Manhunt, Fritz Lang’s film of 1941,
is older than me. The story was pretty hokey, but I was curious about it as one of Lang’s anti-Nazi films (he was a German who got away) and the camera work was wonderful. I looked up the cinematographer who had done all sorts of other things I like and realised that until I was entering what Wal calls “late middle age” (he is nearly 20 years younger than me and precious about these things), I didn’t notice or I didn’t trouble to find out who wrote this or who shot that, still less who produced it, which is one side of the fulcrum of power, the other being the director.
In my moment of recognition, I do remember being asked if I didn’t want to play the lead in Agony (the TV series Len Richmond and I wrote when tv meant television) and saying no , I wanted to write her. I had got that far about knowing where power resides.
You write the words, other people have to work with them, the flexibility of those arrangements controlled by other relationships, agreements and accommodations.
I don’t very often read a book and then want to buy six copies so I can hand it out but I did with Working by Robert Caro (Vintage, the magic penny under a tenner.)
I knew who Caro was, being famously engaged on a four volume biography of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. One of the street rhymes of my youth was “Hey, hey LBJ/How many kids did you kill today ?” as the President followed the line laid down by his predecessors in escalating the US presence in South East Asia because the mood of the time could not envisage America beaten in war.
Caro set out to find out what made this man tick. LBJ, he says, put into law many of the most important social changes that preceding presidents had endorsed but done nothing about. LBJ was plain and poor, his breath was bad and he was hagridden by his father’s disapproval, and one of the two best operators in history the Senate has ever known.
Under LBJ, the Senate worked.
Robert Caro is 85. Laden with literary honours and appreciation, he has been asked to do an autobiography but still working on LBJ Vol.4, he realises time and tide wait for no man. His method of work is deeply based in the journalistic traditions which still capture my imagination and Working is a shrewdly placed little compilation – you learn a bit about how he does it. He’s a Jew and my favourite Jewish proverb says “in the centre of every onion is a tear” which describes his method well.
Obviously able, he began in journalism and then decided to write books. He thought power came at the ballot box and then realised that the most powerful man in New York City was the architect and planner Robert Moses who wasn’t elected to anything – who held on for 40 years, redesigning the city into one of the most outspokenly modern and functional in the world – at the expense of human hardship which Caro unwavering covered too.
We have heard a lot about power in the last few days, who gets it and how, how it is used or abused.
The apologists will say that the pandemic was unexpected and thus nobody knew what to do. The accusers will say “No excuse for not giving clear directions.” The power remains in the hands holding it before the shouting began.
A recent local news broadcast mentioned a campaign in a big London borough among so many afflicted by the acne of ill conceived planning. We wonder if we’ll have one too ? What we know is that power does not reside in our hands. They are they, and we are us, our hopes and dreams, investments and modest wishes disposable. It was the historian Lord Acton who wrote “ Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”