BOOK REVIEW: The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death, by Richard Holloway

Richard Holloway writes in The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death that all of us are guaranteed citizenship in ‘the great democracy of the dead.’ A typically witty and concise way of summarising human fate.

Holloway’s book is written with his characteristic gentleness of tone, but the themes are demanding and theological. In fact, the great strength of The Last Bus is that its author is able to masterfully distill terrifying and complex philosophical ideas into accessible, enjoyable prose.

A former Episcopalian bishop, and now something of a wistful agnostic, Holloway does not offer any priestly reassurances. His manner is more that of the Scottish headmaster you never had. A friendly but admonishing voice, urging us to face and accept the unknown. This may be a negative to readers hoping for self-help-style consolation. Holloway is artful and humane, but whatever hope there is in this book is to be found in strategies of acceptance, rather than of transcendence.

Early in the book, Holloway recalls visiting Kelham Hall in England, where he trained for the Episcopal ministry when he was still a boy. He finds this former haven of Christian contemplation converted into a luxury hotel, and the domed chapel hosting a colourful, Asian wedding. The austere beauty of his beloved church is now the home of a modern, multicultural union. Holloway is melancholy about the loss of his teenage memories in such a dramatic change, but insists that it also allows him to let go of it. Change can be wrenching, but without change, we would be left clinging to memories, stuck in moments that are now abstractions.

This introduces a theme which runs through all of Holloway’s meditations in the book. It is our clinging to experience that causes us pain. Time brings death and loss, but it also brings renewal, freedom and relief. If we cannot let go of what came before, we condemn ourselves to imprisonment in the past. The sense of nostalgia brings with it the heartbreak of disappointment. We are confronted with the dreams and hopes that never came to pass. But for Holloway, stark shifts such as that of a seminary becoming a luxury hotel can force us to release those disappointments, and to move on unburdened.

Holloway identifies himself with St. Peter, the apostle who began as a blustering and boastful defender of Christ but ended up betraying Jesus three times over when he was arrested. Holloway’s discussion of this biblical story centres around Peter The Penitent by Guercico (1639), which hangs in the Scottish National Gallery. Our image of ourselves is very rarely what manifests itself when we face the moment of truth, when our values are tested and our character is stripped of its masks. Like St. Peter, we are likely to burst into tears when we confront the horrible facts of our weaknesses, and the lies we have told ourselves about ourselves.

In the moment of betrayal, Christ looked upon Peter as the bible teaches he looks upon everyone, with compassion and pity. Jesus being human as well God, knows the self-deceits of the human heart. When Peter sees Jesus look at him with warmth and understanding, the apostle is thrown into shame and depression. Only when Jesus reappears after his resurrection and offers Peter a chance to atone, is he able to release himself from suffering.

Holloway seems to see the story of St. Peter as a way of viewing his own folly. It helps him confront the self-aggrandisement of his religious years, and to forgive himself for not living up to the self-image of the wise philosopher-scholar. The story also sheds light on the nature of forgiveness itself. We cannot undo the past. Peter cannot return to the image of himself as the fierce warrior of Christ. But Jesus’s pity gives him an opening to release the shame, and to move onwards in life with a renewed, more mature spiritual mission.

Quoting St. Paul in Romans, this leads Holloway to meditate upon the concept of ‘predestination’. We are sinners. We are weak in the heart and mind. We chose the very things we don’t want. But as Paul says, God is in charge and law is good. So in some sense even our sinfulness is part of God’s plan. We are who we are, warts and all, because God wills it that way. Our lives then, are predetermined. Though the passage from Romans has no definitive interpretation, its mystery would be the very faultline that fractured the church during the Reformation. Anyone interested in the minutiae of this theological controversy, will be impressed with how Holloway handles it here. He not only explains it in swift, approachable prose, but he manages to apply it to the everyday challenges of the human condition.

In acceptance of our sinful nature, we find the compassion necessary to forgive ourselves. We see that though we are responsible for our failures, they are also the product of our environments, the pressures of circumstance and countless forces acting upon our conscience. We may never be able to undo the damage done by our shortcomings, but we can learn from them if we are prepared to face the truth about who we are, without the posturing of narcissistic masks. Once we accept that we are not perfect, our imperfections cease to haunt us.

Holloway’s discussion of predestination marries well with his reflections on free will, earlier in the book. Again, a complex and persistent philosophical puzzle is tackled with a lightness of touch. To Holloway, free will is defined as the sense that we could have chosen differently, that we were somehow in charge. And it is a foundational notion to our sense of justice and free society.

But Holloway insists that our sense of control over our lives is at least partially a convenient illusion. Instead of being the supreme auteurs of lives, the truth is we are more like craftsmen. He cites a friend’s preferred metaphor, that our lives like woven cloth. The thread is inherited, the loom is time, and the pattern is often surprisingly complex. It manifests itself as we merely sit and work the mechanical process of our lives. We play a part, but there are many other forces that we can’t control, which will affect the outcome.

More examples can be found of Holloway’s ability to hit the sweet spot when distilling difficult problems into accessible prose. ‘Being dead is beyond or past experience. But dying isn’t.’ ‘The mind is its own place and does its own thing.’ Or, with a subtle wryness: fear of death is ‘an entirely ecumenical emotion.’

Holloway describes himself as having a ‘romantic temperament’, but he’s critical of this fact. As a child he dreamed of being a cowboy, escaping the central Scotland village he grew up in and discovering his great mission. This desire for new experiences, he says, stopped him from truly relishing the beauty of the world around him. Death, says Holloway, forces us out of this kind of romantic preoccupation. And if we cling to our ideals, we can do ourselves a disservice in failing to prepare for our end.

This somewhat jars with an earlier section of the book, where Holloway seems to affirm the power of beauty, the romance of ritual and creative sacrament in religion, in helping us to face death with defiance. In this discussion, Holloway says it’s through our songs and our imagination that we can find the only conquest of death available to us. Life after death, the notion of salvation, the promise of a messiah – all of these are ways of the soul remaining heroic in the face of our common fate. Through them we create meaning and beauty in our lives. ‘Death gets us all in the end, but it can never kill our songs. And that is they only victory they give us.’

So it seems odd that Holloway is so damning about the romantic instinct in a later chapter. Using John Wayne as an example, he seems to relish the difference between the projected image of cultural heroes and the ‘quotidian’ reality of their lives. Wayne appeared to be the paragon of courage and masculine resolve on screen, but he ‘finessed’ his way out of service during the Second World War. Only when the Duke was on his deathbed did he actually become heroic in real life. Certainly we must be cautious when revering images rather than genuine human character, but none of this condemns romance and the idealistic longing intrinsic in the human soul. Surely it possible to be both romantic and idealistic, while also accepting the facts of existence? The odes of Keats would stand in testament to that possibility.

That said, there is wisdom in the idea that if we spend our lives trying to escape who we really are, we risk losing the chance to see grace and beauty in death. The very shortness of life means we cannot afford to kid ourselves. Only by making friends with ‘the stranger’ that is our true self, can we hope to meet our end with strength, acceptance and poise.

Acceptance of our fragility does not imply capitulation to death. Rather it is a chance to show virtue in the face of that which we can’t control. As Holloway deftly puts it, ‘We didn’t get to deal our hand in life. We only got to play the cards we were given. And how we play the last card can win the game.’

The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death is published by Canongate and can be purchased here

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The films of Peter Nestler

Last week, Close Up cinema in east London showed a retrospective of the German filmmaker Peter Nestler.

Nestler’s films are beyond documentaries. He is not engaging in mere journalism. Nor are these films essays, whereby Nestler expounds on working class life or the ravishing changes of industry.

Rather, Nestler is a kind of poet connecting the dots between environmental shifts and the resilience of human beings. Whether it is the innocence of schoolchildren, or the contemplative suffering of community elders, Nestler presents us with the enduring joy of the human heart.

Dike Sluice tells the story of a seaside village undergoing the changes brought by post war development, but from the point of the small river itself.

Through the slightly ironic monologue of the sluice, Nestler captures the fragility of man’s place in the wider ecology, and without preaching he emphasises the loss of that place through technological change. The film shows us what is being lost, without descending into polemic of Jeremiad.

In Up The Danube, we return to the subject of rivers. This time the beauty of the east European landscape is shown to us in grand, wide shots as a narrator tells the stories of uprisings, peasant revolts and battles that have shaped the personalities of culture.

Ordinary working people are seen going about their daily tasks, working the river as they have done for centuries. Children play on the banks. Castles and fortresses rise up from the lush greenery and pierce the grey, historic skies.

What results is a testament to the many thousands of years of suffering and bloodshed that have formed the beauty and peacefulness of the European countryside. Nature and culture don’t just exist side by side, they create each other and augment each other. Where there is beauty, there has been death. Where there is change, there is the durable consciousness of history.

A Working Men’s Club In Sheffield was the masterpiece of this programme. Shot in and around the Dial Working Men’s Club in Sheffield in 1965, we are transported to way of life that was already vanishing at the time of filming. This is a moving and at times breathtaking account of the vibrant community that surrounded the dark metalworks and factories of Sheffield before the collapse of British industry.

Nestler immerses himself in this community, resisting any temptation to sentimentalise working class life, or to rage about the injustices of the grinding toil at the heart of this way of life. As always, Nestler is interested in the personalities that create the world he is filming, whether it is the personality of the city or the people that populate it.

There is humour and joy, pathos and melancholy, but all presented in an intimate way, never distancing us from the subjects of the film, but bringing us closer to them, and to ourselves.

For all the hardship and graft, the lives of these talented and forgotten people were untouched by the homogeneity and toxic noise of brand coffee shops and pedestrian high streets. This is an England of a calm, dutiful work ethic, a witty, unselfconscious endurance.

Local people take to the stage throughout the film, each displaying their own talents for song or performance. The level of ability it striking. One man, perhaps a recent immigrant to England, has a voice like Frank Sinatra. A young couple sings a Bob Dylan song with aching promise, captured in the glamour of a 16mm glow. A pedal steel guitar player plays daring and rambunctious lines of music with the steady glance of a butcher cutting his daily meat.

All of this is spliced with shots of the dark furnaces of metal factories, or the smokey backstreets of city slums. The flower of the human soul bursts open wide despite the blackening creep of industrial life.

Instead of sitting round a TV showing Pop Idol, people lived their lives as actors upon a self-made stage. Obscured by class and back-breaking work, they nevertheless were able to walk with dignity. Today, working life is luxurious and dull in comparison, but one wonders whether we have the same room for personal flourishing and self-respect that people did 50 years ago.

Nestler achieves a masterful voice through remaining responsive to his subjects. He does not impose an auteuristic vision upon the world he strives to capture, but instead listens to that world, searching for the stories want to be told.

This is a director who makes films in the same way Woody Guthrie wrote songs. There is a humility and simplicity in his technique, a sense of service towards the human spirit for its own sake.

 

Strange Days: Revisiting a classic Doors album

 Edinburgh in mid-Autumn can be a cold, lonely and haunted place. The sky is blanketed by a faceless mask of cloud, and at night the orange streetlights reflect a dreary turmeric pall across the city.

And it’s windy. Irritating winds, that muffle your conversations and your thoughts. Winds that cocoon you in a morose isolation.

On Saturdays at my boarding school we were allowed ‘uptown’ for a couple of hours in the afternoons, and the typical day out would be a trip to HMV on Prince’s Street then a milkshake at MacDonalds, and then run home for a dinner of dry, chewy beef and roast potatoes. Maybe you could steal a brief conversation from a pretty girl if you sat at the right table.

All the while the breezy darkness was closing in on you. Time running out, and your rationing of privacy and freedom running out too.

On one of these horrible windy days, I walked up Cockburn Street to a newly opened Fopp. Having recently discovered The Doors, I spotted a cassette of Strange Days, which I immediately bought for £4.99.

I wish I still had this tape. In the coming weeks, huddled in my icy room with bear walls and linoleum flooring, I’d listen to Strange Days over and over again. The barren, banshee-like screaming organ lines were perfect for the strained whine of cassette, which added to the discomforting and exhilarating circus-gothic mood of the album.

September 1967, when this album was originally released, would have been the anxious comedown after the naked highs of the Summer of Love. The choice of title and the first track being all the more fascinating as a result.

Strange Days. An echoing Manzarek organ gives way to chiming guitar and a rolling jazz-march on the tom-toms. ‘Strange Days have tracked us down…’ This is not the manifesto of liberation, this is not a flower power declaration of intent. Morrison’s voice glides across the beat like a melted liquorice narcotic.

‘The hostess is grinning, her guests sleep from sinning.’ Free love anyone?

You have the feeling of falling into a death-trance, the clouded hangover vision of backstreet whorehouses and doss rooms, the lantern glow of chinatown. The word ‘strange’ repeats through the lyrics like a dance motif, a lyrical melody, and Morrison draws out is drawling vowels like he’s spinning silk.

The deep cuts are the best cuts. Love Me Two Times is on every good compilation, but Unhappy Girl is a lost masterpiece. Along with Lost Little Girl, this song paints a picture of broken innocence, urban corruptions chiselling away at the mind of the American prom queen.

Unlike Dylan’s Miss Lonely, however, Morrison’s lost girls are a little more knowing, a little more complicit in their own intoxicating demise. For Morrison, losing one’s virgin soul is not the stuff immortal tragedy, it doesn’t symbolise the unthinking hubris of a generation. It’s simply the seductive self-destruction of freedom. It’s human nature. There’s no shock of surprise realisation.

Perhaps the strange days are the days of aftermath, when the sexual revolution turns to the terror of unshackled desires and liberation becomes licentious hunger. ‘You’re charged in a prison of your own device.’

Strange Days is an album that proves psychedelia doesn’t need to be mass, sprawling guitar jams and self-indulgent riffs and muso compositions for the initiated. Strange Days is mostly made up of tight, well-written and crafted pop songs, with suggestive, imaginative lyrical flourishes and dynamic mixes of tenderness and explosiveness.

Whatever you feel about The Doors, they knew how to lay down a song. Their albums are always crafted, thematically complete and integrated works of art.

Strange Days is a kind of drug album – of its time, but the antithesis of the zeitgeist of that moment. The psychedelia exists in the open spaces of the chilly soundscapes, as well as in the open-ended lyrics, which point to unseen torment rather than laboured dread.

Minimalism is not a word associated with The Doors, but in terms of how the actual compositions relate to the overwhelming effect of the songs, it’s absolutely appropriate. The organ riffs are manic but never crammed with notes. The drumming is thunderous but equally capable of a calm, massaging accompaniment.

Krieger’s guitar takes flight when the moment calls for it, and yet he never takes centre-stage. The solos are more like country or early rock and roll solos than they are hard cock rock eruptions of sound.

Morrison’s vocal style here is studied and restrained. He is experimenting with mic technique, adopting a lullaby intimacy as a counterpoint to his trademark booze-soaked yawp.

Horse Latitudes is a poem about death, and again, human nature. The performance here still creeps me out, and acts as a kind of avant garde balance to the streamlined pop songwriting of the first side of the record.

Two back to back hidden beauties, My Eyes Have Seen You and Can’t See Your Face, are Morrison at his most uncomfortably voyeuristic.

My Eyes is a short precursor to LA Woman. It’s a song of lust and sex – go figure. But whereas The Stones’ Straycat Blues is a one-dimension and lovable testament to groupie orgies and sixties free love, Morrison’s imagery creates a cinematic noir around the urban, transactional awkwardness of sexual encounters.

‘Free from disguise,
Gazing on a city under television skies,
Television skies, television skies

Let them photograph your your soul,
Memorize your alleys on an endless roll,
endless roll, endless roll’

The city and the female form are deliberately and subtly conflated. As in LA Woman, the girl’s body is a fractured landscape, an untravelled world to be captured in time, in the ripeness of the dying moment. Imprisoned in the polished gloss of celluloid. 

‘Carnival dogs consume the lines’ – no idea what that means but it is wonderfully predatory and manic. Can’t See Your Face is a paranoid song, but the delivery from Morrison is liquid elegance, allowing his voice to easefully trip off the consonants with relish, despite the almost schizophrenic nature of the words – ‘I can’t seem to find the right lie’.

Both these songs revolve around love as a doomed photographic effort, the futility of seeking to apprehend the shadowed soul of another. As a result, both these masterpieces are songs about loneliness and despair, just as much as the more overt People Are Strange is.

Legend has it that The Doors recorded the music for When The Music’s Over without Morrison, the singer being somewhere on the Sunset Strip boozing and fucking.

The lyrical improvisations in the band’s epic rock crescendos like The End and Music’s Over, were made on top of crafted spaces left by the band. They weren’t winging it, in other words.

Densmore’s drumming in particular evolves itself around Morrison’s careful, cat-like phrases. The band know when to pull back, and to push behind Morrison when the eruptions of angst come.

A great example of this is the way Densmore’s rolls curl round Morrison’s delivery at:

‘The face in the mirror won’t stop
The girl in the window won’t drop
A feast of friends alive she cried,
Waiting for me outside’

‘I want to hear the scream of the butterfly’ is said to be a reference to Chang Tzu’s poem about a butterfly, the sound being the inaudible sound of the soul beyond the veil of death. Or something like that. In any case, that’s probably what Morrison was getting at.

As life-affirming as this tour de force is, Morrison’s Birth Of Tragedy philosophy always teetered on the edge of nihilism. At times it seemed the best he could hope for was one final burst of poetic thrills before death came stalking.

However, there’s something overtly Romantic – in the Keats/Shelley sense of the word, about Music’s Over. Life is not worth living without art. Without beauty and self-expression, we are reduced to boredom and selfishness. Our vision is impaired without the primal and ecstatic growth offered to us by the ritual of rock n roll.

Without this song there would be no Patti Smith’s Horses. The poetic improv about raping the earth, points to the idea that it is the communal ceremony of togetherness and erotic connection afforded us by rock n roll, which frees us from our own narcissism.

Throughout Morrison’s poems and lyrics there is this homage to the primal and primeval. Music’s Over, like The End, reaches an orgasm before sinking back into a melodic coda. But unlike The End, there is an uplifting sense of possibility; we’ve undergone a ritualised death, a bacchanalian form of worship that helps us expunge our inwardness and exorcise hopelessness.

In that dim, lifeless study over twenty years ago, I think I was captivated by this album because of its atmosphere. Paranoia and aloneness are woven delicately with strains of fragile melodies and bluesy vocal phrasings. Pain and joy wrapped together like lovers in a tantric statue.

I was also enthralled by Morrison’s observational writing, the way he could capture a soul, photograph it, with only a few lyric strokes.

These days, it’s not as cool to like The Doors as it is to profess love of The Velvet Underground. However, Strange Days is the best counterexample to the tired and typical charges thrown at Morrison and this band. There is nothing overblown, nothing extraneous. You’ll find no extra fat on the cinematic bones of these songs.

What stops The Doors, and this album, being more popular is the fact that despite all the noir and the sexual paranoia, the songwriting is optimistic and poetically earnest.

Nothing could be more uncool these days, of course. And yet nothing could be more needed than the poise, subtlety and life-affirming craft exhibited by The Doors on Strange Days.

Strange Days will be reissued on an anniversary double disc remaster on November 17. Pre-order your copy here

 

NETFLIX REVIEW: Aquarius, by Kleber Mendonça Filho

Aquarius, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, tells the story of a middle aged woman defying the inevitable dominion of real estate developers who plan to buy up and rebuild on the site of her family apartment.

Clara, played by Sônia Braga, is a sensitive but stubborn former music critic (with a love of old Queen records), who has survived cancer and insists on clinging to her values in spite of the vulnerabilities of old age and the changing world around her.

The film opens with a flashback to 1980, with a young Clara played by Barbara Colen. Though it’s only a small appearance, Colen’s subtle performance sets up the character’s ambivalence and passion, conveying an ironic and reflective strength which forms the spiritual backbone of the film.

Beautiful, insightful, but a woman of few words, we meet Clara after she has just recovered from cancer, plunged back into family life and celebrating the birthday of an honoured elder stateswoman of the family, Aunt Lucia.

In the present day, the reflective and introspective beauty of Clara is still there, but she is now a battle tested elder herself.

Clara gets a knock one day from a building developer and his slick, smiling grandson Diego, who have an offer she can’t refuse. They want to buy up her apartment block to put new high rises on the beach front.

With the love of family already established as key to Clara’s character we are unsurprised by her wry refusal of the offer. She is nobody’s fool, and she sees through Diego’s friendly manner.

The apartment block is called ‘Aquarius’ and Diego tells her that the new project is called ‘New Aquarius’ out of respect for the history and sentimental value of the area. This only serves to disgust Clara more.

The camera work in the film moves from pristine, careful frame shots of Clara to a documentary style steady-cam. The shift from luxurious beauty to claustrophobic and intense, jarring close-ups, help tell the imagistic story of a woman whose hard-fought-for freedom and peace are being disturbed by anxious memories, as well as a valueless world closing in on her.

Another key scene sees Clara being interviewed by young journalists, keen to know what this veteran music critic thinks of the age of MP3s and digital downloads. She is not against them, she insists, but pulls out an old vinyl copy of John Lennon’s Double Fantasy album. Clara tells the story of her buying it, and how she found in the sleeve a cutting of an interview with Lennon published just weeks before his assassination.

The story’s significance is lost on the two writers. So, does she or doesn’t she like MP3s?

There is a simplistic interpretation of this film, that it is about the unseen significance of sentimental value, and Clara is someone clinging to the beauty of the past in the face of change. In fact, the film is about how meaning develops through grief as well as joy, and how the values of real estate development and digital technology are robbing us of this truth in the name of progress. The things that make us who we are, are under threat.

Clara is no reactionary. She smokes weed, drinks wine late into the night and even hires herself a gigolo. She commands her environment with a Queen-like beauty and grace, even after losing a breast to cancer and being haunted by the mistakes and sorrows of her youth.

The virtues of Clara’s character seem to be what the filmmakers want to celebrate. It is people like her, who see the meaning in tiny events, who see the ineffable rush of spiritual power in the soft lyric of a folk song or the crashing breath of the ocean, that are the best bulwark against corporate corruption and the ideology of progress.

Everyone tells her to move. Her family, her disgruntled former neighbours, her concerned friends. And still, Clara’s quiet but raging defiance never gives way. Those that love her worry she is putting herself in danger, causing unnecessary harm to her peace of mind.

The unspoken truth that we as the audience feel in common with Clara, but which no one else in the film seems to truly see, is that this stand against corporate bullying and the arrogant crawl of concretisation, is about far more than her own personal peace of mind. It’s about salvaging the fragile things that make life worth living.

Memories, kisses, old photographs, the winds upon the sea, the laughter of young children and the solidarity of love – these are the things that are eroded by the sinister passive aggressive creep of empty, modern morals.

Maeve Jinkings plays Clara’s hot-headed daughter Ana Paula. Ana Paula is the only one prepared to stand up to Clara and really push the idea of moving out. She feels this is just another stubborn and selfish project of her mother, and while the boys cower in silence she confronts her at a family get-together.

What follows is one of the most honest and emotionally raw scenes of family life in cinema. Ana Paula and Clara butt heads, harsh words are spoken on both sides and we learn that Clara’s past life is one of perpetrator as well as victim.

How can you stay in this old house, asks Ana Paula. Clara’s answer could be the most significant in the whole film.

‘If you like it, it’s “vintage”. If you don’t like it, it’s “old”.’

Clara continues to fight for her right to stay in her treasured home. The film’s consummation comes once Clara finds that Diego and his PR bullies have planted termites in the apartments upstairs. Clara moves into battle and the film’s denouement is as funny as it is satisfying.

This is a film about meaning, and what threatens the meaningful treasures in our life. It’s not just a film about faceless corporations and the defiance of ordinary people. There are no stereotypes here.

Clara is not perfect, and Diego is not a Donald Trump figure. Rather than being a fight between a normal woman and Gordon Geko-style bullies, this is a battle between human culture and public relations, between the slow progress of the soul, and quick, impatient phoney-progress of modern values.

Aquarius is available now on Netflix

 

NETFLIX REVIEW: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965)

From the opening, dreary and drizzled scene at Checkpoint Charlie, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold creates an atmosphere of muffled, bureaucratic routine. Like all wars, the Cold War was characterised by constant waiting, a meandering sense of paranoia and anticipation, before the inevitability of cruelty and death.

The first time we see Richard Burton, we don’t confront the the Hamlet-like handsomeness of his presence, but rather his back, a rain-stained trench coat of a man in a lifeless booth, pouring whisky into his coffee. The almost contemplative, lingering shots of Burton’s concentrated gaze are then punctuated violently by a spy being gunned down after trying to sneak through the checkpoint.

Burton’s character Alec Leamas is everything James Bond is not. He manifests the strained brow and air of degeneration of the post-war British man, a rotting soul kept alive by a residual, near-forgotten sense of duty. His job is to lie and charm his way through the underworld, to forget himself, to be become a nihilistic foot-soldier, to kill, drink, abuse and deceive, all for Queen and country.

The scenes in the purlieus of Hammersmith and South Kensington are beautifully dreich, the landscape of dusty libraries, secretary’s offices, cold bus stops, dull and silent grocer shops and the Labour Exchange. Burton scowls and hunches his way through this atmosphere with a tensed, terrified glare in his eyes, the ragged emotions of a man clinging to himself.

The spies who surround Leamas are equally strained and disillusioned. ‘Control’, played with diffident subtlety by Cyril Cusack, is not the M of Ian Fleming, a far cry from the clipped, decisive, self-assured British Colonel type. Rather, you get a sense right away of a glorified clerk, a functionary, someone who is not really in control at all, but equally as beholden to murky, unspoken agendas as Leamas.

This is a theme through the whole chain of espionage. As Burton’s character travels further into the bowels of Communist Europe, he meets a string of sophisticated-seeming spies and goons, each of which turns out to be another lost soul, patronised by the next, higher-ranking link in the chain of command. The fetish of rank, and the pettiness of superiority is a subtext throughout the plot.

As a love interest, Nan Perry, played by Claire Bloom, is the only character who seems to capture anything of the idealism of the sixties. This reveals the fact that the nostalgia we have for the cultural revolution suffers from an amnesia about the boredom and ennui most people seemed to feel in that time. The Britain we see in this 1960s classic is more 1950s-kitchen-sink than the swinging London of Antonioni’s Blow Up, which came out only a year or so later.

Perry’s character is brimming with intelligence and hope, and a worldly sexuality brought to the role by Bloom saves it from sentimentality. Bloom’s kindness and womanly affection for Burton are indeed the result of an aloneness and desire for emotional adventure, and the fact that Leamas is equally drawn to her reveals the remaining streak of humanity in Burton’s otherwise tormented and condemned cynicism.

Oskar Werner plays Fiedler, in some sense Leamas’s nemesis. Werner plays what could have been a very routine and stereotype Communist flunky, as a deeply human, confused, determined and vulnerable man. He is ambitious and cruel, but Werner gives the character a positive charge, not loveable, but accessible and sympathetic. You can tell that affection for Leamas and the sense of duty that drives his own machinations are both real and rooted in a sincere vision of life. Fiedler, is far more than a product of his ideology or social conditioning.

The film is a brilliant spy movie, and a captivating example of British noir. But it is also a spiritual portrait of a society hollowed out by the collapse of empire and the punishing consequences of war. The result is a panorama of thwarted, depressed individuals who struggle to navigate a grey, prosaic Britain stripped of pretension and romance.