Uncultured 1: What’s On My Cult Radar

The Arts


HHhH by Laurent Binet

‘HHhH’ is enlightening and occasionally infuriating, but retelling an oft-told story is never easy. Binet’s Prix Goncourt winner concerns the legend of the London-trained parachutists who attempted the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, 1942, the events leading to the confrontation, the ambush itself, which played out like an action film, and its horrific consequences at the village of Lidice.

Binet’s approach is to question the veracity of retelling the story by including his self-doubts, so that he breaks the fourth wall to discuss his own struggles in assembling the material, its veracity and the difficulty of ever creating a definitive text. While this is a welcome change from straight historical biography and makes for a chatty, engaging read, it also defuses much of the tension, although the climactic battle in the church is lucid and suspenseful.

There are fuller accounts, certainly, and ones that drive home the appalling tragedy of Czechoslovakia’s suppression, but if Binet’s main intention was to draw in readers and keep them hooked, it succeeds admirably and bodes well for his alternative history novel ‘Civilisations’.

The Space Oracle by Ken Hollings

Hollings is an intellectual space-case who comes across as Adam Curtis on acid (it can be no coincidence that they know each other). ‘Welcome to Mars’ looked at the effect of Cold War technologies on American suburbia in the fifties and has been reissued. In ‘Inferno’ he looked at trash culture, from surfing Nazis to ‘The Love Boat’.

The volume of his I’m currently enjoying is ‘The Space Oracle’, a guide to the stars that doesn’t do what it says at all, but potters through the history of astronomy and lands us, via dung beetles and ‘The Wolf Man’, somewhere on the wrong side of Vegas. Perversely, he starts by renaming all of the star signs to remove our preconceptions, and from there it’s a wild guess as to where his discourses will lead.

I can’t think of anyone else quite like him, and even when his theories and connections make no sense they’re entertaining enough to keep you reading. No wonder Strange Attractor Press, no strangers to the esoteric themselves, keep publishing him.

Watson’s Apology by Beryl Bainbridge

Long before Kate Summerskill was rewriting her excellent true Victorian crime stories, Bainbridge produced this volume (her least known book) about a middle-aged curate, a dowdy penniless spinster and a crime that caused a sensation. What makes it so compelling is its sense of how mysterious and unknowable human nature can be. The book takes place over forty years among Dublin’s shabbily genteel, and captures life on the edge of penury for the protagonists.

As always with the still-underrated Bainbridge, the prose has an inner tension and is so devoid of sentiment that some readers will be made uncomfortable. The air of sadness that always seemed to surround this remarkable author is a perfect match for the mid-Victorian subject matter. She never breaks hearts for effect but through the clear-eyed honesty with which she studies people.

The Films of Mads Mikkelsen

Variety, ever the blunt voice of PT Barnum, called the Danish actor ‘a reliable character actor with an intriguing mug’. But lockdown has forced upon us an examination of things we took for granted before, and one of them, it seems, is Mads.

In the Oscar-winner ‘Another Round’, four failing teachers conduct an experiment with alcohol in a bittersweet comedy that utilises Mads’ past career as a ballet dancer at its climax. I realised I’d been following this intense actor’s films for years because his choices hardly ever let you down. I first saw him in Nicholas Winding Refn’s sweat-inducing ‘Pusher’ trilogy, then as a vicar teaching a Neo-Nazi to bake pies in ‘Adam’s Apple’ and in the true story of Danish resistance fighters, ‘Flame and Citron’. But it was by playing a wrongly accused teacher in ‘The Hunt’ that lifted his career further, when he won Best Actor at Cannes.

By this time Mads was popping up all over the place, in a Hannibal Lector TV series, as the villain in ‘Casino Royal’ and in one of the best Star Wars films, ‘Rogue One’. But he also appeared with regulars who played misfits, in ‘Men and Hens’, a film described as ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ meets ‘The Three Stooges’, in which Mads finds he’s one of four cloned brothers, and in the brilliant ‘Riders of Justice’. In this 2021 film a group of argumentative data geeks set out to prove that murder has been committed. It says a lot that in Europe it’s regarded as a comedy but in the US it’s a drama.

The Velvet Mafia by Daryl W Bullock

In the 50s and 60s, in the build-up to Wolfenden’s report on the decriminalisation of homosexuality, a group of powerful gay men found themselves reinventing pop culture in London. They included the Beatles manager Brian Epstein, the Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood, record producers, songwriters and directors. 

More than simply showing how they rose to fame, the author sets events in the context of changing society in London and shows how people in power were forced to negotiate their way through a minefield of sexual politics, manipulating public images to accord with changing tastes. 

When Wolfenden was developing his report, the government was so concerned that the secretaries typing it up might be corrupted that they adopted code words to replace ‘homosexual’ and ‘prostitute’ with ‘Huntley’ and ‘Palmers’, because Wolfenden had grown up near the Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory – how very English.


13 comments on “Uncultured 1: What’s On My Cult Radar”

  1. Roger says:

    Wolfenden’s task was further complicated by the fact that his own son was ostentatiously gay.
    Another of Laurent Binet’s novels, The 7th Function of Language, re-imagines the death of Barthes in an “accident” as a murder, with a no-nonsense police detective investigating.

  2. John+Griffin says:

    I once worked with Martina Wolfenden (Jeremy’s spouse/beard) in London 1974, a haunted beautiful woman.

  3. Helen+Martin says:

    I am awaiting HHhH from our library. Your recommendations don’t fail me. The Nazi stories have been a not so shadowy presence all my life and I remind myself of them every once in a while. There was a time in the ’70s when young men took on Nazi-like personas and it nearly drove me mad. Fortunately the intelligent ones dropped it fairly quickly.

  4. Peter+Dixon says:

    Huntley and Palmers! Love it; was there a Peak Freans and a Bath Oliver involved somewhere? I dread to think of the delights of a custard cream, or a sneaky Garibaldi. A young lady of my acquaintance explained to me the modern usage of a ‘Cherry Bakewell’ which I can’t possibly describe on this site.

  5. Martin+Tolley says:

    Peter, in your litany of suggestive biscuits you forgot the Hobnob and the Ginger Nut. But I reckon neither can hold a candle to the jammy dodger.
    Leaving now…

  6. Andrew+Holme says:

    Being of a monarchist nature, I used to love a Royal Scot back in the day.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Being a bit of a train spod, I was fond of a Royal Scot back in the day. Useless for dunking, as it weighed many tons, and tended to smash all the tea things. That’s a mistake I’ll not be making again. You live and learn.

  8. Paul C says:

    Thanks – I’ll try the Beryl Bainbridge and the Binet. A cultish new book I’m enjoying is ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ by Mark O’Connell : non-fiction visits to people expecting the world to end soon and preparing to survive. Very funny and
    scary too.

  9. Peter+T says:

    As a coeliac, I’m not allowed biscuits, apart from gluten free ones that resemble a 50-50 sand-sugar mix. After reading Peter Dixon’s discussion, I may be fortunate.

  10. Brooke says:

    Mr. Fowler, are you familiar with this blog? Covering some topics you’ve discussed here (or tired to, given how we wander about…case in point me) https://countercraft.substack.com/p/novels-and-novellas-and-tomes-oh

  11. Derek says:

    Ironically the ‘attempted’ assassination of Heydrich ( one of the main architects of the ‘final solution’) by the two czech exiles was successful but only thanks to the luxury of Mercedes Benz.
    The hastily thrown grenade that wounded Heydrich only proved fatal because leather seats of his staff car were shredded into his wounds and became infected.

  12. Helen+Martin says:

    Derek: regardless their aim was achieved. What came after was both to be expected and tragic.

  13. Tim+Lees says:

    Bainbridge was an extraordinary writer, quite unique. Interesting that Stephen King considered her a horror writer, but the horror is in the peculiar misjudgements and failures of connection among her characters. “Harriet Said” and “The Bottle Factory Outing” are, for me, two stand-out works of hers.

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