Why We Need Hidden Heroes

The Arts


By winning the Oscar for Best Picture, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape Of Water shifted the status of outsiders to the inside. Its liberal credentials are revealed in a variety of ways, from the fully fleshed out key roles taken by a voiceless woman, a middle-aged gay man and a black cleaning woman to the setting of a Cold War America ruled by thugs, but it keeps its agenda backgrounded, allowing the film to concentrate on its unusual plot.

So it’s worth recalling that Del Toro was himself once an outsider. His films did not follow Hollywood conventions. In films like ‘Cronos’ and ‘Mimic’ he chose grandfathers and children instead of leading men. He’s one of many creative people who careers I’ve followed and become fascinated with over the years. You could call them the hidden heroes; writers, artists, directors and performers who come onto your radar because of brave, unusual work.

I became a huge fan of the nonlinear narratives in novels, loving difficult works by Brigid Brophy, Ann Quin and BS Johnson partly because postwar literature had reverted to neo-Victorian narratives (from the likes of Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch and Anthony Powell) partly because the experimentalists ignored the traditional unities of time, place and action in their writing and followed more psychological paths.

But we know what happens to avant-garde geniuses; their best ideas are borrowed without acknowledgment, their novels are misunderstood, misrepresented or ignored. And the picture is complicated by critics who point out that the more brazen experimentalists are perhaps less radical than they imagine, while some traditional novelists subvert through subtler means, hiding radical ideas within conventional styles.

Alan Sillitoe’s ‘Travels In Nihilon’ is as radical as any Johnson novel. Johnson managed to get the last word in at his own death (he slit his wrists at 40 after leaving a note that said; ‘This is my last word’) but other writers learned from his pointed exclusion of the mainstream by keeping readers on their side.

This is where the hidden heroes become especially interesting. There are a great many who hide in plain sight. They exist in music and onstage with writer/performers like Patrick Wolf and David Hoyle, in films directed by Alex de la Iglesia and Andrés Baiz, in books by Kate Atkinson and Ali Smith.

Ms Atkinson is particularly intriguing because she has been embraced by the establishment more completely than any other late twentieth century writer. She’s an MBE who has received a huge number of awards from established bodies, she writes about England, history and family lives – yet much of her work, had it been published in the era of the postwar experimentalists, would have been regarded as avant-garde. From the beginning she has been confident enough to experiment with narrative and temporal structure without alienating the reader. And as such a writer should be, she is occasionally as book-hurlingly annoying as Brophy at her most excessive.

The composer Richard Thomas, who scored the controversial ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’ also created a series of mini-operas critiquing modern society, based on popular TV formats. They were brilliant, innovative, full of social comment – but Kombat Opera (as it was known) did not trouble the elderly audiences of network TV. Thomas could get reactionaries frothing yet still stays below the radar, perhaps because he has yet to fully settle in a direction that the public can grasp.

An opposite problem afflicts formerly outrageous outliers; redundancy. Colin Higgins, who wrote the novel ‘Harold & Maude’, turned his book into a film that spawned a cult, so it’s easy to forget the bleak Vietnam subtext to the original story that made it so subversive. Harold, faced with conformity or death, chooses the latter, and in one barely remembered scene disgusts a general with his description of killing. Now, decades later, the play is running in the West End with the indomitable Sheila Hancock as Maude, and despite her sparkling, energetic performance (at 85) the play does not work because what was once an outrageous flight of fancy has been turned to whimsy by the hard realities of the 21st century.

In the same way that JG Ballard seemed unable to open his mouth without accidentally or intentionally courting controversy, so all of the above found outlets for their own peculiarities. And their work can often make for far greater enjoyment than the traditionalists.

So, today’s challenge for you; which experimental, unusually structured, or downright odd writers would you add to the list?


15 comments on “Why We Need Hidden Heroes”

  1. davem says:

    Very pleased about Del Toro … always been a big fan.

  2. Barry Wilson says:

    Del Toro is Real Madrid’s loss and Man City’s gain. He will go down a storm in the Premiership.

  3. snowy says:

    The most obvious, and so as to get him out of the way was P K Dick. The bulk of his work was and still is to an extent largely unknown, outside of a few stories adapted for films/TV.

    [Nice to see Roger Deakins finally get something to prop his door open with.]

  4. Ken Mann says:

    Peter Van Greenaway

  5. Denise Treadwell says:

    Not much interested in people who make money from violent films and tell you how to live your life. And put up with sexual abuse for years , seemingly it only matters now?

  6. Wild Edric says:

    Denise I think that’s dangerous talk.

    I’m thankful to have never experienced sexual abuse but I can’t begin to put myself in the mind of someone who has.

    Reading about recent cases it seems everybody has a different way of dealing with it, either at the time or maybe years later. I think it’s always mattered but it’s only when other victims have taken the brave step to come forward that others feel safe to do the same. People may not have been listened to or believed, they may have felt threatened or in danger. Their abuser could have been a family member that they felt unable to speak out against. Memories could have been suppressed.

    It’s a very emotive subject obviously and as I said, one I haven’t experienced myself but I wouldn’t feel comfortable making such a remark as yours.

  7. Steveb says:

    You are taking just one part of what Denise said, she said also ‘people who make violent films AND tell you how to lead your life AND put up with …”
    You are addressing only the final part of that.
    I’m not sure where I stand on the conjunction of those three things, but one thing I know, those people are living lives with comfort and wealth that 99.999% of the world’s population can only dream of.

  8. Martin Tolley says:

    Alasdair Gray

  9. Steveb says:

    PS Barry Malzberg

  10. Roger says:

    Stefan Themerson
    James Kelman
    John Berger
    I thought B.S. Johnson’s films were much better than his novels.

    Martin Rowson’s graphic novel of The Waste Land.

    Being an outsider or avant-garde varies according to where and how you do it: Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone were avant-garde composers, but when they used the same techniques and methods in films nobody complained.
    I’ll think of many more after I’ve posted, no doubt!

  11. Christopher Fowler says:

    Not THIS is an interesting list.
    P Van Greenaway – I’ve read them all and love them, esp. The Destiny Man. Kelman & Berger likewise, don’t know Themerson. Never got to Alasdair Gray despite his beautiful covers, checking out Malzberg right now!

  12. Ken Mann says:

    Not sure if Barrington J Bayley fits the definition but I love his work. Who else would write a space opera in which a suit of clothes tries to take over the galaxy, and there are AI mirrors who don’t show you your reflection but instead show you what they see when they look at you.

  13. Jan says:

    I really liked it in “Mimic”when the old guy and the little lad discussed the noise the big cockroach like critter made and the bounty made the noise with spoons. Was a smashing film “Mimic” Loved it all; the underground station, the obsessive characters, it was a great picture.

    Never heard of most if these other folk apart from Atkinson and Philip K Dick. He was a very interesting man almost utilizing his mental illness into his stories. His delusions become almost as palpable as a character. There’s that weird story how he felt he had “haunted” himself as a youngster. Think he puts that incident into a storyline but he was convinced it happened.

    Why his work transfers so well into film I dunno but there’s no arguing it does.

    As for this current outcry against sexual abuse the ‘Times up’ and ‘Me too’ movements
    Well fair play for these first lasses for speaking out. I can’t say I even know who the first complainant was but fair play to her. Takes a strong person to be prepared to write off their own career for the truth. I find it slightly distasteful that major female players in movies were prepared to stand in the queue some way behind the initial complainants. Just 18 months ago these same powerful women were praising Harvey Weinstein. Now there’s a free for all a variety of allegations flying about and little chance of any real fairness for the men accused. Pendulums always swing from one extreme to another.

  14. Jan says:

    Bounty should be BOY
    Doh bloody spellchecker!

  15. Wayne Mook says:

    I agree with Philip K Dick, splendid. I would also add Jonathan Carroll and an older author, Lord Dunsany.

    A bit of an odd book originally comes from a blog, Scarfolk Council a surreal place inspired by public information films of the70’s, it’s wrong in so many ways but funny (the site is as much a comment on today’s society as it is on the 70’s.). The book Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler uses the posters & books shown on the site with a narrative of a stranger who shows up and loses his family, and what happens to him, it’s surreal, frightening, funny and sad, the strange poignancy of the tale is not what I expected. as used on the site I would file under fabricated non-fiction and for more information reread this post.


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