Forget London: Charlie Chaplin belongs to us all
Charlie Chaplin - Peter Ackroyd, Chatto & Windus, €16.99
By his mid-20s, Charlie Chaplin was the most famous man in the world, recognised by admirers in every one of the markets reached by the new, language-free medium of silent film. In Modern Times the unhoused tramp says he lives "anywhere", and that was also Chaplin's address.
He was understood, as he remarked, by both Hindu and Hottentot, and worshipped "by people who have never heard of Jesus Christ". Lenin wanted to meet him, and Hitler mimicked his inky, abbreviated moustache. For the former, he was a put-upon proletarian, for the latter, a crowd-controlling demagogue.
The French called him Charlot because he reminded them of the tragic clown Pierrot, though when Chaplin visited Japan he noted the similarity between the tramp's jerky ritualised gait and the gesticulation of kabuki actors.
In Germany, meanwhile, the modernists of the Bauhaus, ignoring his pathos, praised his "complete inhumanity". After Chaplin met Einstein, the critic Waldo Frank likened him to one of the physicist's disjunct atoms, forever condemned to "journey alone through the world".
For Peter Ackroyd, however, this adaptable archetype belongs to just one locality. The Chaplin of his brief biography is rooted in frowsy, smelly south London where, before escaping without regret to America, he spent his early years in a succession of charitable institutions and down-at-heel lodging houses.
"These are my people, the cockneys," Chaplin later said, with the humble amiability that celebrities like to affect. But he never returned to his native turf, and lived instead in mansions on private estates in Hollywood and Switzerland. On later visits to England, which he considered "small and tight and dismal", he preferred to squint across the Thames at south London from the vantage point of his suite at the Savoy.
Yet for Ackroyd, Chaplin's was always "a London vision", mixing "farce and sentiment, melodrama and pantomime", just as tragedy and comedy collide in Dickens's chaotic thoroughfares. With his impudent, lecherous grin, Chaplin remains, Ackroyd says, "the spirit of London", as street-smart as if he were wearing a hoodie not a bowler hat, trainers not clogs, and carrying a concealed blade, not a dapper cane.
The "salmon-like instinct for home" that Ackroyd attributes to Chaplin is surely an illusion. People throughout the world felt an affinity with him – or with his creation, the battered, eternally resilient Charlie – and Lambeth had no prior rights.
Ackroyd knows the local terrain well, which is perhaps why he loses his bearings after the story moves on to America. Later in his book, he calls the New York railway terminus Grand Union station, not Grand Central, and he believes that the San Fernando Valley, situated beyond the hills behind Los Angeles, abuts "the sea" (by which he means the Pacific Ocean). Even his eye for London landmarks can be blurred by wishful thinking.
The set for Mr Chaplin's encounter with the blind flower seller in City Lights is, Ackroyd says, a nostalgic facsimile of "the street and railings outside St Mark's church in Kennington". I live behind that church, and for the life of me can't see the resemblance.
In truth, as Ackroyd has to admit, Chaplin belonged everywhere because he came "out of nowhere". His paternity was dubious, and one family legend says he was born to gypsies in a caravan parked outside Birmingham. No birth certificate is on file. He belongs on the open road, or in the white wasteland of The Gold Rush.
As Picasso said, after meeting the bemused, elderly Chaplin and finding no trace of Charlie in him, he was "a lost soul". Despite Ackroyd's desire to make him ethnic and indigenous, he remains apart, elusive, insulated by his egocentricity.
Audiences cheered "a person, or persona, who did not really exist", and projected their own feelings onto him. In The Idle Class we see him from behind, apparently racked with sobs after his wife deserts him; then a frontal view shows that he is in fact rejoicing as he agitates a cocktail shaker to prepare a celebratory drink. Is he tragic, comic, tragicomic, or none of the above?
Chaplin made the masses laugh and cry, sometimes simultaneously, but had little emotion to expend on the crises of his private life. His first child was born malformed and died almost immediately. "Chaplin," as Ackroyd pointedly puts it, "was for a day or two inconsolable."
Elsewhere Ackroyd gives up the effort to penetrate his subject's mask. Dealing with Chaplin's repeated seductions of nubile minors, he dismissively decides that "There is no reason in passion". Obliged to mention a murky episode when the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst may have shot an actor whom he may have mistaken for Chaplin who may have been having an affair with Hearst's mistress Marion Davies, Ackroyd shrugs and says: "The truth will never be found at the bottom of this well."
He writes brilliantly about the physics of Chaplin's silent comedies, set in a universe where inanimate objects are threateningly mobilised and human beings, hurled into collisions, ricochet after painfully acquiring "the experience of materiality". But Chaplin himself remains detached from this mayhem, which is the secret of his indestructibility.
In Monsieur Verdoux, the serial killer, so nonchalant when he murders his victims and so coolly composed as he strolls to his execution, is asked how he feels. "Very abstract," he replies. It may be Chaplin's saddest, wryest moment of self-revelation: he was abstracted from himself, from society, from humanity – and certainly from the grim south London to which Ackroyd has over-fondly attempted to repatriate him.
Sunday Indo Living