Friday, 2 October 2020

TRUMP'S TWILIGHT ZONE: THE CORONA GAMBIT

 I've written a modest proposal about Trump and Covid-19, which is available on Medium. Use this link and you can by-pass the paywall -- though Medium allows you five free stories a month anyway, and I'm unlikely to write four more!

Thursday, 1 October 2020

NURSERY RHYME: A Poem for National Poetry Day

To celebrate National Poetry Day, here's a poem I like a great deal. I wrote it for Tanya one night in Plymouth in September 1990, almost exactly thirty years ago. It it still on the paper on which I typed it up back in London and unchanged since then. But it never felt like something to submit (and I was getting away from publishing poetry anyway). Now I think it could have gone somewhere.  

 

NURSERY RHYME

 

Before we go on

We shall have to decide

Which things are important

& which we will hide.

 

How much we can live with

& how much without;

Equations like these are

What love's all about.


& once we have weighed

Every point in each hand,

We'll listen & talk, but

We won't understand

 

That balance & logic

Are just symptoms of

A different disease,

But not symptoms of love.


 

MAC DAVIS: FROM IN THE GHETTO TO NORTH DALLAS FORTY

Maybe the most surprising thing about North Dallas Forty, which is still the best football movie ever made, is that Mac Davis was so perfect playing Seth Maxwell, the glamorous quarterback of the North Dallas Bulls. Davis was a singer/songwriter from Nashville, whose only acting experience had been doing sketches on his own variety show (which also featured Gabe ‘Kotter’ Kaplan and Loretta ‘MASH’ Swit) a few years earlier. But he fitted the role of an easy-going good ol’ boy with a fierce will to win—a part patterned on Dandy Don Meredith, who reportedly was offered the role himself, just as the Bulls were the Dallas Cowboys and coach BA Strothers was at least in part Tom Landry (Strothers was played by GD Spradlin, who made a career playing inflexible authoritarian figures; two years earlier he had played a basketball coach somewhere between John Wooden and Bobby Knight in One On One, a good movie spoiled by casting Robby Benson as the basketball star; you’ll remember him as Senator Geary in The Godfather).

The recognisable figures in North Dallas 40 made sense because the novel upon which the film was based was written by Pete Gent, a wide-out cum tight end for the Cowboys. The book is darker than the film, which is simpler in its battle against authority—the Gent character is called Phil Elliott, played by Nick Nolte, who loves the game but dislikes the regimented bullshit around it (boy did that ring a familiar bell with me) and it’s the relationship with Seth which is the cornerstone of the film: Davis is his best friend, but he gets along with everybody, and he is also canny enough to realise his value to the team and he will not let anyone get in the way of that. Kind of like Cap Rooney in Any Given Sunday, there’s a youngster waiting in the wings; though in this case it is a Born-Again Christian QB who fits the God America and Cheerleaders in Hot Pants image of “America’s Team”.

Davis was from Lubbock, Texas, so he knew his football, and he knew how the hometown hero thing would play. It’s a winning performance that should have led to a better career, but he had to wait four years for his next movie, which was the execrable Sting 2, and his later roles were in TV vehicles. Part of the problem was that easy-going aura, which made him excellent as a variety and game show host, but which in ND40 hinted at some depth—I always thought he would be perfect for roles as likeable-on-the-surface villains, but whosever lack of vision couldn’t see that probably did him a disservice.

But acting was really a sidelight. Davis is best known for writing a number of songs which became hits for Elvis Presley, the most famous of which is “In The Ghetto”. He looked a bit like Tony Joe White, who was in many ways the last and best of the ‘next Elvis’ contenders, but he was a cleaner version, which is why he had that variety show in the mid-Seventies. As a performer, he was a bit too pop-country, but as a song-writer he reminded me of Tom T Hall or Hoyt Axton, or at least he did once I heard “In The Ghetto”. This is an unusual song for country music at the time, and really in general, because it tells a story that’s specifically out of the country universe, and it is unapologetic in its empathy, in its implicit blame, and in its sense, perhaps a little to resigned, to the cycle of pain and violence that the ghetto creates and perpetuates. Davis wrote a number of other excellent ballads, and he sang them well, but I haven’t heard any which match the sadness of “In The Ghetto”, and in many ways I like his own, more folky version, at least as much as Elvis’ more powerful, orchestrated take.

Take a listen. And take a look at North Dallas Forty. In many ways Any Given Sunday is just a jazzed up version of that original, but most of the same themes are there. It was directed by Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian who had made The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz but who basically fell into journeyman work after this, and though he, Gent and producer Frank Yablans are credited with the screenplay, Nancy Dowd, who wrote Slapshot, contributed uncredited script-doctoring which I think is pretty visible. Like her film, this one is about more than football. And watch Steve Forrest as the owner, Charles Durning as the assistant coach, and most of all Bo Swenson and ex-Raider John Matuszak as the linemen O.W. and Joe Bob. Matuszak has the greatest line in any football movie, screamed at Durning when, after a loss, the assistant coach is berating them for not studying ‘tendencies’ closely enough. “Every time I call it a business, you call it a game! And every time I call it a game, you call it a business!”

But let’s leave the last words to Seth Maxwell, as played by Mac Davis, trying to instruct Phil Elliott: ““You had better learn how to play the game, and I don't mean just the game of football.” 

NOTE: I wrote this for my football Patreon page: Friday Morning Tight End. If you like it, you'll get a lot more subscribing there: www.patreon.com/mikecarlsonfmte 

Sunday, 20 September 2020

JAMES WHALE AND NOSFERATU IN LOVE

I found this double-review in my files, which was originally published in my Books on Film column in Crime Time, when that was still a solid-body magazine. It appeared in issue 15, in November 1998. The Jim Shepard novel was new; it had been titled Nosferatu when it had been published in America; Faber added the 'In Love' bit to juice it up. Curtis' book was a substantial reworking, based on new information, of his 1982 biography with the same title; I assume it was re-issued to coincide with the release of the excellent film Gods & Monsters, with Ian McKellan, Brendan Fraser and Lynn Redgrave, adapted and directed by Bill Condon. I would not be surprised to learn that Shepard's book had some impact on Steve Katz's screenplay for the 2000 film Shadow Of The Vampire. Stranger things have happened.


James Whale killed himself in 1957. He was found floating in his swimming pool like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, and like Gloria Swanson in that film, he was a one-time Hollywood big-wig whose time had long passed. He had not directed a feature film since 1941, a mere decade after Frankenstein made him famous. Before that, starting with Journey's End in 1930, Whale had a six-year run which also included Waterloo Bridge, The Invisible Man, Bride Of Frankenstein (in my eyes, his masterpiece) and Showboat, successes all, during which he was one of Hollywood’s best paid and best regarded directors.

Hollywood was an unlikely resting place for a boy from the Black Country. Whale was a blast furnaceman’s son, raised in a strict Methodist family in the slums of Dudley. As a boy he studied art, but it was as a prisoner of war in Germany that he discovered the theatre. Returning to England in 1918, he began in the provinces, eventually turning to directing and scoring a huge hit on stage with Journey's End, starring a young Laurence Olivier, and showcasing Whale’s brilliance at atmospheric staging..

Whale’s good fortune was to tour America's stages with Journey's End precisely at the point when Hollywood needed stage directors to guide them though the transition to talkies. Whale grasped quickly how camera movement and editing could work with set design to tell a story. Even today, one is struck by the sense of movement in Whale’s best films, which highlights their cinematic economy.

Whale’s decline in Hollywood has often been attributed to discrimination against his open homosexuality. But James Curtis takes pains to point that Whale’s own ease with his sexuality led to general acceptance in the studios. His decline might better be explained, at least in part, by his difficult reputation, especially his tendency to go over budgets and schedules, not least, in par,t by insisting on breaks for tea during shooting.

Whale then spent a decade painting and occasionally directing theatre. In a late fit of mid-life crisis, he abandoned his partner, producer David Lewis, in favour of a series of toy boys. As his health failed, he seems to have realised that, perhaps for the first time in his life, he had sunk into caricature, and he took his own life. It was James Curtis who finally reunited Whale and Lewis, after the latter’s death in 1987, placing their ashes together. This biography is his second act of kindness to a great director.

Horror movies and homosexuality also go together in Jim Shepard’s novel about the German director F.W. Murnau. Born Friedrich Lumpe, Murnau was a “sensitive” provincial boy sent to school in Berlin, where his schoolmate Hans Ehrenbaum introduced him to both art and society. After taking his new name from the town where the boys consummated their relationship, he and Hans entered Berlin’s theatrical world, under Max Reinhard.’s pre-war Berlin resembles Whale’s Twenties’ London: with Conrad Veidt (best known here as Major Strasser in Casablanca) serving as his young Olivier, and Murnau, like Whale, revelling in the discovery of this exotic, creative and rewarding demimonde.

Hans’ death in the Great War haunted Murnau all his life; he had betrayed Hans with a mutual friend and suspected Hans sought death deliberately. This haunting underpins Shepard’s story, and the sense of Murnau using the vampire Nosferatu as a metaphor for his own unhappy sexuality carries far more credence than similar theories about Whale and his filmic monsters.

Shepherd is best during the filming of Nosferatu and Murnau’s other masterpiece, The Last Man. The emotional apex is actually metaphoric, when the brilliant cameraman Karl Freund finally discovers a gyroscopic process which allows the camera to move. This freedom seems to be the only one Murnau ever found in his life.

Murnau’s career in Hollywood was unsuccessful; he spent much time in the South Seas, including a doomed attempt to collaborate with Robert Flaherty. By this point, Shepard seems to rush the story, perhaps because the bright light of California washes out the expressionist shadows of Murnau’s life. Shepard returns to the past to show, touchingly, how the sensitive boy never recovered from the loss of his soulmate. Murnau was ill-suited for survival in Hollywood. With his latest Filipino houseboy at the wheel, he died in a car crash in 1931.

James Whale: A New World Of Gods and Monsters by James Curtis: Faber 1998 £14.99 

Nosferatu by Jim Shepard:  Faber 1998 £9.99

Saturday, 29 August 2020

WISHFUL THINKING: A SONNET

It's hard to explain exactly why I seem to be writing more in traditional verse forms. I think it had something to do with writing the obituary, and re-reading, my college professor Richard Wilbur, though I can't claim what I do is anything like his work. It seems I sometimes try to stick to the forms, and play with rhymes, while trying to keep the verse in the breath and rhythms of speech, rather than strict meter, something of the continuing influence of Charles Olson and his Projective Verse theories which have influenced me since the late Sixties. Or, as Robert Creeley put it, 'form is never more than an extension of content' which I took to mean the poem takes its own form, and you just try to keep up with what it is doing. I could be very self-analytical and point out how the rhyme scheme changes after the first verse, just as the position of the two people in the poem does, but that might ruin some MA thesis.

Anyway, this poem (and another, currently lurking as Wishful Thinking II, but searching for its own title) was structured from pages of notes I found in a notebook from 2001. I gathered a number of putative stanzas, unfinished quatrains, couplets, and even some single lines, and then put them together into two sonnets. This one came from notes all done at the same time and place, and seems to have more structure as a result, but it fell together when I found a couple of lines from 2013 which
fit eerily into those that were heard 12 years earlier.

The song by Ralph Towner I was listening to as I wrote the current poem, but I am sure I was playing it in 2001 as well....



WISHFUL THINKING
                                         (after a tune by Ralph Towner)


As you or I might try to say,
This empty night does not require
That we express even slight desire.
A breeze might blow us either way,

Together, apart, it's all the same,
Though you proceed as if they were
Distinct, thus called by different names.
And we still linked, not sliding further

Away. Confusion's just a slight delay
Til things are supposed to work out well.
You pay no notice to what I say.
What you say, well, I’ve no way to tell

What a single word means; your eyes are blanks.
You insist someday I'll tell you thanks.

July 2001, St Jean de Luz/2013 Haslemere

Friday, 28 August 2020

PETE HAMILL: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the New York journalist Pete Hamill is in the Guardian today; it went up on the paper's website ten days ago (18/8). You can link to that here. The piece was edited down considerably, because I over-wrote it and decided to let them sub out what they preferred to. What went mostly were the stories, which I felt were crucial, or at least entertaining and revealing, but in some cases would not have necessarily been so to British audiences, or the G's audience, whatever. Maybe I was also being too sentimental. As I ended my opening graf: "Only the most sentimental of cynical journalists could write, as Hamill did in Downtown: My Manhattan (2004) “The wanderer in Manhattan must go forth with a certain innocence, because New York is best seen with innocent eyes.“Jimmy Breslin would not have said that.

I also wanted to do some explaining about the New Journalism, though I can understand very well why this was a distraction. This graf was cut completely: "Although Hamill was credited by the literary editor Seymour Krim with coining the phrase ‘the new journalism’, unlike Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer or Gay Talese whose work appeared primarily in magazines like New York or Esquire, he was first a newsman, working to daily deadlines. Like his friend and competitor Jimmy Breslin, he was an Irish kid from the outer boroughs in love with words, but Hamill’s journey from high-school drop-out in Brooklyn to lionised star of Manhattan’s newsrooms was unique."

I wrote about his delivering the Brooklyn Daily Eagle when he was boy, and how the 1963 newspaper strike helped create 'new journalism' by sending daily writers to magazines where they had more time and more space to write. His year in Europe for the Saturday Evening Post was spent in Barcelona and Dublin, which might well have had something to do with the subject matter of his first novel, A Killing For Christ

Back in New York I wanted to tell the story about the circle that gathered at The Lion's Head, in Greenwich Village, which included Frank McCourt, whom, as I mentioned, Hamill claimed borrowed the idea for Angela's Ashes from his A Drinking Life. I also included one of my all-time favourite journalist stories about the Lion's Head, "where once he and the Newsday columnist Jack Newfield were asked to name the three worst humans of the 20th century. On the backs of their napkins they scribbled identical lists: Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers who moved the baseball team to Los Angeles in 1958."  I tried to interweave the careers of Hamill, Breslin, and Newfield--in the photo above that's him and Newfield at an editorial meeting when they were running the New York Post from the South Street Diner (the name of the diner got lost in the Guardian copy)--but the inter-weaving, the back and forth between papers, got too complicated.

It seemed appropriate at that point to mention politics, both then and new. "He and Newfield were both friends of Bobby Kennedy’s, and worked on his 1968 presidential campaign. When Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, Hamill was at his side. Hamill was a solid liberal in those days. In his 1969 essay The Revolt Of the White Lower Middle Class, for New York magazine, he wrote about this “they are in revolt against taxes, joyless work, the doubt standard and short memories of professional politicians”, warning New York would have to deal with their 'growing alienation'. It could have been written 50 years later about Donald Trump. Indeed, although Hamill had written powerfully about the presumed guilt of the Central Park Five, when Trump published his full-page ad in New York’s papers calling for the executions of the convicted rapists later proved innocent, Hamill called the future president 'Snarling and heartless and fraudulently tough, insisting on the virtue of stupidity...the epitome of blind negation'”. 
 
In 1970 he published Why Sinatra Matters. As a measure of sentimental cynicism, one could do much worse. But 1970 also the year "he was divorced from his first wife, Ramona Negron, whom he married in 1962, and was awarded custody of their two daughters. Work, drinking and being a father left no time for the writing he wanted to do, so on New Year’s morning 1973, at Jimmys, a mid-town night club, with his date Shirley MacLaine and friends like Village Voice journalist Joe Flaherty, another Brooklyn high school drop out who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard before turning to the papers, he resolved to stop drinking. 'As a drunk I could always squeeze something from my talent, but I wanted to write books,' he later said. That year, he published his second novel, The Gift, about a teen-aged sailor on Christmas leave in Brooklyn during the Korean War.

Joe Flaherty I had forgotten about. He died in his early 40s, but he had served as Norman Mailer's campaign chief when Mailer ran for Mayor of New York with Jimmy Breslin (that's Hamill and Breslin in the photo on the right) on his ticket, and written a very funny book about it, Managing Mailer. The crowd at Jimmy's that night also included the actor Jerry Orbach (Law & Order). It would be Breslin, a couple of years later, who would leak the story of Hamill's relationship with Jackie Kennedy, and I made a further comparison, beyond their hard-edged Irish-American sentimentality, in pointing out both wrote less than successful novels about the 'Troubles' (Hamill's was The Guns Of Heaven, in 1984).

I managed to get my references to his Lennon interview and Dylan liner notes back into the published piece, but not my favourite quote from that essay on Blood On The Tracks: “But of all the poets, Dylan is the one who has most clearly taken the rolled sea and put it in a glass”. 

And I also wrote about some of his later work. His comic strip studies at what is now the School Of The Visual Arts led to his writing introductions to collections of work by Milton Caniff and Jerry Robinson. He also wrote a study of Diego Rivera, whose funeral he had attended while he studied in Mexico. And they cut my final graf, which surprised me, because cause of death is usually included and also because I thought I'd found a suitable line to tie the whole thing together. Here's my original conclusion to Pete Hamill's obit. RIP:

In 2014, Hamill suffered kidney failure and cardiac arrest. He spent nine days in a medical coma from which he was not expected to emerge. But he did, and the experience prompted his return to Brooklyn, where he was working on a book, Back To The Old Country. He and Breslin were the subjects of a 2019 HBO documentary, Deadline Artists. He died in Brooklyn, 5 August 2020, after breaking a hip in a fall after finishing kidney dialysis. Fukiko and his daughters Adrienne and Deirdre from his first marriage survive him. As he wrote in A Drinking Life, “Maybe words, like potions, were also capable of magic.”

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

MARK BILLINGHAM'S CRY BABY

Cry Baby is Mark Billingham’s twentieth novel, and the seventeenth featuring Tom Thorne. This makes me feel old, because I still recall vividly the impact Sleepyhead made back in 2001, and he had amply delivered on the promise of that novel. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the man some might dub lazily The King Of North London Noir, but I think it’s a telling and indeed brilliant stroke that Billingham has chosen this landmark book to be a prequel to the Thorne series.

Set in 1996, Thorne is a DS, and still reeling from the effects of an earlier case where he didn’t follow or trust fully his instincts. Now he finds himself caught up in the abduction of a child, a child whose father is a career criminal currently in prison, and a case on which the force is under extreme pressure to get a result, and quickly. So although Thorne wants to use and trust his instincts, his commander doesn’t agree, and doesn’t trust him.

This uncertainty is part of what makes the story work so well. There are suspects, false leads and unexpected discoveries. There are leaks to the tabloid press which work against solving the case. And there is throughout the self-questioning of Thorne as he encounters a mother faced with the greatest loss imaginable, and her friend, who was looking after the boy and her son when, just for an instant, she missed them. The contrast of the two women, unlikely friends whom tragic loss separates, is part of the beauty of the story: Billingham is excellent with character and with setting, the contrast of their lives is not just that one woman lives in a council flat with her husband in stir, and the other in a nicer part of North London, with her divorced husband father out, but the way in which their statuses drive them apart. The subtleties of distinction have always been the meat of Billingham’s books, he has the detective’s eye.

Which is where Thorne is different from many of the other detectives with whom he is linked, some of whom influenced Mark when he started writing. The instinct which Thorne felt in his previous case is a sign that, like say, Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck, he is a detective, by nature; it defines him above any other human qualities. But unlike Beck, he is, or wants to be, a more ‘normal’ person outside the job, always one of the key dilemmas detectives in police procedurals often face. Some, like John Harvey’s Resnick or Henning Mankell’s Wallender, appear to succeed; others like Marlowe or Graham Hurley’s Joe Farady battle throughout their series, with different ends. I find it interesting that Mankell and Arnaldur Indridason (Erlendur) brought their detectives to a recognisable end, then began prequel series with them as cops on the beat.

For Billingham, this taking Thorne back to 1996 is case specific, and as such it works brilliantly to reveal Thorne’s inner core. As a story on its own, it delivers too; with an unexpected twist at the end which casts a chilling shadow over the story, and a brief coda set in the present which reflects perfectly on Thorne’s self, as both person and detective.

One you ought to read.

Cry Baby by Mark Billingham Little Brown £20 ISBN 9781408712412
This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 16 August 2020

SUMNER REDSTONE: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

 My obit of the media tycoon Sumner Redstone is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. I wrote it some time ago, and it was a fascinating story to order, because it played more like an series of a particularly tacky version of Dynasty or something similar. I probably should have pointed out that the guy who said "content is king" might well have been an unrecognised master of modern irony.

Friday, 31 July 2020

THE WASHINGTON NAME GAME: My American Magazine Column

In case I haven't mentioned it, I do a monthly column for the American magazine here in the UK, which appears online and in the print edition. July's was an essay on the problem with the Redskins and other nicknames, including possible suggestions for new names (the Watergators, anyone?) and the problems some colleges have (the Idaho Vandals: if I were a Vandal I'd be scandalized!). If you're interested, you can link to it here.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

CASTLE FREEMAN'S GO WITH ME, REDUX

My review of Castle Freeman's Come With Me was originally published at Crime Time, but if you hit the link to it I left in 2009 here at IT, it's dead. So I thought I'd reprint the review now. I had been looking for it because I discovered that it had been made into a 2015 movie, called Blackway, directed by the Swedish director Daniel Alfredson, who did the second two films of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I was curious, and I wanted to be reminded of the book before I searched out the film. I'll preface my review of the book with my original Irresistible Targets intro.

Although the story moves along somewhat predictable lines, and though some of the characters are telegraphed by their names, it is the quality of the prose, particularly the dialogue, which makes it work. The quality of Freeman's seemingly simple northern New England prose, and the sharpness of the unsaid within his characters' conversations, makes this a formidable work: a modern Deliverance set in Vermont. What it has that Deliverance didn't is humour: and again this is something of the old New England wryness (the kind of irony Americans are not supposed to possess, according to received wisdom in this country) that I first encountered on the page in The Real Diary Of A Real Boy, by Henry Shute, one of my favourite books when I was a child.

Interestingly, one of the dailies (oh, go on, it was the Guardian) reviewed this book and thought Freeman was a woman. That's nowhere near as bad as the guy I heard on Open Book once talking about Flannery O'Conner as a man, but it does show you how fine-tuned his prose is, as well as revealing what critics sometimes assume about such prose. Actually, although the main character is a woman, the narration is pretty obviously in a male, New England male, Vermonter voice.


COME GO WITH ME (THE CRIME TIME REVIEW, 2009)

When Sheriff Ripley Wingate finds a woman asleep in her car outside his office, early in the morning before most of his Vermont town has risen, he listens to her story and sends her away. The woman is being stalked by a man called Blackway, who has just slit her cat's throat. She refuses to run away from him, but there is nothing the sheriff can do, except send her out to the old sawmill on Dead River, looking for someone who might be able to help. And when that someone turns out not to be there, the men gathered around the pot belly stove call in the only two men working, old Lester Speed and the simple young giant, Nate the Great.  They head off in search of Blackway, and little by little we learn that the woman's name is Lillian, that Blackway has scared her former boyfriend out of Vermont, and that Blackway is not one with whom you trifle.

This might not sound like the most engrossing of plots, but the beauty of this book is in the slow crafting of the story, almost exactly the way stories are told around the stove in the sawmill. That mill is run by Alonzo 'Whizzer' Boot, so called because he's confined to a motorised wheelchair, and the small circle of men, like most of the people in this novel, have nothing much to do, certainly nothing legal. 'No one works,' the sheriff muses at the start of the novel, not like the days of hard-scrabble farming and Yankee grit. It's a circle closed to outsiders, like Lillian, often called 'flatlanders' by the locals, and her journey with Lester and Nate is, in its way, an initiation to the realities of the area to which she came, viewed with amused detachment, but now, if she is going to stay, to assuage her stuborness, becomes a life of which she must learn to become a functioning part.

It's a domestic sort of Deliverance, with Lillian's quest counterpointed by the hot-stove chatter of the men. Freeman, who writes for Yankee magazine, an eccentric reading tradition in Northern New England, has a fine feel for the local talk, for the way outsiders are excluded from it, and for the traditional, if somewhat stereotypically cliched, crafty logic of the people. But what really makes the novel work is its sense of timelessness, in being somehow caught out of time. There are hints that it is being narrated from the present, talking about the past, and others that this is very much the present. But Freeman, perhaps feeling a bit unsure if the audience gets this dislocation, has one of the characters around the hot stove, Conrad, who is the outsider in the group, having married into the town, explain it all. He tells his wife he feels like they are sitting in a rocket ship, travelling at the speed of light, so that 'time doesn't pass for them. Time stretches. It stretches or it shrinks. Or something. They're out of time, you know?' And his wife says 'No, Einstein...I don't have any idea what you're talking about and I don't think you do either.' Though she knows enough to know it's Einsteinian, whatever it is. And Conrad, showing how much he's assimilated, says 'That's possible too'.

This is a finely written book that only gradually becomes a thriller, and all the while it is essaying something that we may have, indeed, lost forever. Freeman can muse, in a coda, about what this new world is like, but for the short ride of these 160 pages, he enthralls you with the old world. A small marvel.

Go With Me
Castle Freeman
Duckworth Overlook 2009, £7.99, ISBN 9780715638354

Saturday, 18 July 2020

JOHN LEWIS: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of John Lewis, the Civil Rights leader and Congressman, is online at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon. I was working
with some limits of space, or I think I would have gone into greater detail about the excisions from his March on Washington speech, and maybe about his effectiveness and ability to play hardball politics: you could never call Lewis an ineffectual Congressman.

I also missed a trick by not mentioning that March won a National Book Award. When he accepted the award, he broke down in tears, remembering how he had been refused a library card when he was young, which I had mentioned. They would have tied together nicely.

I do remain baffled by my paper's eccentric rules of grammar, by which the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee's acronym, SNCC, is in caps, but the Congress Of Racial Equality's acronym, CORE, is rendered Core. Go figure. 

Thursday, 9 July 2020

THE SPIDER: DRAGON LORD OF THE UNDERLORD The Isolation Row reviews VII

When I was in college I discovered The Shadow. The first of the reprints of his pulp exploits was The Living Shadow, which I probably read in the summer of 1970. It had a striking cover by an artist identified as Kossim, who I later learned was Sanford Kossim, and as my reading at the time was largely comic books and sf, it was a perfect fit for the time I was deciding whether or not I should return for my third year of college -- the student strike and my own lack of academic engagement had me pondering my future.

The Shadow did not draw me back to university, but among other things it probably influenced my decision to concentrate on the subjects I felt I needed to study, one of which was American studies. In that class, for the exceptional professor Richard Slotkin, I wrote my final paper on The Shadow, some 55 pages, which among other things drew a comparison with Herman Meville's Confidence Man, illustrated by the cover of the Signet paperback, with a cover by Kossim.

Captivated by The Shadow as I was, I looked for other pulp heroes, and the most obvious place to start was with The Spider, the most successful, and obvious, of The Shadow copies. I didn't go very far with The Spider, although author Norvell Page (writing under the house name Grant Stockbridge) had a talent for keeping things moving. But the lockdown being what it was, I decided to give The Spider a second chance.

Fifty years later, it was even harder to be impressed. I chose Dragon Lord Of The Underworld because I do have a fondness for the pulp versions of Chinatown, and Chinese super-villains, but Ssu Hsi Tze (Four Vermin, apparently a nom de guerre) was a disappointment. Page specialised in villains with outre weapons of mass destruction: in this case, literally, vermin, which of course in  The Spider's, mind, refers to the rule of vermin, not just accomplished by vermin, including the dread Kara Khoum spiders from the Gobi desert. And, as he fears, "what the Chinese could accomplish here in America was fearful to contemplate. He would have the instant, unquestioning obedience of every Chinese, to the death." This is 1935, after all. Look at the cover: white woman in the clutches of the long-nailed Chinese villain and his henchmen. The Yellow Peril threat engulfing society's most cherished symbol!

The casual racism is typical, but Richard Wentworth, The Spider, is an enigma. He is part Superman and part louche, which fits the Shadow model, but he lacks the dark centre and fearsme intensity of Lamont Cranston. His Margo Lane is his faithful girlfriend Nita Van Sloan, and one of the most fascinating differences to The Shadow is the way Page does not hold back from suggesting the sexual relationship between the two, even if it's never actually shown. Though she does always call him 'Dick'. Oddly, Nita is described early on as one of the three 'servants' who knows his true identity, another being his servant Ram Singh, a Kato-type bodyguard and chaffeur. The others are not characters, simply off-stage presences who can explain The Spider's uncanny knowledge of events, but the odd thing is that, at least in this novel, the villain knows his identity, knows where he lives, knows where he can attack Nita, and this appears to be more general knowledge than the narrative would dictate.

In Spider novels the death toll mounts exponentially, this is another characteristic of many of the pulp hero novels, most notably Operator No5, who fights the 'Purple Invasion' in a series of novels whose body count far surpasses World War II, and stands as the apex of Yellow Peril fiction. But the resolution of The Spider's battle always boils down to the mano a mano battle, with imperiled frails, bizarre tortures and underground catacombs laden with traps in which to fall.

Of course Nita in peril is a given, but its the handling of two other female characters that is most interesting. One is Flo Delight, a 'dancer' who wants revenge on The Spider because she thinks he killer her gangster boyfriend Craven (though it was Ssu who killed him as part of his bid to take over crime in New York). The names are not subtle, in case you hadn't noticed. Flo pursues The Spider and finally is left in the hands of Nita, a study in white and somewhat stained gray. When finally Ssu brings her face to face with her nemesis, he makes the fatal villain mistake of not honoring his promise to let her kill him with her own hands. Tsk tsk.  The other, more intriguing woman, is San-Guh Liang-Guh, Ssu's handmaiden. Oriental villains always seem to have beautiful women (Fu Manchu's daughter Fah Lo Suee being the prototype) with whom to tempt their white enemies, though in San-Liang's case the first thing Wentworth notices is that she is not a pure-blooded Manchu. Not that his fealty to Nita is ever in doubt.

This all may seem silly beyond words, but Page's real talent lies in the final showdown, which turns into a literal battle of wills between Ssu and The Spider, who is billed, on the pulp covers, as The Master Of Men, something to compete with The Shadow's ability to 'cloud men's minds'. With San-Liang holding a still vengeful Flo at knife point and the governor of New York a mindless prison about to unleash mass destruction on the city, there is no way The Spider could ever escape, much less save New York and America! Is there?