish cabinet in Warsaw, and the state’s hardline communist party boss Wladyslaw Gomulka expressed his reservations about it by hurling an ashtray at the screen.

Following that there was a wonderfully twisted thriller named Repulsion, shot in London, which charts the mental disintegration of a young woman who lives with her sister on the top floor of a seedy South Kensington mansion block. As with Knife, the film occasionally betrays its budget-related shortcomings, but still shows an originality and a lightness of touch well beyond the stock Hammer-horror genre that its producers, a faintly comic-opera pair of East End entrepreneurs named Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser, had in mind. The gradual crack-up of what Polanski calls ‘an angelic-looking girl with a soiled halo’, bereft of any of the sort of state emotional-welfare apparatus we might expect today, is what seems most shocking to modern viewers: both pitiable and ugly.

Repulsion was perhaps the logical curtain-raiser to Polanski’s first significant, and commercially successful, venture, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. Essentially, it’s the tale of a young woman whose world, like that of the heroine in Repulsion, spirals into a living hell once she becomes pregnant – inseminated by Beelzebub himself, apparently – with her first child. Things soon take a downward turn. At first the neighbours in the woman’s New York apartment building show an unusual interest in her welfare, and in time weird chanting can be heard through the walls at night. Then another neighbour commits suicide by jumping out of a window. When the new mother finally gives birth, she’s at first told that her child has died on delivery. Hearing its cries from the next room, she locates her infant son, who it appears has highly unusual eyes, causing Rosemary to clap a hand over her mouth to stifle a scream. It’s all just a touch extreme, and the veteran actress Ruth Gordon, playing one of Rosemary’s neighbours, appears to have inadvertently wandered in from the set of a knockabout comedy, but set against this the direction itself is crisp, unpretentious and rarely stoops to cliché. The film brought Polanski both fame and fortune, but perhaps more importantly saddled him with the faintly unsavoury reputation he arguably still enjoys today. To some, it was as though the director himself had sold his soul to the devil, as some real-life equivalent of the Faustian pact seemingly entered into by Rosemary’s neighbours and tormentors. One widely-seen press headline of the time, parodying the advertising for Rosemary’s Baby, ran ‘Pray for Roman Polanski’.

After that came a notably sanguinary Macbeth, which most critics took as a cathartic exercise by Polanski, whose wife had been murdered the previous year, followed by Chinatown, a hard-boiled but gently paced saga of big-city corruption, peopled by Raymond Chandler-style wiseguys and featuring a memorable cameo by the director himself as a knife-wielding thug.

We can perhaps draw a discreet veil over the years from around 1975 to 2002, although the visually sumptuous Tess (1979) – like Macbeth, inviting numerous Freudian, if not overtly autobiographical interpretations, with its central plot of a young girl sexually violated by an older man – had both its admirers and detractors. Perhaps it’s enough to say that Polanski brought a distinct vision to bear in almost all his films, good or bad, and that this included a technical expertise (he remains an acknowledged master of matters such as camera lenses and stage-dressing) not as common in even the most prominent directors as one might think, as well as a tendency to explore the darker side of the human condition: the idea that we’re essentially adrift in a hostile world, the butt of some cosmic jest of unfathomable cruelty. ‘My characters’ destinies [are] the result of apparently meaningless coincidence,’ Polanski once said, which would appear to apply to much of his own career. One of the most pronounced themes, rarely far from the surface in his scripts, is the subject of betrayal, and, by extension, death – of compelling interest to the man whose mother, wife and unborn son were all murdered – and the inevitable survivor’s guilt. When asked about the violence in his films, muted as it may seem by modern standards, Polanski inevitably notes that he does no more than show the world around him, and whatever else he’s surely one of the few directors, living or dead, to have experienced quite as many of the twentieth century’s homicidal monsters at first hand. ‘People talk about the autobiographical aspect of Roman’s work,’ the critic and Polanski collaborator Ken Tynan once observed. ‘But his life’s much more interesting than that. The cliffhangers end with real falls.’

This somehow leads irresistibly to 2002’s The Pianist, the affecting Holocaust drama for which Polanski won his first and as yet only Academy Award. Surely one of the film’s many attractions is that it dares to underplay the obvious horror of the subject matter, never pandering to the audience with the sort of pity-of-it-all approach taken by other directors treating broadly the same material. In Polanski’s world there are no soaring choirs to mark the moments of redemption, and no Jaws-like thudding to signal the perils. The film’s climactic confrontation, when a leather-clad SS officer asks the eponymous musician Wladyslaw Szpilman to prove he can play the piano, the stark implication being that he’ll be shot if he can’t, stands as an exquisite example of the power of understatement. Where another director might have given us close-ups of squinting eyes and sweaty palms, Polanski lets the scene unfold quietly, with just the right balance of tension and release. Instead of the panoramic sweep of a Schindler’s List, The Pianist confines itself to a more modest and specific set of events. In scaling down the action to a single, not invariably heroic figure, it invites the audience members to put themselves in Szpilman’s shoes, and so achieves an impact that Spielberg’s worthy but heavy-going epic had somehow lacked. Taken as a whole, the film remains Polanski’s masterpiece, one that surprises through its understated and irresistible power to move.

It remains only to note that when Polanski won his Oscar for The Pianist, he wisely elected not to personally attend the awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Had he done so, he would presumably have been met not by the traditional Academy limousine but by an armed police detail, which would have executed the outstanding warrant for his arrest and transported him to the nearest jail. Polanski’s friend Harrison Ford collected the trophy on his behalf, and was later able to fly to Paris and present it to him in person. The Oscar ceremony itself took place on 23 March 2003. By a morbid coincidence, it was sixty years to the day since Polanski’s father Ryszard had been marched off to the Mauthausen concentration camp, thus exposing his son to the full horrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland. On at least one level, the whole ordeal now finally seemed to have been brought full circle. ‘I am deeply moved to be rewarded for The Pianist. It relates to the events so close to my own life, the events that led me to comprehend that art can transform pain,’ Polanski said in a statement from his Paris exile.

It is not a bad epitaph on his career as a whole.

A poet’s pole position

Arctic Elegies

Peter Davidson, Carcanet, 2022, pb., 72pps. £11.99

DEREK TURNER feels impelled to look to the north

There are poets associated with particular places, or special states of mind, but Peter Davidson has made a geo-poetical genre of his own, as celebrant of a cardinal point. His interests are wide-ranging, but magnetized in one compass direction – towards ‘Norths’ geographical and conceptual, Norths as landscapes and mindscapes, Norths as essences of bleak beauty and soughing melancholy. Auden, Larkin and others celebrated septentrional subjects, but Davidson brings a clarity and suggestiveness all his own to the lonely latitudes that lie above the treeline.

Davidson studied literature and art history at Cambridge, and taught at Warwick and Leiden before spending many years as Professor of Renaissance Studies at Aberdeen. He is now Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, University of Oxford. His earliest writings were monographs on Scottish drinking songs, but he has also edited works of the 16th century Catholic martyr St. Robert Southwell and the 17th century Royalist diplomat-poet Sir Richard Fanshawe, and written an opera libretto (part of which features in this book).

A 2005 topographical tour-de-force, The Idea of North, set him undeviatingly on his compass course, and he followed up with Distance and Memory (2013), and The Last of the Light (2015). His 2018 book, The Universal Baroque, was a radical revisioning of cultural history in which national labels were rejected as otiose, and the very word ‘baroque’ released from its period prison. In his latest book, 2021’s The Lighted Window, the illuminated opening is seen in all its symbolical aspects – as sign of warmth and welcome for those out in the darkness, alternately allowing insights into interiors or outlooks onto wide worlds.

He has gazed northwards from different standpoints, but always through a prism (or snow-globe) refracting an English Catholic sense of dislocation and loss. Northern Europe has long been mostly Protestant (or post-Protestant), but he stakes an older claim, of the far North as fiefdom of ‘the Faith’. His Norths seem often empty, yet always echo, with thin ghost-voices wired on winds across gulfs of territory or time.

He is a celebrant of half-light and half-memories, looking out through long library windows onto winter afternoons with the cold coming down hard – of gloaming peregrinations across parklands and along secretive streets – of old houses and of wildness, of solitary ships and wandering stars, snowstorms and woodsmoke, falcons and thorns – bittersweetly aware of sacrifices made, failed schemes, doomed adventures, long exiles, lost expeditions and causes. Like Rose Macaulay, he takes pleasure in ruins; like Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, he finds substance in shadows.  The North, he notes in Distance and Memory, can be a place of “grim consolations” and wintry raptures, where dearth and even death can be counterbalanced by pristineness and purity. The lights of the North are conventionally held to be harder than those of the temperate zones – but even under the most unforgiving rays this evocative writer finds ample room for romance and ornate symbology, conveying great meanings in vastly evocative blank verse.

From a British vantage point, Norths are not necessarily polar wastes, but can be Pennine hillsides, Yorkshire towns, or Hebridean isles. Even those motorway signs on the edge of London which read “A1(M) The North” act almost as ambassadorial outposts, indicating richly-imagined places, and suggesting the supposed attitudes, habits, and traits of those who dwell in them – guardedness, practicality, sternness, stubbornness, terseness, thrift, toughness. The folksong phrase ‘North Country’ has long elicited images of lakes left by the Ice Age, broad fells, and drystone walls – and even today’s political term, ‘Northern Powerhouse’, is more romantic than rational, conjuring a domain of latent strengths. Entire Northlands can be evoked immediately in everyday architecture and art – stained railway arches, empty mills, the evenings of J. Atkinson Grimshaw – or even sounds – foghorns, geese, the haunted songs of Joy Division. In other countries, their Norths can be our Souths; an Italian’s idea of North may be Austria, and an African’s Italy. In Australia or New Zealand, vague notions of Northness may be swivelled to the South, with Antarctica taking the Arctic’s place in the cultural imagination.

The English east coast under snow. Image: Derek Turner

One of Davidson’s lost causes is the Stuart succession, with ‘Jacobite Song’ launching this second collection for Carcanet (following 2008’s The Palace of Oblivion). The forces of the pre-Reformation, clannish, chivalric Caledonia that briefly terrified Anglican, mercantile, rationalist England in 1745 are honoured in absentia – “The regiments like snow all overborne / The boat rowed far from the cold shore, long gone. / O blackbird taken in the fowler’s snare / He is now far who will return no more.” His king over the water has now gone over the ice, once-bonnie emblem of a past that has “Faded, flown, taken, frozen, falling, gone.” Later (‘Secret Theatres of Scotland’), under a carving of a stag in 1740s plaster he ponders scratched Scots words of desolate departure, graffiti of the gone – “Lang befor daylicht, he began his flicht”.

We then journey to find the jaded, tired Queen of the Adriatic reflected in Murano-made convexity in ‘Venice Glasses I’, one of three poems inspired by Victoria Crowe’s paintings. We can almost smell the Grand Canal and see gondolas rocking gently at their posts as another frantic day fades out – “When vanished things take shape in the stir of the waters / When glimpses and shadows pass at the edges of glasses”. This is a black and dank prospect, suggesting slimed piles and a faint under-whiff of sewage, mercifully uplifted by ‘Venice Glasses II’, where an overflying aircraft scrapes a bright stripe across the darkening welkin.

Back in the hushed old-maid austerity of Edinburgh, he scans second-hand bookshops well-stocked with the frigidly unsatisfactory productions of the eighteenth century – “A back room full of quarto shelves of Scotland / The August pleasures of dead advocates”, searching for sparks of passion within rows and rows of reason – “These wintry precincts of enlightenment / Which hold out for the moment, just, they hold.”

He hovers above 1845-8 to birds-eye the high-tech, high-hoped, disastrous Sir John Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, which got frozen in forever, where “The ice grows downwards building in the dark”. He soars skua-like back to anxious England, and awaiting Lady Jane, pacing in her garden, seeking psychic aid to link to her too-long absent spouse, and eventually enlisting patriotic public opinion to make the Admiralty send in too-late search. We think of those famous pictures of the frozen corpses discovered long after – the luckier ones who died earlier, and received obsequies, before the rest perished miserably out in the white hell, benighted among bitterness, enmired in allegations of anthropophagy, insanity, lead-poisoning, and uncertainty. Davidson prays for intercession for these expeditionaries still – “Lord of the treasuries of Hail, absolve them now, / Queen of Miraculous Snowfall, lead them home.”

In ‘The Early Christian Monuments of Wales’, a poem titled like a treatise, we find evidence of earliest missionaries in monoliths on hawthorn-studded hills, and crude lettering in eroding inscriptions – the gospellers who gave birth to the monks, and the monks to the Matter of Britain – “Words growing thin in time’s vastness, names themselves breaking” – apostles long unreachable, and yet omnipresent even in today’s physical and psychological landscapes. Some poems are more straightforwardly devotional, like ‘St Edmund Campion meditates on the Passion’, or ‘Sonnet for Trinity Sunday’, but his abstractions are rooted in the natural kingdom of the North – “For we are God’s hands and eyes through each green day / Of dog-rose and elder, plough-furrowed leaf of the hornbeam.” Serenity of God is one with sublimity of scenery.

Faith filters into everything he writes – onto the fretted neck of John Dowland’s lute (‘Mr Dowland’s Midnight’), and into his allusions to Caspar David Friedrich’s hyperborean heroism, (‘Dialogue at Kloster Edelna’), and the works of other painters (‘Pryde’s Ghost’, ‘Rex Whistler’s Blues, August 1938’). The most personal lyrics of all thaw all permafrost to remember old friends, taste again late fruits once eaten in disordered once-elegant rooms (‘Lastness, or Rory’s Apple’), and honour his ages-ago aunt, losing her mind yet still able to remember Rilke (‘September Castles’).

Davidson’s conservative, mordant philosophy feels very far removed from those of most modern poets – indeed, it diverges radically from all modern outlooks – but there are times when he can cut through the deepest coldness, to pierce the most glass-slivered heart. He shows us in Arctic Elegies a land and state of mind both lyrically described and thrillingly delighted in – a land and state of mind both eminently deserving of celebration, and capable of shining suddenly with beauty and transformative warmth.

Basso profundo

Image: Wikimedia Commons
RICHARD DOVE is bedazzled by a phenomenal bassist

Being a virtuoso musician presents a fresh set of responsibilities. You can play anything at any tempo, and you do. The results are not always, shall we say, rewarding and affecting.

That could not be said for bassist Shri Sriram and his quartet at Ronnie Scott’s. Shri’s fretless bass was accompanied by the keyboards and analogue synthesizers of Bugge Wesseltof, the energetic drums of Gary Husband and the adventurous trombone of Dennis Rollins. Shri’s bass playing is a wonder, combining delicate tones and robust, percussive slapping. The music is taken and transformed from Shri’s recent album The Letter, produced and released by Bugge on his own Jazzland label.

You can hear that Shri is very influenced by German bass legend Eberhard Weber. His compositions are tone poems with unexpected twists and turns. The bass lines are restrained as we journey across empty Arctic landscapes, and then Mumbai at rush hour when the bass almost becomes a tabla.

Shri Sriram performing in 2015. Image: Birgit Fostervold, Wikimedia Commons

Shri announces a “British classic”. Is that Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ with jazz inflections? It surely is, and we cross from Mumbai to Bromsgove. Rollins seems to be playing an accompanying riff and soloing at the same time. Bugge gets his analogue squeaks and swirls going, and the band lock together. It is as if they are at the end of a lengthy tour, but this is a one-off performance to a packed house. Many more audiences need to see what this unique quartet of gifted and empathetic musicians can do. They close with a lilting, jerky reggae version of a tune already played – clearly, an improvised mash up with some magnificently dexterous bass from Shri.

You leave with a smile. We all did. As my friend observed, there is nothing better than live music in the right place at the right time. Come back soon, Shri.