Norman Mackenzie: Editor, teacher, writer . . . spy?

Remembering the former NS staffer, who died on 18 June.

At Sussex in the 1960s, the historian Asa Briggs – who is still going strong in his 93rd year – recruited a motley crew of maverick dons. Their brains and personalities secured his new university’s reputation as an interesting place to be.

The art historian Quentin Bell, for example, sealed a lasting connection between Bloomsbury and the university. The publisher Peter Calvocoressi, like Briggs a veteran of Bletchley Park, was recruited to teach international relations. Neither would have mentioned Hut 3 outside Briggs’s office and yet another unorthodox recruit had connections with the security services that few colleagues could have suspected. Norman Mackenzie, the former New Statesman staffer who died on 18 June, no doubt boasted a file in MI5’s archives – but as suspect or agent?

Briggs considered Norman’s 20 years as Kingsley Martin’s assistant editor a suitable apprenticeship for teaching politics. Norman retained close links with the NS and became an authority on the paper’s founders, Beatrice and Sidney Webb. In the great Fabian tradition of marital and intellectual partnerships – the Webbs, the Hammonds, the Coles – he and his first wife, Jeanne, wrote a fascinating group portrait of the worthiest progressives in late-Victorian London. They followed up their biography of H G Wells with a history of the early Fabian Society, after which they began editing three volumes of the Webbs’ letters and four of Beatrice’s diaries.

The Mackenzies took pride in their monumental act of scholarship and praised Norman’s secretary as the one person able to decipher Beatrice Webb’s scrawl. Regrettably, I can’t recall this woman’s name but I can remember that her regular job was supporting the now Professor Mackenzie in his role as director of the School of Education.

Norman oversaw teacher training at Sussex for a decade and his appointment was a shrewd move by Briggs. Sussex operated a model ahead of its time, with postgraduate teacher trainees spending four days a week in school and one back on campus. The director adopted a hands-off approach to all matters vocational, leaving his suitably qualified staff to get on with supervising their students and conducting classroombased research.

Norman’s role, given his long-standing interest in education policy, was to advise the Labour government and, in particular, the then education minister, Shirley Williams. After the Conservatives’ victory in the 1979 general election, his Whitehall days were over and he spent more time in his office. That office was where I had spent much of the previous year working on my doctoral thesis. Norman was extraordinarily generous and supportive as I researched the history of the fledgling NS, mischievously planting ideas (“Go to Kew and see if Clifford Sharp was a spy” – like he was, perhaps?) and allowing me open access to the Webbs’ transcribed correspondence.

He was great company and my one regret is that I was so preoccupied with the paper’s early editors that I didn’t ask more about his own experiences. For example, now that I know that he trained at Osterley Park with George Orwell in late 1940, I wonder how seriously he took Tom Wintringham’s vision of the Home Guard as a revolutionary people’s militia.

At the start of 1980, Norman offered himself as the external examiner for my PhD and it was a sign of the times that nobody suggested a conflict of interest. The night before the viva,my interrogator telephoned to say that the thesis was fine so I should relax and enjoy the day, at the end of which he would provide the celebratory champagne – again, a scenario inconceivable today but a measure of the man.

In the magazine's leader the week after Norman Mackenzie's death, editor Jason Cowley wrote:

Norman Mackenzie, who has died aged 91, joined the New Statesman as assistant editor in 1943, having been recommended to the then editor, Kingsley Martin, by Harold Laski at the LSE. Norman worked on the paper for nearly 20 years before becoming an academic at Sussex University. He helped found the Open University, edited the diaries of Beatrice Webb and was the author of biographies of Charles Dickens and H G Wells. His political journey from the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party to Labour and then the Social Democratic Party was complex and fascinating.

I got to know him only at the end of his life, when he was in poor health and knew he had a few months to live. I found him lucid, witty, acerbic and generous in his advice and guidance. He told me he stopped reading the NS when it embraced what he called the “silly left”. He had recently become a subscriber again: “It’s like coming back to the place after 30 years away to find someone has been polishing the doorknobs.”

Norman lived to read the centenary issue and kindly sent the editorial team a congratulatory card: “Was there ever such a progressive magazine!”

He was a last, cherished link with the old world of Orwell’s London and Kingsley Martin’s NS. His friend the historian Hugh Purcell said: “He died in the morning, having said to Gill [his wife], ‘Death is a swindle if a man cannot have a whisky in his hand.’”

Norman Mackenzie.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories