Michael Church

Michael Church is the literary and arts editor of the Times Educational Supplement.

Pursuing the truth about the McCarthyite witch-hunt via 17th-century Salem, Arthur Miller was one day transfixed by an etching in a library. It had been made by an eyewitness of the original trials, and showed a bearded judge with arms upraised in horror as he watched a covey of girls screaming and clawing at invisible tormentors. This bore Miller back to a scene he had witnessed at the age of four, while under the tutelage of his great-grandfather in the 114th Street Synagogue. Told at first not to look, he heard ecstatic singing, and squinting through his fingers saw 15 old men dancing in a circle with prayer shawls over their heads. The playwright instantly saw the connection: ‘the moral intensity of the Jews and the clan’s defensiveness against pollution from outside the ranks’. Salem, he realised, was his own inheritance, and he felt strangely at home.

Bloody

Michael Church, 9 October 1986

‘I adore war,’ Julian Grenfell reported to his mother from the Flemish trenches in 1914, in a letter which she proudly sent on for anonymous publication in the Times. Stalking Germans through the mud was not very different from stalking partridges, as he noted in his game book: ‘November 16th; 1 Pomeranian. November 17th; 2 Pomeranians.’ Two decades later in Spain, Julian Bell informed his mother Vanessa that the war in which he was serving as an ambulance man was ‘perpetually entertaining and very satisfactory’, one of the chief pleasures being ‘getting back into male society’. John Cornford fought in Spain as a zealous young Communist, but his letters to Margot Heinemann reflect the same first-term-in-a-new-school excitement, the same all-male exhilaration. ‘I did quite well that day,’ he said of his success in rescuing a gun from the enemy. ‘He did well here, and died bloody well,’ he observed on another occasion of a gallant friend who preceded him to the grave. The blood-stained final letter which Julian Grenfell sent home from Flanders ran:

More about Marilyn

Michael Church, 20 February 1986

‘A suicide kills two people, Maggie. That’s what it’s for.’ Thus Quentin, the tormented Prospero-figure in Arthur Miller’s autobiographical play After the Fall. Maggie replies by eating a handful of pills, and the scene then twists and turns between Quentin’s acknowledged guilt and his defiant belief that she would have done it anyway. Miller survived the long suicide of Marilyn Monroe, but his muse fell silent. Joe DiMaggio, his baseball-star predecessor, loved her faithfully despite the years of public insult from her, and today still grinds his teeth in silence, no interviews, no comment. Silence of a different sort descended on Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department when journalists started probing after her death: Marilyn had been a phone call away from killing Bobby’s career, and possibly brother Jack’s as well. The silence of those whom Anthony Summers failed to catch suggests that the facts about that death are even now divulged at mortal risk. And the damage goes back and back. For her tuition as an actress Marilyn depended utterly on two women whom she first exalted then pitilessly destroyed. A singing coach who gave her honest devotion was so hounded by the jealous DiMaggio that he tried to end things with a draught of cleaning fluid. Soon after, in the nicest possible way, she dumped him; he is still an invalid today. Kissing Marilyn, said Tony Curtis, was like kissing Hitler. As Sammy Davis Jr put it: ‘She hangs like a bat in the minds of the men that knew her.’

Keeping out and coming close

Michael Church, 3 October 1985

Eric Ambler told an interviewer recently that though he often felt the urge to write for the stage he was put off by the scrutiny to which he would be subjected: and the pun in the title of his autobiography was a precaution against exposure. It proved less necessary than he had feared, but the message underlying the opening chapter is unmistakable: readers, and reviewers in particular, should keep their distance. The chapter takes the form of a prologue, characteristically melodramatic, and with an oblique jump back through time. He has turned his new car over on a motorway in Switzerland, and is taken to hospital with concussion, miraculously lucky to be alive. He tries to deceive the doctors into setting him free so that he can go home and diagnose himself with the aid of his forensic-science library, but they keep him in for observation. He’s suffering from amnesic aphasia, and observes his own symptoms, wondering if the wits by which he has lived will now desert him for ever. He can’t remember … and then suddenly he does remember what he had been thinking about when the accident occurred.

St Jude’s Playwright

Michael Church, 5 September 1985

‘The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is … the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.’ Who among our contemporary playwrights would dare pen anything so shamelessly romantic? Who would even want to? Certainly not our Brenton-and-Hare political puritans, nor yet our Ayckbourn-and-Frayn tragicomedians. Poverty, disease and disability we encounter in abundance, but as the occasion for either morbidity or schmaltz. The slow but sure revival of interest in Tennessee Williams – this summer Harold Pinter directing Sweet Bird of Youth, and brilliantly – suggests a general awareness that there may currently be a hole where our theatre’s heart should be.’

Mothers

Michael Church, 18 April 1985

For his 15th Christmas, Erik Lee Preminger’s mother gave him an antique gold watch and two glass eyes set in clay, with a card which said: ‘Remember dear, Mother is always watching.’ She thought it a hysterically funny gift, but he found it strange and unsettling. The last thing he needed, on the brink of manhood, was a symbolic reminder of her domestic omnipotence. Preminger may not move on the exalted literary plane of Edmund Gosse, but the impulse behind his book is not dissimilar to that which gave rise to Father and Son. Gypsy and Me absolutely had to be written, ostensibly as a tribute to a remarkable woman, but more importantly as a way of resolving a near-mortal conflict.

Jewish Blood

Michael Church, 7 February 1985

‘Between me and my childhood,’ says Budd Schulberg, ‘is a wall.’ Half-remembered incidents are the loose stones which he must tear away to make a hole big enough to crawl through. There is a Greta Garbo stone (he once pelted her with ripe figs), and stones called Gary Cooper, Freddie March and Sylvia Sidney, but one of the biggest and loosest goes by the name of Clara Bow. Vulgar, gum-chewing, and with a comically nasal Brooklyn accent, the It Girl flashed through his world leaving him dazed with pity and affection. He describes her shooting a scene in which she was required to weep, listening intently to the mood-orchestra (silents were made with the aid of music), and then melting into a grief which was obviously real. She had been brought up in brutalised poverty, and the tune the violins were playing had painful associations. Her downfall after ten dizzy years was only in part because of the coming of sound: she was neither clever nor calculating enough to survive in Hollywood, and in five-year-old Budd, whom she called her secret boyfriend, she recognised a kindred soul.

Rubbing Up

Michael Church, 7 June 1984

Born within months of each other, both raised under constant scrutiny by powerful grandparents, both made into vehicles for their mothers’ repressed artistic ambitions: the early histories of George Melly and Russell Baker run strikingly in parallel. Their books reveal an even more striking coincidence of form. Melly chooses, in his closing paragraph, to play affectionately along with his mother’s happy delusion that she is fifty years back in the past and the conjuror is coming to tea. Baker begins and ends his story with a baroque variation on exactly the same theme. Senility, that affliction so often viewed with embarrassed horror, is seen by Baker as yet another manifestation of his mother’s courageous resourcefulness – she turned herself into her own time-machine.–

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