Spectating

Malcolm has an excellent relationship with a near-neighbour who subscribes to The Spectator. As a result, rather than pass directly to trash, the magazines are by-passed through Malcolm’s letter-box.

This may mean that as much as a month may have intervened before the next batch arrive; but that only puts into due proportion all passing enthusiasms of James Forsyth. Odd as it may seem, Forsyth’s weekly and presumably more leisured reflections in The Speccie do not gain in weight or wisdom compared to his instant frothings, on a more regular timetable, for the Mail

This delivery system may be laboured, but what does not stale is what happens back of the staple-fold.

The Spectator’s Book & Arts section is unfailingly worth the trip, even a month stale.

So here is Malcolm with the issue for 23rd June, where the main essay is A tough broad — Sam Leith on Lilian Hellman (the peg that is hung on is Alice Kessler-Harris’s Life and Times. Leith reviews Hellman, whereas — as far as Malcolm can judge — the book is something else: a distinguished academic historian‘s take on issues broader than a personality:

She was one of my heroines in the 1970s; I thought surely she would already have been taken, and grabbed her when I discovered that she had not. I was eager for something that would take me beyond the trade union women with whom I’d spent most of my life up to that point. And once I started to work on her, I was hooked.  Her life intersected in so many ways with elements of subjects that I had long been interested in. It spoke to questions about women, about Jews, about labor, about economic independence, about sexuality, about the peculiar nature of American radicalism…

I found myself relatively comfortable writing the parts of the book that had to do with the 1930s – Hellman’s relationship with trade unions, her viewpoints on the feminism of the 1970s – because those things are in my bones. I did my homework, but I didn’t feel as though I was researching an entirely new subject. When it came to writing about areas I knew less about – Hellman as a playwright in the 1930s, for example – that was more challenging. I had to think about who the major players and actors were; what it meant that Hellman was not a member of the radical left theater movement of the period; why she decided to be a serious writer and yet mount her plays on Broadway all the way.

No: that won’t be added to Malcolm’s guilt-pile (of which more later).

Nor will Harry Belafonte, My song: A Memoir. That is not because of any (by the look of it, considerable) worth of the text itself, nor because Ian Thomson’s review fails to do the book justice. It’s just that Malcolm doesn’t do celebrity memoirs. Still, Thomson makes almost a fair fist of it:

Like Duke Ellington before him, Belafonte was motivated always by a belief in black self-improvement. Rather than engage in a Garveyite agenda for black redemption , however, he chose to celebrate the African American experience through music. Later, he helped to finance Martin Luther King in his struggle against America ‘s racial divide. Belafonte did all this independent of Fifth Avenue patronage: by creating a single appreciative audience from both black and white (more often white), he was an important, even trail-blazing figure. Black celebrities such as Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson who had angrily denounced racism in 1930s and 1940s America soon found themselves out of work . Belafonte understood this. His insistence on snappy dressing and a hotel­circuit clean appearance was part of a plan to create a parallel world on a par with that of the white man.

Belafonte’s air of urbane calypso­cool helped to instil an image of racial pride in the American mind. Beneath the suave manner, however, was a gently subversive spirit, which served him well during times of ‘Jim Crow’ prejudice. Las Vegas in the early 1950s, where Belafonte often performed , was equally as prejudiced as the Deep South. In the showbiz city of champagne-corks, broads and finned convertibles, Frank Sinatra held sway with the Rat Pack; under Frankie the King Rat was Sammy Davis, Jr. In Belafonte’s view, Davis was a tragic, self-demeaning figure who, distressed by his blackness, chose to play court fool to white audiences; his ‘little black-boy routine’ looked undignified to Belafonte.

There’s nothing particularly original in that assessment. As for Sammy Davis, Malcolm felt uncomfortably embarrassed by the Rat Pack films and performances when they were new, and time — happily — has rendered them so excruciatingly obsolete they are no longer repeatable.

What Malcolm did enjoy in that review was the typo:

As their disenchantment deepened, Belafonte’s parents began to loose all affection in each other’s company and became, it seems, a mystery to each other.

On mature consideration, perhaps the Spectator‘s issue of 23 June (headlining James Forsyth extolling the coming neo-Cons on the Tory back-benches) wasn’t the finest example of the marque.

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Filed under History, Music, Racists, reading, The Spectator, Tories.

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