Monday, 13 August 2018

CIPHERS: a poem

I'm not sure exactly when I wrote this poem, probably some time in 1983. It was published in an English magazine, The Rialto, in Norwich. I sent it to them in March of 1985 and it was published in issue 3, in July 1985. If I find any of my notes or drafts I'll amend this post, especially if I discover what city it was that may have inspired it. At some point in the past couple of years I made one small but substantial change; I like it much more the way it is now.

CIPHERS

Watching the sun rise over a city already bright.
Random motion creates a quiet solitude.
A window, cracked at the edge, bends inward,
Making room for the wind. If it were colder
We might have snow. Until we do
We can sit and wait
For the raindrops to grow smaller.
In the street, the movement takes on patterns.
The sky changes. We are not so alone.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

THE 99% SOLUTION: KAARE KYLE ANDREWS' RENATO JONES

'Season One' of Renato Jones is titled The One %, which sets the stage for what is not so much political analysis as a dynamic and savage attack on the great divide in society, and the super-rich who frolic in that chasm. It opens with the eponymous Renato, on his birthday, about to inherit a huge fortune. 'You have everything you want', says his childhood friend Bliss. 'Not everything', he replies, which sets the stage in the quietest moment of this two-volume graphic novel, which is a piece of stunning graphic art and visceral propaganda: the kind of dissection of our present state that one wishes more dominant media would be able to undertake.

From there we see a wordless flashback, to a woman being murdered as a baby looks on, and then its back to the present where Renato is a guest on a yacht belonging to hedge fund manager Douglas Bradley. He's looking for Renato to invest: 'this hybrid shit isn't going to cure world hunger,' he gloats as he stuffs steak into his mouth, 'it's going to monetize it!' Then it's time to party, but the party doesn't work out as Bradley might like. Because Renato Jones is 'The Freelancer', and his mission is to make the '1% pay'. 'For 20 years they've been murdering the working class', he explains. Now he will start to even the score.

As written and drawn by Kaare Kyle Andrews, Renato Jones is exciting, frightening, powerful story-telling. It's extremely violent, at times so much so that as the panels of the page explode it becomes difficult to figure out exactly what is happening. But as you read you also see that other scenes are calmer, more discreet, that Andrews matches the kind of drawing and colouring (which he also does himself) to the moods, which deepens the contrasts between his characters. 'Normal' family life is portrayed as such, but in Jones' world of extreme wealth and indulgence, the figures are drawn grotesquely, they are exaggerated in size and movement, they are oblivious to their own ugliness. Eventually it dawned on me: this is the kind of vision George Grosz had of Weimar Germany; it is not so much satire as the reporting of disgust. Critics may well look at this as a polemic calling for Occupy to arm itself and turn the battle violent, but it's nothing so crude. The beauty of the comics format is that it can play the societal and personal stirrings simultaneously,contrasting the psychopathology of the lone avenger with the sociopathy of his targets. We haven't seen anything so instinctively accurate since The Shadow was convincing Depression Era criminals that the weed of crime bears bitter fruit.

Of course a one-man vigilante war on the rich is a limited story line, and there are complications in Renato's own backstory. His task is something he's been raised to perform, by a family retainer named Church. And his relationship with Bliss is complicated, another thing which Andrews' inventive layouts and tones conveys with a combination of passion and restraint. It doesn't help that Bliss' father, Nicola Chambers, survives an assassination attempt, and finds himself elected President of the United States. The parallels to Donald and Ivanka Trump are not subtle, but they are remarkably effective. It seems left to satirists and graphic novelists to get the inner core of Trump where mainstream media ignores it blissfully. And as all this builds to an apocalyptic finish, there are moments of extreme tenderness, of sad tragedy, as underplayed and effective as the grand guignol of the bloodshed has been.

At times, Andrews' art reminds of me Steve Ditko's, a cross between Doctor Strange and Mr A, but Renato Jones is as innovative in its way as Spider Man or Watchmen or the Sandman were in their time. It goes a step beyond some of the very good noirish work in recent comics, to a place where comparisons with Grosz are not unwarranted. You will not have read anything like it.

Renato Jones, Season One: The One % Image Comics $9.99 ISBN 9781632159007
Renato Jones, Season Two: Freelancer Image Comics $16.99 ISBN 9781534303386

Monday, 6 August 2018

RAGNAR JONASSON'S WHITE OUT

Just before Christmas, and for the first time in twenty-five years, since she was sent away to relatives in Reykjavik when she was seven, Asta Karadottir has come home, to a lonely house near the lighthouse in Kalfshamarsvik, on the north coast of Iceland. She had reason to stay away; her mother and younger sister Tinna both met their deaths in falls off the cliffs overlooking the sea; it was after Tinna’s death that Asta was sent away. Now she has come back, and two days later she lies dead in the same spot, at the foot of the same cliffs.

Ari Thor Arason gets a call from Tomas, his former mentor on the Siglurfjordur police. Now based in Reykjavik, he’s been assigned the investigation of the death, and has requested Ari Thor as his support. It makes things awkward for Ari Thor, now reconciled with his grilfriend Kristin, and with a baby due in a few weeks. The prospect of spending Christmas apart doesn’t seem a good idea to him, so he brings Kristin along, hoping things will be cleared up swiftly and cleanly.

Of course they won’t be. Ragnar Jonasson was a translator of Agatha Christie into Icelandic, and his Dark Iceland series of Ari Thor mysteries are redolent of the kinds of characters, situations and plots that define Christie. This one is basically a locked-room mystery: four suspects had dinner with Asta the night of her death, all of whom she knew as a child: the now-elderly caretakers, brother and sister Oskar and Thora, the house’s owner, Reynir, whose father was one of Iceland’s wealthiest men and who continues the tradition, and neighbour Arnor, who looks after Reynir’s horses and helps Oskar with the lighthouse. Forensics soon determine that Asta did not jump, but was murdered, and that she’d had sex soon before.

From that set-up Jonasson weaves a tale of past sins coming back to haunt the present, with overtones of ghostly activity. As with Christie it’s not so much a question of clues as elimination, of digging up the motivation that reveals the killer. But what makes the story work so well is that it is really, at heart, about families—not just the problems with Asta’s family (who also worked for Reynir’s father) but Arnor and his wife who have their own difficulties, and of course Tomas, who moved to Reykjavik to save his own marriage, and the ongoing relationship of Ari Thor and Kristin. The reflections are amplified by the crime, but they are also fascinating because of the surface practicality with which Icelanders, and you might say Scandinavians in general, approach matters of the heart.

Part of what made that interesting was that I read the novel, and wrote this, in Iceland,
where you can feel that Nordic tradition, going back to the first ‘courts’ of the Icelandic ‘thing’, where the crimes punished most heavily were incest and infanticide. (Note: the former is not part of the plot). It speaks of isolated people, who keep themselves to themselves, yet are as little immune to the pains and passions as anyone else. Being in country, as it were, also makes clearly some of the fascination readers find with explanations of Icelandic life in general, unique in our Western tradition, and Jonasson does that very well indeed.

The present resolves itself satisfactorily, while the past remains ambiguous (though I prefer to take Asta’s opening memories literally as truth), and Jonasson also builds for the future, as Ari Thor himself, simple, bright and well-meaning, has much to work out. There is something slightly less than cozy about these mysteries (and if you read Jonasson’s brilliant The Darkness you’ll understand why –if not my review of it is here) yet they work because the lives of the people involved are not cozy at all. They are real, and tether the mystery to reality.

Whiteout by Ragnar Jonasson
translated by Quentin Bates
Orenda Books, £8.99 ISBN 9781910633892

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

VIOLENT LOVE: BARBIERE AND SANTOS' PULP CRIME THRILLER

Daisy Jane and Rock Bradley are bank robbers, operating in the Southwest in the 1970s. But Frank Barbiere's story opens 1987, with retired US Marshal Lou telling their tale to young Penny, flashing back to the late Sixties and early Seventies, to Daisy Jane's path into a life of crime, and to his own intersection with her and rock while on the track of the notorious La Jauria drug cartel. Violent Love is violent, and there is love, but mostly it is a fast-paced thriller that claims to be 'inspired by true events'.

It's not hard to see what some of those events might be, but Violent Love also wears its influences proudly. Not least music. The opening epigram comes from the punk band Beach Slang, and while that meant nothing to me, when you read the lyrics the art by Victor Santos can carry you away in those kinds of beats. In fact, you could look at this work as a sort of mix between elements of films as diverse as Badlands, The Outfit or The Grifters. The mix comes from the noirish sense of doom and the pulpy story-telling of Seventies crime movies, crossed with the anarchic energy of punk, music of a more violent sort of crime era. The closest comparisons would be to Carl Franklin's One False Move, or, perhaps even closer, to the now-forgotten crime-spree thriller set in Texas, Love And A .45, starring a young Renee Zellweger.

This is not to say Violent Love is simply derivative, but that it wears its influences, and their eras well. It's also telling that Image Comics bills the story as “crime/romance”, and the cover of the fifth issue of the original series is done beautifully in the style of a romance comic. In the sense that comics are our modern pulp magazines, or pulp novels, it is perhaps inevitable that they should have discovered an affinity for the story-telling of violent noirish B-movie crime. I've praised the work of Ed Brubaker here many times, and Barbiere bears comparison with him, though with Santos' art, he moves in a more dynamic, faster-paced kind of accelerated story-telling. It's a compelling read.

Violent Love Vol. 1: Stay Dangerous
by Frank J Barbiere & Victor Santos
Image Comics 2017, $9.99 ISBN 9781534300446

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

LAST CALL FOR THE MICK: In Memoriam: Mickey Spillane

Note: This remembrance appeared originally in January 2007, in issue 50 of Crime Time, when it was still a magazine, six months after Mickey's death in July 2006. I came across it misfiled in my computer, re-read it, and felt saddened again that I didn't get to write a proper obit of Mickey for one of the British papers. You'll find the Daily Telegraph version of my interview with Mickey on the site here, maybe I will go back and post the whole interview soon. Note in this piece, which is as I wrote it, not as it appeared, I mention Sax Rohmer's novel President Fu Manchu; didn't that turn out to be prophetic! Since Mickey was so derisive of 'that cocksman' Bill Clinton when I interviewed him, I would love to ask him his thoughts on Donald Trump. In the meantime, a heartfelt RIP to Mickey, and though Max has done a great job with his unpublished oeuvre, I still miss him.

LAST CALL FOR THE MICK

Respectability really didn't sit all that well with Mickey Spillane, although the world more than caught up with the sex and violence of his Mike Hammer novels, and like whores and politicians, crime writers become respectable if they hang around long enough.  Indeed, more people probably know Mickey from his days as the guy in the trench coat fronting Light Beer commercials.  'Hey Mickey, got a Light?'

He was due a re-evaluation anyway, which began with Max Allan Collins' excellent documentary Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane.  Those early novels,  the ones written in money-making pulp fever before he found religion, before he began making his living being Mickey Spillane, have real narrative drive.  They're structured solidly, and while the characters veer between stereotype and psychopathology, more than anything they present a picture of immediate Post-War America that most writers couldn't beat with the butt of Mike Hammer’s .45.

Not that there was anything wrong with Mickey making his living being Mickey, because his passing  really does mark the end of an era.  He was everything the generation that won the big war, and their younger brothers, wanted to be.  Handsome, successful, the best in the world at what he did.  I look at the photos of the youthful Mickey signing his first big contract and I see Ted Williams, or John Wayne.  Remember, Mickey played Hammer in The Girl Hunters, and didn't do a bad job. How many other writers could match that?

Mick represents an era when tough guys didn't swear in front of ladies.  Where men wore hats that could be knocked off in fights.  Where hair tonic kept your crewcut stiff.  Where strippers in pasties were hot stuff, suggesting sex you didn't have to sit through a TV dinner to get.  An age where people believed in things like truth, justice and the American way, and no one had yet proven them wrong.  Where men had to do what men had to do.  The Mick believed in this world, and his readers felt it in his writing, so they believed too.

When Mickey came to London in 1999 his BBC minders gave me 40 minutes for my interview. Mick was 80 something and had flown overnight from South Carolina. He kept shooing the minders away so we could keep talking. I ran out of tape. It didn't matter; Mickey was still telling me stories as they pushed him into the cab to Broadcasting House.  I told him my mother had named me Michael because she'd loved Mike Hammer, reading him pregnant at 19 and feeling very adult.  'Jeez ya shudda hoyed the names they gave me,' he said, a pitchman to the end.

Ironically, the film Kiss Me Deadly, which satirizes Spillane brilliantly, may be the most enduring part of Mickey's legacy.  For film buffs it might be John Alton's 3-D noir camerawork on I The Jury. It certainly won't be Biff Elliott, nor Stacy Keach, nor the underrated Armand Assante, nor any of the other actors who tried to play in Hammer time.  I suspect the Mike Hammer novels will live on, as period pieces perhaps. they might get studied in American Studies classes, the way mine under Richard Slotkin read President Fu Manchu back in 1971. But Mickey Spillane, who sold America on the virtues of the American way, via paperback sex and violence, will certainly live on, because he was his own most enduring creation. I'll miss him.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

STEVE DITKO: MY BBC LAST WORD ESSAY

I've done an essay on Steve Ditko, creator of Spider Man, Dr Strange, The Question, and Mr A, for BBC Radio 4's Last Word. You can listen to it here; the introduction comes just before the 17 minute mark. But as is so often the case with Last Word, the programme itself is worth the listen, especially the lead item on Oliver Knussen, about whom I wrote right here last week. I knew of Sam Chisholm from my days working at Sky, and then there are two fascinating obits for people I didn't know, Barbara Harrell-Bond and Anna Sandor de Kenos. It's this mix that helps explain why I love being part of the show. Thanks to producer Neil George.

Ditko called out for more length. Some of what was cut out of my script as recorded was in my Guardian obit of Ditko, which like the Knussen you will find just before this post. I probably should have spent a little more time on his weirdest super-hero, The Creeper. But look at that (very early) Mr A panel, and think that decades later, Ditko was writing far more argument into far more static panels. It was outsider art indeed. And I am writing a deeper dive into Ditko and Ayn Rand, which I will let you know about....

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

PATH OF BLOOD: JONATHAN HACKER'S JIHADI DOCUMENTARY

Path Of Blood opens with Ali, a young jihadi, struggling to record his suicide video. He is distracted by his comrades, he wants coffee, he is to all intents and purposes a class clown brought to the front of the classroom to recite a lesson for which he is not prepared. Ali struggles to read the script written for him; he doesn't seem to understand it; in fact he doesn't seem to understand. In April 2004, Abdul al-Mudyaish carried out a bombing aimed at the Traffic Directorate in Riyadh.

The footage of Ali was a small part of a horde of jihadi home-movies captured by Saudi security services which makes up the bulk of Path Of Blood—the only additional material is police and other video shot in the aftermath of terror attacks, during police assaults on jihadi hideouts, and Saudi leaders on inspections or meetings. It is presented without narration or commentary, and it provides a mesmerisng look inside the world of Islamic terror at the very heart of Islam itself, Al Queda's war on the House of Saud, which Osama Bin Laden ordered in 2001, and which has been being fought since at least 2003.

Since 2001, the West has been focused on Islamic terror as it strikes at western targets. It has launched invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and seen much of the Middle East crumble into chaos. Yet in the heart of Islam, Saudi Arabia, from where most of the 911 terrorists came, the threat is just as great. Where we see the Saudis subtly propagating terror elsewhere, they also face a fundamentalist assault from those who see them bending to the will of the West.

At the heart of this paradox lie these young men—drawn to the simple answers fundamentalism offers, drawn to the excitement of violence, drawn to the camaraderie of the jihadis. The parallels with various fundamentalist and nationalist organisations in the West is not hard to draw, especially as the footage in Path Of Blood shows their thrill at fighting the repression of Saudi security, their conviction that theirs is indeed a holy war. It also shows with chilling starkness, their manipulation: when a young jihadi is chosen for a suicide mission, we are struck by the detachment of the leaders sending him, not themselves, to die.

There is an element of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight here too. These kids are not worldly wise, they are just kids. We watch their drive to a training camp in the desert, like boys off to summer camp, and the thanks they give to Allah for the beauty of the setting. When they arrive the camp is a quagmire pelted by fierce rain, the tents ill equipped to cope with the muddy morass. As we watch the final raid on oil storage facility, the car with the bombs is about to run out of gas short of the target. We half expect the driver to ask if he needs to fill the tank.

This does not mean they are not dangerous. Such lightness contrasts sharply with the violence and destruction we also see. But by turning the terrorists into real people, Path Of Blood makes clear that these youngsters are victims themselves, while raising the painful spectre that their attraction to the cause is inevitable under our present circumstances, and likely to increase.

I was reminded more than once of the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman—for the way the producer/director Jonathan Hacker leaves the viewer free to make up his own mind, but more for the careful way in which the story, and the options, are presented. As with Wiseman, he does not moralise, he presents material which requires that you moralise, and as with Wiseman, the audience comes to see the problem lies deeper, it's more systematically ingrained in the situation, that we are led to, or like to, think. This is a remarkable, bravura piece of documentary making, a must-see for anyone concerned with the problem of terrorism, which should be everybody.

Path Of Blood is on show at Picturehouse in London

Saturday, 14 July 2018

CIVILITY, TOLERANCE, NIXON, AND AMERICA: Michael Goldfarb's FRDH podcast

My friend Michael Goldfarb has posted an excellent essay on his FRDH (First Rough Draft of History) podcast. It's called Civility and the 'Paradox of Tolerance' and it's worth a 12-minute listen before you proceed here because I will be talking about some of its points (not spoilers, exactly). Anyway you won't find many people weaving together Newt Gingrich, Sarah Sanders' dinners, Karl Popper and the Sidney Lumet movie The Hill in such an entertaining, and chilling, fashion. You can link to the website here.

Back already? Michael's jumping off point was an essay on Politico, the Sporting News of False Equivalence, by Rutgers professor David Greenberg. As Michael says, Greenberg warns about the 'last time' the left got uncivil, pointing to a 1970's bomb explosion which killed members of the Weather Underground in New York. You can read the piece here if you must. How this equates to a mother berating former cabinet member and arch-grafter Scott Pruitt at his latest expensed dinner, or the owner asking Sarah Sanders to leave a restaurant, or diners forcing Mitch McConnell, in his mom jeans, to skedaddle from his night out, is only the peak of the piece's fatuousness. In terms of incivility we could point to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, Nixon's October Surprise, the Chicago Eight trial, Nixon's plumbers, Watergate, the intelligence scandals of the 70s, Reagan's October Surprise, Iran-Contra, militia bombing federal facilities or shooting it out with federal marshals, assassinations of abortion-providing doctors, and other acts of political incivility that pre-date Newt Gingrich's arrival in Congress to fight the second civil war.

Michael and I have had this discussion many times: I like to trace the modern Republicans back to the Goldwater fiasco in 1964, but more importantly to the Civil and Voting Rights legislation which brought about a re-balancing of American politics. Formerly, each party had its moderate wing; the Dems also had the racist southern Dixiecrats, loyal to hating the party of Lincoln. The Republicans had the John Birch, Ayn Rand, cowboy money faction who got Goldwater the nomination. When civil rights brought black people the vote, the Dixiecrats moved swiftly to the Republican party: all the right-wingnuts were now in the same canoe. And yes, it took them until Gingrich, and the 1994 shut down of government, for them to begin to understand what they had.

You wouldn't get any of this from David Greenberg, and I knew why. 15 years ago or so I reviewed a book of his, Nixon's Shadow, for the TLS. The books was about the way Nixon was portrayed in media, and I reviewed it for the mess of selective assumption, historical blindness, false equivalence, and twisted values that it was. The editor who commissioned the review loved it, but it was spiked by the then-editor of the TLS, who as it turned out was also an unreconstructed Nixon-supporter. They do survive. The review appeared in the late lamented political magazine Lobster, but when I started this blog I reprinted it here, and you can find it here. It will give a decent idea of why Michael found the Politico essay so irritatingly off-base.

We are living in an age of determinedly minority government. I am used to it in the UK, but in America
gerry-mandering, voting repression, and the onslaught of propaganda disguised as news had led Fintan O'Toole in the Irish Times to make a compelling case about seeing the growth of a fascist state.  You can find that here; it's worth a read.

Michael, through Karl Popper, asks how far we should extend tolerance to the intolerant. In 2016 I screamed in frustration as Obama sat still and allowed Mitch McConnell to sideline his nominee for the Supreme Court. I wanted him to force a Constitutional crisis, bring events to a head, stand up to the intolerant. As I read O'Toole, I was reminded I am reading a book called The Trial Of Adolf Hitler right now; it's about the beerhall putch and the trial that followed, and it is all about the tolerance of those who didn't feel the threat about which O'Toole is writing.

Anyone listening to Michael quote Popper: "for it may turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument. They may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive" and not thinking of Trump, Fake and Fox News, has been living in a cave. The kind of things like Greenberg's Politico piece are the other side of the coin, seeming rational, but encouraging a 'tolerant' acceptance of the intolerant. This must not be allowed to happen. 


Thursday, 12 July 2018

THE ENDLESS: VIEWING AND REVIEWING

Justin and Aaron are brothers who escaped from a UFO cult when they were younger. They are living a dead-end life in menial jobs when they receive an old VHS tape which comes from the cult, and implies the 'ascension' for which they were waiting is about to happen. Aaron, the younger brother, is intrigued, and wants to go back to investigate, 'just for a day', as if he were more than curious, maybe homesick. Justin, the older, is the one who engineered their escape, and never wants to return, but as protective he is of his brother, so too is he concerned not to turn this perhaps innocent desire into some bigger resentment.

When they arrive, it is as if nothing has changed, including the people who seem no older than when they left. They are welcoming, if in occasionally confrontational ways. It's run like a commune, it's almost self-sufficient (they make and sell beer) and they have a very groovy red weed to smoke. Aaron is entranced, especially by Anna, who denies sending them the video while Justin remains suspicious, but agrees to extend their stay, a day at a time. Until things start to get really weird.


The Endless is a low-budget film that I suppose should be called horror, but like the best horror it is not about shock, but about other things. What makes it fascinating is the fact that it was directed by the two stars, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, written by Benson, and shot by Moorhead. Since the core of the story is the filial relationship, the closeness of the actors is obvious, but what is really important is that The Endless relies on ambiguity, and the way the script and the camera work dovetail so nicely helps make that ambiguity work.

I haven't seen either of their first two films, but apparently this one exists in a similar universe to tetheir first, Resolution, with cast members reappearing in similar roles, while their second film, Spring, is described as being Lovecraftian, and that sort of dark fantasy is one of the ways you can read The Endless. Is it a modern thriller about a hive-mind commune/cult? a paradoxical Twilight Zone style sf story? An H.P. Lovecraft kind of essay in hidden evil? Or all those things?

At times it can wander, like an overlong Twilight Zone episode, and repition is necessary to the story. Usually we are kept guessing and intrigued. The leads are good: Aaron had a Ron Howard kind of innocence about him while Justin is somewhere on the Giamatti/Gyllenhall scale. Tate Ellington is creepily nice as the cult leader: we could be in The Witness at first; while Callie Hernandez adds just a hint of danger to an excellent turn as the innocently seductive Anna. The directors keep things moving add dark humour, and work very hard and intelligently to keep you guessing by giving you visual clues, mirrored images and scenes, and yes, ambiguities. It feels like a bigger-budget film, but more importantly it feels like a more thoughtful film, and I'm going to seek out their earlier work. It's dropped a bit beneath the radar since its release in the UK, but it's certainly worth your time. I predict this is going to become a cult film in both senses of the word.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

OLIVER KNUSSEN AND ELLIOTT CARTER

Oliver Knussen has died, and I have been listening to and reading tributes to him.  I was also listening to some of his works: the Third Symphony (1979), which may have been the first of his I ever heard, in my early years in London, and the lovely Ophelia's Last Dance (2010), which, as it turns out, was originally started in 1974, a melody excluded from that Third Symphony. You can listen to that here as you read this.

I've always liked Knussen the composer more than loved him, but listening to Huw Watkins playing solo piano on Ophelia's put me in mind of Elliott Carter, whose work I do love. This should not be too surprising: Knussen's first composition teacher was John Lambert, who like Carter studied under Nadia Boulanger. What is more noteworthy, if not surprising, is how energetically Knussen promoted Carter's work. As a conductor he has recorded virtually all of Carter's orchestral works, and always with a keen feel for their heart as much as their composition.

I went to a couple of birthday celebration concerts  for Carter in London, his 80th and 90th, if I remember correctly, each time thinking this would be a remarkable last chance to see him in person. But I also went to the Barbican in January 2006, for one of the BBC's 'Get Carter' concerts, and heard Knussen conduct the Clarinet Concerto and the brilliant Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano and two chamber orchestras. I seem to recall Knussen introducing the show on stage, and Carter at 98 indicating his approval. I also recall how the movement of the players reflected the movement of the sounds--something which helped my companion appreciate what she first heard as cacophony.

But as I said, Knussen had a rare understanding of  Carter. Two years after that Barbican concert, Carter turned 100 (the photo above come from his 100th birthday concert in New York) and Knussen wrote an appreciation which began:

    Elliott Carter, 100 in December, was born the day after Messiaen, but he sounds younger - his music has yet to sink in. It bears comparison with Beckett’s plays: phrases, meaningful in themselves, relate to each other only in their simultaneity. Rhythms are spasmodic, while held chords of vibrant beauty colour kaleidoscopic scenes that are rich with turbulent activity.

As I wrote this I listened to Knussen conduct Carter's Concerto For Orchestra with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, you can find it here, the famous concert where a storm raged outside while the music which Carter said as inspired by Saint-John Perse poem 'Vents' (winds) played on. And Knussen, looking for all the world like a cross between Orson Welles and Chuck Blazer, never missed a beat. It reminded me that Knussen was a child prodigy, composing and conducting when he was just 15. Carter was more of a slow developer, but he lived to be 103, and was composing almost til the end. Knussen died much to soon; his own music and his wonderful appreciation for the music of others will be sorely missed.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

STEVE DITKO: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

I've had the sad pleasure of writing Steve Ditko's obituary for the Guardian; it's online now here and should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, but there is so much else to say about Ditko that I could not get into the word limit, and that would probably be considered too esoteric for the Guardian readership.

Ditko's work in those 50s Atlas/Marvel comics and elsewhere was a great honing ground for his later super-hero work.  See the illustration left; he would have made a fine illustrator for Edgar Allen Poe or HP Lovecraft. The expressiveness of his faces, no matter how stylised, was the key to his success with the early Spider Man, as I wrote, but it was not just Peter Parker's hesitant teen--it was Aunt May's worry and Jonah Jameson's bullying bluster. His villains registered enjoyment of their evil--it's how one as absurd as the Green Goblin could work (see also The Creeper).

Ditko also drew other Marvel heroes: his Bruce Banner emphasizes the Peter Parkerish nature of his wimp personality--this was not Superman combing back his spit curl and putting on a pair of smart-guy glasses. I would have liked to discuss the difference in Spider Man after Ditko left and John Romita took over: Romita's faces are more perfect; his women actually beautiful. His Peter Parker was more of a heroic figure before he becomes Spider Man. Romita, who came to Spidey from Daredevil, was adept enough with action, but something more primal was lost. Of course the books immediately increased in popularity. It reminded me of when the underrated Don Heck took over from Jack Kirby on The Avengers; Heck's work reminded me of John Prentice on Rip Kirby, in the Alex Raymond school: his faces were cleaner, and his action more subdued.

And of course there was nothing like Dr Strange, which quickly became my favourite Marvel. I made the point that youngsters thought Ditko must be tripping when he drew the comic, and nothing was further from the truth. By the way, the Guardian using 'hippy' for 'hippie' is one of their bizarre 'style guide' decisions: the guide appears to have been written by someone who spent the Sixtys (sic) locked in a teletype room trying desperately to save received English from American encroachments. Correcting a neologism? What next, yuppy as the singular of yuppies? 

Charlton Comics ran out of Derby, Connecticut, not far from where I grew up. They were one of the town's big industries in the dying Housatonic Valley (Wham-O, makers of Frisbees and Whiffle Balls, were another, in Shelton) and they were in the comics business mostly to keep their printing presses busy. But they were a great proving ground for talent--the story is that Ditko introduced Dick Giordano to DC, where he eventually became the editor. Some was local talent, like the great Batman artist Jim Aparo, who came from nearby Hartford, and the amazing Joe Gill, who wrote twice as much as Stan lee twice as fast. Charlton was also the place where my college buddy Wayne Howard, who had been an assistant to Wally Wood, worked and became the first artist to get a name credit in the title.

The Question remains one of my favourite comics characters, especially before he went over the top: he predated the Pauline Kael/Dirty Harry 'fascist' controversy. I remember Mr. A from Wood's Witzend, to which I subscribed, and I found it funny in a strange way--thinking perhaps Ditko had gone off the rails. This was before I realised there were actually people who took Ayn Rand seriously, which was just before those people starting trying to control the world.  The Question has appeared in DC's animated Justice League TV series; a movie is frequently rumoured. Dennis O'Neil did a nice job with an update of Ditko's series; I think it's time I wrote a Question novel.

The Jonathan Ross BBC4 documentary is a good one, even if Ross' smugness at not revealing anything Ditko said to him irritated me at the time and still does. You can find it on You Tube here. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman's contributions make it work, but there's also nice stuff from Jerry Robinson and Stan Lee, as well as a couple of later Marvel staffers.

Trying to divide the kudos for Marvel's success is pointless, though we might have wished the financial rewards to fall to Kirby and Ditko as they deserved. John Romita, in the Ross doc, makes the point that Ditko wasn't really interested in money; like a ranch hand he wanted an honest day's pay for his work.

For all that Kirby and Ditko and others may have shouldered the lion's share of the creative burden at Marvel, it was Lee's ability to sense out the market that drove the company forward, that attracted and kept casual fans as well as those entranced by the remarkable work of great artists. Ditko in many ways is the greatest of them, certainly the most mysterious, and most enigmatic. RIP

Saturday, 30 June 2018

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: IT'S NOT TRUMP'S QUEENS ANYMORE

Two stories dominated political news this week in the United States, which I was able to watch from the inside as I made a family visit, and from the inside their effects seemed to be interpreted in a curiously backward logic, which speaks to way politics is played in America.

On Tuesday, not far from where I was staying, a 28 year old woman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, scored an amazing upset in the Democratic party primary for New York’s 14th Congressional district, defeating Joe Crowley, a 20-year incumbent who was considered the front-runner to replace Nancy Pelosi as minority leader in the House, and who, at 56, was at least 20 years younger than the three Dems higher than him in the party hierarchy.

The next day, 81-year old Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, effective at the end of July. Though he seemed to be tacking well to the conservative side in recent years, Kennedy was still considered the ‘swing vote’ between right and left on the nine-member court. His resignation gives President Donald Trump the chance to appoint another young die-hard rightist, in the mould of Neil Gorsuch, whose impact after being nominated last year has already been great.

The Kennedy resignation seems timed to allow Trump to make an appointment before the upcoming mid-term elections in November. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who when President Barack Obama tried to fill the seat opened by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, flat-out refused to provide the Senate’s ‘advice and consent’ as prescribed by the Constitution, thus holding the seat open until Trump could select Gorsuch, immediately announced he would this time fast-track the process. Commentators opined that the rush would be to avoid Republicans losing their majorities in an anti-Trump landslide in the mid-terms. Many of the them pointed to the Ocasio win as a sign the country was turning left.

That analysis missed the biggest point about Ocasio's win, the difference between national and local politics, particularly in today’s America. Because on the national level, Democrats would need a massive swing away from Republicans, estimated by pollsters at between eight and ten per cent nationally, to merely eke out a slight majority in the House of Representatives. This is due to the dual effects of systematic gerrymandering and intense voter repression, whose roots can be traced to the Republican focus on local politics in the 2010 midterm elections. By making huge gains in state legislatures, the party was able to dominate the redrawing of Congressional districts in the wake of the 2010 US census. By drawing districts that lumped likely Democrat voters together, they ensured their majority in the House, even when they polled fewer votes nationwide in Congressional elections.

Meanwhile, those same state legislatures were busy passing laws requiring government-issue photo ID in order to vote, and concocting schemes to defeat non-existent voter fraud by setting up registration checks designed to fail people who rented, moved, or simply wouldn’t check what looked like junk mail. With Justice Kennedy voting with the other four right-wing judges to allow virtually unlimited political spending, those who could vote were increasingly influenced by local advertising closely coordinated with national aims.
After ignoring the Ocasio campaign (the New York Times, which after al is her local paper, never ran a single article about her, though she did get mentions in election round ups), the national media jumped onto her victory to illustrate their own narratives, tied to national politics.

Ocasio had worked for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Presidential primaries, so pundits either characterised her win as the beginning of a revolution for the Democrats, proving a rleativelt radical agenda could energise their voters or else as another futile gesture which would fail on the national stage because moderation is what they see as the only means of defeating Trump. Neither view was accurate, because it overlooked the local story.

Joe Crowley was a powerful man in Congress, a successful fund-raiser (he had outspent Ocasio by a 10-1 factor even before the final two weeks of campaigning) for the Democratic national committee, and for himself and his lobbyist brother. He came up through local politics in his New York City borough, Queens, which also produced Donald Trump. He was known locally as ‘The King Of Queens, but his congressional district aslso included parts of another New York borough, The Bronx, and after 20 years in Congress, he was perceived as not representing the interests of that part of his constituency.

Ocasio capitalised on that perception. She produced a virtually homemade campaign video (you can link to it here) which went viral with over 300,000 hits in its first day. It emphasied her own roots in the community and Crowley’s distance from the voters in his home near Washington. She articulated policies which may have seemed Sandersesque to the national media, but resonated with a community of working class people, many of them immigrants. Arguing for free university education in the city may seem radical today, but it was the reality in New York for decades before Reaganomics changed our perspective of the world. Beneficiaries of the city colleges included former Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, author Frank McCourt, designer Ralph Lauren, polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, General Colin Powell, novelist Mario Puzo, artist Barnett Newman and many more, often themselves the children of immigrants. What was seen as necessary then is seen as radical now.

The circumstances of Ocasio’s victory cannot be replicated across America. She won a primary where fewer than 30,000 voters turned out against a complacent candidate who, for all his power was very much vulnerable. She herself will likely be more vulnerable than Crowley in a heavily-Democratic district where she may not be able to enthuse Crowley supporters. Her campaign was based on providing a strongly articulated platform that was a real alternative to big-spending politics as much as to Republican policies or indeed Trumpism.

Nationally, the Democratic party has been content to present itself as a kinder, gentler alternative to the Republicans. This is a significant difference, and it can appeal to a wider audience when articulated effectively. But underneath its appeal is the famous dictum attributed to Bill Clinton when asked where the left would go if his ‘third way’ was not enough of an alternative. ‘Where else are they going to go?’ There will not be a horde of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes arguing with passion and courage a progressive programme and attracting those voters in the centre besieged with heavy media spending portraying them as radicals, nor will there be minority and immigrant voters battling simply to get registered and be allowed to vote. 

Following Crowley's defeat, Trump tweeted that he lost because he hadn't been respectful enough to his president. Missing the point is endemic in the American Beltway establishment, reinterepting every hiccup in their punditry's estimation in a way that will reinforce their previous convictions. Their picture of the centre fails to recognise how far to the right it has been shifted in the past four decades. The lesson of Ocasio-Cortez is not that a determined, energetic and attractive young self-proclaimed socialist is necessary to shift that paradigm within which 'liberal' is perceived as a smear. But it requires what Ocasio called the courage to stand up for the values which even a hesitant electorate can see are necessary to combat not just Trump but the modern, Koch Brothers Tea Party Christian Fundamentalist Republican Party, should it survive Trump, rather than empower him to some Erdogan-like President for Life status. Even though a look through history shows that most Supreme Court justices are Republicans when appointed, in the past many of them became bastions of liberal democratic values. Earl Warren had been Republican governor of California when Japanese were intered in concentration camps. Hugo Black had once belong to the KKK. And so on. The odds of Trump appointing anyone who might be considered a 'swing vote' by even the most accomodating mainstream pundit, or who had any human proclivity to slide that way, are very small indeed.

The mid-term elections in November will be above all a test of the nation’s acceptance of Trumpism. But it will also take place in the shadow of the nation’s quiet acquiescence to a sea-change in the political landscape. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a ripple in the waters. But the appointment of another Gorsuch, or worse, to the Supreme Court, could be the start of a right-wing tidal wave.