Launder and Gilliat: Prolific and Tradesman like Collaborators of British Cinema

Biographical, Cinema

Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat were two English film-makers who maintained a steadily consistent presence in the British cinema between the 1930s and the 1970s. Launder and Gilliat’s creative film roles, whether as writers, directors or producers (or as all three), contributed to over 100 British films in that era, including nearly 40 together as co-writers and producers.

The two co-wrote The Lady Vanishes, a 1938 mystery which was a breakthrough feature for Alfred Hitchcock❈. Interestingly Launder and Gilliat (hereafter L & G) had their (separate) starts in the film business composing inter-titles (title cards) for silent movies in the late 1920s, the same industry beginnings undertaken by Hitchcock several years earlier. L & G combined their talents behind-the-camera together for the first time from the mid 1930s. The L & G partnership had a flexibility and a particular pattern to it … invariably they would jointly produce films and/or also co-write screenplays (although on other occasions either man would co-write films with various other collaborating screenwriters). But almost with very few exceptions one or the other would direct a specific film singly – this was done apparently to avoid confusing the actors[1].

A versatile¤ and fecund partnership
As well as being prolific contributors to the creation of British films for such a long period, L & G’s film output spanned a range of genres … from thrillers and ‘whodunits’ like Green for Danger (1956) and Secret State (1950) to WWII social-realism films such as Waterloo Road (1944) and Millions Like Us (1943) to romance/adventures like The Blue Lamp (1949) to historical dramas such as Captain Boycott (1947) to farces like The Green Man (1956) and light comedies such as The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), a precursor to a popular series of movies set in a girls’ boarding school immobilised by riotous juvenile anarchy – starting with The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954) which spawned a string of increasingly predictable sequels.

“Journeymen auteurs?”
The Times of London described the Gilliat/Launder team as “one of the most sparkling writing, directing and producing partnerships in postwar British cinema”[2]. Notwithstanding such praise, L & G’s body of work has tended to be undervalued by the bulk of film critics … at times eliciting back-handed appraisals from critics such as “toilers in the British comic tradition”; (their films at best exhibiting) “unfailing good humour and the occasional brainy prankishness”[3]. Certainly, technical innovation and self-conscious artiness was not Gilliat and Launder’s style, but they never managed to garner anything remotely like the prestige or critical approval that was lavished on other contemporary British film-makers, eg, Powell and Pressburger, Carol Reed or the Boulting brothers. Bruce Babington has attributed this in part to L & G’s ‘reticence’ as film-makers, the way that they declined to project themselves forward and intervene in controversies and debates of the day, unlike say, their contemporaries the Boultings[4].

Enlistment in the production of propaganda vehicles
So closely did the personal film-making styles and interests of the two collaborators align, many people found it hard to distinguish between a Launder-directed picture and one directed by Gilliat … most L & G films tended to resemble the fruits of their combined efforts. Or as Adair and Roddick put it, “it would take a lynx-eyed buff to be able to distinguish one from the other”[5].

The war-time pictures, Millions Like Us and Two Thousand Women can be identified as reflecting in particular Frank Launder’s preoccupation with the portrayal of strong, defiantly independent women[6]. These films were commissioned by the UK Ministry of Information to counter the prevailing low recruitment and morale of women in war-time factory work. Millions Like Us, as Judy Suh has noted, conveyed the “double valence of women as productive workers and domestic symbols of national unity”. L & G’s social-realist films, though propagandist in purpose, posed questions of gender and class whilst depicting the routine of ordinary people at work. The necessities of war-time brought out the conflicting roles and identities of women in such an out-of-the ordinary circumstance, as well as the existence of crossings of class boundaries[7].

Hockey stick-wielding private schoolgirl anarchists
After the war, witty and farcical, albeit slight, comedies were their forte (with the occasional thriller thrown in). Like other high-profile international film-makers L & G had their favourite performers that they liked to work with. L & G got the best performances out of British actors like Alastair Sim, Margaret Rutherford, Joyce Grenfell, Rex Harrison and George Cole. Of these luminaries it was Alastair Sim whose star shined most brightly under the direction of L & G. Sim appeared in at least ten L & G movies and his deliciously roguish star turns as a middle class word-spinning con-man were pure gold. George Cole, who also had a regular gig in the St Trinian’s cycle as the ultra dodgy spiv Flash Harry◘, described working with Gilliat and Launder (and Sim) … to Cole (later himself to find TV fame as consummate, malapropistic con-man ‘Arfur’ Daley in Minder) their films meant:

“Good scripts but terrible money. If Alastair was in the film it was even worse because he got most of it. But they were wonderful people to work with”[8].

In the 1940s Launder and Gilliat formed their own production company, aptly named Individual Pictures, at this time they were contractually engaged by Gainsborough Pictures … in 1958 the partners took charge of the production side of the struggling independent studio British Lion. By the 1960s both the quality and quantity of Gilliat/Launder productions had receded. In 1980 Launder went once more to the St Trinian’s well❃ with yet another sequel, Wildcats of St Trinian’s … unwisely so as the novelty of L & G’s feature films based on Ronald Searle’s charming cartoons of feral schoolgirls had long since lost their appeal.

PostScript 1: The Charters and Caldicott characters trope – antiquated, old school Englishness
L & G wrote into The Lady Vanishes two minor characters that were to become iconic, background characters in British cinema. Played by actors Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne, the two incidental supporting figures are singleminded cricket enthusiasts (“cricket tragics” as one recent Australian PM was dubbed) trying to hurry back to England to see the last days of the Manchester test match. The popularity of the characters saw them reappear in other L & G movies (including Night Train to Munich, Millions Like Us and in the 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes), and in several other non-L & G films, eg, the Boxs’ A Girl in a Million and (appropriately enough) It’s Not Cricket. Charters and Caldicott were also reprised for several radio series, and for a 1985 television series. Charters and Caldicott’s fame also extended to their inclusion in a series of Carreras Cigarette cards in the 1950s.

Charters & Caldicott
The gormless personalities of Charters and Caldicott, a couple of blithering “Colonel Blimpish” snobs, was a comical throwback to a past England with ‘proper’ gentlemanly good manners and standards of dress[9]. Matthew Sweet saw the two blunderers (in their 1938 incarnations against a backdrop of appeasement) as symbols of “a peculiarly British obstinacy in the face of Nazi aggression” in Europe[10]. Their apathetic dispositions and complete lack of perspicacity about the momentous events happening around them also puts one in mind of Tom Stoppard’s two artless and aimless courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern roaming through Elsinore, ‘Everyman’ figures in the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

The familiar picture of the familiar team

▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬
The Lady Vanishes helped open Hollywood doors for Hitchcock … after ‘Hitch’ completed Jamaica Inn in 1939 (written by Gilliat et al) he set sail for America (for good), inviting Gilliat to join him however the Cheshireman declined the offer, preferring to stay in the smaller and infinitely less lucrative pond that was the British film industry (Babington, 2002)
¤ “Versatility” Gilliat once said, “was always our curse”, but as Gilbert Adair remarked in a 1994 obituary for the film-maker, “it was also their own form of individualism”
◘ Cole as well appeared in nine of L & G’s films
❃ this was twice too often to the well as the preceding Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966) was also a lame effort at rehashing the by now decidedly stale formula

[1] although such was the working symbiosis between the two that the non-directing partner would in all likelihood make suggestions for improvements to the designated director where necessary, B Babington, Launder and Gilliat (2002)
[2] quoted in The Age (Melbourne), 08-Jun-1994
[3] G Adair & N Roddick, A Night at the Pictures: Ten Decades of British Film, (1985)
[4] Babington describes Launder and Gilliat as “modest auteurs”, Babington, op.cit.
[5] Adair & Roddick, loc.cit.
[6] ‘Launder and Gilliat’, BFI Screenonline, www.screenonline.org.uk
[7] J Suh, ‘Women, Work, Leisure in British Wartime Documentary Realism’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 40(1), 2012
[8] ‘Obituary: Frank Launder’, The Independent, 24-Feb-1997, www.independent.co.uk
[9] ‘Charters and Caldicott’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org; ‘Charters and Caldicott’, www.chartersandcaldicott.co.uk
[10] M Sweet, ‘Mustard and cress’, The Guardian, 29-Dec-2007, www.theguardian.com

John Clarke, A Satirist for All (Australian) Seasons: To Daggdom and Beyond

Biographical, Cinema, Media & Communications, Performing arts, Popular Culture, Society & Culture, Sport

John Clarke: Trail-blazing Parodist, Lodestar, Daggstar

John Morrison Clarke died, most unexpectedly, in the Victorian wilderness a day-and-a-half ago. An ordinary looking man with an ordinary (unremarkable and yet distinctive) voice, but an ‘Everyman’ with a towering gift for communicating parody and travesty!

John Clarke, born and raised in Palmerston North, New Zealand, but domicile in Melbourne, Australia, for the last 40 years, was a uniquely talented satirist, TV comedian, comic writer and actor. The word ‘genius’ gets carelessly tossed around way too much these days, but in appraising the oeuvre of Mr John Clarke it finds a true home.

Whilst in New Zealand Clarke developed and refined the character of Fred Dagg, a stereotypical, blunt-speaking farmer from the North Island, with long straggly hair and perpetually clad in a black singlet and gumboots. Fred Dagg got Clark’s idiosyncratic brand of humour into the spotlight of New Zealand television. By 1977 Clark had outgrown both NZ and (so it seemed) Fred Dagg and moved to the bigger canvas of Australia❈. Clarke wasn’t quite done with Fred Dagg – in Australia Fred resurfaced as a real estate ‘expert’ with his guide for would-be home buyers providing the “good oil” on avoiding the pitfalls inherent in the spiel of property agents – as the following “bullshit-busting” sampler of his trenchant wit testifies:

A “cottage” is a caravan with the wheels taken off.

“Genuine reason for selling” means the house is for sale.

“Rarely can we offer” means the house is for sale.

“Superbly presented delightful charmer” doesn’t mean anything really, but it’s probably still for sale.

“Privacy, taste, charm, space, freedom, quiet, away from it all location in much sought-after cul-de-sac situation” means that it’s not only built down a hole, it’s built at the very far end of the hole.

“A panoramic, breathtaking, or magnificent view” is an indication that the house has windows, and if the view is “unique”, there’s probably only one window.

Fred Dagg AKA John Clarke was no admirer of the realty and property game and the proclivity of estate agents to be “fast and loose with the truth”, and he gave us the following memorable job description of what they really do:

“The function of the agent basically is to add to the price of the article without actually producing anything”.

(and how to recognise a real estate agent)
“If you’ve got gold teeth and laugh-lines around your pockets, you’re through to the semis without dropping a set”.

There was so much to the creative output of Clarke comma J, and so much variety too … screenplays, film acting, radio, stage work, television, songs, books. Clarke’s art didn’t fit into any one particular mould, he was, to use Martin Luther’s expression, an “irregular planet”, always inventing, moving on and reinventing, exploring something new that had piqued his interest.

My personal favourite John Clarke nugget of gold is the Complete Book of Australian Verse⌖. These are a series of recordings in which Clarke audaciously and imaginatively reinvented the “Canon of Great British Poets”, relocating it to regional and outback Australia. Clarke ‘discovered’ the existence of an Aussie poet “laureate-hood” comprising “dinky-di” Australian poetry ‘greats’ with names like ‘Shagger’ Tennyson, ‘Stumpy’ Byron V.C, ‘Gavin’ Milton and “Fifteen Bobsworth” Longfellow⊛.

Clarke’s sublime riff on these fictional masters of Australian poetry is incisively, deeply humorous, and both wise and pretentious-sounding at the same time! Absurdly funny stuff, especially when uttered in John’s wonderful flat, disinterested, monotone voice (“he was sentenced to three years jail for insulting a lobster in a Sydney restaurant”) … Clarke’s clinical dissection of Leader of the Opposition John Howard, to paraphrase playwright Simon Gray, “made me laugh so much that I was prepared to overlook its cruelty” – the poem entreating the future PM to change his vocation:

‘To a Howard’ by Rabbi Burns
Wee, sleekit, cowerin, tim’rous beastie,
I know tha’s probably doing thy bestie,
…………………….
Thou’ll try wi’ th’ gunnery up at the range,
Thou’ll no have much truible, thou’ve dun it afore,
Thou’s an expert for a’ that; look, ‘Wanted: Small Bore’.

With ‘A Child’s Christmas in Warrnambool’ Clarke produces a poetic tour de force by turning Dylan Thomas’ classic winter-scene ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ on it’s head, transforming it into a children’s nostalgic celebration of Australian summers past:

“The smell of insect repellant and eucalyptus and the distant constant bang of the flywire door”/”the fridge of imperishable memory”/”the wide brown bee-humming trout-fit sheep-rich two-horse country”/”some middle-order nephew skipping down the vowel-flattening pitch and putting the ball into the tent-flaps on the first bounce of puberty”.

The Complete Verse‘s eclectic compilation includes a coruscating if excruciating piece by “Sylvia Blath” which is both riotously funny and disturbingly harrowing at the same time. Clarke weaves into the poem Sylvia’s harangue of her dead father who “danced upon my cradle, as I Annexed the Sedatenland” and ends with an unexpected and wicked twist (a crossed-line channelling of Germaine Greer!!!): “Daddy Daddy I’m through, Hello? Germaine … I can hardly hear you, This is a very bad line.”

Since the 1990s Clarke had been an on-screen constant feature with his famous series of mock political interviews (“two-handers” with Bryan Dawe as the straight-man ‘innocently’ asking questions which were fodder for Clarke’s witty retorts) … the one-liners just rolling off Clarke’s golden and acerbic tongue, skewing high-profile politicians left, right and centre:

(pricking at the bluster of an overbearing state premier)
“I’m not interested in doing the most intelligent thing … I’m JEFF KENNETT!

Prime Minister Hawke’s robust and over-enthusiastic response to the question of how fit he was after a recent op:
(so fit that)
“I’m a danger to shipping!”

Clarke was a wordsmith that other satirists and comic writers in Australasia must have looked at with a mixture of admiration and envy … he simply had such a razor-sharp, punchy, economical and hilarious way with words.

And there was much more to John Clarke’s stellar CV – such as his ‘invention’ of the ‘sport’ of farnarkeling for The Gillies Report, and not to forget the manifold brilliant riffs on finance, business, the economy, the public service and the environment (“the front fell off (and) we towed the ship outside the environment”). Clarke was a trail-blazer in television comedy … his “on the money” take on the crazy, shambolic world of Olympics bureaucracy The Games was a template for other later projects which explored the thorny terrain of corporations and officialdom (such as Utopia) and it informed the BBC’s contribution to the 2012 London Olympics campaign.

John Clarke’s sudden, most untimely death leaves a Sydney Opera House-sized hole in Australian and New Zealand satire – and I shall never forget that voice – as with Billy Bragg’s, so distinctive, and as with Joe (Dragnet) Friday’s, so deadpan matter-of-fact … or his trademark mischievous grin and the sparkle in the eyes.

⚜⚜⚜
Vale John Clarke … thank you for entertaining and delighting us for so long and enriching the lives of so many people all the way from Palmerston North to Perth. John’s song lyrics were wrong in one respect … there are countless people in the two Trans-Tasman countries that he lived and worked in who do know “how lucky” they were to have him, albeit for too short a time✥.

╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼
❈ his unusual accent didn’t really fit the clipped English speech pattern of “Nu Zillunders” anyway
⌖ the success of which was followed up by the Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse
⊛ other Oz poet-luminaries include b.b.hummings, TS (Tabby Serious) Eliot, Ewen Coleridge, Ted Lear and many more
✥ one of the incomparable Fred Dagg’s best-known songs was entitled ‘We don’t know how lucky we are’

Bonaparte in America

Biographical, Regional History, Social History

The association of America with Napoleon Bonaparte for most people probably revolves round the purchase by the US of huge swathes of territory (the Louisiana Purchase) from Napoleon in 1803. Napoleon Bonaparte (Italian: Nabulione Buonaparte) never came to the United States or to anywhere in the New World – although it was the core element of his Plan B in the event of his grand scheme to conquer Europe going pear-shaped (as it ultimately and irrevocably did in 1815)[1]. However Napoleon’s older brother Joseph (born Giuseppe), formerly King of Spain and the Indies, and before that, King of Naples and Sicily, did come to the American continent and moreover lived in the US for some 17 or more years after the Emperor’s fall from power.

King Joseph
Joseph succeeded in his getaway where Napoleon failed, slipping out of French waters and travelling incognito to New York, albeit narrowly avoiding detection by the British. In America Joseph styled himself the Comte de Survilliers … after living in New York and Philadelphia for a period Bonaparte purchased a palatial residence in Bordentown, New Jersey called “Point Breeze” – one of the finest country houses in the Delaware Valley. Joseph was able to afford (and subsequently vastly improve) one of the republic’s grand mansions because he had brought the Spanish Bourbons’ crown jewels with him which he had acquired when abdicating the Spanish throne. With his dubiously acquired riches Bonaparte made other land acquisitions in upstate New York on the Black River (a locale still known as Lake Bonaparte)[2].

‘Point Breeze’, Bordentown, NJ
Joseph AKA the Count of Survilliers largely led a quiet, uneventful and comfortable life in the US, taking no interest in a political role … when Mexican rebels and expat French supporters gave their backing to him to be made emperor of Mexico (1820), he demurred at the offer. In 1832 Bonaparte returned to Europe (although he did return briefly to the US and his much loved mansion ‘Point Breeze’❈ in 1839), living for a while in London and in Italy where he died in 1844. The ineffective, former ‘puppet’ king of Spain was never permitted to return to his native France again because of the French government’s concern that it might provoke a groundswell for a Bonapartist restoration[3].

Joseph was not the only Bonapartist to flee to America following his brother’s downfall in 1815. The return of the Bourbons with the ascension of Louis XVIII prompted a “witch-hunt” of Bonapartists in France. Many followers of Napoleon escaped to America to avoid arrest and recriminations … once there some of Napoleon’s loyal soldiers set up Bonapartist colonies in Alabama (Vine and Olive Colony) and Texas (Champ d’Asile) – which were uniformedly unsuccessful and short-lived[4].

PostScript: Napoleon’s “life in America”
A) Rescue plans – before and on St Helena
In the aftermath of the disaster of Waterloo rumours abounded about various plots and attempts to rescue Napoleon. One plot involved a mega-wealthy French-born banker Stephen (Étienne) Girard living in the US who supposedly hatched an elaborate plan to transport the deposed emperor to Virginia (claim made in the Baltimore American, 1902). According to some sources Girard played a role in the Louisiana Purchase machinations[5].

Napoleon’s island prison
By far the most bizarre plot involved a Brit of Irish parentage Tom Johnson, who as well as being a recidivist smuggler had a bit of a reputation as an escape expert. Johnson’s claim was that in 1820 he was offered £40,000 to rescue Napoleon from St Helena, using two primitive types of submarines he had designed as the “getaway” vessels. Johnson’s colourful account reads as highly fanciful and the plot was in any case never implemented … the one plausible element of the story being that Johnson’s underwater crafts (for which designs did exist) were inspired by Robert Fulton’s 1806 submarine – the American engineer and inventor had earlier worked for both Napoleon and the British government on armed maritime vessel projects (what is less certain is whether Johnson had actually met Fulton as he claimed)[6].

B) Exploring the “What If …” scenario for Napoleon
Devotees of alternative history have speculated lyrically about what might have happened had Napoleon made good his escape to the Americas. One of the early imaginative conjectures (1931) came from British historian HAL Fisher who hypothesised that the exiled emperor might have established a base in New York and then gone on to Spanish America to liberate the masses, finally drowning at sea whilst attempting to conquer India[7].

Outlawed in Europe after Waterloo, it would have been logical for Napoleon to gravitate towards America … the US had only recently engaged in hostilities with Britain (War of 1812), so the locals would probably have been disposed or at least neutral towards him, he would have been able to live as a free man. The US was a new country born of revolution (and one inspiring a revolution in his native France which promoted his own rise). An American base would position the ambiguous ex-monarch well to marshal his resources and launch an invasion of Central and South America which was ripe for revolution against the Spanish conquerors. One of Napoleon’s aide-de-camp in fact made the suggestion to him that he should make himself “emperor of Mexico”[8].

A recent alternative history (Shannon Selin, Napoleon in America) postulates three possible theoretical courses of action for Napoleon – settling on the eastern (Atlantic) seaboard, living peacefully, probably near his favoured brother Joseph (possibly biding his time, building up the necessary support for another go at overthrowing the French Bourbons and reclaim the throne either for himself or for his son); establishing a colony within the US peacefully (in fact Bonapartists later attempted to forge colonies in Alabama and Texas – both then controlled by Spain); and as with Fisher’s supposition, invading Spain’s American colonies and thereby securing a new throne[9].

⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒⌒
❈ as boys Frank and Charles Woolworth (the future retail empire giants) lived close to ‘Joe’ Bonaparte’s abandoned Bordentown mansion, spending lots of their leisure time playing at ‘Point Breeze’

[1] originally Napoleon and Joseph had laid plans for the two of them to seek refuge together in America in the likelihood of a worst-case scenario … a location in New Jersey was picked out as the optimum place for settling. Napoleon missed a real chance to escape to the US by stealth, having prevaricated too long waiting for anticipated passports which did not come, and then making the fateful decision to give himself up to the British authorities, CE Macartney & G Dorrance, The Bonapartes in America, (1939), www.penelope.uchicago.edu (see also PostScript above)
[2] R Veit, ‘Point Breeze (Bonaparte Estate)’, (2015), www.philadelphiaencyclopedia.org; ‘Joseph Bonaparte at Point Breeze. New Jersey’s Ex-King and the Crown Jewels’, Flatrock, www.flatrock.org.nz
[3] ibid.
[4] ‘Bonapartist Refugees in America, 1815-1850’, www.napolun.com
[5] L Weeks, ‘What if Napoleon Had Come to America’, NPR, 10-Feb-2015, www.npr.org. Girard also underwrote the American war effort in the War of 1812.
[6] M Dash, ‘The Secret Plot to Rescue Napoleon by Submarine’, Smithsonian Magazine, 08-Mar-2013, www.smithsonian.com
[7] H.A.L. Fisher, ‘If Napoleon had Escaped to America’, (Scribner’s Magazine, Jan. 1931), www.unz.org
[8] M Price, ‘How Napoleon Nearly Became a U.S. Citizen’, History News Network, 28-Dec-2014, www.historynewsnetwork.org
[9] Weeks, op.cit.

Zog, King of the Zogus: A Balkan ‘Tinpotocrat’, Part 2

Biographical, International Relations, Regional History

As has been described in Part 1, Zog’s attainment of the kingship paved the way for him to step up his autocratic rule over the citizenry. Zog was now politically more secure against his internal rivals, but the broader reality of the plenipotentiary’s (and Albania’s) position was still that of a very small fish in a large and increasingly volatile European lake.

King Zog in his finest regalia
King Zog in his finest regalia
Dicing with the Devil
Given the backwardness and poverty of an Albania that was still essentially feudal, Zog realised that the country needed large injections of external finance to achieve modernisation. Zog’s government had approached the newly formed League of Nations but to no avail (although Yugoslavia provided an early loan). Needing more money to develop Zog eventually turned to fascist Italy and the two countries entered into talks. As a result of the 1926 Pact of Friendship and Security Albania secured loans of around 20 million lira from Mussolini – but in exchange for the loss of its independence in foreign policy. A second Tiranë Pact in 1927 netted Zog a further £140,000 at the cost of a further diminution of Albania’s sovereignty, Italy negotiated more influence over Albania’s militia (including control of its training). Consequently the Italians ended up with a “virtual protectorate over Albania”[1].

Follow up bilateral treaties tied Albania to Italy economically by monopolising its trade. Albania granted Italy new petroleum concessions¤ and the right to build military fortifications on Albanian soil. These pacts kept Albania in a subordinate position vis-à-vis Mussolini’s Italy. Its economic development was hamstrung, industrialisation was stagnant, having achieved little headway, by 1939 production was still predominantly agricultural and the state was forced to rely on imports from Italy, a situation that Rome was perfectly content to see persist[2].

Shqipëria "Land of the Eagles"
Shqipëria “Land of the Eagles”
Roadblocks to Reform
Education in Albania during Zog’s rule was state-controlled but made slow progress due to a combination of factors, eg, lack of national educational infrastructure, shortage of teachers, resistance from religious institutions and communities, (Greek) Orthodox, (Italian) Catholic, Ottoman/Muslim. By 1939 the literacy rate was only 15% (only marginally up from 10% in the early 1920s)[3].

Some scholars have placed stress on Zog’s distinctiveness as a European Muslim monarch (eg, JH Tomes, King Zog of Albania: Europe’s Self-Made Muslim Monarch, (2004)) but in reality the footprint of Islam didn’t feature in his policies. Once entrenched in power Zog legislated to ensure the primacy of secular law. Islamic law was supplanted by Western civil (Swiss/French), criminal and commercial codes[12]. Zog’s government in 1923 put an end to polygamy and the wearing of the hijab[4]. However for purposes of political unity he still endeavoured to appeal to the diversity of communities within Albania, eg, his oath of allegiance at his coronation was sworn on both the Bible and the Koran, a further manifestation of Zog’s dualism.

With the rise of European fascism in the 1930s Mussolini had become more emboldened in his foreign policy, engaging in widespread colonial adventurism, eg, Ethiopia, Balearic Islands. Zog, perturbed that Albania was becoming more and more a client state of Italy, tried to counterbalance Rome’s excessive influence by forging trade treaties with Greece and Yugoslavia. But Albania (and Zog) were in a very difficult situation from either direction, both Italy and Serbia were attracted to its territory and the lure of unfettered access to the Adriatic.

Endgame for Albania’s independence
By the late 1930s Zog was baulking at Mussolini’s demands for even greater Italian incursions into Albania. The linchpin for Mussolini’s decision to invade its Adriatic neighbour was Nazi Germany’s sudden, unexpected takeover of Czechoslovakia … Mussolini, peeved at Hitler’s unilateral move without informing his Italian allies, immediately launched his action as a tit-for-tat gesture[5].

'Daily Express' April 8 1939
‘Daily Express’ April 8 1939
The military conflict was short-lived, the meagre, poorly equipped forces of Albania’s army (trained by Italians, itself a factor compromising its will to resist) put up a feeble fight (although small pockets of the resistance did fight valiantly if briefly). In the middle of the ‘defence’ Zog and his retinue fled the country, slinking off with him a significant chunk of the nation’s gold reserves. The Albanian people he left behind were absorbed into the Italian empire, the country was made nominally autonomous with Albania’s largest landowner, Shefqet Verlaci (onetime Zog’s prospective father-in-law), appointed as prime minister. This was for appearances though as control of Albania was entirely in Italian hands (until the fall of Italy in 1943), and Mussolini set about implementing an Italian colonisation program in ‘Greater Albania'[6].

House-moving with the Zogu family
In exile Zog (and his family including heir to the throne Prince Leka) led a peripatetic life which took them to Greece, Egypt, the south of France, England (living in London, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire), returning to Egypt as guests of King Farouk until the deposition of Farouk himself. Zog spent the final part of his life living quietly in Paris.

Zog's Long Island Palace
Zog’s Long Island Palace
An intriguing side story of Zog’s exile was the grand castle and estate he purchased in New York in 1951. Zog intended to inhabit the 60 room mansion (the Knollwood Estate in Muttontown, NY) and turn it into his palace-in-exile, complete with Albanian retainers and servants. The Zogus never carried through with the planned relocation to the US and the property was sold in 1955, the mansion eventually fell into disrepair and decay, and was later demolished[7]. The scattered remnants of the Zogu estate (in what is known as the Muttonwood Preserve) such as they are, are a curiosity piece today for hikers and other visitors.

Moderniser? Harbinger of Nationalism?
A perception of Zog as being a comical figure in history, not to be taken too seriously and the sense of him being of at best minor importance, obscures whatever Zog may have achieved as head of state for Albania and Albanians. The exaggerated pomp and ceremony of his monarchical style didn’t help to elevate him in the opinion of those outside of the country. Even when he announced his kingship to the world in 1928, the international response was more or less universally underwhelming. Hardly anyone, certainly none of the major powers, rushed to recognise the event. There were those who publicly rebuked him, such as the Turkish president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who refused to recognise Zog’s kingdom and ridiculed the Tiranë royal court as being like a scenario from an operetta[8].

Tiranë, 1930s
Tiranë, 1930s
Notwithstanding all of this, Zog was a leader who made a genuine attempt at modernising. Modernisation for a backward, hidebound country like Albania entailed Westernisation. Zog introduced a Western state apparatus and constitution and secular legal system. Under Zog Albania made some progress in education and other areas of society (albeit starting from a very low base!), but his accomplishments were only partial or often heavily qualified. This can be attributed to a number of factors. Albania suffered badly from a chronic lack of financial reserves and limited resources, hence the ill-advised reliance (as it turned out) on fascist Italy to provide the shortfall. Some of the projects (eg, public works in the new capital) involved extravagant waste. And like everywhere else at that time, Albania ran smack bang into the Great Depression and the catastrophic economic dislocation that ensued would have had a retarding impact on Zog’s programs and reforms. Corruption and misappropriation, predictably for a despotic regime, also played its part in hindering Albania’s progress.

A by-product of Zog’s consolidation of power was the formative development of nationalism in Albania, a consciousness already kick-started by his prime ministerial predecessors. At the uncertain beginnings of Albanian independence which was born out of the upshot of the Balkan Wars, conditions were far from propitious for engendering nationalist sentiments – the many obstacles included:

⌲ the Albanian language had not been widely disseminated because the Ottomans had forbidden its teaching in school
⌲ because of aggressive designs by Greece and Serbia on its territory, many Albanians viewed Turkey positively as it provided protection to small and vulnerable Albania. Moreover the Ottoman Empire provided a defined path for career advancement for Albanians – either in the army or in the civil service
⌲ the bonds of clanism and localism were very entrenched in Albania
⌲ the churches were not a unifying force because there was no one, dominant religion in the country (spiritual instruction was spread between the four coexisting faiths – Orthodox, Catholic and two separate strands of Islam)[9]

Zog managed to get round most of these handicaps and foster a measure of nationalist feeling among Albanians through several state strategies … using the education system to inculcate a nationalist consciousness and desire for national independence; creating autocephalous churches to block the sources of external authority and bring the clerical leadership under national control; shaping the tiny national army into a “melting pot” of recruits drawn from all parts of Albania; by achieving some improvements in communication and transport infrastructure (eg, extending the road network) the police and tax collectors gained greater access to the far-away northern tribes in their mountain retreats. There is an irony in the extent to which Zog made inroads into the sectionalism of Albania and achieved an element of unification and nationalist consciousness … he laid part of the groundwork for communist strongman Enver Hoxha later on to set up a very different brand of nationalism[10].

Postscript: Enter the pretenders
After Zog I died in 1961 his only son and heir Leka had himself consecrated ‘King Leka I of Albania’, notwithstanding the fact that the Hoxha communist regime of Albania abolished the monarchy in 1946. Leka married an Australian teacher and, being an admirer of Franco, lived in Spain where he worked as a commodities broker. Some of those ‘commodities’ it transpired were weapons and armaments (prompting the post-Franco authorities in Madrid to move the Zogus on)❦. They moved to Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) but clashed with Robert Mugabe, necessitating another move, this time settling in South Africa.

Leka, throughout his life, sincerely campaigned for his restoration as King of the Albanians (and for Kosovo’s integration into Albania). An attempt to return to the country of his birth in 1995 was stopped at Tiranë airport when authorities barred his entry because his passport (issued by the Albanian Government-in-Exile, ie, by himself) listed his occupation as “King of Albania”.

Leka I - celebrated return amid controversy 1997
Leka I – celebrated return amid controversy 1997
He was more successful two years later when the Albanian (Berisha) Government found itself under pressure from the public for its part in failed financial schemes and was forced to allow both Leka’s return and a referendum on the question of the monarchy’s restoration in Albania. Only 30-35% however voted for the monarchy. Leka responded by alleging that the ballot was rigged by the government, and a shoot-out erupted at the electoral centre between Leka’s personal militia and the police before Leka’s entourage fled in a private jet. ‘Colourful’ would be an apt description for Zog’s son who enjoyed shooting and hunting and was given to swanning round in military fatigues.

The pretender to the throne was subsequently sentenced in absentia to three years imprisonment – which was later overturned with Leka being pardoned. Surprisingly in 2002, after support was mustered within the Albanian parliament by right-wing monarchists, the government permitted the return of Leka to his homeland[11].

Leka and his wife, ‘Queen’ Susan, had one son (Zog’s grandson), also named Leka, who had born in Johannesburg. After Leka I died in 2011 in Albania the crown prince was declared to be the successor to the Albanian throne. Prince (or King) Leka II, as he is known to some Albanian émigré monarchists, has initiated no active role in promoting the Zogu restoration in Albania. In fact he has been co-opted into the machinery of government in Tiranë, representing the Fourth Republic in various diplomatic posts.

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¤ Albania had earlier granted Anglo-Persian Oil (partly British owned) extensive prospecting rights.
❦ Leka’s fascination with guns maintained the family tradition as Zog was famous for resorting to the use of weapons when needs be.

[1] ‘Tirana Pact’, (Papers Past – Press – 1 April 1927), www.paperspast.natlib.gov.nz
[2] The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, (3rd Edition, 1979) “Italian-Albanian Treaties and Agreements” Retrieved 20 July 2016 from http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Italian-Albanian+Treaties+and+Agreements ; BJ Fischer, ‘King Zog’s Albanian Interwar Dictator’, in Fischer (Ed.), Balkan Strongman: Dictators and Authoritarian Rulers of South Eastern Europe, (2007)
[3] E Sefa, ‘The Efforts of King Zog I for Nationalization of Albanian Education’, Journal of Educational and Social Research, 2(2) May 2012, www.mcser.org ; Fischer, ibid
[4] ‘Albanian Kingdom 1928-39’, (Wikipedia), www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[5] ‘Zog I of Albania’, (Wikipedia), www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[6] ‘Italian colonists in Albania’, (Wikipedia), www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[7] ‘King Zog’s Ruins’, (2008), Bygone LI, www.lioddities.com/Bygone/zoo.htm
[8] JH Tomes, King Zog: Self-Made Monarch of Albania, (2007)
[9] BJ Fischer, ‘A Brief Historical Overview of the Development of Albanian Nationalism’, paper delivered www.wilsoncenter.org
[10] ibid.
[11] ‘Leka I Zogu’, The Telegraph (London), 30-Nov 2011, www.telegraph.co.uk

Zog, King of the Zogus: A Balkan ‘Tinpotocrat’, Part 1

Biographical, International Relations, Regional History

Zog the First is one of my favourite rulers among the unimportant bit players in the authoritarian power politics of interwar Europe. Zog hailed from the periphery of Europe, Albania, a ‘backwaters’ country at that stage of its development, predominantly absorbed with agrarian pursuits and animal husbandry and the persistence of tribal fiefdoms. The (London) Times was given to describing the unlikely, self-appointed monarch from Europe’s most obscure country as “the bizarre King Zog”[1].

I suppose what first drew my attention to the Albanian strongman-cum-potentate was simply the seeming absurdity (to Western ears) of his odd-sounding name. “King Zog” sounds like a character you would find either in a television spoof about prehistoric man (sort of like … “Ugg, me Zog, live cave”) or featuring as an interplanetary humanoid in a Star Wars episode. You might also think a slightly ludicrous royal named Zog wouldn’t be out-of-place in fictional Ruritania or the Duchy of Grand Fenwick (depicted in The Prisoner of Zenda and The Mouse that Roared respectively).

Albania
Albania
Working his way to the top of the political heap
But unlike the imaginary rulers from those satirical places and fictional works, Zog was a very real person. Born Ahmet Zogolli into a Beylik Muslim family in Northern Albania in 1895 (then part of the Ottoman Empire). Zog utilised his post as hereditary governor of Mati province as a springboard into Balkan politics. From 1919 Zog was involved in political machinations and intrigues in the new state of Albania, playing the role of ‘kingmaker’, being largely responsible for the overthrow of successive governments, biding his time until he was in a position to takeover as prime minister of the Principality of Albania at the young age of 27.

A tenuous grip on power
Tenure of the Albanian prime ministership was a revolving door for politicians from the Declaration of Independence (1912) through to the 1920s. Even Zog, the most successful interwar leader, found himself brought down at one point by the vicissitudes of national politics. In 1924 a chain of events upturned Zog’s power base. The trigger was an attempt outside the parliament on the life of the still vicenarian prime minister. Zog was wounded in the fracas but managed to escape, retreating to his Mati tribal stronghold to recover. Zog had earned the enmity of a diverse group which had coalesced in opposition to his program (northern chieftains, elements of the military and gendarmerie, irredentists and the main parliamentary rivals, the Democratic Party). In keeping with the native custom of “blood vengeance” an opposition MP held responsible for the attack on Zog was assassinated (Zog had authorised it as a revenge killing). Fan Noli’s Democratic Party reacted by orchestrating a coup forcing Zog to flee the country to Belgrade with the Harvard educated Bishop Noli replacing him as Albanian PM. Six months later, with funding and troops provided by Serbia, Zog launched a counter-coup to retake the government in Tiranë (Tirana). The lessons of 1924 convinced Zog that he needed to shore up his hold on power more securely … the solution was to come the following year with Zog taking the opportunity to change Albania into a Republic and enact dictatorial powers.

Highland Albanian tribesmen
Highland Albanian tribesmen
The consummate opportunist
Throughout his public life Zog’s instinct for opportunism was always to the fore. Zog played a significant role as a tribal leader in helping to rid Albania of foreign forces (especially Italian and Serbian) in the immediate post-WWI chaos, though the credit given him was perhaps a little inflated. Whichever way it happened[2], once the border incursions were repulsed Zog turned his attention to the overriding task of national unity. Internally chaos still reigned in Albania with a host of warring tribes (Ghegs, Tosks, Mirditës, etc) hostile to central authority and each other. At the core Zog had a non-ideological bent, fundamentally he was about power for power’s sake … his best chance, probably his only chance, of staying in control, was to bring the powerful tribes together under his hegemony. He understood that political unity was the precondition for economic stability[3].

The Über-chieftain: Countering the centrifugal forces
Zog’s strategy in regard to the quarrelsome regional clans was a mixture of cunning and force. Many chiefs were bribed with “peace money”, this often took the form of offering them the rank of colonel in the Albanian army and putting them on the payroll. Those chiefs that came to swear allegiance to Zog did so personally to him … to his supporters he was viewed as a kind of über-chieftain. Remarkably given the feudal and “Wild West” nature of the country at the time, Zog through his persistent efforts, got many (but not all) of these tribal leaders sufficiently onside that they eventually acquiesced to his bold insistence that they hand in their rifles[4].

Zog streamlined the national army and carved out a personal elite, a new militia composed of trusted Mati tribesmen. This provided him with the clout to subdue (or at least keep quiescent) the tribal warlords who failed to be won over by his military appointments and other financial inducements. In trying to integrate the regional players into the unified state Zog was pragmatic when there was bigger, especially external issues to consider, he refrained for example from supporting the irredentist impulses of the Kosovars so as not to draw the hostility of Albania’s larger neighbour Yugoslavia (the Kosovo minority was already a sensitive issue to the Serbs)[5].

Military man
Military man
Guinness Book of Assassination Records
Zog’s Mati guards were also responsible for the leader’s personal safety. Over the course of Zog’s rule many hundreds of political opponents were arrested and exiled – mainly to Italy (other enemies were not so lucky being liquidated outright!). But the guards still had their work cut out for them, between 1924 and 1939 Zog was thought to be the target of around 55 attempts to assassinate him! The most conspicuous attempt occurred in 1931 when two gunmen (agents acting for Zog’s Albanian political opponents) shot at the king as he was leaving the Vienna Opera House. Zog was not harmed and, according to eye witnesses, became the stuff of legends by pulling out his own revolver and returning fire[6].

Zog permitted some limited political reform once at the helm, but was careful to make sure it never threatened his own position. He introduced Western-oriented reforms into the polity but increasingly his rule became more despotic (a mix of West and East) – especially after 1925 when he replaced the principality with a republic and himself as president.

There was also limited land reform[7] but Zog’s regime intended no social revolution. Zog always made sure that he didn’t take things too far, he avoided encroaching on the traditional way of life of the people and discouraged popular participation in society. By permitting the populace minimal representation he maintained his hold on power, and continued to “collect the fruits of monopolizing political power”[8].

Pretensions of emulating Napoleon
From 1927 Zog embarked on the road to becoming royalty. He engineered a ‘spontaneous’ response from sectors of the community, entreating him to accept the title “Saviour of the Nation”. The following year, after receiving a nod of approval from Italy, the “Nation’s Saviour” changed his family name to Zogu❦ and (in the tradition of his hero Napoleon) had himself crowned “King Zog I”. After his coronation he broadened and deepened the already extensive powers he had as president, extending them to the point of autocratic control of the country. Parliament was dissolved, and to retain a sham veneer of democracy, replaced by a new constituent assembly. All decision-making was by executive prerogative.

image

White Uniform Brigade
White Uniform Brigade
Zog set about immediately and enthusiastically acquiring the trappings of royalty, he had already exhibited a fondness for dazzling white uniforms and elaborate epaulettes. The king’s face now appeared on stamps, on buildings and his name and initials were carved on to the side of mountains. To further enhance his reign’s legitimacy he fabricated, or at the very least embellished, a connection to the 15th century national military hero Skanderbeg, taking the name ‘Skanderbeg III’ as part of his official title[9]. Zog, again taking a leaf from the Napoloeonic playbook, extended the garland of royalty to his siblings who were made princes and princesses.

With the consolidation of the Zogu monarchy (purportedly constitutional but in reality absolute), Albania took on the increasingly appearance of a police state. With his regime buttressed by a facade of royal imprimatur, the vainglorious Zog had attained the high point of his rule. Over the next decade or so the Albanians’ hold over their own country would be whittled away by pressures exerted from outside – as will be described in the second part of my piece on Zog Zogu, the “Bird Pasha“.


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❦ ‘zogu’ in Albanian means ‘bird’.

[1] R Cavendish, ‘King Zog I of Albania’, History Today, 58(9), Sep 2008, www.historytoday.com
[2] The success of getting the invading Serbs to pull back from Northern Albania may have resulted from a secret deal between Zog and the Serbian leaders whereby Zog agreed to not support the irredentist demands of the 700,000 Kosovars wanting to escape Serbian rule, JH Tomes, King Zog: Self-Made Monarch of Albania, (2007)
[3] BJ Fischer, ‘King Zog’s Albanian Interwar Dictator’, in Fischer (Ed.), Balkan Strongman: Dictators and Authoritarian Rulers of South Eastern Europe, (2007)
[4] That Zog established a measure of central authority in an anarchic, faction-riven, still embryonic country was a formidable achievement … especially when one considers the depth of the traditional rivalry between the Ghegs in the north (Zog’s own clan) and the Tosks in the south (the latter forming the brunt of the communist elite from 1944)
[5] Besides, the Kosovars located within the borders of Albania were in conflict with Zog’s government, so it was not in his interest to reunite the two groups under the Albanian flag, Fischer, op.cit
[6] Die Stunde, (Vienna, 22-Feb-1931, 22-Feb-1931), cited in R Elsie, ‘Texts and Documents of Albanian History’, (1931 The Balkans in the Operngasse), www.albanianhistory.net
[7] Fischer, op.cit
[8] R Wintrobe, ‘The Tinpot and the Totalitarian: An Economic Theory of Dictatorship’, American Political Science Review, 84(3), Sep 1990
[9] Fischer, op.cit

The Contranormal World of Salvador Dalí: Art, Antics and Hollywood

Biographical, Cinema, Visual Arts

I am not strange. I am just not normal.”
~ Dalí

Throughout the course of Salvador Dalí’s life and career it was increasingly hard to distinguish the artist from the showman-cum-self publicist and exhibitionist. Dalí was many things – artist, sculptor, photographer, clothing & object designer, film-maker, writer and poet … and in his later years a facilitator of fake copies of his own work!

Early on in his artistic apprenticeship Dalí began by taking the conventional path, studying the old masters (especially Raphael, Velázquez and Vermeer) which honed his ultra realistic technique. Dabbling initially in Fauvism (inspired by Matisse), he gravitated towards the iconoclastic Surrealists. The Surrealist movement’s insistence on the primacy of the unconscious as a precondition to creativity neatly fused with his own views which had been shaped by his readings of Freud. Typically though Dalí forged his own self-referential brand of Surrealism which he termed the paranoiac-critical method.

Dalí visited America (New York) for the first time in 1934 where he was enthusiastically embraced as “the embodiment of Surrealism”[1]. After the Nazis invaded France in 1940 Dalí fled back to New York, where he sat out the war.

A mania for shock and outrage

The dandyish Dalí found America the ideal milieu in indulge in his predilection for shocking and scandalising the public. Numbered among the periodical, zany antics and pranks pulled by Dalí and his “collaborator-in-crime”, his much vilified Russian émigré wife Gala, were:

▹ attending a masquerade party with Gala dressed as the Lindbergh baby and he as the kidnapper (a grievous miscalculation by the Dalís as the heinous celebrity crime was still fresh in American minds, requiring the artist to afterwards beg forgiveness for the appalling taste of his stunt)
▹ attending a “Dalí Ball” in his honour wearing a glass case displaying a bra
▹ organising an event in a Manhattan bookshop in 1962 where he signed copies of his book in a hospital bed whilst he was wired up to a brain wave machine[2].

SD & Babou
Dalí delighted in over-the-top, exhibitionist displays of eccentricity. As he got older his shtick included prancing round with exotic wild animals on a leash (exotic animals have long been the accessory du jour for celebrities). He was well known for taking his pet South American ocelot with him on luxury cruises and to swanky restaurants. Photos also show him walking a giant anteater around the streets of New York on a lead as if it was the family dog.

Dalí’s ‘oddball’ gimmicks were all part of the artist’s “carefully cultivated image of a madman”[3]. The prevalence of photos of Dalí with chickens or other objects on his head, etc. points to the contrived nature of his eccentricity. Dalí’s appearances before the camera, unkempt hair, imperious piercing eyes and trademark extravagantly curled moustache, added to the image of an unhinged persona.

‘Temptation of St Anthony’ (see below)
Dalí’s enfant terrible behaviour (a condition that persisted his whole life!), whilst good for keeping him in the public eye and boosting sales, nonetheless alienated many in the art world. The Surrealists eventually disowned the Catalan artist for his egomaniacal antics and his blatant and shameless exhibitionism and commercialism. In 1939, Andre Breton, the founder of the Surrealist movement, gave Dalí the nickname Avida Dollars (an anagram of “Salvador Dalí”) which can be translated as “eager for dollars”[4].

Some observers have noted that the Surrealists’ reasons for rejecting Dalí had also to do with his increasingly apolitical position in the wake of the rising tide of fascism in the 1930s (going so far as to suggest that Dalí was soft on Nazism). Breton and other left-wing members of the movement, by contrast to Dalí, had used their Surrealist writing and art to attack the direction taken by Hitler and Mussolini. Later when Dalí happily returned to live in post-war Spain under the uncompromising dictatorship of Franco, he was further howled down by the Leftist artists sympathetic to communism[5].

Spending long periods in America (and specifically Hollywood) from the late 1930s allowed Dalí to continue his interest and involvement in film. Even before first coming to America he was very much into cinema. In 2007 the Figueres-based Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, in conjunction with the Tate Modern, held an exhibition called ‘Dali and Film’ in London which details his long association with film[6]. In the late 1920s-early 1930s he had made two polemically radical films with Luis Bunuel, a later master director of the screen (Un Chien andalou and L’Age d’or).

After coming in contact with Hollywood, Dalí, through his friendship with Harpo Marx, worked on writing of a screenplay for a Marx brothers movie to be called ‘Giraffes on Horseback Salad’ (planned scenes included gas mask-wearing giraffes and Chico in a deep-sea diving suit playing the piano bore the unmistakable Dalí touch). Plans for the movie were unfortunately scuttled after Groucho put the kibosh on it[7].

Dalí's set from 'Spellbound'
Dalí’s set from ‘Spellbound’
During the years he lived in America, Dalí worked with Hollywood luminaries of the calibre of Hitchcock and Disney. The Spanish artist, surprisingly for many in the US, became very good friends with Walt Disney. Walt and Sal collaborated on a short cartoon (Destino) but the project was not completed by them (possibly because Dalí’s ideas were “too explicit” for Disney). With Hitch, on Spellbound (a psychological crime thriller), Dalí created the artistic set for the dream sequence scene. He also later worked with director Vincente Minnelli on Father of the Bride creating some characteristic Dalí motifs[8].

At the Tate Modern exhibition back in 2007 one of the Dalí paintings that caught my attention for being somewhat incongruous was a rather conservative (for Dalí!) portrait of Hollywood movie mogul Jack L Warner*. I wasn’t aware at the time but apparently the powerful Warner Brothers studio head was also a friend of Dalí. A strange association I thought but his estranged, one-time friend Luis Bunuel in his autobiography opined that Dalí was always attracted to the company of multi-millionaires (so much so he became one! … Dalí left an estate worth around US$32m). Cecil B De Mille was another Hollywood establishment heavyweight that Dalí cultivated a friendship with.

A further surprise for me at the Tate ‘Dalí and Film’ exhibition was to see how small many of the Catalan’s artworks were. For example, Dalí’s Persistence of Memory (AKA ‘Melting Clocks’), one of his most famous and most referenced paintings, stands at a mere 10″ x 13″, virtually a miniature!

Dalí was praised for his avant-garde work in the thirties and universally admired for his artistic technical virtuosity. But by the fifties and sixties most of that distinctive originality had dried up. Influential art critic Robert Hughes summarised Dali’s later oeuvre as “kitschy repetition of old motifs or vulgarly pompous piety on a Cinemascope scale”[9]. By this time Dalí’s unchecked commercialism had overshadowed all vestiges of his artistic integrity (he had stooped to doing TV ads for Lanvin Chocolates, designing logos for Chupa Chups, etc)

Controversy continued to dog Dalí into his seventies and eighties. As he got older and frailer he became embroiled in forgery scandals. He resorted to signing thousands of blank canvases (possibly he was coerced into this by the manipulative Gala and other ‘hangers-ons’ close to him in their haste to cash in on the famed Dalí name). To this day fakes and frauds of Dalí’s paintings and lithographs (some with real signatures) proliferate around the world with countless numbers of unsuspecting buyers finding themselves lumbered with inauthentic Dalís.

Burning giraffe + women with drawers
Burning giraffe + women with drawers AKA “Femme-coccyx” (tail bone woman)

PostScript: The Dalí style
Dalí’s art is characteristically laden with ideography, much of it religious (eg, several on Gala as Madonna, one coupling her with Dalí as a monk, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus); often his landscapes are populated by bizarre animal symbols (eg, burning giraffes; elephants and horses with extremely long but thin (stilt-like) legs (The Temptation of St Anthony). Some works border on the pornographic (eg, a dismembered nude girl being sodomised by rhinoceros horns!?!) and there is a onanistic element to some of his paintings (eg, The Great Masturbator). Violent human dismemberment is another recurrent theme (eg, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans). He also enjoyed experimenting with optical effects in his works, like superimposing faces onto landscapes (eg, Paranoiac Visage.)


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* Dalí also did a painting of Warner’s wife, although Mrs Jack Warner is a bit more edgy work than the portrait of her husband.

[1] Dalí & Film, An exhibition of the artist at the Tate Modern (London), 1 June – 9 September 2007 (text by Matthew Gale)
[2] S Meisler, ‘The Surrealist World of Salvador Dalí’, Smithsonian Magazine, Apr 2005
[3] Sara Cochran, quoted in G Goodale, ‘In Hollywood, Dalí’s films are reappraised”, Christian Science Monitor, 2 Nov 2007, www.csmonitor.com. Dalí seems to have possessed that Hamlet-like quality of ‘madness’ – “I am but mad north-north-west … I know a hawk from a handsaw”.
[4] M Vallen, ‘Salvador Dalí – Avida Dollars’, Feb 2005, www.art-for-a-change.com
[5] ibid.
[6] ‘Dali & Film’, op.cit.
[7] R Kennedy, ‘Mr Surrealist goes to Tinseltown’,New York Times, 29 June 2008, www.mobile.nytimes.com
[8] ibid.
[9] R Hughes, ‘Homage to Catalonia’, The Guardian, 13 Mar 2004
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The Human Bowling Machine from Ladywell SE13

Biographical, Sport

Adil Rashid, currently displaying his bowling wares in the Big Bash League, recently took a five-wicket haul on test debut for England in the UAE. Nothing too sensational there you might say … except that he was the first English leg break bowler to bag a ‘Michelle’ (thank you Kerry O’Keefe!), five wickets in an innings, in a cricket test for 56 years! Its not that the English haven’t had any decent ‘leggies’ in that time – Robin Hobbs, Ian Salisbury, Chris Schofield, Scott Borthwick, have all been ‘capped’ for England – but when they have given them a go in the international arena they have done so ever so briefly, such is the closed mindset of the English establishment when it comes to leg-spinners!

imageEngland and Australia have diametrically opposed thought processes when it comes to assessing the value of leg-spinners. Everyone in Australia (and India) remembers Shane Warne’s test debut, 150-1 v India, grist for Ravi Shastri’s mill in 1992. And it didn’t get better in a hurry for Warne, after his first four tests he had taken precisely four wickets! But the Australian selectors, seeing the promise, persisted with Warne – and the rest was (leg spinning) history. The English authorities by contrast are neither brave or bold when it comes to encouraging and nurturing their young leggies, and it remains to be seen if England will persist with Rashid for longer than they have with other promising wrist spinners in the near past.

England invented the leg break and the ‘Bosie’ (the googly) and it is certainly not true that the country and its conditions are incompatible with good leg-spin bowling. Pakistan leggie Mustaq Ahmed in his legendary stint with Sussex took 478 wickets in five seasons of English country cricket (he remains the last bowler to take 100 wickets in an English season). Sussex won its first ever County Championship in 2003 and went on to win three in five years on the back of ‘Mushy’s’ persistent, penetrative leg breaks and wrong-uns! Indian leg-spinner Anil Kumble was similarly successful in his one (1995) season with Northamptonshire, topping the championship bowling list with 105 dismissals.

Tich
Tich
As to home-grown leggies, going deep into the history, England produced, among others, the most phenomenal, overachieving leg-spinner ever to grace an English ground! Alfred Percy Freeman, as his nickname (‘Tich’) implies, was tiny, 5’2″ (158 centimetres in the new language). Freeman achieved phenomenal success with Kent in the English County Championship in the inter-war years (see below). The attitude of the English selectors to Tich’s “class of his own” performances, emphasises what was to become the characteristic “head in the sand” reaction, a reluctance to embrace leg break bowling and give it a decent tryout.

In the historical record books of First class (FC) and English county cricket the nonpareil AP Freeman’s career include the following highlights:

:~ 3,776 wickets at 18.42 in FC career in 592 matches (6.38 wkts per match, strike rate: 40.9, economy rate 2.69) – second highest all-time wicket-taker to the great Wilfred Rhodes who took 4,204 wickets in 1,110 matches (ie, in 518 more matches)

:~ 304 wickets @ 18.05 in the 1928 English FC season – the highest of all-time & the only bowler to snare 300 in a single season (he also holds number 2 spot with 298 wkts @ 15.26 in 1933)

:~ in all FC matches: Five wickets in an innings, 386 times, & ten wickets in a match, 140 times! The next closest “five for” in an innings tally achieved in FC cricket is 287 instances (Rhodes), 99 in arrears of Tich. The next closest bowler for number of “ten fors” in matches made 91 (Charlie Parker)

:~ The only bowler to take 10 wkts in an innings thrice, the only bowler to take 17 wickets or more twice in a match

:~ Almost half of his 3,776 wkts were unassisted – the batsmen were either bowled, caught & bowled, LBW or hit-wicket

imageWith such startling figures, leg-spinner or not, the selectors couldn’t ignore Tich forever. He was selected in an MCC ‘A’ tour to New Zealand in which he excelled on NZ pitches, followed by a full test tour to Australia in 1924-25 in which he made his debut at age 36. A combination of good, hard Australian wickets and the fact that Australian batsmen were brought up on a diet of leg spin meant that Freeman made very heavy weather of the series. Thereafter the national selectors choose the leg-spinner very irregularly. He did very well against South Africa and the West Indies, but was not considered for the tests against the Australians on either the 1926 or 1930 tours of the UK, despite getting a six for and a five for in the county games for Kent against the tourists. The selectors demonstrated a remarkable lack of perception in not showing a sustained faith in Freeman’s obvious talent and not backing him in tests, especially in English conditions. As things turned out, his record in tests suggest the magnitude of their error in judgement:

In just 12 tests, 66 wkts. ave: 25.86, strike rate: 56.5 BB: 71-7. Five wkts in inns: 5 times, Ten wkts in match: 3 times.

In the very limited opportunities afforded Freeman to represent his country, 66 wickets in tests at an average of 5.5 per match is more than respectable as returns go. In any form and at any level of the game, he was an out-and-out wicket-taking machine!

What accounts for the diminutive, right-arm Kent leggie’s exceptionality? Firstly, he was unswervingly consistent as a bowler … and he improved with age. In the eight seasons after he turned 40 in 1928, he took 2,090 wickets at 17.86, making him the leading wicket-taker in county cricket eight years in a row! Glenn McGrath has been described as ‘metronomic’ as a bowler, but it was Tich Freeman first who whirled them down with unerring accuracy like an automaton for 20 plus years. He commanded fantastic control of line and length. Although Tich was small, he was strong of hand and he had seemingly endless reserves of stamina, going on and on and on at the bowling crease. Freeman loved nothing more than to bowl and bowl and bowl. And he just hated being taken off. Regularly he would open the bowling in county games and bowl right through the innings!

Tich Freeman’s standard bowling strategy was one of relentlessly attacking the stumps. The line of his leg break was directed towards making the right-handed batsman play at the ball, rather than being able to let it spin away harmlessly. He tended to not overuse the googly, but had an extremely hard-to-pick top-spinner.

imageSome cricket pundits, in contrasting Freeman to later generations of bowlers, have tried to explain away or diminish his extraordinary success by predictably referring to the poor state of uncovered wickets in his day. Or to the fact that he sent down such a sheer weight of numbers of balls in his career. It is undeniable that bad wickets were an advantage for bowlers in that era, but in response I would ask what was it, given the even playing field prevailing, that made Freeman so much more successful than his contemporary counterparts? This comparison accentuates the point: in that English season when he took 304 wickets, the entire Derbyshire team in the Championship by comparison took just 324 wickets! The next closest individual county bowler to his 304 victims in 1928 managed only 190 wickets.

And while it was true that Freeman bowled a hell of a lot of balls in FC cricket, 154 thousand plus, the point remains that at the same time he maintained an outstanding career strike rate, less than 41, which is right up there with the very best of bowlers. Tich Freeman was a seriously great English wrist spinner whose fame was largely restricted to his home county of Kent. But for the timidness and blinkered vision of the national selectors in truncating his test career, Freeman’s bowling feats could be as well celebrated and lionised internationally as they are today among the Kent faithful and in pockets of the county cricket fraternity.