Recommended Read: "On Paris" by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's correspondence marks a lost generation of foreign journalism.

"There is nothing deader than a dead tiger and Georges Clemenceau was a very great tiger. Therefore Georges Clemenceau is very dead." So begins an article of 18th February 1922 in the Toronto Star, written by a young Ernest Hemingway, its Paris correspondent.

Hemingway's missives from the post-war western front have been collected for a recent Hesperus Press edition and are among his earliest published writings. Aficionados will recognise the nascent pith and verve of his writing, but these articles represent so much more than the baby steps of a future literary giant; they are the remnants of a lost generation of foreign reporting.

Today's newspapers must chase a shrinking market, and often paint a picture of the world that (they assume) might fascinate a modern consumer. The grim reality of faraway lands is represented through statistics of suffering, or humanised to appeal to the pathos of a distant domestic audience.

Worse still, such emotive content is frequently balanced by trivial vignettes of celebrity gossip and reality TV found in supposedly more familiar western cultures. Sunday newspapers present a weekly digest of selected world events, dictated by our current curiosities; we are so rarely asked to understand a foreign culture, merely to know about it.

By digging below the statistical and the salacious, Hemingway came to understand. His articles paint a vivid panorama of life in 1920s Paris. Whereas today's media is cripplingly averse to characterisation, Hemingway tells us how "the extreme provinciality of the French people" and "the gullibility of the French press" made Paris "the mecca of bluffers and fakers in every line of endeavour." We learn that "the scum of Greenwich village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited" at the Café Rotonde; of how French wives buy their clothes for their husbands; of Parisian boorishness, wild nightlife and "homes on the Seine".

Yet Hemingway managed to be at once entertaining and informative. The gargoyles of Notre Dame, placed in position by Napoleon the Third before the Franco-Prussian war, "belong to modern history", says Hemingway, "and the commencement of French hatred towards the eastern neighbour." A trip to his wartime posting in Trentino reveals the detached desolation that was so prevalent in post-war Europe. The reconstructed town he finds, so typical of 1920s Europe, represents not "the great sacrifice" but rather "the new, ugly futility of it all": "Everything is just as it was - except a little worse."

Perhaps the perception of even a young Hemingway is too much to ask of our modern broadsheets. And perhaps it is futile to lament the passing of an age when consumers had the patience, and producers the funds, for such singular nuance. One fears, though, that Hemingway's is a lost art of journalism, at odds with contemporary coverage of international affairs that describes rather than explains; that panders to the fleeting attention of the fickle reader; that struggles to transcend the existing cultural, commercial or geopolitical interests of its domestic audience.

In his attempt to explain the atrophy of "the very great tiger" as a political figure, the intrepid reporter described his method:

If you catch a Frenchman when he has been in the café just long enough to come to a boil, and before he has begun to boil over and spill on the stove, you find out what he really thinks about Clemenceau or anything else. And if you catch enough Frenchmen in different parts of France, you will have the national opinion; the real national opinion, not the shadow of national opinion that is reflected in elections and newspapers.

In today's world, it is as important as ever that cultures understand each other. Our newspapers would do well to heed Hemingway's advice.

"On Paris" is published by Hesperus Press (£7.99)

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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