Midsummer revelry at Stonehenge. Photo: Getty
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My nerves can’t cope with three random midsummer encounters in the space of 15 seconds

I’d long planned to go up to the Heath on Midsummer Night to frolic under the stars.

Midsummer’s Day was unusual. That’s good: a usual day, these days, involves lying in bed all day wondering when I’m going to tidy up the bedroom enough so I can let the cleaning lady have a go at it without me dying of shame or her resigning in disgust. When you don’t have a lady friend in situ you tend to let things slide a little bit, and your motto changes from “Excelsior!” to “What’s the sodding point?”, only with a more passionate qualifier than “sodding”.

I’d long planned to go up to the Heath on Midsummer Night to frolic under the stars. The last time I had a proper midsummer bacchanalia was when my fellow columnist Mr William Self arranged for a bonfire party on the beach near Sizewell, just round the corner from where he was living at the time. This was all very nice but I’d had to stay up half the night on the evening before, condensing The Tempest into a 15-minute playlet because he wanted us to perform it. (It took a lot longer than I thought it would, but I like to think I turned out a pretty good version.) This time all I was going to do was lie on my back or walk through the woods, with a friend, or rather more than one friend, as I did not want to be mistaken for the kind of person who goes up to Hampstead Heath in the middle of the night for one purpose only. (I am reminded of the wonderful letter in Viz which complained that gay men, going to the Heath for an encounter, could have their spirits uplifted in the knowledge that there was a small but distinct chance they would run into George Michael; whereas there is no public space on earth where a heterosexual man can go in the expectation, however small, that he’ll run into, say, Angelina Jolie.)

So I am to go with my old friend John Moore; a couple of his friends, both women, will be joining us later. En route to my rendezvous I drop in on my old friend C—, who presses upon me one of those cigarettes which, by a curious anomaly, are perfectly legal in Colorado but, thanks to the stupidity and ignorance of successive British governments since 1928, illegal here.

I have noticed on more than one occasion that it is only when one is enjoying the effects of such a cigarette that Providence decides to throw you rather more than your allotted share of odd occurrences. If paranoia is said to be a side effect, then that might be because you have something to be paranoid about. So when an enormous shaven-headed man accosted me on the northbound platform of the Northern Line at King’s Cross, I at first wondered whether my time had come, and the various people and organisations I owe money to had clubbed together and decided that assassination was the only way forward.

“Excuse me for bothering you,” he said politely, “but from the way you’re dressed” – it is a warm day, and I am wearing my summer plumage of white linen – “you look as though you might know what’s happened in the cricket.”

As it happened, I did, and was in the middle of an involved account of how exactly England had got to 318 for 6 against Sri Lanka, when someone else tapped me on the shoulder. Jesus Christ, I thought, this is it! Mr Shaven Head was just a diversion. But it turned out to be Noah, a friend of my daughter’s, who had recently befriended me on Facebook. He once broke a string on my guitar while he was playing it so I made him restring the whole thing; as it’s a 12-string semi-acoustic, this takes about three hours. Had he been stalking me so he could push me on to the tracks in revenge? No, he wanted to thank my daughter for having driven him and his film crew to Wales.

By the time I got to the pub I had more or less recovered from two random human encounters on the Tube in 15 seconds, but was still jittery. As I sipped my pint a young man in a football shirt asked if I would take a picture of him and his friends. As I held the camera up, he asked: “Er . . . are you Nicholas Lezard?”

My usual impulse when asked this is to say “no”, for reasons hinted at above, but instead I said “yes”, cautiously. It turned out that he was a fan of this column; and he even had a copy of this magazine, open at this page, which he took out of his bag for me to sign.

Which has more or less made my year, to be honest, but Philip, if you’re reading this: you nearly gave me a sodding heart attack.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era