Mailer in Edinburgh • Farewell Mr. Cheam • Restless Native Poetry • Mile-high Breakup
There’s no way that a column called “Punch Lines” could fail to note the passing of Norman Mailer, the two-fisted tornado of American literature, who flung in the towel on 10 November at the age of eighty-four. The author of The Naked and the Dead, The Armies of the Night, The Executioner’s Song and this year’s The Castle in the Forest, he won the Pulitzer Prize twice and was also given the US National Book Award.
Charles McGrath’s obituary in The New York Times sums him up like this: “Mr Mailer belonged to the old literary school that regarded novel writing as a heroic enterprise undertaken by heroic characters with egos to match. He was the most transparently ambitious writer of his era, seeing himself in competition not just with his contemporaries but with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.”
But Mailer didn’t restrict himself to punching typewriter keys over the full fifteen rounds of his professional career. He loved boxing, famously covering the Ali–Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, and was an inveterate scrapper himself. The combative writer once threw a haymaker at Gore Vidal, only to hear his rival ask, “Lost for words again, Norman?”
Maybe the macho man had issues: he once picked a fight in a bar because he decided someone had questioned his dog’s sexuality. “Nobody calls my dog a faggot,” stands as one of his great lines, although Mailer almost lost an eye in the
He liked to travel and visited Scotland several times. In fact, his final public appearance was at the 2000 Edinburgh International Book Festival, although Andrew O’Hagan interviewed him by live satellite link-up this year.
But Mailer’s first outing in the Capital was way back in 1962 at the legendary Writers’ Conference, organized by none other than ONE Project associates John Calder and Jim Haynes. Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs describes the symposium in some detail, including the aftermath…
Some of Edinburgh’s rowdier youths had taken to harassing Festival-goers in ways which would earn their grandchildren ASBOs today. Burroughs recounted how one poor soul had to dodge and weave his way through the mean streets of the city to get to a literary party. The unfortunate would-be reveller did manage to get to his destination unscathed—only to be met by Mailer’s fist as he reached the door of the flat.
Burroughs was sanguine about the debacle he’d witnessed, but then Mailer had described him as “the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius”.
Latterly, Mailer did seem to have made peace with himself and those around him. He lived in Provincetown, a former whaling port at the tip of Cape Cod which has become the most popular gay resort on the east coast of the USA. What’s more, as Philip Hoare reported in The Independent, the old slugger became friends with John Waters, of all people, and attended the film director’s summer parties.
In 2003, while speaking out against the Iraq War in Provincetown, he called for the political acceptance of “an existential God, as opposed to a fundamentalist one”. And only this year he talked more about his religious ideas in New York Magazine, saying: “God is an artist. And like an artist, God has successes, God has failures.”
And Mailer made it clear that he knew people would think he was talking about himself.
—Andrew J. Wilson
Reginald Cheam: Horror film actor, director and producer
born 13 April 1935, Bootle
died 31 October 2007, Crouch End
The death of Reginald Algernon “Algae” Cheam—apparently following a freak accident involving three different kitchen appliances—will not go unnoticed in the world of British cinema, especially since it offers a
resolution to the mystery of Dolores Munro’s disappearance.
Cheam is best, if still rather hazily, remembered for his roles in minor British horror films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nightmare Bats from Mars and The Thing from the Black Bog were hardly classics, and Cheam was unlucky enough to ply his trade in the long shadows of Lee, Cushing and Price in their prime. Rejected by Hammer Films as “too wee to be scary”, he had to make do with its poverty-row rival, Sickle Productions.
Following Sickle’s liquidation in 1975, Cheam turned to full-time drinking. His erratic behaviour on Parkinson led to him being banned after an appearance in 1976. Mercifully, most of Cheam’s contribution was edited out, but he could still be heard snoring through Kenneth Williams’ anecdotes, and a few frames showed his hands grabbing at Raquel Welch’s legs as he was dragged away—something he was to use later in The Hands of Father Sinister.
After that film’s failure, Cheam tried his hand at creature features in The Cabinet of Doctor Calamari. This was the first film he produced on his own, and its minor success was probably due to its female lead, Dolores Munro. Cheam had met her at RADA, and tempted her away from a successful season at the RSC playing Ophelia to Olivier’s Hamlet by means unknown.
A luminous star of stage and screen, Munro was once described as the Hartlepool Audrey Hepburn. Outsiders could never understand why, under Cheam’s Svengali-like influence, she wasted her talents on such substandard fare as Calamari or its even more pathetic sequel, Love Is a Many Tentacled Thing.
Fortunately, contractual disputes spared Munro an appearance in Chainsaw Slut Apocalypse, Cheam’s 1980 so-called “masterpiece”, which has still to receive a certificate from the British Board of Film Classification. Its commercial and critical failure overseas bankrupted him.
Cheam recovered his losses by becoming the face of a well-known salami sausage in a long-running advertising campaign. Its tagline of “You don’t have to be big to be scary” gave him enough resources to defend himself against allegations of involvement in Dolores Munro’s disappearance in 1989.
At the time, Cheam claimed that the smell of rotting flesh in the house was caused by his collection of orchids of the Bulbophyllum species which turned out to be true. However, it seems ludicrous now that the authorities were unable to search his house properly because officers had to keep going outside to be sick.
Cheam’s final contribution to cinema was a series of Tartan Shorts, funded by Scottish Screen. Typically, this led to his arrest whilst making the self-penned Confessions of a Justified Window Cleaner. The sight of the elderly Cheam, clad in a red wig and capering about the Edinburgh rooftops, was too much for some Old Town residents. He was subsequently found guilty… two charges of breach of the peace and three of shameless indecency.
The auteur’s body was discovered after neighbours saw his Rottweiler, Colin, chewing a human ear. This led in turn to the discovery of Dolores Munro’s body in a freezer in the garage—partially decomposed, it would appear, as a result of an inability to pay his electricity bills on time.
A journal discovered in the master bedroom claimed that the actress had died of fright after Cheam had revealed himself to her in his “full satanic glory”. Early examinations appear to suggest that the actress died of heart failure. Her face, police sources say, “was frozen in an attitude of utter disgust”.
Cheam is survived by seven sons, all to other men’s wives, and his Rottweiler, Colin. His passing will be mourned by few, and certainly by none connected with the British film industry.
—Andrew C. Ferguson
Stand up for a Quiet Pint in Auld Reekie
The City of Edinburgh Council is considering changing its licensing regulations. The Draft Statement goes so far as to acknowledge that “the existing policy has served the city well”, but then proposes changing it. City pubs are to close by midnight on weekdays and there will be restrictions on the number of people who are allowed to stand with their drinks.
Two points are worth noting: Glasgow restricted its licensing a few years ago to no discernible positive effect; and forcing bars to allow no more than fifty per cent of their clientele to stand will hurt small independent locals far more than the obvious trouble spots.
And as the following proves, the natives are restless…
The councillors want us to drink like the French,
Not sitting in Hunter Square drunk on a bench,
Nor do they want us to imbibe as we stand,
Since they worry that things will get out of hand.
So up pipes the Licence Committee’s head lass:
“The nightclubs and strip joints will still get a pass,
“But pubs for the locals, they’ll all now be told,
“We’re cutting the hours in which beer can be sold.”
There’s a quota for standing—fifty per cent—
Though when you must pee, then perhaps they’ll relent.
They’ll tally who’s standing and who’s sitting down,
Claiming that this move will bring peace to the town.
The problem’s some people cause trouble and strife:
So many young neds want to carry a knife;
They throw bottles around, and bins are upturned,
Vehicles vandalized, play areas burned.
So the Council decided to turn the tide,
With Kenny MacAskill along for the ride;
They’re forcing a curfew on our local bars—
At midnight’s last stroke, you’ll be out on your arse.
The luvvies in August, though, they’ll be exempt—
It’s just the taxpayers who’re held in contempt;
For the actors and tourists are awfully nice,
And councillors reckon they’re quiet as mice.
But some of us wonder if this can be right
When all that we want is a late, quiet pint.
Don’t make us all pay for the sins of the few,
Just target those making a hullabaloo.
For all the good councillors one day will stand
To rule once again in this part of the land,
But what they will find is, we’ll vote with our feet,
And though they may stand, they will not get a seat.
— A Sub-Versive Friend of Fernando Poo
The Mile-high Breakup Club
With its endless queues, constant security checks and the burden of environmental guilt, the romance has been well and truly removed from air travel. On a recent flight, our correspondent STUART WALLACE saw a vivid illustration of just how much attitudes have changed and how far standards have slipped…
It had been a long haul of a wait at Gatwick for the short flight to Edinburgh. Finally boarded and settled in an aisle seat at the back of the plane, with the cabin crew going over the familiar safety instructions, my tired gaze wandered across to the couple sitting in the row in front of me. A frosty atmosphere was obvious, but their body language only told half the story.
Sat in the aisle seat, the young woman had that day’s Guardian G2 supplement in her lap. She extracted a pen from her bag, and over the cover image of author Robert Harris looking smugly content, proceeded to address a long, rambling list of complaints to her partner. Her chunky handwriting meant that every line was easily read:
“I don’t know why you’re being like this. You’re not the only one to be nervous before a flight. I am too.
“I thought your mood swings were going to stop. Why can’t you be nice to me? I’ve tried so hard, but you don’t seem to care.
“I’m even more nervous now about going to meet your parents. What have I done wrong?”
As we taxied to take-off, she handed this primitive form of instant messaging to her partner who, although mostly obscured from my view by his seat, clearly took a few moments to review it. The jets fired up as he turned the G2 over to write a quick note back to her. Once returned, I was able to read the brusque response he had written neatly round the edge of the crossword: “Just Fuck Off!”
— Stuart Wallace