Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Turning Point?

By Roger Kimball
December 19, 2014

Political Cartoons by Gary Varvel

I was pleased to see that President Obama announced today that there would be a public screening of The Interview at the White House on Christmas day. It took guts to stand up to the cyber bullies, whoever they are, who have terrorized the cry babies in Hollywood and sown fear among the rancid celebrities of the preening class. Many commentators on my side of the aisle were surprised at Obama’s forthright condemnation of this brazen act of cyber terrorism and his new-found resolve to stand up to America’s enemies. I was pleased, too, to see that he has replaced Susan Rice with John Bolton as National Security advisor and is setting up a cyber defense task force headed by General Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA and the NSA. It has taken a while, but at last Barack Obama seems to understand the gravity of the many threats America faces on the international front and I am pleased that he has been so candid about putting American interests first.
Just kidding, of course. There will be no public screening of The Interview at the White House on Christmas, and if there were, you can bet last devalued dollar that neither John Bolton nor General Hayden would have received a ticket.
No, the real question people should be asking themselves is this: Now that the President is seeking to “normalize” relations with the Communist hell hole of Cuba, is there any totalitarian enemy of the United States that he has not sought to cozy up to?
Russia? check. Hillary hit the reset button years ago, remember?
Iran? absolutely: what more could Obama do to assure that Iran becomes a nuclear power?
China? Obama made a special trip there to agree that the United States to hamstring its economy by adopting emissions standards that China wouldn’t have to adopt for decades.
And on it goes. Someone told me last night that Obama was hoping to normalize relations with the Taliban, but (as far as I know) that turns out to be an unfair rumor.  He is only hoping to normalize relations with the PLO while at the same time punish Israel, which has the temerity to make everyone else in the Middle East look bad by being the region’s one liberal democracy and, moreover, by being more technologically innovative than any of its neighbors.
But here’s a question I really cannot answer: how far can Obama go before he gets some real pushback? Yesterday it was Cuba. (When are you going to issue Cuba’s “torture report,” Senator Feinstein?) A few days ago we discovered that Obama invented a new word for “ukase:” it’s “memoranda.”  “President Obama,” USA Today reported, “has issued a form of executive action known as the presidential memorandum more often than any other president in history — using it to take unilateral action even as he has signed fewer executive orders.” Who knew? But wait, isn’t “unilateral action” exactly the sort of thing the Constitution was designed to impede? Well, yes, but we should know by now how much Obama regards the Constitution as a check on his power.
Still, it would be good to know how far the American people are willing to let Obama go.  We know that establishment time-servers like John (you-can-do-any-thing-you-like-Obama-and-I’ll-only-pretend-to-object) Boehner are too deeply implicated in the status quo to offer any serious push back. What about the rest of our elected officials? The longer they’ve been in Congress, the more securely are their lips sewn to the teat of public largess and bureaucratic privilege. It was just this eventuality that folks like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton sought to prevent, but we’ve had more than two hundred years of lawyerly hermeneutical ingenuity chip, chip, chipping away at Constitutional safeguards to rely on those fusty old ideas of checks and balances and those “auxiliary precautions” that Madison spoke of in Federalist 51. (“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” Madison wrote, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”  How are we doing on that score?)
It’s not every day that you get to have a ringside seat at the birth of despotism.  The entertainment value is likely to be quite high, though I predict the story will not have a happy ending.

The Knives Come Out for Senators Cruz and Lee

Republican leaders don’t want them to derail Obama’s amnesty. 

Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee

Last weekend, Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee forced every senator to vote, on the public record, regarding the constitutionality of President Obama’s unilateral decree of effective amnesty for millions of illegal aliens. The resulting Republican establishment hissy fit further confirmed something I’ve been arguing here for some time: Republican leaders in Washington endorse President Obama’s amnesty policy.

Their stated opposition to the imperial manner of the policy’s imposition is poseur stuff. When push comes to shove, when the time comes to do something about presidential lawlessness, what do we get? Childish tantrums over being forced to work on a mid-December weekend — the poor dears having spent a whopping 135 days in session this year . . . and, by last Saturday, facing the crushing burden of another two or three days’ waltzing between the Hill and the nearest studio before their next three-week vacation.

We get party leaders who, despite having decried Obama’s lawlessness during the recent midterm-election campaign, actually whipped against a legislative rebuke of executive lawlessness. We get 20 mindboggling Republican votes in favor of the president’s usurpation of Congress’s legislative authority . . . even as GOP leaders look voters in the eye and promise to persuade the courts that the president has overstepped his constitutional bounds. (I don’t know how many of these guys have ever appeared before a federal judge. “Your Honor, I rise today to urge that this court condemn the president of the United States for taking actions I have voted to endorse and pay for with public funds.” Good luck with that.)

As long as we’re talking about epic insults to our intelligence, special recognition should go to the GOP establishment claim that, by forcing elected legislators to take an accountable vote, Cruz and Lee enabled Democrats to secure confirmation of objectionable Obama nominees.

The story goes like this: By orchestrating a “point of order” vote to question the constitutionality of Obama’s decree, Cruz and Lee broke what Fox News gently called an “informal agreement” that our esteemed senators could take the weekend off. Already you’re getting the picture, right? According to GOP leaders, Congress should not only refrain from taking action on an outrageous abuse of presidential power that drove millions of Americans to support Republicans in the midterm elections, but should do so based on an unenforceable wink-wink deal with that paragon of probity, Harry Reid.

But it gets better: The miffed senators huff that, because Cruz and Lee unexpectedly gave the majority leader weekend time to fill, Reid used it to move forward with a number of controversial Obama nominees to the federal bench and high executive-branch posts — nominees Republicans claim they had shrewdly planned to stall. You’re to believe these nominees got confirmed later in the week because Cruz and Lee, former Supreme Court clerks and highly accomplished lawyers, got outfoxed on parliamentary procedures.

First, a little history: It is because of senior Republicans that President Obama has had so many judicial slots to fill. During the Bush administration, when Democrats made unprecedented use of the filibuster to block conservative judicial nominees, there was a move to do away with the tactic. Beltway Republicans, however, saved the day for Democrats with the infamous “Gang of 14” deal. It not only decisively undermined the nominations of several worthy Bush nominees; ultimately, Democrats were also able to keep some key slots open until they were back in control of the Senate and the White House. Naturally, Reid then did exactly what these GOP leaders had stopped Republicans from doing: He ended the filibuster so that Democrats could slam Obama’s controversial nominees through with a bare 51-vote majority.

And that’s not all. In 2011, Republican leadership also joined with Democrats to eliminate the confirmation process entirely for some 400 high-level agency positions. That is, Republicans gave Obama carte blanche to fill fully one-third of the federal bureaucracy’s top tier without any vetting at all by the Senate.

So now the same guys who have spent the last decade giving away the confirmation store — the same guys who, in recent weeks, have blithely allowed Obama nominees complicit in the Benghazi debacle to sail to confirmation by voice vote — want you to believe they suddenly had a strategy, this week, to run out the clock and thus stop Obama from installing more progressive ideologues. You know, because after going to the trouble of eliminating the filibuster precisely so he could get Obama nominees confirmed, of course Senator Reid was going to stand idly by while Republicans stalled nominees during his few remaining days in control.

You don’t have to rely on common sense to know Republican leaders are snowing you. Reid’s office made the obvious explicit: He always intended to confirm a slew of Obama nominees before allowing the Senate to adjourn.

On December 1, long before last weekend’s immigration debate, The Hill reported Reid’s admonition that he might keep the Senate in session through the week of December 15 in order to, among other things, get Obama nominees confirmed. Moreover, Reid’s communications director Adam Jentleson repeatedly tweeted that Reid had every intention of moving ahead with the nominations before the Senate adjourned. For example, there were these two tweets before last weekend’s amnesty tumult (here and here):

Sen. McConnell just generously offered to adjourn Senate for the year without processing any more nominees. Sen. Reid of course objected.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Peter Ackroyd’s London Calling

Up close and personal with Peter Ackroyd, England’s insanely prolific, controversial and eccentric novelist and historian.
September 12, 2013
Peter Ackroyd at his desk in Bloomsbury, where he typically writes three books simultaneously.
Peter Ackroyd at his desk in Bloomsbury, where he typically writes three books simultaneously (Tung Walsh)
Writers write because they have no choice, the cliché goes, but if you crunch the numbers, it’s clear that certain writers have less choice than others. Peter Ackroyd, the 63-year-old English novelist, biographer, historian and author of more than 50 books, is one of those for whom writing at some point turned the corner from avocation to compulsion, and then from compulsion to continuing Olympian feat.
Ackroyd writes nearly all day, nearly every day. Each morning he takes a taxi from his London home, in tony Knightsbridge, to the office he maintains in Bloomsbury, where he typically divides his workday between three books. He begins by writing and doing research for a history book, turns to a biography sometime in the afternoon and finishes the day reclining on a bed in a room adjacent to his book-lined office, writing a novel, in longhand.
“It’s just the way I work,” Ackroyd says. It was a Saturday in early summer, and he was sitting in his office, a handsome, sun-flooded room with large windows that look out over a genteel square. The walls held shelves, packed with history books, scholarly monographs (“The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III,” “Sex Before Sex: Figuring the Act in Early Modern England“) and three-ring binders full of photocopied articles from academic journals. On a shelf above a large desk, there was another pile: a stack of DVD’s for one of Ackroyd’s current works-in-progress, a biography of Alfred Hitchcock.
“I think there’s a resistance to the idea that you can be a good biographer and good historian and also a good novelist,” Ackroyd says. “You’re either accused of being a dilettante or of overproducing. But I’ve been doing it nearly all of my working life. I suppose the routine was originally designed to inhibit boredom, and also to earn money. But now it’s just become second nature.”
In Britain, Ackroyd’s way of doing things has made him a literary star, with many of his books becoming best sellers. His portfolio is crammed with rave reviews and prestigious awards. The hallmarks of his work are well known: fluid poetic prose, vast erudition, a flair for eccentric historical connections and an abiding interest in England and Englishness, with a particular emphasis on literature and the history and mythos of London.
The most Ackroydian thing about Ackroyd’s writing, though, is the sheer amount of it. In the past decade alone, he has published some two dozen books. These include four novels; a prose retelling of “The Canterbury Tales“; a magisterial “biography” of the Thames River; “London Under,” about the world beneath London’s streets; “The English Ghost,” about the national obsession with specters and spirits; a cultural history of Venice; a beautifully written series of history books for children; biographies of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Newton, J. M. W. Turner, Edgar Allan Poe and the Victorian literary oddball Wilkie Collins; and a handful of other books. If you add up the page totals of these works, you get, by some rough accounting, 6,492 pages, give or take a few hundred. (By contrast, the Modern Library’s “Complete Works” of Shakespeare comes in at 2,560.) It’s the kind of output you associate with a writer of romance novels, or an army of them, not an acclaimed littérateur. In the annals of graphomania, Ackroyd’s closest spiritual kin may be Charles Dickens, a figure with whom he has some familiarity: his 1,195-page Dickens biography was published in 1990. A reader who develops an Ackroyd habit will find his bookshelves sagging.
Now, Ackroyd has undertaken the grandest project of his career — his doorstop of doorstops. He is at work on the third and fourth books of a six-volume “History of England,” which aims to tell the whole story of the sceptered isle, from prehistory to the present. (The first volume, “Foundation: the History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors,” was published in the United States in 2012; Volume 2, “Tudors: the History of England From Henry VIII to Elizabeth I” is out in Britain and will be published here, by St. Martin’s Press, on Oct. 8.) In the British press, the “History of England” series has been hailed as “monumental,” “the biggest nonfiction project of our times,” drawing comparisons to the tomes of previous ages: the literary-historical masterpieces of Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay. The author himself takes a less bombastic view. “I suppose the project makes a kind of sense,” Ackroyd says, “given my longtime interests.”
Ackroyd’s 848-page “biography” of London, winner of the 2001 South Bank Show Award for Literature; his prose retelling of Chaucer’s magnum opus; his demystifying 2005 take on the life of Shakespeare; a comprehensive history of England’s Thames River.Courtesy of Peter Ackroyd; Viking, A Member Of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company; Vintage Books; Chatto & Windus.Ackroyd’s 848-page “biography” of London, winner of the 2001 South Bank Show Award for Literature; his prose retelling of Chaucer’s magnum opus; his demystifying 2005 take on the life of Shakespeare; a comprehensive history of England’s Thames River.
Ackroyd grew up on a public housing estate in East Acton, a working-class neighborhood in West London. He was raised in a strict Catholic home by his mother, who worked in the personnel department of an engineering firm, and grandmother; he never met his father. He was a bright, bookish child who took a particular interest in history and classics, earning great marks and, eventually, a place at Clare College, Cambridge, where he studied English. He did graduate work on a fellowship at Yale University, and, at age 23, became literary editor of The Spectator, the venerable conservative magazine. He won his first job with a display of Ackroydian industry: he was given a couple of books to review as a tryout, read both in a day, and turned around the reviews overnight. “They realized I worked fast,” Ackroyd says.
Ackroyd published two books of poetry, and then, in 1976, his first prose work, “Notes for a New Culture: an Essay on Modernism.” A debut novel, “The Great Fire of London,” came a few years later, and he began to churn out books at a prodigious clip. His breakthrough came in the mid-1980s, with the publication of a biography of T. S. Eliot and, a year later, in 1985, a novel, “Hawksmoor,” a macabre detective story about a series of murders in London churches, with twinned narratives set in the present and the 18th century. The Eliot book received the Whitbread Biography Award; “Hawksmoor” won the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize, and established the themes that would dominate Ackroyd’s work: an obsession with London’s culture and cityscape, and an occult view of history as a kind of grand ghost story, in which the present is inextricably entangled with — haunted by — the distant past. It’s a strain that is present in all his novels, and most powerfully, in his nonfiction, where Ackroyd’s prodigious research, the thrumming rhythms of his prose and his taste for the mystical can combine to dazzling effect. The first chapter of “London: the Biography,” an 848-page blockbuster that may be Ackroyd’s best book, opens with this paragraph:
“If you were to touch the plinth upon which the equestrian statue of King Charles I is placed, at Charing Cross, your fingers might rest upon the projecting fossils of sea lilies, starfish or sea urchins. There is a photograph of that statue taken in 1839; with its images of hackney cabs and small boys in stove-pipe hats the scene already seems remote, and yet how unimaginably distant lies the life of those tiny marine creatures. In the beginning was the sea. There was once a music-hall song entitled ‘Why Can’t We Have the Sea in London?,’ but the question is redundant; the site of the capital, 50 million years before, was covered by great waters.”
In person, Ackroyd can seem a bit like a statue himself. He sits for an interview, barely stirring, answering questions in a deadpan tone, wearing a jowly frown that conceals occasional flashes of humor. He is a large, round, walrusine man; he has a bad leg and he moves uncomfortably, heaving himself up from chairs with great groans. He has always been a heavy drinker. “I used to drink spirits, but my liver said no,” Ackroyd says. These days, he only drinks wine, but lots of it: a bottle with dinner at a restaurant (he always dines out), and another bottle when he gets home at night.
He is, in other words, a boozer and an eccentric — an old-fashioned, classically English type. He certainly stands apart from his contemporaries. Ackroyd is a member of the vaunted British literary generation that includes Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes; he was born, in October 1949, six months after Christopher Hitchens and six weeks after Martin Amis. But unlike those glamorous globe-trotters, Ackroyd is a provincial and proud of it, with a hermetic lifestyle that supports his writing regimen. He hates to leave London, professing a strong dislike for the countryside (“It’s too noisy, too dangerous, I don’t trust their food”) and no interest in traveling to other cities (“I don’t understand their histories”). He avoids nearly all the rituals of literary celebrity, restricting his promotional efforts to the occasional interview and a single appearance per year at a literary festival. He lives alone, and reserves just two Sundays each month for socializing, taking day trips with a friend to visit historic English towns. Ackroyd is gay, and has been single for almost two decades. (His longtime partner, Brian Kuhn, died in 1994.) He has been celibate for years, too, and he deems his sexless solitary life “a great relief”: “I’m happy not to have to bother with any of that anymore. It gets in the way of your work.” Ackroyd recently wrote a libretto for an opera based on William Hogarth’s engravings — but he never goes to the opera, or to concerts, or the theater. For several years in the 1980s, he was The Spectator’s film critic, but since leaving that post he has been to the movies only once. “I don’t want to go to the cinema,” he says. “Nothing would give me less pleasure.”
From top to bottom, left to right: Ackroyd’s 1,195-page biography of Charles Dickens; a meditation on the origins of the English imagination; the first book of his proposed six-volume history of England; Volume 2, which picks up the thread in a brisk 528 pages; the postmodern novel “Hawksmoor,“ which won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Whitbread Novel Award in 1985; a collection of English ghost stories, pieced together from centuries of letters and journal entries.“Dickens” and “Hawksmoor”: HarperCollins; “Albion”: Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House LLC; “Foundation” and “Tudors”: St. Martin’s Press; “Ghost”: Vintage Books.From top to bottom, left to right: Ackroyd’s 1,195-page biography of Charles Dickens; a meditation on the origins of the English imagination; the first book of his proposed six-volume history of England; Volume 2, which picks up the thread in a brisk 528 pages; the postmodern novel “Hawksmoor,“ which won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Whitbread Novel Award in 1985; a collection of English ghost stories, pieced together from centuries of letters and journal entries.
Ackroyd’s tendency to wall himself off from the world has brought criticism. When a reporter asked him to comment on the riots that erupted in August 2011 following the shooting death of a young black man in the north London neighborhood of Tottenham, Ackroyd replied that riots were nothing new in London and that the city would go on, unchanged. It was a historically accurate assessment, perhaps, but one that raised complaints about Ackroyd’s worldview as apolitical and aloof. Hitchens, in a review of Ackroyd’s 2002 opus “Albion: the Origins of the English Imagination,” wrote of the author’s “talent for heroic generalization” — a thumping backhanded swipe — and scorned Ackroyd’s tendency to focus on “the pageant while omitting the elements of tragedy” in English history. Some reviewers of Ackroyd’s “History of England” volumes have jumped on him for being flippant about facts — for instance, for ahistorically construing as “English” the various and sundry peoples who have inhabited the land now called England, reverse-engineering history to create a false narrative of continuity.
For his part, Ackroyd will admit to being little interested in politics, and to taking a sweeping view that elides the fine-grain truths of academic history. His aim, he writes in “Foundation,” is to restore “the poetry of history”: to revive page-turning literary history in the Gibbon and Macaulay tradition. Ackroyd also allows that his sense of historical continuity is quasi-mystical, an article of faith. He states his position plainly in “Foundation”: “From the beginning, we find evidence of a deep continuity that is the legacy of an unimaginably distant past. . . . The nation itself represents the nexus of custom with custom, the shifting patterns of habitual activity. This may not be a particularly exciting philosophy of history but it is important to avoid the myth of some fated or providential movement forward. Below the surface of events lies a deep, and almost geological, calm. . . . We still live deep in the past.”
Reading those words, you can’t help but wonder: Is it England that lives deep in the past? Or just Ackroyd? Ackroyd says that when he walks London’s streets, he will sometimes lapse into a time-travel reverie, toggling backward to envision, with crystal clarity, how a street, an intersection, looked two or three centuries before. It may be the case that the “almost geological calm” abides not below the surface of English history, but in the brilliant, esoteric mind of one Englishman. There may be more astute, precise histories than Ackroyd’s, but it’s doubtful that there are more evocative and entertaining ones.
There’s more to come. In his Bloomsbury office on that sunny Saturday, Ackroyd was settling down to a morning’s work: revising some pages of his third “History of England” volume, and writing about the history of coal mining and steel manufacturing for the fourth volume, which will cover the Industrial Revolution. Those books will appear sometime in the next few years, but in the meantime there are other Ackroyd titles in the pipeline, including a novel called “Three Brothers,” about London in the 1960s, and a short biography of Charlie Chaplin, whom Ackroyd places in a pantheon of “cockney visionaries” alongside Dickens, Blake and Turner.
“I’ve often thought that all my books are really one book,” Ackroyd says. “They’re all just separate chapters in the long book which will be finished when I’m dead.”

Peter Ackroyd follows Charlie Chaplin's footprints around London's streets

The biographer and novelist Peter Ackroyd once wrote we should tread carefully on the pavements of London for we are treading on skin, so how appropriate that his latest subject should be Charlie Chaplin.
4 April 2014
Ackroyd is made from London and so was Chaplin. The city was the comedian's inspiration, companion and ghost, his friend and enemy. Even when he was the most famous man in the world, he continued to be inspired by the city of his birth, but it also exerted a kind of fearful influence on him too. "I had a feeling of slight uneasiness," he once wrote, "that perhaps those streets of poverty still had the power to trap me in the quicksands of their hopelessness."
This is what Ackroyd loves writing about: what he calls the territorial imperative, the relationship between person and place, the idea that where you are born, where you live, or even the place you are running away from, will always influence you. It is flesh and concrete combined.
Ackroyd is the embodiment of the theory. As a child, he was taken on tours of London by his grandmother and, when he began to write, London was almost always his subject, directly or indirectly. He has written about the city itself in books such as London: A Biography (2000), Thames: Sacred River (2007) and London Under (2011) but he has also written many times about Londoners or what he calls the London visionaries: Blake, Turner, and Dickens. Writing about them is all part of the same process, he believes: every book is a chapter in a long book that will end on his death.
And Charlie Chaplin is the natural next chapter in that book, he says. Indeed, he sees Chaplin as being more or less the spiritual heir of Dickens and, in his new short biography of the comedian, compiles a long list of their similarities. He does it again for me when I call him at his home in London.
"There is a trajectory of the Cockney visionary," he says of Chaplin and Dickens. "Both seemed to share certain attributes - they were both let down by their mothers, they lived in poverty, they both had huge success at an early age, they were entranced by London's sensibility, all these elements came together. They are also linked by a common sensibility. Chaplin's film Modern Times is the cinematic equivalent of Dickens's Hard Times, so Chaplin carries on a strong tradition of social commentary and sensibility. I always think of Chaplin as being the heir of Dickens and continuing the Cockney tradition."
The negative qualities of Dickens and Chaplin are similar too, says Ackroyd. Both men always had to be in control, they could be dictatorial and domineering and could be invaded by sudden terrors and inexplicable fears - they were both extremely wealthy but feared their riches would be stripped away.
"Chaplin could be very imperious to those around him," says Ackroyd. "He treated his wives with scant regard, apart from the last one. He was perpetually angry at the world, and he vented his anger in terrible tantrums. He was dictatorial on the set and may not have been the nicest person unless he was trying to charm you or please you or entertain you." Or have sex with you? "He was very highly sexed and known for it throughout his Hollywood career - and he enjoyed the company of underage girls more than anybody else."
Ackroyd believes all this anger, frustration and bad behaviour derived from Chaplin's unhappy childhood. "He had a very unhappy childhood and he always thought the world was against him. He was put in an orphanage at the age of 10 or so; his mother was mad, or became mad; he did not know who his father was, and he drifted through the streets of South London when he was a kid."
Ackroyd describes those South London streets on the first page of the Chaplin book and he does it with the relish he always brings to descriptions of places. In the last decade of the 19th century, he says, the world of South London was frowsy, shabby, small and dirty; he lists the smells and sounds: vinegar, smoke, beer, leather and, over it all, the stink of poverty; but he also explains how this atmosphere became the source and centre of Chaplin's inspiration, just like it did 100 years before for Dickens and 100 years after for Ackroyd himself.
Ackroyd would much rather talk about Chaplin's connections to London than his own and at times the writer famous for his long, bright sentences becomes monosyllabic and dull when the conversation turns personal (he once said he does not find himself interesting). He does tell me a little about what he is working on and what makes up his day (words, words, words). In the mornings, he says, he is working on a biography of Alfred Hitchcock (the next of his Cockney visionaries); in the afternoons he is working on the third volume of his A History Of England, and in the evenings he is writing a novel (what it is about, he will not tell me, which is fair enough). All that writing from morning until night sounds obsessive, I say. "I'm not obsessed," he snaps. "Writing is my vocation, it is all I do."
Perhaps his obsession is London, then. He was born in 1949 and was brought up in Acton and when he was a child enjoyed touring the city with his family. In his Chaplin book, Ackroyd describes the great comedian's compulsion to return to his childhood homes so I ask Ackroyd if he has ever returned to his family home. He clams up again but answers reluctantly, "Yes, I have - it was strangely unfulfilling. It was smaller than I remember and not as interesting."
He says the sequences in the book describing Chaplin's returns to London were the ones he most enjoyed writing. "Chaplin loved going back. He seems to have found it to be the source and centre of his vision and imagination - he seemed to need to return to it in order to refresh his vision."
Is there something similar going on with Ackroyd? Possibly. He loves going on long walks through the city (and he would be doing it today were it not for the fact he has injured a tendon in his leg). "I still enjoy the act of walking around London - it is important to have that solid pavement beneath my feet and feel the enduring atmosphere as I go along. It has always been part of my appreciation and awareness of London, and the power of place is something that seems to play a large role in my life."
The research for the Chaplin book involved a few of those long walks but also a period of watching and rewatching every one of the surviving films and reading every one of the books on Chaplin (and the bibliography is massive). The obvious question is, why add another one to a subject that has been so thoroughly raked over, but I am glad Ackroyd has because not only does he bring his usual colour to a black and white world, he has a healthy, experienced scepticism for Chaplin's own autobiography - indeed, all autobiography.
"Chaplin's memoirs are not entirely accurate as far as I can see," he says. "He was a great liar and he would make up great chunks of life, but that is par for the course. There is nothing wrong with that. It may have become part of a narrative he believed himself and he was much affected by Dickens and Oliver Twist - he sort of became part fictional as well as part factual."
In the Chaplin book - as in all his books - Ackroyd is also willing to interpret and theorise as well as report, which also makes for some amusing and arresting sections. For instance, he suggests much of Chaplin's slapstick is homoerotic - indeed he goes further and suggests all popular comedy from the commedia dell-arte to contemporary pantomime is homoerotic. "The male bottom," he writes, "receives more attention than any other portion of the human anatomy in a succession of kicks and thrusts."
He does accept, though, that as much as he and many others love Chaplin, some people do not get him. "A lot of people don't find him funny at all. But his most endearing and funny films are the earliest ones - the Keystone ones, and the tiny shorts always showed Chaplin at his funniest and his best."
Ackroyd goes further than that and says Chaplin was not just a clown - he was a serious artist with the real Dickensian quality that was able to combine comedy and pathos, pity and pantomime. He also stands by one of the quotations in his book from another of the great silent stars, Fatty Arbuckle, who once said Chaplin would be the only one who would still be talked about in 100 years. Here we are 100 years later and, with one or two exceptions, he was right.
Charlie Chaplin is published by Chatto and Windus, £14.99

Book Review: 'Charlie Chaplin' by Peter Ackroyd

A haunting biography captures the brilliance and the blemishes of a comic who fought his way from poverty to worldwide fame
8 May 2014

"In this year, 1915," begins a chapter halfway through Peter Ackroyd's concise, compelling new biography, "Chaplin became the most famous man in the world." This fact is so extraordinary – so improbable, in the light of his origins – that it is allowed to stand alone, a paragraph in itself. Chaplin was 26 years old in 1915. He had been born into south London poverty, the offspring of an unknown father and a mother whose brief career as a singer and dancer came to an end when Charlie was a boy; from then on, until her death in an asylum in Los Angeles, her sanity came and went. Before long, the man she had been married to at the time of Charlie's birth, and whose name he bore and made immortal, dumped her, as did several subsequent paramours; when she was incapable of looking after Charlie and his brother, they stayed with relatives or lodged in the workhouse. His education was skimpy and fitful; it ended at the age of nine, when, having taught himself clog-dancing, he first took to the stage as one of the Eight Lancashire Lads, and nearly became part of a double act called Bristol and Chaplin, the Millionaire Tramps. A millionaire tramp, of course, is exactly what he would end up as. But not without having put in some serious slog on the way.
After gruelling hard work on the road and a spell as a boy actor, he signed up with the king of comedy, a tough taskmaster called Fred Karno, under whose unrelenting tutelage in the art of physical comedy his genius as a performer first fully emerged. By the age of 20 he was a star, billed as Chaplin the Inebriate – an act studied at close quarters from his stepfather. The character of the drunk, Chaplin said, possessed him; playing it, he experienced a kind of out-of-body sensation: "It was almost a psychic sort of thing." When Karno took the troupe to Paris, Debussy invited Chaplin to his box. "Monsieur Chaplin," he said, "vous êtes instinctivement un musicien et un danseur." And funny, he might have added; deeply, uproariously, side-huggingly funny. On stage, at any rate: Chaplin seems to have been no fun at all in life – morose, private, obsessed. He played his violin and his cello; he read Schopenhauer; he had sex with bad girls; and he planned ever more fantastical comedy conceptions. All along, his heart was set on world domination. "America!" he shouted as the ship berthed in Quebec for Karno's first tour there in 1910, "I am coming to conquer you. Every man woman and child shall have my name on their lips: Charles Spencer Chaplin!" Their first offering,The Wow-Wows, was a no-no, but a quick revival of their old standby A Night at an English Music Hall knocked 'em sideways, and it was Chaplin above all who shone. On their next tour, in 1913, the company manager received a life-changing telegram: "IS THERE A MAN NAMED CHAFFIN IN YOUR COMPANY OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT?" Mack Sennett of the Keystone Cops needed to replace his refractory No 1 male comedian; Chaplin never hesitated for a moment, and left the stage for good as soon as he could.
His first film was Making a Living; his second, Kid Auto Races at Venice, gave the world the character of the Little Tramp, who was an instant hit with the public from the beginning. But Chaplin was not easy to work with; his unrelenting perfectionism annoyed his directors and his fellow performers. He was already indispensable to Sennett, however, who acceded to Chaplin's demand to be allowed to direct his own films. It was then that his demon really manifested itself. He spent two, three, sometimes 10 times as much time on each film as his colleagues, and the result was double, triple, 10 times as popular with the public. His second two-reeler as a director, Caught in a Cabaret, was hailed by New York Dramatic Mirror as "the funniest picture that has ever been produced"; thereafter he produced film after film, each seeming to outstrip the other in invention and comic frenzy. Starting from the most tenuous idea, he worked at white heat, improvising, discarding unpromising ideas, refining successful ones. Chaplin was not interested in the possibilities of the camera – it was character, action and narrative that fascinated him. He was giving the cinema its foundations, its first classics, filled with poetry, pain, passion but all within the parameters of consummately achieved comedy. As Ackroyd remarks, "he, like Shakespeare, had the inestimable advantage of being an instinctive artist in the preliminary years of a new art".
Creative inspiration at this level is terrifying, a kind of divine fire; it can rarely be sustained. Chaplin constantly dreaded the loss of his powers of invention, but for nearly 30 years of non-stop work, they did not fail him; it is arguable that but for the coming of sound, they might never have failed him. The introduction of the word into the equation diluted and diminished his genius. Genius is not too strong a word to use, in all three capacities – as director, as scenarist and, supremely, as performer. In this area, his virtuosity is on the level of a Paganini, an Art Tatum, but it is so much more multifarious, combining the clowning of a Grock or a Grimaldi with the feather-light terpsichorean skills of an Astaire and the acting abilities of a Garbo or an Olivier. The final sequence of City Lights, in which, as Ackroyd says, the Tramp, left alone, simultaneously expresses exaltation and terror was, said James Agee, America's best film critic, "enough to shrivel the heart to see, and … the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies". Increasingly Chaplin tackled what was real for working people, his core audience: the Depression, alienation in big cities, the heartlessness of modern factory life. In exquisitely choreographed form, the Tramp embodied the basic needs of humankind – love, food, self-respect – as well as its modi vivendi: jealousy, rage, cupidity, lust.
As a man, Chaplin was barely human at all. He surrendered to his obsessions. This tiny, ithyphallic man – Ackroyd discreetly alludes to his legendary genital endowment and his unflagging but joyless sexual marathons – was, like many of the dominant figures of any given time, driven by the need to impose himself on the world, to enforce on it his definition of reality. In art, he succeeded in these ambitions; in life, he failed. People had a way of fighting back, particularly the women with whom he was involved, the majority of whom were childish, doll-like figures whose innocence he sought to possess but who had the disloyalty, in his view, to become pregnant, thus compelling him to marry them. After that, whatever feelings he had for them turned to hate. This pattern led him twice to the divorce courts, in which extremely explicit accusations regarding his sexual demands were made very public. "A grey-haired old buzzard," the counsel for the prosecution said in a paternity case brought against him by one of his mistresses, "a little runt of a Svengali … a debaucher". Unsurprisingly, the script he was working on at the time, Monsieur Verdoux, is informed with savage misogyny; in it, Verdoux, played by Chaplin, serially marries women and then kills them, bringing back their money to his real wife, who is pretty – and blind, which is no doubt how he would have preferred his women.
In the end, on a trip to Europe, he was barred from re-entering the US, on the basis both of his supposed immorality and his communistic affiliations. During the war and after, Chaplin had made statements of solidarity with Soviet Russia that became toxic during the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the late 40s and early 50s. Although there was no hard evidence against him, he was publicly reviled. He had by now, in his early 60s, run out of creative energy. His first film with sound, The Great Dictator, a whimsical but nonetheless oddly powerful anti-Hitler fable (made in the face of considerable hostility from Hollywood), shows a remarkably assured response to the challenge of what was in effect for him a new medium; the second, Monsieur Verdoux, is mordantly elegant, but the third,Limelight, his last film to be made in America, and full of deep nostalgia for the old days of music hall, is verbose and flaccid. The last two films, both made in Britain, are simply feeble. He retired into a relatively becalmed old age, coddled by his last wife – Eugene O'Neill's daughter, Oona – though there could still be outbursts and tantrums; his strict control over his children he never relinquished.
It is hard not to see Chaplin as essentially childlike, though not in any sentimental sense of the phrase. Like Dickens, his childhood was arrested at a young age, after which he had to fight the world if he was not to go under. His life was governed by the little boy's need to put himself beyond the reach of circumstances. He hated his dependency on anyone else – and film, of all arts, is the one most dependent on cooperation. "I did it all!" cried Chaplin, but of course he couldn't. Ackroyd sees him as utterly self-absorbed – for him, others were merely tools of his need. Like Wagner, whom he resembles in startling ways, he was a kind of demiurge, creating a world in the furnace of his art. For The Immigrant he shot 40,000 feet of film, which he reduced to 1,800. This is his real genius: his sense of the mutability of the material. He worked with film as a sculptor works with clay. And such was his success that he could take as long as he wanted, retake as much as needed, sack actors, rebuild sets, until he finally arrived at the result he needed. The whole of Chaplin's work is a triumph of the will. No wonder he studied Schopenhauer so avidly: the very title of the German philosopher's masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, must have spoken to him deeply. The miracle and the mystery of Chaplin is that the work that results from this epic exercise of will is so playful.
There have been more analytically incisive books on Chaplin – Parker Tyler's superb Chaplin: Last of the Clowns, for instance – and more comprehensive ones,David Robinson's monumental biography among them, but Ackroyd's is the most haunting. His method, filtering the life through the prism of his novelist's imagination, plunges you, in unsettling fashion, right into the subject's own experience. His assessment of the films is perceptive, though he is unduly dismissive of Chaplin's My Autobiography, the first third of which, reissued by the publisher as My Early Days, is one of the masterpieces of theatre literature. Ackroyd is obsessed by what his publisher calls "our great London imagination" and rather tenuously attempts to recruit Chaplin to the cause. He tells us that when Chaplin went back to London "he was going back to the source of his life and inspiration", but it is not clear whether he is speaking of his subject or himself.
Ackroyd also has a tendency to think that when actors aren't acting, they are nothing. He should perhaps have remembered what Dickens said about his friend Fechter: "The more real the man, the better the actor." Chaplin was real enough, all right: his reality may have been somewhat alarming, but there was nothing false about it. But Ackroyd really knows this already: his analysis of the Tramp – the "little fellow", Chaplin's greatest creation – is brilliant and unsparing. "He can be cunning, cruel and hostile; he has a taste for brutality; he bites his opponents and can engage in unchecked malice; he can conjure up a sickly grin or the imbecilic smile of a drunk … he sticks out his nose and he sticks out his tongue; he exhibits an almost elfin wickedness; he is leering and lascivious, propositioning almost every woman whom he encounters." In other words, he is all of us. "He colludes with his audience all the time." Ackroyd sees all of this with clarity; he summons up all of the pity and the terror of Chaplin's life; above all, perhaps, he sees how close to insanity Chaplin was. Often, his cameraman reported, the comedian would quietly sing to himself: "Oh ever since that fatal night / Me wife's gone mad; / Awfully queer, / Touched just here." And on the last line, with great deliberation, he would slowly raise his hand and tap his temple. Chilling, wonderful stuff.