Swellboy on… poetry and Point Break

The Norman Mailer Benefit Gala provides an artistic diversion as autumn leaves start to fall

Image: Brijesh Patel

Autumn: mists, mellow fruitfulness, Mr Kipling cakes and Mailer. The yellowing of the leaves is a sure sign that it is time for me to be in New York for the annual Norman Mailer Benefit Gala, which this year is underwritten by Van Cleef & Arpels. I serve the Norman Mailer Centre in some nebulous capacity on one of the advisory councils that, from time to time, suggests things to the main board. Or maybe I am on an advisory board that might on occasion make recommendations to the main council? I forget exactly.

It is probably a sign of age, but I am getting into poetry in a way that I would never have thought possible. For some reason, as a schoolboy, while I was able to grasp the concept of scansion and metre easily enough, I could never identify it when it came to exams – a sort of mental blindness that did not exactly help my results. After a hiatus of about a quarter of a century, I am reading the stuff again, mainly the greatest hits – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, In Memoriam etc – and really rather enjoying it.

It is not so much the eternal truths that may or not be elucidated – I do not subscribe to the notion that poets are necessarily gifted with any greater level of insight into the human condition than the rest of us – but the ingenious manner in which meaning is distilled and expressed. Poetry is the excuse to play about with language, to experiment with it, to render it decorative and effectful in ways that the rest of us cannot manage, and it is this fanciful element in it that appeals to me.


It was suggested that Van Cleef might start making jewellery engraved with lines of poetry, and I rather like the idea. Moreover, I would imagine that it would be a good piece of business, as sometimes a love poem might match your mood, at other times an elegy might be more appropriate. Sometimes the formality of a Petrarchan sonnet might be right (say for a business meeting), while at other times (at the weekend, for example) the freedom of blank verse would strike the right tone. Serendipitously, I noticed that on our side of the Atlantic a bunch of thesps including Eddie Redmayne and Elizabeth McGovern were part of a week of poetry readings – don’t be surprised if Swellboy is soon available in rhyming couplets.

But what makes the Mailer evening such a humdinger is that one minute you are pondering iambic pentameter and the next you are hearing about boxing in the 1960s: Muhammad Ali was there, as was Oliver Stone, the great Gay Talese and sundry other talents from the world of pugilism, film and letters. The laureates this year were Joyce Carol Oates, a writer whose work I have thus far neglected, but with which I became familiar on the flight back; and Robert Caro, who is labouring on the fifth book of his four-volume biography of LBJ.  

My chief insight into the character of Lyndon B Johnson is gleaned from the film Point Break, a smashing piece of early 1990s nonsense in which Keanu Reeves foils a bunch of bank robbers, led by Patrick Swayze, who disguise their identity by wearing presidential masks (among them LBJ) – it is also a big Breitling movie, in that at one moment you get a screenful of the Swiss chronographer’s oeuvre.


Anyway, I doff my metaphorical hat in respect to the delightful Mr Caro. I have to say that I admire anyone who is able to coax volume after volume out of the life of a bloke who wasn’t meant to be president, and my admiration is even greater in that he has taken a four-book deal and made a five-book deal out of it. All was made clear in his gracious acceptance speech (he should be getting quite good at them by now, having won two Pulitzers and various other honours), during which he identified what I see as the real point of biography (or at least the point of the one biography that I have written); namely to provide a viewpoint from which to view a historical period. In which case, given the turbulent times through which LBJ lived, Mr Caro has enough material for volumes six and seven. And I hope that in volume eight he will be able to deconstruct the cultural legacy that LBJ bequeathed to Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Point Break, a film which I am sure she believes, as do I, was far more worthy of an Academy Award than The Hurt Locker.