“Louise Brooks – Portrait of an Anti-Star”
This is one of those books that takes me back instantly to the early nineteen-eighties, when I was just embarking on my love affair with old movies.
I had of course never heard of her until she died in 1985, and the BBC showed an old documentary, Diary of a Lost Girl, Pandora's Box and, charmingly, Overland Stage Raiders (still one of my all-time favourite Brooks movies; still one of the very few westerns I watch for fun.)
I'd just turned twelve, and hitherto my old movie crush had been Marlene Dietrich, who had transfixed me in a BBC Saturday matinee double-bill of Destry Rides Again and Seven Sinners. But Brooks was something quite different, and my memory, rendered hyperbolic by time, insists that within a few minutes of watching her in Pandora's Box my voice had broken.
The book is a kind of scrapbook of various essays, articles and bits of ephemera. There are loads of photographs, not glossy or glamorously reproduced but, it seemed to me at the time, almost a portal into a world of slightly dark, slightly decadent allure.
I didn't know there were old movies like this, or old movie stars.
How I came upon it is a story inextricably interwoven with the geography of the city of Plymouth.
Plymouth’s city centre has been massively restructured in recent years. It was never the most charming of shopping centres: thanks to our proximity to the Royal Naval Dockyard at Devonport it had been more or less razed by the Nazis during the war, then rebuilt in the Attlee years as a series of distended grey concrete blocks which, viewed from above, had a distinct and ironic touch of the Albert Speers to their fearful symmetry, but from the ground must have seemed unbelievably austere and lifeless compared to what had been there before.
Nonetheless, it was a design that still revealed the touch of a human hand. Not the work of a creative imagination, clearly, but you could still see the brushmarks for all that. What has now replaced it, with no war as excuse for further tampering, is incomparably worse, a drunken computer's nightmare, dominated by an enormous video screen hovering like a War of the Worlds tripod where once the eye was led gracefully through a straight avenue leading to the famous Plymouth Hoe, where Drake famously played snooker while waiting for the Vikings.
And Drake, our city's most famous son (with the possible exception of Wayne Sleep) gave his name to the site of my first encounter with this book: the Drake Circus shopping complex.
This was, depending on who you asked, either an ugly concrete rabbit's warren or a fascinatingly eccentric radiating splurge of subways leading in several directions to and from a central open air tapestry of mainly small, friendly shops. But I always thought that entering it was a bit like entering a secret cave, or passing through one world into another.
As a child, my mother and I would come here every Friday on the bus, get off at the library just on the outskirts, and pass down into the first tunnel which, like them all, offered a mysterious choice of directions (mysterious in that we always took the same route, and it was some little while before I was old enough to be there on my own, and find out where the adjacent passages actually took you).
Always there was a cheery busker, and with tiled walls depicting scenes from Plymouth’s past, these longish, dark and echoing tunnels were not remotely frightening. Week in and out we passed through them, never for a second entertaining the thought that they contained even the latent potential of threat, as indeed they did not at that time.
The first tunnel took you to a kind of central courtyard, where we would stop and feed bread to the pigeons. (This was the highlight of my week, partly because a goodly percentage of the bread ended up in me rather than the pigeons.) We then took the left path, into the Drake Circus complex itself.
The first thing you saw was the back entrance of C&A. The front was right at the other end of the complex, a fact I found incredibly impressive. Sometimes we would use C&A as a kind of unofficial subway into the town proper, but they eventually caught on to this and stopped people using the back entrance, so we had to pass through Drake Circus itself.
First on the left was a cheery, dimly-lit café, where tables would be routinely shared by strangers, and we would sometimes stop for a bowl of 'soup of the day', also known as minestrone. On the right, a wool shop.
Then on the left, the first Tesco supermarket I had ever seen. The exact layout of its two floors remains so vivid in my mind that you could give me a shopping list and I would know exactly where to find each item, something I still can’t do in my local Sainsbury’s after six months of regular usage.
But we will ignore Tesco’s today and march onward still, because we have another destination in mind.We will not even turn right, where at the top of one of the only outside escalators I have ever seen stood my favourite childhood shop: an Aladdin’s cave called Arcadia: two massive open-plan floors with, on the ground, paperbacks, magazines, annuals, sweets and records, and on the top, a wonderland of toys.
No, we are heading straight ahead, to a small but enchanting bookshop called Chapter and Verse.
Here is where my earliest memories of solo book buying are located, where I turned so many vague potential interests into lifelong passions, with careful purchases of judiciously chosen stock. Here is where I bought my first book on ancient Egypt (Romer's Egypt by John Romer) and my first book on Hitchcock, and my first Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion.
It seems to me there are no such bookshops now: they either sell nothing or everything, neither option really conducive to the kind of chance discoveries from which true devotion to a subject is built. Just as multi-channel television has killed the potential for stumbling upon and sticking with a film or programme you would not have chosen to watch but might just change your life, so too has the book superstore. If you know what you’re looking for, great, but stumbled-upon epiphanies are rare.
Chapter and Verse was shaped by human imagination. Space was at a premium, so stock was carefully chosen and the books were all good. And there, staring at me one Friday, was that amazing face I had just seen on television, the provocative, shiny haired, black-red lipped, hypnotic eyed, impossibly beckoning visage of Louise. The films had impressed me, but it was this book that made me her slave. For a few weeks I would simply go into the shop and browse through it, but soon enough I succumbed, as all men did around Louise, it would seem.
Of course all the iconic glamour shots were there, but the one that held my eye the longest was this one, a candid of her on a set, surrounded by books and eating a sandwich:
In later years, there would be other, technically better books about Louise to add to my shelves, but none were ever quite as exciting as this first one: I bought her own memoirs, collected as Lulu In Hollywood soon after, then a few years later Barry Paris's biography came along; just recently Peter Cowie's coffee-table tome became the ultimate photographic record of this most photogenic of all stars. Now, comes the mouthwatering news that her private journals are being prepared for publication.
My own view of Brooks has changed over the years too: my complete initial capitulation to her erotic hypnosis was eventually tainted by cynicism when I realised how well she stage-managed her decline, and how so many of the bad breaks that killed her career were brought about by her own stubbornness and vanity. But the delight I take in flicking through this book has never weakened for a second, and thus it belongs at the very top of my list of film books I cannot imagine life without. I only have to look at the cover to be transported back to that time when the cerebral passions of cinemania were first mixed with the more instinctive fixations that mark the transition from short to long trousers.
As for Chapter and Verse: well, we had many more pleasant encounters to come, but it disappeared eventually, as all things too good for this world must sooner or later do. And eventually, the entire Drake Circus complex was demolished and rebuilt, seemingly freehand, with whatever materials happened to be lying around at the time.
The original was by no means a pretty thing: it was grey, it was shadowy, and cold even in Summer. What it has been replaced by, however, is something only a computer could love, and I'm proud to say it was the 2006 inaugural winner of the Carbuncle Cup, the prestigious award given by architectural magazine Prospect to honour the most egregious eyesores in Britain.