Monday, 22 January 2018

Collecting Comics at the V&A - part of the Introduction

Sharing comics in childhood

Since starting to read and write my prime interest was the governance of society. My mother warned me that if I kept on with the comics I’d grow moronic. I never believed that. Between Batman and Tarzan I was convinced our society could be changed. After all Hollywood and comics had practically colonised the planet. If the élite were toppled it would be through the mass communication of cinema and comics. These deductions emerged living under the draconian oppression of apartheid South Africa.

In 1857 during the era of the great Victorian museums the V&A founding director Sir Henry Cole testified. He wanted a museum for the under-educated working man to acquire culture.
Given my beginnings in South Africa it seemed inevitable that coping with asthma and apartheid I’d become artistically inclined and socially conscious. Settling in a freer England I initially saw the V&A as a haven for oddities and eccentricities. Given what I always was or had become where else could my collections end up? It had to be the V&A.
Looking out of the window on the third floor of my flat what I see is green leaves waiting for a breeze and the miraculous transformation to rippling ocean waves. This view is Kensington privilege on a fine summer’s day. Ascending to my fourth floor and the skylight at the back of the flat what I see is of a different nature. Rising above the fine houses and rich trees behind Latimer Road is the opposite end of the social scale. The smoke stained charred husk of the burnt-out remnant of Grenfell Tower dominates; an ugly reminder of the disparity of life in the wealthiest borough in the United Kingdom. This contradictory enormity bears some similarity to my ambivalent romance with the V&A on the opposite side of Kensington. I live on the border on the north of the borough whereas the V&A dominates the south.
After I arrived in England in the early sixties – a reluctant refugee – I settled in the Worlds End on the periphery of Chelsea. I became a habitué of the V&A. Despite the rundown tone of the museum cafe in the early 60s − the cracked nauseous green plastic seats on rickety chairs and the wobbly, rotting metal and Formica tables − I felt I was in the finest cultural citadel of the universe. It was the antithesis of everything I had escaped from in the southern hemisphere. Before I could commit myself to unparalleled affection I had to check that something onerous was not there. I scoured the corridors and galleries looking for any sign resurrecting a horror from my childhood. To my relief there was nothing akin to what I feared.
In 2009 I delivered the keynote address for a V&A symposium on comics in the Hochhauser Theatre. I recalled what brought tears when I was six years old. I’d got lost in the Cape Town Natural History Museum surrounded by figures which though fully grown were barely bigger than me. The tenor of primordial times resonated and engulfed me. Men, women and children had scorched earth blemished skins, gigantic fleshy backsides, wrinkled lined features and close to the scalp peppercorn hair. They were imprisoned in vast Victorian glass cabinets. Those weary suffering features were the saddest thing my young years had seen. Their eyes bore down on me as if they were still alive.
I ran out terrified and awash with tears. The San people (aka Bushmen) had looked as alive as I felt. I was shamed by my blond-haired whiteness. My colonial antecedents were the perpetrators of what I saw. Later I saw their starving descendents in rags in Namaqualand which was no less frightening.  
Regarded as vermin those diminutive human beings were hunted mercilessly. The colonial administration paid more for skins in good condition. That explained the painful death by driving staves up the anus.
Searching the galleries of the V&A I found no display of that Cape Province enormity. Consequently I was prepared for a commitment to the museum and a companionship within the NAL (National Art Library) which boasted early Shakespeare folios, Dickens original manuscripts and de Vinci notebooks. I was in good company. A world standard was within my reach.
Sir Henry Cole envisaged the V&A as different to other museums for the benefit of the élite. Sir Henry installed electricity for people to visit the Library after working hours. The cultural barriers had to fall beyond the grip of the privileged.
Given my slant on what drove Sir Henry chimes with values I hold dear. I was inevitably as a collector drawn towards the Library with over a million books housed in the V&A. I interpreted what Sir Henry had declared as the pursuit of world class excellence for all people of all classes, colours and genders. My course was set. The Rakoff Collection with 16,000 items is a solid chunk of acid free sleeved comics shelved under room controlled temperature in the under land of the museum, safe for longer than I shall endure.
We begin at the beginning to quote Under Milk Wood; how the allure of comics attracted this collector.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Thoughts on The Prisoner

Looking into my past before The Prisoner, I see some relevance and get an idea what it was that McGoohan recognised. What Lindsey took to is another matter entirely. What Lindsey saw in McGoohan was not a lot. What McGoohan anticipated but couldn't find in Lindsay is something else.
Being involved with such monumental figures is an ongoing reflection. Both were aggressive, volatile and of high moral value. I wrote a book geared in a vein trying to understand both parties but never had much of a chance.

Now I might try again, hoping for a more gratifying analysis.

In my last year at school I didn't lead, not did I follow, but somehow I was a seminal figure in rioting. School was closed down. The windows were replaced and doors put back on their hinges. Everything was brushed under the carpet. We were at the school Cecil John Rhodes founded - the man who aspired to painting Africa pink from Cape to Cairo.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Report from the SEX FACTORY - PART ONE

Report from the SEX FACTORY

Lindsay Anderson was born in colonial India. After an education at an English public school he did classics at Oxford. After accolades as critic, in documentaries, an Oscar and director at the Royal Court he focused on cinema and the Palme D’Or at Cannes. In effect the ageless wunderkind.
After a screening of my documentary on apartheid SA, Lindsay decided to orchestrate my career. A father figure was birthed.
My volatility with his abrasive mien, made a frightening combination.  Another editing assistant remarked − Lindsay was quite sane except when he’s with you…!!!
In 1967 I worked on a TV series The Prisoner. Lindsay sneered at my writer’s credit. He wanted me to edit a BFI film on rebellion against apartheid by first time director Stephen Frears. The Burning won awards and The Prisoner became a cult − as my iron god with clay feet had predicted. Lindsay wanted me to cut commercials. I wasn’t up for advertising.
You might become a better person – Lindsay reflected – but you won’t become a better editor. I went onto If.... as assistant editor.
Over the years we argued nonstop. He slugged me. He kicked my broken leg. We stopped seeing each other and we got back together which became the pattern.
In the winter of 1974/75 features were in a slump. I got offered a porn film in Holland. I needed money to buy comics which put me in an awful quandary.
I expected Lindsay to applaud my refusal. He did not − it’s a chance to have something real and away from trashy comics. Read trivia and you’ll produce trivia. The clincher landed below the belt – are you frightened of sex? That touched a raw nerve.



Ian Rakoff

In childhood my older sister and I were horrified by what we saw displayed inside the Natural History Museum in Cape Town. The reality was so shameful that it was brushed under the carpet as fastidiously as holocaust denial. What was alluded to was that the figures came from moulds and were not flesh and blood.
In adulthood I had a telephone conversation with my sister in the States. Her voice changed to a whisper when I recalled those child sized Bushmen in glass cabinets. She corroborated my worst suspicions − at least that was how I interpreted her tone. The figures behind the glass were not clay models. They were stuffed human beings. They were Victorian taxidermy. No wounds were evident on the skin. The victims had staves hammered up their anuses and were left to die slowly. Some considered the Bushmen vermin; others wayward children − more animal than human. They were hunted and slaughtered freely. The museum paid extra for unblemished corpses.
There was little about the Bushmen in our schoolbooks. Yet they were the oldest humans on the continent. In ancient times the impala and springbok herds migrating across southern Africa numbered millions, and the Bushmen were equally present.
Last year an Oxford archeologist lectured on rock art of the Bushmen at the British Museum. I asked about the tableaux of the hunter-gatherers and their families in the Cape Town museum. The speaker knew exactly what I referred to, and he dismissed what I had to say; not even apartheid was that venal. I had not said that the genocide occurred during colonial times and predated apartheid.
I was astonished by the glib explanation. I thought of Roosevelt’s reaction on being told about Auschwitz. He refused to believe it – in the beginning. 
What did appear in our schoolbooks claimed that the tragedy that befell the Xhosa people in 1857 was self-inflicted. If ever there was a Hitler conceit in SA history this was it. The whitewashed version in our history books blamed the Xhosa for the National ‘Suicide’ of the Ama-Xhosa. This was like saying that millions in concentration camps in the 2nd World War killed themselves.
Sir George Grey, governor of the Cape devised the deception. Under the leadership of Chief Kreli cattle and the grain were plentiful. The people were thriving and it was the fallow years during which no warfare could be contemplated. But Sir George had informed the Foreign Office staff that an uprising from the Ama-Xhosa needed to be thwarted.
This was what Sir George concocted. Three men were disguised as goat spirits. The smell of butchered goat was awful and their Xhosa was far from fluent. What color the spirits were was hidden. What mattered was to find the young mystic, give her the message from the ancestors and burn the goatskins.  
Nongqawuse won her acclaim by ridding fields of marauding birds. She had a powerful voice and the bearing of greatness. Her sweet manner made for many friendships. Though only fifteen she had a considerable reputation and following. Walking home she heard her name called. In the shadows of a cliff she saw what resembled three goat-spirits. They told her the Ama-Xhosa were to slaughter their cattle and destroy their crops. The cattle would come alive and so would their ancestors. The sun would rise in the west and they would drive the white man into the sea.
The adolescent girl said no one would believe her. She would come back the next day with her uncles and aunts. After the second visit the family returned to the umuzi to indaba. Why was there a strong smell of goat? Since when did spirits smell? Why was the Xhosa spoken so poor? Specific dates were not common to Xhosa. Nonetheless, their Paramount Chief should be notified.
By the time Nongqawuse reached the imuzi of Kreli she had a gigantic following. The Chief was not convinced but the fervor of the fanatical throng was unstoppable. Kreli stocked up with food withdrew to his stronghold to wait it.
Accordingly, across the land the people slaughtered their cattle and burnt their crops. The next day the sun rose as it always did. The cattle did not come back to life as prophesied, and the crops did not return, nor did the ancestors, and there was nothing to eat anywhere. Soon they were starving and eating human flesh.
The population was decimated by the time Sir George set up soup kitchens; too little, too late and too far away. The power of the Xhosa was broken. However, the Foreign Office in London was appalled by Sir George’s conduct. His correspondence from the Cape Colony was removed from the official records and he was recalled. Subsequently he was posted to New Zealand where he did something similar to the indigenous Maoris.
As ever the sun never did set on the British Empire.  
I  R

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Humour, Comedy & Laughter - obscenities, paradoxes, insights & the renewal of life

Recently published by Berghahn Books, Oxford.

My chapter, number 4, is titled Comic Strips and the Making of the American Identity. A journey of race and gender prejudice in the culture of comics.

You can find out more at

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Arthur Louis - Knocking on Heaven's Door

My friend Arthur passed away. He was one of the kindest, sensitive and gentle people I have known. In many ways he was held back in life by an uncommonly benign sentiment. He was also a considerable talent. Always close to, but never quite at the top.

The Serials: From Harlem to Dickens & Trollope

This is the title of my forthcoming posting on the V&A website.

Bringing the culture of the comic books in close harmony with the mutual grammar of cinema, proving how blurred the line dividing the two can be. It is also a response to a request from J.B. of the NAL wanting me to be more of an art historian and less of a social historian. Coincidentally the same request came from the Learning Department at the V&A.

Confessions of Collector – Misdemeanours of a Comic Book Addiction