© 2010 Whitney Smith
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July 13: Ken Tynan's generous ghost  


Finished The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, edited by John Lahr (2001), a sustained and addictive pleasure about London and Hollywood in the 1970’s, and much else. Having closed the book I now enter the favoured state of literary grief for a few days, wanting it to go on: that feeling not unlike the time that follows a couple of heady holiday weeks with an out-of-town lover or pal, and what it feels like when you come home and they’re not around anymore. Where are you Ken? I say to myself. Keeping talking, Ken. There’s a high level of Eros that comes from reading his diaries, the kind that makes me want to live life more fully — and now that it’s done, I’m smitten.

Tynan, the most influential English theatre critic of the 1950s and 1960s, was a chain smoker who all his life held his cigarette between the two middle fingers in the affected way of the ‘Bright Young Things’: the young and carefree London aristocrats and bohemians in the late 1920s through the early 1940s. (He was even more famous in Britain for being the first person to say ‘fuck’ on television). In 1980, in the youthful maturity of 53, emphysea got him, partly because he had a rare physiological condition in which tobacco smoke was more poisonous than usual. It was way, way too soon: not just for him, but for us.

My wish is that this volume of diaries could have been the first of several. Why? With all autobiographies it’s not just what happens and how the tales are told, but how good the language is. Tynan’s is brilliant; not so much witty as clever. I never found him really funny but I relished ever sentence. He was seriously insightful, as if there was a meta-manifesto getting written in the background.

He was an acute observer of the good and bad in people, generous and scathing, bitchy and loving, and deeply honest about himself. Surely in this way he is a model for the more complete person. Sure, writing a diary you can be as candid as you want to be. But he knew these diaries would be published someday (he bequeathed them to his oldest daughter for that reason), and there’s all the dirtiness and weakness and painfully paradoxical shyness of the revved up extrovert here that give the diaries their force. For instance, he was famous for his penchant for spanking (for him the preferred and often necessary way of getting aroused) and his secret love affair with an elderly silent era movie queen. The book also chugs along on the rich fuel of detail of the brainy celebrity circuit, and how fucked up everyone was, and how vividly he depicts the flavour of his society and its conversations.

But for me it is how Tynan paints his own portrait — the dandy in soul rags, the near perfect intellect (if you agree with his socialist politics): incisive, condensed and freewheeling, erudite in his terrain, always sparking, always probing for the truth that serves the common weal. Yet, as a talent battling multiple demons that derailed his productivity, his ambition floated desperately in the mixture of his appetites. It is this aspect of his writing that spoke very strongly to me: the difficulty of the freelancer, the self-managing talent.

The productive artist, if he is ruled by his addictions or compulsions, must on some level make a whole lot of other significant sacrifices to get the work done. In another fine autobiography, A Moveable Feast, one alcoholic artist, Hemingway, writes about another, Fitzgerald, and in every sentence the great achiever Hemingway seems to be asking himself: Why did Scott have so much trouble meeting the demands of the day? For Hemingway, and writers like John Cheever as well, drinking and writing had their separate and mutually respected places in the day.

Ken had good plans. He wanted to write a book about Wilhelm Reich, which would have been a useful book on Reich, at least in that we would have read Tynan’s exquisite prose, and heard the non-academic experiential dissections of a libidinous believer on one of the great misunderstood and under-appreciated geniuses of the last century. But he couldn’t get it done. His infidelity to his work could be corrected by a promised cheque, but not much more than that. Weeks and months pass by, the holidays to Spain and the cuisine tours of France were planned and consumed while complained about not being able to write the books and honour the advances given by publishers, etc. (When he did write — see Profiles (1990) — he blesses us.) The self-loathing was an active ingredient in him, like the enzyme that made him allergic to tobacco. The whole sad tale is such because we are losing what appears to be a fabulous and richly fabled person, who spoke better than many about his time. This is great loss, as I see it, because his words are as alive as Dr. Johnson’s or Pepys or Anais Nin; I will certainly go back to them in years to come, and have already memorized several things of what he had to say without trying, because they are so damn well-expressed. Most often that not there is the inevitability of a Beethoven charge in his lines.

I am sad for the loss also because of how fluently he traces his own fall. Accidentally or not, the arc of his decline is gruelingly thematic. The experience of reading it, listening to him as he goes through the grim motions of (I hear him saying), “Oh, by the way, not only do I get professional failure, I get death too.” The Tynan intellect does truth-fuelled style and structure without thinking, and for me the result is something Shakespeare might pull off for a tragic hero.

Some fortunate day an actor will play Ken Tynan, when a really skillful writer is able to put the right words in his mouth, to catch the nuance and heart of an ultimate virtuoso. What a great day that will be when this eloquent, free-living, self-yearning talent, a most human of souls — so lucky, so unlucky — speaks to us from the stage.


What Kenneth Tynan's diairies have caused me to think more deeply about:  socialism as a lens through which to view the world in 2010 that needn’t be burdened by traditional Marxist, Communist and socialist doctrine; being the sexual person you feel you truly are, and that brings you what you need (at your own risk of course); the work of Bertolt Brecht, and particularly his poetry; talking as straight as possible to professional colleagues, and doing what you can to avoid getting involved in political machinations (vide, National Theatre), and never lying in even the whitest way (see Marlon Brando story, re: Playboy interview); spending more time in Spain; the yellow venom of much of the British press; seeing your life for what it truly is, and seeking to change what’s rocking the ship; having the courage to speak out in social situations about what you think is crap, yet doing it intelligently.