Thursday, 16 April 2015

THE UNWRITTEN FABLES

This graphic novel is a crossover between The Fables and The Unwritten, two long running Vertigo comics. I've read a number of the Fables stories, written by Bill Willingham and drawn by Mark Buckingham; in them the characters of fairy tales live real lives—and I suppose you can read a lot of the influence here of Neil Gaiman, both in American Gods but also in the Sandman series. The Unwritten, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, is about Tommy Taylor, a boy turned into a Harry Potter-type hero in a series of novels, who becomes his character, as it were. I hadn't read any of them before, but it's easy to see how close the connection is.

Now the Fables are fighting their last stand against The Dark Man, who wishes to wipe away their power, the power of story, and as they suffer defeat after defeat, Tommy Taylor appears from his world where story is real, to help.

The story appeared as five issues of The Unwritten, and Carey and Gross are the primary creators (the Fables creators are credited with only three pages each, though oddly not the same three pages; Buckingham is also credited as the 'continuity cop' for the storyline) but it seems to flow smoothly in the Fables universe. As in those stories, the real pleasures are in the more human sense of evil that lurks behind the friendly familiar faces: this of course is where the Fables' traction arose, the reality that our fairy tales are dark and fearsome at their core. Seeing the Big Bad Wolf as a human; Boy Blue as a Galahad hero; or Frau Totenkinder as the ambiguous force behind the fables resonates with deeper meanings.

And on the other side, the beautiful conceit of Snow White, having gone over to the Dark Man, and given her children by the Big Bad Wolf to him, gives the story a human depth appropriate for our times. It reminds us how those archetypical stories not only reflect our consciousness, but help form it.

Or it's just a lot of apocalyptic fun. Which it is.

The Unwritten Fables


by Carey, Willingham, Gross and Buckingham
DC Vertigo $14.99 ISBN 9781401246945

EX MACHINA: BOOK THREE

I hadn't seen either of the first two volumes of Ex Machina, but one of the virtues of this story (issues 21-29 and two specials of the comic) is that its structure, with flashbacks to multiple stories, brings the reader up to speed quickly, with no need for 'previously in Ex Machina'.

Mitchell Hundred has the ability to speak to and control machines; he also has the curse of having to listen to them. He was turned into the world's first super hero, The Great Machine, by a Russian emigre called Kremlin, flying with the aid of what looks like a vacuum cleaner strapped to his back; it's the most bizarre super-hero get-up since Commando Cody. His career as a super hero doesn't appear to have gone too well; part of the story here is the fate of a low-level pot dealer he captures after an epic chase. But on 9/11, The Great Machine saves the second airplane from flying into the Twin Towers, and on the wave of that success, Mitchell Hundred winds up elected mayor of New York.

Now in Gracie Mansion, some of his past is coming back to haunt Hundred, not least the tragic fate of the pot dealer after he was sent to prison, and also the death of one of his aides, Journal Moore, whose sister is now working for Hundred.

What's intriguing about Ex Machina is its portrayal of the inside of politics; it's like a more realistic version of The West Wing set within the confines of a super-hero story. There are elements working against Hundred's adminstration, and the who and why is an ongoing mystery, but the main conflict is between Hundred's desire to do 'the right thing' and the political realities that make that sometimes next to impossible. Given that Hundred is in effect a Superman, you can sense occasionally a touch of the Ayn Rands slipping in, but by and large, it's a better glimpse into New York City politics than you'd see in most fiction. And given that Hundred is very much a flawed hero, those conflicts parallel many of the macro-concerns his governance throws up.

The time-shifting story-telling works brilliantly, and Tony Harris' art is very good at the relatively static political scenes, able to convey some internal drama. I was intrigued, enough to play catch-up with the series and follow it going ahead.


Ex Machina: Book Three
by Brian Vaughn (writer) and Tony Harris (artist)
WildStorm/DC Vertigo £19.99 ISBN 9781401250034

Saturday, 11 April 2015

QUIET DEPARTURES: A POEM FROM EBERHARD WEBER'S JAZZ

Today the three-disc box set of Eberhard Weber's Colours albums Yellow Fields, Silent Feet, Little Movements) arrived; my sister's birthday gift to me reached me on siblings day, a contrivance which appears to have arisen in the interweb of its own time-wasting accord. By a not very eerie coincidence (as I ordered the disc myself) I'd been reworking another of the poems I'd done inspired by tunes from jazz records, Weber's Quiet Departures, which comes off his 1979 album Fluid Rustle, the same time frame as when I saw Colours at the Round House in Camden.

I can't figure out when I first jotted down a few lines based on it, but I think I drew a little on New Haven's Union Station. I know I did a big revision after reading Steve Hamilton's novel Let It Burn -- but this version has been rewritten almost completely, and it heads in a different direction than where I thought it was going in either of those first two incarnations.....and I took a final walk around it this afternoon while Charlie Mariano worked out on Yellow Fields in the background.


QUIET DEPARTURES
                               (for Eberhard Weber & Steve Hamilton)

This building used to be
A station. Now shattered
Mosaic of faded brick

Broken glass, disjointed
Frames. It is still. Life
Clings to ruin, frozen

Boards with stops unmade,
Dead shadow whistles,
Lost scents of steam, echoes

Of hydraulic brakes over
Farewell tears. We hear
Noises of departure fill

The concourse with silence.
It is the sound of a dry sea
Trapped inside an empty shell.

Friday, 10 April 2015

WALTER MOSLEY'S ROSE GOLD

In Walter Mosley's last Easy Rawlins novel, Little Green (see my review here), Mama Jo had brought Easy back from the dead, and he investigated the disappearance of a young black man who'd been led astray by hippies and LSD. It's still 1967, Easy's still alive, and moving into a big new house with his children had left him somewhat vulnerable when he's approached by mysterious law enforcement types to investigate the kidnapping of Rosemary Goldsmith, the daughter of a powerful arms contractor. They think she's been taken by a former boxer, Bob Mantle, who's black, and Easy might have entry into Mantle's world.

Of course, nothing is the way it seems, but having introduced the drug scene, in this book Mosley moves into the parallel world of protest and revolution. The story is intricate, and not made easier, so to speak, by being off-stage, in the sense we know as little as Easy about what's really going on, both among the people he's chasing and the ones who are, in effect, chasing him.

The references are obvious; this is an inversion of sorts of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and Rose Gold's father is a sort of reclusive Howard Hughes figure. A black revolutionary, Uhuru Nolice, is part of the plot, and quite early we learn that he is what Bob Mantle has become.

In one sense, this novel is disappointing, because the denouement is primarily an offstage event; Easy's concern is saving one character, not doing what he was hired to do. What is most interesting, as it was in Little Green, is Mosley's perspective on these times of rapid change, and how different a world this makes Los Angeles for its black community.

Along those lines, Easy appears to be gathering a crew here, including an American Indian, Redbird, who works for Rosemary Goldsmith's mother, and acts as a kind of Hawk to Easy's Spenser. Rawlins drops a line about opening a detective agency, and he's got an ex-cop, his con-woman girl friend, a hippie chick in love with Mama Jo, and various other people to draw on. Which may make LA even more interesting as it moves toward 1968, and the biggest crime since the Black Dahlia in that city's lurid history. Rose Gold may move in circles, as Easy does, for too long, but as always with Mosley, the insights keep the story moving.

Rose Gold by Walter Mosley
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £18.99 ISBN 9780297871750

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Thursday, 9 April 2015

JAMES BEST BEYOND THE DUKES OF HAZZARD: IN MEMORIAM

It's easy to imagine a scenario in which James Best became a star. Not a huge star, certainly, but someone who got leading roles, instead of just being a character actor who excelled on both TV and in the movies. His obituaries led with his role as Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane in the Dukes Of Hazzard, something you always had the feeling he could have played in his sleep.

But he didn't, and his work almost elevated the Dukes, and provided some insight into why he never rose to leading man status. First, he made it look too easy, and often he made it look as if he were having fun, which he was. Second, the same easy grin and intelligent spark that made him a popular 'villain' for the Dukes worked against his being taken seriously in any number of roles. Third, his southern accent functioned in much the same way. And finally, Best's best work early in his career was done mostly in B movies, and it's hard to jump from character roles in those to leading roles in bigger films. So you can watch his progression through TV westerns and crime dramas of the 50s and 60s, maybe remembering him from an episode here or there, and then in bigger series and TV movies, with a few meaty roles in some of them.

But there are three films films I'd like to mention here, where you can see James Best's talent so clearly it's amazing it didn't take him farther. They were made by two of the greatest B movie directors, and they knew what they had.

First is Budd Boetticher's Ride Lonesome (1959) where Best plays Billy John, an outlaw captured by Randolph Scott's Ben Brigade at the start of the movie. The first seven minutes of the film are brilliant: Brigade alone walking his horse through a narrow corridor of stone, Best waiting for him sipping coffee, and telling his own neighing horse 'I hear him'. Bill John is wanted for shooting a man in the back, and he's laid a trap for Brigade, but Brigade's character overcomes the trap, and Billy John sends his gang off to find his older brother Frank. 'He'll know what to do'. As it turns out, this is exactly what Brigade wants.

But Best's few minutes are brilliant: alternately charming and petulant, he's something like the kind of alienated teen James Dean played. Dangerous and childish: you could see a different path for him quite easily. As it happens, his spark plays well off Scott's monolithic strength, but Best fares just as well when matching scenes with Pernell Roberts or James Coburn. Coburn, of course, would be the only one of the three to become a star. Ride Lonesome is one of my favourite films, A or B, and replays every viewing I've given it. Perfectly structured in Burt Kennedy's script, perfectly executed by Boetticher, and acted brilliantly by Karen Steele and Lee Van Cleef as well.

Best was the star of Sam Fuller's Verboten, also in 1959, and despite all the attention given Fuller, it remains underappreciated. Best plays an American soldier named Brent, who's wounded in action but saved by a German woman. He returns after the war and marries her, but has to quit the Army (it is Verboten to fraternise) so begins working for the military government distributing food. He gets his wife's brother a job, but it turns out the brother-in-law is part of a secret Nazi underground called Werewolf. You can guess the rest. Like much of Fuller's work, it is not subtle, but it is very dark and claustrophobic; beneath the surface it puts huge pressures on the characters, and Best is excellent in the slow burn of coming to grips with what is happening, and with love and loyalty.

These characteristics served him well four years later when Fuller cast him in Shock Corridor (1963) his film about a reporter (Peter Breck) who gets himself committed to a mental hospital in order to solve a murder that happened there. Best plays Stuart, who believes himself a Confederate soldier (the name of course evokes Jeb Stuart). When Best gets his scene it's amazing, as Breck tries to get information about the murder from him, he elicits the story of Stuart's breakdown; captured and brainwashed during the Korean War, he was unable to cope with the betrayal of his country. But as he tells this to Breck he details his sharecropper childhood, and his inner weaknesses. Which all gets turned off in an instant's sound: the kind of cue which amazed audiences when Walter Murch did it with sound effects in The Godfather or The English Patient, here it rides on James Best's eyes, and he nails it.

I wonder why Best wound up doing Hooper, while Charles Bail got to play a similar role in The Stunt Man. Bail and Best look an awful lot alike which reminds of the one interesting factoid I gleaned from the obituaries: Best's mother was an Everley; Don and Phil were his cousins by birth, and his given name was Jewel Franklin Guy. Jewel Guy probably wouldn't get you far in Hollywood. His mother died when he was three, and he was adopted from an orphanage by a couple named Best. On such small things do lives evolve, just as do careers.

Watch those films and see if you don't agree. I went to you tube today, and watched Best in an old Richard Diamond episode, The Merry Go Round case, from 1957. He plays a war buddy of Diamond's (David Janssen) who's gone bad, and gone off the rails, and he's riveting in his unpredictability. Track down any of the many TV shows James Best graced with his talent: he's worth it.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS: A POEM FOR EASTER

I believe I discovered this poem in my senior year high school English class, though I can't imagine it was in any of our textbooks, so it might not have been until college.  It was definitely in college, however, that I discovered Yeats' biography, and especially given his relationship to Maud Gonne, it gave a me a whole new perspective on this poem. An added, if shallow, dimension. So for your Easter edification, what I consider Yeats' ultimate take on the whole thing...

A STICK OF INCENSE
by William Butler Yeats

Whence did all that fury come?
From empty tomb or Virgin womb?
Saint Joseph thought the world would melt
But liked the way his finger smelt.

Friday, 3 April 2015

GORE VIDAL'S PULP: THIEVES FALL OUT

Thieves Fall Out is a pulp thriller Gore Vidal wrote under a pseudonym in 1952, and is reprinted now for the first time, for the first time under his own name. Apparently, not so long before he died, Vidal took a another look at what he'd written so long ago, didn't like it much, and so turned down a request to publish; it was his estate that gave permission to Hard Case to go ahead.

The early 1950s were a rough time for young Vidal. His 1948 novel The City and the Pillar, with its portrayal of homosexuality, had shocked much of America, including the books pages of the New York Times. Three novels in the next two years attracted little attention, and when they did he was generally criticised for being too prolific. But he needed money, being almost as profligate as prolific, so rather than slow down, he created pseudonyms.

His third novel published in 1950 was A Star's Progress, published in hardback by the reputable EP Dutton, as by Katharine Everard (Everard being the name of a gay club in New York). A racy look at Hollywood, it was reprinted in paperback,titled Cry Shame. It's A Star Is Born story, which draws somewhat on The City and the Pillar for one of its characters, and it's relatively frank, for the times, about ambiguous sexuality. Two years later, Vidal would publish another novel under his own name, The Judgement Of Paris, a modern re-working of the story from the Iliad, whose Paris is remarkably passive sexually. At the same time he began what became a trilogy of mystery novels writing as Edgar Box. The Box novels, also published by Dutton, are classic cozy mysteries in the Agatha Christie tradition, the amateur sleuth who's a PR man and former reporter, and a dashing hetero man about town. Once Vidal's novels became best-sellers, the identity of Edgar Box, which had never been a closely-guarded secret (Vidal wrote a cover blurb for an early Sixties paperback reissue of the series) became open knowledge.

His third novel of 1952 was Thieves Fall Out, published under the name Cameron Kay (who was a great uncle who'd been a politician in Texas). It was done as a paperback original for Gold Medal, the best of the pulpy crime publishers, and it's a competent enough effort. Vidal keeps the story moving, but the writing is utilitarian. The sex is probably more restrained than his mainstream novels, but there's enough to provide a cover artist with something to go on. The most interesting thing is that the book is set against the backdrop of the 1952 coup led by General Nasser, which unseated King Farouk and brought Nasser to power two years later, but you really wouldn't know it. Apart from creating some chaos around which the book's denoument can become more difficult, most of the politics is an offstage matter. It enters only because the hero, Peter Wells, falls instantly in love with a German woman who's reputed to be Farouk's new favourite mistress. But that doesn't actually come into play either.

I don't think you would make a link to Vidal, except in retrospect, but from that perspective there are few interesting things about it. Vidal scholars have noted that the novel begins, as many of his early books do, with Wells shaking off the effects of the night before, which sets the scene nicely. Wells is hired to do some shady business by an Englishman, Hastings and Helene, who may or may not actually be the Comtesse de Ratignac. There is a local gangster, and a more or less corrupt cop, and it's all very Casablanca. You can see Vidal having a little bit of fun with that, and especially with the breathless coup de foudre Wells finds with Anna Meuller, daughter of a Nazi war criminal.

Knowing it's Vidal, Wells' character is most interesting, because he's so different from Philip Warren, the Paris figure in that novel, or Peter Sargeant, the hero of the Box novels. There's nothing flippant about him; he's Robert Mitchum in Macao, but Vidal gives him more than just the half-track mind film noir tough guys often have. Helene is so transparent a femme fatal that Wells is wary, and Anna becomes the blonde not-so-virgin, unlikely as that seems.

But having fun with the genre doesn't make for a compelling read. You can see why Vidal wanted to leave it buried; Thieves Fall Out would not make anyone's list of the greatest Gold Medal books from that period, and there are some great ones. It's a curiosity, and Hard Case were right to bring it out. Those of us who admire Vidal's historical novels may wonder what he might have done had he taken the history more seriously, or indeed, taken the noirish pulp more seriously. But that wouldn't have been Vidal. And interestingly, the book is published with a juicy retro-Gold Medal cover by Glenn Orbik, five pages of blurb quotes about Gore's books (none of which apply to the novel in question) and no copyright details!


Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal (writing as Cameron Kay)

Titan/Hard Case Crime £16.99 ISBN 9781781167922

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 29 March 2015

THE CROSSING PLACE: TRANSTROMER VIA GARBAREK

In 1984 Jan Garbarek released a record called It's OK to listen to the gray voice, whose title I recognised as a line from a Tomas Transtromer poem. I'd been reading Transtromer for a long time, and I had already written poetry inspired by various jazz tunes, including some by Garbarek and Eberhard Weber. Listening to this music prompted a couple of poems, a second-generation pass-the-parcel regeneration. I find they're closer to the music than to the original poem, though not a shade on either, but I am pleased I can still find echoes of music and poetry in them.

I wrote this poem in July 1986. As it happened, the next summer I met Garbarek and Weber on a flight to Oslo for the Bislett Games, and I got them to sign a chapbook of mine called Mucho Mojo which I happened to be carrying, and which included a poem written after a tune by Weber. I sent the two Transtromer/Garbarek poems to him ('just put Jan Garbarek, Oslo,' he told me. 'That's all the address you'll need') but I heard no more.

Now Tomas Transtromer has died. I'll likely write more on him soon, but for now I'll share one of those poems. 'The Crossing Place' was published in Hollands Maandblad in 1988, and in The Windhorse Review (Yarmouth, Nova Scotia) in 1993. I was intending it to be the title poem of a short collection...


THE CROSSING PLACE

Empty borders extend
All the way into the center of the night
I could be
Driving a heap through downtown Bridgeport
At 3am snow falling & wipers
Rocking me to sleep. I know
If I sleep now, with this image in my mind
I will have dreams, & I may never wake
Again. They may take
Me across the ocean which divides me
From myself, never again be there
On the other side, where you were
Waking, sleeping, peacefully where
Falling snow makes a blanket, sparkling
Then melting, to keep us warm.



Friday, 27 March 2015

IN MEMORIAM CHUCK BEDNARIK: MY NFLUK COLUMN

In the NFL offseason my NFLUK Friday Morning Tight End column becomes Friday Monthly Tight End, and this month's, which is up at the nfluk.com website (you can link to it here) was dedicated to Chuck Bednarik, who died last Saturday. Here's what I wrote:




REMEMBERING CONCRETE CHARLIE

If you've been reading my columns for any length of time you'll know I'm an apostate American in the sense of not believing more is always better, and I've been critical of many moves the NFL has made in that direction. But I have to say honestly that I admire the way in which they have turned the off-season into a non-stop attention-getter. I still would prefer to see the draft come in the next few weeks, but after the most fascinating free-agency period I can remember, and the creation of the 'veterans combine' (which falls way short of the return of a development league, but is a good step, and ought to be called the 'veterans pro day?) I appreciate what the league has done to stay in the spotlight since the Super Bowl. If it gets any busier, I'm going to need y weekly column back in the off-season!

Iron Mike is, however, at heart old school, so this month's column won't be about any of the issues and moves that have filled your consciousness for the past two months. Instead, it's about Chuck Bednarik, because they didn't come any more old-school than Concrete Charlie.

You probably know he was the last of the full-time both-ways players, at center and linebacker. EJ Holub might have challenged that mark, but Holub, who played for the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs had nine knee surgeries, and played mostly at linebacker until he moved back to center. In fact he started Super Bowl II at linebacker, and Super Bowl IV at center; no one else has ever done that. But they couldn't keep Bednarik from playing both ways. In 1960, when the Eagles won the NFL title, he was 35 years old, and exclusively a center until Bob Pellegrini was injured in week five. Bednarik, formerly the middle backer, assumed his spot on the outside, which is where he was when he levelled Frank Gifford at Yankee Stadium. The hit put Gifford out of the game for a year and a half, with concussion symptoms, and was immortalised in John Zimerman's photo of Bednarik celebrating over Gifford's prostrate form. But when you watch the film you realise that Bednarik wasn't celebrating the hit, that the photo has been misinterpreted for half a century.

On film the hit looks like a body slam. I worked with Frank at ABC, and I recall his talking about it only once, in Kitzbuehel, Austria, where we were covering the skiing. He said it looked worse than it was, that it was the impact with the hard infield surface of Yankee Stadium that had done the real damage. He emphasized that the hit was perfectly legal (Giants' fans like to insist it was a clothesline) but it came from his blindside. In fact, you see Bednarik do a great job of playing the scrambling quarterback, George Shaw, then chasing down Gifford after the catch.

But what's fascinating is watching Bednarik first go toward the ball, which the Eagles recovered behind the play. Zimmerman's photo was taken only AFTER Bednarik turned back to Gifford, looking back toward the Eagles' side of the ball, and he was celebrating the fumble recovery that sealed the Eagles' win.

Bednarik's second most-famous tackle came in the NFL championship game that year, when he stopped Jim Taylor on another pass play out of the backfield, Taylor had broken one tackle and slipped another, but Bednarik actually had some help with the stop, at the seven yard line, and with holding Taylor down until time had expired. But his quote remains famous: 'You can get up now, Jim, this game's over'. That game was the only playoff match Vince Lombardi ever lost.

Bednarik made the NFL's all-decade team for the 1950s as a center. He didn't make the 75th anniversary team, although he probably should've got some recognition for being a two way player. Looking at film, seeing his athleticism down-field and his instincts at the line of scrimmage, I suspect linebacker may have been his better position. But during his career, his only real competition as the NFL's best center was Jim Ringo (Jim Otto in the Sixties AFL has now passed both) or maybe Chicago's Mike Pyle. At middle linebacker you could choose from the Bears' Bill George and Dick Butkus, the Lions' Joe Schmidt, the Packers' Ray Nitschke, or the Giants' Sam Huff.

I wrote Bednarik's obituary for the Daily Telegraph, but that was designed for people who didn't know anything about football, but the details of his life are worth repeating. He was the son of Slovak immigrants, his father worked at the hearth (or 'heart', as Bednarik pronounced it) in a steel mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Chuck didn't start speaking English until he went to school, and became a football star at Bethlehem's Liberty High. But with World War II raging, he enlisted before graduation (his mother collected his diploma) and at the age of 18 found himself flying as the waist gunner in a B-24 Liberator. He flew 30 missions, and when he came back after the war his plans had changed. He'd intended to get a job at the mill to help his father; now the GI Bill sent him to the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a three-time All-American and finished third in the 1948 Heisman Trophy voting, playing center and linebacker. He was drafted first overall in 1949 by the Eagles, which meant he didn't even have to change stadiums; the Eagles played at Penn's Franklin Field.

The Eagles were the defending NFL champions, having won the famed 'Snow Bowl' 7-0 on Steve Van Buren's touchdown in 1948. That they had the first pick in the draft was the result of the NFL's 'lottery', which was soon discontinued. Bednarik moved right into the starting lineup, and the Eagles won the NFL title again in 1949. Through the Fifties, however, the Eagles were a team in decline. That changed when Buck Shaw arrived to coach in 1958, and in 1960 traded for quarterback Norm Van Brocklin from the Rams.

His nickname reflected his hardness, but came because he was, literally, an industrial concrete salesman. He worked not only in the off-season but in season after the day's practice was over. After all, he had five daughters to support, and in those days even an NFL star's salary couldn't do it. And he didn't live large; all his life was spent between Bethlehem and Philly. And he paid the price: look at his snapping hand in that photo with another guy he tackled often, Jim Brown.

He retired after the 1962 season, aged 37, still being forced by circumstance to go both ways. Maxie Baughan, who was drafted to be his replacement at linebacker, and was a great one, called Chuck the best he'd ever seen. Bednarik headed the state athletic commission, overseeing boxing and wrestling, but he also became one of football's most outspoken and entertaining curmudgeons. He complained about overpaid players and a soft game, and laughed out loud when reporters tried to compare Deion Sanders' occasional forays as a wide receiver to his two-way play. 'He couldn't tackle my wife,' Concrete Charlie laughed. He was a popular speaker, and once, at a charity roast of Frank Gifford, he arranged to have the lights shut off as he took the dias. When the lights came back on after a minute, he told the audience 'now you know how Gifford felt when I hit him.'

His family said he was suffering Alzheimers when he died, aged 85, and attributed that to his football career. Jim Brown called him 'a true gladiator'. For me, Chuck Bednarik symbolises better than almost anyone what football was about when I was young, and wanted to play. It was something you did on your way to being a man. Being a man was defined differently in those days, and in some ways that's for the better now, but Chuck Bednarik's passing reminds me that in many ways it's not, and being a man like Chuck was not a bad aspiration.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A SHORT MUSING ON 17 MARCH

So who was the greatest British novelist of the 20th century? Most of the millennial critics leaned toward James Joyce, which would be alright with me. The greatest poet? Less agreement there, but WB Yeats, who would be my choice, got some traction (the American TS Eliot got a bit more). If you were talking about the second half of the century, Seamus Heaney might get my shout out. The greatest playwright? More competition here, but my vote still goes to Samuel Beckett, who gets extra credit for his prose. George Bernard Shaw would top some lists.

My point being of course that all those writers, who are naturally assumed to be British (if not English) are actually Irish, and where would we be without them today? Happy St Patrick's Day.

Monday, 9 March 2015

SAM SIMON: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Sam Simon is online at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper Wednesday; I got the call too late this evening to make tomorrow's paper. It's pretty much as written, which is nice because it was a rush job on what was going to be a busy evening with Nate, his dinner, his algebra, and a movie. Only the movie was lost.

Simon is a fascinating figure; a polyglot whose talents were fueled by the fortune he made from the Simpsons after he left the show. None of his comedy work, with Carlin, Carey, Stern or whomever, matched that. But I suspect the negotiator who got that deal, and who went head to head with Don King (who then asked him and his lawyers to sign blank sheets of paper onto which King would have 'his people' copy the deal they'd agreed!) was a hell of a poker player. Apparently he once beat his ex-wife Jennifer Tilley head to head in one of their poker tourneys. That must've been some marriage.

I would have liked to write a small essay on the melding of Simon's sensibility with Matt Groening's (that's them flanking James Brooks in the photo above). I hint at the importance of that in the piece, but if you read Life In Hell throughout the Eighties, you can see the subtle way in which Groening's world view remains, and the way Simon hung on to it even as he The Simpson's domain outside the personal.

It's admirable how Simon, having been a generous donor, decided to use his fortune once he knew he was dying. He had no children, but he leaves behind others of his family, and of course, the Simpsons.




Monday, 2 March 2015

PHILIP LEVINE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Philip Levine is online at the Guardian today, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. I've liked Levine every since my first encounter with Not This Pig back in 1968 or 69. I didn't want to turn the obit into a literary exegesis, but I was trying to figure out just how to place Levine in modern poetry, and it was not an easy thing to do. In the end I liked the link to the confessional poets -- but his poetry was not about the inner conflicts of the creative soul but the outer stresses of the man at work, and that is how it reads: like a man at work. I thought of comparisons to Carl Rakosi or George Oppen, but with less compression of everyday speech: the critics who accused his verse of artlessness were almost right, what they missed was the same thing that makes Philip Roth's prose so effective, and it is an ability to draw the reader into the rhythm's of the writer's working out what it is he needs to say. Levine did this with the grace of a carpenter hammering home the frame of a house, and the finished product was the kind of structure we could feel was a familiar home...