We’re pretty pumped to say that we’re now stocked at the Santiago de Compestela of literary London – the LRB Bookshop. A wonderful, surreal moment for all of us here, given our many hours scouring their store over the years, hoping, perhaps, that we might write something that could be placed on their shelves. While they are holding four copies of Issue 7, only 19 copies are available to purchase through our webstore. So, if you’ve been relishing our work so far, then please do support the project by subscribing to the print magazine, as that continues to our primo source of revenue.
We’ve got a decade-late dispatch on Dominic Cummings’s wedding and a little bit on Liam Gallagher. But first, here’s our investigation on the Prime Minister and his creative process.
The Authorship Question
Boris Johnson does write his books. Not, it has to be said, in the way that most people do. But the words themselves are his, for better or worse.
Johnson’s last book, The Churchill Factor, was an international bestseller. It won grudging praise from jobbing broadsheet reviewers, less so from specialists. But Johnson’s distinctive style is present in every sentence. ‘The book reads as if it was dictated, not written’, wrote Richard J. Evans in The New Statesman. ‘All the way through we hear Boris’s voice’.
And there’s the rub. If there’s one thing the Prime Minister can do, it’s churn out 1500 words a day, sprinkling liberally with the pep and piffle.
The Fence spoke to Warren Dockter, Johnson’s research assistant on The Churchill Factor, who described a highly collaborative process in which he oversaw Boris’ book from first drafts through to the finished state. ‘I acted as a sort of guide through the literature and evidence’, he told The Fence, adding that Boris ‘did all the heavy lifting’.
Boris would wake early in the morning and pad to his study to record himself extemporising on scenes from Churchill’s life – his way of getting the creative juices flowing. Draft chapters would arrive in Dockter’s inbox at 5am, awaiting fact-checking and review. ‘We would sort of bounce ideas around, a bit like a supervision at university. It was a real pleasure seeing Boris get into his process’.
‘On more than one occasion I made reference to the fact that he produced copy with Churchillian efforts’, he added. Dockter said he was remunerated for his work but declined to give a figure.
Boris’ books have been making headlines recently after it was revealed that the Prime Minister may have missed key COBRA meetings at the start of the coronavirus crisis to work on a book, provisionally entitled Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius. While as far as The Fence could gather, the book is not yet written, Amazon lists it as consisting of a marketable 320 pages.
The most common explanation for why Boris would miss COBRA meetings to work on a book is the putative cost of his divorce. In our eyes, the most convincing explanation is that Boris is so tight-fisted he’d peel an orange in his pocket.
Shakespeare is at once an obvious and a strange choice. Since 1996, no twelve-month period has passed without at least one major new biography of Shakespeare, and Fintan O’Toole once calculated that over a thousand books, academic papers and articles about the Bard and his works are added to that canon every year.
Yet if he is the nation’s greatest poet, he is also its most elusive. The corpus of opinion is so vast it would take a lifetime to read. The uncertainties of Shakespeare’s views on almost anything can make polemic approaches feel like feeble pieces of projection. Writing the biography meanwhile, as one academic source put it to us, ‘turns even really good academics into speculative hacks’.
Who would Boris ask to help him this time? Several well-placed sources in the academic community suggested that we should try the academic Jonathan Bate, author of The Genius of Shakespeare.
‘I’ve not been approached at all. If I find there is any plagiarism he will be hearing from my lawyers’, said Bate in an email to The Fence, adding, ‘LOL’.
‘I haven’t been approached and do not know who might have been’, said Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World and Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. ‘Have you tried Jim Shapiro at Columbia? If I were the PM, I might ask him’. (James Shapiro, whose books include 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare and Shakespeare in a Divided America, did not respond to a request for comment.)
According to Johnson’s former research assistant, The Churchill Factor was written in fairly strict collaboration between Boris and himself – with Allen George Packwood, director of the Churchill archives centre at Churchill College, Cambridge, occasionally brought in for consultation.
However, a source who was approached to work on Boris’ Shakespeare book painted a rather different picture.
Our source, who spoke to The Fence on the condition that they were anonymised as ‘something extremely flattering’, like ‘one of the country’s leading experts on Shakespeare’ received a phone call in late 2015 from a literary figure ’claiming to represent someone in public life’. Their client was writing a book about the Elizabethan playwright – would they be interested in joining the project?
‘I said to them, “listen, are you asking if I’d like to help write Boris Johnson’s long-threatened book on Shakespeare?”’
Our source was told that the project would work like this. Johnson would conduct a series of interviews with them, along with other academics and experts, for which they would be remunerated. Johnson would then produce the book himself with his findings.
Johnson’s literary representative laid ‘great stress’ throughout the conversation on the PM’s quick wit and intelligence, emphasising that Boris would ask all the right questions and produce the book independently. According to our source, Johnson’s representative added that this interview format was how he had been able to produce his last work, The Churchill Factor, with such speed.
‘I was sworn to strict secrecy’, added one of the country’s leading experts on Shakespeare, ‘so of course it would be extremely indiscreet for me to say I refused to help write Boris Johnson’s book on Shakespeare. Which of course I did.’
That these two intimate accounts of Johnson’s writing process seem to contradict each other leaves us with a dilemma. Johnson’s research assistant for his previous book seemed to believe they had been working in a close partnership, yet it would appear that a broader series of interviews was taking place. The country’s preeminent Shakespeare expert, on the other hand, seemed totally unaware of the individual whose LinkedIn currently lists them as the research assistant on a major, forthcoming Hodder and Stoughton book about Shakespeare.
All of which would suggest that even when speaking to those he’s working with, the Prime Minister plays his cards pretty close to his chest.
The question of which plays Shakespeare wrote, or part-wrote, or wrote individual scenes for, remains a hot-button issue within the academic community. Undergraduates are shocked to discover that these things may be more fluid than they seem from the glossy name on the front of the Penguin Classic. But they might as well walk into Waterstones to find the same process at work. It’s not clear that in a publishing industry obsessed with celebrity – where ghosts produce bestselling memoirs to support their academia habit and major historians outsource large chunks of work to badly paid assistants – that very much has changed. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if the author is dead or not – as long as he still gets paid.
In Sickness and in Health
It seems like the whole country is sick of the sound of Dominic Cummings’ voice. And banging on for too long is a trait he shares with his father-in-law, Humphrey Wakefield (seen here, discoursing on breeding in his castle crypt). The Fence hears that at his daughter’s wedding back in 2011, the eccentric landowner launched into a 40-minute father-of-the-bride speech of such unstinting, circular boredom, that the best man (Michael Gove) had to gently charm the microphone away from him. How’s that for a portrait of Britain?
Needle and Thread
In the latest Netflix money-spinning mini-series, Ewan McGregor plays Halston, a talented American designer who destroyed his business and himself in the white-hot heat of Studio 54-era NYC. It’s pretty grim and occasionally funny viewing, but as hedonistic, destructive couturiers go, Roy Halston Frowick couldn’t hold a candle to Raymond ‘Ossie’ Clark.
Clark’s diaries are some of the most startling ever published, and are something of a collector’s item. Here’s a sample entry:
6 May 1974
On the full moon we fuck. Jagger Party maybe? Another Glitter party. Club Cara Leo. Boring after the St Regis – pathetic hookers summoned to his presence indeed. Lost Tony and Mickey and Bowie and Marc. Sandra gone. Michael said ‘Who’s Gary Glitter? I just can’t cope.’
21 years later, Clark was murdered by his lover, Diego Cogolato. In the interim period, the diaries capture two decades of volcanic tantrums, drug busts and the occasional threesome with Marianne Faithfull. Is it time for a British broadcaster to bring Clark’s tragic, astonishing life to the small screen? There’s more than enough material.
Losing The Plot
In an unexpected development, the Anglo-American booksphere had much to say recently about an article that was doing the rounds online. A number of critics and doers and thinkers announced what developments they would like to see within the format of the novel. Exciting times!
We would like to see more formally playful work (the type of fiction that, say, Rebecca Watson provides in this short story she wrote for us). And on the other hand, we do think it’s funny how so many people commented on Ottessa Moshfegh’s contribution. Would they be so immediate in their praise had Jonathan Franzen demanded that fiction inhabit an amoral universe? Who knows?
In Case You Missed It
Ian Young of South China Morning Post on ‘the great pleasure’ it gives him to announce the death of Thailand’s Lt General Manas Kongpan.
For WIRED, Megan Molteni discusses the fractious discussions within the WHO about the nature and transmission of COVID aerosol droplets, and The 60-Year-Old Scientific Screwup That Helped Covid Kill.
See how many of the online devices in your home are talking to each other (spoiler: it’s all of them) with the cutesy, creepy and compelling Augmented Reality Project, Invisible Roommates.
‘What is House Music?’ asks friend of the newsletter Joe Muggs, as he undertakes the thankless, but thankfully riveting, task of charting the definitive history of House for Beatport.
Veronique Greenwood profiles the uncanny world of flavourists in A Day In The Life Of A Flavour Inventor, for BBC Future.
Some narcotics-grade schadenfreude on offer from Ben Munster in the New Yorker, detailing the current troubles of Steve Bannon’s madcap, quasi-fascist Gladiator school in Italy.
Tesla’s Model 3 has a built-in scanner that detects junctions and stop points. What happens when you drive one behind a truck carrying a load of traffic lights?
Liam Gallagher, one of England’s last true folkloric bards, has taken a pasting in the tabloids owing to his taste for an iced beverage of Mexican origin. Admittedly this is a less injurious charge than reports he watched Spinal Tap, and attended one of their gigs, without realising they were not a real band, or the claim that he is said to have referred to Harlem rapper ASAP Rocky as ‘WhatsApp Ricky’. But we do take offense since, for good or ill, a TF staffer is also addicted to the frozen margaritas served at the very same pub (and would like to point out to the scurrilous hacks that they only cost £8, not £10).
We say it’s time everyone else caught up. About 15 years ago, some trailblazing pubs in London started serving Thai food. Incongruous at the time, many pubs have now followed in the footsteps of the Hemingford in Islington and the Churchill Arms in Kensington. While it’s a slightly confusing trend, given that there’s never been largescale Thai immigration to this country, it’s also a very delicious trend, as pints of Guinness pair perfectly with beef pad thai.
The iced margarita has no business being served in a London pub, until that is, you sip one on a pantingly hot June afternoon. Might we suggest the enterprising innkeepers of the capital follow the path-beaters of the Red Lion & Sun in Highgate?
We’re putting together Issue 8 for a July release, and it’s got a number of very stupid articles within that will make you laugh. Some other serious stuff, too, but this upcoming issue has got a palpably ludicrous energy. Of course, it’s our best yet.
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