Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend

Best of Enemies

A rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

By Matt d'Ancona

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.

A few years back, the young playwright James Graham – fresh from his triumph with This House – asked me to lunch to talk about politics. But before the starters had arrived, it was clear that there was nothing much that I could tell this remarkable writer about the political world that he hadn’t already worked out for himself.
In principle, This House, which opened at the National in 2012, was a ridiculous idea – exploring the complex and often technical parliamentary machinations of the Labour government and Tory opposition between 1974 and 1979. Yet Graham revealed himself to be a theatrical alchemist, turning unpromising lead into dramatic gold.
Since then, he has – in my view, at least – established himself as the leading political playwright of our times, in dramas such as The Angry Brigade (2014), The Vote (2015), Coalition (2015) and, most notably, Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019). 
Now, in Best Of Enemies (Young Vic, 4 December to 22 January, dir. Jeremy Herrin) Graham has turned his attention to the legendary television debates between the conservative polemicist William F. Buckley Jr (David Harewood) and the arch-liberal writer Gore Vidal (Charles Edwards) during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. 
Why return to televised debates that took place more than half a century ago? Part of the answer is that the conventions of 1968 were occasions of historical ferocity, orbited by violence, protests and an atmosphere of dangerous polarisation.
Buckley versus Vidal was the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ of American commentary: the two men loathed one another, and considered themselves to be engaged in an existential battle for the soul of the American republic. Vidal believed in sexual freedom, bringing the Vietnam War to an end, and the responsibility of government to alleviate poverty. Buckley was no less passionately convinced that America was losing its way, as it forgot the saving power of religion, of individualism and of patriotism.
For all their debating society etiquette, these two men absolutely want to destroy one another, and what the other stands for. The needling, insinuation and provocation escalated – until the third day of the Democratic convention, when Vidal finally got Buckley to lose his composure:
Vidal: As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself – failing that, I would only say that we can’t have…
Howard K Smith (moderator): Let’s stop calling names…
Buckley: Now listen, you queer! Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face and you’ll stay plastered!
In those few seconds of mortifying, abusive, gutter television, the modern era of culture wars was born. In the immediate aftermath, nobody, not even the protagonists, could quite believe that such an exchange had been broadcast live on network television. 
What soon became apparent, however, was that the bust-up was not a catastrophe at all. It was an absolute sensation. In a few sentences, two fantastically erudite commentators had gone rogue and invented an entirely new form of television: theatrical, brutal, and divisive by design.
Vidal’s incitement and Buckley’s explosion paved the way for Point Counter Point, Crossfire and countless other adversarial political talk shows. To this day, such programmes present themselves as bringers of light; but it is the heat they generate that ensures their commercial revenues.
While Vidal-Buckley debates were held 38 years before the launch of Twitter, the two men had unwittingly anticipated – and paved the way for – the world of political warfare in 280-character posts.
Buckley believed in conservatism as a national movement that would redeem America. Vidal, author of such great historical fiction as Burr, Lincoln and Empire, styled himself as the ‘biographer’ of the nation. Yet their joint bequest – and how ironic that it should be one that they made together – was to show clever people how to hate each other via mass communication.
To an extent that could scarcely have been predicted in 1968, but that James Graham has identified and dramatised, they were the founding fathers of modern political discourse, the ancestors of today’s digital warriors. Scrolling hectically through limitless screeds of invective, driven apart by algorithm and antipathy, we are all, in our way, the children of Bill and Gore.

C'mon C'mon


C’mon C’mon (3 December, general release)
So used have we become to the pyrotechnic brilliance of Joaquin Phoenix that it is easy to forget how magnificent he is in more understated roles. In Mike Mills’ black-and-white gem, he is Johnny, a New York radio producer, compelled by a family crisis to look after his nine-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). The format of the child subtly teaching the emotionally arrested adult is familiar enough, but Phoenix and Norman breathe fresh life into the old tropes with a remarkable naturalism and emotional candour. A film about family, maturity and the unsought arrival of personal responsibility that should not be missed.


Christmas Poems by Carol Ann Duffy 
During her tenure as Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy wrote 10 annual poems about Christmas, here collected for the first time. In the course of a decade, she whisked her readers from the spectacle of Scrooge’s widow (‘sat googling at her desk’); via the Christmas truce of 1914 (‘the guns were quiet./ The dead lay still in No Man’s Land – Freddie, Franz, Friedrich, Frank.../ The moon, like a medal, hung in the clear, cold sky.’); to ‘Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday’ and Pablo Picasso walking with his dog ‘under the cypress trees’ as ‘the bell of the old chapel guessed at the hour’ on Christmas Eve. The illustrations – by David De Las Heras, Rob Ryan, Lara Hawthorne and others – are beautiful, too, complementing perfectly the range and acuity of Duffy’s poetic imagination. (To hear her discussing her writing, watch back this Tortoise Thinkin from January.)

Christmas Poems Carol Ann Duffy
Remedy Meets Wu-Tang


Remedy Meets Wu-Tang by Remedy
Staten Island-born MC-producer Remedy (aka Reuven Ben Menachem) is the descendant of Holocaust survivors and has long brought the history and tradition of his Jewish roots to bear on his music. In spite of the title of his fourth album, his association with the Wu-Tang Clan stretches back to the platinum-selling Wu-Tang Killa Bees: The Swarm (1998). Produced by Danny Caiazzo and Remedy himself, these 14 tracks boast collaborations with Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck, Method Man, and others. This is unabashed gangsta rap, with few concessions to the mellower subgenres that have followed – and its implacable energy makes this one of the best hip-hop albums of the year.

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That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media

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