Sunday, February 5, 2023

Weekend things: "The London Nobody Knows" and "Marjoe"

This is my worn-but-fine copy of The London Nobody Knows, which was written and illustrated by Geoffrey Fletcher (1923–2004) and first published in 1962. This is the 1965 Penguin paperback; so, it's not bad for a 58-year-old softcover that's been through multiple owners and bookshops. 

The nonfiction book's title is fairly self-explanatory, but the blurb on the back cover gives additional insight: "Geoffrey Fletcher, as the Sunday Telegraph has said, 'has an eye for what most of us miss.' His delightful scrapbook of off-beat London, with its clean drawings and entertaining text, is as enticing as Portobello Road on a Saturday afternoon." Fletcher checks out the "enamel advertisements, seedy terraces of perfect proportions, decorated cast-iron public lavatories, monumental masonry and fallen arches. Here is a rococo Victorian funeral parlour, there a splendid Hawksmoor Church, threatened by indifference and the breaker's hammer. And look! here is positively the last Yiddish theatre in London."

Of course, many things have changed in the six decades since this book's publication. Some of Fletcher's hidden gems are certainly gone forever. But there is good news, too. The "Hawksmoor Church" mentioned above is Christ Church Spitalfields, designed in the 1700s by Nicholas Hawksmoor. This book was written during its low point, but a multidecade restoration has returned much of the structure's former glory, as Wikipedia notes:
"By 1960 Christ Church was nearly derelict and services were held in the Church Hall (an ex Huguenot Chapel in Hanbury Street) as the roof of Christ Church itself was declared unsafe. The Hawksmoor Committee staved off the threat of wholesale demolition of the empty building — proposed by the then Bishop of Stepney, Trevor Huddleston — and ensured that the roof was rebuilt with funds from the sale of the bombed out shell of St John's, Smith Square, now a concert hall. ... In 1976 the Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields, an independent charity, was formed to raise money and project manage the restoration. ... the church was restored to its pre-1850 condition, working from the original building documents where possible, a process that stretched over more than 25 years."
Fletcher does most of his exploration on foot and many of his observations are of the type one can only glean via shoe leather on the sidewalk. In the chapter about Islington, he writes of the sights to be seen along Chapel Market: "The weeks before Christmas are the best time to go there, for it is then that market is most fully stocked with fruit, vegetables, poultry, and toys. Here the crowd gathers round a man selling boxes of cheap crackers, and a hawker with several days' growth of beard sells magic mice  —  white mice which run up and down his greasy sleeves. Those who buy them will find that there is nothing but a mouse of white wax inside the bag; the secret is in the manipulation; that is all."

I was surprised to learn that this 1962 book served as the basis for a 1969 documentary of the same name, which features actor James Mason as the guide/narrator. 

Much had changed — culturally if not structurally — in the seven years between 1962 and 1969. So I'm guessing the documentary has a different flavor. 

One IMDb reviewer, writing in 2011, describes the documentary as "a perfect artifact of a Britain before the almost complete Americanisation of its streets, industries and culture that was to come in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s." Another reviewer recommends it for fans of psychogeography. And I love this comment from a 2007 review: "I never had James Mason pegged as one to go wondering around the back streets of Spitalfields (where, then, some were still alive who could remember the Ripper murders....), old theatres in Camden, and Salvation Army hostels interviewing the unfortunates there."

Speaking of documentaries... 
... on Friday night I finally caught up with the Oscar-winning 1972 documentary Marjoe, and I'm still trying to wrap my brain around all of it. What an incredible story and historical document it is. 

For those unfamiliar, Marjoe Gortner (who recently turned 79) was forced into preaching by his parents at age 4; perhaps not a surprise, given that his first name is a portmanteau of Mary and Joseph. For more than a decade, his parents parlayed his speaking talents and precociousness into a cash cow on the revival circuit. He never saw any of the money (he says they made millions) and set out on his own in San Francisco at age 16. Eventually, in need of money as a young adult, he returned to the only thing he'd ever been taught: deploying his charisma and persuasive speaking about God and the Bible as a traveling preacher. The money was great, but he grew tired of the deception. 

So, in 1971, he agreed to let a documentary crew "out" him as a charlatan during one final tour of the revival circuit. The documentary switches back and forth between Gortner's sermons, all of which end with his call for parishioners to "get our your wallets," and hotel interviews in which he conveys a sense of self-loathing but also anger at how that type of evangelism is a rigged to separate the faithful from their money.

Gortner knew the gig would be up for him after the documentary was released, and in fact that's what he was counting on, so that he wouldn't be tempted to live his double life any longer. He worked as an actor throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Interestingly, many of his roles cast him as a villain or deceiver, including the TV movie The Gun and the Pulpit, Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (co-starring Lynda Carter) and the movie that critics tend to his consider his best performance, When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?

With a running time of less than 90 minutes, Marjoe has a dizzying amount to say about bad parenting; the lifelong effects of childhood trauma; the greed, deception and hypocrisy of some religious institutions and leaders; the gullibility of the masses and the state of America in the early 1970s. And this was before that decade's rise of televangelism, which allowed people to be separated from their money without even having to leave their homes.

I think this headline on one IMDb review sums up Marjoe well: "Award-Winning Documentary that Had No Effect on Americans." 

(As an aside, it's also incredibly depressing to watch the young documentary filmmakers, who are often in the shots in which Gortner is interviewed, essentially chainsmoking through each scene. But the rise and marketing of Big Tobacco to generations of Americans is a topic for other days and other documentaries.)

Watching a documentary as compelling as Marjoe often jump-starts me down a rabbit hole of finding other documentaries about niche elements of culture and our world, especially from the 1960s and 1970s. I already mentioned 1969's The London Nobody Knows. A few others I now want to track down include 1967's Holy Ghost Peoplethe 1967 Soviet documentary 235 000 000, and 1971's The Moon and the Sledgehammer. Other recommendations heartily welcome!

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