In the Critics this Week

Amanda Levete on the Barbican Centre, Gabriel Josipovici on Michael Hofmann and Will Self on Alastai

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, our Critic at Large is architect Amanda Levete, recent winner of a competition to design a new gallery for the Victoria & Albert Museum. Reflecting on the three decades since the opening of the Barbican Centre, she notes that brutalism, at times scorned for its bleakness, was then a mark of aesthetic progress: "The architects' [Chamberlin, Powell and Bon] plans reflected the changing aspirations of a society that had an increasingly complex and optimistic view of the future . . . Their brutalist (from the French béton brut,or 'raw concrete') vision was an extreme reaction to the land-hungry, suburban ethos of the 1950s: a deliberate assassination of a semi-detached mentality." More recently, says Levete, aesthetic opinions of the Barbican have fluctuated: "By 1990 . . . the complex had become unfashionable and unloved. Yet only a few years later, it was rediscovered by the cognoscenti and became popular with architects looking for an inner-city dwelling . . . now, more than half a century after it was conceived, it is truly the vibrant and successful part of the urban landscape that is architects envisaged".

In Books, Gabriel Josipovici reviews Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, edited and translated by Michael Hofmann. Josipovici acknowledges Hofmann's credentials as a Roth scholar, but questions his judgement in selecting his material: "Hofmann has long championed Roth and has translated ten of his works to date. Here, he translates a volume of letters published in Germany in 1970 and adds his own notes, making this a sort of tour of the life in the company of a passionate but biased and idiosyncratic guide. There are no letters to his mother or his lovers and we learn little about his literary tastes or his artistic aims and ambitions". Ultimately, Josipovici is cynical about Hofmann's inclusion of Roth in the Teutonic literary canon: "[T]o talk about him [Roth] as one of the great German writers . . . is to do a disservice to Mann, Robert Musil and Brecht".

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire speaks to Cullen Murphy about his latest book God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. Murphy shows how the Catholic Inquisition's influence remains pervasive in the modern world: "The defining characteristic of the Inquisition was that it had what we think of as modern tools available to it. These include things such as a bureaucratic structure and the ability to collect information, preserve it and then find it again. This kind of ability was relatively new".

Also in Books: Helen Lewis reviews Faramerz Dabhoiwala's The Origins of Sex: a History of the First Sexual Revolution. Especially disconcerting, says Lewis, is the blind eye turned by prominent literary figures to sexual depravity: "Samuel Richardson's treatment of Clarissa Harlowe - whose rape is the central act of perhaps the central text of British 18th-century literature - can be better understood against the context of a society in which women were presumed to enjoy being assaulted." Other reviews: Alan Ryan on What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini; Amanda Craig on Various Pets Alive and Dead by Marina Lewycka; and Olivia Laing on The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman.

Elsewhere in Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Rampart; Rachel Cooke on Homeland; Thomas Calvocoressi on Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson; and Alexandra Coghlan on Classical Music. PLUS: Will Self's "Madness of Crowds".

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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