Operation Nobel

Obama arrives to claim his prize

It was raining, some will say fittingly, as Barack Obama arrived in Oslo this morning to receive his much-remarked-on Nobel Prize. So bad was the weather, in fact, that Obama was forced to make the trip from the airport to the downtown Nobel Peace Institute in convoy, the usually busy E6 motorway out of town being closed to allow smooth passage.

The Norwegians are used to awful weather, of course, but they aren't used to all this: the helicopters circling overhead, the roads blocked to regular traffic, the probing pat-down of security checks as they make their way around town. Their country has, on the whole, resisted the arrival of Starbucks and other trappings of American culture (Marshall aid excepted, perhaps) -- much more so than the UK, say.

Today, though, they are getting a real taste of America. "Ninety-two million Kroner extra", announced Dagsavisen recently about security arrangements for Obama's visit, only for the figure to be revised upwards by several million kroner a week later. That's the sort of money that would normally go into municipal works, such as district heating, in this part of the world. But today the Christmas market in the large open plaza that abuts the harbour has been closed (it was a security threat), a whole section of town has been cordoned off, and there are more police about than the country even knew it had. The daily Dagbladet has labelled all the fuss "Operation Nobel".

For this, and other reasons, the decision to give this award to the president of the United States of America in just his first year in office is no more universally popular in Norway than it has been around the world. In the lead-up to his visit, some have grumbled about how Obama has cut down on the number of activities the winner is usually expected to undertake. And more than a few have questioned the extra fuss being made about him. But this is what happens when a standing president wins. The Norwegians really have only themselves to thank.

Yet today, their problem is also Obama's problem, for what happens when a Peace Prize-winner announces a troop surge to a war zone, as Obama has done in Afghanistan, is yet to be established. The president was apparently working on that particular aspect of his speech on the flight over from Washington.

On arriving in Norway, Obama made the Nobel Prize Institute his first stop. There, he didn't just sign the book, he practically wrote an essay in it. I would hazard there was more than a penny for those particular thoughts. Left-handed Obama then handed over to right-handed Michelle as she, too, signed the book and he stood back, joking politely with Nobel Committee members.

For a minute, as he looked down, he appeared distinctly proud. But when he turned to the committee -- and perhaps an indication of the tone of the speech to come this afternoon -- he deflected attention from himself. It was their work promoting the cause of peace that he thanked them for.

Then it was off again, to Oslo's regjeringens kvartaler -- the government district -- where he was to meet the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg. Later (around 2pm UK time) Obama will formally receive his prize and give his acceptance speech. Perhaps the weather will have cleared by then.

 

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser