Pakistan's dreamer

Imran Khan's aspiration to build Oxbridge in Pakistan is seen by his detractors as mere idealism in

An Oxford University in Pakistan? In a country described as potentially the “most dangerous place on Earth” by Newsweek? You'd have to be kidding, right? Well apparently not according to Pakistan cricket legend turned maverick politician, Imran Khan.

"I want a proper university like Oxford and Cambridge," says the determined Khan, himself an Oxford graduate. "So I have this beautiful place, miles and miles of land on a lake and mountains behind." He is talking about his dream project, Namal College, located in Pakistan ’s Mianwali district.

The newly inaugurated institute has already been granted the status of an Associate College by the University of Bradford, of which Khan is, incidentally, the chancellor. “With Bradford University we are setting up a Technical College to begin with,” he says. “And then a full blown university.”

But these days Pakistan seems to have best captured the world media's imagination as the land of the Taleban and Osama bin Laden’s last hiding place. However, it could be argued that it is education - or rather the lack of it - which is the real problem Pakistanis face. Remember this is the sixth most populous country in the world and, remarkably, the literacy rate for its 160 million people still hovers at around 50 per cent.

Arguably a very strong link exists between education and the poor electoral choices that haunt the Pakistani people. For this is one corner of the globe where the centuries old curse of feudalism is still alive and kicking, and the continuation of the Bhutto dynasty in the absence of any credible leadership is living testimony to this.

“The only private sector university in the rural areas,” says the enthusiastic Khan about his ultra-ambitious Namal project. “And the main thing is that majority [of students] will be from scholarships. We will attract bright students. Our agents will go and find them and bring them to the university.”

In today's Pakistan it is an established, well-honed practise for parents to send their children abroad for higher education, almost a rite of passage if you will. But this applies only if one hails from that tiny minority that can afford such luxury.

As Khan explains it: "Pakistan is an elitist economy. Everything is catered for a tiny elite.” Urdu is the national language, but in private “elitist” schools it is English that is given preference. Urdu medium schools are reserved for the poor and the struggling middle classes. Indeed the late Benazir had been the object of much derision in the local press for the state of her Urdu.

“You can’t have just English medium for the elite and for the majority... the whole school structure is collapsed,” says Khan. Ghost school are another phenomenon. These are supposedly state-run schools but which in reality exist only on paper.

So how does one tackle such dire inequalities of wealth and education? “The solution is direct taxation,” claims Khan. “Also subsidising the small farmer of Pakistan when 70 per cent of the people live in the rural areas.”

For a politician who is seen on Pakistani television stations debating so vociferously for democracy and the restoration of the judiciary, Imran was a quiet, albeit, determined child. “I was shy,” he recalls. “But I knew exactly what I wanted. I was undetered by setbacks and failures. I used to learn from my mistakes and keep going. When I went out collecting money and when I started in politics I had to change myself [by becoming less shy].”

The money collection Khan does for the cancer hospital he built in 1994 is said to provide over 70 per cent of its patients with free treatment facilities. He dedicated the hospital to the memory of his mother, Shaukat Khanum, who died from cancer and after whom the hospital is named. "We are working on a second cancer hospital in Karachi," he says.

What Khan is doing, through his Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital and Namal College, should actually be the job of the government. But this is a country where the idea of state hand-outs are very much an alien concept.

With the new administration in place - a shaky coalition of parties that appears to be in a constant battle to survive - it seems to be left up to Khan and others like him to run mini welfare-states within Pakistan.

“I think people like us who have been given so much by our country have a responsibility,” he says. “The only way to fight for a change is through politics, there is no other way.”

So how has Khan been rewarded for his efforts? Back in the 90s he was accused of being party to a Jewish conspiracy by his critics for marrying Jemima Goldsmith. In more recent times Musharraf is said to have branded him a terrorist without a beard. And last year Khan was temporarily arrested following the infamous imposition of emergency rule as the country's judiciary got the sack.

Asked on who he counts among his supporters he is silent for a moment. "The youth, women" he says finally.

Khan is a frequent visitor to the UK, home to his now ex-wife Jemima and their two sons.

And judging from the attendance at the talks he delivers in London, he enjoys considerable support, or at least sympathy, from many British Pakistanis. As one woman last year confided during a demonstration outside Downing Street to protest Musharraf's emergency rule: "If we do not support Khan he is going to be finished."

Suggestions that Imran Khan's popularity is on the rise are, however, untested. He boycotted elections earlier in the year in what some would say was a missed opportunity to prove he does hold electoral clout.

But Khan insisted he would not take part in a vote until the restoration of the country's judiciary - part of tendency to take a moralistic stance which has been both to his detriment and his unique selling point.

Opponents assert Khan is a impractical man. And perhaps building Oxford University in Pakistan will prove his mettle. On the other hand perhaps it's just a step too far in a country struggling with growing militancy and the threat from Al Qaeda.

But for his young supporters it is Khan's professed principles and idealism that remain a draw. "I am an idealist - the rest, it doesn't matter if we create a utopia."

James Parrott Collection Christophel Alamy
Show Hide image

The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August