Thursday, 22 March 2018


I was on Front Row last night, talking about a new exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford: America's Cool Modernism. I gave it a glowing mention, and I will write a more detailed review of it soon, but you can link to the programme on the BBC IPlayer here. It's the first item in the running order, and yes, I did know that an aquatint is not a painting!

You might want to hang around for the rest of the programme, which includes Steven Soderbergh's latest movie, filmed on mobile phones; a pointed look at comedy teams and what happens when they split up (engendered by the culturally tragic events befalling either Ant or Dec over the weekend); and blood on stage, inspired by a new production of The Duchess Of Malfi which splatters audience and stage. It's presented by Stig Abell...

Tuesday, 13 March 2018


Hulda Hermannsdottir is approaching her retirement from the Reykjavik police. She's just cracked a hit and run, where the victim was a child-molester, and she has decided to leave the case unsolved. At the same time, she is called into her boss' office, and told to take her retirement early, immediately, in fact, and to clear her office for another in a long series of up-and-coming younger men who passed her by during her long career.

As slight recompense, Hulda gets her boss' agreement to work one last case, and chooses the death of a Russian asylum-seeker which had been written off a year earlier as suicide or accident by one of her colleagues. It doesn't take Hulda, who is a methodical, dedicated worker, to uncover evidence that the death may have been a murder.

At first, the impressive thing about The Darkness is the way Hulda fits into that popular stereotype of the depressive Nordic detective. Hard-working, team-playing and alone since the death of her husband to a sudden heart attack aged 52, Hulda has little in the way of a life outside her job: she walks and climbs in the countryside, but gave up the family home by the shore and now lives in a faceless high-rise in Reykjavik itself.

But as the story progresses, and we begin to see more of the original crime, we also learn more about Hulda's own story: born illegitimate, her father a nameless American solider who disappeared back to States, her mother forced to live in a certain shame by the tight boundaries of Icelandic society. If we thought of Hulda as typical of a certain kind of detective, we see too that she is a product of a society which in many ways has changed, but whose emotional bounds were set pretty strongly generations before.

In fact, Jonasson's two stories move almost in parallel, the the mystery of Hulda herself is in many ways as gripping as the search for a killer in a murder no one but Hulda believes happened. Jonasson tells the killer's story from a separate point of view, and because of this, the sharp-eyed reader will know long before Hulda who the killer must be. Even so, the 'solution' to the crime comes as a sharp twist in the tale, one which plays against the reader's expectations. Were the story left there, it would resonate strongly. But in an epilogue of understated brilliance, Jonasson turns the entire story around on itself, and puts Hulda right back where she started, a victim, of sorts, of society's preconceptions.

Jonasson, whose first novels were more traditional mysteries set in small-town Iceland, a setting which became well-known in similarly-set popular series Trapped, has moved into different territory with The Darkness. The book is billed as the first of a 'Hidden Iceland' trilogy, and the hidden Iceland it traverses is the country of the mind. The Darkness builds to an absolutely moving ending, haunting and sobering. And it plays with and shatters the expectations of the genre like no novel I can recall since Joe Gores' classic Interface, which is high praise indeed. It's a bravura piece of writing, and The Darkness may be the most unsettling, lasting and best, crime novel you'll read this year.

The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson
Penguin: Michael Joseph, £12.99, ISBN 9780718187248


It is Rekyjavik, in the summer of 1941, after what one character calls 'the British invasion' of the island, and the Brits are in the process of handing over occupation of the strategic country to the Americans, who although still neutral, need to protect their convoys. When a traveling salesman is found shot dead in his flat, Iceland's only homicide detective, Flovent, is teamed up with a Canadian military policeman, Thorson, whose parents were Icelandic and who speaks the language. Thorson is necessary because the victim has been killed with a bullet from a Colt automatic, which means the killer very well could be an American soldier.

The Shadow Killer is the second in Indridason's 'Rekyjavik Wartime' series. It takes place before the first, The Shadow District, which began with a crime in the present day and flashed back to another murder which Flovent and Thorson investigated. This book shows how the two were brought together, and also shows the transition in Icelandic society, which was such an important theme in his Erlandur novels, also coming together with the influx of British and especially American soldiers. In such an homogenous, inward society, this impact, on social norms as well as economic life, was immense.

These changes have been part of most of the very best of Scandinavian crime fiction, going right back to Sjovall and Wahloo's Martin Beck: how these small, structured societies have adapted to the changing modern world. Indridason's first book, Jar City (aka Tainted Blood) was specifically linked to the unusual genetic 'purity' of Iceland, and with this series set some eight decades ago, he has a smaller, more distinct petri dish to play on his themes of Icelandic society under the pressure of change. And because it's wartime. it also allows him to revisit another recurring theme in Scandinavian crime: the ambivalent record of the Nordic countries during World War II, during which Noway and Denmark were occupied by the Nazis, Iceland by the Allies, Finland fought the Russians, and the Swedes stayed neutral. This legacy does not disappear: it played a part in one of the Rebecka Martinson films recently aired on British TV.

But the murder might be a simple case of jealousy, as the dead man's girlfriend was playing around with soldiers while he was away on his selling trips, and had just moved out with a British soldier while he was gone. Neat as such a theory would be, there are shadows hanging over the investigation, and German-supporting Icelanders popping up. With Thorson and Flovent having to move between both American intelligence and the British, as well as understand Icelandic mores, the mystery becomes more and more complicated, yet its solving may be more complicated than the mystery itself.

Indridason has produced a multi-layered thriller that delves delicately, almost discreetly, into its characters. He writes with tremendous feel for them, and uses action to let those character reveal themselves. It's a mistake for Brits to label the likes of Flovent or Thorson 'depressive detectives': they are people, and that realisation has always been what makes the best Scandianvian crime fiction work so well. That it is used in such a complicated historical setting marks yet again just how talented this Icelandic novelist is.

The Shadow Killer by Arnaldur Indridason
Harvill Secker, £14.99 ISBN 9781911215073

Thursday, 8 March 2018


It's 1961 and Simon Weeks, a publisher in New York, is arriving in Moscow to work with a writer whose book he will edit. The author is his older brother Frank, a former CIA agent who defected to Moscow after a career spent spying as a double-agent for the KGB. Frank's defection cost Simon his job in the State Department, and also cost him his respect for the big brother he always idolized. Even more than the memoir, this trip will allow Simon to come to grips with the reasons for his brother's betrayal, of family as much as country.

Would that it were that simple. Simon is thrust into the centre of the exiled spy community, including the famous Guy Burgess as well as lesser figures. And Frank's wife Jo has not adjusted to exile, especially since the death of their young son. Frank's KGB minder is ever present and, inevitably, it turns out Frank has a slightly different agenda than simply getting that book published.

I'm surprised sometimes that Joseph Kanon isn't mentioned more when we talk about the top writers about espionage, particularly since his novels approach the field in off-beat ways. Certainly Defectors is a perfect example of that, because as it moves along at a quick, almost claustrophobic pace--reflecting Simon's reactions to Moscow--it becomes a story of bluff and double bluff, of almost constant betrayal, and of very few people being exactly what they seem. What would you expect from a small community of defectors, of people who've lived double (or worse) lives?

The twisty story is gripping, but the novel's real strengths lie in its setting: not so much Moscow as the early Sixties, just before the Cuban missile crisis, with the Cold War at full throttle. Kanon shows us his exiles through a very telling filter of contemporary attitudes, both personal and political. And most of all, through the bonds of relationships--family ties which tug at both the brothers, and which pull the twists in unexpected directions right to the end. This may be Kanon's best book yet.

Defectors by Joseph Kanon
Simon & Schuster ISBN 9781471162640 £8.99 

note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (

Tuesday, 6 March 2018


When looking at The Post, it's essential to keep the film's title in mind. Although it opens with a bravura scene of a fire-fight in the Vietnam jungle, a deathly chaos whose tracer lights illuminate Daniel Ellsberg's experience, it is not a film about Vietnam. Neither, despite the central presence of Robert McNamara as a catalyst for Ellsberg's decision to take the government's lies public, is it a movie about the Pentagon Papers. It is about the Washington Post, and its ascent to a position of national prominence alongside (or just behind) the New York Times. I've seen it said that the opening firefight serves as a visual metaphor for the Post's battles with the government (and the Times), but that idea, like the movie itself, does a huge disservice to Ellsberg. That's because the real centre of The Post is Katharine Graham's internal battle to assume control of her father's and husband's paper, and the means through which she is able to begin to enact her vision of being a major, quality daily. The problem is that Graham's story runs along a parallel track with the paper's search to beat the Times' exclusive, and Ben Bradlee's competitive journalistic drive keeps the action moving.

To his credit, Spielberg manages to bring the two strands together with some aplomb, at the moment Graham gives the order to 'print'. Her struggle is the more subtle, and repetitive, and it is difficult for Meryl Streep, as Graham to convey the depth of her insecurities, though she does well with what is presented. Graham's father, Eugene Meyer, had bought the bankrupt Post in the 1930s. When he retired, he made Kataharine's husband, Phil Graham, his successor. Graham was a manic depressive, and we learn that he killed himself. But part of his problem was his resentment of having been the son-in-law who rises, part that the Post was still a backwater paper in a company town, and he was at times abusive to Kay and the children: not least for her Jewishness. This backstory is instructive, because none of it is given away, instead Streep looks lovingly at Phil's photo. But if you're aware of it you can see better the roots of the insecurities which Streep delineates.

That she was taking the Post public at the very moment the government exercised prior restraint by getting an injunction against the Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers is true, and it is rightly presented as a Rubicon moment for her. He was risking her family's legacy, and the battle is encapsulated well by Tracy Letts, in another of his good-guy roles as Fritz Beebe, the family lawyer and chairman of the board versus Bradley Whitford, in a remarkable performance of unwillingly restrained anger and resentment, as board-member Arthur Parsons.

Graham also had her Washington social whirl, in which she was still playing the traditional wifely role, to consider. And it is an underplayed moment of decision when she sits down with McNamara (a brilliantly accurate performance from Bruce Greenwood, getting just the sort of moral incomprehension McNamara showed in The Fog of War) to tell him she will be publishing the Papers. Ironically, in later life Graham would seek similar injunctions or take other actions against her putative biographers.

In a sense, when it comes to the newspaper side of the story, The Post is a cross between The Fog Of War and All The President's Men on the one hand, and on the other the classic newspaper drama, the kind of modern version we saw in, say, Ron Howard's The Paper. In fact, the most thrilling scenes in the movie are those that lovingly follow the dynamic of setting linotype, and then the rush of the presses as the papers roll off. The latter is something we've seen repeatedly, but watching the drama of the pages themselves getting set was literally inspiring.

All The President's Men lurks in the background. It's amazing to realise that the Post's first tranche of the Pentagon Papers literally fell on the desk of a reporter (who tellingly remains anonymous and excluded from the story itself) just as Deep Throat appeared in Bob Woodward's ear (at least as the movie version would have you believe). Bradlee's editorial ability to run with found gold is an important one, but it was the other Ben, Ben Bagdikian (played with a nice edge by Bob Odenkirk) who actually tracked down Ellsberg, whom he'd known at Rand, and got the Post their scoop. Which of course would not have been a scoop at all had not the Times been injuncted against printing; but of course as the film shows, the Post's running with their story opened the nation's floodgates.

Jason Robards' Oscar-winning feet-on-the-desk performance as Bradlee hangs over Tom Hanks too, but Spielberg and Hanks choose to play Bradlee as a sort of middle-class suburban businessman, closer to William Holden in The Corporation. The lemonade stand scenes remind us that Spielberg does like to frame the world from a child's view, but Hanks' Bradlee shows none of the society nous of his Boston Brahmin upbringing—Bradlee had come to the Post by facilitating Phil Graham's purchase of Newsweek, and was a mover in society almost as much as Graham. Kay Graham gets it right when she questions Bradlee's actually closeness to JFK himself (Bradlee's own book about it, Conversations With Kennedy, is an effort to convince himself as much as the reader that it was more) but Bradlee was also close to James Angleton of the CIA; his wife Tony Pinchot was the sister of Mary Pinchot Meyer, married to Cord Meyer (no relation to the Post Meyers), another top-man at CIA; it isn't coincidental that Meyer was the brains behind the CIA's Operation Mockingbird, by which it acquired assets within the major media. When Mary (by then divorced from Cord) was murdered it was Bradlee who helped Angleton find and destroy her diary, in which her own relationship with Kennedy was supposedly detailed. But even Bradlee's Georgetown townhouse is made to look like something from a suburban neighbourhood; Ben Bradlee is your good American Joe, pace Private Ryan.

In the end it's the Times that gets the media attention, with CL 'Punch' Sulzberger, like Graham the heir to the paper, and AM 'Abe' Rosenthal, its managing editor, facing the press when the Supreme Court decision in the papers' favour is handed down. Michael Stuhlbarg's caricature of Rosenthal (whose column, On My Mind, was universally derided as 'Out Of My Mind' in the days when he stepped down from editorship) is amusing to the point of cruelty. When we hear Nixon's own voice on the tapes, I was a little surprised there were no tirades against the 'Jews', Tricky Dick saw both the Times and Post as being Jewish family affairs.

Spielberg ends the film with an ironic reference to never going through this again, when we all know that Watergate, which firmly put the Post on the dias with the Times, was just around the corner. He does another re-enactment of Frank Wills' discovery of the Watergate burglars—remember those were the same burglars whose ransacking of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office got the government's prosecution of the actual leaker thrown out of court. Spielberg likes to end his films with none to subtle conclusions, think of the graveyard scenes in Private Ryan or Schindler's List. The fate of Daniel Ellsberg, of course, is feed for another movie.

There is an obvious correlative to our present times, Donald Trump and Fake News and the less stirring performance of our leading papers in their age of declining relevance. This was illustrated in passing by Spielberg. Ironically, it is the best moment in the entire film, an actual news clip of CBS telelvision's Daniel Schorr explaining what exactly the government was doing by taking the Times to court to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers. Schorr does it in 30 seconds or so. It covers the issues, explains the legal tactic, and sets the stage for the movie better than it could do for itself. You can't see any of our knights of the makeup room on television doing that today.

Sunday, 4 March 2018


It isn't hard to understand the popularity of Dunkirk, which comes to us as part of a celebration of Churchill's early days and the eponymous evacuation of British forces from France in the early days of World War II. One could draw the obvious analogy with today's European crisis, Brexit, and Dunkirk is the easiest of this year's four films (Churchill, Darkest Hour and Their Finest) to break down in those terms, but it's more deeply-seated than that. Because what Dunkirk celebrates, and what the event is celebrated for, is British understatement, and the stiff-upper lip.

It's an understated film, especially considering the size of the Dunkirk enterprise, which here is scaled down to one beach, a couple of ships and a handful of boats. Everything goes into narrow focus, even the timeline, which is shifted to allow the three strands of the story to coincide at their climaxes. As with most Christopher Nolan films, time is of the essence, and the structure of Dunkirk, while it seemed to befuddle a number of critics, is not that hard to follow. I am not sure what it adds in terms of story-telling apart from perhaps distracting from the narrowness of the strands, as if to provide them with more collective weight. Those strands are the story of two 'lost' soldiers trying desperately to get off the beach, and contrasted with the officers in charge, one boat's journey across the Channel, and two fliers trying to provide air cover for the evacuees.

Understatement is celebrated along with the stiff upper lip, and they don't come much stiffer, although this, oddly, is somewhat class-conscious. The soldiers on the beach, inured to queueing, occasionally moan about their situation, but the two who are two main figures keep remarkably silent. One for very good reason, and when that reason is revealed, the British soldiers turn on him with remarkable xenophobic vigour. Oddly, the ordinary soldiers are the least convincing in costume: it's hard not to see them as modern actors. In the officer class, however, the stiff-upper lip holds. Kenneth Branagh literally has no upper lip, but as is common with his serious roles, he seems more to be playing Trevor Howard or Noel Coward playing a naval officer, than an actual naval officer.

Upper lips don't come much more stiff than Mark Rylance's from whose lips words emerge only after great effort. Were he to play the lead in a Pinter play I assume time itself might stop. Rylance's pained looks epitomise the British desire to overcome hardship, including the somewhat unnecessary hardship he makes for himself in his handling of the shell-shocked officer he picks up, whose lip has unstiffened to the point of liquidity. This creates a tragedy which Rylance has to let go, a symbol of the sacrifices we all must make, and of the creation of heroic myth (which anticipates Their Finest Hour to a T, or tea.) For all that, Rylance absolutely steals the show. And finally to Tom Hardy, as the last of the Spitfire pilots, whose understated tactic is simply not to talk at all, except for a few brief phrases over the radio to his fellows.

So as an exercise in understatement, Dunkirk is indeed a tour de force, a different sort of war movie which adapts its structure to celebrate defeat, or better, victory in defeat. But to think that it somehow avoids the tropes of war films would be a mistake, and to do so makes certain moments stand out more. Branagh stays behind, ostensibly to aid the French who will be evacuated in the next wave, when he knows full well there will be no next wave. It was tempting to think of him making an appeasement to the age-old antagonisms which have sprung up over Brexit, but I think it was more to give us a sense of the Capt. Scotts, the captain going down with his ship. Think Robert Taylor in Bataan, without the machine gun, the grave, or the Japs crawling toward him.

I spent a long time trying to figure the fuel capacity and range of those Spitfires, and at five miles per gallon, Tom Hardy would indeed have had plenty of time to do most of what he does. However the laws of physics make a couple of scenes dubious: the plane floating on the waves, when it's engine would tip it forward and then down very quickly indeed, and Hardy's amazing manoeuvres while in a powerless glide, where English grit proves too much for gravity. Given his ability to move the plane I wondered why he bothered to land away from the evacuation point, and into the middle of the oncoming (somewhat late and without any urgency) handful of Germans. Perhaps he was being a decoy. But if you think of this section of the film within its own chronological order, you see a story-line that is virtually unchanged from Air Force, apart from the Germans strafing a downed pilot, and that makes one wonder if the time-shifting is a sort of sleight of hand aimed at distracting the audience from the familiar tropes the film actually embraces, not denies.

But most instructive was the reaction of the British soldiers to the discovery one of them is actually French, and thus unworthy of being saved. No matter that the French are actually holding back the Germans while all this is happening (though for reasons we still don't understand fully, the Germans mostly held themselves back, including, crucially, in the air). This was Brexit in a nutshell: we're getting out of here and we are not taking any immigrants with us.

When everyone gets back to Britain they discover the full scale of the success of the evacuation (though somehow Kenneth Branagh knows the exact total while he is still on his little beach) and it puts that small story Nolan has shown us into some sort of context.

Writing before the Oscars, I can't see Dunkirk winning, Chariots Of Fire-like, in what would now be an upset. It is apparently the largest-grossing WWII movie, ever, but two-thirds of its takings were outside the US. However I happened to see it in America, and the audience, while not as partisan as a British one, was definitely impressed with the overall dignity and grit of the film's approach. If it were to win it might be because it speaks to certain virtues in a time of chaos, and America shares its own sort of chaos with Britain right now. But I guess that Oscar voters will be split between those who see Dunkirk as an innovation in war films and those who wonder if such a micro-focus really does convey a macro picture after all. And there are other films which get more specifically into our collective malaise, or get away from it.

Friday, 2 March 2018


I remember seeing a parody video, a trailer for a generic American independent film, and I was reminded of it at some point while I watched Lady Bird. Do not get me wrong, Lady Bird is an entertaining, sometimes piercing and occasionally poignant coming-of-age film, about a high school girl in Sacramento. Her confusions are tied up in any number of things: romance, high school (a Catholic school to which she's been sent because she needs structure) and a middle-class life  which seems rather too strained because, as we later discover, her father is out of work with little prospect of finding new work. So far, so standard. It is the first film as a director for Greta Gerwig, who is known for comedy, but here keeps a strong hand on the real drama, as well as providing the laughs. And as one often expects from actor-directed films, she offers great opportunities for actors: Saoirse Ronan as the eponymous self-titled teenager is completely convincing, alternately wise and foolish, understanding and lost. She plays smart and attractive without having to strive for the cliche of ugly duckling beautiful, which is one reason why this seems so real. And Laurie Metcalf as her hard-working, hyper-critical mother is outstanding in an outstanding performance that also should be flashy enough to get a supporting actress Oscar.

Because at heart this is a movie about mothers and daughters. It's easy to intuit that at least part of Lady Bird's trouble is due to her mother's detachment from her struggles, and Ronan conveys with great subtlety her yearning to have that vacuum filled. There is a moment, shopping for a prom dress, that almost cuts through, but Metcalf is astute in the way she casually stops such a movement in its tracks.

There is also an element of class here: Metcalf also subtly conveys her frustration of having to be the family's main support: nursing is a hard way to do that. It's a frustration that things have not worked out the way they should have, and it plays well against Tracy Letts' superb take as the father. You don't get Oscar nominations for playing nice guys, but he does it well, knowing that he is not a Jim Backus figure (Rebel Without A Cause) but a sort of too-light anchor. Letts, who also plays a nice guy in The Post, is actually playing slightly against type here--he's usually cast as a nice guy who turns out through weakness or hidden evil to be a villain, the kind of thing Michael Murphy, for example, used to do.

Beyond that, the elements transcend indy standard, they are familiar to the point of cliche, although the first love turning out to be gay is a modern variation.  The rebellion at the strict school, the change in personality to join the 'in crowd' of ironic rebels, leaving her overweight friend adrift, the efforts to seem richer than she is, the discovery of the power of friendship at the prom, all made this feel like a northern California inversion of Clueless: though honestly I heard a Very Serious BBC radio programme discuss the film as if it were set in the same California, thus missing one of the film's other familiar tropes.

Because when Lady Bird goes back east to college, my first reaction was to wonder how she got herself a scholarship to NYU if her studies, and her efforts at theatre, were so slipshod. They do say her test scores were good. But which nuns or teachers were writing her recommendations? Anyway, despite a really touching scene when mom misses her send-off, handled beautifully by all three actors, we then get to the Big Apple and the discovery that there is indeed, as Glenda the Good Witch reminded us 70 years ago, no place like home. Even when home is Sacramento.

As I said, this is a very well acted, and smartly made film, and I enjoyed it, though not to best of the year level. Perhaps its Oscar strength is that it might be thought to applying a millennial spin to these somewhat familiar tropes. And those are the voices Oscar is determined to begin hearing nowadays. Maybe some of the older members were expecting a bio-pic about the LBJ White House.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018


Of course the major fuss about Darkest Hour is Gary Oldman's performance as Winston Churchill, which is the hot favourite for an Oscar in a couple of days. Darkest Hour is the latest in a series of films about the early days of the Second World War; given Britain's impending exit from the European Union, this retrospection (while the 100th anniversary of the Great War was in progress) is telling. And you could easily look back to 2002's The Gathering Storm as a precursor to this cycle, and to Albert Finney's performance as the benchmark for future Churchills. Because Gathering Storm was made by HBO and BBC for television, Finney wasn't eligible for an Oscar (he did win a TV Bafta and an Emmy).

Oldman's Churchill contrasts with Brian Cox's in another Oscar-eligible film, Churchill. Where Cox lets his own rough edges give Churchill more bite (and makes his self-doubt, which is the movie's theme, that much more telling), the reason Oldman's performance is the odds-on Oscar winner is that it plays so much against his persona as an actor. It is not that his Churchill is a remarkable interpretation, but that it is a bravura force of acting to convince us that an actor who played Sid Vicious or Lee Harvey Oswald can convince against physical type.

And this Oldman does, which is why an Oscar would be deserved. Whether his Churchill is, well, Churchillian, is another matter. Not least the drift into a northern accent (listen to his final words in the film—like the narration of a Hovis advert). He works by accentuating some gestures, particularly of jaw, and by overall bearing, but he also is sometimes seeking a kinder, gentler Churchill. This of course is partly down to scripting, and the way the film-makers want to present a softer-centered Winston—this is a charming but self-obsessed Churchill with a touch of the Boris Johnson's about him, especially in his scenes with Kirsten Scott Thomas. The film sticks to what have become generally accepted tropes of Churchill at war: the young secretary who 'tames' the curmudgeon (Lily James, looking beatific as Churchill recites his speeches accurately) and the requisite King's Speech meetings with King George, which end in friendship and respect. Ben Mendelsohn as George VI is one of a number of actors helped by their casting for physical resemblance to their characters, and Mendelsohn does not fall back on the speech impediment as he conveys his own resolve to battle on (by staying in London, not evacuating). By contrast, Samuel West is instantly recognisable as Anthony Eden, not because he looks like Eden but because he has a superficial attractiveness and charm.

Churchill's winning over the King (as opposed to George's great friendship with Halifax) is interesting in another sense, because the film creates a fictional trip for Churchill on the underground, one stop to Westminster, which is the longest one stop imaginable. The reason is to let the common people, including a West Indian man and a child, express their admiration, and convince Churchill not to sue for peace with Germany. We know he did not need that sort of convincing, and we know he never did get into the underground, but it is as if Joe Wright has to convince a contemporary audience that he was a man of the people as much as a man of the King (it is just those Tory toffs who can't abide his pushiness, which the film implies he gets from his American mother, bless them).

But the film, like Brexit, is less about Europe than about the Tory party and their resistance to Churchill's leadership. The key figure here is Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) another case of remarkable physical resemblance and played very well as a cross between Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood. There has been some criticism of the film for taking small liberties with the whole question of Chamberlain's successor, but in general it gets the basic tenor correct and cannot be faulted for sometimes dramatising it with face to face scenes that didn't actually happened. If anything, it slights the support for Churchill within the Tory party (see, for example, Lynne Olson's Troublesome Young Men, which sometimes gets a bit too American touristy, but tells the tale of the young Tory rebels who backed Churchill—note too Halifax's own memoirs were notoriously less than forthright).

The key scenes involve Chamberlain poised to cue the Tory benches to support Churchill's speeches, or not. In the first instance, their silence is deafening, and immediately brings to mind the current Brexit situation, and the fact that it is another case of the Conservative party putting its own squabbles well ahead of the good of the country. Ronald Pickup makes the most of a dying Chamberlain, and in reality these are the film's best scenes, within Parliament, shot to reflect an almost timeless history as well as a smoke-filled room in which deals must be done. A darkest debate, if not hour, and brilliantly shot by Bruno Delbonnel.

It's certainly a more satisfying film than Churchill, and Cox's performance in that film, while perhaps getting Churchill with more overall accuracy, suffers from the strange characterisation he's forced to enact. Oldman's ability as an actor is something that has gone overlooked for many years, because he's lacked the flashy roles, though not the convincing character parts (often as villains) such as in The Contender or Leon. But his Churchill is very much of a piece with his Beethoven or his George Smiley, both parts where he gets an essence of characters he would not commonly be thought his to play. That alone makes Darkest Hour worth viewing.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018


Because today is Valentine's Day, and because I was tinkering with this poem last week while I was in Minneapolis, I thought I'd post it now. It was written, pretty much as is absent the tinkering, in February 1987, during and just after a Jan Garbarek concert at Logan Hall in London. The title comes from a tune off Garbarek's album It's OK To Listen To The Gray Voice, in which all the song titles are lines from poems by Tomas Transtromer. So it is a poem based on a song based on a poem.

It was published, titled '...Forgetfulness' later in 1987 along with two other poems, as issue 89 of Infolio, published in Cambridge, the group called 'Solo Trio'. It then appeared by itself in the Montreal magazine Shadowplay in May of 1992. It all seems a long time ago. I decided in Minnesota to revert to the full title. The changes are small but I think telling. It was written for Theresa, two years too late.


A few more sides
of the crystal slide into
         if every feeling for you
turned to stone I would be
frozen, all alone for
         almost ever

somethings are never
what they seem
to me
and never learned
                                  it's like
the past two years have been
a dream
                my heart, locked in
a cell that only waking
can unlock, awaits

its own long day, the last
one done
& while I sleep I know
what disappears is gone

I never know the cost or
know what more
there is to tell or
what I have lost
                             or I can say.

Friday, 9 February 2018


It was a great Super Bowl, but you knew that already. Back in the day, when I was writing Friday Morning Tight End, I would do a wrap-up of the Super Bowl, analysing why I picked it right or wrong (more often wrong). But now as my column is simply predictions, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the game with you here.

I did get the Super Bowl pick wrong, though if you read my column last week you'll see I tried very hard to pick the Eagles. In the end I switched to the Pats, and seriously, with two minutes left and New England down five I didn't really doubt they'd pull off another comeback, and I'd be right both on picking them outright and picking the Eagles plus 5.5 points as a best bet.

This season my picks were better than last year's in the regular season: 173-83 or 67.6%. It took a while for the season to fall into place, but between weeks 7 and 16, before the black hole that is week 17, I went 114-35. 173 right would have placed me sixth on the list at nfl pickwatch, ahead of everybody at ESPN, NFL Network, CBC or MMQB. Last year I improved in the playoffs to 10-1; this year I slipped to 6-5. That left me overall at 179-88 on the season (67%) compared with 178-87-2 (67.2%) in 2016. At least I'm consistent! However in the 13 seasons I have picked every one of the 267 games a year for nfluk, I have been only 5-8 picking the Super Bowl! I'm like the Vikings or the Bills.

Once again, I was lucky enough to be in the BBC booth with Mark Chapman, Osi Umeniyora, and Jason Bell. I wish you could hear the conversations as the game goes on, because it's both fun and instructive. I usually forget which things I said on air and which ones just to to guys, but early on I remarked that this was like watching Texas Tech play Baylor: a wide open offensive shootout. The absorption of college spread and option concepts into the NFL game is fully upon us when you can see both teams going empty on multiple downs. And interestingly, the one thing about the game that seemed most predictable, that the Eagles' front four would bedevil the Pats' O line, didn't come true, but what was fascinating was the way Jim Schwartz covered the Pats. Man coverage on Rob Gronkowski usually fell to Corey Graham, who was signed as a free agent after Buffalo released him; he'd played with Ronald Darby and for Schwartz in Buffalo, but you may remember him for his interception for the Ravens in the Super Bowl win over Denver. Graham is one of many sharp free-agent acquisitions by Eagles' GM Howie Roseman. I've often thought the relative failure of the Chip Kelly era in Philly was due less to lack of coaching skill and more to lack of acumen in the front office, from which he had forced Roseman out. When you looked at the 'how they were built' charts for the two Super Bowl teams, you saw a very close parallel in the way both the Eagles and Pats had rebuilt in the past two seasons, with astute and mostly bargain free agency signings.

Graham's coverage was Gronkowski wasn't simple. When Gronk attacked the middle of the field, the Eagles were often showing a cover-two look, but it would quickly morph into something like a cover-1 robber: one safety stepping up to take away the lead to Gronk, the other playing coverage deep. Also putting Graham on Gronk also left Malcolm Jenkins free to shadow the running backs: note James White's receiving role was severely limited. Tactically, that more than made up for the Pats' ability to neutralise the Eagles' front four.

Offensively, the audacity of the Philly Special play call was probably the signature moment of the game. I had no doubt Doug Pederson would go for it on fourth and goal at the one, and couldn't understand why Cris Collinsworth was making it seem such a strange call. Remember the Eagles in the last minute of the first half against Minnesota; remember too the Jags kneeling out that final minute with a four-point lead over the Pats. You don't beat New England by being conservative. That they scored running a similar play to the pass Tom Brady could not catch was indeed audacious. It also reminded me of the Brady-Wes Welker miss in the second loss to the Giants: a completion to the wide open receiver seals the game for the Pats. It seemed like a bad omen. After the Super Bowl ex-supervisor of refs Mike Pereira came alive from the Fox COMMAND CENTER, probably to reinforce the idea NBC had no former ref to give commentary on referring decisions: he said the Eagles were definitely in an illegal formation on the Philly special, but that it was a 'judgement call'. Now the story in the game was that Jeffrey checked to make sure he was on the line, and the line judge told them he was, even though he was two yards back.

The problem is not the receiver and the line of scrimmage, the problem is the officials allow players to align with the player inside them. I have complained about this with Andy Reid teams in particular, but the Eagles and their tackles too. If for example the tackle aligns his inside front toe with the guard's outside heel, the tackle can be two yards off the line of scrimmage. I believe the line judge saw Jeffrey aligned with Lane Johnson's back leg and thus told him he was OK, even though he was almost two and half yards off the line of scrimmage. It made no difference on this play, actually, as no one assumed Johnson was eligible. But allowing tackles to line up so far off the line of scrimmage gives them at least a one step advantage over pass rushers, and shouldn't be allowed.
The key to the Patriots' bend-but-don't-break defense is being able to get stops on third downs: knowing what the offense needs to do and likes to do in those situations is a key. But the Eagles were a team living on third and longs and converting them regularly—not just against the Pats and not just with Nick Foles at QB. This is where they beat the Pats, beating them at situational football.

At one point in the second half, I said to the guys 'all it is going to take is one stop', and of course the Eagles got that stop on the Brandon Graham strip sack. But part of the reason we were in that situation was that the Pats had, in effect, been stopped twice on successive drives in the first half. First when Brandin Cooks couldn't convert a third and two on his sweep and Rodney McLeod power-bombed him. The Pats then missed the short field goal on fourth and one at the eight. I wasn't surprised Bill Belichick eschewed going for it, and decided to tie the game at three, but the bad snap killed them, and the Eagles' willing to go for it on fourth and one would stand in contrast.

I was reminded or haunted by the Giants another time. Maybe it was standing next to Osi in the booth. The Eagles launched their only punt on the next drive, and the Pats then failed on third and fourth and five at the Eagles' 35. Perhaps bothered by the previous miss of the chippie, Belichick eschewed a 52 yard field goal, which reminded me of his passing from a similar distance in the 2007 loss to the Giants; Gostkowski had mis-hit a kickoff previously and it was as if he were being punished. The fourth down pass to Gronk went incomplete, but I wondered even if taking a delay penalty and punting might have been preferable.

The Pats missed their chance for a stop early in the second half when Johnson Bademosi couldn't tackle Nelson Agholor on a crossing route on third down and six. This was the effect of Belichick's benching Malcolm Butler. The knock-on effect wasn't just Eric Rowe starting outside: I'm not sure Butler would have made a better play on the TD to Alshon Jeffrey. But it took Rowe and his long arms out of the middle of the field, and it left the Pats in big nickle on third downs, with Patrick Chung having to cover wideouts. When they went to dime it brought safety Jordan Richards in, and he's so awful in coverage (Clement's 55 yard catch being an example) Bademosi eventually took his spot. What no one noted was that New England's number four corner, Jonathan Jones, was on IR: Jones is their quickest DB, and his absence pushed Bademosi into that fourth spot. Butler's benching pushed Bademosi up higher. There was a point when I thought whatever Butler was being punished for, he was clearly upset, and he was on the sidelines, and it might have been a moment to tell him to make up for his mistakes on the field.

Again, I flashed back to a previous Super Bowl, when Butler made that great play on Jerome Kearse and Kearse made the great catch which preceded Butler's goal-line pick. If you recall Duron Harmon's pick in this game, think back and you'll see Harmon jump over Kearse while the ball was still loose--not making a play on the receiver. This time, in almost the same spot on the field, the ball popped up, and Harmon made the play. 

I was also puzzled by the absence of Dwight Allen. I saw him on only one offensive play, going in motion in order to pass block, but I wondered, especially after Cooks' concussion, if two tight ends might have been an option (not that the Pats' offense was misfiring). I'd also thought we'd see more two and three tight end sets from the Eagles, but of course with Butler out, the wide receivers got more play. And I would not be surprised if the success of the Pats' offense was a major factor in their last minute 180 on keeping Josh McDaniels around.

If there were one play Brady might want back, it would be on first down from the 9 after the failed kickoff reverse. Chris Hogan was open on the sidelines 30 yards up field, and Brady just misfired on the pass. A completion stops the clock and puts them near the 40. It was interesting to watch New England give up on Gostkowski's short kickoffs, because the Eagles were getting returns out to the 25, and settle for touchbacks. New England had taken the touchbacks previously: the reverse was not well executed, partly because the coverage got to Lewis so quickly there wasn't room for a good lateral. Just as the Eagles' offense took away the third-down advantage from the Pats, they won the battle of special teams as well. The fact that the Patriots ran up 600 yards and 33 points on the league's best or second-best defense was a win for their offense, but they lost two of the other three phases.

It was also strange that the two TD catches that were reviewed took so long to be decided (although the second one did add precious time for the Eagles' D line to catch their breath!). Corey Clement's catch (a perfectly thrown ball from Foles) was to me a catch, but the way he let the ball slide across his belly from right hand to left is precisely the loss of 'control' while 'going to the ground' that the league had ruled incomplete all season long. This is frustrating, but you could just see the replay official thinking, or being reminded, not to take yet another TD away from a Patriots' opponent, because the league clearly fixes games for the Pats, as the Brady suspension proved last year. I think much of the problem would be solved if the league would simply change the definition from 'control' to 'possession': you can lose control of the ball but still maintain possession of it, which was exactly what Clement had done.

Why the Ertz TD was reviewed at such length was a puzzle. How man steps with the ball, or movements of it, do you have to make before the league considers you transformed into a runner? Again, the rule and interpretation could be simplified: by going back to the old catch rule of possession with both feet down. Sure that would lead to more fumbles, and half the time the NFL has no idea who actually recovered the fumble before the pile began, and sure that could lead to fewer scores, but really, less is more, and as we know the NFL feels more is always better, so less is thus better. Got it?

Anyway, a pass interference call on the Hail Mary would have made things really interesting, right?

BTW, if you'd like to see more football columns during the off-season, let me know, OK? Thanks for reading, watching, and supporting. It's appreciated.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018


I read Cheap Shot on the flight to Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII, and considering the plot revolves around a New England Patriots' player whom Spencer is hired to protect/keep out of trouble, it seemed appropriate.

The trouble, of course, finds star linebacker Kinjo Heywood, in a way both unexpected and more severe than we might expect when his son is kidnapped. Immediately Spenser is in his usual wisecracking trouble with the head of security for the Pats, with Heywood's agent, his business manager/brother, and the FBI, all of whom want him off the case. And it's a complicated case, going back to a nightclub shooting in New York a couple of years before, which may have involved Heywood's crew. It's as if Ray Lewis had come back to play for Bill Belichick.

I've reviewed Ace Atkins' Spenser before, you can link to that here, and he gets the tone of the Parker novels better than any of the others I've read who've been carrying on with the characters. Like Lullaby, the main villain remains off-stage for most of the book, and in some ways we wonder if at least one of the sub-plots has been overlooked in the end. It was a complicated web which Atkins wove around the star player, which reflects perfectly the world of high-paid athletes in a violent, short-career sport.

One problem with the first-person narration is trying to fill out characters so we understand, not necssarily them, but their effect on others. In this case, Heywood's second-wife seems sketchily drawn, and what we see of her leads us to wonder exactly what Heywood sees in her. While it's obvious what Hawk sees in Heywood's first wife, and long-time readers might feel disappointed not to see Hawk tamed at last.

Atkins does with Spenser what Parker did: build fast moving stories that centre on personalities, and Cheap Shot is another good example. Even if the Patriots did lose the Super Bowl without Heywood.

Robert B Parker's Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
No Exit Press, £8.99, ISBN 9781843444497 

NOTE; This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Wednesday, 31 January 2018


One of the most interesting side stories in Super Bowl LII is the overlap of players between the two teams, interesting enough for me to write this piece and send it to a website where I have written before, who forwarded it their live sports department, who lost it for a couple of days, then let me know there was no space for it. So I offer it here, as an IT Super Bowl Special. Note that it's written assuming most things need to be explained. Note too, on the topic of explanation, I will be covering the game for the BBC on Sunday....


In last year's amazing Super Bowl comeback victory by the New England Patriots, defensive end Chris Long made one of the game's biggest 'hidden' plays, drawing a holding penalty against Atlanta's Jake Matthews, which helped push the Falcons out of range for a field goal that might have made their lead unassailable. Last year running back LaGarrette Blount scored 18 touchdowns for the Patriots, leading the league, but after a fumble in the Super Bowl, he didn't see the field again.

This year both Long and Blount are returning to the Super Bowl, but with the Philadelphia Eagles, not the Patriots. Their quest to stop the seeming inevitability of another Patriots trophy gives them a chance to do what only five other players have ever done: win Super Bowl rings in consecutive years, but with two different teams.

Oddly enough, three of those five players did it while having to beat their previous team along the way. Ken Norton, Jr, son of the heavyweight boxing champ, actually won three in a row: with Dallas in 1992 and 1993, after which he moved to San Francisco to win with the 49ers in 1994. His teammate that year was 'Neon' Deion Sanders; in 1995 Sanders won with the Cowboys.

Brandon Browner became the only player to get his second ring while beating the team with which he got his first. Though with an asterisk.  Browner got a ring with Seattle Seahawks, although he missed the second half of the 2013 season and the playoffs. The next year he was with the Patriots when they beat Seattle 28-24 in the Super Bowl; his awareness of his old team's plays helped Malcolm Butler make the game-saving interception in that one.

No one remembers Derrick Martin, a reserve defensive back who collected rings with Green Bay in 2010 and the New York Giants in 2011. Even fewer remember Russ Hochstein, another three-ring player. Hochstein, a backup lineman, played in only one game with Tampa Bay in 2002 and was released before they won the Super Bowl, but received a ring anyway. He was signed by the Patriots, where he wound up starting briefly and winning rings for the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Former Tampa defensive star Warren Sapp guaranteed the Patriots would lose a Super Bowl because Hochstein was starting, saying he had no talent. The Pats and Hochstein won anyway.

The presence Long and Blount on the Eagles' roster highlights a Venn diagram of convergence between the teams. Long made two key plays for the Eagles' in their conference championship win over Minnesota: hitting quarterback Case Keenum to force an intercepted pass which was returned for a touchdown, and then recovering a Keenum fumble which led to another score. Long had played in New England on a year-year contract, after a long career of frustration with the Rams; he sought a new challenge with the Eagles. In effect, he played this year simply for that challenge; he donated his base salary for the season to educational charities.

Long's pass rush ability was orchestrated by Eagles' defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, known for his aggressive blitzing, a defensive strategy almost opposite of New England's 'bend but don't break' containment. But Schwartz got his first job in the NFL with Patriots' coach Bill Belichick, when Belichick was coaching the Cleveland Browns and hired the young Schwartz as a scout. Then Schwartz got his first coaching job in Baltimore under Belichick disciple Ozzie Newsome. Another ex-Pat in the Eagles' defense is linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, whose ability to play on special teams (kicking plays) is the core of his value.

Blount wasn't offered a new contract by the Patriots, and signed with the Eagles as the power-running part of a committee of rushers. His role diminished in mid-season when Philadelphia traded for London-born running back Jay Ajayi, who'd fallen out of favour in Miami and was thus available relatively cheaply. But the combination of the two allows the Eagles to batter and wear down opposing defenses.

It's not all one-way traffic, however. The Patriots' leading rusher is Dion Lewis, who came into the league with the Eagles, but was released after a series of injuries, and eventually signed by New England off the street when no other team was interested. The star of the Patriots' comeback victory in their conference final against Jacksonville was Danny Amendola, a slot receiver who was signed by the Eagles after Dallas released him, and then claimed by the Rams where he had five seasons before New England signed him to replace Wes Welker, which is exactly what Amendola had done in college at Texas Tech. New England's offensive coordinator is Josh McDaniels; McDaniels had coached Amendola in his one year as offensive coordinator with the Rams.

On defense, cornerback Eric Rowe will match up against his old team after being acquired in a trade last season. Rowe's price was the same as what the Eagles paid for Ajayi, a fourth-round pick in the draft of college players, so you could say everything evens out. And a key defensive player for the Pats, safety Patrick Chung, left New England for Philadelphia in 2013, to play for his old college coach, Chip Kelly with the Eagles. After one season, Chung was released, and resigned with the Pats, where he's been a starter ever since.

In today's NFL, where salary caps put pressures on the huge 53 man rosters, and free agency can price out a team's star players, building a roster in creative fashion can help perpetuate success. This is what the Patriots have been known for in the Belichick-Tom Brady era; that the Eagles are showing the same sort of acumen makes the cross-over of talent between the teams no surprise, and helps explain why the two are in the Super Bowl.