Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Woody Allen / 'There are traumas in life that weaken us. That’s what has happened to me'

Woody Allen

Woody Allen: 'There are traumas in life that weaken us. That’s what has happened to me'

The prolific director returns next month with Café Society and a TV series. Here, he talks exclusively about sex, antisemitism, the impact of that abuse allegation – and his dream of racing Usain Bolt

Catherine Shoard
Thursday 25 August 2016 18.49 BST

Woody Allen is 80. Time is finite and he knows it. Every day the industrious same: wake, work, weights, treadmill, work, clarinet, work, supper, TV, sleep. Except today and tomorrow and Thursday, when he’ll do something futile.
“I never thought there was any point doing press,” he says. “I don’t think anybody ever reads an interview and says: ‘Hey, I want to see that movie!’” He smiles benignly, tip-to-toe in peanut-butter beige. Allen no longer reads anything about himself (except, maybe, one article, of which more later). This is the boring bit of film-making. This and the gags of the financiers.
Yet for someone who feels that way, he sure pulls the hours. At Cannes, he even carried on regardless of the publication of a piece by his son, Ronan Farrow, resurfacing an allegation of abuse by Allen of Ronan’s sister, Dylan. When I speak to him again three months later, in the final stages of prep on his 48th film (Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, 1950s, fairground), he’s friendly on the phone, in no special hurry to hang up.
Why bother? A shrug and a grin. “Well, the publicity people think it’s important. So I do it to be nice. But I don’t think – and I tell them this – that it matters. And they say: ‘Just keep it quiet and do it.’ I don’t want to be someone who takes the money but refuses to help.”
Late-stage Woody Allen, then (or lateish – his mother lived to 95, his father to 100) is the same as the kid scribbling so many jokes on the subway to school heout-earned both parents by the age of 17. He forever frames things in transactional terms: the need to keep the deal, fulfil the contract, offer value.

Woody Allen

That TV series he’s made? “Amazon badgered and badgered me for two years, sweetening the pot until I could not afford to turn it down.” They drove an easy bargain for the resulting show, Crisis in Six Scenes: six half-hour episodes was fine; shoot wherever you like; any period; any stars; don’t show us the script, just call when you’re done. Not that he was ever going to abscond to Vegas and snort the lot. “I’m responsible. I’m not going to take their money and waste it. It was a good bet – I’ve made things before.”
Allen’s hope for his new film is similarly modest. “My intention was people would pay their money and have some kind of human experience.” Café Society repays investment. It’s by far his best since Blue Jasmine: sharp, funny and moving – especially on how people hold each other to ransom in relationships.
Our Woody-substitute this time is Jesse Eisenberg, who heads off from hard-scrabble Brooklyn to seek his fortune in Hollywood. It’s the 1930s: movie stars are gods, the studios rule and his uncle, Steve Carell, is a playmaker agent who asks his secretary – and secret mistress – to show Bobby round town. Eisenberg andKristen Stewart peer up at the gated mansions. You have to pity people who need a big house to feel important, she says. He’s not so sure.
Allen neither. “I’m not one of those people who has knee-jerk antipathy to wealth. I like to look at rich people. I enjoy taking a tour of a very wealthy estate.” It helps explain his homing instinct to Cannes; cue an Allenish anecdote about going on a surprisingly rocky yacht.
No, he wouldn’t want to be richer, he says, though it emerges he does spend $100 a week on lottery tickets. But winning wouldn’t change much: “I’ve talked this over with my wife. We would still go on living in the same house, I would go on working, I don’t want a boat, I don’t want a plane.”
So why do it? He seems stumped. “The odds are bigger than astronomical. You’d have a better chance of shuffling a deck of cards and naming them all in row. I’ve never got more than two numbers. I’d probably shoot myself if I got five and missed by one. That would really be a killer – but I don’t have that problem.”
Woody Allen with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.

Don’t be fooled by Café Society’s tourist-bait take on Tinseltown. Don’t get blinded by its goggle-eyes at the glimpse of bling. It may look lush, but a good 60% of that rose-tint is jaundice. The movie biz, says someone, is “boring, nasty, dog-eat-dog”. Hollywood, remarks Allen’s narrator, is “a town run on ego” – plain and simple, no leavening punchline.
But then, he says today, cheerfully spooling out the doominess, where isn’t? “I’m sure every business is full of phonies and people that don’t return phone calls and play the big shot. I’m sure it exists on Wall Street and in London and Rome, but Hollywood always gets the rap because there it’s so obvious. You’re dealing with one diva after another.”
He doesn’t think other towns are more fuelled by, say, sex or money or art? He twiddles his hearing aid to check he’s heard right. “Sex is the ultimate end. The ambition is so that they can fulfil their sexual drives; that’s what everybody is going for. This is what animals are. People are in a kind of meaningless jumble to recreate, and nobody knows why. The same woman who says, ‘People are terrible, life is awful, it’s sad, it’s short, nasty and meaningless’ still wants to have a couple of children. It defies any intellect. It’s strictly emotional.”
Like all Allen’s work, Cafe Society is consumed by how we cope with mortality. Its director famously said he’d like to achieve immortality through not dying, rather than his movies; his film has a Jewish gangster becoming Catholic on death row in search of consolation (just as Woody failed to in Hannah and her Sisters). Isn’t this the world’s most urgent issue, I ask. If people could only accept death was the end, the likes of Isis would have more of a recruitment problem.

 Watch the trailer for Crisis in Six Scenes

“I couldn’t speak for all suicide bombers,” he says mildly, fishing out the remote control for his hearing aid again, which forever makes you think he is trying to unlock a car. “But without a firm faith in an afterlife, many of them would not do those things. They do believe when they blow themselves up that there’s going to be positive payoff. That it isn’t simply going to be what it is, though some of them might be willing to do it anyhow, to consider it a noble sacrifice for a noble cause. They’re misguided, in my opinion.” He smiles. “But they don’t agree with me.”
What would he die for? Only his family, he thinks. Had he been 15 years older, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to actively serve in the war. “I can’t see myself in a ditch somewhere in the rain at night fighting in a jungle off the coast of Japan. I don’t think I’d hold up very well. I get annoyed when the air conditioning doesn’t work.”
Has he noticed any recent rise in antisemitism? Well, not personally, he says, sitting up a bit. But friends have. “It doesn’t surprise me. It’s in the nature of people to have someone to scapegoat. If there were no Jews in the world they would take it out on blacks. If no blacks, they’d move over to Catholics. No Catholics? Something else. Finally, if everyone is exactly the same, the left-handed people would start killing the right-handed people. You just need an other [on whom] to vent your hostility and frustration.”
He shrugs. “Hopefully, the wave will ebb and people will realise that’s not the problem and focus more on what the problems are. But the world is full of intolerance and prejudice. Freud said there would always be antisemitism because people are a sorry lot. And they are a sorry lot.” He twinkles through the specs, left eye a little awry these days, like a Woody Allen action doll that’s been dropped. He’s tiny. Some stars are shorter than you expect; he seems, literally, still inside the TV.
Allen has long been resigned to life’s deep bleakness. He is the wise-cracking nihilist, jokes provoked by the need not to leap. Yet some cynicism seems to be distilling. While previous films left characters wrestling guilt, this last one metes out justice with a wallop. When he talks about the world being “full of terrified people walking round suffering tremendously”, it carries more charge than the old patter.
I suggest he’s getting tougher as he gets older. He chuckles and says the opposite is true. “I don’t believe in the Nietzschean notion that what doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger. You see these soldiers come back with PTSD; they’ve been to war and seen death and experienced these existential crises one after the other. There are traumas in life that weaken us for the future. And that’s what’s happened to me. The various slings and arrows of life have not strengthened me. I think I’m weaker. I think there are things I couldn’t take now that I would have been able to take when I was younger.”
Woody Allen
Poster by T.A.

It was in 1992 that everything changed. Allen left Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, then 21 – Farrow found out after discovering intimate photos. Then followed a custody battle for their three children, Moses, Dylan and Ronan, then the claim of molestation of Dylan, aged seven. Credible evidencewasn’t found and the charge was not pursued. Yet the media trial continues. At Cannes came the grenade of Ronan’s Hollywood Reporter piece, attacking the festival for its celebration, stars for collaboration and the press for perceived cowardice. The next day, reporters raised it. Allen’s response remained the same: he hadn’t read the piece, the law had been plain, and he had said all he was going to.
Last week, he reiterates his position. “I have no interest in all of that. I find that all tabloid stupidity. That situation had been thoroughly, thoroughly investigated up and down the line by New York social services in a 14-month investigation. It had been investigated by Yale and conclusions were clear and I have no interest in that whole situation. I get harassed all the time on it. But it doesn’t affect me and I just have no interest in it.”
He sounds weary, sad, flat. He’s not used the word “harassed” in relation to the case before; today he uses it twice, the second time directing me to an article rebutting Ronan (“probably the best thing written on this since the whole harassment started … mature and not vitriolic and decent”). Which suggests that he may read some press, and that he is affected by it.

The opposite would be impossible. Even dismissed allegations can smear a career. And while he and Moses are now reconciled, Allen is estranged from Dylan and Ronan, despite a judgerejecting the application that his adoptive parenthood of the former two be revoked (meanwhile Mia has hintedRonan is actually Frank Sinatra’s son). Has the whole thing altered his view of the world? “No, no,” he chuckles. “It confirmed all my misanthropic feelings.”
Allen’s strategy, then, is to throw up his hands and stop his ears. He may have an iPhone, but it’s strictly for calls, jazz and the weather app. And this determined detachment would help explain why, as the web rakes over the details, 24 years on, Allen remains remarkably frank, even blithe, discussing his private life.
Of his wife and the daughters (Bechet, 17 and Manzie, 16) they adopted soon after their wedding in 1997, he speaks often, fondly – and oddly off-message. Of parenting, he tells me: “You can count on them until adolescence. You’re king in the house and you’re much needed and much loved and depended on. Once they start to come into their adulthood they start to feel their oats, then, all of a sudden, it’s a different story.”

Relationships, he says, again unguarded, “are not my strong point in life. I’ve always been dependent on the generosity of the woman; nothing I could do ever seduced them.” That was the case with Diane Keaton, with whom he is still close: “She had come to the conclusion she liked me. It was always the other person who decided.”

He happily chats about how nice meals often end in spousal rows, but says that it is because of Soon-Yi that the man once defined by his psychoanalysis hasn’t seen a shrink in years. “I don’t have to any more. I’m functioning OK. I’m in a happy marriage. I haven’t needed that support.”
Do others come to him for advice? He reels at the idea. “I don’t have that many friends. I lead a very isolated life. I come home and I’m with my family. I go to dinner with a few friends and, every once in a while, they’ll ask for advice, but it’s never existential.”
And, after dinner, he heads home, turns on the TV for 20 minutes “and I’m asleep”. Never a comedy – he has never seen anything in the same genre as his Amazon show – and if not news, baseball, which “always interests me much more than any kind of show”. But the New York teams have struck out this season, so he has resorted to the Olympics, with moderate rewards.
“I don’t find it that thrilling to watch people swim up and back across a pool. I need a more complex sport – something that has got a different narrative to it than just a sudden burst of speed or a quick jump. And I watch any sports. I can watch timber sports – two guys sawing down a tree in a contest.”

Woody Allen with his wife Soon-Yi

That’s one of the few he has yet to try: the young Woody was surprisingly sporty and his loss of athletic ability is his chief regret about ageing. “I’ve been very lucky. I’m in good health – at least I think I am. Dementia hasn’t set in yet to any noticeable degree. Everything is fine, but I’m always consumed with sorrow that I can’t get out on a baseball field and play it the way I could. That, for me, is the most poignant.”
“I’d like to race against Usain Bolt,” he adds wistfully. “But I’m not sure how well I’d do. I was always a very fast runner. But it’s possible that while I’m still running, he would be doing his post-race interview.”
Late-stage Woody Allen, then, is a man who gets through by playing ball, even if the sport is stacked against him. By disregarding the results and declining to dwell. “You’re probably happier in life if you can forget things,” he advises.
And yet, there may be a coda. Allen doesn’t permit himself the “indulgence of nostalgia”, but, “sometimes, when I’m alone, I think maybe it would be a nice life to stop making movies and write maybe an autobiography”. It might be “pleasant” to relive his childhood, like he does when he reminisces with his sister,Letty.
Yet writing a memoir would also require resurfacing less happy events, right? Putting them on paper. Well, yes. “I would have to go through the many regrets in my life and the many turbulences. But that’s OK. It’s conflict and excitement. It would be nice to write that out.”
 Café Society opens in the UK on 2 September and Crisis in Six Scenes begins on Amazon Prime on 30 September.
 This article was amended on 26 August. The original misheard “feel their oats” as “field their oats”. This has been corrected.

Woody Allen to Star Opposite Sharon Stone in Film He Does Not Direct
Café Society review / Woody Allen's amiable, if insubstantial, tribute to golden-age Hollywood
Woody Allen / Café Society / Posters
Woody Allen / Café Society / Cannes 2016
Woody Allen / 'There are traumas in life that weaken us. That’s what has happened to me'

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Philip Roth and his friends / The Book of Laughter


Philip Roth and his friends.

By Claudia Roth Pierpont
OCTOBER 7, 2013 

Philip Roth went through the editing of an entire book with Veronica Geng before they finally met and became fast friends—or, as Roth recalls, before “we began to make each other laugh.” Geng was an editor at this magazine, as well as a writer of sharp-edged social satires, when she sent a letter to Roth, in the late seventies, saying how much she admired his work and asking if he had anything that The New Yorker might publish. It was more than fifteen years since he’d appeared in these pages, and the magazine had widely come to be considered Updike country; Roth says he had concluded that the powers that be just “didn’t care for my stuff.” He had no short stories to offer. But he had recently completed a novel, “The Ghost Writer,” and he sent it to Geng to read. Her reaction, she later told Roth, was to march into the office of the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, put the manuscript on his desk, and say, “We should publish the whole thing.”

Milan Kundera, Veronica Geng, and Roth, in Connecticut in the fall of 1980.PHOTOGRAPH BY VERA KUNDERA

Roth was living in London at the time, and he and Geng worked on the book long-distance, in sessions that sometimes lasted close to an hour. Roth has always been ruthlessly self-critical while he is writing. The natural ease and the confiding voice so familiar to his readers are a somewhat deceptive achievement, a hard-won part of the art. He habitually wrote numerous drafts of a book before he approached satisfaction, and he speaks appreciatively of editors at various publishing houses over the fifty-plus years of his career. But he reserves special praise for Geng’s ability to zero in on problems. (“Not the tiniest piece of crap eluded her” is how he puts it. “She invariably landed squarely on what was wrong and left me to face it down, if I could.”) Many readers still consider “The Ghost Writer,” the novel that introduced Nathan Zuckerman and reimagined the story of Anne Frank, to be Roth’s most perfect work. The New Yorker published it, in its entirety, in two installments, in the summer of 1979, putting it into the illustrious company of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” and Rachel Carson’s warning about the coming environmental apocalypse, “Silent Spring.”

Monday, August 29, 2016

Philip Roth / A Writer and His Books

Philip Roth
by Ruth Gwily

Review: "Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books", By Claudia Roth Pierpont

A study of a feted author that reflects on his life through the rich imagination of his novels

By Linda Grant

The curse of the novelist is the question ‘Is it autobiographical?’ Is writing down of the events of one’s own life considered to be more authentic than the exercise of the imagination? Philip Roth must have been plagued more than any other writer with this dumbest of demands. For he writes out of his native Newark, sends his characters to his own high school, makes novelists his narrators, and calls one of his characters Philip Roth. After his second wife, the actress Claire Bloom, wrote a tell-all memoir of their marriage, he wrote an answering novel, in which an actress writes a memoir of her failed marriage to a radio star.
Sooner or later there will be a biography. James Atlas has already crawled all over Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz and we are bound to hear the laments of Roth’s many ex-girlfriends and perhaps the children of his first wife, as well  as friends and editors. Yet a new book,  Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, by Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation, literary Roths are legion – Joseph, Henry, Philip) binds the books to the man not by mining them for nuggets of autobiographical information but  by talking to Roth himself about what he put into them, by which she doesn’t mean the facts,  but the territory of imagination and self that  creates fiction.
Pierpont met Roth in 2002. A couple of years later she received a letter from him responding to a New Yorker article she had written. Roth, it turns out, has a habit of writing to the authors of writing he admires. This impulse led fortuitously to a series of meetings and eventually the idea for a book which began after he had completed Nemesis and announced his retirement. It has grown out of conversations with him and research in his personal files in the attic of his Connecticut house. Unlike a biographer, she has not interviewed other sources. Like a critic, she has made her own judgements about the work. What emerges is his charm – he has certainly charmed her. “He loves to listen: he’s as funny as you might think from his books, but he makes the people around him feel funny too – he may be the easiest laugher I’ve ever met.”
Roth Unbound is a chronological survey  beginning with the attempts to silence him by a prominent New York rabbi in 1959, after the  publication of his first collection of short stories depicting, the rabbi complained, “such conceptions of Jews as ultimately led to the murder of six million in our time.” Jewish America in those days was still touchy. There had been no writer quite like Roth before, who wrote out of the growing disconnection between immigrant gratitude and the expectations of those born to be, and feel them selves to be, Americans, not special cases. A writer who had no objection to airing the dirty linen of his people because everyone has soiled underwear, and to be part of everyone is the desire. The attacks left him in a state of shock, and this is before Portnoy’s Complaint. It is salutary to be reminded that one of the greatest living writers has been assaulted with almost every book he has written.
Pierpont excavates Roth’s disastrous first marriage in the Fifties to an apparently mentally unstable woman. We can draw such conclusions as we wish from his portrayal of women in his work. Pierpont defends him against accusations of misogyny (levelled by me, among others). Roth, throwing up his hands in bewilderment, says he loves women, and there have been no shortage of girlfriends before, during and after his two marriages. He is open about the women (and men) who inspired his characters. What Pierpont has achieved is to defeat speculation. Whatever we think we know, turns out to be wrong. Which is, of course, one of the great themes of his masterwork, American Pastoral.
I don’t know what Roth thinks of creative writing courses. He has taught, but he teaches literature already written. On page 146, he reveals how his novels come into being: not through a plan, a theme or a message, but a groping forward. “The first draft is really a floor under my feet,” he says. “What I want to do is to get the story down and know what happens... The book really comes to life in the rewriting...  What it’s about is  none of your business... By the third  draft I have  good picture of what my concerns are.” This may be one of the most important counters to creative writing theory I’ve read, for its describes writing as an intuitive process. Roth’s friend, the Israeli novelist, Aharon Appelfeld, told me he thought that writers were stupid people because they don’t know what  they are doing.
Pierpont locates, correctly in my view, the highest peaks of his achievement in two not-quite-consecutive novels, Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral. In the former he laid aside post-modern tricks, the character as mask, the constant dialectic which is the essence of Talmudic disputation, and told a story.
Roth, sitting on a white sofa in his elegant Connecticut living room, explains to Pierpont that he could not stand to have Mickey Sabbath in the house, that he was sick to death of his cynicism and nihilism by the time he had finished with him. It was relief to turn to [American Pastoral’s] Swede Lvov, a good man. As far as America is concerned, he reveals himself as a patriot. The study of American society in American Pastoral, almost an historical novel, comes from his understanding of consciousness. If you neglect it, he says, you write popular fiction; consciousness without the gravity of experience leads to “the failed experiment” of Virginia Woolf where it so dominates the novel that “it ceases to move through time the way a novel needs to.”
Roth’s consciousness, moving through  time, from the young Jewish boy in the fifties  recently released from national service, trying  to write, to the exhausting, difficult (for him)  novellas of his seventies are the history of post-war America and a charting of the history of the male psyche with all its wayward desires and impulses. If Roth does not, and I still believe he doesn’t, understand women, my God, does he  understand men.
John Updike, part friend, part rival, neither of them easy with the other, compared him at one point to Bach, meaning that same repetition of, and revolution around, themes. Bach was a mathematical composer, Roth is a roarer, a boiler igniting into life.Life is what it’s all about. I let out a shriek of rage when I heard on the radio that Saul Bellow had died. That Roth is living makes life worth living. Then we’ll have the books. Nothing else to know.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Rebecca Hall / Black and White

Rebecca Hall

Katharine Whitehorn / New ways of being old

Keith Richards
New ways of being old

There’s no longer any consensus on how senior citizens ought to behave. It’s up to us…

Katharine Whitehorn
Sunday 7 August 2016 11.00 BST

t wasn’t a christening, it wasn’t a coming of age, but one agreeable event some days ago was a lunch to celebrate a friend’s 80th birthday. One doesn’t always think of growing seriously older as something to celebrate, but these days piling on the years isn’t anything like such a trial as it was once.

We may not share Macbeth’s view regarding “that which should accompany old age / As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends” – there’s certainly a marked lack of obedience. But we have so much that our ancestors wouldn’t have had, starting (at least for some) with the glories of computers and such, and the good chance of actually getting to old age rather than having succumbed to incurable ailments.
We take it for granted that somebody will do something if and when we are ill. In some places they – or should I say we – have concessions on things like bus passes and cheap radios, and people helping us up stairs or down the escalator.
But even setting all that aside there’s the fact that so many people of Saga age are still working, if it suits them; and that charities and clubs rely on retired people to keep things going. There are, of course, lots of older people who have a rotten time, but what has really changed for the better is that there’s far less assumption that the aged will behave in a certain way, or be too old to enjoy this or that – to which we often say: “How do you know if you don’t let me try?”
Getting old is not the trial it once was. There is no longer any universal agreement on what old people should or should not do – it’s up to us.

David Bailey / Reg Kray said: ‘Ere, Da’. I wish I could have done it legit like you’

 David Bailey.
Photograph by Suki Dhanda

David Bailey: Reg Kray said: ‘Ere, Da’. I wish I could have done it legit like you’

The photographer on drugs, religion, sport, beauty, the reality of the 1960s, politics, Instagram and the Krays…

Interview by Fiona Maddocks
Sunday 5 July 2015 09.30 BST

he veteran portraitist has chosen 250 works for his Bailey’s Stardust show at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh later this month.

This show, packed with images of the Rolling Stones, Man Ray, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon, Kate Moss, Damien Hirst and the tribespeople of Papua New Guinea and the Naga Hills [on the India-Burma border], has triumphed in London and internationally. Is the Edinburgh exhibition any different?
Yes, there’s another show within it called Moon Glow. Mostly mixed media, oil, collages. Some of it’s completely new. Some of it’s from as early as 1970. I don’t like the idea of a retrospective. I always feel I should try something new. Continuous change. That’s what the Buddhists say. I’d be rather a good Buddhist.

You’d like to wear the saffron robes?
I don’t want to dress like them. I want to think like them. I’m not religious. Not even spiritual. But I’m open to learning. If you want to be really camp you’d have to join the Catholic church. I love all that – pure theatre. The best art, the best smells. It’s operatic. We’re all part of something. Like William Blake said – the whole universe in a grain of sand. He’s one of the thinkers. But I like that Hindu thing, too – we’re all the dream of Krishna. That’s good, nice. I’ll listen to anybody.

That could be dangerous.
Yeah, very dangerous. I know what I think. But I could be wrong. I can always see the other side. That’s why I’m not political. I’m glad the Conservatives won the election. I’ve spent all my life reinventing the class system, then Ed Miliband comes along and screws all that division. He’s set the class war back years.

You like the Conservatives?
No, not particularly. That guy George Osborne is pretty clever about the economy, even if his hairstyle is awful.

How is it you’re always called Bailey? Do you insist on it?
No way. That was Jean Shrimpton. It stuck. In the East End I was Dave. Or Da’ – as in “day”. I suppose it’s a bit public school to be called by your surname. At Condé Nast they just credited us as Avedon, Horst, Bailey.

You’ve said about some women, “the camera loves her”. What do you mean?
I’ve said it often, but there are very few. They’re not necessarily the most beautiful women ever. Jean Shrimpton, Kate Moss, Dietrich, Garbo – they all had that quality. It’s a mystery. The idea of beauty has expanded. The Romans had a very particular idea. I think a lot about the seeds of beauty. As a kid there was a shop that sold packets of seeds. I was obsessed with the idea of these little black things growing into different kinds of beauty. Magic.

Instagram, Snapchat, we’re all photographers now…
Anyone can take a photograph. Like anyone can use a pencil and paper. But can anyone be Picasso? It’s the same with photography. A chimpanzee could take a good picture. It’s like when the Box Brownie was invented in 1900. Everyone said, that’s the end of photography. And the same when digital came along. It’s a kind of doodling. It might come to something, a happy accident. Good luck if it does.

You say you make photographs, you don’t take them …
It’s more how you feel than how you see. It’s the emotion. I spend an hour chatting and a few minutes taking the picture. I wish my ears could do the snapping. I’m thinking of inventing an ear camera. Even seemingly boring people have stories. That’s what keeps me fascinated. Landscapes are OK If you’ve got time to sit around and wait for a cloud to arrive. I can’t talk to the trees – unless I’m an Ink Spot. You know who they are?[starts crooning]: “Whispering grass, don’t tell the trees / ’Cause the trees – don’t need – to... know-ow …” Of course they fucking don’t. They’d probably feel incredibly bored. But I love trees. I think they’re here to stay.

Your East End past, your friendship with the Kray brothers … does that world still exist? 
Yes and no. I’ve gone back and put it in my three volumes of East End books. You have to understand people ate tea leaves they were so poor. They’d do anything to feed their children. Women sold their bodies. It’s time and place. Easy to judge, easy to be pompous. The Krays were a bit like Tolstoy’s Cossacks. Fucking anarchists, but with their own morality. They didn’t do prostitutes or drugs. I quite liked Reg, even though when he was 19 he slashed my father’s face with a razor. Ron was a basket full of rattlesnakes. They were dotty guys. Reg took me aside once – everything always had to be secret with Reg – and he said “‘Ere, Da’. I wish I could have done it legit like you.” That was touching. There was me, a fucking dyslexic cockney with no qualifications, and I got out.

The Krays were a bit older. How did you meet? In the street? Playing football?

Playing football? Football? Are you fucking mad? Silly sods kicking balls around. I detest sport. The idea of competing… now that’s vulgar, even for an East End boy.

Were the 60s, the time that made you famous, all they were cracked up to be?
Yeah for about 2,000 people living in London. For everyone else, steelworkers or coal miners or the very poor, it was a shit time.

You’ve kept the hard-living image, but you gave up drink and drugs long ago?
Yes, 40 years ago. Drugs and prostitution should be legalised. The politicians know. But it’s not a vote winner. “Excuse me, madam, we’re going to legalise cannabis.” Ha. People only want to know what’s in their pay packet.

Do you agree that most of what you do comes from the past?
Yeah… but from my past. The Renaissance is bad shit! I’m still fascinated with Hitler and Churchill and Mickey Mouse and the war and living down in the coal cellar. Growing up in East Ham by the river, I had a sense of the foreign. It was like being in Twin Peaks. You know – the sound of the foghorn? My uncle – who was gay and lived with us; I just knew, no one told me – he was in the navy. He came back with a wind-up gramophone and records of Maori songs. I loved them. My dad was homophobic. My mum – it was her brother – was in denial. She was the one who pushed for a better life. It’s always the woman. Mum was the tough one. Even the gypsies were scared of her.

What was school like?
I was in the silly class. Kids with a limp or a twitch and people like me. I was at the top. Being at the bottom of the silly class – now that would have been bit of shit wouldn’t it? I left school on my 15th birthday. Out. End. The headmaster said, someone has to clean the roads.

Did you have a sense, deep down, that you were going to have some starring role in life?
No, no way.

Where next?
Heaven or hell, I imagine. I was feeling pretty dicky yesterday. But I’ve had a fucking good time.