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Imagine: the Fatwa – Salman's Story – review

Interviews should never be between friends.

Imagine: The Fatwa - Salman's Story

Interviews, profiles, features: what’s the first rule when it comes to this kind of journalism? Not to be boring, probably. The second, surely, is that one should never interview a friend, however tempting the possibility of such a love-fest might be. I make the greater part of my living doing interviews and I take this rule extremely seriously, for all that I don’t have the kind of friends my editors might require me to interview. If someone emails me telling me they liked a piece I wrote about them, I tend to feel anxious rather than flattered. It’s not my job to please my interviewees and my hunch is that if someone dislikes a piece I’ve written, it’s because I’ve struck a nerve. In other words, I’ve done my job properly.

It was, then, with a certain amount of astonishment that I took on board the news that Alan Yentob had made an Imagine film about his friend Salman Rushdie. I can see the attraction, obviously. On the February morning in 1989 that Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s execution, it was Yentob’s car that whisked Rushdie away from the massed ranks of photographers waiting outside the church where they’d been attending a memorial service for Bruce Chatwin.

Yentob must have felt an irresistible claim on the story, having been centre stage at such a key moment. He must have felt, too, that he could open doors – and it’s true that the film included interviews with Andrew Wylie (Rushdie’s agent), Elizabeth West (Rushdie’s third wife) and Ian McEwan (he and Yentob reminisced about a dinner they held for Rushdie in a rented country cottage; McEwan, who’d packed a hamper for the evening, was convinced someone was following him down the M40). I’m prepared to accept, at least in the case of Wylie and West, that these interviews might not have been granted to another journalist. Nevertheless, I wonder that Yentob didn’t worry about perspective and that his bosses (does Alan Yentob have a boss?) didn’t worry about appearances. A film like this – incestuous, chummy, occasionally self-congratulatory – can confirm in an instant the worst preconceptions of a certain kind of BBC hater.

I’m not going to pretend the film wasn’t fascinating; it was. I was awed by the determination of the cool-handed Wylie, who ensured The Satanic Verses was published in paperback in the US when New York’s lily-livered publishers refused to have anything to do with it (Wylie created an imprint called The Consortium, which allowed them to pretend that they’d all stepped up to the plate, when in fact the opposite was true). And it made me smile to discover that for the last seven years of the fatwa, Rushdie and West – as literary a couple as it is possible to meet outside the biography section of Waterstones – were safely ensconced in a house on the Bishop’s Avenue in Hampstead, otherwise known as London’s most vulgar street. (My dear! The neighbours!) As Rushdie said to me when I interviewed him, the Ayatollah turned him into a character in a bad novel – and perhaps a little of this rubbed off on Yentob. Why else did he decide to interview one of Rushdie’s former protection officers in a parked car?

Mostly, though, I was struck by Rushdie himself. The fatwa was an appalling, disgraceful thing and it’s impossible not to see it as a foreshadowing of many of the horrors that have come our way since (as he puts it, “9/11 was the main event”). The intolerance it revealed clambers ever more relentlessly over our national discourse. But, still. I can never get over the perverse effect Rushdie’s years in captivity seem to have had on him. Yentob’s film included footage of the young writer travelling around Britain on a train. In his tweed suit, he looked so attentive, so interested, so delightfully gracious. Then you cut to 2012 and it is as though he has inflated, like a balloon (I don’t mean this literally, though his apple cheeks certainly are a bit fuller these days).

My abiding memory of having lunch with Rushdie in 2008 is that he seemed disappointed when no one in the restaurant noticed him. Here, I think, is a man who has come to believe his own publicity – and for a writer, that, surely, must be almost as crippling as a fatwa. It was uncomfortable, to say the least, that when he described the telephone call he had with William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, shortly after he was shot in his own back yard, Rushdie finished up with a plump finale about the “very large reprint” Nygaard had just ordered. Which brings me, neatly, back to Yentob. I’m in two minds about his editing of this film. Did he leave in this line, and others like it, because they were telling? Or was their inclusion more accidental – more loving – than that? I don’t know. If I were him, I would explain it to the critics one way and to my friends quite another.

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 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis