In Sled we trust

Why the sled is as American as pie

At the heart of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane is a sled ("sledge"?) called "Rosebud", which, we are told, represents the key to unlocking the secret life of the film's reclusive newspaperman. According to Gore Vidal's 1984 article in the New York Review of Books, Rosebud was, in fact, the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst's "pet name" for his paramour Marion Davies's clitoris. Perhaps this explains, in part, why Hearst took so strongly against a film that many believed was a veiled biography about his life.

In February 2006, meanwhile, Disney's dog movie (as opposed to dog-of-a-movie) Eight Below made its debut at the top of the US box office, taking over £14m in its opening weekend. Alongside the likes of the American Pie star Jason Biggs were the canines Max, Maya, Old Jack and Shadow --all of whom took on multiple roles. Among the film's protagonists, an abandoned pack of sled dogs, numbered two mutts named Dewey and Truman, after the 1948 presidential candidates Thomas Dewey and Harry Truman.

Is there something I'm missing about the iconic significance of sleds to Americans? Kane's working title in the RKO lots was, rather bluntly, American. When militant flag-wavers see the burning sled at the end of that film, do they slowly reach for their Smith and Wessons (which they are legally entitled to bear, even at Obama rallies)?

Speaking about gun nuts, the Field and Stream website's "Gun Nut" blog -- yes, Gun Nut -- once ran a piece about the Lead Sled, which is a "metal pan upon which is affixed a rifle mount". The bloggers explain: "To use, you lock your rifle in the mount and throw lead-filled shot bags on the sled. Then you aim the rifle and shoot."

Apparently, the Lead Sled eliminates the risk of self-injury when shooting things. This is a bad, un-American innovation and, as the headline makes clear, to "America's shame". For "good shooting," they say, "begins with the acceptance of pain. Great shooting begins with the love of pain. Do you think John Wayne would have used a Lead Sled? Do you think John Wayne would have appeared in Brokeback Mountain ?"

Finally, in this week's Big Issue, Bob Dylan talks to his regular interviewer-cum-stooge Bill Flanagan about his charity album, Christmas in the Heart. Flanagan describes the record, consisting of festive favourites originally popularised by Dean Martin and co, as a "celebration of family, community, faith and shared memory". Which all makes it as distinctively American as the non-scary bits of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, and almost as enjoyable (though this is a moot point). Having spent a career mining the nation's cultural riches, Dylan has, of late, refashioned himself as a Mark Twain-esque folk figure with his whimsical turns on Theme Time Radio Hour. His appearance in Cadillac's TV commercials, too, seemed designed to confirm his uber-Americanness. At the end of the interview, Flanagan asks him: "What's the best Christmas gift you ever got?" Bob says: "Let me think . . . oh yeah, I think it was a sled."

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue