Wednesday, 10 March 2010

A Viewing Room in Soho

An email out of the blue invites me to a preview of Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost”, in a viewing room behind a discreet Soho door and up dark, creaking wooden stairs.

No sign of the email sender when I arrive, just a tiny cinema sparsely populated with professionals. There can be no sign of Polanski during this launch either, or course, because he is under house arrest in Switzerland for crimes too old and too famous to be regurgitated here, except that his fate strangely mirrors that of Pierce Brosnan’s character in the film, an ex British Prime Minister holed up in a rich man’s heavily guarded beach house. Once swept to power on a wave of adoration he is now wanted for war crimes and the publishers who have paid out millions for his memoirs are demanding speedy delivery of a manuscript that will recoup their outlay.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the promotional machine for Tony Blair’s forthcoming memoir is kicking into life with suggestions of publication in the autumn. No one has bothered to make any secret of the fact that Pierce Brosnan’s character was modelled by its creator, novelist Robert Harris, on Blair himself. Blair and Harris used to be friends but, one imagines, not any more.

When Harris’s book, “The Ghost”, was published, bearing quotes from my own book, “Ghostwriting” at the opening of every chapter, I was just starting work on a book for the mysterious futurologist and educationalist, Jim Martin. As I travelled out to his private island in Bermuda the parallels seemed uncanny. But whereas the secret tunnels, fantastical buildings and gardens that riddle Jim Martin’s island are drenched in sunshine, Polanski’s wind and rain-swept landscapes are altogether bleaker and darker, the violent sea grey and menacing rather than brilliant blue and sparkling. In Polanski and Harris’s world there is a body on the beach rather than the sails of millionaires’ yachts bobbing cheerfully off shore.

The ghost of the title is played by Ewan McGregor, a Chandleresque protagonist suddenly transported into a closed, dangerous, mysterious world. Initially, as with many ghostwriting projects in the real world, virtually nothing going on around him makes sense. But then slowly, as he grows familiar with his story and the characters, he sees the terrible truth materialise out of the lies and secrets.

As the film ended and the lights came back on there was still no sign of the e-mail sender who had assured me he was so looking forward to meeting me, and in the bright sunlight of Old Compton Street the darkness and menace of the film begins to fade. But actually Polanski and Harris’s world is all around us. Polanski himself is still under house arrest, Blair’s publishers still have a memoir they have to sell, there is still talk of possible war crimes accusations hanging in the air and still no one can really explain what madness drove us to go to war in Iraq with the Americans. There are conspiracy theories circulating on the internet as to why the authorities should have chosen the moment when Blair was running for European President to resurrect the case against Polanski after so many decades of indifference.

Nothing, as always, is quite as safe as it seems as I head with my wife to Little Italy in Frith Street for a late lunch.

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